Sunday, May 3, 2009

Food Marketing

Is it not disturbing to anyone else to think of farming as just another industry and crops as just another product to be marketed? I'm not talking so much about Pop-Tarts and Go-gurt commercials, though those are disturbing as well (and if I thought about it for a few more minutes, I'm sure I'd be horrified by that concept, too, but that's not where I'm going at the moment), but more about the marketing by various crop associations to large corporations, other industries, and even other countries.

It seems to me that the world as a whole and farmers in particular should think of growing food in terms of providing good nutrition, not in terms of growing market shares and such. Yes, making money is important, but the rise of agribusiness is taking it a bit to the extreme. Each crop, be it corn, wheat, soybeans, hogs, beef cattle, or dairy (because yes, animals are considered crops—another somewhat unsettling aspect of agribusiness) has its own association (or several), which lobbies Congress for various things to be included in the newest farm bill, provides information to its members, and tries to develop and grow a market for the crop.

One form this marketing takes is the various consumer-oriented campaigns: "Got milk?" (California Milk Processor Board), "Beef: It's what's for dinner" (National Cattlemen's Beef Association), "Pork: the other white meat" (National Pork Board) and so forth. These are not terribly disturbing until you realize that these associations (at least the beef and pork ones) are quasi-governmental associations and that the advertising is funded through checkoff programs, in which mandatory dues are paid for each beef cow or hog sold for the sole purpose of marketing these products.

I would be almost entirely comfortable with the U.S. government running advertising campaigns or public service annoucements to try to increase, say, milk consumption because of its health benefits—in fact, this is what I thought was happening until recently—however, it seems the goal of such advertising is primarily to increase the domestic market for these home-grown food products. I'm not sure there's much of an argument to be made that the U.S. government should try to convince Americans to eat more beef for health reasons. Red meat consumption has lately been even more strongly linked with heart disease and colon cancer, and at least the way beef is produced in America (corn-fed, in confinement operations, overloaded with hormones and antibiotics) makes it even worse. Corn-fed beef has higher omega-six to omega-three ratios than grass-fed; confinement operations and the various drugs used there decrease the animals' immune systems, cause the production of stress hormones which in turn affect the consumer, and can increase the spread of disease, especially when bacteria develop resistances to the antibiotics.

Then there's the way these various associations grow their market shares in more insidious ways. The corn growers have perhaps been the most successful in the past few decades, and as a result, it is quite difficult to find any sort of processed food that doesn't contain some ingredient derived from corn (high fructose corn syrup being perhaps the most ubiquitous, certainly the most recognizable, and currently the subject of much hot debate). This might not seem inherently problematic, but for one, it causes our entire food industry to be way more interdependent than is perhaps wise. One really bad year for corn, and suddenly it's much more difficult to produce a wide variety of products—and they likely cost more, too. For another thing, there is some reason to think corn may not be as great for you as the corn industry, for one, would like you to believe.

Lately, I've had occasion to encounter a number of interviews with farmers, officers on various crop associations, members of farm bureaus, and the like. A number of them mention trips to China and other developing markets to grow the international market for, say, beef or soy. Yes, the Chinese have been eating soy for probably millennia, but the soybean association isn't content with selling China soybeans for soy sauce and tofu or whatever other traditional uses there might be. No, they won't rest until they get the Chinese hooked on soybean oil and, even sneakier in my mind, introduce soy meal into Chinese meat production. To me, it seems that the American food industry is trying its hardest to export the parts of our food supply system that have made it the most artificial, unhealthy, and, yes, dangerous.

One interview that particularly bothered me was with a woman who worked at the National Soybean Research Laboratory. She waxed poetic about the myriad new uses for soybeans they were developing at the NSRL, which sounded interesting and exciting until I realized some of them were largely useless. She talked about using soy flour and other such products as good ways to increase protein consumption in poor Africa schools where cheap nutrition was really necessary. OK, so far, so good. But then she went on and on about how one could substitute between one-third and one-half of the wheat flour in, say, cookie or cake recipes, with soy flour, and so on and so forth. She never really explained why one would want to do such a thing, though. (Soy flour and wheat flour have basically the same calories and fat content, though soy flour does contain a bit more protein.) Apparently soy flour has a weird consistency, which is why one can't replace all the flour, so all in all, it seems like a lot of trouble to go to for only a tad more protein—and since when do Americans need more protein in their cookies, anyway? I am personally somewhat scared of soy (possibly irrationally so) because of the estrogens it contains and the possible effects of those. In general, I think it's unwise to be intentionally attempting to weave an ingredient so deeply into the food supply chain that when unpleasant news does come to light concerning its health effects it is nearly impossible to avoid its consumption (as is currently the case with corn).

What I find the most disturbing of all, though, is that the attitudes of so many in the agriculture industry who seem to view such expansion into overseas markets as their due. They complain about the stricter rules the European Union has, for instance, against genetically-modified grains, or that South Korea has, for instance, on the ages of imported cattle (an attempt to prevent mad cow from entering the country). I'm kind of concerned about our food producers having so much of an agenda of their own, separate from growing what consumers actually want. And really, when they begin to expand their production of meat or grains that adhere to whatever rules other countries have in order to expand their exports to those countries, America is going to be left with the inferior food because we have laxer rules—and that just seems backwards.

Note: My issue is not with expanding the use of corn or soy per se. For instance, I laud the development of corn-based, biodegradable packing peanuts and with the use of soy oil in glass to reduce shattering, and I have nothing against marketing those uses heavily. What concerns me is what seems like pushing the consumption of these ingredients in forms the health benefits or detriments of which have not yet been fully established (or regardless of the health detriments that have been established), working these ingredients into the food supply chain so thoroughly that they are almost impossible to later remove, exporting America's bad food habits to other countries, and, most of all, doing all this in such a way that the average consumer isn't even really aware of it and doesn't know how to comment on it if he or she is.

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