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Not just for foodies

Symposium offers a buffet of agriculture discussions

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Published: Oct. 11, 2010
Food symposiom

Journalists, farmers, scientists and activists are gathering at Mizzou for the symposium 'Food, Fuel and Society: Stories From a Changing Landscape.'

The conversation around the dinner table is changing.

America’s food culture now mixes trends toward sustainability and “localvorism” with worries about obesity and safety. Mainstream news outlets sandwich features on esoteric dining practices between alarmist reports on farm conditions. In the current climate, messages about agriculture consumption and production can leave the public hungry for a more complete picture.

What are we missing in the hullabaloo? What stories are being lost? Participants in the Mizzou symposium “Food, Fuel and Society: Stories From a Changing Landscape” intend to find out.

The future of food

Science reporter Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s “Science Friday,” joins journalists, farmers, scientists, activists and MU faculty for a day of discussions Oct. 12 in the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Topics include the economic implications of biofuels, the role of immigration in agriculture, the effects of food-safety legislation on small farms and the impact of “food deserts” that are created when grocers abandon low-income urban communities.

Organizer Janet Saidi, the news director at the MU NPR-affiliate station KBIA-FM, says panelists plan to delve into the complexities of agriculture and identify holes in media coverage.

“Consumers don’t need scary headlines and oversimplified soundbites; they need depth and context, and they need facts,” says Saidi, an assistant professor of radio and television in the MU School of Journalism. “The rapid changes and the mixed messages are the biggest challenges for journalists covering these issues. Sorting through agendas to get the facts is very difficult. Farmers are affected one way. Environmentalists are affected one way. People who are interested in food in third-world countries and world hunger are affected. Everybody has a different perspective.”

New crop of journalists

Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s 'Science Friday,' leads the discussions during the symposium kickoff in the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Photo courtesy of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Among those mining the messages are reporters for Harvest Public Media, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting-supported agriculture-news network being launched during the symposium. Staff members in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas and, of course, Missouri report on agriculture stories, broadcast them on public radio stations and then post them online with supplemental materials, such as photos, videos and blog entries. Radio stories then can be rebroadcast on stations throughout the United States and abroad.

The new model helps compensate for a dearth of regional farm-beat reporters in the struggling newspaper industry. It also helps to build an expert knowledge base in an increasingly multifaceted and controversial field, says Harvest Public Media’s Frank Morris, a veteran farm reporter. The agriculture-news target shifts from a local general audience to a national niche market. As a result, consumers get more depth and better information about the food they eat.

“If you just sort of parachute in and hit those stories, you don’t get a very full understanding of what’s going on and why it’s going on — the context,” says Morris, the news director for the public radio station KCUR-FM in Kansas City. “Agriculture is very, very complex, and it’s in tremendous flux. We have an opportunity to become a place where the information is developed in a much more sophisticated way.”

Cross-pollination

Though largely targeting journalists, the symposium occurs at the intersection of multiple academic interests. Most of the funding comes from Mizzou Advantage, a program developed to increase MU’s visibility and stature in higher education through a focus on interdisciplinary collaboration.

The event touches on three Mizzou Advantage initiatives — Food for the Future, Media of the Future and Sustainable Energy — and features faculty from the School of Journalism, MU Extension, the Reynolds Journalism Institute, College of Arts and Science and the College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources.

The conference also has gained appeal beyond the heartland, attracting broadcast journalists from Ottowa, Canada, and agriculture innovators who run farms in Africa.

“We’re hoping that ‘Food, Fuel and Society’ will not be just a day of discussion,” Saidi says. “We want it to kick off a vibrant ongoing and online community around the issues, connecting people with the stories that need to be out there.”

Stay connected! Follow a live blog and a live video stream during the symposium, watch video recordings of the sessions later, or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter any time you want

Read more in:  Business, Law & PoliticsBeyond CampusOn CampusSpecial Features & SeriesScience & TechnologyFamily & CommunityAgriculture & the Environment

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012