Big Ag + Us

After coasting for decades on the popularity of all that is “fast” or frozen, the food industry was caught off guard a decade ago by the unsavory revelations in the bestselling book “Fast Food Nation.” It maintained deer-in-the-headlights stance through an onslaught of books and documentaries extolling Big AGs many failings.

All that muckraking nurtured today’s vibrant farmers markets movement and locavor initiatives, and started a  transformative national conversation about where our food comes from and how it’s made. None of this benefitted big food companies, however.

Now the industry is hoping to change to subject. According to news stories this week, a recently formed umbrella group with a folksy-sounding name is taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, with public relations campaign meant to reassert industry’s influence over public opinion …  or as executives at the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance told the New York Times, they hope to “reshape the dialogue”.

“There is a feeling across the board in agriculture that Americans have concerns about the food supply, and those are best addressed by farmers,” Chris Galen, a founding member of the alliance said to the Times.

The only thing is the “farmers” represented by the group include agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and DuPont. According to the story, members of smaller, organic and natural farming operations and food processors are skeptical that the $11 million campaign aims to do more than restore credibility to industrial agriculture.

Maybe you think that no amount of PR spin could make you forget that the cows that end up on the dinner menu are fed ground-up chicken and pig parts that, in turn, were fattened on such delicacies as brain, bones and spinal cords.

Then, again, you might be wrong. These sorts of PR campaigns have succeeded before in making public opinion on hot button issues and may very well get us to forget that we abhor CAFOs or Frankenfish.

Take the leaked 2002 memo by Republican consultant Frank Luntz that outlined the Bush Administration’s strategy for sowing doubt about climate change. Luntz urged Republicans to play up the notion that scientists were in disagreement, even while acknowledging that “the scientific debate is closing,” as most scientists were already in agreement that global warming was real.

Looking back nearly a decade later, it was a masterly piece of spin that couldn’t have worked out much better for its architects. According to this August 2011 report by the polling firm Rasmussen, most Americans today not only believe there is a disagreement among scientists over climate change, they believe scientists have, essentially, lied to make their case. The pollsters conclusion:

“The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of American Adults shows that 69% say it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data in order to support their own theories and beliefs, including 40% who say this is Very Likely. Twenty-two percent (22%) don’t think it’s likely some scientists have falsified global warming data, including just six percent (6%) say it’s Not At All Likely. Another 10% are undecided.”

Why do public relations campaigns succeed in convincing people of things that do not stand up to scrutiny? It’s important not to underestimate the smarts of the people running these spin campaigns but the evidence also suggests the role of powerful psychological factors. According to a recent research paper examining public views on climate change published by academics at Yale University and four other colleges, we choose to believe facts that support the views we already hold, while ignoring ones that undermine our beliefs and values. From the abstract:

“The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: Limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: The individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this, “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.”

Perhaps that explains how politicians like Rick Perry and Sarah Palin can keep on denying that we have a problem even as their states are buffeted by what scientists say are clearly impacts of climate change.

Or maybe we’ve interrupted evolution which is making us, as a species, less able to adapt to threats to survival. That’s the view of Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at University College London. He told the Mexican news agency, Notimex, that advances in modern medicine and technology have allowed each of us to live longer but has gradually reduced our ability to react to changes taking place in our environment.

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About greendistrict

I'm Christine MacDonald, a journalist and the author of the book: "Green, Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone B

Posted on September 30, 2011, in CAFOs, Climate Deniers, Climate politics, Corporate Citizenship, Corporate Social Responsiblity, food safety, Frank Luntz, Frankenfish, GMOs, Green Living, locavore, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Hi greendistrict,

    We’d like to share our point of view on your blog post and take a moment to clear up some misconceptions, especially around the idea that because Monsanto and DuPont are our industry partners, USFRA operates only on behalf of our agribusiness partners. We most assuredly do not.

    It’s true that Monsanto and DuPont, as well as several others companies and industry organizations, are our industry partners. However, we want to create a big table that includes all of ag to talk about food and our biggest challenges. That doesn’t mean we won’t continue to be a farmer- and rancher-led organization. Our leadership remains with our farmers and ranchers, but there’s a role agribusiness can play as we listen to and address Americans’ concerns about how food is grown and raised. Our goal is not to represent the interests of Monsanto, DuPont or our other partners – our goal is to listen to consumers and help them better understand where their food comes from. Our industry partners need to hear and understand those concerns as well, and participate in the dialogue.

    We know there will be some groups who won’t always agree with us, but we hope organic and other non-governmental organizations representing various consumer constituencies will be part of our conversation and give us a chance to work together to find some common ground.

    We also hope you can speak with the thousands of farmers and ranchers in this country – including those on small- and medium- sized conventional farms – who work very hard on a daily basis to bring food to Americans’ dinner tables. We think you’ll find that many of them in fact do feed and care for their livestock properly.

    • Hi USFRA,

      Thanks for sharing your views. More transparency is always a good thing. If the public had more information about how your organization is funded and how it is run, for instance, they would be better able to evaluate your work. So please, tell us do you receive voluntary contributions or collect mandatory dues? Do all members, large and small, pay the same membership fees or dues? Is it a one farm/ranch, one vote organization? Or how does USFRA decisionmaking work?

  2. Christine,

    Thanks for inquiring about the funding issue– it will be interesting to see what the response (if any) is…

    On another note, I live in Southwestern Idaho. In the Southcentral portion of our state– in an area called the Magic Valley (which I now refer to as the Tragic Valley)– the bulk (at least 70%, if not closer to 80%) of Idaho’s dairy CAFO production takes place. Idaho is number two in cheese production and number three or four in fluid milk production. We have far more cows here than people (2.2 million cows vs. 1.5 million people). The Tragic Valley faces a dwindling drinking water supply, and the associated contamination/pollution that occurs in rural areas dominated by CAFOs of all types. Amazingly all of these dairy CAFOs are located on top of an EPA designated sole source aquifer– the Eastern Snake River Aquifer–which has been polluted with growth hormones and antibiotics, in addition to high nitrates, etc. If our Dept. of Environmental Quality was doing their job and testing, I’m certain we’d be seeing the pollution steadily worsen. However, our Legislature, in their infinite wisdom — protecting agribusiness– cut funding for water testing (after all if you don’t test, the pollution ceases to exist, correct?)

    The reason I mention this is in response to USFRA’s response. It’s something we hear A LOT here in Idaho (usually when a CAFO is seeking a new permit or an expansion of an existing facility). Agribusiness likes to tout itself as “family farmers” and “neighbor friendly”. As a small family farmer myself (my husband and I grown grass hay and alfalfa/grass hay), I can tell you that none of these organizations speak for real family farmers. In fact, in my humble opinion, they would be happy if the last remaining family farmers just disappeared from the face of the plante so they (Agribusiness) would then have a total monopoly over the food supply system/chain.

    There is discussion underway in D.C. to exempt factory farms from CERCLA reporting requirements (it would appear that our Representative Simpson is now carrying the banner for our ousted Senator Craig). At both the federal and state levels agribusiness seeks to bring down the black curtain and shield their operations from the public eye (and right to know). Here’s my take on that: Every single authentic family farmer I know (not an agribusiness corp. cloaked as a family farmer) has an open farm policy. We’re not doing anything we shouldn’t– therefore we have nothing to hide. You’re welcome to stop by any time– unannounced– and visit for a while. Our animals are well-cared for and aren’t living chest deep in their own excrement. They are not fed a steady diet of E-Coli contaminated restaurant plate and food processing waste. They are not living on sub-therapeutic levels of anitbiotics, nor are they being administered hormones to get them to reach market weight quicker. In short, authentic family farmers look upon organizations such as the USFRA as hurting– not helping– us. When they say they want to “reshape the dialogue” , what that actually means is that they need to refocus the public on the bucolic image of the family farmer that they are trying to make us believe constitute their membership. Well, I’d be surprised if any of their CAFO “members/owners” maintain any kind of an open door policy. That is the hallmark of a true family farmer– the bar is carried high and proudly, and we do not hide behind a veil of secrecy. We operate in the open, welcome our neighbors, consumers, and the public at large and take great pride in what we produce. On the other hand corporate Agribusiness is all about the bottom line, how they can produce protein “units” as cheaply as possible and convince everyone that, “Aw shucks, we’re just a bunch of friendly country boys raising a few cows to put meat on the table”.

    Just my two cents for whatever they’re worth …

    Alma

  3. Hi Alma,

    Thanks for your comment. The situation in your state sounds serious. I wonder if we can get the representative from USFRA to respond to what you have to say and my questions about where its funding comes from and how it’s governed.

    USFRA — any follow up?

    • Christine,

      Yes, the CAFO situation is very serious here and getting worse by the day (thanks to Agribusiness). My post was just the tip of the iceberg, the level of collusion between industry and our elected officials appears to have no boundaries. For example, Representative Pat Takasugi– the former head of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA)– is currently out on medical leave. His replacement is Gayle Batt, wife of Roger Batt, lobbyist extraordinaire for Agribusiness here in Idaho. Mr. Batt is responsible for our newly “revamped” Right to Farm bill (http://www.12ktrv.com/story/14089427/idahos-right-to-pollute-bill?redirected=true), which states that if an operation has been in business for over a year, it can no longer be considered a nuisance–EVEN BY THE COUNTY WHO ISSUED THE ORIGINAL PERMIT. Ms. Batt never recused herself from voting for this bill (or any other bill to my knowledge) her lobbyist husband brings before the Legislature. Then there is the case of Mike Moyle, our Majority Leader in the House. Rep. Moyle is in the fur business (as is most of the Moyle clan– a great little “bio” of Rep. Moyle and the rest of the Moyle family and their ginormous tentacles can be found here: http://politicalgame.blogspot.com/2011/03/moyle-mink-mess.html. Rep. Moyle is responsible for some very questionable legislation (some of which only benefited HIS family and THEIR businesses). Then there is the case of our Senate Republican Caucus Chairman, Senator McGee, who was arrested for drunk driving and grand theft (he wrecked an Excursion while intoxicated which did not belong to him, and which, according to published news reports he was not authorized to be driving http://www.kboi2.com/news/local/124157939.html Believe it or not, Sen. McGee still holds his Caucus Chairman position! http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/senate/leadership.htm
      I could go on ad nauseum, but I’m sure you get the point. The bottom line is that so long as this type of favoritism/cronyism continues (at both the state and federal levels) our industrial food system will never be overhauled and the small family farmer (already an endangered species) will eventually ride into the sunset, never to be seen or heard from again (or to raise crops and livestock).
      I hope USFRA does respond to your questions, but I highly doubt they will. You have,–in essence– “outed” them! To which I, for one, am very grateful!
      Keep up the good work!
      Alma

  4. Christine,

    Just a quick follow-up. Here’s a link to an excellent Guest Commentary written by real family farmers. I think you may enjoy it: http://www.stltoday.com/news/opinion/article_4fc6b055-330d-530c-b7fc-be37f8bee6e6.html

    Alma

  1. Pingback: Who gains when Enviros + Corps do Business? « greendistrict

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