Mark's Food Policy Blog

Finding Solutions to Today's Food System Challenges

Winne Banned in Arizona!

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.

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8 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. Jack Hale
    April 24, 2017 at 5:50 pm #

    Well, Mark, there you go. I hope you will wear your disinvitation as a badge of honor. I certainly agree with you that close-mindedness and confirmation bias seem to be sweeping the country these days. I know you are getting wicked old, but I hope you can find the juice to keep standing up to it. And I hope those farm folks will discover a little fortitude of their own so they won’t have to rely on hapless government workers to protect their sensitive skins from the likes of you. Carry on!

  2. Kate
    April 24, 2017 at 9:49 pm #

    This is disheartening to learn, but not surprising. Fortunately, your words provide well needed fodder for all the budding local food policy councils here in Arizona to chew on. Thank you.

  3. George Kent
    April 24, 2017 at 11:52 pm #

    Hi Mark. I recently published a book called Governments Push Infant Formula that critically assesses the way some governments heavily subsidize infant formula. The inspiration for writing it is explained in the preface’s explanation that the chapter on the US “was prepared despite resistance to its line of analysis from the California WIC Association. I was invited to give a talk to their annual conference in 2011. After having been listed in the program and having arranged flights and hotel bookings, they understood that I would have some critical things to say. They suggested specific talking points of praise for WIC’s activities that I might use instead, but I declined. I was disinvited just days before the event.”

    Maybe we should collect these experiences based on the principle, Do no criticism!

    Aloha, George

  4. Kathryn Lafond
    April 25, 2017 at 12:06 pm #

    Interesting and disheartening. You say your topic was to be “Creating an Equitable Food System,” which must have been so frightening to them. I guess they misnamed the conference, Arizona Food Summit should be How Arizona can continue to honor the status quo of their Cattlemen Association and big Ag Farm Bureau. That ‘equitable’ word is obviously where the guns get drawn.

  5. Mark
    April 27, 2017 at 3:44 pm #

    Gary Nabhan responds to action by the Arizona Department of Agriculture:

  6. Rachel
    May 4, 2017 at 1:30 pm #

    Dear Mark,

    I don’t know you, but you sound like a reasonable person.

    Don’t feel bad…we at GMO Free Arizona have been disinvited to many things, especially at our State University(s), Farm Bureau, AZ Dept of Ag…heaven forbid you should talk about pesticide/herbicide/GMO crops causing cancer or environmental problems (among other things). At some point these orgs will become entirely irrelevant to thinking-eaters due to their misguided, short sighted, industry financed attempt to defend indefensible chemical-industrial agriculture threatened by those that speak the plain and simple truth.

    Arizona’s many thinking-eaters would still like to hear what you have to say we don’t need an industry sponsored event to do it…can you do a recorded presentation or interview? Please contact me and let’s make it happen!

    Have a GMO Free day,
    Rachel Linden, Director
    GMO Free Arizona

  7. Jim Manning
    May 8, 2017 at 9:24 am #

    Mark, I just saw this after our recent contacts. Thanks for all you do to keep the discourse rational and the lines of communication open. May you have the stamina and sense of humor to continue do it for many years to come – we need it now more than ever.


  8. Kylie
    October 18, 2017 at 9:45 am #

    Hi Mark,

    It is shameful that in this modern age, with nearly unlimited access to information online, that the United States is so riddled with conformation bias. Previously formed impressions and the unwillingness to accept new research are crippling our nation’s progress on many levels. In terms of food policy, I’m saddened to hear that you were disinvited from speaking at the Arizona Food Summit because of these fundamental issues. I wholeheartedly agree that listening to opposing viewpoints is imperative in the development of food and agriculture policies that will benefit the majority of the community.
    Keep fighting the good fight!


    Kylie, Nutrition Scholar
    Texas State University

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