Where does my food come from? That’s a question increasingly being asked by consumers, and it’s created a media storm of responses – many of which don’t flatter America’s modern farmers and ranchers.

Cassie Payne was among those pondering questions like:

• Is conventionally produced beef an eco-friendly, healthy and sanitary food product?

• Is grass-fed or grain-fed beef better for me?

• When I eat beef, am I consuming the hormones and antibiotics that the animal consumed?

• Should I only eat locally produced food?

Payne, who grew up in urban Dallas and taught high school Spanish in New York City, turned to the popular press for answers. Books like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and Robert Kenner’s film documentary, “Food, Inc.,” combined with her own family history of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, prompted her to question the safety and healthfulness of food produced by modern agriculture.

She recalls, “In 2008, Pollan was getting a lot of press in the New York Times for his column, ‘Farmer in Chief.’ His recommendation was that we return to a pre-industrial mindset for producing food.”

Payne was swayed by Pollan’s thinking. She even began volunteering on a “sustainable farm” outside New York City that featured a closed herd and on-site restaurant.

Those experiences piqued her interest enough that she decided to return to Texas to pursue her master’s degree in beef production at Texas A&M University (TAMU). Her goal, she says, “was to become a consultant on sustainable agriculture for Pollan followers.”

Myths debunked

But, after returning to Texas, Payne discovered there was more to the story – and the definition of sustainable – than what she had excerpted from mainstream media. For her, the biggest eye-opener was the benefits that efficiency and technology afford modern ag production.

“One of the first things I learned was that efficiency in modern farming is eco-friendly,” Payne says. The science from a 2010 Washington State University study by Jude Capper helped her grasp this reality.

Capper found that today’s beef industry uses 30% less land, 13% fewer cattle, and 20% less feed than in 1977 – all while producing more actual pounds of beef.

She also learned that to meet the nation’s beef needs via solely grass-fed beef would require 60 million additional acres of improved pasture under cultivation – even after all current fields of feed crops were converted to pastures. This, along with what she learned about range management, wildlife stewardship and animal care provided by beef producers, helped her recognize that today’s beef production methods are more sustainable than ever before.

“I realized modern ag is sustainable, but that doesn’t fit the nostalgic view people like me have of sustainability. We envision a red barn and have this old-time view of farming. But, with the increased world population, that view isn’t sustainable,” Payne says.

By studying the science, she also came to understand that hormones and antibiotics are used within the industry to improve efficiency, with no effect on human health.

Additionally, her belief that grass-fed beef – or even a vegetarian diet – may be better nutritionally was debunked. Rather, she learned that both conventional and grass-fed beef are nutrient-dense proteins that offer different health benefits, while both deliver the same essential nutrients via 29 lean cuts of meat.

Payne came to realize that the science behind modern methods of food production justify much of today’s ag practices for their economic, environmental and social sustainability. And, today, instead of questioning where her food comes from, she says, “I credit the beef industry for its environmental stewardship in the production of healthful foods.”

Convincing others

Payne now devotes her career to sharing her experiences – and bridging the urban-rural food gap – with others. Her aspirations are to work with food and ag policy and ultimately be a liaison between consumers, producers and legislators.

She has founded the “Food, Think” blog – her antidote to “Food, Inc.” – and has had numerous speaking engagements to share her story with the ag community and consumers. Working with the Texas Beef Council, she’s addressed dieticians and health professionals.

Payne is adamant that agriculture needs to speak up. “People want a face and a story; they want a relationship with farmers,” she says.

She points out that, with 98% of Americans three generations removed from the farm, they don’t have a “real farmer” to turn for answers. So, they do as she did and listen to the “stories” presented in newspapers, books and movies.

“The information being presented by many is still slanted and there’s a lot of work to be done. Smart spokespeople are imperative for the ag industry,” she says.

Her advice to ag advocates reaching out to urban consumers is this: “Display your integrity and be transparent – that is so meaningful.”

She also tells food producers to remind the consumer that you are running a family business, what your values are, and that the product you raise is what you serve to your own family.

Additionally, Payne encourages ag producers to share the facts and science behind their production and management methods – noting that the efficiency and ethics in the beef industry were what ultimately got her attention and changed her beliefs. She concludes, “The exaggerations of Pollan and Kenner may be exposed by their own followers if they entice people like me to learn the truth for themselves.”  ❚❚

Kindra Gordon is a Sturgis, SD-based freelance writer.

What do you think?

To correct misinformation about beef production and consumption, Cassie Payne has established the blog, "Food, Think." She says the use of social media has provided an unprecedented opportunity for her and many others to share real-world experiences and ag messages with a large urban audience.

Among the individuals following her blog is her former professor from Vanderbilt University, who has provided feedback to Payne telling her how “refreshing” the information is that she shares about the real people in the food industry.

Payne’s posts include commentaries on articles in popular press that address food production and research-related issues such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and hormones. In August, she commented on her visit to a Nebraska feedlot, where she was especially impressed by the level of constant care given to the animals.

For more of Payne’s perceptions, view her blog athttp://foodthinkforum.blogspot.com/

USDA Secretary calls for ag advocacy

Recently asked how rural Americans can remind lawmakers of agriculture’s importance to the nation, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack responded:

“The first thing we must do is educate the rest of the country about the significance and the importance of what farm families do and what rural communities do for the entire country. There seems to be an undeserved lack of appreciation or acknowledgement on the part of mainline media, and many political leaders, for what you all do for us."

Vilsack says America has an extraordinary advantage over the rest of the world because it has the rare capacity to feed itself.

"Whenever people walk out of the grocery store in this country, they walk out with more money in their pockets as a percentage of their paycheck than virtually anybody else in the world. Even with food prices going up 4-5%, Americans are still using only 6-7% of their income for food," he says. Meanwhile, consumers in other countries – both developed and developing – utilize 15-50% of their income for food.

"Never appreciated, never acknowledged, never understood" is how Vilsack characterizes consumers' perception of agriculture.

“So if we want our folks, our political leaders to understand the significance of what you all do, and support it adequately, the 99% of us who don’t understand what you all do have got to understand how important that 1% is,” he says.