Realize that agendas drive data, not the other way round.- Joel Salatin
I am regularly asked how I got this way. I try to give short answers but there is no short answer. I am a product of my experiences and what I do with them.
I remember sitting in class at my favorite land-grant university in a hall of a little over 200 students and hearing the promise that technology in agricultural will outpace demand and nature.
I recall sitting in my parents’ living room with them and my future in-laws. They were discussing bioethics. I pulled out my large, white, three ring binder from my ag econ class and quoted my professor, assuring them that synthetics are safe and it is the natural world that is a threat to human life.
It wasn’t the first time I parroted the people I assumed knew best and it wouldn’t be the last.
I was a hard nosed defender of that which I didn’t understand. It wasn’t that I wasn’t capable of research or that I couldn’t understand the issues at hand. I didn’t think I needed to. I had such blind trust in anything certain people said, that I would repeat and defend them without questioning.
As I started to wake from my critical thinking slumber, I found I wanted not only to change how I dealt with incoming information, but to learn why that had been acceptable and why so many others were willing to swallow any Kool-aid they were handed.
And I wanted to know how we all got our information.
Surely, not everyone can be expected to research every term and concept associated with food in the western world.
Why are there even sides to take (besides the obvious debates about wine pairing)?
My opinions about food, like yours, started taking shape early. According to Annie Murphy Paul, our preferences start being shaped in the womb. Then we watch what our adults eat, we see what our culture embraces and we determine our normal.
When my kids were tiny, a comment was made about the fact that our family ate a lot of Indian food. Someone was appalled our kids liked it. My father rightly mentioned that a lot of kids in India ate it every day. Normal is subjective and never an excuse.
So we grow up watching other people eat, eating what is offered to us, ingesting the opinions we hear spouted about food and being little sponges for advertisements and the food industries’ campaigns to own young minds. Not drinking Coke is practically un-American! Beef is patriotic! Farming is romantic! The drive-through is part of our culture!
As I grew, I had the added layer of living in a rural environment, surrounded by hundreds of miles of corn, rotated with soy and broken up by CAFOs.
We got our news from the TV in the evening, the newspaper in the morning and the Farm Bureau in the mailbox. The feed mill, 4-H meetings and the hardware store supplemented our knowledge with the local take on everything.
From the time I was born in the late 70’s until I left for college in the late 90’s, food that had once been a treat had become a daily occurrence, packaged food had taken the place of whole food, drive throughs had replaced homecooking, Adult Onset diabetes had become Type 2 diabetes, cancer became more of a when than an if, we had released species crossed in a lab into the food supply, and farms had grown from smaller, multi-output endeavours to large, fence-to-fence monocropping systems.
And through it all, my ideas about food were developing without critical analysis.
By the time I got to university, what with my full time work schedule and my desire to skate through college as much as possible, just like high-school, so I could focus on developing my inept social life, I was a lousy student in most classes. If it didn’t come easy, I would just spit out whatever lines seemed most pertinent from the course, claim I found them pivotal and Charlie out on multiple choice exams. (I’m not, btw, recommending this.)
So I didn’t question much, which was the easy way to go because questioning anything in the Ag dept made you look like an eco-terrorist. Go-along-to-get-along shouldn’t be an academic philosophy.
I drifted to the political science department where I enjoyed myself more, not that dissent was cherished there, but one could arguably get away with more of it. I digress.
At some point, early in my college years, I became acutely aware of an -us-versus-them mentality. “We,” as the conventional, patriotic, conservative, heart of America, were right. “They,” as the hippy-dippy, clueless, eco-nuts, were wrong.
It was only considered propaganda if it came from the other side.
There was an assumption at the time that if you wanted to make real money in ag, and weren’t being handed a large operation by your family, that you needed to land a job for one of the big dogs, something in corporate ag for a large company. There weren’t that many then, on the conventional side, and there are fewer now. We got much of our information about ag from them so going to work for them made sense. They got to groom their next wave of minds and we got to hope for big jobs.
Fast forward to after graduation. As I followed my husband’s job around the midwest, I would take what jobs I could and usually found something in ag. I kept reading trade information and following the political battles over farming and food.
The fact that I knew the lingo and the conventional ag party line made it easy. I could spit out everything I had heard and read growing up and in school, none of which had I ever questioned deeply or researched in any way other than to look up the answers that fit my existing beliefs so I could counter detractors and bolster my comrades. I knew the story so well, I could have written the Farm Bureau outputs. And I love farmers, when one can be found these days. Real farmers, who know their land and spend time in the elements.
So I said nasty, condescending things about any detractors. I cast suspicion on their intellect and motives. I assured people that the way “we” did everything was best.
I passed the condescending pat on the head farmers and consumers receive from industrial ag, the, “don’t worry your little brain, leave it to the grown-ups…,” right on to anyone who had a question or concern.
“The sprays break down into harmless substances,” I’d say authoritatively, unable to back that up with chemistry or any facts.
“We need these methods to feed the world,” I’d assert without any knowledge of nutrition, population or any other growing method.
“Those animals are cash crops, nothing more,” I’d say, suppressing everything decent in my being.
“The eco-terrorists are trying to scare you and turn people against farmers,” I’d repeat without the slightest proof that anyone has ever tried to turn people against farmers as a group.
But this is what we were told. We had to “stick together,” because someone who hugged a tree was out to get us. No dissent.
Oh, and don’t share your methods with anyone. They might not understand.
And, remember, everything else was propaganda.
Don’t miss this: there is literally NOTHING anyone could have said to me to change my mind. I had to develop my own concerns.
Then, slowly, questions started seeping into my mind.
I started wondering about why the CAFO hogs would die so easily.
I grew tired of the caution around the labor issues. The jobs weren’t easy or high paying, (after all, we have made a sport of cheap “food”) so every domestic hire would quit. The wrath over foreign labor seemed absurd.
Then I met some folks who didn’t match the stereotype I’d been taught to disdain. They were regular farmers, as far as I could tell, but one day I found out they had become tired of the spraying and changed to cleaner methods years before we met. It just wasn’t something you could discuss without becoming social pariahs.
The shroud of secrecy started getting old.
I had a successful pregnancy.
Someone back home was sued by an ag corporation and had to spend a fortune to prove they were blameless. It can clear your bank account to clear your name when a multinational corporation comes after your family farm.
Why weren’t the stories of conventional farmers who weren’t successful touted as proof it couldn’t work? The stories of alternative, traditional, sustainable and organic farm failures were paraded out as proof there was no other way to do anything other than what the seed reps and chemical companies prescribed.
When my daughter developed an intestinal issue, food had to be addressed. I couldn’t justify my stand anymore without doing some real homework.
I started learning about chemistry, biology, reading labels, reading and listening to people who disagreed with me. I’ll likely never be a biochemist but I grew determined to know enough to read through studies and journals.
Most importantly, I learned to judge the credibility of a study. I learned to be a skeptic in a way that benefited my knowledge base.
I found myself more and more frustrated with the policy paradox. Why was everyone so selectively pro-life? Every group had their own definitions of what lives mattered and whether quality of life figured into their moral equations.
Were food choices moral choices?
I started looking at who was funding everything.
When I started digging deeper, in retrospect, I should have been mortified to learn that all the information in the ag community and all the information the general public gets is filtered and controlled by massive corporations who are serving themselves at the expense of farmers and the public.
But I wasn’t because I had never thought there was any other source for information than the industry.
The government is an arm of agribusiness, the lawmakers have no real speciality or strong knowledge base so they go with the flow, most of the time. The press releases that permeate the media are from PR firms hired by or outright owned by big ag. Educational institutions are full of their former employees and those so bought into the model they only know to proselytize the party line. The pseudoscience that gets so much attention in certain circles is bought and paid for by industry.
There is nothing the average the person will learn about food and agriculture that is not provided by agribusiness unless they actively seek it.
Then came the big question: What was all this stuff we were eating and was it really food? Why are fruits, vegetables and nuts considered “speciality crops” by the USDA? Why do we use tax money to subsidize the production of dent corn and soy, two items unfit for human (and most animal) consumption?
The entire developing food culture seemed tilted to government dependency and, as it turned out, disease.
How had my innate skepticism of government given that same government a pass when it came to food, of all fundamental issues?
The paradigm shift
Gradually, I started to understand that I, and only I, was responsible for what my family ate. You are what you eat is a literal concept and there is no free pass for ignorance, stubbornness or arrogance.
During my maturing (which I hope never ends), I had some nasty things said about and to me. I was called a traitor by old friends and told I was wasting my skills. I have been warned repeatedly to be careful because “they” will come after me. Flattering to think anything I write is so irritating to those who control the dogma but the take away is the fear those people feel.
For a long time, I refused to share my story. After all, it is just mine and who cares?
I just found out who cares.
The many, many people who are on this same path care. I now meet people regularly who have similar stories, people who are searching for a way forward. People who have stopped buying the dogma and started thinking objectively. And they need to know the path is well worn. They should have as much support as possible as they face their own paradigm shift.
So to everyone who is questioning, who doesn’t just buy the propaganda wholesale and who is willing to consider other paradigms, take heart and keep questioning. You are not alone.
Unity and civility will not come via industry front groups like Common Ground, who make a mockery of farmers and consumers. Nor do they come by agreeing on a methodology. They are manifest when we stop seeing people as the enemy and start respecting that there are many places on this journey and everyone has a different story. Everyone also has a different level of investment and, usually, debt. Even if a grower is tired of conventional methods, it isn’t a train from which one can leap one morning.
Conventional farmers are told they are under fire. Don’t push them away by giving them reason to believe it.
If you are unaware of just how involved government is with the US food supply, I encourage you to read Marion Nestle’s book Food Politics. It has become the standard introduction to the issue.