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.