Since the anti-agribusiness movement hit full stride with the release of the “Food, Inc.” documentary in 2008, corporate farming has found itself back on its heels. But they’ve now launched a counter-assault, with support from their allies at the USDA and agricultural science departments.
The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), newly formed in 2010, is in part funded through USDA-mandated “checkoff programs” — something akin to an industrial version of a homeowners assessment, a levy on commodities that in the past has paid for “Got Milk?” and “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” campaigns — and is also underwritten by agribusiness giants Monsanto, DuPont, and John Deere. The group fired all cylinders on its $30-million-a-year PR machine last week, hosting a transcontinental infomercial called “The Food Dialogues.”
The “Food Dialogues” event, which took place simultaneously via video conference in DC, Indiana, and California, was billed as a “two-way dialogue about food, the future of food and how it is grown or raised.” “The whole purpose is to create a conversation,” USFRA Chairman Bob Stallman told NPR.
In practice, the event was like a cross between televised town hall and “Meet the Press,” with ABC News anchor Claire Shipman serving as moderator. Using the former White House correspondent and wife of Obama aide Jay Carney was Madison Avenue genius; it provided what otherwise might have looked too much like a one-sided infomercial with an aura of seriousness, and gave the impression that agribusiness executives were interested in a genuine “dialogue” — not simply a stunt to rehabilitate their damaged image.
But if the USFRA was interested in a two-way conversation — “constructive debate” as Shipman intoned seriously in an invocation for civility — where were heavy-hitters who have been so prominent in asking questions about the scale and production methods of big agriculture? Critics like Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma, Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation, and farmer Joel Salatin, made famous by Pollan, “Food, Inc.” and numerous books and speaking engagements, were all noticeably absent.
Instead the room seemed to be full of lobbyists. One questioner in the “town hall” format turned out to be a lobbyist for Canada-based McCain Foods, the world’s largest producer of french fries. She asked the panel, which among others included former Agriculture secretary Dan Glickman and a lobbyist for WalMart, why the USDA won’t allow more “potatoes and corn” in school lunch programs, given that’s “what children want.” Nice that at least one corporate citizen has the best interests of the little ones in mind.
On another panel in Indiana, the CEO of a large dairy conglomerate boasted that his group of farms produces enough milk to meet demand for the entire city of Chicago. Then he went on to claim that despite this scale, “we are all truly family farmers, but we’re redefining what family farm means.” His colleagues on the panel insisted that confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), faulted by critics for their dirty conditions and use of drugs to keep animals healthy, were really motivated by animal welfare. “It was hard to take care of them outside,” said one hog farmer.
Were more critical voices left uninvited, or did they decline to participate in an infomercial for BigAg? Joel Salatin told the Financial Times that the USFRA campaign was “laughable.”
The USFRA website reveals that they are thin skinned. Their call for dialog has conditions that make their critics sound like the bad guys, the terrorists of food:
Everyone who cares about how our food is grown and raised is invited to the table. The only people with whom we won’t engage are individuals or organizations that don’t believe in the right and need for all forms of today’s agriculture to exist, or our affiliates’ right to exist.
The BigAg establishment, acting through USDA, questions the right of small producers to exist all the time — just see the documentary “Farmageddon” for disturbing footage of federal agents raiding small farms and destroying their inventory. But factory farming, at the end of the day, is not open to hard questions and real scrutiny. It only wants to reassure you through Madison Avenue hype that it cares about “the consumer.” So much for WalMart’s insistence that “in our supply chain, there’s room for everybody.”
USFRA is probably working hard to get “The Food Dialogues” rebroadcast on C-SPAN, where the BigAg infomercial can be further confirmed as “public affairs programming.” Let’s hope the network at least runs a Joel Salatin lecture before or after. In the meantime, maybe USFRA should go back to what it’s predecessors did well — stirring pictures of cowboys set to Aaron Copland fanfares. At least that provided a nice soundtrack as we consumed our TV dinners.