United States / Internet Activism

Activism is Dead

We live in a seemingly uncensored era of quick clicks and informational freedom—news outlets live stream events halfway across the world seconds after they occur, and there is an incredible amount of information available online for public consumption. But a closer look at these stories allows a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the co-option of information by large corporations, particularly in agribusiness. What was once a bilateral conversation about climate change and the obesity epidemic has slowly devolved into a monologue scripted by highly paid lobbyists at the beck and call of corporate employers. In America, activists may not be silenced by guns, but they are silenced by money; in a capitalist system where money is power, large corporations are kings. As citizens of a nation considered one of the best examples of a functioning democracy, we must accept the hard truth that there are secret undemocratic dealings happening in Washington.

Certain large agribusiness corporations hire lobbyists, or representative groups who fight for legislation or support political candidates to benefit their employers’ interests. It is somewhat concerning that in a democratic system large unelected groups have such a profound effect on legislation. Agribusiness lobbyists are responsible for pushing bills through Congress that petition for more moderate environmental laws, less climate change legislation, and even more lenient food labeling laws. They are inextricably entwined with our legislative branch, and sometimes they can seem to have more power in decision-making than even elected officials.

These narratives curated by higher-ups in the agribusiness industry not only influence legislation but also the behavior of citizens. This deceptive information causes Americans to have misconstrued understandings of nutritional health and ecologically friendly habits. The extent to which this narrative permeates the American psyche reaches even a subconscious level. For instance, children attending schools that promote healthy eating but offer pizza and fries on a daily basis may be conditioned not to consider these foods as detrimental to their health. Furthermore, if school curricula, the general media, and activist organizations promote the simplistic narrative of climate change prevention, it is unlikely that citizens will understand the importance of other, larger steps that can be taken to make a greater change in these areas. The agribusiness industry’s refusal to acknowledge its detrimental effect on the planet makes its members inactive bystanders to climate change and the obesity epidemic. Their failure was not only their neglect in informing the public about the true effects of meat production, but also their responsibility in separating themselves from the accepted narrative about health and climate change.

Three major cases that exemplify the effects of lobbying on health and environmental reform are First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, the School Nutrition Association, and the fight for climate change by small environmental activist groups.

The food industry spent over $175 million on lobbyists during President Obama’s first term alone. The Obama administration hoped to rid cafeterias of sugary beverages like soda and foods with large quantities of preservatives and artificial ingredients. The administration’s first move towards a healthier America was to raise taxes on sugary beverages in order to reduce consumption and raise healthcare funds. Soda companies spent $40 million lobbying against the tax increase that year, nearly eight times what they spent the previous year. As a result, the government’s soda tax did not pass as planned. The administration’s efforts resulted in a mere voluntary guideline for the nutritional quality of foods and beverages, which were struck down by persistent lobbyists. Special interest groups lobbied for Congress to hold hearings and write letters with the goal of using intimidation to prevent the administration from making progress in childhood health reform. The scare tactics were successful; the Obama administration backed off from the voluntary guidelines.

Photo by Jeffrey Zeldman

Photo by Jeffrey Zeldman

The First Lady tried her hand at fighting the nutritional crisis with her “Let’s Move!” initiative, an effort to combat the growing American epidemic of chronic childhood obesity. The campaign began with intentions to target the food industry and the overall nutrition of American schools. Childhood obesity is a major problem plaguing our country, which not only results in an unhealthy populace, but also costs the US over $100 billion annually in added healthcare treatment for diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses.

The campaign began with efforts to remove white bread and whole milk from cafeterias in the overhaul of the $10.5 billion school lunch budget. In response, Republicans in Congress raised their voices in support of pizza and potato companies. Although school lunches certainly became more nutritious, some results do not make sense: French fries remain a staple of American cafeteria food, and pizza is considered a vegetable because it contains tomato sauce.

Following efforts by large food corporations to thwart the First Lady’s efforts were packaged as positive movements in health reform. The first, Partnership for a Healthier America, was an initiative led by the food industry to reduce the calories in supermarkets by 1.5 trillion by 2015. Further, a food industry coalition proposed a cut from 16 grams of added sugar in cereal to 12 grams of added sugar as the legal limit in a serving. The Obama administration suggested an 8-gram limit, but the two sides reached a compromise at 10 grams.

The effect of lobbying on the way our government conducts reform is shocking. A visit to letsmove.gov gives a glimpse into the vagueness of nutrition standards at schools, as well as the lack of emphasis on educating the public about what they are consuming when they purchase packaged food.

Achieving little in the way of health reforms, the “Let’s Move!” campaign diverted its efforts to exercise. The movement now largely focuses on kids playing outside, getting enough daily physical activity, and taking enough steps as recommended for each age group. This major move away from the important issues of nutrition allows for the continuation of misleading “healthy eating” promotion by large food corporations.

Many have been displeased by the administration’s weakness in the face of lobbyist’s attacks. Even Democrats such as Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who was chairman of the Senate Health Committee in 2012, agreed that the White House was “wobbly in the knees” on the issue of childhood obesity.

Further evidence of food corporations playing puppeteer with the American public is the case of the School Nutrition Association (SNA). After studies that came out in 2010 noted the increasing obesity of Hispanic and African American children in the United States, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) implemented a series of strict guidelines and standards for federally subsidized school lunches in order to reach the set public health goal.

Photo by Flickr User 'TumblingRun'

Photo by Flickr User ‘TumblingRun’

Oddly enough, the SNA, which represents about 55,000 cafeteria workers, began to support a mission that called for making the HHFKA optional. Since the SNA declared one of its main goals was sponsoring a healthier food system through education, it is strange that they would chose to support more lenient nutritional standards. A 2014 Politico article made clear the SNA’s financial alliances with big names in food. “About half of the group’s $10 million operating budget comes from food industry members, including membership fees and sponsorship opportunities, according to a review of public tax filings. At SNA’s annual conference, companies can pay $15,000 to sponsor an education session track featuring a company representative or $20,000 to put their logo on the hotel key cards. The largest chunk of the group’s revenue is generated at its annual conference, which brought in $4.7 million in 2012.” Well-known companies like PepsiCo and General Mills are some of the SNA’s major event sponsors, making clear the association’s fickle ideology.

Another issue in which lobbyists have immense power in affecting legislation and in silencing activists is climate change. Climate change is a divisive topic, made even worse by the lack of concrete solutions to the imminent threat it poses. Recently, the conversation has become more about larger concerns like the role of the agriculture industry (meat and dairy production) and CO2 emissions rather than individual wastefulness. But there are few activist groups that openly admit the agriculture industry is the major culprit of climate change; therefore, ending its monopoly rule over America’s land is difficult. Activist groups like Greenpeace and Oceana are the resources Americans look to for information about the real problems and ways to lessen their personal effect on the planet. Positive reforms in the near future are unlikely when powerful corporations and their lobbyists intend to silence these groups with intimidation and funding.

The newly popular documentary “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret,” by documentary filmmaker Kip Andersen, is one of the first major works to openly suggest the agricultural industry is the main source of our planet’s changing climate. The film “uncovers the most destructive industry facing the planet today—and investigates why the world’s leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it,” as self-described on its website. The documentary sheds light on the agricultural industry’s effect on the Earth, as well as the real lacking of “sides” in this fight for a cleaner, greener, planet.

A closer look at the facts Kip Andersen cites throughout his film makes evident the muddled rhetoric on climate change. The first thing made astonishingly clear is that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a share higher than the combined exhaust of all transportation. Second, livestock and their byproducts account for 51 percent of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Taking into account that methane is 25-100 times more destructive than CO2 in the long term, there is a serious issue at hand.

Besides obscuring the hard facts, the biggest problem with silencing activist groups is the effect it has on how everyday people take steps to combat climate change. At a young age, people are indoctrinated with the belief that by making small changes to their routines (such as shutting the water while they brush their teeth, driving an electric car, keeping the lights off during the day) they can seriously reduce their ecological footprints. In comparison to the effect of reducing meat consumption, these steps are mostly inconsequential. Driving an electric car to pick up a hamburger, which by conservative estimates uses 2,500 gallons of water, is an oxymoron. This is not to say that small steps do not add up and that people should not take action to be less wasteful; this is to say instead that we must understand the true effect of meat and dairy consumption.

In producing the documentary, Andersen contacted well-known activist organizations like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and Oceana in order to understand why the general public was not informed about the detrimental effects of the agribusiness industry on Earth. Even the organizations’ websites had very little information concerning agribusiness. After months of contacting groups, the director received responses from few groups. He was confused by their disregard of such an obvious problem. As his research took him further into the world of environmental activism and food industry lobbying, Andersen began to notice a pattern of silence among top organizations. Curious about the cause, he delved into the highly politicized relationships between these smaller organizations and large food corporations.

The findings were shocking but demonstrated why Americans do not understand the real causes behind global warming. Large agribusiness lobbies actually provide funding for many of the activist organizations, and fear of political persecution as well as blackballing stops these organizations from exposing the major contributors to global warming.

Large agribusinesses currently control the public narrative regarding our food and energy consumption. They have taken over the information stream, and they are using their powerful influence in the government, as well as their financial stability, to present Americans with distorted truths that fuel their corporate interests. The question now is whether there is anything to be done. Is it possible to take back the reigns from these powerful conglomerates? It seems unlikely considering their pervading influence; however, it is possible that with pressure from an informed public, more statistically accurate information will be made available. Not silenced by guns, but rather by money, power, and influence, true activism has become a rarity in the United States.