by Marion Nestle
Oct 17 2009

Pushback on alternative agriculture

After my George McGovern lecture at FAO (see the most recent previous post), the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Rome, Ertharin Cousin, thanked me for speaking and then told the audience that the opinions expressed in my talk were mine alone and did not represent those of the U.S. government.

The main point of my talk was that hunger, obesity, and food safety are social rather than personal problems and require social rather than personal solutions.  If such problems are individual, they can be solved with technical interventions such as functional foods, commercial weaning foods, irradiation, and genetically modified foods.  But if we view them as social problems, we need to find solutions that involve sustainability, social justice, and democracy.

For example, we know how to end hunger:

  • Breastfeeding
  • Clean water and safe food
  • Empowerment of women
  • Education
  • Community food security
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Political stability

These are social interventions.  Technical solutions do not enter into them except in emergencies.

I praised the Obamas for leadership in promoting sustainable food production, and ended my talk with this image.  I left it up while I was answering questions but the ambassador asked to have it turned off.

ObamasUnder ordinary circumstances, I would pass her actions off as standard practice and not take them personally.  But I am hearing more and more tales of pushback against such ideas.

According to an account in the Los Angeles Times, another university – this time Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo – has reneged on a Michael Pollan invitation under pressure from agricultural interests.

The L.A. Times quotes David Wood, chairman of Harris Ranch Beef Co., who has promised $150,000 toward a new meat processing plant on campus:

While I understand the need to expose students to alternative views, I find it unacceptable that the university would provide Michael Pollan an unchallenged forum to promote his stand against conventional agricultural practices.

Apparently, this university caved under pressure just as Washington State did in a similar incident earlier this year (see my post on that incident).   And I hear rumors about invitations that never got offered.  Freedom of speech must hold at agricultural universities unless the opinions offend donors.

Expect to see more of this as the food movement gets stronger and more effective.

  • Anthro

    I am saddened to hear this report of your adventures in Rome. I would not expect this from the Obama Administration and am deeply disappointed in the Ambassador’s reactions.

    The policies of universities are equally alarming. This is the result of ever-creeping commercialism/corporatism into every aspect of our lives. These are the things that are causing the inertia we see in governance and the inability to get anything but microscopic change.

    On the bright side, you seem to feel that the food movement is making progress, so I take heart in that.

  • DennisP

    I’m reading several books, some of which cite similar instances of pushback from corporate interests in countries other than the United States as well. Corporate interests appear to take the attitude that questions about social structure that involve them, about the efficacy of their techno-interventions, about increasing gaps between the rich and the poor, are not permissible forms of speech and should be outright forbidden. Hence the actions of David Wood and of Washington State. Scientists in South America who questioned the use of Roundup and in Canada who questioned the disappearance of rural society from the pressures of CAFOs have likewise been severely punished or lost their jobs or prevented from speaking. These things severely chill free speech.

    The lessons of democracy were apparently not learned by corporate leaders and hacks in their school days (for what is the fundamental characteristic of democracy if not free speech?) or are overshelmed by the lure of millions and billions of dollars of profits and wealth. I think we are moving rapidly into a fascistic state – one ruled by corporations in the interests of corporate profits and the super-rich people. The only lever we, the average people, have is the ballot box. I can only hope more people get sufficiently outraged to demand that our “representatives” do the right thing.

  • James

    If the Powerpoint slides are too long, try printing them as a pdf. That might make for a smaller file. I’d love to see your slides!

  • Bobby

    People are surprised that government works principally for industry and commercial companies? Hello? American political system can be summed up in two words: Money Talks. Any other notion of the US government is pure delusion.

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  • Sabri

    Hi Marian-
    Is there any chance you have a video of the presentation or that FAO might be able to share a recording?

  • Marion, I wanted to disagree with your statement that “sustainable agriculture” is a social intervention, not a technological one. It most certainly is technological. You may not think of technology when you first think of it, just like you may not think of technology when you think of Organic. But a method of growing crops that can be sustained indefinitely into the future is an expression of technology, an application of knowledge. Crop rotations are technological just as much as genetic engineering is technological. Buffer zones, more precise watering and fertilization, are technologies. Maybe you might be thinking about sustainable agriculture from a societal standpoint, but to speak of it in opposition to technology is to obscure what a ‘technology’ is. By all definitions, “Sustainable Agriculture” is a “Techno-Fix.”
    (psst… how do you clean water and make food safe socially?)