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'Why write about it?' Cultured meat story raises questions

Years ago, I interviewed an area farmer who was serving as national president of his commodity group. During the interview, he mentioned that he regularly reads articles and books promoting positions and viewpoints contrary to those of his organization. "It's hard to argue against the other side if I don't understand their arguments," he said.

I think of that farmer occasionally — and did so again after some early reaction to my Feb. 11 Agweek cover package on cultured meat, aka "fake meat" and "clean meat", among many other terms. The package featured the varying perspectives of some really smart people with insights into, or a stake in, cultured meat. My goal was giving a balanced picture that will help readers better understand this important issue. In trying to do that, I asked all the interviewees to explain their views and positions, asked a few "devil's-advocate" questions and listened as carefully and objectively as I could to the answers. (That's what journalists, or at least real journalists, do.)

But a handful of Agweek readers had a different take on the package. "It's fake meat. Why write about it?," they asked me. One, in dark mutterings that I didn't fully catch, said something about me being a city guy who's against ag.

Full disclosure: I grew up on a North Dakota cow/calf operation. I've owned beef cattle. Visiting ranches is one of the best parts of my job. I believe that beef cattle make effective use of land that's not suited for crops and feed that's not suited for people. And I have neither qualms about eating traditional beef nor a desire to eat cultured meat.

But I'm also an ag journalist and my job is to provide accurate, balanced information for Agweek readers. That's why I wrote the package on cultured meat.

Consider the undecided

The bigger question, it seems to me, is why agriculturalists should read stories that present information at odds with their own strongly held convictions, information that annoys and even angers them.

I understand agriculturalists' antipathy, at least in the case of cultured meat. It threatens your livelihood, and some supporters' use of "clean meat" clearly implies that your product is something dirty or unsafe.

But "living in the echo chamber" — taking in only information that reinforces what we already think — is unwise. It limits our ability to influence people who don't share our beliefs or, more importantly, haven't made up their minds yet.

Yes, there are people who are convinced that cultured meat is good and beneficial. There's probably nothing you can say to cause them to think otherwise, just as there's probably nothing they can say to cause you to change your opposing conviction. But don't lump those people with the tens of millions of Americans, and hundreds of millions of people around the world, who are somewhere in the middle.

To say, "It's fake meat. I don't want to hear anything about it" may be satisfying emotionally. But that won't help you to influence consumers who are confused or undecided about cultured meat.

And the place to start is studying the opposing viewpoint. As that farmer/commodity group leader told me, it's hard to argue against the other side if you don't understand their arguments.