Pushback against food advocates

Frank talk about food sometimes quashed

Marion Nestle, Sunday, November 1, 2009

Q: It must take courage to criticize the marketing practices of food companies. Doesn’t it get you into a lot of trouble?

A: Trouble? That depends on how you define it. Some pushback has to be expected as a normal consequence of advocating a food system that promotes better health for all and more sustainable agricultural production.

My latest experience with pushback occurred on World Food Day, Oct. 16. I had been invited by the U.S. Embassy in Rome to give the annual George McGovern lecture at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. After my talk, our new ambassador to U.N. agencies in Rome, Ertharin Cousin, thanked me but told the audience that the opinions they had just heard were mine alone and did not represent those of the U.S. government.

What did I say that required a disclaimer? The point of my talk was to argue that international food issues such as hunger, obesity and food safety must be viewed as problems of society rather than personal choice.

As social problems, they are unlikely to be solvable by technical interventions such as functional foods, commercial weaning foods, irradiation or genetically modified foods. Instead, international food problems require social interventions that address underlying human needs for sustainability, social justice and democracy.

FAO had just released its 2009 report on the state of world food insecurity. Its date revealed how the economic crisis has caused the number of hungry people in the world to increase sharply. Some argue that genetic modification of crops is the only way to increase food productivity and reverse this trend. Whether food biotechnology really can fix world hunger is debatable, but one thing is clear: It is unlikely to create sustainability, social justice or democracy.

We know how to solve world hunger problems: promote breastfeeding, provide clean water and safe food, empower women, educate children, develop community food security, promote agricultural sustainability and ensure political stability. These strategies are social, not technological.

I ended my talk with praise for the Obamas’ leadership in promoting sustainable food production and initiating a new era in American agriculture.

Un-American? Under ordinary circumstances I would have shrugged off the ambassador’s remarks, but these are not ordinary times. I interpret her remarks as evidence that the food movement must be making real progress.

As further evidence, consider what happened to journalist and Berkeley professor Michael Pollan. His “Omnivore’s Dilemma” is high on the reading lists of many universities, yet twice this fall agricultural interests have attempted to force universities to cancel campus speaking invitations.

Washington State University had already bought 4,000 copies of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” for incoming freshman when a member of its Board of Regents, a wheat grower, objected to the way the book portrays industrial agriculture. The university canceled the reading program and Pollan’s lecture, saying it would cost too much at a time of budget crisis.

Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer and WSU alumnus, called the university’s bluff by offering to pay the costs. Pollan’s book got distributed. He gave his talk. State agriculture did not collapse.

Much the same thing happened at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. A local beef rancher, outraged that Pollan had been invited to speak unopposed, threatened to withdraw a promised $500,000 contribution. The rancher’s exchange of letters with Cal Poly’s president is available at links.sfgate.com/ZIMH, and well worth reading by anyone concerned about how industrial agriculture influences public policy.

Pollan offered the university a free lecture or panel with other speakers, but not both. The university chose the panel.

Although the rancher’s argument might appear to be about the value of presenting balanced views to students, universities are supposed to distinguish between academic and commercial interests. As university professors, Pollan and I base our opinions on our education, training, research and professional experience – not on how they might affect an industry. Our job is to teach students to read and think critically so they can form their own opinions about what we and others tell them.

If our professorial opinions cannot be offered without public disclaimers and insistence on equal time for opposing views, I have to assume that what we are saying must be perceived as influential. If it indeed is influential, I expect even more pushback as the current food movement extends its reach and becomes stronger and more effective.

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