Why we need to be honest with our kids about farming

21 May 2015

Most farm toys, games and cartoons portray idyllic outdoor scenes, with rolling hills, rosy-cheeked farmers and happy animals. Here, we explore the forces perpetuating this farming myth – and why it's time to set our kids straight.

toys

Our children are the consumers, farmers, entrepreneurs and policy-makers of the future. The information we feed them today will shape the farming of tomorrow.

But is enough being done to educate the next generation about where their food really comes from? After a quick browse in your local toyshop or a trip to see the latest kids’ blockbuster, you’d probably agree that we could be doing a whole lot more!

Toying with the truth

Children probably go warm and fuzzy when they think about farms and their animals, and we’d have to forgive them for it. From the nostalgic toys made by the likes of LEGO and Fisher-Price to the countless smiling farmyard animals seen on screen over the decades, the small-scale, bucolic farm is likely to be the only sort of farm they know.

Even on the rare occasion that the idea of factory farming is mooted in children’s pop culture, the story can be massively misleading. In 2013, for example, a US colouring book called Producers, Pigs & Pork painted a squeaky-clean picture of a factory farm that included “healthy and happy” pigs and the resulting "safe, healthy and delicious" meat. It was, of course, a cunning piece of Big Ag propaganda and it couldn’t have been further from the truth.

By anyone’s standards, we have a serious knowledge gap on our hands. And that’s not to mention the youngsters who are so disconnected from their food that they believe cheese grows on trees and pasta is made from meat, among other things. Admittedly, you have to take these kinds of opinion polls with a healthy pinch of salt, but the results make for shocking reading, nevertheless.

Filling the knowledge gap

So what can we do to redress this disturbing lack of knowledge, from the little ones who are completely in the dark to those who see modern farming as a bit of wholesome fun?

We can lose the rose-tinted spectacles, for starters, and begin to encourage a more open and honest discussion – in the classroom and around dining tables – about the provenance of our food. And, as part of the wider debate, shouldn’t children’s toys, games and cartoons start to get real about farming?

We’re not suggesting that toy manufacturers or filmmakers suddenly start portraying the full extent of the cruelty and filth of factory farms – far from it. That would be enough to traumatise even the most grounded adults, let alone children. Rather, we’re suggesting a far more subtle approach to address the realities of farming without alienating families.

Three ideas

Here are just three quick thoughts on how we could introduce some much-needed transparency into food and farming pop culture:

  • On traditional farm toys and games, how about including a “warning” label that says: “Not all farms are like this!”, with a short explanatory paragraph and/or a link to an online resource explaining the issue in more detail.
  • Another idea would be to ensure that whenever kids visit a higher-welfare farm (be that a city farm or an extensive farm in the heart of the countryside), they are given a lesson on the realities of most modern food production afterwards – and on how more farms need to be like the one they have just witnessed.
  • How about going even further and creating more lifelike farm toys, like this one; as we’ve said, these needn’t be wholly dark and depressing toys (after all, no one would buy them if they were!), but they could be more honest about stocking densities and the fact that animals are kept indoors. That could be a powerful compromise.

And, of course, we’re already doing a lot of work with our education programme, which provides volunteer speakers and engaging materials for students of all ages, from primary-school pupils to undergraduates.

Fair play

If we are to feed the world’s booming population in the coming decades without harming animals, people or the planet, educating the next generation about the need for better farming is not only logical, but also fair – to them and to future generations.

Clearly, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to fixing our broken food system, but one thing is certain: we should never underestimate the power of young people, from their “pester power” at home to their potential for changing the world as adults. We need to invest in our children if we are to make the world a better place. And what better way to begin than with the toys, games and cartoons that so often occupy their minds on a daily basis?

If a toy did tell the truth about factory farming, would you buy it for your friends or family?

Help us end factory farming for good.

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