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Julie Kelly's Blog

When the organic industry’s high horse takes the low road

A damning video about conventional farming is making hay on the Internet and social media this month. The video – entitled “New MacDonald” – is the latest salvo launched by the organic industry in its increasingly nasty campaign spreading fear and misinformation.

“New MacDonald” uses the song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to paint a stark picture between conventional and organic farms by showing children performing a school play. The play starts off innocently with kids costumed as farmers in front of a red barn and corn. But the scene takes a turn for the worst as the kid-farmers pretend to inject cows with hormones.

The stage is quickly enveloped in smoke with children wearing haz-mats suits spraying crops and others carrying pretend chickens tightly confined to small cages singing “…with a GMO here and a pesticide there, here a spray, there a spray, everywhere a spray, spray…” The camera pans to the fake audience, where parents look alarmed and fearful.

But no need to worry: “New MacDonald” comes to the rescue. The stage is transformed into an idyllic organic farm with green pastures, free-roaming chickens and sunny skies. “…and that farm was chemical-free, with no GMOS. No more toxins in our life.” The camera moves back to the parents. They are relieved, happy. The children are saved. Ee-i-ee-i-o.

The group behind the video is Only Organic, “folks devoted to telling the story of organic agriculture and food production with the hope of instilling the peace of mind that going organic gives.” The consortium is backed by major organic food companies including Stonyfield and Nature’s Path.

Gary Hirshberg – chairman of Stonyfield, the world’s largest organic yogurt producer - is the face and funder of other pro-organic crusades including Just Label It (pushes for mandatory labeling of GMOs) and Food Policy Action (a PAC that scores how lawmakers vote on liberal food policy). Under his leadership, Stonyfield has grown into a food industry powerhouse grossing $330 million per year and fueling double-digit increases in the annual sale of organic products based on the message they’re healthier and safer.

Mr. Hirshberg is a marketing marvel, targeting young moms with children via the company’s packaging and website. Yogurt cups are decorated with pastel sketches of grass, cows and clear blue skies. The company’s website portrays a virtual Field of Dreams with happy mommies feeding happy babies yogurt or “love on a spoon” and happy (organic) farmers hugging happy cows. There’s even a cartoon of a little green choo-choo transporting Stonyfield products from coast to coast – no trucks allowed. All products are “made without bad stuff.” The site features an e-Card with a cartoon of a baby under the caption “My kids can’t get enough of pesticides. Said no mom ever.”

But behind the flora and fauna is a shrewd food company executive and political activist (a bundler for President Obama, he attended the 2012 State Dinner) selling a wholesale indictment of the American food system and conventional farming in particular. In a video on the Stonyfield website, Hirshberg laments the aerial spraying of conventional fruit farms and claims “if we (the U.S.) went off to some country and did it, it would be seen as some kind of act of war.”

Of our modern food system, Hirshberg says it results in “…cheaper food, but also mistreated animals, exploited workers, farmers who are criminalized for working their own land, and consumers who don't know what's really in the food sitting on their dinner plate.”

A key benefactor of the GMO labeling movement, Hirshberg also works with Arran Stephens, CEO of Nature’s Path. Stephens – a Canadian citizen heading a Canadian company – donated nearly $700,000 to Prop 37, the failed pro-labeling initiative in California. Although not an American citizen, Stephens says “we may have lost the battle” and refers to organic brands owned by big food companies as “traitors.” In a 2011 letter to President Obama, he claimed the president “let the world down” by his administration’s decision to allow genetically modified alfalfa (Stephens is also a poet with a penchant for hyperbole).

With its dubious portrayal of American agriculture and misleading marketing (organic farms use pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers), these groups are ratcheting up an unneeded – and unwanted - war between America’s farmers. Even organic farmers spoke out against the video during a #NewMacDonald Twitter party last week: “What do I think of #NewMacDonald? I think it only creates more bitterness between organic and conventional farmers” tweeted Paul Fonder, an SD organic dairy farmer.

The war puts American consumers squarely in the middle - more confused and fearful as ever - while some organic profiteers hide behind pastoral pictures and videos using children to advance their message. No matter how much lipstick you put on this pig, it’s still dirty.

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