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What our fields actually need is a heavy application of honesty

– written by Ellen

Though I had certainly heard much of her, my first true exposure to Vandana Shiva was the night I returned home from Monsanto, climbed into bed with my laptop, and started Googling.

I Googled Indian mustard seed but was a bit stymied that I couldn’t find any mainstream or scientific sources. (Please send them if you have them!)

I typed ‘Indian farmer suicide’ into my browser, because I was told Ms. Shiva claimed hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers had committed suicide because of Monsanto. It is a terrifically sad fact when anyone commits suicide, but these farmers didn’t commit suicide because of Monsanto. They committed suicide because of drought, bad government support and the rapid transformation of a society.

(It was odd, after the fact, to read Shiva’s “mainstream” article on the farmer suicides. It appeared far more “fact-based” than what I had earlier read and heard. But it is rather cleverly written, and I will get to that in a moment.)

In sum, I got home from Monsanto and started learning that “our side” is biased, largely uninformed and often just out and out scaryass wrong. (The science supports that.) And a good deal of this misinformation is coming from sources we trust. This is a really, really bad state of affairs and, along with fueling some weirdly crazy hate, is actually contributing to the problems of our food supply more than it is helping us find a way to fix it, even in a small way.

Here’s the thing: The work Vandana Shiva does with Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seed, the promotion of organic farming and fair trade, is important. Native seeds, organic farming and fair trade are all vitally important.

But, there’s a right way and a wrong way. And while Navdanya may be a right way, what I saw at the Bioneers conference where Shiva spoke in Chicago recently, was most definitely the wrong way.

And I’ll address what is wrong in an open letter.

Dear Vandana Shiva:

Heros don’t lie. At your Bioneers talk in Chicago, in your keynote address you told the audience that “they” are spraying Agent Orange on the fields. This is not true; and I am certain you know it is not true.

Likely, you were referring to 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, which is one of the components of Agent Orange. Today, 2,4-D is used on farms and on many home gardens. And while I will absolutely agree it is not awesome, it is also not Agent Orange. You wouldn’t call it Agent Orange unless you were specifically looking to instill fear and anger because for any American with any kind of conscience, Agent Orange is a hot button. That said, even if that was your goal, it is a lie.

The real sad fact is that the Bioneers audience was comprised of precisely the type of people who don’t want to use one of the ingredients in Agent Orange  in their home gardens. So, sharing with them the fact that 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, is the third most widely used herbicide in America and available at any garden center, would allow you to use the words Agent Orange but in an honest and actionable way. It would still be throwing gas on a fire, but at the very least it would have meant that you at least armed them with useful information.

Unfortunately, I could only conclude, in listening to your speech, that arming them with useful information didn’t seem your goal. Scaring them, inciting them — that seemed to be your goal.

Why?

Why did a great deal of your talk seem to incite rather than educate — and to no end other than spreading hate and anger?

It would have been helpful, maybe, to share with the group what they need to do to create these living cities of which you were scheduled to speak about. That, at the very beginning of the journey out of the morass of our food supply, we need to do research, think about our actions and be educated consumers —  that change starts there. But throughout the talk, it seemed obvious that your point wasn’t to educate these people on steps they could take to achieve the assumed goals of your initiatives — in fact, educating folks on truths and what we should all do to be the change we want to see was the one thing left out of your talk. (Oh, wait, you said you wanted to see more gardens in Chicago. Yes, you did say that. It seemed a toss-in at the end of the speech. That was your take away. That was it.)

Of point in fact, it was my impression that your entire speech barely rose above the level of outright lie. It was brimming with clever turns of phrase meant to elicit a reaction (GMO — God, Move Over), scarily reductionist pronouncements (all the GMO folks have achieved in all these years is two things: shooting “poison” into seeds and adding herbicides to seeds — p.s. work on the wording for the herbicide bit, it wasn’t nearly scary-sounding enough) and specifically crafted sentences meant to drum up emotion (It’s extremely easy to take life to make money). But what it was missing was honestly educating the audience on usable and actionable facts.

This is worrisome to me today of all days.

Ms. Shiva, today is the day Californians are voting on Prop37, the GMO labeling law. One of the biggest problems with the law is that it incites Americans with fear without educating them on the facts. So, at the end of the day, the vast majority of Californians are not actually voting because they understand what they are voting for — they are voting because they’ve been scared by people like you who deliver half-truths, manipulated facts and, it seems, lies.

And here’s why that is really damning: these Americans are being denied choice.

Here’s why: they are turning to people like you who proclaim to be a leader in the anti-GMO fight and they hear things like “they are spraying Agent Orange on the fields.” And they believe it. Because, well, you’re held up as this model of purity and right.

So, in reality, these Californians are being coerced and cajoled into making a certain choice. They are being coerced to vote for something they don’t even know about.

This isn’t a good thing, even if the end goal is to stop the spread of GMOs.

This isn’t what America stands for.

Voting — it’s sacred in America. You really shouldn’t mess with that just to get to your end goal.

When you spoke about Prop37, you said that it is, “asking for something very simple.” I ask something very simple of you: stick to honest, verifiable facts. In your position, you have a responsibility to tell the truth. You have a responsibility to educate people honestly. You have a responsibility to not do the very thing that you criticize others for.

If you are so confident in your belief that GMOs are bad, honest verifiable facts, delivered with integrity, will prove that to be true. Are you brave enough to stand up to that challenge? I certainly hope so.

Until then, please stay out of American politics. We have enough trouble seeing eye-to-eye on our own.

Sincerely,

Ellen Malloy

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Meal Six: At Monsanto, I Learned I Am the Problem

– written by Ellen

I think a lot of us on the sustainable food side of the table are completely and utterly wrong about Monsanto. And even wronger about their responsibility in the GMO battles that are going on right now. Now, before you lose your shit, I have to ask you to calm the hell down and hear me out.

I am not saying Monsanto is all rainbows and unicorns. In fact, they have a long history of not awesome. But, thanks to Romney, of all people, that past is past. And, really, it is past. Their entire business model has changed from top to bottom. Bringing it up, still, as an argument for why we should all hate them is like condemning a smoker who quit cold turkey 10 years ago. You actually herald the smoker for changing his ways and yet Monsanto keeps on getting bashed for something they no longer do.

It may make you feel better to have yet another reason to hate them but it’s turned them into a straw man and hating them that actually contributes nothing to the discourse at hand. And I think it distracts us from the real problem.

Now, because I know you and know that you’ve decided I’ve been brainwashed, I’m gonna tell you this: I am not going to start eating GMOs. In fact, if anything, the trip to Monsanto has made me more committed to eating out of my backyard (which means, boo! no more Fresca for me, which I’ll explain later). What I am saying is that I think we’re all working off some outdated and occasionally out-of-whack ideas. And, frankly, I don’t think it is doing “our side” any good because, well, we sound a bit like the Fox News anchors sound to us: wrong to the point of sounding slightly insane to the other side.

Here’s what you need to know: the mainstream media reporting about GMOs and Monsanto is definitely biased and, in many cases, flat out wrong. My first experience with this was when CBS reported that GMO grass killed a herd of cows. It was actually hybrid grass, not GMO grass. WTF? Then there was the widely reported story about rats and cancer that exploded on Twitter because of the scaryass pictures of mice with gigantic tumors. The science of the study was bunk. Again, WTF? Then, horrifyingly to me because I thought they were a rigorous news outfit, Reuter’s reported on a paper that suggested pesticide use was increasing because of GMOs, without, apparently, doing any due diligence on the study, which again turned out to be drawn from bunk science.

It is beyond frustrating, really, if you are trying to honestly figure out what the hell is going on. And honestly, I am beginning to believe that I am never going to actually find out the truth. Because even truthful reporting is presented in such a ridiculously biased way that it can be hard to walk away with a clear understanding of what is really going on.

But here’s one thing I do now know: Monsanto isn’t out to “dominate the food supply” in any way different than Apple is out to “dominate the mobile phone market” or I, at RIA, am out to “dominate the restaurant marketing market.” Monsanto is a business and as a business their job is to make products people want to buy and then try and see how many people they can get to buy them. Like Apple, they’re doing a good job. Or I should say like Intel because the reason there is so much market penetration for GMOs is not because Monsanto is a colossus, but because Monsanto sells their technology to other seed companies in the same way Intel sells their technology to computer companies. GMO is like the microprocessor of seeds.

From a business perspective, it is bloody genius.

Does that mean you have to like what they are selling? No. But just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t really, really smart.

And here’s the thing: the farmers, their customers, do like it. That’s a key point we need to remember. People are happily buying Monsanto’s products (by the way, those products are proudly labeled GMOs).  Monsanto just sells them. So, if you are keeping track here, at this point in the blog, it is the farmers that are “the problem” because they are creating the demand.

But I am not going to stop there. You likely already realized that the farmers are actually selling their (also labeled as GMOs) products to someone, too. And those buyers, by buying the GMO products, are telling the farmers that it is OK to plant GMOs. So, again, keeping track, the blame moves yet another step away from Monsanto. Right now, it is really PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé or Kraft Foods (etc.) that are next in line to shoulder the blame because they are creating the demand that let’s the farmers know GMOs are OK.

(And, if you are keeping track, you’ve already figured out that the point where the products lose the GMO label is when they leave PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé and Kraft Foods and travel to your food store. Which means, they’re the ones to whom you should be directing your label rage, folks. Don’t pack a lunch with Oreos in it if you are planning to attend your local, neighborhood Occupy Monsanto protest.)

Of course, and I think you already figured this out too, PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé and Kraft Foods all sell to someone, who is creating demand for their products. That someone is actually the end-use consumer. That someone is, well, me, for one. So, it follows that, as the originator of demand, me and others like me, actually are the epicenter of blame. By buying products, we are the ones who sends the demand notice that ripples up the supply chain to Monsanto’s seeds.

And if you think about it, you know this already, that means you, too.

Which brings me back to my Fresca.

I don’t have air conditioning in my house and I work at home so, this past summer I nearly melted like the Wicked Witch of the West. It was awful and somehow, even though I don’t drink soda as a rule, at some point during the summer, in the blisteringly muggy death-like atmosphere that was my house, I decided that it was Fresca that would be my salvation. And it was. Delightfully so. God knows how that came to pass but it did and, as the summer wore on, I drank what I believe might be a small ocean’s worth of Fresca. At least a large lake’s worth.

It seemed innocent enough — I was just trying to stay cool. But really, in buying that Fresca, what I was doing was perpetuating a food system I demand is horrendous. What a clueless idiot.

You see, every time I buy salad dressing because I am lazy or buy an apple fritter at Starbucks because I need some comfort, I am telling Monsanto, loud and clear, to sell more GMO seeds. We all do the same thing. The commodity milk in a latte, the soy everyone thinks is so good for them, the takeout Chinese and the fun “Boo!” cookies at the local bakery, the Doritos and Pirate’s Booty, the Powerbars and the Potbelly or Subway — it’s likely all GMOs.

You don’t need a label. You already know that 95+ percent of the corn grown in America is GMO. And you know that corn is in just about everything. So, screaming for a label is just noise because you are still buying the products you know, if you take two seconds to think about it, contain GMOs.

A label isn’t going to change anything. And fighting for a label when you’ve got a Starbucks in your hand is blaming someone/something else for a problem you help create.

You see, the problem is all crap you are buying that you actually don’t believe in but which tells the companies they’re selling the right thing.

You really don’t need a label. You need to start thinking.

And to be honest, I don’t think any of us are thinking. We’ve signed the petition and decried what we demand is “hidden from us,” without admitting that, frankly, unless we are buying organic, we actually know we are buying GMOs. We curse Monsanto for lobbying to kill the labeling law, even though it is within their rights and is best for their stockholders that they do so.

That’s right, lobbying to stop labeling is them doing their jobs. If you don’t like it, you need to work to change the lobbying laws, not get mad at a company taking legal advantage of them. That’s like getting mad at the gun makers when some whackjob goes postal.

And think about it: no amount of screaming is going to stop the folks at Monsanto from doing what they are supposed to do when they go to work each day — producing a product that you ultimately support, even if you say you don’t.

And this is the thing, we’re the ones who are doing the wrong thing: when we leave the Occupy Monsanto meeting, pumped up and ready for a fight, and we stop by Whole Foods to get a snack and we actively ignore the fact that it is likely laced with GMOs if it isn’t labeled organic. We fall for the “All Natural” label, which has no government oversight whatsoever and actually means nothing. We disconnect ourselves from the reality of the Frappuccino (you can make a delicious Frappucino-y thing with coffee, cold milk and honey — you don’t have to be deprived your frappufreakingcino!) and ignore the power of our own dollars to make a change.

It’s bloody well stupid.

And the first person with whom I lay blame is myself. I realize that what I really need to Occupy is my own kitchen — because I am a source of the problem.

Here’s the thing I learned from visiting Monsanto — they’re a bunch of people just doing their jobs and to be honest, they believe in what they are doing. They are excited by the possibilities and feel like they are contributing to the greater good of society. Really. They are super concerned about helping American’s reduce trans fats in their diets and have a nutritionist on-staff who seemed genuinely and sincerely concerned about how well-intentioned but wrong-headed food choices and policies end up distracting society from the end-game: more healthy food in more people’s bodies.

And before you wonder if they genetically modified our brains while we were there, I’ll be honest I was surprised at how little “persuading” they actually did do. As a point in fact, when I told our host, Gary Barton, that I thought the organics vs. gmo nutrient study was misleading because the statistical model was biased, he didn’t argue with me — he just looked sad. At no point did they try to change my opinion, on the contrary, they were eager to find out what it was. They were excited we were there and willing to talk and they wanted to understand why the hell everyone hates them so much. They believe what they are doing is good for us, good for the environment, and the right thing to do — why doesn’t everyone see that?

You may not agree with them. But you can’t go to their headquarters, spend a day all up in their faces, demanding answers, and walk away thinking they are all plotting to kill us with scary ass evil intentions.

No, you walk away thinking that maybe you only have half the story. You walk away and jump on your computer and start Googling “Monsanto Monarch Butterflies” and “Monsanto Chapati Wheat” and “Monsanto Cancer” and you begin to realize that the reporting is so conflicting and so biased and, often, so ridiculous that, likely, we’ll never know who is right.

But I do know who is wrong: it’s the folks who blame Monsanto for selling (labeled) seeds to farmers who grow crops which they sell (labeled) to food manufacturers who make products (not labeled) they are actually buying. The folks who are too clouded by their own ignorant rage about transparency (she wrote, pointing finger at self) that they fail to take a few moments to realize that nearly every single food product that is sold in any sort of package with any sort of label is 99% sure to be GMO, even if the label doesn’t say “yo, GMOs inside” — and that when they buy those products, they are creating demand for the very thing they think they are outraged about.

Me: I’ve got 18 more cans of Fresca in the house. In the last 24 hours, I’ve called upon my CostCo-size bottle of worchestershire, Kikkomen soy sauce and my beloved sriracha. I don’t think the Fresca has any GMOs, only because I don’t think there are any agricultural products in there whatsoever, it’s all a bunch of gross made-up chemicals, but the rest of it surely does.

I know this — I just need to make sure I remember it when I run out. And I need to choose to buy something different.

My next meal, I already decided, is in fact to Occupy My Own Kitchen. I want to come to terms with what I do to perpetuate a problem I think is gigantic and awful and wrong and thus worthy of the effort it will take in my life to right my actions so they line up with my beliefs.

Because the thing our trip to Monsanto taught me is that if I really do want the food supply to change, if I really want to make a difference in how our country feeds itself, feeds the world, I have to start with myself.

And you do too.


Meal Five: The first thing I now know for sure that’s wrong with our food supply

– written by Ellen

This whole project began because of a breakfast held by a farmer and rancher group backed most noticeably by Monsanto (there were other Big Ag conglomerates, I didn’t much notice which because all my brain could process was M.O.N.S.A.N.T.O.). So, it’s a little odd, only on Meal Five, that Grant and I would find ourselves in St. Louis for a tour of Monsanto’s research facilities and, well, their home base.

Meal Five happened the night before this tour.

We ate at Niche, Gerard Craft’s amazing restaurant, with Ray Prock, dairyman from Meal Three, Mike Haley, (mostly) corn farmer from Ohio and Janice Person, PR from Monsanto.

And, not strangely, we started talking about, well, farming. Specifically, the farm bill, which was in the news at the same time as the trip because Congress just wasn’t passing it (so out of character!). It’s in the news again today, as I write, because in fact Congress let it expire. Shameful.

Mike and I had a little history on the topic. Earlier this summer, we found we had completely different sets of information about the Farm Bill. Not just perspectives, actual information.

Mike had been busy and his information about the bill didn’t include the controversial points relating to SNAP. As in, when I brought up how much SNAP was getting cut from the Senate’s version of the budget, Mike hadn’t even heard the news. As an urban dweller, SNAP is on my mind a lot because it impacts my neighbors and, for all intents and purposes, many of the people who live in my general community. The news I read helps me stay informed about the things that impact my community. Hungry children are part of my community.

Mike had a different take. He was more focused on crop insurance, which makes sense because it impacts him directly. The news he reads helps him learn about things that will impact his farm. Things like crop insurance.

I was floored that we had such different information about the very same Farm Bill. More than anything else, the conversation was an introduction to what I am seeing as one of the foundational problems with our food supply — and it isn’t food or agriculture or lobbying.

It’s information. Actual honest, unbiased information.

And the fact that no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t get your hands on it.

Take GMOs.

Are they an alarming cause for cancer? Not an alarming cause for cancer? Or possibly an alarming cause for cancer? Or just something in general we should be worried about because, well, we all know they’re bad, right?

Do I listen to the scientists? Do I believe the reporters? Which reporters? Which scientists? I at least do know I am not listening to the Twitters.

I frankly realized, in the weeks leading up to our Monsanto trip that I don’t know who to believe when it comes to just about anything about our food supply. It’s a ridiculous mess.

I also realized that the ridiculosity is one of the reasons we are all so angry with each other. We’ve stopped speaking the same language, it seems. We can’t even agree on what the term sustainability means, for the love of all things holy.

Here’s the thing: We used to all get information from essentially one source, say a Walter Cronkite. So, whether that news was right or wrong, we were all at least starting from the same place. And I’d say that back then the news was likely as right as it could have been; since back then, newsmen were interested in the respectability that came from honest-to-goodness, fourth-estate-inspired journalism.

Today, we are, increasingly, getting our news from sources we curate ourselves — like, say, whomever it is you don’t find too annoying to follow on Twitter or your friends’ collective Facebook stream. And when we do turn to the news, it’s more scaretainment than actual facts.

What that means, of course, is that we are likely learning from those who already agree with us. Which means, of course, that our ideas, no matter what they are, are continuously confirmed as right, and rightier, and even rightest. Which means, of course, that we get more invested in them. Which means, of course, that when we see more evidence that we were right, we get more entrenched in our opinions. Look at how right we are! My heavens! And on and on.

When (and if) we actually confront someone with ideas that are different than ours, they can seem like a complete wingnut. After all, we’ve read thousands of things that confirm every single thing we believe! How could they have missed all that!!!

(Hint: it is because they were too busy reading thousands of things that confirm their beliefs, even though they are diametrically opposed to yours.)

And at this point in the blog, I should propose a solution.

But I don’t have one.

Because the deeper I go on this quest to find answers, the more I realize how hard it is to try and get your hands on anything concrete. The more you try and get to the truth, the more you learn that the blogs you’ve been reading are shamefully biased and the experts you’ve been relying on are woefully unexperty and the organizations you’ve been wanting to trust are mired in so much red tape that there’s no way for anyone to even hope that we’re gonna untangle this food mess without some kind of extinction-level event.

But I can say this: by opening the door to a few folks, I am definitely starting to get a better grasp of the whole and not just a determined obsession with the part I believe in most. I am being led to more information and while some of it I believe and some of it I don’t, the more information I get my hands on, the better I can begin to frame my opinion. And the more solidly I can understand why others believe things differently, even if I don’t ultimately agree with their own take on things.

Which I guess leads me to the conclusion of this post: a recommendation.

I highly recommend taking the opportunity to discover, first hand, the shocking realization of just how detrimental it can be to intellectual thought in general when our citizenry can’t engage in discourse on a topic because we simply don’t access any kind of shared juried information. You have to step way outside your comfort zone to discover this. Say, if you are a die-hard Democrat, go seek out some Independents and Undecideds. Find a Republican who seems moderate and hang out with some Tea Partiers who don’t. And ask them all to tell you why they aren’t voting for Obama. Probe them to give you facts — they will. Don’t be judgey or interrupt or argue, just take it in. You’ll be amazed.

And maybe you’ll decide to do something about it, even just in your own life.


Meal Four: Diversity, Sustainability and the Anthropomorphizing Biologist

– written by Ellen

We do a lot of talking to Ag folks of all stripes —  and no matter what kind of agriculture you believe in, at its very core, it is the intersection of nature and man. In agriculture, man seeks to leverage nature to his advantage.

But there is another side to how nature and man interact, one of mutually sustainable coexistence, and Darryl Coates lives in that space. Darryl, District Wildlife Biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, was the gracious star of Meal Four: Diversity, Sustainability and the Anthromorphizing Biologist.

I call him that because when you talk to Darryl about animals and nature, he tends to slide into feelings — his own, the environment’s, the animals’ — within a sentence or two of every paragraph.

Darryl talking forage grasses at Chef Camp

For example, he himself owns a pig and believes his pig is really happy living a piggy life doing piggy things. In fact, he was sure his pig was especially happy on the day we met him for Meal Four as his pig was at “Sex Camp” with two sows. “Who,” he asked, “couldn’t imagine that any pig would love that?”

I was particularly fascinated by this biologist who talked about his pig’s feelings because, of course, biology is science. And I’ve heard a lot of folks who seem to use science as justification for, say, depigifying our pigs. In fact, I get a general feeling of derision and scorn, like I am an un-evolved human, when I dare to hint that pigs are happiest when they are doing piggy things.

So, Darryl’s ideas, frankly, felt like home to me. It was a relief to have a scientist confirm that pigs do have an essential pig nature and expressing that in their lives is vital. Which is why I was hoping that Darryl, since he was a scientist, could help me sort through the sciencification of agriculture.

It’s a big task, and I hope in time he will be up for the challenge, but for the purposes of our Meal, I myself decided to start with one question: “How does science define sustainability?”

For me, this is an essential conversational fulcrum if we are going to somehow bridge the gap between BigAg and LittleAg — it’s the piece those on “our side” won’t let go of and, I’d argue, the piece that BigAg can’t afford to ignore.

I am learning through this One Hundred Meals project that our culture, no matter how much it frightens me personally, seems destined to embed science into every nook and cranny of agriculture. And so, if agriculture is going to hinge upon science, then I feel we need a way to work a sane perspective of sustainability into the equation.

Sustainability, in my opinion, is ground zero of the divide between the Big Ag and Small Ag folks. And by that I am not saying that both sides don’t claim the vast superiority of their view of sustainability, they do — but they are so diametrically opposed in their idea of what the word means that the word itself is ineffectual in any discourse.

To Darryl, who I should note has not yet logged his official answer of what sustainability is, lack of sustainability results in disease, pollution and starvation. “Not human starvation, nutrient starvation.” And he focuses a lot of his conversation on how nature will ultimately weigh in if an ecosystem is unsustainable by the manifestation of disease, pollution and starvation.

Too many wolves in a wood — the herd gets culled naturally by lack of food. Planting the same type of vegetable in the same spot in your garden each year — the bugs and disease will concentrate in your soil and doom your crop before you can start thinking about dinner. Not enough diversity in the field corn grown in the United States — something will eventually give.

And the odd thing is, from the potato famine (in Ireland) to the potato blight (in America) to, say, Dutch Elm disease, we can see this pattern again and again. It is a pattern, really, that defies any idea of sustainability because nature delivers disease, pollution and starvation, it seems, every time it encounters an unsustainable lack of diversity.

Darryl talks a lot about diversity. In many ways his job is focused on the impacts of the lack thereof.

Take those Dutch Elm trees. They were densely planted in a community near him because it’s just plain ol’ easier for the community leaders to just buy one kind of tree and plant it in mass. Plus, it must be acknowledged, most communities like the symmetry of a stand of similar trees. Here’s the thing, though, The environment of those trees, densely planted with no diversity, was unsustainable and so they succumbed to disease and were replaced, essentially wholesale, with ash. Of course they ended up diseased and now the talk is replacing them, all of them, with maples. Darryl anticipates that in 50 years, maple blight will ravage the trees planted because no one seems interested in learning mother nature’s lesson just yet.

It’s hard to imagine why man doesn’t seem to ever learn this lesson.

And as Grant and I prepare to travel down to St. Louis to tour Monsanto, this idea of diversity — and the growing lack thereof — is what is weighing on my mind.

I think it is a first step to discussing how science and sustainability can intersect. After all, I am quite sure there is no argument against the idea that biodiversity is essential to human health and sustainability.  This is scientific fact.

And yet from my perspective, the deeper a person bows to the altar of science-based agriculture, the more they seem to ignore the science of biodiversity. And no, I am not referring to the cursory nod to diversity in the form of rotating between corn and soybeans with a cover crop on the off-season. I’m talking actual thriving diversity — of seed, of crop, of fostering beneficial insects as well as allowing for the wild experimentation that comes from naturally occurring adaptation of breeds to environment one gets from heirlooms rather than hybrids.

And since the Monsantoization of agriculture seems, to me, the titillating height of anti-diversitism, I should be interested to hear how the scientists respond.

Is it the lure of productivity? The idea that, if you consider this year, growing one type of corn in the field is the most productive and thus the best? Will they ignore the question and divert the conversation to feeding starving folks, which tends to happen a lot. Or is there some bit of their argument, a valid point, I have yet to hear?

A part of me wishes that Darryl was coming with us to Monsanto, since he has access to his scientific background to inform his questions and comments. But, thankfully enough, Darryl’s ideas are blissfully simple, in the way mother nature is, at its core, quite incredibly simple — diversity works well and nature tends to ensure the sustainability of all species by keeping everything in check.

And when it gets out of whack, for whatever reason, the mother will react like a woman scorned.


Field Trip: A Tour of Monsanto (yeah, you read that right)

written by Ellen

So, as part of the One Hundred Meals project, Grant and I are field-tripping to Monsanto next week. Wait, the WHAT? I mean, really? MONSANTO? YES! We’ll be infiltrating enemy lines!!!!

No, in all seriousness.

You don’t have to stretch your mind too much to realize the shock we both felt when someone with an email address that ended with “@monsanto.com” was actually emailing us, inviting us to travel to St. Louis and tour the facility, have some meetings and, hopefully, have time for a meal at Niche restaurant! And if nothing is going to test the boundaries of our willingness to be open to learning and listening, arriving at Monsanto with a notebook and commitment to being unbiased is it.

It’s where our feet are held to the fire and we have no choice but to decide once and for all that we are going to do with this project what we set out to do — report on the facts as honestly as we can. And really, I know we can do this.

Because we believe that while we don’t need to convert — and really, likely we will not — we do in fact believe that we all need to have a productive, respectful dialog about food if we are going to move forward as a community and thrive.

And really, we very, very much believe that for this meal, we need to be respectful guests with lots of smart questions.

Of course, this is going to take a lot of learning up front about the issues, products and track record of Monsanto. Right now, my knowledge of the company is so limited and skewed I feel like an ignorant asshat. “Monsanto: Hate.” is about the extent of my range.

So, we’re reaching out in this post to anyone and everyone who might help us prepare by sending us:

  1. Links to articles and scholarly papers that serve as good, unbiased introductions to GMOs and Monsanto in general. (OK, nothing is unbiased, likely, so just send it all and we’ll try to take good notes for both sides.)
  2. Titles of good books or documentaries we can absorb (I read insanely fast, so pour it on.)
  3. Questions you have that you haven’t been able to find a solid answer for (and for which you have actually tried to find an answer). We don’t, for instance, wanna ask about the lawsuits against farmers who are sued by Monsanto for illegally growing GMO crops. It is a dead issue and if you take some time to learn about the facts, you’ll understand that to be true. We do, though, want to ask about contamination of organic fields from pollen sources and how they are dealing with that.

I think, personally, it is awesome they Monsanto is opening the door for us. Sure, they’re gonna tell their story their way — but you know, I tell my story my way and you tell your story your way. We get that. We’ll be listening for that. But the truth is, a person I respect actually once told me she believes that Monsanto will answer any question honestly, even if it makes them look bad. I find that astounding and wanna see for myself. And, really, if it’s true, I wanna know why.

Ours is a small project on a small scale. We aren’t some big news outlet with eyeballs from here to kingdom come. We’re just a couple of people who want to find out what is really going on in our food supply. And I think it is significant that Monsanto is taking the time to invite us in and answer our questions.

I can only hope more Big Ag folks take this open-door stance. Personally, I think it would do a lot to help them in their own quest to be understood.


Meal Three: An open letter to Big Ag on marketing, PR and effective spin

– written by Ellen

Recently, Grant and I enjoyed a late second dinner with two conventional diary farmers at Telegraph in Chicago. One farmer is from the Central Valley of California — he uses rBST. The other from the very northwest tip of Washington — he doesn’t use rBST because it is not legal where he farms. Their names, Ray Prock and Robert Smit.

Or, quite possibly Serious Joe and his sidekick, Sir Crack ’em Up.

Ray, along with his other sidekick, Mike Haley, is all about Big Ag — but he’s going a little rogue, though he refers it to as “bleeding edge.” Ray and Mike are the guys who reached out to me and Grant in the comments of a blog I wrote in reaction to experiencing the public relations stylins’ of the USFRA and, actually, those two amazing men were the catalyst for us starting One Hundred Meals.

Like most of Big Ag, Ray realizes that his side is hitting some rather critical points of total communication failure and that something needs to be done to stem the tide of fear that is raging through headlines.

Unlike most of Big Ag, Ray (and Mike!) tend to believe that what really needs to be done is not hitting talking points and managing a conversation — what really needs to be done is that Big Ag needs to start listening.

Having been on the receiving end of Ray’s listening, I have to say I agree. Which is why my Meal Three post is, really, an open letter to Big Ag on marketing, PR and effective spin.


Dear Big Ag:

“The science doesn’t support that.”

That’s the response, outta the box, by most Agvocates when peeps like me get scared about food.

If you’re curious, this is how it all looks from our side:

We suddenly discover the absolute grossness that is pink slime, overlay that with pictures of downed cows being pushed around by forklifts and we freak out about what the hell is going on in the beef industry in general — how can we believe the desperate-seeming corporate drone on the news who demands that it is scientifically safe and just go buy it, damn it or our plants will close! Really? Good! What the hell are you doing in that plant you don’t let anyone in, anyway? You seem scary!

You see, we get upset when we see pictures of cute little pigs in tiny filthy cages — how can we believe the monster who tells us it is better for the pig, scientifically, than roaming around outside? Wait, what? Pigs have the intelligence of a three year old, I wouldn’t make my dog live in a cage and my dog isn’t even close to that smart! Plus, I heard you want to regulate the farmers who do keep pigs outside, you’re obviously a greedy bastard! You seem scary!

And guess what — we don’t really believe the bunch of data  tossed in our faces about how safe the American food supply is when we read reports of people dying from tainted cantaloupe. That cantaloupe was an edge case, you say — Tough Crap! It’s what is in the news and so that’s what I know. The big Ag messaging points mean nothing to me when People. Are. Dying.

Rational? Probably not. But reality? Yes. And that is the thing, you, dear Agvocates, need to start dealing with – reality. My reality. The science you try to shove down my throat may in fact be true — as a communication strategy, it ain’t working.

Let’s break it down: I assume the Agvocates are offering up their little science nugget because they want to respond to an emotional reaction with a proveable fact. “Oh,” I assume they are thinking, “if I just tell them that the science doesn’t support their fear and then point them to a source I know will support my statement, they’ll get it and we can all move on.”

Folks, this is the epitome of bad PR — no matter how fancyass your PR firm is that is writing up your talking points.

Here’s what that PR firm should be telling you, for all the money you are spending on them: effective communication isn’t just about getting your point across. Effective communication is about understanding what the other person is thinking so you can get your point understood.

I am sure this is really frustrating for Agvocates. They feel beat down. They feel attacked. Some even are attacked, really, their farms have been burned. Logic, it would seem, should win out, no? NO!

Natasha Godard, star of Meal One, boils it down to what she calls “The Plane Crash Problem.”

Scientifically, airline travel is statistically safer than car travel by an order of magnitude. And yet, far more people are afraid to fly than they are to hop in the car. I, for one, drive a scooter around busy urban streets I know are teeming with texting, tweeting drivers — embarrassingly without a helmet a lot of the time. And yet, I am near catatonic when it comes to flying. It’s a matter of familiarity and because, she commented, humans are not very good at assessing real risk.

So, to extrapolate this to farming, I am a big frightened wussie when it comes to milk. I buy my milk from a family farm down in Central Illinois that is committed to minimally processed milk. (In fact, I visited that farm recently at Chef Camp!). I buy it because it is deliciously good milk but I also buy it because rBGH frightens the hell out of me.

But during my meal with Natasha, I found out that, quite possibly, there is scientifically nothing to fear in rBGH. The hormones, apparently, are species specific so my body can not even absorb or deal with it — I’ll politely say it is basically treated like fiber by the body, if you get my drift. I’m still investigating and learning (and my feelings are starting to lean toward the fact that the real problem with milk is the intensive farming methods, but not at all the rGBH issue) but, and this is the important point, I still have this lingering sense of doom when I even look at a carton of commodity milk.

That’s right. Doom. I can not buy it, even if I am desperate. (I find coffee undrinkable without milk and I must have coffee every morning in order to achieve functioning human being status.)

Natasha offered up a telling statement, the idea that “people don’t know what they’re doing to that cow over there but it seems scary.”

So, what’s Big Ag to do?

  • Shut. Up. and Start. Listening.
  • Stop assuming every conversation is an opportunity to hear what I say just so you can know how to respond. Start assuming it is an opportunity to understand what I think and why.
  • Start honoring the fact that I need to understand the world through my own prism (which is a rather complete lack of scientific knowledge) before I can make space in my head for even thinking about yours.
  • Fire the old school PR firms that hand you talking points and beat messaging strategy into your heads. Give more work to the PR visionaries that craft a strategy of listening.
  • And, finally, respect the fact that what you are doing to that cow over there seems scary to me — and that until you fully embrace my feelings about the matter as relevant, you are going to seem like the enemy.

Remember, at the end of the day we sustainable advocates don’t need to listen to you — really. We could just let the headlines dominate the conversation and, because all those headlines are so very scary sounding and will always be since that is what sells newspapers, slowly but surely conventional ag will have to make concessions to our side. Slowly but surely we’ll get rid of every speck of pink slime and every GE salmon and anything that might give our kids allergies. It doesn’t even matter if the reports are factual because the media will report it anyway and the real story will unravel under the onslaught of fear.

Really, I think you guys know this to be true and that is why you are all rushing around tossing sweet-looking farmers from Nebraska in our faces. Because you know you are facing a public relations nightmare that you might not be able to contain if you don’t do something significant now.

If you want a different outcome. If you want us to, at the end of the day, start understanding you — or possibly even supporting you — you need to back off with the proselytizing and start listening.


Give ’em an inch of either side

– written by Ellen, in response to an email from Grant

At Meal Three (my post is coming, be patient), conventional dairyman Ray Prock shared with us a “mindset” that gets in the way of everyone moving forward: the give ’em an inch theory.

Farmers think of their work as science-based. The things they do — rBGH, GMOs, Round-Up, all the scary stuff — they do it in the name of science. And the belief is that science is good.

So, when you ask someone like Ray why he uses GMOs, he responds with something sane-sounding like, “I believe they can make a better seed than I can grow.” And in a climate that is changing rapidly, bringing, say eye-popping drought to Texas, the idea of farmers choosing a seed that is designed to grow in certain weather conditions can be very intriguing.

After all, the non-GMO seeds were naturalized to grow in their native climate. And, take for instance in my own backyard, I can only surmise that the climate is changing at a rate faster than Mother Nature can respond to. This year, my garden is a hot mess and I, for one, pretty much gave up trying to sort out how to grow in this crazy weather back in May.

So, the reaction Grant and I have when we sit down to a meal like Ray is, “Yea, I get that. I won’t eat it, but I get why you grow it.”

There’s another reality, though, as well and I’ll use tail docking as the for instance.

“There is no science supporting the benefits of tail docking dairy cattle,” Ray said. But farmers still do it. He explained that they do it because if they stop doing it, who knows what else the pro-animal activists will demand.

They can’t give us an inch.

From my side, it’s pretty freaking incomprehensible that the animals that nourish us are “suffering” because of human ridiculosity.

Until you see something like this:

Now, these folks very well might be kidding. The Twitters are good for taking conversations out of context so you can freak the hell out.

But really, I am not sure why anyone would grow an apple that doesn’t brown. Or, for that matter, tomatoes that can be picked while still hard and green so they can taste cardboardy though reddish in the store.

My reaction, when Grant forwarded this tweet, was the same as his, “Scary – people are actually in favor of the most absurd GM thing, an apple that doesn’t brown! What the hell do we need that for!!????? The minute I start to understand them, they lobby for something nutty like this! Crazypants!”

Apparently, in greenlighting all those GMOs, it seems “we’ve” given them an inch and they’re taking a mile, thank you very much. And that makes me really sad and frustrated and my gut reaction is to stop all GMOs because I think “they” just don’t know when to stop.

So, I am officially letting all you conventional farmers know: if you are pushing for science-based farming because you are actually trying to do good by, say, growing a variety of sweet corn destined for human consumption that can withstand drought, you’ll probably find me not just understanding your decision, but actually supporting it as well.

But if you’re creeping into areas that are just plain old greedy, like a damn apple that doesn’t brown, my natural reaction is to recoil in horror and decide that you — and all your sciencey hocus pocus — is scarysauce.

Really, ALL OF IT.

And because of the tail docking example, I know you understand where I am coming from. I know you know in your heart that the single “bad apple” idea is what spoils the whole batch.

I wanna know what you are now going to do about it.