Blind Faith vs. Insight: Employing Media Literacy to Reject Policies that Harm Human Health

Melinda Hemmelgarn, Registered Dietitian
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UCS | May 6, 2014, 2:38 pm EDT
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As a dietitian who attempts to connect the dots between food, health and agriculture, my first job is to help my audiences think ecologically—to understand ripple effects—or how one influences others.

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”
—Thomas Paine, Common Sense

“The media’s significance and clout comes from its near ubiquitous, pervasive power to completely alter the belief of every American.”
—Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Reed Hundt

I ask that we consider how agricultural policies, which drive farming practices, might affect food, water and soil quality, and ultimately human health. I suggest that we ponder unintended consequences. For example, how might monocultures and chemical farming impact the bees that pollinate our fruits and vegetables? Or how might endocrine-disrupting pesticides or synthetic fertilizers leach into our groundwater, reach our faucets and impact human biology?

As a journalist,  I strive to help others think critically about media messages that influence our thoughts and therefore public policies. I help my audiences deconstruct and analyze advertising by asking such questions as:

  • Who owns and profits from the message?
  • Why were these actors selected to deliver the message? and,
  • What is missing from the message?

Advertising example of "man against nature"

For example, a common theme in farming magazine ads is man’s war against nature. Missing is the ecological understanding that what we do to nature, we ultimately do to ourselves.

Protecting Our Freedom to Think, Farm and Eat “Well”

Of all the dietary advice I’ve dished out over my three decades in my profession, the recommendation to increase fruit and vegetable consumption to reduce chronic disease stands the test of time. However, policy leaders in Washington D.C. appear ready to approve and embrace new genetically engineered (GE) crops which will withstand spraying of the herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba (in addition to glyphosate/Roundup) without full consideration of the unintended consequences, such as drift damage to health-protecting fruit and vegetable crops, the impact on rural community sustainability, and homeland security which depends on our nation’s ability to feed itself well.

Damage to grapes from pesticides

Damage to grape crops from pesticides 2,4-D drift damage, Terra Bella Farm, Callaway County, MO. These grapes will not produce health-protecting edible fruit, juice or wine. © Dan Hemmelgarn

Here’s where we need media literacy and Payne’s wisdom. Let us question how we came to accept the notion that patented GE crops and their associated herbicides are the norm—the “modern” farmer’s way to “feed the world.” Let us show and tell a different set of stories from our frontlines of farms, hospitals, schools and supermarkets. Let’s talk about the President’s Cancer Panel report which warns against environmental exposure to pesticides—all missing pieces of the common media messages.

Let’s promote critical thinking skills as the foundation of public health and democracy. Let’s encourage “why” questions in elementary schools, protect academic freedom at land grant universities, and ensure a strong, free press. Let’s question the language and show more accurate pictures of reality. The images at left of 2,4-D damage to a grape crop in Missouri give visual proof that “co-existence” is a smokescreen for “contamination.” Let’s promote agro-ecological farming methods and support global farm policies that will provide for a healthy population, necessary for a sustainable future.

Finally, let’s adequately fund public education so that we are not dependent upon commercial interests and their agenda-rich curricula and research priorities which interfere with critical thinking and sound nutrition. Let’s plant organic gardens at every school, hospital and institution, so that we may all understand our vital role and responsibility in protecting the web of life and taste true democracy.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Science and Democracy Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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  • Your work is excellent. Many thanks for what you do.

    • Mike, thank you! Good to see the strong media literacy community connecting to the Union of Concerned Scientists.