Oct 28 2016

The Anti-Profit Narrative

moms_fatsuitMark Twain said,“Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep ’til noon.” What he was saying with his characteristic folksy charm is that a good narrative is more powerful than facts.

It is still difficult for me to wrap my head around sometimes. When properly motivated, people have absolutely no problem completely ignoring facts, or dismissing them with a casual flick of rationalization.

This natural tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance with nimble mental gymnastics is bad enough. Humans have also learned how to exploit this tendency in others for their own ends. I have to quote Sting here:

Poets priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for your submission
And no-one’s jamming their transmission
‘Cos when their eloquence escapes you
Their logic ties you up and rapes you

I would add, anyone with something to sell (I would have substituted “Peddlers” for “Poets”).

We can come up with many versions of Twain’s famous quip. Give a person a reputation for being a health maverick, and they can make millions selling worthless magical snake oil. Give a product a reputation for being “natural” and you can load it with whatever unhealthy crap you want.

Here is one, though, that still drives me crazy: give a company a reputation for being “mom and pop” and they can make billions off of deceptive advertising. I am talking, of course, about Mom from Futurama. She presented herself as a small-time motherly figure just selling home goods, while in reality she was a rutheless, in fact evil, megacorporation. This is just a slight exaggeration of reality.

In the real world my favorite example is the organic food industry. Organic food sales hit $43.3 billion in the US in 2015. When asked people say they buy organic because they want to support small farms, because they believe it is better for their health, they believe it is better for the environment, and they believe it tastes better.

The problem, of course, is that none of these things is true. Organic farming is pretty close to Mom from Futurama.

Most organic food is produced on large corporate farms. This makes sense because large farms produce more food than small farms.

I have nothing against small farms, and love going to local markets or “pick your own” orchards. They help maintain local varieties and crop diversity. But small farms are a luxury. They are mainly agricultural tourism, which is fine. They produce less than 2% of our food, and most small farms do not make enough money to support the farmers.

We will never feed the world with small farms, however. They are less efficient and therefore more expensive than larger farms. Like everything in the world, there are economies of scale that are unavoidable. There is no escaping the fact that we will need to produce our massive staple crops as efficiently as possible, which means large scale farming.

Organic food is not more healthful than conventional food. There are no demonstrated health benefits, and no advantage in nutrition. Organic food proponents are successful in scaring the public about pesticides, even though there is no evidence that the amount of pesticides allowed on conventional farming carries any health risk.

Further, many organic farmers use pesticides. They are allowed to use “natural” pesticides, which makes no sense whatsoever. They are still pesticides, and they are often more toxic than engineered pesticides, and require more applications, and are worse for the environment. Their only dubious virtue is in being “natural.”

That, of course, is the narrative that trumps all objective facts.

There is also no evidence that organic produce tastes better, once you properly control for other variables.

Organic farming is also arguably worse for the environment. The biggest problem with organic farming is that it is less productive, by about 20%. It requires more land to produce the same amount of food. Land use is arguably the single most significant factor when calculating the environmental impact of farming. The more organic farming increases as a share of total food production, the more we have to cut down forests to make extra farm land.

Organic farming sells itself as small, local, healthful, and good for the environment. All of these claims are at odds with the facts, which makes organic farming a scam. They have two main narratives that they use – the health and environmental halo of “natural” and anti-big corporation and profit.

Both of these narratives are also at work when it comes to the anti-GMO movement, which is largely a creation of the organic lobby (another way to promote its own brand) and misguided environmentalists (most notably, Greenpeace). It is not coincidence that they have made Monsanto the poster child for the alleged evils of GMOs, mostly based on lies and misinformation.

If we step back, however, and look at the facts this is what we have. We have a multi-billion dollar industry that sells a product that is no better than its competitor, is more expensive, is worse for the environment, and is less regulated (it can use natural pesticides without having to study them for safety). It is successful largely by lying about its own products while demonizing its competitors. It presents itself as small mom-and-pop operations, when it is just as much big corporate as its competitors.

The facts don’t seem to matter. The narrative has won. When I confront people with well-sources facts that contradict their reasons for preferring organic or opposing GMOs, they simply move over to some other reason that is their “real” reason for their choice – that is, until that reason is proven false with well-sources information. Then they slide over to yet another reason, until they arrive in the protective arms of subjective opinion which cannot be confronted with actual facts.

Cognitive dissonance resolved. The narrative lives on.


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