What do you get when you cross a grassroots movement with a food industry fearful of losing its influence? Bogus studies, campaigns of misinformation and opinion pieces filled with myth and vitriol.
You may have noticed an uptick this year in news reporting that organic food isn’t really better for you, opinion pieces by conventional farmers saying that they are tired of being demonized by “agri-intellectuals”, and guilt-inducing ads by Monsanto in highbrow publications like the New Yorker touting the company’s ability to feed the world through technology.
Though all of this could be disturbing to those of us committed to sustainable agriculture and food that is fair to eaters, animals, workers and farmers, I’m choosing to see this as a good sign. I think it means we might be winning.
The turning point was when First Lady Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn only to receive a letter from The American CropLife Association telling her that they hoped she recognized the value of conventional agriculture in American life. The letter can be read here. Then, there were false allegations that the garden was contaminated with lead. In the face of all this, the first lady stuck with her commitment to keeping the garden organic.
Why is this happening now? For many years, organic food was a marginal market and the big players were content to let it either exist on the sidelines or hedge their bets and buy into it themselves.
But due to the excellent work by many writers and activists like Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle, Robert Kenner and others too numerous to mention, more of us are starting to pay attention to where our food comes from and how it is produced. This market is now a force for change. And individuals and companies that benefit from the status quo don’t want change.
Let’s take a closer look at the people and ideology behind some of the more recent high profile examples of the attacks against sustainable food.
The aforementioned study by London’s School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine on the nutrient values of organic foods looked at various studies on the subject and compiled them to reach its conclusions. No new study was conducted. The meta review ignored some recent studies on nutrients, including one focused on antioxidants.
Not only that, the conductors of the survey only looked a narrow set of very specific nutrients. They did not consider factors of taste, environmental impact, or pesticide residues in the food – all factors that most consumers I know consider when buying organic foods.
Beyond the obvious limitations of the subject matter, it’s instructive to take a closer look at how the study was covered in the media, who conducted the study and who funded it.
So let’s pull back the curtain, shall we?
Media Coverage: Though the study looked at only 8 different nutrients and concluded there was no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically- and conventionally-produced foodstuffs, it went on to say that there were other reasons to buy organic food. Headline writers like tension so all the headlines were some variation on “organic foods not really better for you” or worse yet, “the organic foods hoax”.
What is the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine? The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is a respected college within the University of London, so all would seem to be on the up and up. But, this is the same school that published a hateful and not at all scientifically-rigorous study blaming fat people for global warming. I’d love to get into the problems with this study but that’s another post.
Who Funded the Study? The study was commissioned by the UK’s Food Standards Agency. The agency is an independent part of government set up by Parliament in response to food contamination issues and the resulting lack of consumer confidence.
The FSA is supposed to serve consumers, and it does in many cases, but like our very own USDA and FDA, the agency can be influenced by the food industry. Their slogan says it all: “safer food, better business”. And a quick look at the profiles of FSA staffers reveals more than a few food industry folk.
And then there’s Missouri farmer, Blake Hurst, in his article for The American Enterprise Institute. He attacks Pollan and other “agri-intellectuals” and city folk in general for making all kinds of assumptions about farmers and for presuming that they know the “messy, dirty” business of farming much better than farmers.
Throughout the piece Hurst erodes his credibility by making his own unfounded assumptions about his opponents, including the guy on the plane behind him, with whom he opens the story. He also says that he won’t change until the consumer forces his hand, ignoring the real lack of consumer power inherent in a food system that uses taxpayer dollars to subsidize the production of commodity crops that are then used to produce the unhealthy foods that fill the shelves of our grocery stores.
Foods (or food products) whose sheer volume and variety of brightly-colored packaging, flavors, colors and sizes are supposed to convince us of the abundance of our choices as consumers, when in fact all we’re really buying is agricultural surplus dressed up with chemicals, technology and marketing.
Then he brilliantly skewers his own argument by using a false urban (or rural?) legend about a flock of turkeys so stupid they drowned themselves in a rainstorm to make his point that conventional farmers who pack the sentient beings we raise for food into crowded, filthy sheds are really protecting the animals from their own stupidity.
Oh, and by the way, what is this American Enterprise Institute that published Hurst’s article?
I’m glad you asked. The AEI is a neoconservative think tank devoted to free enterprise capitalism. According to Sourcewatch, AEI has funded studies that debunk climate change research, refutes studies showing the social costs of tobacco use, and has even worked to promote the Iraq war. The AEI staff listing includes Lynne Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Richard Perle.
As for Monsanto’s advertisements attempting to influence the very people who are most likely to read writers like Michael Pollan and publications like EcoSalon, don’t be fooled. We’ve done enough work here, here, and here that gets to the truth about Monsanto. And here’s an excellent piece from Grist detailing exactly why those specific ads are so bogus.
According to a recent survey, consumers are confused about and skeptical of green marketing claims, and misinformed about terms like natural and organic. That’s exactly how some would like it to be.
But there’s another side to this story: The status-quoers will eventually have to acknowledge that the system as it stands now will not serve anyone’s needs much longer, even theirs. As global warming accelerates and fuel costs rise, we need to figure out how to produce food differently. Maybe consumer power won’t ever be enough to force farmers like Blake Hurst to start to look at farming differently but the limiting characteristics of our unsustainable system will.
Until then, I won’t allow myself to be swayed by the propaganda of the resisters; I’ll put my money where the facts are – with the visionary, hopeful, innovative farmers who are doing things differently. Because, even though small-scale organic farming may not be the only answer, it can be part of a whole systemic change toward feeding ourselves without ruining the planet. And it tastes a lot better!
This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.