Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Winning the battle but losing the war

Ambitious Raleigh, North Carolina farmers

A few weeks ago was the 2012 Urban & Small Farms conference in Milwaukee. The confab is an annual meeting that provides education and networking opportunities to people interested in the food movement. Several ‘foodies’ from our community attended and like most participants, we gained news and knowledge of what the rest of the country is doing, as well as ideas for strengthening food-related work here in town. For me, the most energetic moment of the conference was also the most disturbing.
It came following a quite interesting presentation by an organic food manufacturer. As you might expect, the panelists enthusiastically promoted information about the benefits of eating ‘organic’ foods. At the same time, they also passionately railed against genetically manufactured organisms (GMOs), which according to panelists are unhealthy and even dangerous.
While the explanation of what GMOs are is too complex to go into in this space (and I’m no food scientist), what happened during the Q&A session after the presentation is what really caught my attention. It also left a bunch of people in the room on the thorny side of uncomfortable.
Curious goat from a Milwaukee urban farm
When it was his turn, a conference-goer took the Q&A mic and acknowledged the seriousness of the GMO issue. Then he proceeded to scold the presenters for what he described as scare tactics in their opposition of GMOs and support for their own company’s position on organic foods. The person speaking was quite emotional and used more than one, uh, colorful metaphor.
What made this man’s impassioned tirade so relevant was that he wasn’t arguing for or against the GMO approach to growing food. Instead, he was complaining that the presentation was not forwarding the conversation on how people and organizations can work together on both sides of the issue to help solve our nation’s unhealthy food system. He also reminded the room there also are legitimate issues related to the organic-only approach.
As I listened, the nature of the person’s comments reminded me of other topics in which ‘either/or’ thinking is the preferred approach to problem solving. Case in point, the upcoming political elections. Negative attack ads are rampant. On all sides. The same can be said of the way folks debate the climate change issue. Local examples include how our teachers are held up as scapegoats for many of our education woes. On a less relevant level is the way we persecute, say, a quarterback for not putting the ball on the hands of his receivers every time.
These days it seems, during conflicts or when evaluating problems, too much energy is centered on each side wanting to be right, and/or proving the other person, agency or whatever wrong. Contrast this with working together to address a problem. For instance, maybe the quarterback’s receivers could run slightly different routes and blockers could give the QB more time so he won’t be in as much of a hurry to throw. In other words, work together to spread the responsibility across all team members.
Urban farm poultry: they seemed happy
 In the case of the foodie at the conference, his attack wasn’t against the organic food company’s approach or in favor of big corporations engaged in GMO research manufacturing. It was a plea to cease the either/or declarations in favor of possible both/and solutions. Maybe that guy is naive in believing the whole GMO/organic debate can be resolved in a manner that doesn’t employ doom and gloom scare tactics. Then again, I personally believe listening for understanding and then working together as a team toward solutions is exactly what we need to create meaningful change in today’s society.

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