For those individuals interested in healthy living and a healthier planet, ears perk up at words like "sustainable agriculture." A program named "Field to Market" conjures visions of a local food economy—small-scale bucolic farming in truly sustainable fashion—not corporations posturing towards global processed food empires. But that’s exactly what the program is.
In a glossy promo video on the group's website, Field to Market claims it's creating a dialogue that's "defining and measuring sustainability" in the food, fuel and fiber chain so that it can help to feed and clothe the billions of people on the planet. "[F]armers learn more about improving crop production and natural resource management inside the farm gate," the website states. "Working together through on-the-ground fieldprint projects, growers and members of the food, fiber and fuel system are helping to tell the story of sustainable production and to promote continuous improvement."
But with a roster of Field to Market member corporations that reads like a list of defendants in recent class action lawsuits for misappropriation of words like "natural," the claims seem suspect. Kellogg, General Mills, Walmart, Monsanto, Land O'Lakes, McDonald's, Syngenta and Coca-Cola are just some of the corporations partnering with the World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy on Field to Market programs claiming to be aimed at conserving natural resources and employing state-of-the-art technologies.
We have to question though whether or not corporations on these scales can actually transform agriculture into something healthy for the planet, even with the help of groups like the Nature Conservancy. The pesticide- and herbicide-intensive crops that members Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, BASF, Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta promote are the converse of sustainability. Glyphosate (Monsanto's Roundup) and now 2,4-D—an Agent Orange component being used to treat weeds resistant to glyphosate—are environmental hazards connected with resistant weeds and insects as well as with severe human health risks. No matter how much a company claims its working towards sustainability, if it's still pushing toxic chemicals into our food, soil and water, sustainability is being abandoned.
Genetically modified seeds also come at an expense to farmers as a result of the high cost of paying for the seeds each season (as opposed to the age-old practice of seed-saving), and in the maintenance of pests and weeds that the companion chemicals are failing to terminate. An errant GMO seed drifting from a neighbor's crop or coming through a grain elevator can spell lawsuits from companies like Monsanto, putting small farmers out of business.
Sure, these GMO crops may fit into to the loose "field to market" definition—what food doesn't?—but it's hardly a vision of sustainable agriculture.
On the finished product side, member Land O'Lakes was recently targeted for egregious animal abuse by one of its suppliers—practices not uncommon in factory farms where animals live in unthinkably horrid conditions. And despite being a member of a program where "field" is the very first word, the sad truth is Land O'Lakes dairy cows never see fields or even open air. Their field is cement muddied by their own feces while they're shackled to mechanical milking machines.
While Field to Market member General Mills recently made the somewhat shocking announcement that it was removing GMOs from its original flavor Cheerios, the majority of the brand's products—including the rest of the Cheerios line—contain heavily refined GMO grains, sugars and oils, crops that are frequently recipients of government subsidies, while healthier crops face challenges and no handouts.
Kellogg's public image issues include its "natural" Kashi brand caught containing GMOs; a lawsuit in which the company agreed to pay $2.5 million over falsely advertising its Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies cereals as supporting the immune system, even though the company lacked scientific evidence for the claims; and another settlement came over claims that its Frosted Mini Wheats cereal will make your kids smarter.
Coca-Cola is also a member of the program. You know what's really sustainable agriculture, Coke? Not growing corn to turn it into a sweetener linked with obesity and childhood diabetes.
Member McDonald's just announced plans to switch to "sustainable" beef by 2016, even though there are no regulated definitions for the term.
And that further illustrates the point. "Field to Market" is a collaboration based on practices that don't really exist—not in a regulated sense, anyway. But with a name like "Field to Market" and claims like "continuous improvements in productivity, environmental quality, and human well-being," consumers are once again being swayed by marketing ploys and tactics put forth by industries only interested in increasing bottom line and market expansion.
Just as we've learned to be cautious around terms like "all natural" consumers now must look beyond the names of industry trade groups like the Field to Market program. We need to look closer to home—to local growers and producers whose sustainability efforts are obvious. We need to seek out and support those producers who truly can transform our world's fields by not trying to dominate all of them. Those invested in meticulously caring for a small piece of land for producing food, fuel or fiber—those are the farmers vested in our future. Those are the farmers who know what the real field to market journey looks like. It's a painstaking one, but when done right, it doesn't need big fancy promo videos, namedropping collaborations or awards. Healthy land, food and communities are reward enough.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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