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Are Contrarians Helping or Hurting the Food Movement? Pork Op-Ed in NYT a Shill for Big Ag

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It is necessary to question our movement. Without a cold, hard look at the snags in implementing a sustainable food system, someone ill-informed will crawl out of the woodwork clinging to their credentials and poke holes in our arguments, whether with valid points or not, possibly shilling for Big Ag or just looking to market themselves as a contrarian.

Today, a free-range dissenter ended up in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, seemingly to defend factory farmed pork. (One wonders if the NYT was attempting to temper the excellent coverage Nicholas Kristof has had of pigs and MRSA of late)

John McWilliams' argument -- that the exposure to disease which brought pigs into the factory farm setting in the first place still exists, and therefore in re-implementing free-range we are no better than we started -- has little to base in reality. This is a classic shill, as the study that he cites (Foodborne Pathogens and Disease) was funded by the National Pork Board, a group that defends the interests of industrial pig operations. If the New York Times had bothered to fact-check, they might have seen that the parasite trichinia found "present" in two of the free-range pigs was actually only antibodies (The Center for a Livable Future goes into more detail), which leaves us uncertain whether they carried the disease or not, and renders McWilliams' argument moot.

Aside from this, though, McWilliams is missing the point. Locavorism isn't about free-range, its about getting closer to the source; shaking the hand that feeds you and thereby knowing, even seeing, where your food comes from. The reason there are no worthy studies cited in McWilliams' piece is because grass-fed farmers often run size-manageable and responsible operations. They don't cut corners precisely because they are held accountable by the community.

I'm thinking about two things here. First, where are the media in this story? And second, can these contrarian attacks help us build the movement, or are they purely a distraction?

In this instance it seems that the New York Times, in its desperation to sell papers, fell into the trap of story building over truth-finding. On Grist, Tom Laskawy wrote a great piece on the counter-productive and even dangerous world of FUD -- the corporate tactic of creating Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt in the consumer so as to sell the status quo. As Laskawy points out, this Times op-ed falls right in line with the tenets of FUD -- a result of the Times' use of false equivalency. In other words, in the interest of creating drama, many newspapers of note have failed to vet stories properly -- creating the false appearance that the arguments on both sides of a story are equal and leaving it up to the reader to make sense of it. What we get then is always a confused and nihilist public, uttering things like, "but didn't you see that piece in the New York Times, free-range is not necessarily better." The question is, then, how do we reclaim the media, and disseminate real information to consumers?

I think its a tough one to answer. What I do know, is that at the farmer's market, the answer lies with the beginning and the end of the food chain. Government needs to step in and lead on food issues with a better food policy agenda. We've seen the beginnings of such a plan, with the White House garden and Kathleen Merrigan's appointment as Under-Secretary of Agriculture -- but these could end up being distractions. We must focus on the decentralization and diversification of the food system -- starting with rethinking farm subsidies and hospital, school and military procurement -- and insist that scientists get public sector funding and freedom to do real scientific studies (For the hell of it, lets start by really testing GMOs). The media also needs to press the reset button (Maybe this will happen on its own with the closure of so many papers) -- this is our press, for goodness sake, not the voice box of industry. In the meantime, every eater has a responsibility to ask where their food is coming from, and when confused, to dig deeper and ask more questions. These changes at the top and bottom are interdependent, and will not occur unless simultaneous.

Finally, I do think it is possible for opposition to make us stronger, and more able to articulate what it is we stand for and why. In his recent book, Getting Green Done, Auden Schendler writes that we must take a long hard look at the bumpy road to implementing sustainability -- and learn from our mistakes -- something that at times we are afraid to do for fear of backlash. In the food movement, for example, we'd ignored food justice issues for a long time. But through criticism that our movement was elitist, and that better food was only for the rich, we have begun to unravel this thinking and work towards building a more inclusive and fair food system.

Of course, we don't always get a fair debate with our detractors. But it is still my hope that we can emerge from these arguments a more steadfast movement.

Originally published on Civil Eats

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