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Going There: Food, Farming And Health


This week, I headed to Kansas City, Mo., as part of our live-event series we call Going There. The subject of our conversation this time was how we eat. And our first panel focused on farming. We were joined by Linda Hezel. She grows organic crops on her small farm. Also with us was Chris Boeckmann, a so-called hybrid farmer. He's raised poultry for both the conventional and organic markets. We also talked with Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst. He grows corn and soybeans on his family farm. And I started by asking Blake Hurst why he and other conventional farmers say they often feel like they are cast as the villains in today's food story.

BLAKE HURST: Because I'm not organic. I use GMOs and, you know, very much what - I guess it's typically called a conventional farmer and very unapologetic about it as well. We do that for a very good set of reasons. We haven't tilled our ground in 30 years either because genetically-modified seed makes it possible for me to be a no-till farmer. So there's environmental reasons that I use the latest technology to make my farm not only efficient but environmentally friendly as well.

MARTIN: Talk to me though about why you would even feel the need to say that you're unapologetic about it. I mean, this is - you know, large-scale farming is in part one of the reasons why this country has been the best-fed nation in the world - in the history of the world. And yet you somehow I think feel at some point you become the bad guy. When did that happen?

HURST: Oh, I think you could probably answer that better than I. But I don't think there's any doubt if you date it from Michael Pollan's graduation from journalism school...


HURST: ...Or when you date it - there's no doubt that there's lots of questions about traditional conventional agriculture. And we're - and it's something, you know, we're willing to talk about, obviously eagle to talk about it. I'll bore you.


HURST: And so - you know, I'm totally transparent. I'm glad to talk about what I do. But you do feel a certain amount of defensiveness, which I work very hard to not exhibit; but it's there.

MARTIN: Linda, do you have thoughts about that? As I understand it, you're critical of conventional farming. You are all organic.


MARTIN: Right, and why is that?

HEZEL: Well, for me it's just very practical. If I just say it out loud that we dump poison on our food or use poison to protect our food from insects or disease and then we eat it, it sounds like a really strange thing to do because the chemicals are linked to potential side effects. While it doesn't take me down to zero risk as it - from a disease or some other insult, it certainly reduces my risk. And I want to control that risk in what I eat and what I teach people to eat and how to grow it.

MARTIN: Blake, what do you think about that? You have an opinion about that?

HURST: Oh yeah. But there's a lot of...


HURST: A lot of things to unpack there. So you asked me...

MARTIN: We've got nowhere to go, come on.

HURST: You asked me why do I feel defensive - because my panelist just said - my co-panelist just said I use poison on my crops. Chemicals - the pesticides I use are approved by the EPA. Organic producers use pesticides as well. Their pesticides are natural. Mine are not necessarily natural. Natural does not imply safe. Arsenic is natural; Coca-Cola is not. Nicotine is natural. So if you think that organic foods don't have to fight pests by adding things to the fields, they do - organic producers - they do. If you think that there are chemicals that are things they treat their crops with are not toxic - yes, they are. Are they worse? Sometimes. Are they better? Sometimes. It depends.

MARTIN: Linda, is there anything you wanted to add to that before I bring Chris in? Anything you want to say?

HEZEL: Well, I understand that organic is not without inputs and that some are dangerous. But a poison is a poison. A pesticide or fungicide is called that because it kills. And I don't need to - I don't need fruit and veggies that don't have any insect or disease damage. I grew up eating fruit that you had to cut a wormhole out of, you know? There are some who say that a tree or plant that has to resist an organism or a disease is actually more flavorful because it causes something to happen in the plant to produce more sugars...

HURST: But they resist those with substances that are poisons to the pests. I mean, the plant produces them naturally, right? They have natural pesticides, so I guess you could talk about poison there as well.

HEZEL: Well, it could be. I have not done that research.

HURST: Yeah.

HEZEL: But I'm not trying to be confrontational about what you use. You use it. That's your decision. I choose not to use it. But that's...

HURST: But the point I'm making is I think that the farming-to-market movement and the small farms and the organic farms have been a great boon to agriculture. But I think all of us need to be very careful about the language we use when we talk about other farmers.

MARTIN: Chris, you want to talk about that a little bit? I'm really interested - you are a person who's had a foot in both worlds doing both the organic and the conventional farming. And I'm interested in what your experiences were on both sides.

CHRIS BOECKMANN: Yeah, it does make it interesting having been on both sides. And quite frankly, I see issues on both sides. But at the same time, I also see a lot of potential solutions that are there and available. And as far as how do you have that discussion, I think that both sides need to be willing to come to the table and be completely honest with one another about the situations. We can look at both sides of the equation - doesn't matter if you're talking about organic or conventional or all-national, like what we raise. There are good points and there are challenges on both sides of the discussion. And there really needs to be a dialogue where we're willing to come back. And rather than spending so much energy and time pointing fingers at each other saying this is what we're doing and you're not doing that, we need to really - big picture - what are the challenges? Where do we want to go with this thing? And what are all of us willing to do to make sure we get there?

MARTIN: All right.

BOECKMANN: You know, so it has to be an honest - and part of being honest and nonjudgmental is you have to be willing to accept some criticism.

MARTIN: But we've raised all - a bunch of issues here. A couple of people are asking philosophical questions. So before we let you go - this is one I think that summarizes it - which is how do we foster honest, nonjudgmental dialogue about food when so much of what we eat is connected to our personal values? Blake, final thought on that?

HURST: We have to do just make sure people always have choices in what they believe and choices in what they can purchase, and then we don't have a problem. Then each of us - each of the three of us serve a very different niche in the market in a very different way. And as long as there's always the ability to buy whatever kind of food you desire, then there's going to be a farmer that's willing to produce it. And so that's the way we get out of this. We let people have freedom.


MARTIN: You heard from farmers Chris Boeckmann, Linda Hezel and Blake Hurst, speaking at our event in Kansas City earlier this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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