In a few critical pages of his book “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” (Random House, 2013), Pulitzer prize winning journalist Michael Moss explains how way back in the mid-1950s, the food industry successfully infiltrated the American Home Economics Association (AHEA). Their mission: Create an army of home economists who would help promote processed foods.
Here’s the kicker: Home economists are traditionally trained to appreciate and promote nutritious, safe, and efficient from-scratch, home-cooking methods; they are typically resourceful, and naturally leery of nutrient-poor, processed and packaged convenience foods. But food manufacturers recognized the bottom line value of winning over this group of trusted consumer educators.
So how’d the food industry accomplish such a remarkable pro-industrial philosophical sea change? Two words: invasion and indoctrination. For example, Moss explained how food manufacturers, such as General Foods, provided AHEA with fellowships, grants and advertising in the association’s professional journal. At association gatherings, the food industry set up “hospitality booths,” and they sponsored candidates for leadership positions within AHEA.
Dominating the Narrative
Fast forward decades later, and the same strategies are being used to dominate registered dietitians’ narratives about food and agriculture, via our professional meetings and publications. For example, close to 400 exhibitors participated in the 2017 Centennial Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo™ (FNCE®) in Chicago this October, including Pepsico, Monsanto and “GMO Answers.” At this booth, dietitians are encouraged to ask questions about GMOs, but the answers are provided by the industries (Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta) that profit from the “right” answers.
On the Expo floor, Monsanto handed out free packets of flower seeds to help attract and nourish pollinators — ironic, since the seed and chemical giant coats their genetically engineered corn seeds with neonicotinoid insecticides which harm beneficial insects, aquatic life and birds.
The clear message for nutrition educators is this corporation sides with public health and helps “feed the world” with safe, modern science and technology. Anyone who questions the safety of the technology (and the increasing herbicide use related to it) is quickly termed “anti-science” and shamed for asking inconvenient questions.
The irony here, is that science is based on continuous inquiry. In my Food Sleuth Radio interview with Naomi Oreskes , co-author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), she explains: When someone tells you the science is settled, that should raise a red flag.
Based on dietitians’ professional ethics to protect public health, we should not only question the science, but err on the side of caution and embrace the precautionary principle.
With more consumers concerned about GMOs and herbicides, Monsanto and others in the industrial food, agriculture and chemical industries know they need dietitians to tell and sell their story. To do so, Monsanto funds multi-page advertorials in Today’s Dietitian digital magazine and helps sponsor the magazine’s annual symposium.
Not unlike General Mills in the mid-1950s, who hired a team of 60 home economists to create and promote convenience foods, Monsanto also created a “L.E.A.D” network of dietitians who speak nationally about the benefits of genetic engineering.
Yet despite industry assurances that genetically engineered foods are safe — via an elaborate scheme to influence not only dietitians, but media, university researchers, and 4-H programs, there is no unbiased scientific consensus on GMO safety.
In fact, there are growing incidences of economic and environmental harm, especially from genetic and herbicide drift — issues missing from the pro-GMO “dialogues.”
Help Wanted: Organic Farmers’ Insights
If not for my work on the boards of the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, I might be in the same camp as my fellow dietitians who have adopted industrial narratives. Dietitians truly mean no harm. Similar to farmers and journalists, we came to our profession with noble intentions. But we simply have not been trained in soil and plant sciences. We don’t study how farming practices impact public health. These educational gaps leave us vulnerable to industry messages. We could use more media literacy skills as well, to better navigate the ever-increasing sea of fake food news, green noise and profit-driven propaganda.
Organic farmers and farm visits taught me to see the differences between biological and chemical farming methods. I’ve learned that we can better feed the world, nourish our communities, and protect our environment with agro-ecological, regenerative organic farming methods.
We need more cross-pollination between organic farmers, dietitians, journalists, agriculture teachers, and students, and many more opportunities to listen, observe, connect dots and think beyond the food on our plates.
In a short, powerful film, fellow registered dietitian and organic farmer Mary Jo Forbord explains the urgency of matching agriculture with food and health policy. Please share her wisdom widely, and let’s set the record straight.
Are you a dietitian interested in learning about organic food and farming? Organic Valley’s Farm Discovery public farm tours provide an excellent opportunity to visit real, operating organic farms across the country and learn directly from farmers about what organic means and how organic agriculture benefits their land and family. You’ll also learn about the growing body of scientific evidence measuring the nutritional and environmental benefits of organic vs. conventional foods.
Please consider joining us to see for yourself. Organic farmers want to work with dietitians and share their knowledge to help your clients make informed decisions about organic food and farming.
Public Farm Discovery farm tours are offered during the spring, summer and fall months. Keep an eye on our Farm Discovery web page for a public tour near you, or follow Organic Valley and Rootstock on Facebook for announcements. We will also arrange customized private farm tours for organized groups of professionals — contact us for more information.