These are strange and often bewildering days for farmers as they work to meet American consumers’ changing, and very often conflicting, food demands. A perfect example of the current craziness was last week’s report from Consumer Reports that consumers are increasingly seeking foods labeled with the word "natural," even though that word essentially means nothing.
America’s consumers — farmers hear again and again — are eager to know more about the food they buy. They are carefully reading labels. They are increasingly interested in local foods as a way to get a better feel for who raised their food and how the land and animals were cared for. And most of all, they want to feel good about the food choices they make for their family.
Farmers have responded to those changing consumer demands. They are using cropping practices that reduce the environmental impact on the land. Livestock raisers are enrolling in quality assurance programs, like pork’s PQA-plus and beef’s BQA, to ensure that meat they raise is of the highest quality and safe, and that meat animals are humanely raised. And more and more farmers are raising vegetables and other crops for farmers markets and other outlets to meet the growing demand for local foods.
That’s all good, at least until the marketers get involved. They figure out a trigger word like "natural" sells products and slap it on nearly every label no matter a product’s actual attributes.
That’s when things go haywire. As USA Today noted in its report on the Consumer Reports study, the "United States has a confused consumer epidemic." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reportedly trying to decide whether it should try to define the word "natural" as it applies to food. Good luck on that one. It’s sure to be a long and frustrating process.
So how can farmers respond to consumer demands in this mixed-up environment? My guess is that it’s best to keep doing what American farmers have been doing for decades: embracing science and experience to improve practices to increase output; deliver higher quality foods, fuels and fiber; and reduce their footprint on the environment.
I’d call it a "natural" progression, but I’m pretty gun shy these days about using that word in any context whatsoever.