Farmers and consumers find a place to vent

laser beams from outer space could tidy up this mess in no time at all

Farmer Willi, who published a hilariously on-point open letter to consumers last week at the German agriculture Q&A website Ask the Farmer, is receiving a deluge of praise and scorn. German consumers have particularly fastidious food purchasing habits, and it seems he hit a nerve.

Ask the Farmer is one of those brilliant examples of the internet facilitating communication between groups that, until now, were inextricably related in an economic sense yet socially isolated from one another. Run by a motley group of German agriculturalists, the website invites people to submit questions about how agriculture and farming work, and farmers respond with explanations.

The site is a welcome solution for today’s unprecedented need for dialogue between those who produce food and those who purchase it. Around 90 percent of Americans were farmers at the time of the 1790 census compared to just two percent today, and Germany has seen a similar shift. Since much of food policy in both Germany and the United States is enacted through administrative regulations rather than more democratic forms of lawmaking, there has been precious little civil engagement or public interest in agriculture until the recent uptick began.

Farmer Willi got under Ask the Farmer readers’ collars by illustrating common naive demands of food producers and other contradictions from his perspective. His plea struck me for its familiarity, as though it were an echo of many of the American farmers and agricultural experts I’ve read. He begins by describing the unreasonable price his neighbor’s potatoes fetched:

I’m completely fed up today. This morning I caught a glimpse of my neighbor’s invoice for french-fry potatoes outside of his normal contract. 1 truckload = 25 tons = 250 euros [US $282]. For those of you who can’t do math, that is 1 cent per kilogram [1.12 cents per 2.2 pounds]! And you all know what a kilo of frozen french fries costs. Someone’s stuffing his pockets with that.

This incident, combined with a quick reading of the grain prices that morning, sent Farmer Willi over the edge. He pointed out the absurdity of grocery store shoppers’ demands, which are certain to take a full quarter out of his projected profits for this year.

You, dear Consumer, only want one thing: cheapness. And you also have demands! Your food should be GMO-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, cholesterol-free, low in calories (or why not calorie free?), as little fertilised as possible and if fertilised, then organic. But it shouldn’t stink, and when the fields are organically fertilised, it shouldn’t be done near you. Of course it can’t be sprayed with pesticides, but it has to look tip-top, with no spots. If there are any little blemishes you won’t touch it. The landscape should be a checkerboard of little plots with bright flowers and butterflies. Most likely you’d prefer that we plow the fields with horses. It would look so nice, and horses are so cute! And then the tractors wouldn’t be in your way when you go jogging down our farm paths.

He first berated and then plead with consumers who would insist he switch to organic farming, explaining that doing so would surely make him feel good inside, but at an unacceptable financial cost to his family. Farmers, it seems, feel desperately alone on a political level, paying their own inspection and certification costs. Furthermore, regardless of the outcome of regular inspections, farmers collectively receive the blame for every food-related evil from BSE to listeria, though outbreaks are caused by a handful of irresponsible, greedy producers. Sound familiar?

these boys got somethin to tell you about throwing away food

Finally, he takes issue with consumers who claim that they only want to buy local produce without taking the important step of refusing to buy foods imported from distant lands:

You say you’d like to buy local? Not true! Who buys right now, in January, grapes from Chile, asparagus from South Africa, mangos from Brazil and apples from China? You do! Otherwise Rewe [grocery stores] would have stopped offering it a long time ago. But our carrots stay put. Ever heard of savoy cabbage, or white cabbage? No, you have to have artichoke hearts. In the event that you actually prepare your own food! In the freezer section there are so many delicious ready-to-eat dishes with so many delicious ingredients like E 222 sodium bisulfate and E 310 propyl gallate. The names already sound disgusting. 

Some commenters expressed outrage at the assumption that penny-pinching consumers who shop at discount grocers like Aldi and Lidl (which rake in over half of all food purchases in Germany) would have the luxury to shop elsewhere. Others complained that it’s unreasonable in this day and age to be informed about the evils lurking behind every purchase they make (cars, cell phones, electricity, etc.), and basically, he shouldn’t take it so personally. Farmer Willi acknowledged these and other responses and wrote a thoughtful apology for friendly-fire here (in German, but I will happily translate for the bargain price of fifty bucks).

Farmer Willi’s delightful tirade and the storm of commentary it inspired illustrate the range of viewpoints among German farmers and consumers, and unwittingly, of their American counterparts. What I want to know is whether there is already a platform like Ask the Farmer for Americans. #agchat on Tuesday evenings on Twitter is on the rise, but it’s too limited and impermanent.

Such an interactive, simple website would be a very powerful tool in the years of American food system reform ahead. Informing consumers about the implications of their buying habits is a critical part of redefining our relationship with food in a way that is healthy, popular, and sustainable. And I think Farmer Willi would agree, anything worth doing is worth doing funny.

Enjoy reading Farmer Willi’s full article in English here.

Important information for people who eat

fowl play

Greetings from Berlin.

I am a bilingual American B.A., J.D., and Ph.D. candidate writing here to provide the world with a bit of information on food labelling law and trade, and hopefully to spark discussions about the closely-related food systems of Germany and the United States. Please share your thoughts without hesitation. This is meant to be a learning process for all. I will strive to be informative and fair in my treatment of issues, but any opinions expressed on this site are my own.

Right now the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free trade agreement negotiations are in their 8th round, and when (not if) the agreement is ratified, there will be an increase in U.S.-EU food trade. Globalisation is unstoppable, so you might as well help shape the international standards before the ink dries.

Americans and Germans alike are more concerned than ever about what’s on the grocery store shelves. A week ago over ten thousand people took to the streets in Berlin to protest TTIP out of fear that it will dilute their food safety and quality standards. (It doesn’t have to, and in the end I don’t think it will.) The ag industry has expressed surprise at everyday citizens starting to care about international trade, but I’m not surprised.

People know that an increasing percentage of the food available for purchase originates abroad, whether you live in Kansas or Cologne. The majority of food I have access to is produced by vast industrial farming operations—thedays of shaking a farmer’s hand at the town square market are largely a thing of the past. This distance from food producers leaves us with a number of questions. Was the pear in this baby food sprayed with nerve agents? Did the cows whose milk went into that French cheese eat GMO feed? Is that sausage really from Nuremberg, or is that just a recipe? If the label wasn’t handwritten by a friend or relative of mine, I want to know what’s in the package and whether it’s good for me. Everyday I talk to others who feel the same way.

I have chosen to compare food labelling laws because most information consumers have about their food comes from the label. Both the U.S. and the EU have clear positions about what that label should include and how it should be laid out. What are those positions? Stay tuned and you will find out.

Ideally in a couple of years I will be able to tell you which differences and similarities in our food labelling schemes are the most important, and how our systems can cross-pollinate to form a better, stronger international food system for Americans and Europeans going forward. Until then, I hope you enjoy thinking through the issues with me.