Postcard from Orlando II: Look Closer … at the Farm Bureau

Although I’m no longer standing at the Farm Bureau-sponsored exhibit, The Great American Farm, at Disney’s Epcot Center, I can’t seem to shake the creepy feeling it gave me. One of the most visible parts of the exhibit are the Look Closer screens, which invite attendees to Look Closer at biotechnology:

Prominently placed next to the screen is this sign, so at least you know what message you’re about to get:

(The sign says "Special qualities." What do they mean by "special", I wonder? Because I knew a kid who was "special" once. He ate worms and had trouble finding his way home after getting off the bus.)

With the "Look Closer" exhibit, you move a small screen over a large photograph until you come across a place with four arrows, like this one:

A narrator tells you that "this is a corn plant, surrounded by weeds." Then the narrator invites you to touch the screen to Look Closer. As soon as you do, the image zooms in a little:

Over the next couple of screens, the narrator tells you that:

Weeds are bad because they block sun, steal nutrients, and choke the corn plant’s growth. Look closer!

One way to deal with the weeds is to turn them into the ground. But this can cause massive erosion. 25 billion tons of topsoil are lost annually to erosion. [The narrator doesn't mention the fact that corn acreage itself can lead to massive erosion. But never mind that. Let's Look Closer!]

Another way to deal with weeds is through herbicides. But herbicides can’t tell the difference between a weed and a crop. Look Closer!

Then you come to the final screen, which is a look at the plant’s genetic structure:

The narrator tells us that by Looking Closer, scientists have figured out how to modify DNA so that the plant can tolerate herbicides, so — yay! — we can continue planting 80 million acres of corn every year, without consequence!

I don’t claim to be an expert on GMOs. I don’t have the scientific expertise to draw meaningful conclusions from the vast and conflicting claims about GMOs. Do genetically modified crops actually create scary superweeds? Do the herbicides tolerated by these crops really cause toxic and endocrine effects, including placental damage? Are they actually associated with kidney damage and non-Hodgkins lymphoma? Or are they relatively benign for human health and the environment? As a layperson, the more I research, the more confused I become.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want Disney to be the one to help me — or my kids — answer these questions. Not ever, but especially not on my vacation, and not in this oversimplified way. The whole presence of this exhibit feels like a sneak attack. I came here to ride Big Thunder Mountain with my six-year old. I came here to see my toddler’s eyes light up in wonder as we rode It’s a Small World. I came here to watch the kids discover with joy that the Finding Nemo ride exits into a real aquarium with manatees and dolphins and clownfish. I came here prepared to shake hands with the oddly mute characters of the parks — Mickey, and Minnie, Chip n’ Dale, Winnie and Tigger, and even the many princesses, those paradoxical sexpot innocents — whom my kids can’t quite escape in the real world. I did not come here to shake hands with biotechnology.

But then there’s this exhibit, wedged between a roller coaster and a ride through Spaceship Earth.

So — okay, fine — I’ll take their advice. I’ll Look Closer. But not at biotechnology, as Disney and the Farm Bureau were hoping. Rather, I thought I’d Look Closer at the Farm Bureau itself.

Let me make clear that I’m talking about the American Farm Bureau, the large Washington DC-based organization. It is not meant as a sweeping indictment of state or local Farm Bureaus. My focus is the sponsor of this exhibition.

The American Farm Bureau claims to represent American farmers — they’re the "voice of American Agriculture!" says their website — and it boasts proudly that it has over 6 million member "families". But…red flag here!….there are only 2.1 million farm operators in the U.S. I can’t help but wonder: who are those other 4 million members? What are their voices saying? Given that the Farm Bureau has been the largest lobbying influence in the agricultural sector, it’s a question that’s worth looking into. I guess that’s why some groups, including the National Family Farm Coalition, have called for a Congressional investigation into the organization.

There are some curious aspects to the American Farm Bureau’s positions. For example, despite their stated mission mission to enhance and strengthen the lives of rural Americans and to build strong, prosperous agricultural communities, they oppose country-of-origin meat labeling — so shoppers like me would have no way of knowing if their meat was actually raised by an American farmer. [Update: Officially, they are against mandatory labeling but "for" voluntary labeling. Same difference.] While many family farmers oppose NAIS, the American Farm Bureau has been a big supporter of the program. John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, contends that the Farm Bureau members who are farmers are actually harmed by the bureau’s policy positions. Another grower, a fifth-generation family farmer, recently opined that the "Farm Bureau has hijacked true democratic human and property rights, damaged the environment, and forced family farmers off the farm. They have tainted the very reputation of agriculture with their ‘me first’ policies."

It’s not hard to tell who their BFF is. Monsanto executives headline at the Farm Bureau annual meetings. The president of the Farm Bureau gets comfy-cozy in Monsanto’s tent at farm exhibitions. Together, the two best buds even collaborated on a PBS show about farming.

And this exhibition? It was once Monsanto’s. When sponsorship was turned over to the Farm Bureau, an article in the Farm Bureau’s newsletter (PDF) noted that it was tailored by Nancy Cullen, a "consultant." A quick Google Search leads me to a document (PDF) about an agricultural forum that was held at Epcot. One of the attendees, Nancy R. Cullen, has a Monsanto email address. Same Cullen? Helluva’ coincidence if it’s not.

I’m not saying that they can’t be friends. I’m just saying I’d like to Look Closer at a few other things, like the Farm Bureau’s membership, and how companies like Monsanto might be influencing the largest agricultural lobbyist in the U.S., and what that means for the minority of the Farm Bureau members who are actual farmers.

And why, oh why, is the Happiest Place on Earth spoiling the magic with with this crap?

Dump it, Disney. Since you don’t seem able to filter out a corporate agenda from real education, then I’ll choose a ride with Goofy instead. After all, that’s what I came here for.

12 Responsesto “Postcard from Orlando II: Look Closer … at the Farm Bureau”

  1. Debs says:

    This is a fantastic post. So, so creepy.

    Food Is Love

  2. melanie says:

    you’re on to something here. the indoctrination is truly scary!

  3. hello says:

    You raise very important issues here. First, I agree with you that the public doesn’t know much about genetically modified crops. I don’t know who’s to blame for this state of affairs. Is it biotech companies, governments, NGOs or educational institutions? There’s no definitive answer to this. I’d, however, advise folks to get as much information as possible.There are plenty of web sites and blogs on agricultural biotechnology out there. Consider visiting them. For instance, GMO Africa, highlights potential applications of agricultural biotechnology in developing countries. You might like to hear what biotech companies like Monsanto say about agricultural biotechnology. Monsanto runs a web site that features videos of biotech experts and farmers. On the web site, these people discuss benefits of genetically modified foods.

  4. Lorna says:

    A great post but this line made me cringe:
    I came here to watch the kids discover with joy that the Finding Nemo ride exits into a real aquarium with manatees and dolphins and clownfish.

    Teaching children that manatees and dolphins can be kept in aquariums is not a harmless activity. They are part of the natural environment and shouldn’t be used and abused for human entertainment. The welfare of wild animals is just as important as that of farm animals.

  5. Barry Foy says:

    Well done, Ali. I hope you plan to write Disney directly on this subject, in the same eloquent fashion. Perhaps they could be persuaded to issue some kind of statement for Ethicurean readers.

  6. Judy says:

    This is just totally ridiculous!  Great post Ali.  One more reason to avoid Disney.

  7. Heather says:

    I’ll post this again, since it didn’t get through.  I was shocked by your comments about the “special” kid.  I expect better.

  8. Bonnie P. says:

    Hi Heather: I don’t know why your comment didn’t go through the first time, perhaps it was during the site maintenance. However I also don’t know why you would expect “better” from us — we don’t exactly have any sacred cows around here when it comes to jokes/puns. (I mean, did you see the last item in the April Fool’s Digest? Even Barry didn’t want me to use that one.) However, in Ali’s defense, I think she was simply making a comment about what a wide range of qualities the word “special” covers. I regret that you or anyone else would take an off-the-cuff reference quite so literally, and personally. But we’re not going to stop joking about whatever we want as a result — that would mean Monsanto et al. would win!

  9. Debs says:

    You know, as much as I loved the post, I also cringed at the line about the “special” kid. Kids with developmental disabilities are already so ostracized. Even if it wasn’t intended to, I think a comment like that can have a hurtful effect. The kid you knew may have eaten worms and had trouble finding his way home, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t intelligent or worthy of love. To equate this kid with problematic biotech seeds can be read as assuming the reader has a disparaging view of a kid who meets that description.

    I don’t think it was intended as harmful; I think you were trying to be funny and remind readers to be skeptical. Still, it’s not really funny for people with developmental disabilities or their advocates, families, or friends. Talk to some parents of these kids, and you probably wouldn’t reflexively write that kind of comparison again.

    Anyway, thanks for thinking about it, and thanks again for the informative post.

    Food Is Love

  10. Ali B. says:

    @hello: Really? You think that a web site run by Monsanto is a “great place” to learn more about GMOs? Because I would think it would be a great place to see Monsanto public relations at work. As for your “gee I wonder” question about why the public doesn’t know that much about GMOs – could it be perhaps because they were approved without any public debate or notification?
    @ Lorna: The manatees that are there are endangered, and I did a little looking – seems like most manatee activists (yes, there are such a thing) agree that they need safe places to breed and raise young. I guess I thought that this was part of keeping ‘em around, but I admit to be way out of my expertise on this one. Thanks for the comment.
    @ Heather: Didn’t mean to offend you. The target was this exhibit, none other.

  11. Heather says:

    Thanks Debs, for saying it just right.

  12. Lynn says:

    Still, it’s not really funny for people with developmental disabilities or their advocates, families, or friends. Talk to some parents of these kids, and you probably wouldn’t reflexively write that kind of comparison again.
    Please, can people not be so darn ‘socially/politically touchy’ and just appreciate the jokes around here. I thought the ‘special’ kid line was funny. My boyfriend ate an earthworm once just to see how it tasted…and he wasn’t a kid. He was 19. He just happens to be a lot less squeemish about tasting things than most of us are.  So far, he doesn’t seem to have much trouble finding his way home…

    Good article Ali!…Thanks.…Best site for the GMO situation worldwide…