National Geographic Finds a Cash Cow in the Dairy Industry

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

Food for Thought: Keep it Real (and organic)

“You are what you eat eats.” –Michael Pollan, author

Are supplements all they're cracked up to be? Or have we become too reliant on quick fixes that can't live up to the hype?
Are supplements all they’re cracked up to be? Or have we become too reliant on quick fixes that can’t live up to the hype?

In my last entry of this series, I left off questioning why we have in general become so reliant on nutrition in synthetic, encapsulated form. Now I’m the first to admit that it’s easy to get lured in by the supplement hype–compounds like resveratrol (typically found in wine, now synthesized into potent capsules), and concentrated fish oil come to mind as the most marketed recently. Who wouldn’t want to live longer (supposedly), or reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s?

I’ve definitely bought my share of vitamins and nutritional supplements over the years—some claiming to boost energy, others to ease stress or build immunity to illness—even though I know that there isn’t a lot of evidence backing up most of these claims. I get sucked into the marketing, like millions of other people looking to improve their health. So I can understand how the supplement business is raking in $23 billion a year and growing.

I believe there is a place for herbal remedies, natural supplements, and the like–but not as a substitute for a wholesome diet. There are certain herbs that have been used for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years for health reasons, and can be a useful addition to a healthy diet. But this is not how most people are using supplements. We get inundated by advertising from large corporations looking to cash in on a growing market, who have built a culture in which we obsess about consuming all of the “essential” nutrients in the formulated, synthetic doses the industry deems appropriate. And all the while the health and wellbeing of our society is actually declining.

Keep in mind that supplements are different from ‘superfoods’. Certain foods pack a strong nutritional punch (think dark leafy greens, berries, quinoa, and chia seeds) and are therefore considered particularly beneficial to consume, hence the honor of beeing deemed a ‘superfood’. While companies do indeed try to profit off of these foods as well, and there seems to be a new trendy superfood every year, the supplement market is where I see the most cause for alarm.

Enjoying a meal with friends or family can boost your mood and result in a healthier mind and body than eating alone or in a rush.
Take a tip from the French–enjoying a meal with friends or family can boost your mood and result in a healthier mind and body than eating alone or in a rush.

Do it Like the French

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and several other books, newspaper and magazine articles, and radio presentations, describes this as the ‘American Paradox’. It’s an ironic twist on the American invention of the term ‘French Paradox’, a term implying that we can’t understand how a culture that consumes daily doses of cream, wine, cheese, and fatty meats could have such healthy citizens, while diet-conscious Americans are falling victim to heart disease and diabetes at much higher rates. Really, it comes down to the very simple fact that French culture still revolves around natural, unprocessed foods, often locally and organically produced. In general, they do not obsess about whether they’ve taken 500 mg of this or that nutrient twice daily; rather they incorporate wholesome foods into their diet that balance the small portions of rich foods they also enjoy.

Muscle Milk was one of the protein supplement brands that was found to have unsafe levels of heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and arsenic.
Muscle Milk was one of the protein supplement brands found to contain unsafe levels of heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and arsenic.

The French also still appreciate moving–walking, gardening, cycling–natural ways to incorporate exercise into daily life in an enjoyable way. Instead of anxiously popping resveretrol pills in hopes of gaining an extra year of life, they sip on quality red wine in the company of friends and family. And I think they really are on to something–and have been for centuries. Conversely, the American tendency is to follow fad diets (i.e. Atkins, paleo, etc.) or buy dozens of supplements, oblivious to the stresses these synthetic versions of nutrients place on our bodies.

Many of the vitamins and minerals in supplements are in forms that the body cannot readily absorb. Even worse, unlike prescription drugs, dietary supplements do not have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—which means the products don’t have to undergo clinical testing in humans. That saves the companies billions of dollars, but also means that the health claims are unsubstantiated, and in many cases supplements (including protein powders) have been found to contain unsafe levels of heavy metals or other toxic chemicals. There are a few recently added guidelines (as of 2007) to try to ensure purity and consistency in supplements, but the oversight is heavily lacking.

Not everything is better in capsule form.
Not everything is better in capsule form.

If you think about wellbeing holistically, our health is not determined solely by the nutrients we consume, but also by our mental state, our stress levels, and our relationships/support networks. The French culture (and others like it) is still at least partly defined by the art of eating slowly, and with company. It all flows together–when you eat in this manner, you tend to eat less, and enjoy it more, enhancing the benefits. And even on a purely nutritional level, scientific studies have proven time and again that nutrients isolated from the food source from which they are derived never seem to work as optimally as when the food itself is consumed. The benefits we get from eating fruits, nuts, vegetables and grains are synergistic because of a complex suite of complementary phytonutrients and dynamic interactions that we don’t fully understand yet.

Know Thy Food

Pollan takes the ‘American Paradox’ analogy a step further by describing our nearly complete estrangement as consumers from the food production process, and from the origins of our food. I believe that this is the fatal gap in awareness that allows the paradox to exist. Growing up, I was never consciously aware (nor was taught) that walnuts grew on trees or carrots grew in the ground. It didn’t affect me that the entire existence of bananas depends on a very few banana plants that are still able to produce seeds and thus keep the species alive (but just barely); to me, they were just always available at Albertson’s, every day of the year, in all their seedless glory.

A large banana plantation is being sprayed with fungicide in an attempt to control a destructive leaf virus that is devastating banana crops across the globe. Photo from telegraph.co.uk.
A large banana plantation is being sprayed with fungicide in an attempt to control a destructive leaf virus that is devastating banana crops across the globe. Photo from telegraph.co.uk.

The closest I got to agriculture was driving past southern California strawberry fields covered in pesticides (not that I knew about that as a child), day laborers hunched over the plants with bandannas covering their faces. I feel somehow deprived of a connection to the earth I should have been raised to respect; a connection that, if nurtured in today’s younger generations, has the potential to improve our understanding of natural systems and encourage a greater environmental ethic within each of us. But most of us are deprived of this knowledge partly by a culture of convenience, but also by an industry whose profits depend on our obliviousness to the destructive and wasteful processes that keep the system in place.

Our awareness of meat production is even more dismal, partly because the gruesome realities of ‘efficient’ factory farming are kept purposely hidden from the public. Pollan visits some of these sites, however, and in in The Omnivore’s Dilemma describes the sickly state of cows who are fed an unnatural diet of corn (which they can’t digest properly and therefore have constant stomach problems), antibiotics, hormones, and lard–yes, they are fed their own fat. It is a depressing state of existence, the result of capitalistic economies of scale that completely disregard the much more balanced and healthy processes and scales developed by nature. The cows are unhealthy, the people that eat the cows are unhealthy, and the land that sustains them all becomes contaminated.

Yet there exist tiny pockets of resistance to the chemically and genetically modified corn-based industry in America. Small holistic family farms that still allow their cows and chickens to graze in grassy pastures, farms that work with the seasons and for the land rather than against them. Pollan describes one such farm (Polyface Farm, the subject of many articles and documentary segments since) in detail.

Polyface’s owner, Joel Salatin, developed a farming system that is nearly 100% self-sufficient and provides meat, vegetables, fruits, milk and eggs to a strong base of loyal local customers. The meat from his animals consistently tests clean of the bacteria frequently found in Tyson chicken, plus is free of hormones, steroids, and other drugs pumped into factory-raised animals. Farms like Salatin’s don’t simply fulfill some whimsical ideal of organic farming–they actually provide insight into a very modern understanding of complex natural systems.  Salatin recently emphasized this point in a rebuttle to an editorial in the New York Times that declared sustainable meat production is a ‘myth’. Farms like Salatin’s defiantly cast off the artificial construct of NPK, the Green Revolution myth that by simply inputting measured quantities of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium into the soil, industrial agricultural outputs can increase indefinitely.

A chicken strolls in one of the lush fields of Polyface Farm as owner Joe Salatin looks on in the background. The chickens help fertilize the fields so that cows can graze on the nutrient-rich grass.
A chicken strolls in one of the lush fields of Polyface Farm looking for worms. The chickens help fertilize the fields so that cows can graze on the nutrient-rich grass, and provide eggs that owner Joel Salatin sells to local customers.

As the ramifications of the Green Revolution are now being felt in the form of droughts, pollution from pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, dust storms, erosion, exhausted fields, and famine, more and more people are finally starting to take heed of the alternative voices in agriculture. Voices that have for decades tried to remind us that the soil is not just an equation of simple minerals, but a complex web of living organisms–bacteria, fungi, insects–and non-living nutrients and minerals all in particular balance with each other to create soil quality. By stimulating this natural balance rather than wiping it out with chemicals, we can create a much more sustainable and efficient food production system, at scales that make sense environmentally.

Teaching children how to grow fruits and vegetables allows them to connect with nature and feel a sense of pride in producing their own nutritious food.
Teaching children how to grow fruits and vegetables allows them to connect with nature and feel a sense of pride in producing their own nutritious food.

Thankfully there is also a growing grassroots movement to re-connect children with the food we eat by developing school gardens and using experiential learning to teach children about everything from nature to nutrition, build confidence, and provide them with fresh fruits and vegetables that they are excited to eat. I am inspired every time I read about these programs, like the Garden School Foundation, or Bronx Green Machine.
The concepts of sustainable agriculture, the slow food movement, and mindful eating all link to an ethic of individual and societal wellbeing, an ethic that is yet to be adequately cultivated (or perhaps I should say returned to) in our culture.

I suppose just as we have become reliant on a reductionist approach to science, trying to understand the world in tiny fragments without always connecting these back to the bigger picture, we have also started treating our bodies like factories that we can manipulated with specific inputs–500mcg Vitamin C, 50mcg calcium–to achieve specific outputs–cure common cold, grow strong bones–without appreciating the wondrous complexities that really make us tick both mentally and physically. We don’t yet understand fully how all of the chemical and electromagnetic signals absorbed by our bodies work together to structure our physical and conscious selves.

We are, however, incrementally learning that the mind and body are intricately linked, and scientists are slowly realizing that ‘health’ is impacted as much by our attitude and mental state of being as it is by physiological determinants (or perhaps these are one and the same, ultimately). Dr. Bruce Lipton explores these aspects of medical research in a book called The Biology of Belief, which I’ll delve into in my next blog entry.

In the meantime, I think you can have you’re cake and eat it too (and why wouldn’t you want to eat a cake if you had one??), but if you ask me it tastes all the richer if you make it yourself with good quality ingredients grown in harmony with nature, and enjoy it with a special person. And maybe even with a glass of wine just for the pure enjoyment of it–not because of any particular wonder chemicals it may contain.