A social experiment: Taking agriculture to the streets

2011-11-10T09:38:00Z A social experiment: Taking agriculture to the streetsBy Devan Paulus, University of Minnesota Beef Team Minnesota Farm Guide

I am from a small mountain town in Washington. In my town, agriculture exists in the form of logging. It is too mountainous to have much livestock or crop agriculture.

The result of growing up in a town such as mine is that you learn very little about where your food comes from. Luckily for me, I attended universities with outstanding animal science programs where I was able to gain my current agricultural knowledge.

However, I have discovered that as I was learning more about my food, my “non-agriculture” friends were not. Everything they knew about food came from their parents and the media. Consequently, they had many misconceptions.

I realized that something had to be done to inform my “non-agriculture” friends after an encounter with one of them. One of my closest friends informed me one day that she only eats eggs from cage-free birds. And although I have no problem with her decision, she made it without knowing all of the facts. She was basing her decision on what she had been told by the media, that caged birds have no space to move and are unhappy, while cage-free birds are much happier and lead a more “natural” life.

The importance of that story is not which production system is better, but that the general public makes uneducated food choices.

To combat this lack of education, those of us involved in agriculture are asked to step in and make a difference.  I see people doing this by writing blogs, posting videos online, and sharing their knowledge with the people around them.

As a graduate student I had to ask myself how I could reach out to the public. I did not work on a ranch, so I can’t share stories about my trials and tribulations on a farm. Most people without agricultural interests don’t care or understand much about the research I do, so I figured sharing that would not be of much interest.

Finally, after much thought, my mind wandered to the social networking site Facebook. That was the one location where almost all of my “non-agriculture” friends gathered online. Facebook would be my way to take agriculture to the streets.

After much discussion with my peers, I decided that the best way to get people thinking about agriculture would be to put together polls with discussions. So over a period of several weeks, I asked a variety of questions.

The first question poll stated: “Did you know that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is not affiliated with local humane societies and that HSUS uses less than 1 percent of its donations to help animal shelters? (Information gathered from humanewatch. org).” There were 49 people who responded “yes” to the question and 14 responded “no.” However, a large discussion ensued in which people debated where the extra money went and the legality of it all.

This question was not intended to spark a political debate, but even I learned something new from the discussion about HSUS. It has caused me and many other people to not only question how HSUS “helps” animals, but also how ethical they are when it comes to funding.

The second question I asked was “Did you know that hormones, antibiotics, and vaccines cannot be given to food animals for a specified period of time before slaughter to ensure that the meat does not contain any drug residues?” In this instance, 25 people responded “yes” and five responded “no.” However, after the poll had opened, one participant added the response “Yes, but some have no residue withdrawal and can be given right up to slaughter.” Ten people chose this response. I added to the conversation by adding some examples of a hormone with no withdrawal period.

It was great to see others share their knowledge with their peers in this instance.

Third, I asked “Did you know the recommended serving size for meat is 3 oz? That is about the size of a deck of cards.” The poll results where 21 “yes” and one “no.” I also had one respondent add the answer “An excellent way to remember” and 14 people voted for this option.

And to provide additional clarity, a teacher I know described a meat serving size as being the same size as the palm of your hand which is equivalent to a deck of cards. This response was appreciated because it was a chance for an education professional to use her professional skills to explain a critical concept in a way that I would not have thought of.

The fourth poll stated: “Did you know that beef from cattle given growth hormones contains 1.9 ng of estrogen per every 3 oz? Peas contain 340 ng, ice cream contains 520 ng, cabbage contains 2000 ng, and soybean oil contains 170,000 ng (all per 3 oz). The average female produces 480,000 ng per day!” To this question, 15 people responded “yes” and 11 responded “no.” And my one friend Chris Lorenz added the poll option “Devan, how am I supposed to know that? I majored in history.” In addition to the votes, a conversation also began about hormone levels in other animals and humans. Someone also sarcastically commented “I knew peas and cabbage were the devil.”

The fourth poll was one of the best polls in regard to responses and discussion. I think that Lorenz’s response clearly sums up how little the average person is exposed to agriculture.

Finally, I asked “Do you think U.S. food is safe to eat (free of pathogens and contaminants, etc.)?” This question had fewer respondents and all 10 of them replied “yes.” This was good news for agriculture, as it shows that the media’s frequent claims that the U.S. food source is unsafe are going unheard by the general public.

It may seem from looking at the number of responses to these questions that I did not reach a large number of people with this information. And many of the people who did respond already knew the facts I presented. I, however, have chalked this experiment up as a success. Even if only one person learns something new, then I have helped to spread the truth about agriculture, and this person can in turn spread the word in their circle of influence.

Visit the U of M Beef Team website at http://www.extension.umn.edu/beef for more information regarding beef feedlot nutrition or any other beef-related topic.

Copyright 2015 Minnesota Farm Guide. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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