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Sustainability: How will agribusiness marketing redefine the term?

Submitted by Food Democracy Now on October 21, 2010 - 1:19pm

By Lisa Stokke

Today many of us face challenges of sourcing food grown sustainably and organically, that is mindful of the wage paid to farmers growing the food, as well as of the footprint on the soil, water and air. While some are fortunate to know the individual farmers who grow their food and therefore the agricultural practices used, most of us are not and as a result we must depend upon confusing labeling, and the “story” behind the label of where our food comes from, which often times is prettier than reality.

Deciphering where our food comes from and whether or not it was grown according to our personal values and standards is often times like walking through a minefield in the grocery store, reading and interpreting labels, companies and production practices. And, since there is no label or acknowledged criteria for “sustainable”, it leaves the term vulnerable and open to wide interpretation.

As if this weren’t enough, a new challenge has arisen with recent interest in “sustainability” by large corporations with notorious "un"-sustainable practices, presenting its own challenges to individuals and families striving to source the best food, all things considered.

Corporations such as Monsanto, PepsiCo and most recently Walmart have recognized this market opportunity, and have made the move from hopeful self-promotion to a dangerous co-opting of the term “sustainable agriculture”, threatening a public uninformed of the complexities of a bio-diverse agricultural system required to make the gold standard claim of "sustainable".

 Responses to this trend have been varied, most likely dependent upon one’s individual outlook, be it pessimism, optimism or unabashed skepticism regarding the growing corporate paradigm within agriculture in the U.S. today.

While some have applauded these efforts, recognizing them as validation and success that large corporate entities are promoting these ideals, making local and sustainable food more available, creating markets for midsized farmers, others are rightfully skeptical. Obviously, there is some truth in the possibility of expanding markets for family farmers, but the real concern is how much gets lost (and compromised) in the corporate shuffle?

Among environmental, food and sustainable ag activists, scrutiny over corporate agribusiness’s move into the once considered sacred realm of sustainable agriculture stem from consideration of issues such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pesticide use, soil degradation, water pollution, farmer income and land security, all a part of which form the larger conversation of what sustainable agriculture is and lead concerned food activists shaking their head with doubt over every new announcement from giant agribusiness monopolies or fast food joints announcing their latest “sustainability” venture.

One thing is for certain, the attention to sustainability by giant corporations indicates that the awareness by the larger public has reached a critical mass. It would seem that on some level, Big Food is having it’s come-to-Jesus-moment by realizing that achieving sustainable living arrangements on this planet most definitely do not, and will not, include large soft drink companies, fast food restaurants, big box stores, and manufacturers of genetically modified seeds.

So, what’s a CEO and marketing department to do when their very existence is threatened by the changing tide of public awareness? Change the narrative – and the terms of the narrowly defined argument.

I can’t help but think of the popular TV show “Mad Men” as it lends some insight – even if superficial – into the overtly deceptive practice of advertising for cigarette companies, with little or no consideration of adverse health risks, even in the face of mounting evidence. The show, in its own clever fashion pulls the viewer into the often times perverse and slippery world of advertising execs in the 1960s through the life worthy of National Enquirer attention of its lead character, Don Draper, an unjustly handsome, clever, and womanizing “ad man”. Though it is eye candy, it offers the public an understanding of corporate manipulation and public disregard through advertising.

As you may have guessed, this skeptic remains… well, skeptical. 

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