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Where Did the Food Movement Go Wrong?

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By Tove K. Danovich

This article originally appeared on Food Politic.

I should have seen it coming. In a time when politics are more polarized than ever, when every party seems to have their own news station, why would I think the food movement was somehow above sensationalism? I should have known that we were in for a rough ride when we started saying, "Big Ag is evil" and promoted GMO labeling campaigns by insinuating that if Monsanto produced Agent Orange (once reported as being "harmless"), anything else they made would be equally bad.

When did the food movement become more about politics than actually making what we eat better?

I got involved with food policy five years ago because something wasn't quite right with the way we were putting food on the table. I was -- one might say -- bothered by the idea that people go hungry while 35 million tons of food waste goes to United States' landfills each year. Troubled by the agricultural fertilizers that help to poison the Chesapeake Bay with 300 million pounds of nitrogen each year. Disturbed that, while I could become a vegetarian, meat production in the U.S. would continue being responsible for the inhumane lives and deaths of 10.2 billion animals each year.

At first, I thought we were on the right track with the food movement. We've had wins with school food and decreasing childhood obesity; we publicized the idea that people should think about where their food comes from; the USDA even promoted a program called "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food." In less than a decade, we've used hard facts to raise awareness of issues that people in our parents' generations never worried about.

Then the food movement became a partisan movement. Lately, what I see in the writings of the food world -- both from our loudest advocates and in what gets championed by major food nonprofits -- is that unless it promotes a black-and-white, emotionally charged view of agriculture and eating, it doesn't exist. Yes, we want to get more people involved in the fight for more transparency, better worker protection, and increased access to good food, but has anyone stopped to wonder what kind of movement we'll have if we only get new members by scaring them into joining?

If there is a food movement, it needs to consist of more than headlines some might categorize as click-bait: "Yoga Mat Chemical Removed from Bread," "Think GMOs are Scary? Nano-Tech is Here," or "Are Meat and Dairy as Bad as Cigarettes?" If we won't trust industry-sponsored studies when they come from Monsanto or Pepsi, why do we jump to promote ones that say, "animal protein shortens your life" when the lead author runs a plant-based protein company?

We've gotten so worried that the world of big business will drown out our voices that we'll stoop to get attention any way we can. I know that some of us are scared. Could our growing numbers and concerns be drowned out by lobbying money and oppositional advertisements? Sure. But this is not the way to create change. Throwing a temper tantrum may get you noticed but, even if you're two years old, it's not going to get you much respect.

That's not to say that nobody is doing it right. Or that we should do nothing at all. Plenty of people are speaking up for facts and discussion over hyperbole but we're in danger of drowning them out with our frantic screaming. If we really want to fix a broken food system, we need to stop pointing fingers and think about what those repairs really mean and where we should start.

Yes, we banned horse slaughter in the United States but we didn't change the circumstances that now truck those same animals to be killed (without even the USDA's limited animal welfare laws) in Mexico. It's not sexy to remind people that when we have a "win" for animal welfare those deep-in-debt farmers are the ones who pay for the upgrades to gestation crates and battery cages. We forget that there are people out there who legitimately believe in the good of GMO crops -- good people and hardworking farmers who are proud of the work they're doing to feed people. They think our position is as crazy as we think theirs. No one is making food out of belligerence like an old man who yells at kids from his porch. They produce food in the way that helps them pay the rent, using what they believe are the best seeds and growing techniques.

We say that we're for "best practices" in agriculture but I'm not convinced that any of us -- whether we're part of the food movement or the biggest of Big Ag -- are ready to concede that we might not be right all the time. I've certainly had a hard time with it.

I'll be the first one to shake the hand of those who say, "I'm a corn farmer but I want to be certain I'm farming the best way I can," "I'm a vegan but will work with people to eat less meat if they're not willing to stop entirely," "I'm a small biodynamic or organic farmer who knows the world today probably can't be fed by what I grow alone." If we don't admit our weaknesses, we can't fill in the cracks. A good food system comes from a strong foundation.

Sure, we're all part of the solution but let's not forget we were once the problem too.

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