In the past couple of weeks a curious trend has become apparent. Suddenly there are articles appearing in a variety of publications attacking local, sustainable, free-range, organic food. To be sure, attacks on organic produce are nothing new; it’s practically a cliche for those opposed to throw up their hands in indignation and say “Organic produce is SO EXPENSIVE!” But these new articles are taking different approaches to try to demonize sustainable food.
One of the first I noticed was an op-ed in the New York Times, “Free-Range Trichinosis,” arguing that free-range pork is no safer than feedlot pork that’s been pumped with antibiotics. The argument was based on a single study that found higher levels of pathogens in free-range pork (though the numbers for CAFO pork did not exactly inspire confidence: rates of salmonella were 54 percent in free-range pigs but 39 percent in conventional ones, and that’s somehow truly better?). “The natural dangers that motivated farmers to bring animals into tightly controlled settings in the first place havent gone away,” said the author. Such as perhaps the natural danger that letting pigs see sunlight and move around could cut into industrial profits. Funny thing about this article: Four full days after it was published, the Times saw fit to add an editor’s note admitting that the article “neglected to disclose the source of the financing for a study finding that free-range pigs were more likely than confined pigs to test positive for exposure to certain pathogens. The study was financed by the National Pork Board.” You don’t say? I would never have guessed.
Then in the past couple of days, a number of people on my Twitter feed were posting the URL to a blog entry on Every Kitchen Table rebutting this Smart Money article by Kelley Barron, “10 Things Your Farmer’s Market Won’t Tell You.” The response, “10 Thoughts About Farmer’s Markets (A Rebuttal),” knocks down Barron’s arguments in turn, with reasoned perspective and a judicious bit of indignation. To be sure, there is useful and valid information in Barron’s article, though some of her arguments are a bit one-sided or misleading. (As if the portion of your tax dollars that support farmer’s markets isn’t tiny compared with that amount subsidizing commercial agriculture? And her point that Union Square Greenmarket is extremely crowded made me laugh out loud; has she ever tried to grocery shop anywhere in New York City?) Barron offers some useful guidance to the reader who has absolutely no familiarity with farmer’s markets, locally grown produce or the natural appearance of ripe fruit, but the title and tone give the reader the impression that farmer’s markets are hiding something and are not what they’re cracked up to be. (No, farmer’s market produce isn’t sanitized and ready to eat without washing. Do you really think the produce in your megamart is?) All of which leaves the implication that big commercial food distributors are models of transparency and virtue. Riiiight.
And of course there was the response of the agribusiness lobby to the Obamas’ planting of an organic garden at the White House. According to a London Times article, the Mid-America CropLife Association sent the First Lady a letter touting the virtues of “technology in agriculture,” which has allowed farms to feed vast numbers of people. Never mind that the White House kitchen garden isn’t looking to be the primary source of produce for the DC metropolitan area; the lobby’s real agenda was to pooh-pooh the focus on organics. As the article notes, e-mail among association members was less diplomatic, with the executive director saying, “the thought of it being organic made (us) shudder.” Hmm. Me, I shudder at the idea of crop acreage that can’t safely be entered by humans for several days after chemicals are sprayed.
I don’t think these writers are ignorant. I think they’re actively campaigning to promote the idea that pesticide- and herbicide-intensive, antibiotic-administering, long-haul-trucking-dependent food retailing is something that people should embrace rather than turning to organic, pesticide-free, humanely raised or locally grown foodstuffs. I think the leaders of these industries are scared. And while I’m glad they’re scared, I’d rather see them clean up their own behaviors than use misleading or incomplete arguments to attack sustainable farming.