It’s not a sickness, per se, but more like a delusion. Rural folks and sociologists often use the term as shorthand to describe how most people love the idyllic vision of the red barn on the farm -- bucolic, beautiful, even romantic.
In reality, as farmers know, those pretty pictures belie a great deal of hard work, life and death circumstances and smelly situations.
So when Dallas Hockman, vice president of industrial relations with the National Pork Producers, used the term during a speech on Wednesday, I was intrigued. His thesis? That most Americans have red barn syndrome, so when they learn about how agriculture is really done or how meat is really produced, they can’t understand it or they react to the high “ick factor.”
Hockman’s examples: the so-called “pink slime” debate and the current trend towards companies refusing to buy pork that was produced with pigs held in gestational crates. This “food conundrum” is all about “removing choice,” he says.
“Meat is the new tobacco,” Hockman said.
Animal agriculture is under attack as never before, Hockman said, from groups with “left-wing appeal.” Among the groups he cited are: PETA, the Humane Society, Farm Sanctuary and Chipotle. The many companies who have signed up in support of the getting rid of the pig crates have “no comprehension” of pork production, he said.
Hockman’s speech was held at Kansas State-Olathe, the newest campus addition to the university system, built as a model of public-private partnerships. I attended the Animal Health Corridor Lecture Series and the day’s event was titled “Animal Welfare: Impact on Industry and Public Perceptions.” The other speaker was Dr. Elizabeth Evans, veterinarian and researcher at Rockhurst University, who gave an interesting talk about how animal testing is regulated.
I went to the lecture, in part, because I want to further explore the “funder effect,” the criticism of the increasing amount of private money is going towards research at land grant universities.
“It’s not surprising and it makes sense,” explained Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, “your research agenda is going to be influenced by who is paying for the research.”
Food & Water Watch, a Washington D.C. environmental group, last spring issued a report called “Public Research, Private Gain.” The study looked at funding sources at several land grant universities and found that since 2010, private donations from large companies have provided nearly a quarter of the money that goes into ag research. The report suggests that the money helps set the research agenda.
“So in the arena of food, are you going to look at questions that might make you critical of the dominant industrialized agriculture system, if that’s where the funding comes from?” Lovera said. “Or are you going to structure it more narrowly and solve a problem they have?”
What do you think? Should land grant universities, charged with doing agricultural research, have strong ties to industry? Are such public-private partnerships good for business at the expense of the small family farm? Do you have an experience that shapes how you think about this issue?