For nineteen years, we’ve told ourselves that Red Tomato, a small nonprofit with nine employees, is too small to have much impact on the national public conversation around local and sustainable food. We’re too small; our resources are too few.
We emerged from our five year planning process this winter with a revised view: yes, we can! In fact, we are in a unique position in the food system and industry, with close and trusted connections to growers, to business, to NGOs, and to the land grant scientists that advise agriculture. We are often translating amongst these various groups. We are better positioned than most. And so we are poised to invest time and resources, for the first time, to influence that public conversation. Our first stab at it is called The Food Narrative Project.
Our starting point is one particular piece of the public narrative, good farming practices. The average American knows next to nothing about agriculture. I don’t fantasize that the average American will ever know lots about agriculture. But the moment is ripe for a new food narrative. People are paying attention like never before. If people could understand a thing or two about good farming practices, some simple sticky explanatory words that connect them to soil, water, plants, and good farm management (not to be confused with clever sloganeering or a complicated certification)—that would help democratize the food system in two ways:
1. Growers doing innovative things, such as cover cropping, complex rotations, composting, or advanced IPM (integrated pest management), are currently invisible, lumped in with “conventional” and feel left out of the sustainable food discussion. Ideally, they would be more visible and would be rewarded for their innovations and risk.
2. More people would have access to more sustainably-grown produce they could afford. Oversimplified portrayals of agriculture as “all or nothing” —all natural, no pesticides, blemish-free, etc—have limited consumers to either “pure” specialty and premium foods that are expensive and in short supply, or commodities with no transparency about farm source or production practices offered at high volumes and lower prices. More understanding of the wide range of farming practices would open up greater supply and more, better options for eaters.
This is an ‘organic-and’ food narrative. Certified organic is not the only form of sustainably-grown safe produce. There are a lot of innovative farmers out there, and together with the organic movement they represent a larger effort toward a sustainable agriculture for the United States. Our partners in this effort are IPM Voice, a national advocacy network of IPM scientists and practitioners; and Frame Works Institute, the research arm of our project. Frame Works includes a staff of social scientists who practice cognitive science, linguistics, neuroscience, psychology, political science, anthropology, etc. Their work is translating science about how the world works into effective public messages.
We’re only beginning. It took us twenty years to reach the starting line. Patience will serve us well on this one.