On February 23rd, I received an email from Tim Thomas of the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance asking me to speak at the Arizona Food Summit on April 28th. I enthusiastically accepted the invitation and participated two weeks later in a lengthy planning call with other speakers and conference organizers. I even bought an airline ticket for Phoenix.
On April 12th, I got a call from Laura Oxley, a staff member at the Arizona Department of Agriculture, one of the Food Summit’s sponsors. Speaking in a trembling, but practiced bureaucratic voice, Ms. Oxley told me that I was officially disinvited from speaking at the summit. According to her, some of my website’s industrial agriculture and GMO references over the past few years had offended the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, the Arizona Farm Bureau, and her department’s director. She told me that one of the cattleman was a “third-generation rancher, and the department’s director is a fifth-generation rancher…and they think that your presence at the summit would be divisive and prevent some members of Arizona’s agriculture sector from attending.”
I was flabbergasted, especially since my role at the summit was to speak only on the topic of “creating an equitable food system,” one that would provide healthy and affordable food to everyone. I had no intention to discuss production agriculture of any kind.
The “dissing” disinvite was particularly infuriating because anyone familiar with my writing would know that I take a relatively moderate position on industrial agriculture, letting the evidence and the need for transparency inform my remarks. Anyone familiar with my career would know that I have worked well over the years with several different state Farm Bureaus, and that I was a founding member of the Southwest Grass-fed Livestock Alliance, where, in spite of my poor horsemanship, I got along pretty well with the cowboys on our board. That Arizona ranchers would perceive me as a threat strongly suggests that their “third-generation and fifth-generation” status is nothing more than the on-going degeneration of their already sun-bleached intellects.
I could go on spilling invective across the rangelands of the Southwest – making inappropriate comparisons between Arizona’s ranchers and their cattle, and challenge the department’s director to a draw at the AZ/NM state line. As good as those actions would make me feel, it would only drag us all a few more steps backwards into the cave. The truly sad story, like most of what is passing for critical thinking in “post-fact” America today, is that Arizona’s ag-industry representatives are making judgments based on painfully little information. Rather than enter into a meaningful dialogue with those who may hold differing views, they use what they think they know to take hostile action against their “enemies.” Montaigne’s admonition rings true: “Nothing is so firmly believed as that which a man knoweth least.”
The summit might have been a great place to share a range of opinions and strategies – a forum for robust debate – that could bring a greater measure of food security to Arizona. Instead, it will be dominated by an ag-industry that controls the agenda and speakers, and mirrors our national inability to think straight. In study after study, as recounted in a recent New Yorker article (“That’s What You Think,” February 27, 2017), researchers consistently find that people hold on to their beliefs long after the evidence has thoroughly refuted them. “Once formed,” the article quotes researchers as saying, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.” Large swaths of the food and farm sector retain their stereotypes of the so-called alternative food movement with the tenacity of a pit bull.
Much of the large-scale, commercial farming community displays classic symptoms of what human psychology researchers refer to as “confirmation bias.” Simply put, this is our normal inclination to agree with the people we hang out with, whether their opinions are correct or not. God help the one Arizona rancher who might have the independence to say, “You know that Winne guy might be a little loopy, but maybe we should hear what he has to say.” If she persisted in challenging the pack, she’d probably experience an unexplained increase in cattle rustling.
To be fair, all quarters of the food movement are guilty of confirmation bias and spend sadly little time considering the evidence. “Small food” is good, “big food” is bad (what about the in-between, i.e. “bigger food?”). Organic farming is good, conventional farming is bad (what about sustainable farming practices that use integrated pest management techniques?). Hanging out with no one other than the members of the local food coop leads to the same mind set – albeit at opposite ends of the spectrum – as the ranchers who only hang out with each other at the local café. At best, we exist contentedly in our own undisturbed universe nursing our respective market shares; at worse, we feed the dangerous polarity that has rent an abyss between large segments of society and stalls the evolution of human knowledge.
As the New Yorker article put it, “If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion you get, well, the Trump Administration.” And, I would add, the Arizona Farm Bureau, various classes of ill-informed “foodies,” and conferences like the one planned for Arizona in late April. A commitment to remaining clueless not only means that one will dwell forever in Socrates’s land of the “unexamined life” but that my “enemies” will grow more distant, intransigent, and fearsome. A deeper understanding of the facts and the other side’s world views are necessary precursors to finding answers to the genuine threats of global warming, food insecurity, and declining human health. As we sink together into the cauldrons of Hell, one last “I told you so!” won’t make much of a difference.