March 20, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Where Did the Food Movement Go Wrong?

Where Did the Food Movement Go Wrong Tove K DanovichI should have seen it coming. In a time when politics are more polarized than ever, when every party seems to have their own news station, why would I think the food movement was somehow above sensationalism? I should have known that we were in for a rough ride when we started saying, “Big Ag is evil” and promoted GMO labeling campaigns by insinuating that if Monsanto produced Agent Orange (once reported as being “harmless”), anything else they made would be equally bad.

When did the food movement become more about politics than actually making what we eat better?

I got involved with food policy five years ago because something wasn’t quite right with the way we were putting food on the table. I was – one might say – bothered by the idea that people go hungry while 35 million tons of food waste goes to United States’ landfills each year. Troubled by the agricultural fertilizers that help to poison the Chesapeake Bay with 300 million pounds of nitrogen each year. Disturbed that, while I could become a vegetarian, meat production in the U.S. would continue being responsible for the inhumane lives and deaths of 10.2 billion animals each year.

At first, I thought we were on the right track with the food movement. We’ve had wins with school food and decreasing childhood obesity; we publicized the idea that people should think about where their food comes from; the USDA even promoted a program called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” In less than a decade, we’ve used hard facts to raise awareness of issues that people in our parents’ generations never worried about.

Then the food movement became a partisan movement. Lately, what I see in the writings of the food world—both from our loudest advocates and in what gets championed by major food nonprofits—is that unless it promotes a black-and-white, emotionally charged view of agriculture and eating, it doesn’t exist. Yes, we want to get more people involved in the fight for more transparency, better worker protection, and increased access to good food, but has anyone stopped to wonder what kind of movement we’ll have if we only get new members by scaring them into joining?

Found on March Against Monsanto's Facebook page.

Found on March Against Monsanto’s Facebook page.

If there is a food movement, it needs to consist of more than headlines some might categorize as click-bait: “Yoga Mat Chemical Removed from Bread,” “Think GMOs are Scary? Nano-Tech is Here,” or “Are Meat and Dairy as Bad as Cigarettes?” If we won’t trust industry-sponsored studies when they come from Monsanto or Pepsi, why do we jump to promote ones that say, “animal protein shortens your life” when the lead author runs a plant-based protein company?

We’ve gotten so worried that the world of big business will drown out our voices that we’ll stoop to get attention any way we can. I know that some of us are scared. Could our growing numbers and concerns be drowned out by lobbying money and oppositional advertisements? Sure. But this is not the way to create change. Throwing a temper tantrum may get you noticed but, even if you’re two-years-old, it’s not going to get you much respect.

That’s not to say that nobody is doing it right. Or that we should do nothing at all. Plenty of people are speaking up for facts and discussion over hyperbole but we’re in danger of drowning them out with our frantic screaming. If we really want to fix a broken food system, we need to stop pointing fingers and think about what those repairs really mean and where we should start.

Yes, we banned horse slaughter in the United States but we didn’t change the circumstances that now truck those same animals to be killed (without even the USDA’s limited animal welfare laws) in Mexico. It’s not sexy to remind people that when we have a “win” for animal welfare those deep-in-debt farmers are the ones who pay for the upgrades to gestation crates and battery cages. We forget that there are people out there who legitimately believe in the good of GMO crops – good people and hardworking farmers who are proud of the work they’re doing to feed people. They think our position is as crazy as we think theirs. No one is making food out of belligerence like an old man who yells at kids from his porch. They produce food in the way that helps them pay the rent, using what they believe are the best seeds and growing techniques.

We say that we’re for “best practices” in agriculture but I’m not convinced that any of us—whether we’re part of the food movement or the biggest of Big Ag—are ready to concede that we might not be right all the time. I’ve certainly had a hard time with it.

I’ll be the first one to shake the hand of those who say, “I’m a corn farmer but I want to be certain I’m farming the best way I can,” “I’m a vegan but will work with people to eat less meat if they’re not willing to stop entirely,” “I’m a small biodynamic or organic farmer who knows the world today probably can’t be fed by what I grow alone.” If we don’t admit our weaknesses, we can’t fill in the cracks. A good food system comes from a strong foundation.

Sure, we’re all part of the solution but let’s not forget we were once the problem too.

-Tove K. Danovich


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  4. As a mom who struggles every day with what is safe to feed my autistic son because the easily accessible food that fills our grocery shelves is covered in pesticides, petroleum additives and compounds used in processing (petroleum based) that aren’t on any label that he reacts to, the argument that we’re scaring people doesn’t fly for me.

    Why is this sh*t in our food? It’s our FOOD!

    It’s a bit like saying we shouldn’t be screaming about the emergency that is climate change.

    However, I do get that people are overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed. We do need to focus on solutions. It’s a bit like the current level of argument on climate change that focuses on whether people “believe” in it or not – while the change possible for our future (whether we believe it in or not) is phenomenal if we would just get off old technologies (fossil fuels) and move into the new which is akin to arguing we should stay with 8 track cassette players rather than use our iPhones (ludicrous).

    Food issues are very heavily intertwined with fossil fuels from how we transport food, to pesticides (and related GMOs), to how food is processed and more. How that all affects the water, air, soil, plants, animals and humans is in need of MAJOR change…change that is possible whether you’re a vegetarian, a farmer or an eater. All voices are needed. All hands on deck!

    Imagine our food system without fossil fuels. Just take a moment and see if you can vaguely make it out.

    Just that (not a simple change) would make a world of difference – that and making sure we treat the insects, plants, animals, soil, air, water, and ourselves respectfully in the process.

    Of course, we really don’t have a choice about whether we make the fossil fuel change. It’s do it or ecocide.

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  6. Brad,
    I thought Tove provide specific examples of what she was talking about here:

    If there is a food movement, it needs to consist of more than headlines some might categorize as click-bait: “Yoga Mat Chemical Removed from Bread,” “Think GMOs are Scary? Nano-Tech is Here,” or “Are Meat and Dairy as Bad as Cigarettes?” If we won’t trust industry-sponsored studies when they come from Monsanto or Pepsi, why do we jump to promote ones that say, “animal protein shortens your life” when the lead author runs a plant-based protein company?

    I’ve definitely seen a shift from a movement that was for things, to one that is mostly against things.

    I can definitely point you towards specific farmers who are tired of this kind of condescension:

    who were the first (and continuing) victims of issues like cheap food and exploitation by agribusiness salesmen, like those offering GMOs.

    Mainstream American farmers don’t feel victimized by agribusiness salesman, but they are tired of having the Food Movement tell them that they don’t know their own business or care about their own land. They certainly don’t like Chipotle throwing them under the bus.

    If you are interested in getting to know first hand what farmers think, I invite you to join Food and Farm Discussion Lab on Facebook.

  7. It’s good to take a stand for excellence in movement work, but this critique seems much like what it criticizes. Specific feedback, to those who should do better, would be better than generalizations. The movement is diverse in many ways, including in it’s levels of professsionalism.

    There is much to learn, however, especially with regards to farmers and farming, but this article misses much of that. There are strong cases for bridging the gaps with farmers, who were the first (and continuing) victims of issues like cheap food and exploitation by agribusiness salesmen, like those offering GMOs.

    Finally, a key issue, elsewhere and here, is the lack of knowledge of the value of livestock for sustainability and nutritional health. So the high standards suggested here should be applied to that as well.

    • Food Politic says:

      Thanks, first, for the interest in the article from everyone who has been thoughtfully commenting both here and via email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.


      I would agree with your first paragraph’s criticism only in regards to the title of this piece. It is both what the article is about and an attempt to pique people’s interest. In that regard, “The Food Movement Today” is not nearly as internet-friendly as “Where Did the Food Movement Go Wrong” though I spent a lot of time deciding the final title of this piece.

      I also spent a lot of time deciding whether I wanted to “call people out” via what you refer to as “specific feedback.” However I’m not much of one to make enemies and I agree with some parts of what they say (even now) whether it’s a publication or person; I just don’t agree with the way we’re all saying it.

      I wanted the piece to apply to anyone who FELT they were guilty of attacking those who didn’t share their ideals for the food system. Even if I knew the name of everyone who fits the bill, I wouldn’t have the time or inclination to list them all. (I would have to add some of my earliest writing, too.) If you’re reading this and decide that it doesn’t apply to you – even if it does – fine. Maybe you’ll be more wary of this tone in others going forward.

      I don’t want to attack anyone who may have gotten over-passionate about a cause or felt that the ends justified the means for something of high importance. This was meant as a reminder that there are other ways of talking and educating and that something well said in a gentle tone can be just as powerful as the most frightening headlines.


  8. Well said.

    The food movement has been wearing out it’s welcome for some time now. I don’t know that I agree that it’s political so much as a commitment to aesthetics masquerading as politics. If evidence and metrics mattered more than style and fast food and farm workers mattered more that farmer’s markets, I’d still consider myself a member in good standing.

    Reforming the food system means reforming the industrial food system, not moving backward to a pre-industrial agrarian past that’s been gone for 150 years.

    The analogues to kinds of reforms progressives routinely spout for the food system would be laughed out of the room in a discussion of healthcare reform. Nobody thinks you can insure and treat 300 million Americans with scrappy co-op community clinics. Why would they think that something like that could work feeding America?

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