In Media, Big Ag Looms Large while Farmers Get Younger, Better Looking

In September 1965, CBS broadcast its first episode of Green Acres, a mini-series documenting a family’s transition from an urban life of prestige and luxury, to one of mud, manure, and chaos on a farm in the fictional town of Hooterville.

Green Acres took off, in part capitalizing on the popularity of its 1963 predecessor, Beverly Hillbillies, which was the number one TV show in America during its first two years. While Green Acres commented on the awkward integration of city elite into rural America, Beverly Hillbillies followed a clan of poor Ukrainian farmers through their upgrade to flashy Beverly Hills (but only after striking oil – mistakenly – on their land). The two TV hits were only a part of a mass of mini-series placing a farmer, or farm family, at the center stage. Other notable shows included The Real McCoys and Petticoat Junction. According to film critics, these series succeeded for their comedic portrayal of culture clash; for the agricultural community, however, the shows unfairly labeled farmers, and the farming occupation, as backward, poor, uncivilized, and low-class.green-acres

By the 80s and 90s, TV focusing on the rural farmer waned in popularity. Perhaps the last big effort to revive the genre came in 1993, as 20th Century FOX released Beverly Hillbillies in a movie format. The critic reviews gave the movie an A for low-brow humor, but labeled the overall effort a pointless remake of a worn-out past. Worse still, the film’s directors received complaints from (mostly southern) viewers who found the movie insulting, irrelevant, or both. And so, by the end of the 20th century, the relationship between TV, film, and the farmer was headed for reform.

Admittedly, media’s desertion of the country farmer role reflected the reality of a swiftly changing food environment. As the US food system was appropriated by massive industrialized farming operations, fewer Americans could survive as independent farmers, and the bucolic image of rural food production -overalls and mud – no longer resonated with the TV-watching, movie-loving public.

By the 2000s, popular film took on industrialized food production, and began to depict agriculture as a mysterious and powerful force of greed and deception. One such portrayal came in the 2007 movie Michael Clayton, which followed an elite lawyer through his defense of an agrochemical company’s billion-dollar class action lawsuit brought for damages caused by toxic chemicals. Two years later, the movie The Informant publicized the true story of an employee of Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s largest agriculture processing companies. The plot depicted the details of this employees’ harrowing experience as a whistleblower against executives found to be fixing the price of lysine, an additive for livestock feed. Read More >

Michael Pollan (and me) at the CDC

The media aren’t the only ones paying attention to calls for a sustainable, healthy food system. Last Friday, Michael Pollan was invited to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to vision with them about how their work can support a more healthy, sustainable food system. Planning his visit encouraged cross-Center collaboration (CDC has 7 Centers) which will be necessary for future food systems work. He spoke to a packed house of CDC employees and outside guests (including me) and was firm in pushing the CDC to become a leader in supporting a healthy, sustainable food system. The CDC seemed receptive, as noted in the CDC’s introduction to Pollan: “We at the CDC care, and we want to do better,” and some concluding remarks: “[Pollan’s] visit has been the catalyst to pull people together across the Centers, and will leave a lasting legacy at CDC.” Read More >

A Solution to Contaminated Foods – Local Sustainable Agriculture

In mid-January, Future Harvest – A Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, held its 10th annual conference. More than 200 people gathered to learn about sustainable agriculture practices, and how to get more local, sustainable foods into groceries, schools, hospitals and even farmers markets (thanks to keynote speaker Nina Planck). This year’s attendance was evidence of the expanding diversity of the group’s supporters as food service chefs from schools and hospitals, small grocery buyers, local food distributors, and farmers’ market managers came for the first time. Farmers from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania mingled with these folks, sharing their stories and talking about ways to improve the local food system. Members and supporters of Future Harvest CASA are a real, viable solution to the recent unsettling news about the safety of our food supply – like antibiotic resistant staff strains in industrially produced hogs and mercury in industrially produced High Fructose Corn Syrup or see IATP press release. Read More >

Sustainable Agriculture Leaders Advise Transition Team

Today leaders in the sustainable agriculture community, organized by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, briefed members of the Obama transition team on priorities.  It was great to have the transition team’s ear, and to hear so many positive action ideas for the administration’s initial work.  CLF director, Dr. Bob Lawrence spoke of the epidemic of antibiotic resistance, and emphasized the need for the FDA to strengthen antibiotic licensing and permitting requirements in animal agriculture.  He also urged the USDA to take an in-depth look at the food safety impacts of antibiotic use in animal agriculture.  These recommendations and others are outlined in more detail as part of the Pew Commission report.

Most of the recommendations discussed did not address public health per se, although many had significant implications for public health.  We in the public health community are organizing to provide further input on issues relevant to the connections between food systems and public health.

Here are some other public health-related recommendations discussed during the call.
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