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Our relationship with the food system has always been complicated. COVID-19 exposed it

Beware false choices, warns the CEO of a century-old dairy cooperative. They’re actually false promises.

Our relationship with the food system has always been complicated. COVID-19 exposed it
[Photo: matthewleesdixon/iStock]

Open our economy or safeguard our communities. As this debate rages, modern society’s propensity for binary thinking has come into sharp focus. The pressures put on our food system as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—from meeting demand at grocery stores to protecting workers in essential roles—have put food system businesses center stage. It is critical that they (and all businesses) avoid the false choices emerging in the uncertain wake of COVID-19.

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As president and CEO of Tillamook, I’m confronted with false choices every day. People tell me we can be a farmer owned-cooperative or an innovative, fast-growing consumer brand. They suggest we can be true to our 111-year heritage or embrace technology.

Patrick Criteser [Photo: courtesy of Tillamook]
These are not the most popular opinions. They are simply the loudest. Activism often amplifies minority points of view. Research published in the journal Science suggests that a cohort representing no more than 25% of a group may be sufficient to flip the opinion of the majority toward that of the minority. This can be a good thing—if the choices they offer are legitimate. False choices distort reality, give disproportionate voice to extremes, and distract us from a greater truth: Good is something we create together.

But when an argument insists on “or” instead of “and,” “together” suffers. COVID-19 has provided a dramatic example as the April 28 executive order for meat plants to remain open prompted pundits to retreat to extremes, fueling a false choice between “open the economy and let people die” or “keep people home and kill the economy.”

But surely the best answer lies somewhere in between. At Tillamook we’ve been looking out for our people, our production, and our economy all at the same time. We require employee temperature checks and masks and limit nonessential visitors at all our plants. We’ve implemented social distancing at shift meetings, in break rooms, and on production lines, increased the use of (virtual) town hall meetings to keep new protocols top of mind, and upped frontline workers’ pay by $2 an hour. We’ve closed our visitors’ center, opened our wallets to support nonprofits and small businesses in the state hurt by the crisis, and donated thousands of pounds of food in our immediate communities. Now is not the time to retreat from the progress we have made toward a more balanced consideration of all stakeholders. It is more urgent than ever.

False choices don’t solve problems

According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, none of the four institutions tracked in the study—government, business, NGOs, and media—is trusted. The report calls this “a wake-up call for our institutions to embrace a new way of effectively building trust: balancing competence with ethical behavior.”

Businesses have made good progress shifting from a singular focus on maximizing financial interests for investors to optimizing a variety of interests for a range of stakeholders. COVID-19 has brought urgency to this important trend as consumers and employees find themselves wondering who’s looking out for them. (In fact, according to a research report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the number of companies specifically responding to COVID-19 through various stakeholder relief efforts is evidence of the corporate world’s move from singular focus on the shareholder to more broadly creating stakeholder value.)

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Trust flourishes where problems are solved. Because all-or-nothing positions tend to polarize rather than coalesce, binary thinking is lousy for solving multifactorial problems. Optimizing is the better tool. But satisfying multiple needs in the food system is complicated.

An uncomfortable truth is revealed

Complicated though it may be, this is the moment for America’s food system to reconcile where it has been, where it is, and where it is going.

As our food supply became industrialized, consumer expectations grew. We became used to everything from fresh fruits and vegetables year-round to microwaveable meals and—I shudder to say it—spray cheese. Food became accessible, inexpensive, and predictable, if not wholesome. But in the process, consumers grew distant from the source of their food. Farmers became mascots rather than neighbors, and media began reporting on “the ignorance of the American eater” (highlight: 16 million people think chocolate milk comes from brown cows).

Sustainability programs and advocacy for various movements—from organics to Community Supported Agriculture—have attempted to bridge the gulf, but such efforts don’t address the complexity of the modern food system or the variety of consumers’ needs and interests and have led to more binary thinking, where small and local are seen as the only answers.

And then came a pandemic, and our reactions to empty shelves revealed an uncomfortable truth: We want it all. We want the idyllic values and transparency of a yesteryear neighborhood market along with the variety and clockwork delivery system of a 21st-century global supply chain. We want our choice of a dozen brands of pasta. When push comes to shove, we want to check “all of the above”:  good, healthy, inexpensive, consistent, safe, responsible, and . . . right here, right now.

As long as expectations remain high—and I hope they do—America’s food system must continue to optimize for a wide range of stakeholders, including the environment itself. And that means rejecting the false choices presented by extreme voices. In the end, false choices are false promises. They pretend to simplify but they oversimplify. They impose a worldview of “either-or” on a society in desperate need of more “ands.”

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Taking businesses beyond binary

How do we as business leaders, consumers, citizens, and, yes, investors expand the scope of the conversation?

  1. Reframe false choices. Go all in on stakeholder value. Shift “either-or” positions to problem-solving questions. “Should we reopen, or should we protect people?” becomes “How can we reopen safely?”
  2. Refocus on the bell of the bell curve. Encourage a new activism of the middle. Activism is associated with extremes and often that’s where false choices incubate. Mainstream consumers need to express as much interest in their food choices as vocal minorities do.
  3. Reveal the complexity. Be open about the complicated balancing acts in our businesses. The work we do is not easy nor are the answers to complex problems simple. Nuance is the first casualty of false choices. People need to understand how businesses try to serve the needs of entire communities. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but we’re going to figure it out.”

Patrick Criteser is president and CEO of Tillamook County Creamery Association, an 111-year-old dairy co-op in Oregon. He is working with Oregon Governor Kate Brown and other food industry leaders in the state to establish enhanced operating requirements and crisis protocols for the food system’s ongoing response to COVID-19.

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