National Geographic Finds a Cash Cow in the Dairy Industry

A troubling Facebook post popped onto my feed the other day:

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 2.27.23 PM

It’s a National Geographic post sponsored by Land O’Lakes, a large American agribusiness and food company.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Arguably, news media and private businesses have always been in bed together. ‘Sponsored’ or ‘branded’ content, more recently called ‘native advertising’, is certainly not a new thing. But in today’s era of endless streams of online media, the line between organic content and sponsored messages is more blurred than ever. And when an entity like National Geographic—perceived by many as a trusted source for stories about nature, science, and exploration—starts sharing content sponsored by corporate special interests it begins to violate that trust.

Dairy’s Modern Life

If you click on the post link, you’re taken to a 360-camera tour of a dairy farm (at least, three very short video segments of one particular farm). You can click on various icons throughout the page to read short (very short) blurbs about the milking process. While this visual story-telling approach is in itself interesting, the sponsored content is obviously tailored to give an impression that dairy farms are clean, friendly, and innocuous environments. Some small, ethically minded dairy farms may indeed fit this description, at least to the extent possible when the intensive use of living creatures is involved.

But the typical modern American dairy farm does not fit this description in the least. Most of America’s milk is produced in largescale facilities where dairy cows are separated from their calves soon after giving birth and continually injected with hormones to keep them producing milk. They spend most of their time indoors or in crowded pens, are fed unnatural feed (lots of soy, corn, and canola instead of grass), and are sent to slaughter after approximately 4 years (the natural lifespan of a cow is 15-20 years or more). In addition, large dairy facilities can lead to local air and water quality issues due to excess manure and other waste. Then there’s the many allegations and documentation of brutal animal abuse in industrial dairies over the years (like this one, or this, and here’s another).

None of this is mentioned in the NatGeo post, of course. They only provide a few short sentences praising how well the cows are cared for (including how comfortable they are), how well they are fed (without explaining their feed is not what cows evolved to digest), and how streamlined the process is. #ThanksLandOLakes.

My point is not to point fingers at any particular dairy farmer. But the industry as a whole is problematic on many levels, and this is no secret. US Dairy sales are in decline, and the industry is scrambling to compete with the plethora of alternative ‘milks’ now on the market. Why couldn’t NatGeo discuss this challenge, and point to some of the innovative dairy farmers that are adopting meaningful sustainability and animal rights standards? My guess is because that wasn’t what Land O’Lakes paid for.

Can’t Pull the Wool Over Our Eyes

Ironically, NatGeo’s sponsored post seems to have backfired, at least initially. Roughly 95% of post comments were from angry or disappointed readers who couldn’t believe NatGeo would publish corporate agribusiness propaganda. Here’s just a spattering of typical responses:

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 3.19.22 PM

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 3.18.50 PM

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 3.18.13 PM

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 3.22.55 PM

A few commenters did express support for farmers, but not a single comment last I checked supported either Land O’Lakes or the fact that this was sponsored content. Seeing this strong negative response, I have to wonder: what were NatGeo marketers thinking when they posted such controversial sponsored content? Do they just not care as long as they get funding from sponsors? Or do any clicks and comments, regardless of the reason or type of response, count as a win for NatGeo analytics? Did they just really misjudge how their target audience would respond?

I don’t have an answer to these questions. Perhaps some of you, savvy readers, know more about this than I do and have hypotheses or insights? The frustrating thing is that most large companies never seem to respond to commenters, either to answer their questions or challenge their negative responses, so we may never know what the NatGeo folks behind the magic curtain actually intended with this campaign. I’ve seen the same sort of audience backlash to posts from companies like Starbucks as well as media outlets like NowThis, and the same silence in response. Do these companies ever have to do damage control in the wake of such incidents?

There is no Santa Claus

After I saw this post, I actually ‘unliked’ the NatGeo page. I did so with a tinge of regret, thinking of the future wildlife and nature stories I’d miss. But it felt like the only thing I could do to show my disappointment in a company, a ‘brand’, I had put my trust in since childhood.

When the Murdoch Fox media empire bought out National Geographic’s magazine and TV network a few years back, NatGeo was transformed into a for-profit company. While this may have helped save an entity facing slacking magazine sales and a changing cable TV landscape, the reality is that the acquisition forever changed the ethics and culture of the company (side note: The National Geographic Society is itself still a non-profit entity; but the NatGeo magazine, TV channel, and other media are now owned by Fox).

Realizing that National Geographic is just another company with a bottom line was as sucky as learning that Santa Claus isn’t real. Maybe I was just naïve. But I don’t think I’m alone in my disillusionment. Many wildlife scientists, writers, videographers and photographers have dreamt for much of their lives of working for National Geographic—myself included. It was the ultimate goal, the standard with which we compared all other jobs—the equivalent for scientists of getting a paper published in Science or Nature.

Transparency: It Does a Body (and a Company) Good

It seems only natural that seeing corporate-sponsored content would leave a bitter taste in many of our mouths. I don’t think that National Geographic is evil because of its affiliations, or that the Society doesn’t serve a good purpose by providing stories about the planet and its wonders, and funding great scientific research around the world. No company, organization, or person can ever be completely ethically pure. To complicate things, ethics are an ever-evolving subject that are often very specific to the time and place within which they are embedded. However, certain ethical boundaries are fairly obvious based on public reaction when they are crossed.

NatGeo’s sponsored post certainly seemed to cross one such boundary, resulting in public backlash and perhaps even some very real (however small) consequences in the form of lost viewers and subscribers. While the growth of ‘native content’ is disconcerting, I find comfort in the fact that viewers aren’t so easily fooled. Nor are they afraid to raise their voices in protest when they feel integrity has been compromised or truths distorted. I can only hope that continued pushback by wary audiences will help guide corporate ethics toward greater transparency and responsibility.

***

What do YOU think about organizations sharing sponsored content? What examples have you seen that have made you raise an eyebrow? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

DAIRY (1)
A few bits of information about the dairy industry that National Geographic did not include in its 360 video exploration of a dairy farm.

Where have all the civilized people gone?

Part 2 in my blog mini-series on how everything is connected 

My last post discussed the idea of connectivity with a focus on ecosystems, and how human activities are damaging ecological connectivity. This week I want to expand upon this concept based on an inspiring interview that ties together environmental conservation, human survival, democracy, gender equality, and climate change.

Vandana Shiva (left) and Jane Goodall during an interview about climate change, democracy, and the role of women.
Vandana Shiva (left) and Jane Goodall during an interview about climate change, democracy, and the role of women.

The interview opened the International Women’s Earth and Climate Initiative Summit last December, and featured Vandana Shiva, a prominent environmental activist and author, and Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist, author, and founder of the non-profit Roots and Shoots. You can watch the extended version of the interview—highly recommended if you have the time and patience—here (special thanks to Tyagaraja for initially bringing this interview to my attention).

“We need a new paradigm of what it is to live on the Earth.”

I came across this interview the same week as the NPR story discussed in my previous post, and the ties between the two were uncanny. Both women underscored the dire need for our society to undergo a global shift in thinking—a shift away from the ‘corporate patriarchy’, whose particular type of knowledge and power form a political structure of oppression and destruction, and towards a ‘diversity of knowledges’ that emphasizes compassion, interconnectedness, and well-being in the most inclusive sense.

Catastrophic floods in the Himalayan region of India killed thousands of people and destroyed countless structures and natural habitat. As Vandana Shiva discussed during a recent interview,  the severity of these floods is in large part due to irresponsible hydropower and development projects greenlighted by a corrupt government. Photograph: Indian Photo Agency/Rex Features
Catastrophic floods in the Himalayan region of India killed thousands of people and destroyed countless structures and natural habitat. As Vandana Shiva discussed during a recent interview, the severity of these floods is in large part due to irresponsible hydropower and development projects greenlighted by a corrupt government. Photograph: Indian Photo Agency/Rex Features

Shiva links the widespread ecological genocide occurring across the world with concurrent socio-cultural patterns that perpetuate social inequity (via gender, race, etc.) and violence. According to her, “We need to see more deeply the connections between human inequality and injustice, and the violence against nature.” Industrialized agriculture induces the raping of land, resulting in unproductive soil and loss of valuable resources. The destruction of productive land, whether forest or field, is the source of poverty for millions of humans, particularly in rural areas and developing countries. What is the consequence? Local farmers out of work, men and women who cannot provide for their families, who become frustrated, angry, and sometimes violent or desperate.

As an extreme example, Shiva points to Punjab, “land of the Green Revolution.” Here, the agro-industrial complex was introduced with great fanfare as a solution to all food production problems. The subsequent decades saw massive increases in violence, extremism, and deaths, much of which can be attributed to changes in agricultural practice—mechanization greatly reduces jobs leading to high unemployment; soil health declines rapidly with the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; food security declines as local crop varieties are replaced with monocultures of non-food cash crops such as cotton; and human health is threatened as exposure to toxic chemicals increases (the Bhopal pesticide factory explosion being an extreme, heart-wrenching example of this, in which thousands of people died from direct chemical exposure). Human inequality and injustice are often inextricably linked to violence against nature.

What’s more, the land impacts man just as much as man impacts the land. Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) has made a career out of documenting hundreds of such cause-effect relationships that outline a contentious history between humans and nature. From the ecological destruction of Easter Island to the fall of the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilizations, human-caused land degradation has led to political and social instabilities resulting in famine, mass migrations, and ultimately societal collapses.

An Indian cotton farmer inspects his crop. Bt cotton, which requires high investment in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water, has caused many local farmers to go bankrupt and even take their own lives due to pest infestations, lack of irrigation, etc. leading to perpetual crop failures.
An Indian cotton farmer inspects his crop. Bt cotton, which requires high investment in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water, has caused many local farmers to go bankrupt and even take their own lives due to pest infestations, lack of irrigation, etc. leading to perpetual crop failures.

“The concrete solutions are the most radical ones. The abstract has had its day.”

The problems with our current political and food production systems are many; but how are we to affect change? What new paradigm would replace our current broken system? It’s easy, even for those of us who are in some way involved in social or environmental movements, to feel overwhelmed in the face of powerful corporations, media conglomerates, and totalitarian governments. Luckily, fearless and charismatic leaders exist—even if they are far and few between—that embody the courage to not only speak out against corruption but to present alternative realities based on compassion and justice.

What draws me to individuals such as Vananda Shiva and Jane Goodall (among many others) is their ability to articulate an alternative approach to living, and to lay out, in great deal, the steps to move down that path. For Goodall, it begins with teaching children fundamental values based in love and kindness. How can a child show empathy for the environment, she asks, if they have never known and learned true kindness or compassion? It is a straightforward, yet critical, component to developing a more empathetic society.

jane Goodall with volunteers in her Roots and Shoots program, which engages children in solving social and environmental problems.
jane Goodall with volunteers in her Roots and Shoots program, which engages children in solving social and environmental problems. Image by: Wildliferesearch.org.

Both men and women are crucial to revolutionizing our value systems and political structures; but this particular interview focused on what women, in particular, bring to the table. And it was on this topic that Shiva again brought the concept of interconnectivity to the forefront:

“If there is one thing that women can bring to this discussion,” she stated, “in addition to those beautiful words Jane used of love and the capacity to have compassion, it is the capacity to see connections. That is the disease that the deeply patriarchal mindset has not been able to overcome; they can’t transcend fragmentation, and separation, and thinking in silos, and worse—thinking as if we are separate from the earth, and therefore masters and conquerors…”

According to Shiva, our world is treated as if everything is a commodity; everything has a monetary value, as if nature is dead and women are passive. We need to resurrect other knowledges—indigenous knowledge, ancient knowledge, women’s knowledge, local knowledge—as a counter to this dominant patriarchal paradigm. Its not that woman should take control (though I do believe woman need to play a more prominent role in political decision making), but that we all, man or woman, need to break down the barriers of what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’. To be compassionate is not to be weak; indeed an act of compassion displays more courage and intelligence than any act of force or violence.

Vandana Shiva has founded non-profit organizations, community-based movements, and an Earth Institute dedicated to promoting local, sustainable agriculture. Here she is seen promoting  seed saving as an act of self-sufficiency and defiance against the corporate takeover of food production. Image credit: the Canadian Daily.
Vandana Shiva has founded non-profit organizations, community-based movements, and an Earth Institute dedicated to promoting local, sustainable agriculture. Here she is seen promoting seed saving as an act of self-sufficiency and defiance against the corporate takeover of food production. Image credit: the Canadian Daily.

Plant a seed, grow Democracy

Shiva and Goodall agree that representative democracy is failing in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Governments no longer listen to the people; they are owned by big business. We as citizens cannot sit by complacently, but must through our individual actions demand a more just direct democracy.

To Shiva, and many other social and environmental justice activists, the most radical action one can take is to grow his or her own food. “Every time we save a seed,” she says, “every time we plant a garden, every time we create a community, we are cultivating democracy and freedom and hope,” to which Goodall adds, “and empower our youth.”

Near the end of the interview, Goodall recounts a story of a farmer who has been growing genetically engineered tomatoes that are square, instead of round, meaning that more tomatoes can be packed into each truck that goes to market. ‘Yes, but these don’t even taste like real tomatoes!’ Lamented a friend, to which the farmer replied, ‘Who cares? Soon everyone who knows what a real tomato tastes like will be dead anyway’.

"Can they put us all in jail for growing tomatoes that aren't square? No they can't."--Jane Goodall, arguing that we should all grow our own tomatoes instead of being force-fed tasteless genetically modified square tomatoes.
“Can they put us all in jail for growing tomatoes that aren’t square? No they can’t.”–Jane Goodall, arguing that we should all grow our own tomatoes instead of being force-fed tasteless genetically modified square tomatoes.

Goodall was chilled by the story, but it also ignited her into action. Her response? We need to be growing our own tomatoes, and teaching our children how to grow them, rather than be force-fed resource-intensive, unhealthy ‘foods’ bred for uniformity rather than quality. This corporate-controlled agriculture is leading towards a system in which a few powerful companies own all the means of food production, putting local agriculture out of business or worse, making it illegal.

“If we all do it [grow our own food],” Goodall argues in her soft, composed voice,” even if its against the law, if we all do it can they put us all in prison for growing tomatoes that aren’t square? No, they can’t.” Oh Jane, the peaceful warrior, encouraging acts of defiance in the politest of ways. A quiet revolution! Brilliant.

One size fits no one

In the end, just as we have finally begun to realize that crop diversification is much healthier and more productive than large monocultures, we need to realize that diversity is what will help us solve our larger societal problems. There is no one-size solution to our social, economic, and environmental woes. If there is a key thing we can learn from grassroots movement, it’s that there are as many solutions as there are people on the planet (I’m echoing Goodall’s words here). Sustainability can mean a million different things, and have a million (or more) different solutions and innovations depending on the social and environmental context in question.

While we need to respect our shared ethics of equality and justice, a diversity of solutions will be the way to ensure resilience in the face of current and future obstacles to survival. The stakes are high, but I see hope in the eyes of critical leaders as well as in the younger generations.

Just as biodiversity is crucial to ecological resilience, a diversity of ideas and solutions will be essential for overcoming socio-economic challenges and achieving sustainability.
Just as biodiversity is crucial to ecological resilience, a diversity of ideas and solutions will be essential for overcoming socio-economic challenges and achieving sustainability.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss some of the theories regarding empathy and society, and how we may potentially evolve (culturally speaking, if not physiologically) in the future to better connect with our fellow human and non-human beings.