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Knutson: Food trends include shame and virtue

Let’s start with two terms and their definitions that are drawing increased attention in U.S. agricultural circles

Food-shaming: Criticizing or ridiculing someone for his or her food choices that don’t agree with your own.

Virtue-signaling: Publicly expressing opinions or choices, sometimes involving food, that show your good character or moral correctness.

Though probably impossible to quantify, it’s clear that both food-shaming and virtue-signaling are on the rise in our country. Consequently, concern over them is growing in mainstream ag.

To mainstream agriculturalists, urban residents’ growing disconnect from production agriculture limits their understanding of what happens on farms and ranches. Critics of food-shaming and virtue-signaling also argue that because food is generally plentiful and affordable in our country, many consumers (especially affluent ones) have become unreasonably choosy.

To many Americans, however, greater awareness of morality and the environment causes more people to evaluate the food they eat and then to make wiser, better-informed and more-responsible choices.

Personally, philosophically, I’m a live-and-let-live guy. I have utterly no desire to shame anyone because of what they eat, nor to signal my own virtue (if indeed I have any) through what I eat or don’t eat.

But I understand the importance of what’s happening. Many farmers and ranchers, with justification I think, see food-shaming and virtue-signaling as an attack on their livelihood. It certainly seems the case with beef. (Full disclosure: I grew up with beef cattle, I’ve owned beef cattle, visiting ranches is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.)

Food-shaming, or so it seems to me, isn’t just criticizing the person who eats it. The person who grows the food also is being attacked. The food-shamer says: “Beef isn’t sustainable. You shouldn’t eat it,” and by implication ranchers are bad people for raising it. So it’s hardly surprising that food-shaming irritates and angers ranchers and many others in production ag.

And it’s disturbing that food-shaming increasingly is extended to children. Some of the reports may be exaggerated, but clearly a growing number of American kids are being indoctrinated/shamed into avoiding certain foods.

Whose ‘virtue’ to practice?

Virtue-signaling is more complicated. Agriculturalists need to tread carefully in responding to it.

There are literally billions of people on this planet whose food choices are influenced, especially at certain times of the year, by their religion.

Many virtue-signalers are motivated by carefully considered non-religious beliefs, too, and they’re no less sincere. I don't agree with vegetarianism, for example, but I respect people who, after reflection, put it into practice.

Some virtue-signalers — I have no idea how many — seem to be motivated by the desire to appear trendy and cool, not from genuine conviction. These people do not have my respect, but they certainly have the right to eat the foods they want.

As I said, virtue-signaling is complicated: Americans frequently disagree about which “virtue” should be signaled through food choices. Use care in criticizing other people’s decisions that don’t match your own.

Some folks a lot smarter than me have said divisions involving food-shaming and virtue-signaling are too deep and fundamental to be resolved. Maybe. But I’d like to think the divisions can be narrowed.

To vegetarians and others with views on food outside the traditional mainstream: If you adopted your beliefs without giving them much thought, maybe you should rectify that. If you’ve thought carefully about your beliefs and practices — based them on a wide range of information — I won’t fault you. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. And don’t be too quick to ridicule or condemn agriculturalists whose farming practices you dislike.

To people in production ag worried about food-shamers or virtue-signalers: Don’t be too quick to ridicule or condemn people, especially virtue-signalers, who put their beliefs into action. And if you’re not doing it already, try to connect with consumers with views that differ from your own. Respectfully explain what you do and why.

Now I’m going home to cook some of the tasty, nutritious meat from the deer I shot last fall. In doing so, I neither signal virtue nor feel shame.