adventures in craft beer and real food

Saturday, September 30, 2006


People have asked me why I haven't supported groups like the Organic Consumers' Association or the Family Farm Defenders. These groups have admirable goals but their voice is deleteriously affected by "off topic" opinions.

Before I dish, let me say that I have the greatest respect for these groups when they are "on topic." I owe a debt of gratitude to the Organic Consumers' Association for bringing to my attention a study by the Cornucopia Institute which names brands of milk are labeling their milk "USDA Organic" despite being from industrial farms (i.e. a violation of 205.239.1-2 of the National Organic Program regulation). I respect the Family Farm Defenders for their opposition to industrial scale farms, rBGH, genetic modification of food products, and the conditions which favor BSE.

The mission statement of these groups is as follows
Organic Consumers' Association: The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is an online and grassroots non-profit public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability. The OCA deals with crucial issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children's health, corporate accountability, Fair Trade, environmental sustainability and other key topics.
Family Farm Defenders: Our mission is to create a farmer-controlled and consumer-oriented food and fiber system, based upon democratically controlled institutions that empower farmers to speak for and respect themselves in their quest for social and economic justice. FFD has worked to create opportunities for farmers to join together in new cooperative endeavors, form a mutual marketing agency, and forge alliances with consumers through providing high quality food products while returning a fair price to farmers.

It would seem odd, then, that these groups would go out on a limb to do things that are politically controversial, completely unrelated to their mission statements, and divisive.

Example one. The Organic Consumers' Association links to an article written by Heather Wokusch for the progressive opinion website Common Dreams in which she intones -- completely without evidence -- that Karl Rove was personally responsible for the anthrax attacks following the September 11 attacks as well as the nerve agent scare on Capitol Hill earlier this year. She goes on to suggest that the Karl Rove might use "some form of bioweapons attack," invade Iran, or capture bin Laden in October to rally the conservative vote for the November mid-term elections.

Example two. The Organic Consumers' Association links to an article written by Allan Uthman for the leftist website AlterNet whose mission involves opposition to the "right wing media machine" and building a "progressive echo chamber" that argues that that the US is becoming a police state based upon ten current events. He argues that the confluence of everything from "touchscreen voting machines" to "signing statements" (i.e. executive orders) to the prosecution of "high-ranking whistleblowers" (i.e. the polite term for someone who leaks information that you find useful or with whom you agree) is "becoming a police state."

Example three. Alongside books with clearly applicable titles like "The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter" and "Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Lawn into a Garden" there are titles with no applicability like "The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq" (the cover of which sports a comic image of "King George") and "Towers of Deception: the Media Cover-up of 9/11" (which argues that Bush was personally responsible for the 9/11 attacks). These are books with extraordinarily controversial content that doesn't apply to the OCA's mission, yet the OCA endorses them anyway.

Example four. Family Farm Defenders has endorsed the pacifist organization Farms Not Arms. This organization believes that resources spent toward martial causes is "misappropriated" and "wasted" because it could be used for ending "poverty, injustice, and religious intolerance." Interestingly, this group is officially endorsed by George Naylor, the president of the Organic Consumers' Association. I consider pacifism a radical political idea, and one that is extraordinarily divisive.

Example five. When Anna Lappé spoke at the Food for Thought Festival in Madison a few weeks ago, she shared a story in which she verbally sucker punched food scientists and made numerous attacks against "white men". (In the interests of transparency, please note that I'm a professional chemist working in industry. My opinion on this matter is thus biased. I'm also male and am as proud of it as any feminist is of being female.) She relates a story in which she obtained a press pass to visit a scientific conference on industrially processed foods. Being someone interested in real food, she was disturbed that each attendee praised industrial foods to a panel of like-minded scientists. So disturbed, in fact, that she asked the panel of food scientists why, if their products were so safe, a major company that wasn't in attendance at the conference paid a south-east asian country several million dollars to by-pass requisite food safety testing before their product could be imported. When the panel didn't have a coherent response and she was evicted from the conference, Lappé felt vindicated in her view of industrial food being unsafe and unwilling to have a dialog with the public. To great laughs, Lappé told the Food for Thought audience that she was told that her question was "off topic." If her anecdote demonstrates anything, it's that she's too eager to draw negative conclusions of entities that are the "bad guys" according to her weltanschauung. If an antievolution activist (presumably a "white male" from Kansas) asked a pointed question that favored creationism at a conference of evolutionary scientists, Lappé would probably applaud conference staff for evicting the member for being "off topic" and confrontational. When she does the exact same thing, however, she paints herself as a victim and a heroic crusader standing up against the Man. I don't think she fully understands that food companies are businesses. She wants to "have a dialog" with these companies, but she doesn't seem to realize that these companies would have to pay someone to have a dialog back to her. I'm not sure she'd appreciate it if Monsanto would call her up where she works and ask what temperature her thermostat is set to, or how may gallons of gas she's used to promote her books, or what the environmental consequences of manufacturing the ink for her book might be.

Please understand that I'm not a policy strategist. But I would think that if I were going to promote a cause, I'd want to get as many people on my side as possible. I'd put my argument forward in its most pointed, most basic state. That is, I'd do what Habitat for Humanity does. Habitat founder Millard Fuller believes in what he calls the "Theology of the Hammer." That is, whatever religious, political, or personal beliefs you have, everyone can agree that no one should be forced to be homeless. Everyone can find common ground by taking up a hammer for a common cause to confront a common problem. It doesn't matter if you're a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist. It doesn't matter if you voted for George Bush or John Kerry or Ralph Nader. Everyone agrees that it's a bad thing that some people are forcibly homeless.

I shouldn't have to sign on to nutcase conspiracy theories, pacifism, political pessimism, or be ashamed of being a "white male" scientist to join others in expressing my support of real food.

Similarly, I would think that everyone can agree that food should be nutritious, plentiful, delicious, healthy, and ethical. The Organic Consumers' Association and the Family Farm Defenders agree, too. But I'm withholding my support until they dedicate themselves solely to the promotion and defense of real food -- and stop clowning around.


xenobiologista said...

That's what you get for being a Republican and then doing something hippy like supporting good food, silly Nick =) (okay i'm going to shut up before i descend into american-bashing...)

Anonymous said...

I think you're really misconstruing the anecdote that Anna Lappe shared at the Food for Thought Festival.

She was referring to the fact that Monsanto got caught bribing Indonesian officials to allow the unapproved introduction of GMOs into that country.

Being a stout believer in publci accountability and democratic fairness, I find it funny that anyone would be willign to bend over as an apologist for such a flagrant episode of corporate corruption.

Remember, as Milton Friedman says, the corporation cannot be ethical, its only responsibility is to its shareholders.

Nicholas said...

To anonymous,
It doesn't matter whether Monsanto was right or wrong in this case. I suspect that what they did was wrong, but that's completely missing the point. The point is that Lappé asked a group of industrial scientists to be accountable for something that their company didn't even do.

Let's say, for instance, that you do page layout for the New York Times. It would be as if I went to your place of employment and held you to account for Dan Rathergate. You don't work for CBS, and on top of that you're not even a reporter!

She was asking the wrong people at the wrong time and in the wrong way.

Richard Speel said...

Wouldn't it be great, though, if pacifism was considered a normal state of being and a way of creating harmony instead?

War tends to mess up the environment and kills and maims people on a grand scale.

Nicholas said...

My comments are neither a criticism of pacifism nor Farms Not Arms. You can save that argument for a political blog (Pint and Fork is about food and beer).

(However, I do encourage you to differentiate between peace and pacifism. I, too, wish that peace were more pervasive. I agree that wars have a deleterious impact upon the environment and end human life. However pacifism not only states that peace is a good thing, but that violations of peace can never justified -- even in self defense. And I don't believe that.)

As a private organization, Farms Not Arms is free to push whatever agenda it chooses. My criticism is that other groups, such as the Organic Consumers' Association, wave the Farms Not Arms flag. As someone who does not support pacifism, that means that I will not support the Organic Consumers' Association despite all of the good watchdog work they do. I just wonder how many members realize that the organization has forged an alliance with FNA, and how many other people like me out there who are witholding their support pending the separation of the OCA and FNA groups. I'd go even farther and argue that the OCA is bringing harm upon its ability to fulfill its mission statement by supporting needlessly divisive non-related issues. Such a policy turns people against their cause more than it draws people to it.