by Marion Nestle
May 12 2011

Robert K. Ross: Speaking truth to power

The Future of Food conference in Washington last week is now pretty much online (although I’m still having trouble with some of the links).  Much of it is well worth a listen, certainly Prince Charles’ thoughtful speech on sustainability, but also the one that I thought the most powerful—comments by Robert K. Ross, head of the California Endowment.

In the first 8 minutes of his talk, Dr. Ross explained that he comes to the issues discussed at the conference from the angle of public health and obesity, yet climate change, soil quality, hunger, and economic development are all wrapped up in the obesity issue.   Here is my paraphrase of what he said (with my emphasis):

If you care about these issues, you have to decide whether you are a group, network, or a movement.

Nothing short of a powerful movement will reverse the trends that are in front of us.

The tobacco battle is the proudest victory of public health, although not yet fully accomplished.

The scientific community first understood that tobacco was bad for health in 1921.  Hundreds of studies followed.  Yet it was not until 1965 that the Surgeon General first got permission for a warning label on cigarettes.  Only in the 1990s did we have policy and practice changes that included environmental incentives to drop the tobacco habit.

In other words, we have had a 100-year war on tobacco.

A side-by-side comparison of food and tobacco indicates that food, health, and sustainability are far more complex issues than tobacco.  We do not have 100 years to deal with these problems.

The tobacco wars were not about lack of scientific data.  They were and are a power issue.

The only way to confront power is to build a movement that wields power.

Science-based, evidence-driven policy wonks and researchers want more science.  But if you think you are in a policy debate and the other side thinks it is in a fight, you are not going to come out too well.

We need to bring as much rigor to the fight as we do to the science.

Food advocates: take careful note.

  • Congratulations Dr. Ross and Dr. Nestle!

    You nailed it, particularly with the paraphrased statement: “We need to bring as much rigor to the fight as we do the science. Public health advocates can no longer shy away from rolling up their sleeves and using the same tactics as Big Food, Big Beverage and Big Ag if we want to win this war (and I don’t mean in a hundred years) and create a safe, healthy, sustainable food system. Science, data and “being right” are not going to get us anywhere if we don’t find ways to pool our resources and use techniques like advocacy marketing, P.R. and grassroots movement development. We need nothing less than sweeping policy change driven by a powerful professional messaging campaign and grassroots movement.

    Industry hires the top messaging agencies/consultants and devotes considerable funds to framing their messages and successfully reframing ours. In the meantime we tend to focus too narrowly on studies and local “programs.” Studies, science and local programming get steamrollered by clever marketing/messaging and deft public relations. Dr. Ross’ fine speech should act as a wake up call to the entire public health community and our funders. I propose that an entire public health conference be devoted just to this issue in order to change the way advocates, public health professionals and their funders view their responsibilities.

    We must fight fire with fire. Let’s light the match!

  • Doc Mudd

    Fine, I guess, except for at least one little detail.

    The fight against tobacco was against all tobacco, not just against affordable tobacco in favor of expensive cuban cigars and trendy exotic cigarettes. It also finally gained traction when second hand smoke was vilified.

    To pull off the same successful campaign won’t you have to be against food – all food and all food consumers? You will probably have to go beyond unsightly obesity to vilify and condemn second hand food emissions (flatulence?).

    “Down with food and eaters – make them go outside to eat” should be an interesting crusade. And then there is the popular substitution of beans to wean folks off ordinary protein sources (you do the math).

    A century may not be long enough, but death from starvation will probably come sooner than that if evangelists will devoutly practice “no food, no eaters” as they must preach to truly approximate the tobacco phenomenon.

  • Thank you for this powerful and inspiring post! I think that we have to widen the circle of food advocates and fight the “foodie = elitist” connection. I think enlisting parents and families is one way to do it. My last couple of posts on highlight this very issue.

    Parents are a natural fit to advocate for healthy and safe food, but many don’t realize the “bill of goods” they’ve been given by big food companies selling convenient or “fun” food. More awareness will help light that fire.

  • Peter

    Eating less food for a higher price: What a great improvement in quality of life!!!!

  • Jessica

    As a parent to 5 children I am continually appalled at what chemicals are included in common foods sold to my children on a daily basis. They see the commercial, they want the item, they pout when we read the label and they discover it’s filled with 7 or 8 different sugars, plus additives and chemicals we can’t pronounce, etc. I would love to be able to buy my children the things they see on the television commercials and want so badly as a result, but I won’t compromise their health to do it. I am glad to be able to give them this education in foods and food additives, but I am glad that there are people out there like me who want to see a more sustainable, healthy food system that’s affordable for everyone.

  • Read:

    We say we want a revolution, we’d all love to see the plan. If somebody asserts, “It’s ‘bad’ to eat food brands we’ve all grown up with, and this is a reasonable position”, people demand proof. And it’s generally accepted that the burden of proof falls on the framer of the argument. This is why it’s crucial how this argument’s made — in this case, FOR more healthy, untainted, regulated, GMO-free foods, and AGAINST unhealthy food policies and subsidies and proliferation of bad foods that have been familiar and around for many years. It’s been said that one should never frame arguments in terms of what someone is doing to us. But to frame it in terms of what’s being done to us. It’s a very subtle difference but I wonder if it makes a difference — consider the difference between:
    S1:Food corporations are lying to people about what’s in their foods and people are getting sick as they make billions.

    S2: Ordinary people are being lied to about what’s in the bad foods being sold to us and its affecting our health, ability to breathe, and our cancer rates.

    The first statement is primarily an attack on corporations. The second states that ordinary people are having something bad done to them. The basic moral argument:

    S1:Corporations are doing something bad

    S2:Ordinary people who want to be healthy are victims of bad things and chemicals in the food supply

    And it seems if we want to start a movement, the focus must always be on us as opposed to them or any other group. Because this is about us, this is not about Nestle’ or Coke or KRAFT or Monsanto or any other group. This is only about OUR survival. Mentioning other groups seems to be a losing strategy for a revolution. The anti-organics/anti-health food manipulative strategy is to say that we’re being evil to friendly corporations who just want to do business. By using S1: we allow them and foster this position. If we use S2 we begin to deny them this opportunity and win a moral high ground. And gain positive momentum.

  • Most people are afraid to speak the truth when it comes to talking about food that they really like.

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  • Jon

    The tobacco wars depended primarily on the fact that

    1) Tobacco companies paid money to the mainstream media. Hmm…Food companies do.
    2) The scientific evidence was bad for tobacco companies. While food companies don’t have it as bad (Tobacco, used properly, will kill you. You need food to survive, though eating too much will make you fat, leading to a litany of health problems.), the scientific evidence is bad for food companies. (I’ve always said even the USDA recommendations we got were great for food companies: Since soda is water and carbohydrate, any recommendation to eat more carbohydrate is welcome news for Pepsi and Coke.)
    3) They both involve targeting children.
    4) They remind the hoi polloi that science is always uncertain, what the Onion calls Intelligent Falling. (After all, gravity is only a theory.)

    I will add that, while tobacco companies didn’t bring up tobacco’s history of use among American Indians, food companies have added a politically correct element to thte obesity wars. Fat people saying that because the standards in Calvin Klein ads are unrealistic, calling obesity unhealthy is also unrealistic. This actually reminds me of the AIDS activists who saw discrimination against HIV patients, even in bed, as the worst part of the plague.

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