Campaign challenges destructive power of agro-chemical industry
Activist and best selling author Anna Lappé is on a mission to show there is a more natural and sustainable way of feeding the world.
Food activist and best selling author Anna Lappé is fastidious about protecting her children from increasing levels of toxins being created by the agro-chemical industry.
But even she was shocked to be told recently that the organic rice milk she had been giving to her older daughter was likely to be laced with arsenic.
"In my mind I thought my family was hermetically sealed and then the Consumers Union released their study on the large levels of arsenic in US organic rice," says the 34-year-old author of Diet for a Hot Planet, who this week launches a new campaign to challenge the marketing might of the large corporations who supply pesticides and antibiotics.
"One of the reasons for this is livestock factory farmers use arsenic-based drugs which should not be happening. It was such a reminder that we are all connected in this. Even though I don't buy factory farmed meat or dairy, those practices still affect my family so I need to do as much as I can to change these practices," she says.
Lappé's mission is to not only confront the industrialisation of our agriculture but also to show that there is a more natural and sustainable way of feeding the world's growing population.
While she does not see the big agro-chemical companies as being inherently bad, she sees their destructive behaviour as the natural consequence of an economic system that places profits ahead of wellbeing.
"It is not about some evil person in a corporate office twiddling their thumbs working out how to bring down the world," Lappé explains.
"This is the inevitable outcome when you have consolidated corporate control on the food system. A few companies are profiting heartily from industrial agriculture and their mandate is to deliver the highest returns to shareholders on a quarterly basis and the way that they are doing that is through pushing products that are not good for our health or the planet.
"Look at a company like Bayer CropScience, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Its recent sustainability messaging says it is helping feed the world. But when you look at their core products, they are one of the biggest providers of antibiotics into the livestock industry. Antibiotics and factory farms are one of the leading reasons behind a major public health crisis of antibiotic resistance, yet they are lobbying heavily to ensure there are not stricter regulations on antibiotics in farming in the US.
"One of their most profitable products is a pesticide that covers 90% of corn seed in the US and new studies have just come up linking that particular pesticide with the disappearance of bees."
Not only do big corporations have large budgets to play with, but they have political leverage through their lobbying activities. Lappé points out that for every elected politician in Washington there are approximately three dozen lobbyists acting on behalf of corporations.
This is why she believes it is so important to create an alternative narrative. While campaigning over a 12-year period and taking part in more than 700 events, she kept hearing the same questions being asked: can we feed the world with sustainable agricultural techniques? Is organic really better? And wasn't she just being an interfering food nanny?
"Then I paid a lot of attention to the communications coming from the food industry and realised that the questions people were asking were the talking points that were coming from the food industry," she says.
"There is a deliberate effort on the part of the companies that are profiting from chemical agriculture to shape the narrative.
"Our modestly budgeted Food Mythbusters campaign is an attempt to expose people to the scientific literature and help people understand the truth behind the marketing messages."
Global studies, she argues, from organisation such as the OECD, the UN, the World Bank and the UK's Foresight report, are making an increasingly compelling case for the need for sustainable agriculture.
Lappé also says increasing numbers of people are experiencing personal transformations about the need to change their eating habits.
But aren't products such as organic food, with their higher price tags, the preserve only of the middle classes? Lappé disagrees: "I have met many people who are struggling to put food on their table and work two jobs and have had the biggest epiphanies. People are painfully aware of the crisis in their communities, such as around diabetes.
"You realise that once people have that shift in consciousness, you cannot unlearn this. So it is encouraging that more people understand that this is not just about me changing my practices but we are in this together."
While recognising that some of the companies she targets have CSR programmes in place and individuals who would like to do more, she says their hands are tied by the core business model.
She focuses in on Coca Cola, pointing out that while it has "all these fancy sustainability reports, what is its core product? A sweetened beverage that is bad for your health, that is dehydrating, that uses large amounts of water and that science has shown is linked to the obesity epidemic.
"We cannot expect the corporations profiting from the system to be the drivers of change. The drivers have to come from outside and we have to work to create a policy and regulatory environment that levels the playing field, so that those actors who are truly sustainable are able to get in the game."
Lappé says there are few incentives to help farmers introduce sustainable practices and that this is highlighted by the fact that only 5% of the research budget from the US Department of Agriculture goes into this arena.
In the past, she believed it would take a real crisis to wake people up to the reality of our destructive agricultural practices but now she is not so sure, pointing out how little has changed despite the terrible drought of the summer that saw half the counties declared as disaster zones.
The proposed farm bill on Capitol Hill which plans to create a new government-funded crop insurance programme does not even require farmers to take any steps to make their farms more resilient.
"We know from the science that in 40-50 years industrial agriculture based on mined minerals, high energy demands for synthetic fertiliser and huge amounts of water will not be viable," she says. "My concern is we will wait that long before we change."
So doesn't Lappé despair that so little progress has been made? She admits that the world is moving rapidly in the wrong direction, represented by the rise of genetically modified produce and the fact that only 1% of US corn is eaten directly, with the majority going to feed livestock or create fuel.
But that only convinces her more of the need for civil society to come together to confront the power structures that maintain the status quo.
She highlights the victories that have been achieved. A decade ago there was not a single programme linking farmers to public schools but now they exist in every state.
Thirty years ago there were only a few hundred farmers markets in the US, but now there are more than 7000.
Lappé says: "We have been called Pollyanas and naïve with our head in the clouds. But if you look back at what has been successful and where we have seen real success, it's when people come together to organise on two fronts; to make policy change and organising around forcing corporations to do the right thing.
"We can really see where we have made some big strides. Before we stepped in, for example, the original proposed organic standard would have allowed farmers to use sewage sludge, genetically engineered seeds and to irradiate their food and call it organic."
What also keeps her committed is seeing how other activists have kept going even when the odds have been stacked against them. She mentions Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, who has just launched a campaign against seed slavery, and Kenyan environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai.
"I met Maathai when President Moi was still in power," says Lappé. "She had just lost one of her biggest funders and been threatened with arrest for her organising and she was struggling to keep the organisation together in the face of this dictatorship. If you had told her at that point she would win the Nobel peace prize she would have fallen off the chair laughing.
"I look at my colleagues trying to transform the food industry. I think we do it from a place of feeling we have no choice but to keep trying and to take real pride in the wins we do achieve."
The greatest influence in her life has been her mother, who has spent the last 40 years campaigning against the chemical industry.
The two of them were looking at some of her old notes recently and recognised how the warnings about the dangers of industrial agriculture she was making back in the 1970s still resonate as strongly today.
"I am saying what my mother said 40 years ago but there are two reasons why I am not depressed," she says. "Firstly it is proof of the staying power of the science.
"Secondly, do you think the members of the board of Coca Cola are sitting around at their annual meeting looking at a presentation about how many billions of dollars the company is going to spend telling people yet again to drink Coke this year and saying 'I can't believe we are saying the same thing we did 100 years ago.' They know that they are in the business of shaping consciousness and that is an ongoing process that never ends."