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In Debate About Food, a Monied New Player

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left; Dan Glickman, a former secretary; and Claire Shipman of ABC at a Food Dialogues panel in Washington. By Julia Moskin, The New York Times Published: September 27, 2011 LAST week, a new public-relations campaign about agriculture got off to a splashy start. With full-page ads in newspapers and panel discussions live-streamed on the Internet, the newly formed U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance began what it called a bid to “reshape the dialogue” about the American food supply. “When did agriculture become a dirty word?” the Alliance asks on its Web site. Chris Galen, a founding member of the group and head of communications for the National Milk Producers Federation, said, “There is a feeling across the board in agriculture that Americans have concerns about the food supply, and those are best addressed by farmers.” To assure Americans that food is safe, abundant and affordable, farmers can use their voices and faces to fight the label “Big Ag,” the organization’s leaders say. But the group’s members include the largest agriculture marketing groups in the country, with billions of dollars to spend. They include the American Egg Board (“The Incredible Edible Egg”) and the National Pork Board (“The Other White Meat”). Its $11 million annual budget will come partly from mandatory marketing fees that the Department of Agriculture helps collect from farmers, and from corporations like Monsanto, the producer of genetically engineered seed, and DuPont, a major producer of chemical pesticides. Each company has committed to an annual contribution of $500,000. Yet Bonnie West, a spokeswoman for the American National Cattlewomen, a booster group for beef consumption, said her members felt like “small potatoes” in the national debate over food. The “big potatoes” for the group seem to be advocates and authors like Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) and Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”), and the filmmaker Robert Kenner (“Food, Inc.”), whose work has criticized industrial agricultural practices like huge feedlots, tight confinement of animals, the widespread use of hormones and antibiotics and the billions of dollars in federal subsidies that they say support an otherwise unsustainable system. It is a source of pride for their allies that there is now a perceived need for an organized response to their critiques. “I see the existence of this group as a triumph for the good food movement,” said Marion Nestle, the New York University professor whose criticisms of federal agriculture policy and corporate farming are numerous and well documented. (Her recent post on the Alliance drew a record volume of comments to her blog, she said.) Words like “organic,” “sustainable” and “local” have become powerful to many American consumers. Because of popular demand, mass-market chains like Wal-Mart now stock organic produce and milk; restaurant chains like Red Lobster and McDonald’s have begun to identify the sources of their raw ingredients. The battle is over more than labels. Also at stake is the $25 billion annual budget for discretionary spending by the Agriculture Department, and crop subsidies worth even more. Bob Stallman, chairman of the Alliance, is also president of the American Farm Bureau, the farmers’ main lobbying group in Washington. Under the Farm Bill, dozens of subsidies are set to expire in 2012, which some say is the reason for the escalation of the current debate. “In this age of budget cuts, everyone in agriculture is fiercely protecting their funds,” Ms. Nestle said. “Unfortunately, Washington is running our food system as a zero-sum game.” But the battlefield itself has changed. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it weren’t for the rise of social media,” Mr. Galen said of the alliance. During the panel discussions, which can be watched online at fooddialogues.com, the group worked feverishly to generate comments on Twitter. The discussions, which were held across the country, included people from across the farming and food policy spectrum, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and were hosted by Claire Shipman of ABC News. (Ms. Shipman and the chef John Besh of New Orleans were among those who requested and received payment for their participation, the group said.) Even movements like Meatless Mondays, Slow Food and the Organic Consumers Association have had big impact through online campaigns; the documentary “Food, Inc.” alone has almost 400,000 fans on Facebook. After it was nominated for an Academy Award and gained wide distribution, groups like the American Meat Producers Association responded with an escalation of online content, including sites like meatmythbusters.com. “Today, fewer than 5 percent of Americans live on farms,” the meat association said on that site. “For many people, the news media, books and movies are their sources for information about how America’s food is produced. This also means Americans are vulnerable to myths and misinformation.” The idea that Americans who do not live in rural areas are uninformed about farming is a theme for the Alliance. “Farmers and ranchers used to have more of a voice, but now people are so distant from where their food comes from,” Ms. West said of the cattlewomen group. “People assume pesticides and antibiotics are bad, and that farmers and ranchers use them only to make a quick buck, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.” Organic farmers are noticeably absent from the Alliance’s list of affiliates. “As a rule, we like to be for things, not against them, but this represents everything we are working against,” said Bill Deusing, head of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Myra Goodman, a founder of the organic collective Earthbound Farms, is among the large-scale growers who have so far declined to join the Alliance. “If in practice it turns out to be a forum for honest, inclusive, productive discussions about the state of our food system, it could be good,” she said. “If it turns out to be all about protecting the status quo, then it won’t be so productive.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/dining/in-debate-about-food-a-monied-new-player.html?_r=2