Thursday, March 24, 2011

Farmwashing, Ag Censorship, and Other Manifestations of Total Bullshit

The term "farmwashing" entered the lexicon of food industry marketers and Michael Pollan-quoting advocates a couple of years ago, but its usefulness has lately seen a sharp uptick. You know: the green, grassy hill + red barn + antique tractor + happy cows adorning a label that adorns a product that came from what essentially amounts to an animal-product factory. Not ringing a bell? Take this pastoral idyll:
...which is being used to sell an operation that more likely looks like this:
That's farmwashing, and it's been a Big Ag staple for about as long as there's been a Big Ag. Over the years, this subtle idea that a farm, a farmer, and an innocent landscape constitute the story behind the processed food products we typically buy in the grocery store has proven a consistently effective strategy for selling us crap.

But as consumer awareness around food has grown stronger and more sophisticated, agribusiness has started to feel the heat. They're casting about for new PR strategies to fit a newly critical market... and it is a chillingly cynical process to watch. Lately, many of the nation's largest ag industry groups -- including the National Corn Growers Association and the National Pork Producers' Council -- have banded together and turned to social media in order to engage consumers in a "conversation" about what farming is really like and "create more reasonable expectations." As the spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau put it:
"So often people advocate for a utopian world and it's not doable," Cornely said. "Feeding the world requires us to kick up some dirt and create a few odors. That is just a reality of producing food and fiber that may not fit in with the utopian vision. The vast majority of people are reasonable people, they just need to know that you can't have the perfect world."


Another new strategy is putting individual farmers out front. Through social media as well as through more centralized campaigns, conventional farmers are being encouraged and coached to tell their stories -- about their love for the rural lifestyle, for their families, for the land those families have been on for generations, etc. -- and those stories are then being appropriated as the story of agriculture in America writ large. "Here," Big Ag is saying, "See, the farmer is real! Hear him talk! See him walk!" (It is, of course, almost always him.)

The rationale is that it will be harder to criticize the industry as a whole if there are individual farmers standing in front of it, taking the hits, and then objecting to their unfair treatment at the hands of those pesky, thoroughly "unreasonable" activists. In a nice bit of PR magic, the food movement's structural critique of a broken system and the corresponding indictment of a small group of large companies are cast as part urban presumption and part outright meanness. Against the farmers. Think of the farmers!

As with all propaganda, it helps that much of this is in a technical sense quite true. Farmers do exist (surprise!), and many of them do sell their products into that same industrial system that spits out most of our food. Just as it is also true that not all farmers are bad actors who abuse their animals and degrade the environment. Many, many of them are not, and in general it is a good thing to hear their individual stories told. Of course, none of this offers any substantive counterargument to the plain fact that the way we produce the vast majority of food in this country is unsustainable, inhumane, and no good for just about anyone outside of agribusiness... including most small farmers. And to be clear: it is in fact farmers at the forefront of the movement toward sustainable agriculture and good food. If anything, the urban food advocates that I know hero-worship said farmers (to an occasionally embarrassing degree) rather than denigrating them.

So that's farmwashing. But wait: there's more! Not content to obfuscate and mislead, agribusiness is now taking it a step further with a spate of recent bills at the state level that aim to make it explicitly illegal to take photos or video of agricultural operations without the operator's permission. This is presumably in response to footage released by the Humane Society and other animal rights groups documenting horrific instances of cruelty in confined animal feeding operations... such as do sometimes occur. This is a ban on a certain type of non-libelous speech. It undermines whistleblower activity and hurts the public interest. It is outright suppression of information that the public has a right to know. I don't see what you can call that aside from censorship.

This is a whole lot of bullshit, and it smacks just a bit of desperation. I suspect there is a lot more of this ugliness to come.
It is also oddly, occasionally hopeful however. After all: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." We are definitely past the ignoring stage! And as Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society said, "It doesn't matter what media they're using, defending practices most Americans consider indefensible is not a smart strategy for the ag industry."

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