As farmers flex social media muscles, are they ‘spinning’ food?

Farm Forum

What happens when farmers and ranchers start using social media and new communication strategies to tell their respective sides of the food production story?

Apparently, they start to get under the skin of some food and environmental groups who are suggesting that those doggone food producers have apparently gone too far.

In a new report, Friends of the Earth and others are crying “foul” about attempts by the farm community to add their own perspective to the farm to fork conversation. It suggests that the thousands of independent farmers and ranchers – along with some key scientific experts – who are using these new media tools, are doing so because they serve as shills for big corporations like Monsanto and DuPont.

Their new report, “Spinning Food: How Food Industry Front Groups and Covert Communications are Shaping the Story of Food” attempts to pit farm versus food interests – even in some areas where there might be more commonality than expressed in the report. Here are some of the key findings:

• Big food and chemical companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars from 2009 to 2011 to manipulate the public conversation about our food.

• 14 front groups — often appearing in the media as independent sources — spent $125 million during that time frame to push coordinated messages that serve industrial agriculture interests. These include groups like the U.S. Farmers and Rancher’s Alliance, whose partners include Monsanto, DuPont, Dow and Syngenta.

• Covert PR tactics these groups are using include efforts to disparage “organic moms,” the growth of “native advertising” disguised to look like real news, stealth engagement on social media and the use of third-party allies to foster an echo chamber for industry talking points.

• Coordinated messages pushed by a range of seemingly independent spokespeople are making their way from PR firms to the pages of leading media outlets. The report details and debunks five of these key messages, including “organic food isn’t worth the money” and “GMOs are needed to feed the world.

For decades, farmers and ranchers failed to gain traction in national media because they were being overblown by the likes of urbanite Michael Pollan writing in the powerful New York Times, the Environmental Working Group’s well-ranked and highly searchable “deadly dozen” list and a host of supposedly scary topics ginned up by the Food Babe.

And then, a few years ago farmers and ranchers decided to stop getting mad about their lack of media influence. They learned to employ some of the same media strategies as their critics. Farm women started blogging, tweeting, and (gasp!) even inviting non-farmers out to their farms. Their husbands started having conversations on Facebook. And even scientists like Monsanto’s Rob Fraley got unleashed to tweet and respond to critics with his own Twitter handle.

It’s easy for the report’s authors to make the case about “attempts to manipulate the conversation about food.” Big companies and organizations are spending millions of dollars to manipulate the public conversation about food – commonly known as advertising and public relations. These firms have been doing so for years, but the tools and tactics have changed.

Unfortunately, the authors don’t point out that some of these “message manipulators” come in a lot of different stripes. Instead, they tried to suggest that some sources are considered trustworthy while others are not – and journalists should beware of the latter.

The truth is that some companies produce food with conventional crops. Some produce food with genetically modified crops. Some use only organic ingredients. Increasingly, food companies have a footprint in all three camps. Any capable journalist should be able to do their homework and find out who is promoting what.

The debate and the tactics described in this report are not limited to Monsanto, the Food Babe or others that want to attract internet searches and generate web site page views. The growth of “native advertising” designed to look like news, is certainly not limited to the farm community or “industry funded” groups.

In fact, if the report’s social media scorecard is correct (on page 48 of the 62-page report), there’s still little for the “foodie” movement to be concerned about its influence. It pegs monthly website visitors for the Environmental Working Group at 1.1 million with 456,500 Facebook likes and over 27,000 Twitter followers. The Union of Concerned Scientists has 580,000 web visitors, 90,000 Facebook likes and 26,400 Twitter followers.

Compare that to what the report says are “Industry funded groups” and you’ll see that the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food has only 220,000 monthly web visitors, 82,400 Facebook likes and 14,700 Twitter followers at the time the report was written. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance has only 10,000 web visitors, but compares more favorable with over 350,000 Facebook likes and 23,400 Twitter followers.

The report’s authors want journalists to be ever-vigilant about who might be “spinning” the news against the organic community, but they didn’t always take care to check all of their own facts. For example, the report tries to paint a picture of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) as being beholden to Monsanto, DuPont and other corporate giants. But the chairwoman is a farmer who currently serves on the farmer-funded United Soybean Board. Fourteen members of the 17–member board our farmers and ranchers. About 70 percent of the organization’s funding comes from farmers and ranchers, with roughly another 30 percent from corporations.

The report goes on to criticize USFRA for spending at least $1.5 million to product a feature-length documentary film, Farmland, “which was presented as a balanced exploration of the lives of farmers and ranchers – but whose message, critics point out, glorified industrialized farming operations.”

Apparently, the authors of the report failed to watch the documentary – which includes profiles of two young organic farmers growing crops on small operations – in addition to farmers using other types of production practices.

Editor’s note: There is a link to a 2010 Agri-Pulse article in the Friends of the Earth report which was reprinted by Grist without request or permission and includes several typographical errors. In the interest of full disclosure, the author has served as a moderator for one of USFRA’s Food Dialogues.