MODERN PROTESTERS HAVE TURNED IDEALISM INTO AN INSTITUTION
On a blustery day in Washington, D.C., Wenonah Hauter, a public interest advocate with Public Citizen, holds a press conference in the swank offices of the National Press Club. She and colleagues from other organizations are there to condemn the use of meat irradiation and the failures of modern meat inspection using Sinclair Lewis' The Jungle to make their point.
Afterward, Hauter and her co-workers from Public Citizen gather in the conference room of their small office on Pennslyvania Avenue, where box-cluttered stairs and narrow hallways feel like a holding pen and chute leading to the bathrooms. Celebrating the day's event falls to an eclectic gathering, including a lovely dark-haired young woman named Christina, who hands out pamphlets featuring a giant mushroom cloud rising behind some sheep suspiciously spotted like Holstein cattle. ("Do you know what breed these are?" I ask, to her blank stare.) Plastic flutes of champagne are passed out. The table is laden with sandwiches consisting of a vegetarian cornucopia: red peppers, alfalfa sprouts and cucumbers. No meat, of course.
WHO IS THE ENEMY?
Hauter and her husband Leigh operate a community-supported agriculture program on a 100-acre farm at the edge of the Appalachians. They sell shares in 22 weeks of "subscription vegetables" - whatever is ripe each week. She’s not afraid to call herself an activist.
"I think activist is a good word. We need lots of citizen activists," she says. "I’ve always done public interest work. I guess I was just motivated by my experiences as a teenager in the 1960s. I’ve been at Public Citizen going on four years and, before that, I was at Citizen Action. I work mostly on energy and environmental issues."
In agriculture circles, however, activism has become a "dirty" word - a word that many fear will impact the future of agriculture and rural life.
"The average citizen would be absolutely amazed at how interconnected protest groups are and where they get their money," says Tony Minnichsoffer, public affairs director for Syngenta Seeds. "People think there is corruption in politics or business, but they are continually under the watchful eye of everyone, whereas these folks are operating with full privilege."
Modern activism has morphed from its original idealism into a business, an industry and a self-perpetuating machine that is well organized, highly trained and well funded. Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, for example, claims that modern environmental groups abandoned science and logic in the 1980s when the reasonable elements of the environmental agenda went mainstream. They couldn’t make the transition from their adversarial role of confrontation to consensus.
But they have banded together to strategize and form their own powerful consensus. According to the book Silent Scandal, written by Ron Arnold, many of the individual players have come together in a group called the Environmental Grantmakers Association. EGA is an informal, unincorporated association of some 200 foundations and donor programs. This "power elite of environmentalism" designs many of the programs assigned to organizations commonly thought of as environmental groups. Collectively, according to Arnold, EGA members give more than half-a-billion dollars each year to environmental groups.
THE ‘ANTI-BUSINESS’ BUSINESS
The "environmental industry" or "eco-conflict industry" is comprised of a dozen major groups with a collective operating budget and assets of more than $1 billion, says Jay Lehr, environmental scientist and lecturer. Combined with wildlife groups, they pulled in $5.83 billion in 1999.
"Their product is packaging and selling fear," says the 64-year-old Iron Man triathlete, motivational speaker and author of science textbooks. "They want more central government, more United Nations control. They definitely have socialist tendencies. All of their goals are to make it less possible for the population to grow. They put animals above man.
"Just keep in mind, what is absolutely the most important thing in the U.S. that we want to maintain?" he asks. "Freedom!" this interviewer exclaims enthusiastically. "Right!" he concurs. "To the extent that activists encroach on our freedoms, we must fight. Freedom is not a natural phenomenon, and we are still experimenting with this tremendous concept that our founding fathers started."
Activism and capitalism both arise from self-interest, Lehr says. "In their case, the self-interest is hidden," he says of the activists. "Motivation that is totally altruist should be suspect. If there is not a personal interest there, beware." In its arrogance, the liberal socialist philosophy turns people into second-class citizens, he adds.
"With capitalism, the self-interest is money," he admits. But that goal relies on selling a useful product or service. "It’s self-regulating - it either does good or it’s gone. Only capitalism feeds society. No other form of government lifts peoples’ standard of living. If 70 years behind the Iron Curtain doesn’t prove that socialism doesn’t work, I don’t know what does."
He hints that corporate agriculture could take some tips from the activist playbook. Primarily, be more covert.
"I’ve worked with a major food company whose goal is never to be heard from, to come in below the radar screen, to offer a product with great potential without attracting attention," he suggests. "Educate your buyer without creating a storm of public attention."
Once something becomes public, one strategy of these groups is to make fighting an issue so time-consuming, damaging and expensive that companies eventually abandon a product or process. One example is polystyrenphone, McDonald’s plastic packaging, which was dropped after the public became convinced of its environmental evils. Another strategy is promoting "extended producer responsibility," which compounds a manufacturer’s liability costs to include the disposal of a product after the end of its useful life.
Last year when Larry Bowland, a scientist with Friends of the Earth, spent $7,000 testing corn products for traces of the StarLink gene, he identified the industry’s "Achilles heel" - the only genetically modified crop on the market without full clearance for food use. While the crop was planted on only 1/2 of 1 percent of the nation’s corn acres, he strategized that the volume-driven handling system could still allow for unapproved residues to appear in food.
"Here we are talking about something highly emotionally charged and totally up to subjective opinion," Minnichsoffer observes. "The products have been developed and tested before they get to the market, and virtually none of them are dangerous. The EPA or FDA can’t say they should ban a product or they can’t say it’s totally (100 percent) safe, so they have to take the middle ground, and it turns into a mess."
SHAKING SOME BUSHES
Brother David Andrews is standing in a school gymnasium in front of a crowd of 100 or so mostly Roman Catholic farmers. At the Land and Faith Conference in Garden City, Kan., the morning starts with prayer. Then Brother David, who is with the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, delivers an hour-long sermon on the importance of the Jubilee year and its connections to farming and to food. "Eating is a moral act," he insists repeatedly, dishing up a theme for the day along with meaty food for thought.
Gathered here are old and young farmers, fathers and sons, long-married couples, a few would-be state legislators stumping for votes. One man is handing out a bizarre manifesto on a parasitic invasion of the human spirit, and another claims the power to read handwriting and sense unseen illnesses in other people. As the meeting concludes with a presentation on the Kansas Catholic Conference’s legislative agenda, Brother David urges his flock to "shake some bushes."
Later, over drinks on the deck outside of Southwind, the local country club, he and a much smaller group discuss the state of modern agriculture. One dignified and serene woman talks in a soft voice about farmers increasingly unable to provide for the necessities of their families, slowly losing their farms, their land, their way of life – the things they are most connected to on this earth.
Among this group with activist proclivities, an objective journalist is somewhat conspicuous. The soft-spoken woman looks me straight in the eye, smiles, levels an accusing finger and says, not unkindly, "When do you go to the street?"
Does social and political activism act as a public conscience? Can it help keep things balanced, raise awareness and introduce positive self-examination? How does it benefit a capitalist society?
"Activists are the prophetic voice of the people who experience what the larger system is doing to the community. That would be their role," says Bob Gronski, policy coordinator for National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines. "If we live in a democratic society, then every voice needs to be heard - the disenfranchised, the marginalized or those who are pushed off to the side. We need to be aware of people suffering the consequences."
A native of suburban St. Louis, Gronski draws most of his rural and farm experience from eight years of rural development work in the Pacific Islands and Asia. He has a doctorate in rural sociology from the University of Missouri, where he spent a couple of post-graduate years studying the effects of market concentration.
"I talk about the dueling concepts of the new agriculture," he says. "Sometimes I read in corporate agribusiness about the new agriculture of global supply chains. Sustainable agriculture is a new agriculture as well, but it’s more locally based and environmentally sound, with less use of chemicals and more humane respect for animals. The question often raised is whether the two types can exist together or whether they are mutually exclusive. To come to the table, to convene, that’s the trick, I think, in serving the larger interest."
"I don’t like to throw stones at activists because we all are one," says Ron Duchin, president of Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin Inc., a Washington D.C.-based public affairs consulting firm. He helps companies manage corporate public policy issues driven by activists, consumers and public interest groups. "We might each be in a different category, depending on what the issue is."
In fact, Duchin has identified four types of activists that companies need to understand in order to develop appropriate business and public affairs strategies. These are outlined in the sidebar to the right.
He recommends companies make the effort to understand public opinion by putting together focus groups and sponsoring studies. "The balancing point for these corporations is, ‘Does it make economic sense for us to do this?’ If it doesn’t make economic sense, you better look at it very long and very hard, and not just do something because of intuition, but because it is the practical or economic way to look at it."
According to Jim McLaren, president of St. Louis consulting firm Inverizon, Ph.D. plant physiologist and certified management consultant, agriculture has been its own worst enemy. He goes on to say, "It has provided enough food of high standards so most people don’t have to worry about producing food. They have time to sit around and think up imaginary problems. People working in the fields don’t have time to think up problems. Society has to be careful not to take away technologies that give them freedom to think in the first place.
"Much of biotech resistance is due to romanticizing nature and all-natural food production, often by people who are not familiar with it," continues McLaren, who grew up on an organic farm in Scotland and has worked in Belgium. "I’ve spent most of my life thinking of new technologies to improve agriculture, not turn it into an old-fashioned, no-technology farm," he says, recounting less-than-desirable memories of traditional farm life.
Some people do have legitimate concerns, however. McLaren offers several solutions. "Having an open debate about any technology is healthy. It’s the way to move forward," he says. "There is no problem in ever having that kind of debate. But when you examine the people who are against biotech today, they want to discredit existing science and business. I think you have to understand what their motives are, where they get their money."
Biotechnology is seldom the true activist agenda, he says. "They use biotech to stir up fear in the public mind to gain more support for their real agenda: disruption of big business and other institutions," McLaren says.
The press has been a big part of activists’ success, he adds. "Somehow or other you have to make the public understand that there is more than one side to this story. We have to address each issue according to the issue. We have to communicate with the public. That does not mean educate the public. We can’t teach them all the science, but we can communicate that we have a process in place to check to make sure everything is safe, and that the processes are based on solid science." AM
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