Source: Gary Brock videoKeynote speaker Jeff Moyer speaks out at the 39th OEFFA Conference in Dayton Feb. 16.
DAYTON — Miami County organic farmer David Hess sat in the front row of the Dayton Convention Center auditorium and shook his head in disbelief at the photos being shown on the screen in front of him.
On the screen were photos of sows in small cages lying on their sides. At the podium next to the screen, keynote speaker Jeff Moyer explained to the audience that the photo showed how piglets were bred in these Asian livestock “farms” where the sows live a life of just giving birth to young pigs and never allowed to get up off their side in the cages.
Moyer was speaking Feb. 16 at the 39th annual Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference. His topic, “Welcome to the Future of Change” took in the role that technology, biology, consumers, and farmers play in changing agriculture and food.
What Moyer had to say was eye-opening for Hess. An organic farmer with 65 certified acres, he has been an OEFFA member for years. He found Moyer’s warnings about DNA and chemicals in our future food alarming.
“Where does all this stop?” he asked.
”We are in a food fight,” Moyer said. “I could be in a room about this same size in a different part of Ohio today and hear a totally different story. And those people are not particularly interested in our vision for the future. What is their vision for the future?”
He said the food fight is for the way food is produced in the world and the way it will be produced in the future.
He then showed a photo on the screen next to his podium from a South Korean hog farm. “That set of sow crates goes on and on and on. What you can’t see from the photo is that the sow’s head is in the feed trough and her butt hangs in a tray, hopefully to take the excrement away. To me the sows look a little green. I was told they were painted with a bactericide because they want to keep them sterile, because that’s what people want.
“The sows can’t move, they can’t stand up, they can’t move their legs. They can only lay there and give birth to pigs. And that’s the way food is going to be produced in the future. They believe this is the future, this is efficient,” he said.
Is this your farm, he asked? “It is not my farm or your farm and it is not our vision for the future.
He then showed hogs raised and pastured at The Rodale Institute in eastern Pennsylvania where he is executive director. “These sows are as productive as those shown in the Korean photo. We can do this. We all have a vote in this. We interact with food all day. What can we do to ensure our food is produced this way, and in our vision?”
He discussed the transition from GMOs to “gene editing.” The rest of the world is moving in this direction, toward changing food. He said one company is working toward having all food gene edited within 10 years. “Is that what you want? Did anyone ask you what you want? What are you going to do to ensure that this is not the future of your food?”
He said what is scarier is that companies are looking into gene editing not just in plants but in animals.
“We know that if we alter the genes in meat products it has the potential to alter the DNA in humans. So we are going to potentially alter the DNA in humans in order to spray pesticides on more products,” Moyer said. “We are not anti-technology, but we have to decide how we are going to make technology work for our farms instead of us working for technology.”
How do we get our youngest brightest students out of the universities and into our agriculture systems, he wondered? How are we going to get young people vested in farming? When you talk to people in the food marketing industry, their biggest fear is that we are going to run out of farmers, not farms.
“We need about a million farmers over the next 10 years, but when you look at our universities and who is taking ag programs, it just doesn’t add up, there is a severe shortfall.”
He said we have six times as many farmers over the age of 65 as we have under 35. That’s not a good business model for the future of agriculture.
Treating soil like dirt
Where did the problem start? “We got into this situation with our food systems by simply looking at yield. Not much here, but generally at farmers’ meetings people talk about how many tons or bushels did you grow last year?”
Moyer said it was not just a question of bushels per acre, but input costs to grow those bushels, pointing out how little of those bushels a farmer actually gets to keep in profit.
“You get in trouble when you think of yield as the only measure of success for farmers. We have to think beyond that – it is all about the soil. We talk about soil here, but at other meetings it is all about input and outputs, except that the inputs are poisonous. How do we take poison and turn it into healthy food? So how do we use those tools in our food production process in the first place? It makes no sense,” he said.
Without soil, we will all perish, and yet we literally treat soil like dirt, he pointed out.
Meet the new boss – values not value
He said the old boss used to be the person buying from farmers at the grain facility. The new boss is a millennial with a smartphone. “There are 80 million of them with more disposable income than we have ever seen in the past.”
How are we going to respond to this changing boss? Moyer said that the new boss isn’t shopping for products with “value,” they are shopping for products based on “values.” They want to know what values are embedded in the product they are buying.
“People want to know it is not as simple as just being organic. That is not enough. Consumers have choices and there are labels all over the place – notice how many of the labels look like the Certified Organic label? Can we get a label that says we do it all? We are working on that.”
He said all of these changes are based on science. “We need sound science. We are on the cutting edge. The future of agriculture is in this room if we play our cards right. We need to make our soils healthier. Being organic does not necessarily mean we do it right. We need to look at changing the way we farm.”
He said there are ways to tell if the dairy cows were really grass fed – “no more cheating.” And there are apps that consumers can use to check this information. “They are young, they are smart and they have a smartphone. That is the future. We have to telegraph that message to them, and how will we do that?” he asked the organic farmers in the audience.
Time to speak out
“Make your voices heard,” he said. “Join the Organic Farmers Association, which now has about 20,000 members. If you are not, then your voice isn’t being heard. We need to have a voice. We say, ‘we really didn’t get a lot in the Farm Bill. That’s a shocker. What did you do? Nothing.”
We have to get organized around the issues important to you, he said. “The decisions our senators make in Washingtonn impact you.”
Brand equity is important, Moyer added. “What one of us does with organic impacts all of us. We have to stick together to make this work. We can make a positive change in our future. It’s an exciting time to be in agriculture – more exciting than my last 40 years in agriculture.”
His advice for the farmers in the future? “Change is happening so rapidly that you have to pick your head up and be part of that change.”