Archive for the ‘misconceptions’ Category


I like being right, and it irritates people sometimes. (Just ask my husband.)

If I hear a factual inaccuracy on a topic I know well, I have to bite my tongue not to correct it. Maybe it’s because I’m an educator at my core. I want folks to base their beliefs and behaviors on facts.

But facts—things that are known, proven, and verifiable—don’t really matter.

Are you bristling right now? Are you thinking, “You’re wrong. They matter to me!” Hear me out.

How we feel always triumphs over the facts with which we are presented. Don’t believe me? How do you feel about GMOs? Vaccines? Climate change? Immigration? Breast feeding vs. formula? Nuclear energy? Motorcycle helmets? Pesticides? Politics? Have I hit any of your hot buttons yet? What’s running through your mind right now? Is your blood pressure more elevated than when you started reading this paragraph? How do you feel?

Now, pick a topic listed above that you feel strongly about. Search for websites you would recommend to others wishing to learn about it. What did you find? Did what you found support what you believe? Did you start reading a site and quickly close it because you knew it was wrong? How did you know it was wrong? Did you find a site that changed your mind?

Recently I had a long, heated discussion with a friend. Let’s call him Ken. Our conversation started on the topic of vaccines and quickly veered into agriculture. We talked late into the night, until I was trembling from the effort of balancing facts, feelings, and friendship.

Ken believes farmers are powerless victims of corporate control and ownership. He believes one seed company controls the government agencies that regulate our food supply. He thinks livestock are “crammed together” and treated cruelly for profit. He believes farmers grow corn to receive subsidies but he feels it’s not nutritious so they should grow something else instead.

My friend is intelligent and passionate, and like most people in our country, far removed from production agriculture. As we talked, the words “Facts don’t matter; feelings do” kept running through my mind, along with “Ken and his wife are our friends, and I want them to remain so after this dialog.”

It was like I was having two separate conversations. One out loud with Ken, and one internally, with myself. I reminded myself that Ken is a Marine, and—like my own husband—a disabled veteran. As we talked about the credibility of the CDC, FDA, and EPA, I remembered that many veterans have justifiable reasons to distrust government agencies as a result of their experiences with the DoD and VA.

I remembered the “backfire effect,” a recent research finding which revealed that people with strongly-held beliefs tend to cling to them even more tightly when presented with evidence to the contrary. I counseled myself to ask thoughtful questions about Ken’s beliefs instead of launching facts at him to “prove him wrong.”

At many points in the conversation, I thought of simply cutting it short by telling Ken I was tired and ready for bed. I was tempted to give up and write him off as misinformed and crazy. But, while he may have absorbed misinformation, he’s not crazy. I knew that to shrug him off as such would just widen the division we’re all experiencing now.

When the conversation ended, he thanked me for opening his eyes to new things to think about. I thanked him for challenging me.

In the end, I’m not sure I convinced him of anything. If I truly did open his eyes to new information, it wasn’t because I hurled facts at him. Hopefully it was because I tried to show how I felt, and that I cared about his beliefs even when I didn’t agree with them.

When I say facts don’t matter, what I really mean is facts don’t matter unless you acknowledge feelings first. If you skip that step, facts really don’t matter, because they won’t make a difference in what people believe.

As the saying goes: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the September-October 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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Rho in woods

I constantly long to be connected to nature.

When was the last time you sat in the soil, strolled through a forest, or splashed in a stream? How many birds have you taken the time to listen to today?

If you’re like me, you long to do these things but rarely have time. Days go by when my feet touch only asphalt, concrete, or flooring, and my ears note only engines, voices, and HVAC systems. We’ve structured our human lives to mostly separate ourselves from nature; from dirt, discomfort, and inconvenience. In his book “Last Child in the Woods,” author Richard Louv introduced the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the often-unrecognized disconnect—the unanswered longing to experience nature—that results.

When farmers lament, “Kids these days just don’t know where their food comes from,” I believe they are describing a consequence of this disconnect. After all, what is agriculture but the intersection of humans and nature to produce food? Those who engage in food production are closer to nature on a daily basis than most of us. Outside of agriculture, kids (and many adults) these days don’t know where their food comes from.


Is this “natural” ketchup safer or healthier than other brands?

I believe that another symptom of this disconnect is our insatiable drive for “natural” things. Walk the aisles of a grocery store, browse personal care items on Amazon, or scroll through posts on Facebook and you’ll see hundreds of examples. It’s as though we know deep down we need to stay connected to nature, so instead of a walk on the prairie we don’t have time for, we reach for Nature Made® Echinacea supplements.

Nature is beautiful. Nature is essential. Nature is necessary for our survival.


Repeat after me: “Natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.”

I used to say I’d rather consume a substance produced by a plant than one developed in a lab. I remember the pleasurable little rush of self-righteousness I got from saying so out loud. “Natural” meant green plants waving their leaves against a sunny blue sky, not unidentifiable people wearing lab coats and goggles against a backdrop of fluorescent lights and stainless steel.

Then I started following credible science and agriculture organizations online. Whether discussing food ingredients, crop production, or medical advances, the topic of whether “natural” equates to “safe” comes up repeatedly. And what the science keeps pointing out is that “natural” things are often very dangerous.

Take apricot seed kernels. Aside from the fact that they are rock-hard and not very tasty, there’s a doggone good reason we don’t eat cherry, peach, or apricot pits. They contain a chemical compound called amygdalin, which, when eaten, releases cyanide—a poison. Search online for apricot kernels, though, and you’ll find dozens of retailers selling them and many articles touting their use as a cancer treatment. Supposedly, cyanide kills cancer cells. Maybe it does, but in doing so it may kill you as well. Nevertheless, because it grew on a tree and is “natural,” it must be safer (some think) than chemotherapy, which seems decidedly unnatural. Scientific evidence shows that apricot kernels are not safe, but the belief persists.

The quest for apricot kernels is an extreme example of a logical fallacy known as “appeal to nature,” or the argument that “natural” things are good, therefore “unnatural” things are bad. It is so convincing that we see it constantly in product marketing. Food manufacturers advertise the replacement of “artificial” flavorings and colorings with “natural” ones. Genetic modification is perceived as unnatural, so the Non-GMO Project seal now appears on thousands of products from cinnamon to sea salt despite there being only ten commercially-available GMO crops. Organic production prohibits the use of most synthetic fertilizers and crop protectants, so consumers assume foods labeled “organic” are natural and thus safer. It’s increasingly difficult to find a package label that doesn’t include the word “natural” or “nature.”

And yet (repeat after me), “natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.” Whether or not something is natural is irrelevant to its safety. Many natural things are amazing, even life-saving. Some will kill you. The same is true of synthetic, “unnatural” things. Toilets, toothbrushes, and trucks are not natural, yet they improve our lives. Safety hinges not on whether a substance is natural or synthetic, but on how much of the substance you are exposed to. Drinking too much clean, pure (natural) water can kill you. So can a truck.

By all means, get back to nature. But remember, “natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.” Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the August 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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flat-out lyingI’m not just frustrated by erroneous food “facts” anymore. I’m furious.

A lot of folks aren’t simply misleading the public about food choices. They are flat-out lying. I used to give them the benefit of the doubt. “They got inaccurate information somewhere,” I would think. Or, “They misunderstood what they saw/read/heard.”

But here’s the deal: Accurate information is readily available if you care enough to look for it and apply a bit of common sense in distinguishing credible vs. bogus sources. But in my book, if you spread fear and confusion without checking facts because it fits with your worldview or increases your sales, you’re lying because you didn’t bother to find out the truth first.

Here are two individuals currently topping my list of who NOT to trust with food information.

Dr. Oz. Where do I start? His list of confidently-spouted untruths is so long, he’s even been called before Congress to defend some of his claims. In a recent example of how he stokes consumer fears, his program aired a segment titled “New GMO Pesticide Doctors are Warning Against.” In this segment, he warned that the recently EPA-approved herbicide Enlist Duo is brand-new, toxic, and contains an ingredient used in Agent Orange.

Some quick facts: Enlist Duo is a combination of two very safe herbicides: 2, 4-D and glyphosate, neither of which are new. They are both readily available to consumers for use on lawns, precisely because their toxicity to humans and pets is low. The ingredient in Agent Orange that was determined to be contaminated with a deadly dioxin compound was 2, 4, 5-T, not 2, 4-D.

In this example, Dr. Oz preys on fear of the unknown with emphasis on a “new pesticide,” and fear of harm by both emphasizing the term “toxic” and unfairly and inaccurately tying Enlist Duo to Agent Orange.

Vani Hari, a.k.a. “Food Babe.” Hari is the individual behind the revelation that a chemical (azodicarbonamide) used to make yoga mats can also be found in bread. More recently, she charged that Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte contains, among other suspicious ingredients, “Monsanto Milk from cows fed GMO corn, soy, and cottonseed.” A quick cruise through her website surfaces phrases like “processed chemicals the food industry is dumping in our food,” and “Shocking: Why Are Doctors Recommending This Toxic Drink?”

Some facts: azodicarbonamide is an agent used to bleach flour and condition bread dough. Based on extensive review of safety studies, the FDA recognizes it as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).

More facts: Cows and other livestock have been consuming genetically modified crops for nearly 20 years. Analysis of feeding study data, (representing billions of animals) collected before and after GMO crops were present in livestock feed, shows no impact on animal health. Over 2,000 credible studies have shown they have no adverse effect on human health, either.

Like Dr. Oz, Food Babe’s popularity hinges on what I call the gasp effect, as in “<Gasp!> I didn’t know that! Do you mean that evil company is trying to pull one over on me to make money?!” Fear is her tool, and she makes her living by instilling it. (I’m waiting for her to start a campaign to ban dihydrogen monoxide. It’s a chemical that is tricky to pronounce and found in industrial solvents, breast milk, and baby formula.)

Approach new food factsUnfortunately, Dr. Oz and Food Babe are only two of the most notable culprits in the quest to frighten the public (and sell alternative foods or supplements while doing so). There are many more, and they are adept at preying on our deepest worries about our health and safety. My advice? Approach everything you read, see, and hear with skepticism. Watch for use of “scary” words like chemicals, toxic, processed, industrial, and unnatural. Don’t fall for fear-inducing images (like the ubiquitous syringe injecting a mysterious substance into an ear of corn). Check other sources, but be skeptical.

If you don’t have time to check other sources, then do me a favor: Don’t share anything you learn from Dr. Oz, Food Babe, or anyone else who gets your attention by trying to scare you.

P.S. Here are some of my favorite, accurate sources food and farming information:





This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the November 2014 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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The following is a guest post written by 2014 summer Ag Literacy Intern Kelsey Faivre. Kelsey is a farm girl from DeKalb and sophomore at Iowa State University studying Agricultural Communications. 

Kelsey_woman_Tues_croppedAt the beginning of my internship, I thought that I was prepared to talk to people about agriculture. I grew up on a conventional grain farm, raise cattle, and am attending Iowa State University studying Agricultural Communications.

Having completed my internship, I’m not sure if anyone can be prepared enough to talk to the non-farm public about modern agriculture. Just one face-to-face conversation with a stranger had me questioning my career goals. It amazed me how fast being doubted made my chest ice over. I found myself wondering why anyone would subject themselves to this.

It was an event for families, and I was standing next to our Ag Literacy display. The woman approached me with her hands on her hips. Her little girl ran off to play.

“So, what group are you and what do you support?” she asked me. I explained what DeKalb County Farm Bureau was and that I was a summer intern.

“What is your stance on antibiotics and pesticides?” she questioned. At this point, I had a feeling I was in for a rough conversation. I asked her for clarification, and the next ten minutes were some of the most uncomfortable of my life.

She asked me questions like: “Is there any research that proves pesticides cause cancer? How do family farmers feel about being put out of business? Why do farmers in this area grow only corn and soybeans instead of food people actually want to eat?”

Then, the accusations started. “My family can’t live in the country because of all the stuff in the air. Like the chemicals. I can’t eat conventional meat because of all the antibiotics in it. I’m sure most Illinois farms are family-owned, but nationally that’s not true.”

I felt like I needed a shield to protect myself from her pointed questions and verbal shots. I answered her as reasonably as I could, using statistics as well as personal experience to share my perspective. For example, I told her that 98% of American farms are owned by families. I also explained that as a beef producer, I follow withdrawal procedures after using antibiotics to ensure that no residue is in the meat from treating my animals.  Finally, she asked me about hormone implants in beef cattle, and then cut off my response, saying “I have to get my daughter. It was nice talking to you. And kind of scary.”

I realized afterwards that she had no interest in hearing what I had to say. She may have been posing her comments as questions, but they felt like attacks on my family’s farm practices. It hurt. I believe in what we do and I believe we do it for good reasons, so being attacked is painful. I wondered, if she won’t listen to a farmer, who will she listen to?

This wasn’t the first conversation of this kind I’ve had. Each time a friend, family member, or stranger approaches me with these accusatory questions an icy hand clenches around my heart. Yet it’s also exhilarating to find the words that make people say “I’ve never thought about it that way before.” Then I know I’ve made a connection.

That’s what gives me hope for the future of agriculture. That’s why I’ve decided not to change my major to something like interior design and leave my agricultural roots behind. That’s why, despite the challenges I know will be in my future as an ag communicator, I’m still following my passion.

It’s also true that most people aren’t as aggressive. The other day at the Boone County fair, a man approached me in the beef barn and thanked me for being a farmer. Then, gesturing to the nearby animals, he asked me why some of the horses had nose rings.

That’s a conversation I think I can manage.

This post appeared in the September-October 2014 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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