“The Year of Food” recently launched at http://food.nationalgeographic.com. Dennis Dimick is the Executive Editor, Environment for National Geographic magazine and grew up on a farm in Oregon. MPK had the chance to meet him this winter, listen to his preview of ”The Year of Food”, and ask Dennis a few questions. You can also find the beauty of Dennis’ photographic work on Flickr or Instagram or connect with him on Twitter. This is the first of two posts with his insights.
What do you hope the Year of Food will accomplish in National Geographic?
Our hope is that this will help inoculate a conversation and a better understanding in the general public about where food comes from, the people who devote their lives to growing it, and the scale and complexity of making all that happen. We are trying to begin bridging a gap between agriculture and an increasingly urban public. In the U.S. at least, we used to be more closely linked to the land. Either we grew up on a farm, or had a relative who farmed. Not so now. We have lost the actual connection to the land and people who grow our food. Food comes from stores, not farms. If nothing else with this project we are trying to explain, to help make connections between people who grow food and people who eat food, to improve understanding, and begin to build common ground.
Can you describe the power of images the role they play in connecting food and farm?
Well, if we can’t take everyone to the farm, we can bring the farm, and farmer to everyone. Pictures have the power of making emotional connections, making people go “Wow, I had no idea.” Pictures have the power to show in ways that words never can, for example breadth, scale, and beauty.
In a country where 40% of the population doesn’t believe that it’s America’s job to feed the world, how to do we communicate the value of productivity?
Maybe it’s not our job to feed the world. Maybe it’s our job now to help create productive capacity so others can become more self-reliant. Maybe we also need to make sure first that the people in our own country are able to get good, healthy food. If we have more than 45 million in our own country reliant on food assistance there is work to do right here. This is not just a challenge for agriculture, but for policy makers. Why are there so many poor in America, unable to get the healthy food they need? Obviously it’s a complex issue, and providing opportunity and security goes hand in hand with access to affordable food. Just because it’s a complex issue doesn’t mean we can’t try to improve the situation.
Once we have taken care of our own house then we can talk about feeding others. But it’s not really about just growing commodity crops and putting them on ships. The power and the need now is creating capacity for others to be self-reliant to grow their own food, to help create for others what our own land grant university and extension service system did for America over the past century: Create a system of rural education and dissemination of best practices to improve farm success and productivity.
How can agriculture reach mainstream media?
Well, for starters, saying yes when media call wanting information, or wanting to come visit and see how the operation works. I’d say that agriculture could benefit by helping university schools of journalism and agriculture sponsor agriculture and food focused journalism workshops, institutes, and endowed chairs. This is not just about agriculture now it is about the story of agriculture. And like soil-building, this work will take a while.
In 2008, we published a story on soil conservation, and it took me nine years from my original proposal to see it publish. Same thing applies here. This is a long-term challenge, and good things, like children, take time to create. This type of educational system to improve science journalism has helped the quality of the journalism done about science. Agriculture could benefit from the same sort of long-term investment to create a new generation of journalists and communicators who understand agriculture, not just journalism.
And finally, the opportunity exists now, with the internet, for farmers to begin to tell their own story, through blogs, social media presence, brand marketing, niche branding, and name recognition. People want to know who grows their food, and how it is grown. Nationally one benefit might be to rename the USDA to the US Department of Food and Agriculture. They are inseparable.