October 24, 2016
Food producers need to be concerned about connecting agriculture to consumer health, and a new Texas AgriLife initiative will help bridge the gap.
“I believe we have the opportunity to connect agriculture and health to make an impact not only in Texas and across the country, but worldwide as well,” says Dr. Susan Ballabina, executive associate director for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in College Station.
“The time is right. The agriculture, nutrition and health sector all seek to improve human wellbeing. When it comes down to it, when we don't have farms and we don't have food, we don't have a future,” Ballabina told farmers and ranchers during the South Texas Farm and Ranch Show Oct 21. “The healthcare and nutrition sector, like food producers, also cares about the wellbeing of people, but unfortunately they often don't work together toward the common goal of a healthy world.”
Ballabina should know a great deal about the benefits of producing healthy food for the multitudes, and she took the opportunity recently to announce a new Extension initiative, scheduled to begin in January.
NEW EXTENSION PROJECT
“Texas AgriLife Extension is preparing to launch… a major project designed to help educate consumers about the role agriculture plays in human wellbeing, and this announcement may come as a surprise even to some our AgriLife extension staff who are hearing about this for the first time,” Ballabina said.
She told luncheon participants that many challenges face agriculture, many resulting from misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about modern farming. But the problem doesn't stop there, she warned. Nearly 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted—about $165 billion thrown away each year—because people don't know how to store food, they don't plan properly, or they don't buy the right foods.
In Texas alone, Ballabina says 1.7 million households are considered food insecure, meaning they are hungry because they either don't have access to or cannot afford healthy food.
“We spend a lot of money in Texas treating diseases that should be prevented. The two biggest bites of our state budget are represented by healthcare and public educational finance,” she added.
A surge in social media posts and documentaries in recent years are largely responsible for casting a negative shadow over modern agriculture and farming practices with misinformation that is not only misleading but also damaging, creating an environment where consumers question whether the foods we produce are even healthy or safe for consumption, says Ballabina,
DEBUNKING THE MYTHS ABOUT AGRICULTURE
In response to a question about how many maintained a Facebook page, nearly half raised their hand.
“Like it or not, most of us get information from the Internet, including social media sites. I do. Many actually say they get most of their news from the Internet, and the problem is a great deal of what is shared across the Internet is flawed,” meaning it is often riddled with incorrect information that could be a half truth or completely false.
According to the world Economic Forum, Ballabina said digital misinformation has been so pervasive in online social media that it has been listed as one of the main threats to human society in the years ahead.
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“When it comes to misinformation in social media, we must admit that it can be presented in such a compelling way that it can be believable. Here lies the danger. We don't believe the things we read because we are dumb, but because someone [or some organization or cause] has presented their take on an issue that sounds reasonable and convincing. In this way, digital misinformation can indeed be a major threat to human society,” she said.
Ballabina says the new Extension initiative will likewise use the Internet and social media sites to help get the right information to consumers about the health and nutrition of the foods we grow. She said debunking popular myths about agriculture is needed to help educate consumers by arming them with science-based truth to counteract the misinformation they read across the Internet.
“Is it fact or fiction: Organic food production does not use pesticides and therefore is more safe than conventional food production? The answer is no, but a great deal of consumers are being told this is true across social media sites every day. The fact is, over 91 percent of conventionally-produced fruits and vegetable have less pesticide residue than termed safe for consumption, a very different picture than what is being painted across the Internet,” she said.
Ballabina says she is not opposed to organic farming or consumption of organic fruits and vegetables, but adds that debunking the negative myths about conventional farming needs to change.
Other myths she outlined include:
The meat we buy is filled with antibiotics.
Farmers use more land now and are not taking care of it.
GMO crops are unsafe for human consumption and are bad for the soil.
Ballabina pointed out all three popular statements are false. While antibiotics are used to protect the welfare of livestock, it is illegal for meat to be sold to the public with antibiotic residues. Instead, they are used to insure the health of the food that eventually reaches our supermarkets and tables.
Likewise, it is not true that farmers are using more land today than ever before; also, farmers are the best stewards of the land overall. In truth, farms and ranches are losing acreage in the state. Just in Texas, farmers have lost a million acres of agricultural land to urbanization. Also, the United States has the safest, most stable food supply in the world and is producing greater quantities on less land nearly every year.
Concerning genetically modified crops, science tells us there is no evidence that these foods are unsafe for consumption, and the truth is they make the plants that produce our food thrive by fighting diseases, are more pest resistant, and use less water to grow.
These are the talking points farmers need to use when discussing the health benefits of the food they produce, and that will be the major push of the initiative to be launched next year.
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