Language barrier

by MEAT&POULTRY Staff
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The way attorney Harlan Hentges sees it, there’s a big food fight going on that’s distracting the broad food industry, including the meat and poultry segment, away from the fundamental problems that prevent the industry from moving forward.

Writing on his blog, www.organicfarmers.com/blog, Hentges, who is based in Edmond, Okla., says he frequently hears two distinct and opposite opinions about the current state of food production in the U.S. One side believes "agricultural giants are using their market power to further industrialize production of crops and animals." The opposite point of view is that "farmers, consumers and small businesses are attempting to build alternative food supply chains because they believe the industrial model is damaging to health, food safety, rural communities, workers and the environment.

"Are these two parts of our food system on a collision course? Is it necessary that one must win and the other lose?" Hentges asks.

"What I’m seeing is the two sides talking past each other," the attorney, who represents farmers and ranchers, told MEATPOULTRY.com. "We on the farm don’t have the ability to speak in language the executives of agribusiness can understand."

He writes further: "The industrial food system and an alternative local food system each contain within it the key to the other’s success, not its destruction. The industrial system’s ability to gather and use data is a key to the economic success of alternative food supply chains. The local food movement’s deep understanding of the cultural and social values related to food is the key to the progress of industrialized agriculture. Success or failure of participants in either the existing of new supply chains will depend upon their ability to add the skills of the other."

What especially concerns Hentges, he said, "is that we’re stuck in this industrial system we can’t get out of. But I believe the industrial model will change — it will have to change." Giant agribusiness may "go the way of the dinosaur," he believes, because many big companies have lost touch with the fundamentals of their businesses and don’t know how to use social and cultural information. "When the hired hand says it’s time to move the cattle, it’s time to move the cattle," Hentges explained to MEATPOULTRY.com. "The cowboy is the guy who knows best. But these companies don’t have cowboys working for them anymore. There’s nobody in the supply chain who can use the data that’s really needed. They don’t even know how." Plus, the metrics used to measure social and cultural impact, which are increasingly important to consumers, aren’t understood at all by industrial food companies, he said.

But Hentges, like many other industry observers, believes the real power in the food industry is held not by food producers or processors, no matter how large they are, but by the retailers. "The bottom line is, Tyson’s not big enough to squeeze Walmart," he said.

He thinks another problem is that the industrial vs. local food-production debate has grown increasingly emotional. "They’re talking about two sets of values. For local people, these can be deeply visceral issues. For example, my family has farmed the same land for four generations – if you go back, we got the land from the federal government, and they got it from the Indians. That’s been the whole chain. But now the next generation in our family isn’t interested in farming it. Other families are facing the very same thing – there was something they valued deeply, and now it’s completely gone." With such powerful experiences, it’s easy to find bogeymen among the huge agribusinesses that have changed rural America, especially when the big companies speak the language of economies of scale and local people speak the language of home, hearth and family.

While he can sound at times like an old-time populist or ardent supporter of alternative causes, Hentges said he’s not afraid of what technology can bring to the table. "Take GMOs" — genetically modified organisms. "To me the question is not whether they’re good or bad, it’s that we should let everyone make their own decision about them. Let the market sort it out," he told MEATPOULTRY.com.

"The conclusions seem inescapable," he wrote at organiclawyers.com. "Information will change our food system. The current industrial food system gathers, processes and restricts access to vast amounts of information regarding what is important to maximize profits. But it ignores a vast amount of information that is relevant to the social and cultural values of producers and consumers. The local food movement understands the information related to the values of producers and consumers, and will soon have access to technology needed to gather and process this data. The information age is reaching the food industry."

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