Jack Bobo: How We Choose Our Food

At D2D, we find Jack’s insights on consumers interesting and unique. He brings an informative perspective about our choices in the grocery store. Jack searches into the questions that drive our decisions in the marketplace, such as:

In the following interview with Jack, we scratch the surface on some of these curious topics.

D2D: How did you shift your focus from global conservation to understanding consumer food choices?

Jack: I was stationed in Mekambo, Gabon when I worked for the Peace Corp. in Africa. As I lay awake at night listening to the rain patter on the tree canopy, I vowed to protect these beautiful forests. Fast forward to my work with the State Department, it became clear that one of the biggest impacts on our environment is agriculture. My hero is Nobel Prize Winner Norman Borlaug who started as a forester, yet he saved more forests as an agronomist.

What is your personal mission?

The agricultural system has to grow 60% more food by 2050 using less land, water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Technology is key. Unfortunately, we love innovation almost as much as we despise change. There is no place we dislike change more than in the food we eat. This has led to a polarization of understanding about the role of science and technology in sustainably feeding the world.

I would like to de-escalate the tensions in the food system to save the planet. There is not just one answer and one production method. We need diversity of thought and diversity of methods. It is also important for the farmers to have the freedom to farm the way it works best for their land.

As I learned about science, agriculture, and the potential to solve these problems at the State Department, I was taken aback by the lack of public support for agricultural technology. I went on a journey to discover how to educate consumers on food science and agricultural technology. I spoke to thousands of people in dozens of countries. What I learned was: If you lead with the science, you may lose with the science. Science tends to polarize the conversation. This led me to study behavior science, psychology, and consumer trends.

Why do we, as food consumers, not trust research and science?

The lack of experience with food production has led to a trust lost between food producers and the public. Consumers are not convinced that companies have their best interest at heart. But this is not just food companies – there is a lack of trust in many organizations across the sectors. The internet has accelerated this because we get information and answers from different places. It can be liberating – like getting a second opinion – and on the other hand, make people more skeptical on any advice they are given.

“Consumers have never cared more, nor known less, how their food was produced.”

This has led to the desire for transparency. Where does our food come from and whom do we trust? Animal welfare, the environment, production practices, and food safety are all topics that the consumers wants to understand.

How does the consumer know whom to trust?

We only ask questions if we don’t trust and never ask questions if we do trust. Most people don’t ask the necessary questions.  For instance, are you concerned about local issues, global issues, or both? Are you willing to change your mind based on new information? What makes you trust an organization? Why do you not trust the information source? These are the types of questions to ask yourself before making a decision.

In your talks, you mention the difference between Hazard and Risk. Can you explain how that applies to food?

A hazard is something that can cause harm, and risk is something that does cause harm. A shark in the water is a hazard, but not if we are standing on land. Even if you are in the water, it is a low risk (1 in 3,748,067). Most consumers are hard-wired to know hazard. If it can hurt us, we immediately believe it will hurt us. Risk is a statistical concept.

Consumers mainly perceive risk by communication through various organizations such as businesses, governments, and NGOs. Governments are good about communicating real risks – like coronavirus. They do not focus on hazards. Through marketing and the internet, consumers are flooded with information on hazards that might hurt us.

Regulators think of risk like this: “Hazard multiplied by Exposure equals Risk”. My formula is now: Hazard times Media Exposure equals Perception of Risk. Let’s take Hint water as an example. It is non-GMO, gluten free, sugar free, sweetener free, preservative free, vegan, no MSG, nuts, soy, and the bottles are BPA-free. This leads the consumer to believe these items are in most of our foods and will hurt us. And, with all these perceived ‘risks’, we grow fearful of our food.

When you say that people don’t see reality as it is, what do you mean?

Often our brain sees things as we want to see them. It uses mental shortcuts to make decisions, but often that can lead to the wrong result. Take this chart below: you automatically think there are two hues of blue, when in reality, it’s all the same hue.

Also, there is confirmation bias, which is the root of polarization. We look for information consistent with our beliefs and avoid information that is inconsistent. Our brain also uses word association as a short cut. For instance, with the word ‘natural’, we think of positive thoughts, such as fresh, home-baked bread and honey. We don’t think of Ebola and Zika viruses – which are also natural. We tend not to support man-made things because our brain wants to think of things it understands.

In general, we don’t really understand food safety additions, such as food additives and food preservatives, so we tend to avoid them. For instance, many people avoid chemicals in their foods, but what many don’t realize is that foods are made up of chemicals, whether natural or man-made.

What kind of articles can we look forward to reading?

I will be writing on subjects about consumers. For example, how decisions are made; why we fear the food we eat; and how powerful words change our feelings. There will be a series of 10 articles on the Futurity website. Some of these ideas were covered in a TED Talk I gave last year.

Click here to be directed to Futurity Food

We look forward to summarizing Jack’s concepts on Dirt to Dinner in the future.

Interested in Jack’s perspective on another topic? Email us at info@dirt-to-dinner.com!

Why are we buying so much toilet paper?!

Such behavior has become common amid the global spread of COVID-19. The empty shelves bear witness to the fact that consumers around the world are stockpiling hand sanitizer, canned foods, toilet paper, and other goods.

The Mob Mentality

A number of books have been written about the “wisdom of crowds” and how groups of people often arrive at better decisions than individuals. Unfortunately, crowds can also become mobs. When that happens, the decisions they make generally ignore their own conscience or rational judgement – thus are not in the best interest of society or individuals.

When people are stressed, it can be difficult to think rationally. As a result, we look around to see what others are doing. When we see people scrambling for toilet paper or spaghetti, we tend to engage in similar behavior. The funny part is we may be stocking up on foods that we wouldn’t normally eat, such as lots and lots of pasta and chips. When was the last time you ate canned peaches?

For this reason, it may not be a good idea to post your photos of empty shelves on social media. If you do, you are sending signals that goods are in short supply, which could stress your friends and family and encourage panic-buying that hurts us all.

Why Are We Acting Like This?

While panic-buying may seem irrational—does anybody really need 80 rolls of toilet paper?!it isn’t unreasonable for us to emulate the behavior of those who came before. After all, if everybody else is stocking up on toilet paper, it won’t be long before there isn’t any left for reasonable people. Better to grab the last couple packages while you can!

Behavioral economics and cognitive psychology can help us make sense of these behaviors. Information cascades and herd behavior describe how it sometimes makes sense to go along with the crowd even when you do not believe they are behaving rationally.

Understanding what is happening in the grocery store means recognizing that we do not shop simply to meet our physical needs but also to meet our emotional needs. “Retail therapy” occurs when we make purchases to manage our emotional state. Such purchases allow us to take back control in situations where we feel particularly out of control.

Where We Find Value

The coronavirus pandemic makes it particularly difficult for people to get control of their lives. It isn’t clear how long the crisis will go on or how bad things will ultimately get. In reality, sitting at home doing nothing may be the best course of action for most of us, but it does not contribute to a sense of control.

While panic buying may be irrational, other consumers behaviors make better sense. In particular, we are looking for longer term value in our purchases. This can be seen in the types of goods that consumers are buying and the shelves they are picking clean. Consumers are drawn to canned and dried goods that will keep for a long time as well as frozen foods. This was especially clear during the first couple weeks when consumers were advised to stock up.

This search for value also explains why some foods and brands remained on the shelves while seemingly similar products disappeared. In my local store, consumers focused on store brands over premium products. Pricey sauces and expensive oils remained on the shelves while lower cost versions were absent.

Planning for the Long Haul

As the coronavirus situation develops over the weeks and months ahead, we can expect to see further shifts in consumer behavior. I’ve seen some changes already at my local grocery store. While it may not reflect broader patterns, I noticed last week that the shelves of beef products were empty, while chicken remained readily available. This week, I noticed the opposite was the case. This could mean that consumers stocked up last week on beef and are now looking to do the same with chicken, or it could mean that they are shifting purchasing patterns to lower cost options in anticipation of the crisis lasting longer. Time will tell.

As time passes, economics and refrigerator space, will overtake consumer psychology in dictating purchasing behavior. Panic-buying of products with limited shelf life won’t make sense. Consumers will find a new rhythm for their purchases.

Many consumers will also begin to feel the financial pinch of lost earnings soon, if they haven’t already. Consumers unable to work will need to make their savings last longer. 27% of Americans have little or no savings, and the average American has about $183,000 in all bank and retirement accounts. Sheltering-in-place will impact tens of millions of Americans who have jobs but are not able to work, therefore not bringing home a paycheck.

Mapping the Road Ahead

Looking much further out, to a time when the worst of the crisis passes, we may see lasting changes in consumer food purchasing patterns. Consumers may find that some labels that seemed so important at the beginning of the year no longer seem quite so meaningful any longer. They may be reminded that “natural” does not guarantee safety, as the coronavirus demonstrated. On the other hand, it won’t be surprising if interest resurges in superfoods and functional foods, which can demonstrate real health benefits, perhaps helping them fend off the next COVID-19.

For now, pay attention to your behavior. Do you really need that extra roll of paper towels or toilet paper, or are you just stocking up? Pay attention to your own conscience and your own household needs rather than the frantic person pushing the grocery cart next to yours. Rest assured, the grocery stores will continue to be stocked with food and supplies.

Coronavirus and Our Food: Should We Be Scared?

From its emergence in the food market of Wuhan, China in early 2020, the deadly COVID-19 continues to infect individuals around the world. While we all nervously monitor its spread, the global medical community is working frantically to find both a treatment and a vaccine.

As medical professionals find the answers they seek, Dirt-to-Dinner takes a look at what we already know about the coronavirus. What risks do Americans face? And what does the consumer need to know about the potential risks of going about daily life? Is our food safe? The answers we’ve found tell us to be careful – but not to panic when it comes to our food supply.

Is my food safe?

Health authorities note that it is possible to transmit the virus from a contaminated surface, such as a package or other object, if that object had been contaminated through direct contact with an infected person who had sneezed on or otherwise deposited droplets on the surface.

Current findings from the National Institutes of Health and CDC show that the virus causing COVID-19 can be stable on surfaces for up to four hours on copper, one day on cardboard, and up to three days on plastics and steel. For aerosols, the virus can be stable for up to three hours. However, bear in mind this is assessed from controlled lab conditions, making the aerosolized virus an unlikely cause for transmission, as reported by the CDC.

The most likely form of COVID-19 transmission is in droplet form, when the virus is airborne for a few seconds after someone sneezes or coughs. In this form, it can only travel a short distance before it lands on something (hence why we’re staying 6 feet away from people right now). So be mindful when you go grocery shopping and maintain a safe distance in those aisles as best you can.

As for surfaces, it’s good practice to thoroughly wash your hands after handling any items in or from public places, such as shopping carts, your mail, packages delivered to your doorstop, and – to be extra cautious – your food.

“We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices…when handling or preparing foods.”

– U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

What can we do?

While coronavirus is not known to spread through our food, especially food that is cooked, it is wise to take grocery store precautions and while cooking. Here are some simple tips to keep your kitchen clean and your family healthy.

Wash your hands. Before the grocery store, when you get home, and after you have unpacked your groceries. You have heard this everywhere, but it can’t be said enough. If your hands are clean and you touch your face, you can’t contract COVID-19.

Wash your produce. You don’t know who has handled it before you brought it home. You don’t need to use soap – any virus or dirt will come off with just plain water. Don’t wait to wash your produce – wash it before you put it in your refrigerator or on your counter.

After you unpack your bags, wash your counter with soap and water.  You should probably do this anyway – but this keeps you extra vigilant. It is also wise to rinse off any containers that you are about to put in your refrigerator such as milk, yogurt, and ketchup with soap and water. If you forgot this step and are thinking about the food in your refrigerator, then wash your hands after using what was in the carton. Keep your shelves washed every once in a while, as well.

Cook your food to the appropriate temperature. Use a meat thermometer. Heat is going to quickly kill the virus.

How does coronavirus spread?

Health officials admit they have much to learn about how coronavirus COVID-19 spreads. But based upon experience with other viruses, some basic facts are known.

First and foremost, this virus is spread through direct contact with an infected person, and most often through the respiratory system. Much like the flu or a bad cold, people are contaminated by “respiratory droplets” – a polite term for being sneezed or coughed on, or being in close enough proximity to inhale the virus. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns that the virus is spread by “close contact” with an infected person – meaning “about six feet.”

Some health officials also warn against touching your eyes, nose or other mucous surfaces if your hands have been contaminated by droplets.

While the transmission mechanism may seem straightforward enough, it’s not always easy to spot who may be carrying the virus – and who may simply have a cold or flu. While medical experts dive deeper into transmission factors and other aspects of COVID-19, the safest course would seem to be to avoid close contact with anyone showing signs of a respiratory condition or problem. And definitely don’t shake the hand of an infected person and then touch any of your own mucous surfaces.

What happens next?

While the dangers of COVID-19 are undoubtedly real and significant to people everywhere, health experts point to a number of reasons to avoid panic.

First, there is widespread agreement among the global community for a collaborative effort to contain spread of the virus, primarily through careful control of travel from where the virus is known to exist.

Also, information about the virus is being aggressively shared across the world. One of the best tools to combat the virus is a better understanding of what to look for to spot the disease, and how to avoid risk of contamination.

And just as important, there is a concerted effort among the scientific, academic, governmental and health communities to pool knowledge and resources to combat the problem. While there is much to learn about COVID-19, painful experience with pernicious coronaviruses has helped us learn a great deal to execute an effective response. As much work as remains to be done in developing comprehensive treatment regimens and potential vaccines, we’re not starting from ground zero.

What should I do?

Practice simple but effective basic health routines.

And don’t be afraid of your food.

  • Continue to eat the foods you enjoy – and enjoy the foods you eat!
  • Thoroughly wash and cook your foods 
  • Maintain a healthy diet to keep your immune system strong

And remember, there is little to no evidence that you can get COVID-19 by eating food. It is a respiratory illness and contagion spreads through mucous droplets. 

Boosting Your Health with Mushrooms

Mushrooms recently entered the scene as an elusive new “superfood”, and are now topping the charts for foods to watch in 2020, due to their powerful proven health benefits. And amid the current coronavirus pandemic, we’ll take whatever we can get that’s been proven to strengthen our immunity and overall health!

Don’t like eating raw mushrooms? Consider all the different ways you can reap their multitude of benefits. Take the D2D team, for example: Lucy sprinkles a few tablespoons of Laird Hamilton’s Performance Mushroom powder in her coffee each morning, Hillary enjoys dried mushrooms as an occasional mid-day snack, and I prefer sautéed mushrooms over my favorite chicken dish. 

Why Mushrooms?

Even more than just their meaty, savory flavor, mushrooms are being touted as a functional ingredient that can help boost immunity and energy, prevent cancer growth, inhibit LDL cholesterol production, and improve gut and brain health. Bonus: it has even been said to help heal the environment!


Breakdown of the Benefits

Boosting our Immune System

Eating mushrooms can provide a wide range of impressive immune-boosting effects due to the amount of beta-glucan in the cell walls of these fungi. A study from University of Florida’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition found that eating shiitake mushrooms daily improves immunity in a way that you cannot find in any currently available pharmaceutical drugs. Also, the white button mushrooms has been shown to have anti-inflammatory powers.

Mushrooms are also densely fortified with vitamin D, a proven immune booster. While other food sources like salmon, tuna, cod liver oil, and milk are great sources of the nutrient, mushrooms are the only product in the produce aisle with a significant source of vitamin D.

When it comes to the current COVID-19 virus, we are all looking to strengthen our immune systems and avoid spreading the virus, or better yet, avoid getting it at all.

According to a recent analysis of vitamin D, 25 randomized controlled trials of 11,000 patients showed that vitamin D supplementation had protective effects against acute respiratory tract infections—a primary symptom in the COVID-19 outbreak. WHO also has studies on its website that show the benefits of vitamin D to prevent respiratory illnesses. So eat your mushrooms and get out into the sunshine to boost that vitamin D!

Improving Gut Bacteria

Penn State conducted a study on mice that showed eating white button mushrooms can actually create a subtle shift in the gut’s microbial community. The study suggests that white button mushrooms can improve the regulation of glucose on the liver, serving as a prebiotic.

Another study published in the journal, Nature, showed that by using mushrooms to alter gut bacteria, they could simultaneously be used to treat obesity.

The bacteria in mushrooms, Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium, can help nourish the good bacteria in our gut, and ultimately improve digestion.

Cancer-fighting Properties

Five types of mushrooms were tested in a study published by the Journal of Experimental Biology and Medicine: white button, maitake, oyster, crimini, and portabella. They discovered these types of mushrooms “significantly suppressed” breast cancer cell growth and reproduction when eaten. The terminology specifically cited in the journal was that “both common and specialty mushrooms may be chemoprotective against breast cancer.”

Furthermore, shiitake mushrooms contain a type of sugar molecule called lentinan, which, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, may help to extend the life of patients with some cancers when used in conjunction with chemotherapy. By binding with abnormal cells, they can then “label” the cancer cells as ones that need to be destroyed by our immune system.

But we are not the first to make these discoveries. In Japan, shiitake mushrooms have been approved since 1985 as an adjuvant for stomach cancer because of its anti-tumor effects. The study that brought about these approvals was published in the International Journal of Cancer, which found that male participants who regularly ate mushrooms ultimately had a lower risk of developing prostate cancer. Consumption of over 3 times per week had a 17% lower risk than those who ate mushrooms less than once a week.

Enhancing Brain Function

Reishi mushrooms, as illustrated in the earlier chart, are considered a type of adaptogen. Adaptogens function in the body to regulate cortisol levels. Why should we care about cortisol levels? Well, when cortisol levels rise, it triggers our “fight or flight” responses. This, in turn, stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands to work on overdrive. When this process occurs, there is a decrease in your digestive secretions and an increase in your blood pressure.

You may be thinking you don’t often experience fight or flight responses. Well, you may be experiencing them without knowing. Chronic stress can cause the same process to trigger in your body, which can lead to adrenal fatigue and an inability of the body to bounce back. That is where mushrooms come in!

Cordycep, reishi, maitake and shiitake mushrooms serve as natural regulators. The root of adaptogen is “adapt”, pointing to the ability of these mushrooms to respond to harsh conditions. They function the same way in the body. They adapt to raised levels of stress, and aid in balance and restoration, mitigating the effects of stress on our adrenal glands.

Lowering Cholesterol

While mushrooms themselves contain no cholesterol, they are a good source of chitin and beta-glucan—both of which are fibers that lower cholesterol. A study in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms found that pink oyster mushrooms naturally reduced total cholesterol and LDL, or better known as the “bad” cholesterol, when tested on hypercholesterolemic rats.

Alternatively, shiitake mushrooms contain potent phytonutrients that help the liver process cholesterol and remove it from the bloodstream. How does it do this?  According to best-selling author and nutritionist Josh Axe, D.N.M., these compounds can keep cells from sticking to blood vessel walls, which helps to prevent plaque buildup, promoting circulation and improving blood pressure. Because mushrooms have sterol compounds, they interfere with the production of cholesterol in the liver as well, while simultaneously helping to raise HDL, the “good” cholesterol.

Healing the Planet

In Paul Stamets’ very popular TED talk, he cites mushrooms as a critical element in solving some pressing environmental problems. Stamets cites their ability to clean up oil spills all over the world, absorb farm pollution, fight off flu viruses and smallpox, create rich environments for new farms and forests, as well as potentially serve as a sustainable fuel source.

He points to the fact that mushrooms have long been used as a crucial part of nature’s recycling system. Without mushrooms and mycelium, plants would not exist, because rock and organic matter could not be broken down and turned into soil that provides nourishment for the growth of all plant life.

Who’s excited about Mushrooms?

The industry is looking for other ways to expand its plant-based alternative options. Mintel reports that 38% of U.S. consumers are trying to add more plant-based food to their diet, fueling demand for these products in the market.

Furthermore, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, 5% of United States citizens consider themselves to be vegetarians. A staple food group for both vegetarians and flexitarians (those who eat mostly vegetables but also some meat and fish) is mushrooms.

Statistics show that 20% of US consumers are now embracing flexitarian diets, which is directly reflected in the rise in popularity of plant-based meat and dairy products. These statistics have been driving up the prevalence, and desire for mushroom products and the market is responding.

Staying Healthy

In addition to adding mushrooms to your diet, don’t forget to add plenty of fruits and veggies to your meals, exercise regularly, and get good sleep to boost your immunity during times like these. If you are looking for more health information and recommendations for COVID-19, please refer to the CDC, WHO and NIH sites for updates.

Cork & Cow: FFA Spotlight on Emily Matzke

The Future Farmers of America (FFA) is the premier youth organization preparing members for leadership and careers in the science, business, and technology of agriculture. In an effort to spread the word about the inspiring efforts of leading FFA members, Dirt to Dinner will be highlighting some participant stories.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we would like to introduce Emily Matzke. Her passion for ag was rediscovered in FFA and now she’s developing a business plan to tie her love of ag and local food products together to make a unique frozen treat! Here is her story told from her unique point of view.

I am Emily Matzke, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I am studying Animal Science and Life Sciences Communication with a business emphasis. I became interested in these areas of study due to my interest in agriculture from a young age.

I got my start in agriculture on my grandparents’ dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin, where I learned to find value in working the land. When I was in third grade, my grandpa passed away and my family made the ultimate decision to sell our herd of cows. At that point, my one true connection to production agriculture was lost.

Reconnecting with the farm

As I grew up, I found other ways to become involved in agriculture. I joined 4-H to participate in projects such as veterinary science, photography and showing dairy cattle. Through this, I was able to spend time on a family friend’s farm, which helped return me to my roots. Once I was old enough, I joined my local FFA chapter, which is where I like to say that I had a “light bulb” moment.

My experience in FFA made me realize that the agriculture community was where I was meant to be and where I would build a life and career.

In FFA, I participated in speaking contests, equine and poultry judging, attended numerous leadership conferences, planned field trips and much more. I felt the greatest joy when I had the opportunity to share my agriculture story with younger students. While in high school, I also began working on a farm, where I fed calves and assisted with field work.

A fine idea with wine

My experience in FFA and working on this farm is what truly sparked my idea for a future business. My goal is to produce wine ice cream from a small herd of cows using local Wisconsin wine. This business venture would allow me to stay true to my roots of involvement in the dairy industry, while also finding a unique way to stay afloat in this tough agricultural economy. I am hoping that my studies in college will provide me the necessary knowledge to be successful in this business opportunity.

Additionally, I would like to have a “side hustle”, as they call it, where I work with elementary students to educate them about agriculture, as well as blogging and speaking about agriculture with consumers.

Evaluating the specialty dairy market

I have always known that I had an interest in production agriculture, but knew that it was going to be next to impossible to find my place considering today’s economy. I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a town that has one of Wisconsin’s largest and most successful vineyards and wineries, which is where I drew my inspiration from. I knew that the wine industry was growing in Wisconsin, and with our proud dairy heritage, I decided to pursue this opportunity.

I began my research and learned that there is alcoholic ice cream on the market, but not much that is specifically made from wine. My goal is to market this product towards young millennials “foodies”, as market trends indicate this group is most interested in trying new food products. I plan to sell my products in the southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois markets, specifically in larger metropolitan areas.

My current biggest challenge is figuring out the supply chain that will help me reach my ultimate goal of bringing my product to market. I am hoping that my experience at the FFA New Century Farmer will help guide me down the right path for accomplishing these goals.

Stay tuned for more Future Farmers of America stories like this. If you would like to get involved with FFA, visit www.ffa.org. If you’re a fellow FFA and want to share your story, or tell us more about an inspiring FFA member, please email us at info@dirt-to-dinner.com – we’d love to hear your stories!

Public Opinion: A Misguided Discussion on GMOs

rumor gossip

It all started as pleasantries in a small-town parking lot, but when GMOs came up, the conversation took a turn for the worse. What happens next is a clash between science and public opinion, and why what we think matters so much in building a sustainable food system…

In the small-town South where I live, it’s not just expected but almost obligatory that you speak to anyone who passes within 30 feet of you. It doesn’t have to be anything profound – just an acknowledgement of the importance of simple human contact as a civilizing force in our existence.

So I never gave it a second thought when I walked out of my locally-owned and operated food store and strolled past two well-dressed, well-groomed ladies of a certain age, standing between their two late-model SUVs, locked in animated discussion on some topic or another, each with one hand on the other’s arm, as all Southern belles used to be taught is only polite.

Find something good to eat?” I asked benignly. Not a particularly creative conversational gambit, I admit. But standing outside the premier local source of organic foods, it seemed as safe and appropriate as anything else I could think of.

Good…and healthy, too,” the one dressed in green chirped, as they both turned to me with the same beatific smiles my mother used to bestow on those who crossed her path.

Then things took a very different turn.

And not a GMO in any of it,” the other dressed in blue added.

Oh, you don’t like GMOs?” I decided to play this one carefully.

Who does,” came the response. “They are the worst things in the world for you, you know.

And how did you learn that,” I asked.

Oh, everyone knows that,” green lady responded with a small chuckle. “It’s all over the internet.

I asked where on the internet such wisdom could be found, and to my surprise (maybe shock), the pair began reciting a list of websites that they assured me would set me on the path to enlightenment, and probably a lot longer and healthier life.

Now, I’ve been around the discussions and debates over which foods are healthy and which foods aren’t. There’s lots of information about that subject, and opinions will differ. You have to respect other people’s point of view, and the decisions they make about food, and pretty much everything else in life, too.

But I still pray that everyone makes informed decisions – decisions made on the basis of facts and reason, drawn from sources that have some degree of science and rationality behind them. 

What came next caused my faith in informed decision-making to shake its core…

So I guess that means you don’t think GMOs have any place in our food system,” I observed as non-judgmentally as possible.  “Are they really that evil?

You have no idea how dangerous they are,” the lady in green observed.

Or how much they have taken over our food supply,” the one in blue added.

What do you mean?” I asked. It seemed the obvious question to ask as a follow-up.

Green lady jumped at the chance to teach: “Do you like corn?

Sure,” I replied. There’s nothing better, especially straight from the garden. (Hey, it’s the South. We all have gardens here.)

Well did you know that the FDA doesn’t even define corn as a plant anymore,” she informed me authoritatively. “The FDA says it’s a pesticide.

Wait, a crop is a pesticide? I could no longer hide my surprise. Or my suspicion, I suppose. “How is that possible,” I asked with genuine and profound interest in hearing her answer.

Here’s the answer I was given. Honestly, this is it:

Our corn supply has all been genetically modified. It’s called ‘RoundUp Ready’ corn. It’s been modified so it produces its own RoundUp as it grows. That means all those chemicals are in the corn – just growing and growing and growing as the corn matures. No one want us to know that. But I’ve read it on some websites. Go to these sites, and you’ll see.

At this point, my childhood lessons in southern civility kicked in, overpowering my sense of incredulity at what I had just heard. I thanked the ladies for helping me understand more about food. They beamed with satisfaction at having done their good deed for the day, and one of them actually reached out and touched my arm. That’s more of that belief in the power of actual human contact at work.

I knew the odds of having any kind of counter-argument or divergent point of view was probably a lost cause given the array of web-sourced expertise already on display. But I still thought it worthwhile to stir the pot, if only just a little.

You know, I read a few websites about food, too,” I casually mentioned. “You gave me several to look at.  Maybe you’d like to see some of the stuff I’ve read, too.

I mentioned a couple website I consider fairly balanced and truly credible on food, like Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, Genetic Literacy Project, The World Health Organization, and a few others that might begin to tell a different story about GMOs and the important role played by genetics in feeding our world. I doubt seriously any of them will succeed in changing the minds of these two fine ladies who crossed my path today.

But I smiled anyway and excused myself with the honest truth that my pick-up pizza was waiting for me. But as I walked to my car, something came over me. I’ve got to at least try.

I can’t let that kind of stupendous misinformation go unchallenged, or just walk away from the super-colossally wrong conclusions they can produce in the average intelligent and well-intentioned person.

I turned on my heel and called out to them, both still deep in conversation in the soft late-afternoon sunshine.

Be sure to look at a website called Dirt to Dinner,” I said. “They write a lot about food, and GMOs. You might like it.” That last part was a stretch, I know, but it seemed the polite thing to say.

Dirt to Dinner?” the green lady called back. “That’s easy to remember. We all need dirt, don’t we?

They tittered at the wit of the response. Or maybe it was me they found funny. Doesn’t matter, as long as they remember the site name.

Public opinion –the level of understanding held by the average person – matters in building a sustainable food system. We just can’t afford to accept a common public dialogue on food based on this level of knowledge and opinion. There’s just too much at stake to ask the public – the voter – to help set food policy when perfectly normal people walk the streets thinking RoundUp Ready corn is a pesticide, rather than one of the bedrock crops for a global food system.

My long-suffering spouse listened patiently as a I recounted my parking-lot adventure and brought me a paper bag to breathe into. Just calm down, she advised. If you don’t like what you heard, go tell the story you think needs to be told. If you don’t, who will?

She’s no doubt right.

Long live Dirt to Dinner.