Dozens of highly educated, passionate people packed a meeting room recently at Drake University, motivated by fear of the unknown. I should’ve guessed by the title, “Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest,” that the real "challenges" these folks face centers around their misperceptions of modern farming.
Although I met some very pleasant people, I think their misperceptions aren’t accidental; they’re intentional. I think many in that room distrust or dislike today’s farmers because they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prove today’s farming practices are responsible for everything from early menstruation to all kinds of cancer and infertility.
We’ve been here before. But, with today’s 140-character attention spans, too few of us remember when the late, great Walter Cronkite cast a national spotlight on chemophobia (the unrealistic fear of chemicals or compounds perceived as synthetic). So, one by one, speakers at the recent Drinking Water in the Midwest symposium flashed PowerPoint presentations about water quality, saying they found “possible weak correlations” or pointed out work that “merited additional study” about all kinds of things they want people to worry about in their drinking water. Yet (important part here) of all the things they discussed, not one person stood up to present definitive proof that nitrates in drinking water cause health issues.
I think it’s important to note here that I am not a scientist; I am not a doctor like my husband or a biology major like my daughter, but neither are the folks these researchers are targeting; they want you to believe their opinion and open up your wallet or pick up the phone to tell lawmakers to mandate, regulate or litigate Iowa farmers.
Journalists believe the fear, even if few bother to attend scientific gatherings like this. Differing opinions were offered and even one of the presenters, Dr. Mary Ward, a senior investigator for the division of cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute, acknowledged that “studying the issue is complicated and for nitrate, it’s even more complicated because we know nitrate, per se, is not a carcinogen.”
But, that sure didn’t stop them from trying to prove that nitrates could be carcinogenic. Or, is at least correlated to all kinds of illnesses. So, what’s the difference?
Think of it this way: if a 13-year-old is given a skateboard and has no experience or guidance, then sets off to a skate park, you don’t have to be an actuary to know there is a correlation to an incident that may leave the teenager with a broken arm. And, if other teens are watching, the budding skateboarder may face a stronger correlation. Yet, a correlation, risk or association isn’t the same thing as a cause because a skateboard doesn’t cause broken bones. It’s how the skateboard is used and the skill of the skater, plus so many other factors to consider: was the skateboarder wearing a helmet? Was the park clear of debris? Was the skateboarder trying to upload a video at the time? Did his mother suddenly show up? That’s where it gets murky.
The issue of proof and murky correlation came up during the "question and answer" period of the Drinking Water symposium. A woman across the room raised her hand, said she was with the Iowa Public Health Department, and carefully suggested caution when it comes to all the folks in the room sounding chemophobia alarms about Iowa’s treated drinking water. She said nitrate in drinking water is regulated, meets long-established, scientifically proven health standards, and drinking water is just part of the puzzle. She reminded the crowd that people also consume nitrates in their diets through processed meats and vegetables and they occur naturally. So, even if you drink reverse osmosis water, it doesn’t mean you’re free from cancer because there are so many other factors involved. What about smoking and family history? Or obesity? Yeah, it’s a leading risk factor for breast and other cancers.
So many questions, but few reporters these days appear to be asking them. Too often, deadline-stressed media reprint verbatim talking points by groups touting research that fans the flames of chemophobia: “flame retardants in your child’s pajamas cause cancer!” or “those Sara Lee cinnamon rolls are causing your fertility problems!” Sound ridiculous? No more ridiculous than claims that today’s farmers are posing a threat to your treated tap water.
Let’s face it; for many folks, research is boring and people don’t want to read about it unless it’s scary! As a former reporter, I remember how well fear sells. But, with the advent of social media, fear mongering is now the norm.
And, media has changed since I was in it. More and more reporters are feeling the pressure to "sell" and scary stories certainly get eyeballs. One of the closing presenters was longtime Des Moines Register political columnist, Kathie Obradovich. She confessed that media coverage decisions are increasingly being driven by social media and these days, editors care more about "likes," "shares" and compelling visuals than a carefully crafted story with balance. Balance is apparently boring. “Stories today need to include conflict. Conflict drives a lot of coverage. We say that at the Statehouse, the Des Moines Water Works Regionalization bill, for example, got a lot of coverage because it was all about conflict: one side against another. And, in addition to conflict, every good story has a hook and a villain.”
That’s when an ugly realization hit me like an airborne carp fleeing a fast-moving fishing boat; reporters have chosen successful farmers as their "villain" because very few have connection to agriculture these days. Why worry about throwing farmers under the boat (or bus?) if you never meet one, see one or hear from one? Farmers often aren’t the squeakiest wheel at a meeting; they don’t show up in matching t-shirts, trying to shout down speakers at a County Supervisor or Environmental Protection Commission meeting. Farmers aren’t taking time to make signs and shove them in the faces of speakers with another viewpoint. And, according to Obradovich, if a story is wrong, and farmers dislike what you’ve reported, it still counts to her editors; “Heck, even if you give me ‘hate shares,’ that’s fine, that counts,” she said.
Although Obradovich works hard to find balance, a growing number of today’s reporters don’t, which is troubling. In a country divided by hate, giving a social license to angry people to act out isn’t going to solve things. Turning farmers into "villains" isn’t going to bring collaboration that improves water quality.
When will it change? What will it take to get a factual, balanced story of agriculture told? Multiple rounds of reporter lay-offs and downsizing continues and some very talented journalists have gotten their pink slips. It isn’t right. But, I wonder if it’s because the industry, my former industry, has changed so much that Iowans don’t trust they’re telling the truth anymore? Is it because their bias is so obvious? Maybe they need to seek out new perspectives and angles, rather than the same, angry ranting people time and time again?
When I work with farmers I tell them that reporters welcome their perspective, and they must find ways to make what they do a little easier to understand. Maybe what reporters need to get started is a short list of things they need to know, to tell a credible story about Iowa agriculture:
- 97 percent of Iowa farms are family owned. Yes, that means small farms and even big ones. There are many multi-generations of family members raising livestock and growing food and they’ve spent several lifetimes, growing, or diversifying to be sustainable. Even farms with 1,000 acres or more are family farms, just as smaller farms are family farms (the average Iowa farm is 345 acres). A farm forms a corporation for tax purposes and has nothing to do with size. Even Neil Hamilton, one of the presenters at the Drake symposium, formed a corporation to help him and his wife’s small produce farm sells heirloom tomatoes to high-end Des Moines restaurants. (By the way, I asked a scientist at my table at the water symposium what "corporate" farming meant; she said it was when someone else farms the land besides the owner. I asked her, since my 77-year-old mom, a retired school teacher, hires my cousin to farm her 140 acres, is she a "corporate farmer"? When she laughed, and said no, I reminded her that there are a lot of other elderly landowners and young farmers who rent their land, who would chafe at being labeled "corporate," too).
- Just because livestock are raised indoors doesn’t mean it’s a "factory farm." In fact, that very phrase is offensive and was coined by opponents who would see all hogs raised on pasture, like they were when they last visited their great-grandfather’s farm. But do you know what? Those who remember that kind of farming have apparently forgotten that raising hogs outside smelled back then, too. It’s just that a lot more people were farmers "back in the day," so there was more tolerance, understanding and exposure to agriculture. Make no mistake—the industry isn’t perfect. But there are lots of different ways to farm and raise animals, and it’s that variety that gives us all more choices at the grocery store. Livestock raised indoors is protected from predators or inclement weather and the close monitoring, consistent diets and veterinary attention bring more health guarantees. Whether it’s just the unseen aspect of indoor livestock farming that raises questions or not, you can get your questions answered by checking out www.iowafarmanimalcare.org.
- Manure isn’t hazardous waste to farmers who use it wisely to fertilize their crops. Farmers have been using organic waste for centuries to fertilize crops (and several gardeners do, too). It’s also not being thrown around "willy-nilly" to leech into our watersheds. Farmers today are using precision application to put the fertilizer just where it’s needed. Opponents like to say Iowa has "the dirtiest water in the nation," although they can’t point to any evidence of that, but even more amazing is that reporters aren’t even ASKING for evidence. So, reporters, here’s what is true: the EPA’s website for state impaired waters shows there are 24 states and territories (43 percent) that have more impaired waters than Iowa. Another way to look at this data is that Iowa has 571 impaired water segments out of a total of 42,509 nationally. Work is underway to find better ways and recent data from the USGS released this past spring showed 92 percent of 25 total phosphorus sites in Iowa were trending steady to lower from 2002—2012, and 86 percent of total nitrogen sites in Iowa are steady to declining. Farmers are constantly working to improve, because when farmers use their resources efficiently, everyone wins.
- Iowa farmers are more diversified than you know. Have you met farmers growing hops for craft beers, raising goats for invasive weed removal, or shrimp in converted hog barns? Farmers today also grow white corn for tortillas, aronia berries and veggies and so much more. Farming has changed because Iowans’ tastes are changing and change is a good thing.
- Technology is a good thing because it helps today’s farmers continuously improve how they farm, how they raise animals, hold the fertility on the land and keep nutrients out of the watershed. It’s progress which is a good thing—it helps farmers use better seeds, less fertilizer or improve conservation. Thanks to technology, farmers have substantially changed their practices to conserve topsoil, reduce nutrient losses and improve water quality, according to a February 2016 Iowa Farm & Rural Life Poll. The survey shows in the last 10 years, 61 percent of farmers are doing more soil testing, so fertilizer is only used where, when and in the amount needed to grow crops. And, 54 percent more farmers have put in new conservation structures to hold soil in place and keep it out of the watershed. Technology will get them even further.
- Not everyone who shows up at a meeting in overalls or matching t-shirts with angry slogans are farmers, and merely living in the country doesn’t make them farmers, either. But, if you are covering a meeting full of people who are angry with a livestock farmer, and you’re doing a story about livestock farming, your story isn’t done until you talk to a livestock farmer.
- So, to win more readers, more viewers or more trust, perhaps it’s time to seek out more diverse perspectives? Remember, even your own polls show Iowans trust farmers and the organizations that support them, more than media. Maybe we’re on to something here?
By Laurie Johns. Laurie is Iowa Farm Bureau's public relations manager.