WASHINGTON --- A survey released Thursday shows Americans are divided over the way the U.S. produces food.
Farmers and agribusiness have banded together in a campaign to address consumer concerns. But food safety advocates are worried that the effort won't result in real change.
On Thursday the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance brought together food producers, academics, retailers, animal rights activists, chefs and policy makers as part of its Food Dialogues campaign. The town hall meeting, with video links to four cities and the web, was intended to address consumer concerns about modern agriculture.
The survey commissioned by the alliance, which represents farm bureaus from around the country as well as major agribusiness firms, found that Americans' top concerns are the use of pesticides, how livestock and poultry are raised, food safety standards and the use of antibiotics in livestock.
It also found 42 percent believe the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction in the way it produces food, while 39 percent approve of the direction.
A separate survey released Thursday revealed a major gap between food producers and their customers, with 93 percent of farmers and ranchers believing consumers don't have an accurate understanding of modern agricultural practices.
"As farmers it is important we take the initiative to reach out and share information about what we are doing on the farm and why, and this dialogue is an opportunity to do that," said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey in an email Thursday.
At Thursday's meeting in Washington, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, emphasized the need for further investment in agricultural research, one of the areas of consensus among the panelists.
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America wants "to build a solid foundation for sustained growth in the future; and in agriculture that requires additional research," Vilsack said.
In addition to Vilsack and representatives of large farms, panelists included officials from Walmart, the World Wildlife Fund, the American Humane Association, the American Farmland Trust and the nonprofit Roots of Change.
However, some food advocates were skeptical of USFRA's intentions. Instead of promoting discussion, critics say USFRA's efforts are a matter of regaining control of the industry's image in the wake of documentaries and books critical of modern agriculture such as the film "Food, Inc.," which criticized corporate control of the food industry.
"There are a lot of good things about the way we produce food right now, but there are also some problems that have been brought out rather effectively by some of the critics," said Susan Schneider, professor of agricultural and food law at the University of Arkansas, in a telephone interview.
Citing USFRA's missions and objectives on its website, including to "increase the number of policymakers and government officials (at all levels) who value modern agriculture production," Schneider said USFRA's efforts are less about discussion and more about public relations.
"I would like to see us address some of those criticisms head on, openly, honestly and with some self-reflection," Schneider added.
"The current state of the public debate has for a while been framed by food activists," said Nancy Huehnergarth, director of New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance.
"I think this is an attempt to use a nice big chunk of money to begin to reframe the debate into opinion and ideas that are more to the liking of big agriculture."