Thursday, October 05, 2006

The danger of straying from the topic

Nicholas at the beer and food weblog Pint and Fork offers a lively commentary about off-topic digressions by otherwise-appealing food policy advocates.
People have asked me why I haven't supported groups like the Organic Consumers' Association or the Family Farm Defenders. These groups have admirable goals but their voice is deleteriously affected by "off topic" opinions.

Before I dish, let me say that I have the greatest respect for these groups when they are "on topic."... It would seem odd, then, that these groups would go out on a limb to do things that are politically controversial, completely unrelated to their mission statements, and divisive.
For example, Pint and Fork objected to a link on the Organic Consumers' Association website to an article about what Karl Rove may be planning in terms of an "October Surprise." I can see the point. It might be wiser for the Organic Consumers' Association to pitch itself as progressive but non-partisan.

As another example, Nicholas criticized Family Farm Defenders for linking to the pacifist farmers' group Farms Not Arms. Here, however, I found the alliance more reasonable and on-topic. Both are small progressive farmers' advocacy groups, and pacifism is not really a partisan position. Nicholas wrote, "I consider pacifism a radical political idea, and one that is extraordinarily divisive." But that's quite an ironic accusation. Pacifism may be divisive, but the warriors of the world aren't exactly sitting around together holding hands and singing Kumbayah.

In a class on U.S. Food Policy, I teach the advocacy coalition framework, which deals with the sometimes strange and temporary alliances between very different groups that find themselves on the same side of a particular policy debate. Think of ACLU and Nazis, for example. The danger with these coalitions is that liaison with a sometimes hated enemy can alienate core loyal constituencies. The Pint and Fork commentary provides a good example of this type of hazard.

Comments are open for your thoughts about which of Pint and Fork's criticisms you agree with. Feel free, while we're at it, to voice any objections to my own occasional off-topic commentaries. I am happy to listen and even change my ways.


Mark said...

I think anything goes on an idividual's blog, but I agree that organizations need to define a mission and stick to it. Any other approach introduces bias, and shows that the organization is undisciplined, may be controlled by a small cabal, and is not representing the views of all its members.

The CSPI is showing signs of mission creep into the environmental area. This introduces a fundamental bias into their primary health mission.

For example, they are attacking palm oil as a substitute for trans fat, because it contains saturated fat. Fine. But then they go on to attack it because production of palm oil is destroying the rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. Huh? How is that going to harm my health?

This kind of thing makes me wonder if palm oil is really all that unhealthy in the first place. What is their main motive for criticizing palm oil? Health? Or the environment? If they had stuck to their health mission, they would be more believable on issues like this.

Joe said...

Totally disagree with Mark, at least in the instance he cites. Any discrimination between health and the environment is short-term at best. What's the point of eating low fat foods if you can't breath the air or drink the water? Where are healthy foods going to come from if all our top soil washes into the ocean? This isn't a partisan issue, unless supporters of one party are somehow exempt from breathing or drinking.

Nicholas' objections make more sense, however. The difference I see is the explicit partisan nature of the links he objects to. The ACLU had clear, principled reasons for defending the speech rights of racists - but what do conspiracy theories about Karl Rove and bioweapons have to do with organics or family farms?

Mark said...


The point is that the CSPI is making specific claims about specific and immediate short term coronary heart disease effects of trans fat that may not in fact be true.

They are not saying that the adverse health effects are the long-term respiratory -- or whatever -- problems that mankind will experience as the rainforests are depleted.

This is similar to the mercury-in-fish controversy, where ocean conservation groups want overfishing to end, but they try to accomplish this not by educating people about the long term environmental consequences of overfishing, but rather by food scare tactics about hypothetical effects of mercury.