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30 June 2009

US food fights reflect PR failures by Big Food


The PR failures of US agribusiness create challenges for New Zealand exporters and farmers

It's not often that New Zealand media provide insight into the issues which ultimately drive demand for our food products in world markets. Saturday's NZ Herald is an exception. In an excellent feature article Food Fight: the latest battle in the US food wars Peter Huck exposes the grass roots war between agribusiness and activists for the hearts and minds of US consumers and policy makers.

The article says nothing about the implications for New Zealand, but it's easy to join the dots. One of the big trends is for locally-grown produce bought directly from the producer or as Michelle Obama has demonstrated, grown organically in your own backyard. If this trend shows some longevity, it creates some real challenges for NZ food and beverage producers who until now have seen our South Pacific provenance as a marketing asset rather than a liability.

For Kiwi farmers, it is also likely that public reaction to some of the excesses of industrial agriculture in the United States will spill over into public debate and possible tougher regulations here. Local green activists, and some sloppy journalists, have repeatedly shown themselves incapable of distinguishing between agribusiness as practised elsewhere in the industrial world and what happens on the Kiwi farm.

Not that you can blame them when the representatives of US agribusiness keep scoring own goals. In a move that Peter Huck describes as a ‘cackhanded PR move' the Mid American Croplife Association that represents pesticide companies wrote a letter to the US First Lady reminding her of the role conventional agriculture plays in the US. Use chemicals, Michelle, was its message.

Meanwhile Monsanto, which markets GM seeds and Roundup, has gone on the offensive, with big newspaper ads. These are intended to reinforce the company's sustainability credentials, but their size, cost and sophistication only serve to reinforce the divide between Big Food and the dreams of consumer activists which are for small, sustainable and local.

The incredible thing is that Monsanto ran a similar ad-based campaign in Europe in the early 1990s, trying to win support for GM technology. It was a total failure; succeeding only in polarising the public and in the banning of GM crops from many European countries.

Monsanto Roundup is superb technology. Its contribution to soil and water conservation - in terms of improved carbon retention in soils, reduced soil compaction and loss during cultivation and more efficient use of fossil fuels - is probably without parallel.

In contrast, its commercialisation of GM has been a public relations failure - creating a business model that everyone loves to hate. Doubtless it's one of the major drivers of the growing public reaction to Big Food in the US, as well as the entrenched attitude in the NZ body politick that all GM is bad. Which is far from true. 




- Trevor Walton

What do you think?

Iain MacLean
It's not even the PR activities that are own goals. The benefits of industrial agriculture - surety of supply and stable prices based on tight control of inputs - have gone to consumers. But the concomitant downsides of environmental degradation, erosion of biodiversity, destruction of family farming enterprises, over-reliance on animal remedies and the indifference to animal welfare practices have all harmed its reputation. Unfortunately, the pie in the sky attitudes of many activists or misguided consumers who think the US could feed its population from backyard organic gardens and small scale agriculture based on high labour inputs means those farmers who are trying to buck the trends and farm in ways similar to NZ farmers are tarred with the same brush as large-scale agribusiness. Those anti-farming attitudes will easily spill over to all farmers who sell into the US market, including everyone from NZ farmers to genuine low-input farmers from developing nations. But then, those developing country farmers are unlikely to get access to the US market anyway because of the unholy alliance of agribusiness interests and anti-globalisation activists working to keep them out. (There's another topic for you Trev.)

Did you see the Food & Grocery Council's response in Monday's Herald to Huck's feature? Really weird. The Council's CEO Katherine Rich didn't say she was responding to Huck, but her response to activist claims that US retailers were 'greenwashing' was ill-advised. It's not clear whether she was interviewed by the Herald or sent in a media release, but Rich would have been better to keep her trap shut. All she did was come across as defensive. My bet is the response of most readers would be, "what's she got to hide?". Another own goal perhaps ...

Linus Van Pelt
I read Katherine Rich's comments in the Herald as well. I found them to be cogent, well-argued. and reasonable. Reading it carefully, it's pretty obvious she was interviewed for the article. Press releases aren't written like that. My issue would be with the journalist who wrote it. Could she have written a more dull article?

Katherine Rich
Neither saw Monday's Herald feature, nor responded to it (or issued any press release). Was interviewed a few weeks ago on whether New Zealand food companies were taking the issue of sustainability seriously. Seems Luke has made some wild assumptions.

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