Organic farmer viewpoint: Has the “Food Movement” become a religious cult?

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I have a confession to make: in late August, I attended a conference sponsored by Big Ag.

Wait, it gets worse…I went because I was invited to take part in a panel discussion.

But that’s not all. One of my fellow panelists was a conventional farmer who grows thousands of acres of crops, many of them GMOs. Another was a Monsanto employee.

Rob Wallbridge is third from left

Rob Wallbridge is third from left

According to some, the fate of my credibility, if not my very soul, is now open to question. After all, the anti-GMO community was all a-buzz a few weeks ago when it was revealed that Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle and Anna Lappe had been invited to participate in a Monsanto-sponsored television series. They all reportedly declined, in no uncertain terms, once the role of the Evil Empire was revealed.

But why?

It seems as though food politics is on the verge of becoming religion; if we haven’t already, we’re about to split into sects and factions, driven apart by ideological dogmas that have nothing to do with reality. Worse still, we reject what in a religious context would be considered ecumenical/inter-faith activities:  the antis attacked Monsanto for trying to support a TV series: Pollan and Lappe expressed shock and horror that they’d been invited to participate in an activity funded by another “church.”

The result? Each group ends up “preaching to the converted”. Or worse yet, preaching to the choir. A priest who preaches to the choir turns her back on the congregation, the populace, to speak only to those who will sing hymns of praise.

I’ve long noticed this tendency at mainstream agricultural events. The keynote speakers are usually chosen for their ability to reinforce the status quo and rally attendees against those who express concerns. It’s alarming to see the reactions posted on social media: “f*** David Suzuki” or “every mother who buys organic food should be tied to a chair and forced to listen to this speaker” are examples of common sentiments. The underlying notion is that consumers need to be “educated” into a sense of acceptance or better yet, gratitude: choices and diversity are unnecessary, elitist luxuries.

But for proof that the “progressive food movement” does the same, we need look no further than the recently announced “Food For Tomorrow” Conference organized by the New York Times. Ironically, despite the “Farm Better. Eat Better. Feed the World.” tag line, none of the speakers are active farmers, and the $1,395 registration fee ensures that few farmers will be there to learn to “farm better” anyway! Luminaries like Pollan, Nestle and others seem to have no qualms about participating in exclusive events like this, so why do they refuse to engage in forums where their perspectives may be less well-known? Do they really have that little faith in the strength of their convictions or their personal credibility that they refuse to be seen in the company of “unbelievers”?

My experience at the AgChat Foundation Cultivate & Connect Conference was an overwhelmingly positive one. The participants, comprising practically every type of farmer and rancher under the sun, heard from an incredibly diverse range of speakers. Foodie bloggers, chefs committed to sourcing local, organic food, urban food policy coordinators, even an Olympic athlete, shared the stage with farmers, agricultural extensionists and industry representatives. Yes, there were tense moments, collective gasps, uncomfortable murmurs, and lively hallway debates — understanding different perceptions and confronting biases (our own and others’) isn’t always pretty. But most people understood that we cannot expect others to accept our perspective if we refuse to consider theirs.

The different backgrounds, diverse areas of expertise, and varied (sometimes conflicting) viewpoints resulted in a more complete, nuanced understanding of the topics than any of us could have ever achieved on our own. In my opinion that should be a chief goal of all who communicate on food and agricultural issues. Rather than cloistering with the like-minded to codify ideas and thoughts into unchanging dogma so that we can worship it and fight wars over it centuries later, I’d prefer to collaborate with all stakeholders and find opportunities to move forward, to seek understanding, to find solutions to the challenges facing us. Surely, we should be able to expect the same from the leaders of the “food movement.”

Rob Wallbridge is an organic farmer and consultant based in Western Quebec. He advocates for high-quality organic food and informed communities in agriculture. Follow him on Twitter as @songberryfarm and on his blog, The Fanning Mill.

  • Jan Hoadley

    Well said Rob. Good to meet you at last! Sometimes getting out of our comfort zone is the best thing we can do to share our views. If we don’t folks don’t know we’re out here.

  • ederdn

    Great perspective, Rob. I work for a “big ag” company, and believe there’s not only room for, but a true need for diversity in our food system. If we all stay behind closed doors with like-minded people, the world won’t get to where it needs to go.

  • Jen Hobby

    Wonderfully done Rob! I too was shocked and disappointed that an event such as the one NYT is promoting, one which aims to discuss farms and food neglected to include farmers! Its like trying to engage in dialogue on the anti-vaxxer movement by inviting Jenny McCarthy, but not any pediatricians. Bizzare!

    For those wishing to hear from farmers, to include strife WITHIN the industry regarding some of these issues, AgChat is a great resource, So is one called Common Ground, and both have supported the development of an Ask the Farmers site.

    So, we may be excluded from “exclusive events” hosted by huge media outlets e.g. NYT. But the internets ability to connect people against great distance of space and thought is unquestionable.

  • ncpigtown

    Very good Rob… I must admit I am one who is quick to defend my way of life and I wonder sometimes if I am I cut out for being a true “agvocate.” However, since attending the AgChat conference I have found myself being more understanding regarding all types of agriculture as ever before. Really, that is probably the most important lesson I took away from that conference. Carry on…

    • Rob Wallbridge

      Thanks! My involvement in the #agchat community has played a huge role in the evolution of my perspective on agricultural issues.

  • First Officer

    Ditto with the first four comments, Rob. Good show!

  • Loren Eaton

    Great post, Rob.
    “Do they really have that little faith in the strength of their convictions or their personal credibility that they refuse to be seen in the company of “unbelievers”?” Convictions and faith in one’s credibility are great. Having the ability to convincingly argue the science around GMO technology, especially to someone who isn’t quite ready to buy into everything you say is different. Folks like Mike Adams, Vandana Shiva, the Food Babe and Jeffrey Smith CAN’T argue the science, so there is the appeal to emotion…. hyperbole, exaggerations and associations rule the day. However, Huber, Seralini and Nestle are trained scientists and faculty members. If they’re going to give their opinions online or to their own ‘tribe’, you would think that they would have enough confidence in their data interpretation to debate Kevin Folta, Roger Beachy or Marc van Montagu. I know that Seralini has begged off on at least one opportunity peddle his wares to non-believers.

  • Tim Duffy

    Sorry to introduce a negative but I just want to make sure I read that right. The food movement that wants to drag us back to yesteryear, the movement that highly promotes techniques that encourage lower yields at higher costs, the food movement that completely ignores & refuses to even consider the benefits of modern technologies such as synthetic pesticides & bio-engineered food, that’s the movement being referred to as “the progressive food movement?” Because if so, that is funny…

    • Justin S

      I am confused as to what you mean when you say, “the movement that highly promotes techniques that encourage lower yields at higher costs”. Can you please elaborate on that?

      • I would imagine Tim means the movement towards more organic production (no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides), no GMOs allowed in production, etc.

        • Rob Wallbridge
          • Tim Duffy

            Rob,what is inaccurate about my assertion? The article you link to is tangential but doesn’t really prove any inaccuracy. Let’s keep it simple. First, I claim promoting the use of only organic farming techniques reduces overall yield. Second, using only organic techniques is more expensive. Do you disagree? Do you think organic returns higher yield, is less expensive? Or what… And finally my major point is that promoting only organic farming, eschewing other techniques in total, is far from “progressive.”

          • David Brown

            Tim, Did you read the article? Rob has never argued that all production should be certified organic. In fact, the whole point of the article was that we can have both organic and non-organic.

            Maybe there are a range of practices within each of those impossibly huge categories?

          • Tim Duffy

            Yes David I did read the article. Thank you for asking. Did you read my original comment? I apologized for introducing a negative into a feel good article but my only contention was that it is laughable to consider those who are pro-organic (although I phrased it differently for ironic emphasis) as the “progressive food movement.” I tried to make that point clearly & I made no other comment regarding the article. Additionally Rob’s mini-bio at the end of the article includes that he “advocates for high-quality organic food” as opposed to people like me who simply advocate for “high-quality food.” Can you see the not-so-subtle distinction in our positions?

            But perhaps Rob could just explain who/what he is referencing when he says (in a somewhat “us vs them” fashion) “the “progressive food movement” does the same.” I thought I caught his drift exactly correct (but perhaps not.)

          • David Brown

            Well, yes, Rob advocates for organic food. Clearly it is his belief that there are health and environmental benefits associated with this type of food production. You hold a different opinion. Isn’t the whole point of this that people with different opinions can start to talk with mutual respect and discuss the trade offs?

            But you seem particularly upset with the use of the term “progressive” in association with organic agriculture. Now that label is biased, I suppose, in that it assumes one kind of agriculture is forward moving (organic) while another is not. But in context, Rob appears to simply be using that term as it is generally understood. When most people hear the term “progressive food movement” they think of politically progressive (leftist) foodies.

            For what it is worth, I don’t think that the entire movement wants to drag us backward (though there are many who talk about turning back the clock). There are innovators trying to move forward with organic methods. And though yields are generally lower, in some cases, with some crops, they can compete with non-organic farmers.

          • Tim Duffy

            Word it any way you want – advocating a system that completely (100% – no exceptions) prohibits scientific technologies that have been deemed safe & acceptable by the reigning regulatory & authoritative agencies (USDA, FDA, EPA) falls outside the realm of progressive in any meaningful sense of the word imo – even less so when it’s a system that delivers food at increased cost with no recognized advantage to health, quality or the environment (all debatable at best & disadvantageous at worst.) In my younger years I’ll admit that I was confident that there must be something to this organic thing but actual evidence, scientific reasoning & logic have taken me elsewhere. Call yourself progressive all you want, I know some anti-vaxers, reiki instructors & homeopaths that also do. And by all means have the last word if so inclined but I’m out for now – Peace…

          • Sillylittleme

            So, your plan is to not give me any choice if I wish to not have GMO or low/no pesticides. Sounds more communist than progressive.

            What if I as a consumer don’t consider bt corn high quality (using your wording)? I guess I’m just s.o.l. If you had anything to do with it.

            I don’t care what choices others make…just don’t make my food choices for me. Thanks

          • Tim Duffy

            Curses! My “Communist plan” has been found out…

  • Very well said. There’s such a divide between farmers and consumers and even between farmers and I’m glad there’s conferences like AgChat that try to bridge that gap. I think you hit it spot on the “religious” like reactions to not wanting to attend because “big ag” is a sponsor. That “Food For Tomorrow” conference is a perfect example. I’ve examined the panel and not one farmer, and really no one for “big ag” or even current, modern agriculture practices. I’m going to the Food Bloggers of Canada Conference in Vancouver next month and I am being sent by the Manitoba Canola Growers, so from that day forth surely I will be seen as a “big ag GMO shill”, but I’ve been called that before anyway and won’t let it deter me from this great opportunity. I hope to connect with all sorts of people and bridge that farm to food connection. Thanks for sharing.

  • mem_somerville

    Part of me wonders if we should make it a religion. Then maybe you can have co-existence. I mean, nobody objects to Kosher labels because it’s fine to have a philosophical issue with food production. You can have any arbitrary rules you want. You just don’t get to force them on other people and take away their methods, tools, habits, and practices. Or the right to make the government label food as non-Kosher.

    I could live with it then.

  • Tom

    Stone the heretic!

    I would also disagree with the caption saying Rob is third from the left. In my view he’s second from the right.

  • A very compelling article Rob. Nice job.
    Thesis versus antithesis yields a synthesis.
    Bang on!