It doesn’t take much online searching these days to find someone or something proclaiming that our food system is “broken” and drastic changes are needed to fix it. Ray Starling calls this “Humpty Dumpty-ism” because, just like the nursery rhyme, the calls are loud that something is broken and nothing can fix it. If a specific solution is offered, it is often to remove animal proteins from our diets.
As Starling pointed out during the Animal Agriculture Alliance Summit, U.S. agriculture is far from broken. Productivity continues to climb with fewer resources, technology advancements require less labor, and perhaps most significantly, Americans are spending less of their disposable income on food. In the U.S., meat consumption is steady, and worldwide, demand is growing.
Like two people riding up a mountain on opposite sides of a car, though, perspectives differ. While agriculturalists look out one window to see the bounty below, those across the car are seeing nothing but an uphill climb.
Starling, a trained agricultural lawyer, previously served as the principal agriculture adviser to the president under the Trump administration and currently leads public policy as the general counsel for the NC Chamber. From research in his home state of North Carolina, he described that the difference in agriculture outlook is not a problem of rural and urban, age, politics, or even distance from the farm. He called it a problem of insiders and outsiders — or farmers and foodies.
This has become reality for a few reasons, Starling explained. One is the fact that agriculture has become more reliant on outside capital, and food system revolutionaries may be able to put pressure on these investors more easily than consumers or retailers in the past.
There is also growing noise in the legal and academic space; he gave many examples of the groups that have pushed for more accountability of North Carolina hog farms in recent years. “Ag exceptions in laws are being eroded,” Starling described. Labor laws and overtime limits are one clear example of this.
Then there are the cultural factors. As the landscape of the country has shifted, so have the priorities of our lawmakers. Starling pointed out that as recently as 1953, 15% to 20% of Congress members were agrarian. In 2020, that number was less than 5%. Further, Starling said the newer era of individualism leads to more people taking action for causes they believe are best.
What do we do about this difference so the future of food allows everyone to eat? Starling said we can start by reaching across the aisle — within agriculture. Our industries often organize vertically by species or crop, but those calling for change have no such divisions. Joining our agricultural forces to make our voice known is critical.
Still, communication cannot be our only tool. “Communication is the means, not the end. We have to go deeper than marketing,” Starling said. That means using all of the tools at our disposal to support agriculture just as others do.
We also can’t lose sight of the fact that the majority of people like farmers and appreciate the work they do. Our current food system is not perfect, but it provides affordable nutrition for every class of people, and that is what matters most. “At the end of the day, the facts are on our side and the moral argument is, too,” Starling summarized.