A New Shade of Greenwash

Caption image by DawnVGillmorephotography

Image from DawnVGillmorePhotography

I'm big on letting thoughts marinate (pretentious-speak for procrastinating).  So when I sat down to write this post, I typed out the title, carefully crafted the first sentence: “Everyone wants to cash in,” and promptly set the document aside for three weeks.  A valid response, of course; when you bust out such a profound line of text, you can’t just slap on additional sentences like some sort of animal-print fashion accessory from the early nineties.

Really though, my initial sentence summarizes the issue pretty effectively; as interest in the environment has increased, environmentally responsible behavior has become trendy, sexy, smart, etc.  Which is great.  What’s not great is that marketers quickly discovered that it’s easy to sell more stuff by exploiting this interest; all you have to do is add the word “green” to packaging, or include some text about “environmental initiatives” on your website!  Thus we encounter the proliferation of pseudo-green products, dubious environmental claims, people who tell you that their $70 million, 17-car garage mansion is the paragon of responsible environmental design, and oil companies that declare their earnest commitment to move beyond petroleum… just before causing the largest oil spill in US history.

Never an industry to miss the chance to make a quick buck or million, Big Ag has long since jumped on the greenwagon.  Back in the day, agribiz got into the organic market (and has since lobbied to weaken the organic standards, worked to exploit existing loopholes, and – when this became too tedious – simply broke the rules outright).

Lately though, a new shade of greenwash has emerged from the smarmy depths of industrial agricultural marketing departments…  What is it, you ask? [cue cheeseball music] The industrial efficiency = environmentally friendly claim.  It goes like this:

  • The global population is increasing!
  • Everyone’s gonna need to eat like the supercarnivores in the United States, land of 99-cent burgers and breadless, all-meat sandwiches!
  • Therefore, we need to ramp up food production like a maniac in order to prevent catastrophe!
  • What’s the best way to maniacally increase food production?  With factory farms and chemicals, of course!

The gist of this contention is that industrial production is efficient (i.e., it cranks out more calories using fewer resources), and is therefore the only way to meet global demand without chopping down rainforests, melting polar icecaps and making babies cry.

Three very basic problems with this analysis:

Overestimate of Food Requirements

Right off the bat, we can reject industry’s estimates of future food requirements since they're based on the assumption that the global population will adopt the meat-mayhem diet that’s now standard in the US.  As any public health professional who isn’t on the Cattlemen’s Association payroll would quickly point out, this diet is hardly the model of healthful eating; high levels of meat consumption are associated with a variety of serious health problems, and have likely contributed to the obesity epidemic in the US.

The meat-heavy diet is also extremely inefficient, in terms of food production.  See, to produce meat, you have to raise animals, which requires tremendous quantities of feed and water, huge tracts of land, and a safe way to manage all the animal waste (though CAFO operators generally disregard this last point).  In any case, meat production boosts resource consumption dramatically (for instance, livestock consume roughly 60% of all corn and 47% of all soy grown in the United States – and we grow a LOT of corn and soy).

Bottom line: if the future global population consumes less meat, it'll be much easier to satisfy the world’s food demand.

Big Ag’s Big Boon

Big Ag has long benefited from huge subsidies, government-funded research at land grant universities, and a slew of public policies that favor industrial production.  It’s unreasonable to expect that sustainable agriculture – if showered with money, technical assistance and supportive public policies – wouldn’t become increasingly efficient and productive.  Yet Big Ag’s estimates of sustainable agriculture’s capacity to produce food are all based on the assumption that today’s fledgling sustainable farms would be no more productive if operated on a larger scale with far greater financial, technical and political support.

Bottom line: on a level playing field, sustainable agriculture would be more productive, and thus better able to efficiently feed the world.

The Myth of Efficiency

When I was a kid, I used to clean my hands by wiping them on the side of my pants.  A facile analysis suggests that this was an efficient practice; I cleaned my hands quickly without using any water or soap!  But I also made my pants filthy, necessitating use of extra laundry detergent, stain remover, multiple washes and the occasional premature pants replacement.  It’s also safe to say that my hands didn’t meet any reasonable standard of cleanliness.

The “efficiency” of Big Ag is similarly illusory; although industrial food can be produced with less labor and (sometimes) fewer resource inputs, the process pollutes air and water, contaminates soil, promotes antibiotic resistance, damages human health, devastates rural communities and compromises animal welfare.  Much industrial food is also unhealthy – and in the case of meat, often dirtier than my hands after a pants “cleaning.”

Bottom line: Big Ag isn’t really so efficient since it creates such disastrous messes.

Don’t Be Fooled!

Industrial agriculture’s greenwash seems to be smeared all over the place these days; a few prime examples I've stumbled upon recently: Monsanto’s Food for Thought video, the work of Jude Capper and two presentations by Denis Avery, longtime proponent of the go-industrial-or-else-the-world-will-spontaneously-combust philosophy of agriculture.

Unfortunately, the greenwashing trend is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.  But since debunking the junk is among our favorite pastimes, we'll gladly provide the paint thinner of reason and sound science.  In the meantime, keep an eye out for greenwash – and if you happen touch any, just be sure not to wipe your hands on your pants.

Responses to "A New Shade of Greenwash"

  1. chris

    Fortunately, sustainable agriculture already exists and has been practiced for centuries! The challenge is to dramatically increase the proportion of food produced sustainably - which will indeed require significant systemic change within the agricultur

  2. Tristram Hewitt

    While reading your very entertaining blog post, I left thinking that Big Ag, by its very nature, practices unsustainable agriculture. In order to save ourselves, and the planet, must an entirely new system of sustainable farming arise? Or, is there anything that could push Monsanto to become a genuinely responsible corporate citizen?

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