Category Archives: food dialogues

Food fight: free to choose?

This picture was featured in an ad purchased by the Washington Legal Foundation in today’s print NYT. Fat taxes are causing a stir. Junk food marketing is coming under fire. It’s getting easier to track our food, at least in theory. So what does the industry shill formerly known as a Phillip Morris front do? Attack “platernalistic plaintiffs’ lawyers, government officials, and professional activists [who] are pecking away at consumers’ freedom of choice. They think we can’t manage our own lives, and through lawsuits, regulations, and taxes, they want to make our food choices for us.” There’s actually something to this argument from personal responsibility, but real choice would require much less imperfect information and an absence of manipulation verging on coercion…I don’t see the WLF pushing that level of deliberative democracy anytime soon. To paraphrase Nader: when all you’ve got to choose from is the evil of two lessers, you don’t have much of a choice.

In other news – I just got back from a trip to DC, where I ran a workshop on agriculture and animal welfare at the Public Philosophy Network’s conference on publicly engaged philosophy. It was great fun: after the opening talk by E.J. Dionne, Bill Galston, Hanna Rosen , and others, I participated in a workshop on social media ethics that helped clarify some things for me (about this blog, about my wikis, about FB and school, etc.), and there were some fascinating paper presentations on topics ranging from farm animals to climate change to bioethics to public policy. If anyone’s interested in getting involved, I’d recommend requesting access to the PPN wiki.

What counts as a “food dialogue”?

The US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance has decided to shift tactics from bunker mode to PR blitz, probably because they know Bittman and others are shifting the discourse, much as other front groups might try to intervene. The resulting Food Dialogues are trying to harness social media and to fight back against Meatless Mondays and other gradualist flexitarian programs. (If ever I’ve seen a sign that things like Meatless Mondays – or even meatless weekdays, for the more committed – are powerful policy tools, this kind of backlash would be it.)

The image above is from a study conducted by the USFRA, and I think this post by Civil Eats does a good job deconstructing it. Especially this: “While I believe the majority of our nation’s ranchers and farmers are respectful stewards of the land with the public’s best interest at heart—they’re working hard to reduce their environmental impact and address pesticide, artificial hormone, and antibiotics overuse—the USFRA clearly is not representing them. Instead, a look at the Alliance affiliates reveals that it is made up of, and funded by, the biggest players in the food industry, including those who profit most from toxic agricultural chemicals, polluting farming and food processing practices, and concerning animal welfare policies. No wonder, then, that that limiting protections from toxic pesticides and pushing back against antibiotic regulation are just two of the current policy priorities of USFRA affiliates.”

This response from La Vida Locavore is slightly more activist, but this passage gets at a core problem here: “Farmers, no matter how they actually farm, say they CARE about the environment and animal welfare. Which adds up to roughly nothing in reality, since the question does not ask what the farmers actually DO on their farms. But the last question is a loaded question.” Since environmental stewardship and good animal treatment are perceived as unmitigated goods by the public at large, only an idiot would say otherwise. Calling the Congo a “democratic republic” comes to mind — everyone wants the cachet of democracy, so they use the keywords and void them of meaning in the process.

All of which is unfortunate, because a real food dialogue would be a wonderful thing. Yes, Pollan et al can be disconnected from the concerns of the average producer and/or consumer, but to turn around and say that Monsanto has the answer? This Habermasian says thanks, but no.

(It should also be a red flag that this ‘dialogue’ is funded mostly by the checkoff programs, a.k.a. the people who try to figure out how put more cheese on pizza. Thanks to the schizophrenic mandate of the USDA, this is a program where following image, from the Onion‘s “World’s Fattest Town Makes, Consumes World’s Largest Mozzarella Stick”, would be right at home.)