In January, I attended the Routes To Farm Summit—a two-day forum of peer-to-peer discussions among small to medium scale food producers. Instead of presentations and workshops, the participants determined the discussion topics for this Open Space meeting. The first discussion I joined focused on greenwashing—the deceptive marketing used to make a product appear more local, healthy, environmentally friendly, or socially responsible than it really is.
It’s easy to find examples of corporate greenwashing, such as Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal and Monsanto’s environmental PR campaigns versus their effort to cover up findings that glyphosate, Round-Up’s key ingredient, causes cancer. Our discussion opened my eyes to back-yard greenwashing.
Vegetable farmers in northern Illinois talked about CSAs that aggregated vegetables from outside the region but market them as locally* grown. A Wisconsin farmer described seeing her farm’s name promoted as the restaurant’s vegetable source.
“We hadn’t sold anything to them in months,” she explained. Not only were they using the farm’s name without buying her products, if the restaurant used an inferior product, it would reflect poorly on her and her farm.
I realized that I had examples from my own experience, though I hadn’t thought of them as greenwashing at the time. Before I started raising pigs, I called well-known pastured pork farms to get a sense of what feed rations and pasturing practices worked best for them.
“We grow corn and soybeans here on the farm,” one woman replied in a chirrupy voice. “It’s all non-GMO,” she added, with the Wisconsin emphasis on the “O”. “Well, we plant non-GMO,” she acknowledged. “I can’t guarantee that the feed is non-GMO. You know how it is.”
I do know. Corn pollen can travel for miles and pollinate any other field of corn that’s at the same growth stage and thus receptive to pollination. To avoid GMO contamination, organic corn farmers plant ten to fourteen days after their neighbors have planted. That way, the conventional corn has stopped shedding pollen when the organic corn begins pollinating. Non-GMO corn requires the same precautions to produce non-GMO seed. Consumers look for non-GMO products because they want to avoid GMO foods. The farm’s website says Non-GMO feed. Is their lack of detailed explanation about their feed a communication oversight or intentional greenwashing?
Another example comes from some very loose interpretations of “pastured pork”. There’s not an enforced definition of pasture when it comes to raising pigs. I’ve visited a few pastured pork farms where the pigs live in a dirt lot that started out as a pasture. It’s far better than raising animals in a confinement building, but calling a dirt lot a pasture is greenwashing.
Here's my preferred definition of pastured, adapted from the National Organic Program (NOP) Rules: Within the climate’s grazing season, pastured animals must have constant access to fresh, green forage that they consume by breaking it off from living plants whose roots are still in the ground. If animals can't do that in their living space, then they aren't pastured.
What can a consumer do?
Our discussion group at Routes To Farm concluded that journalists and watchdog organizations could not be expected to regularly investigate and expose backyard greenwashing. The most powerful check against greenwashing is you—the informed consumer.
There are four steps you can take to ensure you are getting the food you want: know your farmer, ask questions, consider the price, and see for yourself.
1. Know your Farmer. If you buy directly from the farmer, you have a pretty good idea where your food is coming from. Admittedly, knowing the farmer doesn’t necessarily guarantee truth in advertising, but it eliminates the middlemen who While the farmers in the local greenwashing examples above weren’t transparent on their websites, they were open with me when I asked questions. Knowing your farmer gives you the direct communication that you cannot get through a grocery story or food company.
2. Ask questions. Nothing beats the back-and-forth and body language of face-to-face communication (See step 1). It’s much easier to get direct answers when the person selling the product is the same one who grew it.
Some example questions: Who certifies you? (If the product is certified). Do you use herbicides or pesticides in your pastures? What about in the grains you grow or buy to feed your animals? How can you guarantee that your animals’ feed is GMO-free? Is this 100% grass fed beef? Your product says natural. How do you define natural? How do you deal with: cucumber beetles, ragweed, pink-eye, predators, etc? Do you source any of your products from other farms?
How the farmer answers can tell you as much as the answer itself. Did she give you a vague response or a enthusiastic explanation that shows how much she believes in what she does? Asking questions is the first step to holding farmers and other business owners accountable. When a friend of ours asked if I could guarantee that my pigs were slaughtered humanely, I decided to tour the processing plant so I could give her an honest, detailed answer. If you decide not to buy something based on the farmer’s answers, you have empowered yourself as an informed consumer, and you are holding the farmer economically accountable for his answers, if not his actions.
3. Consider the price. It’s not hard to grow high-quality food for yourself. It’s much harder to do it profitably as a business. If something is touted as healthy, organic, pastured, etc is priced like industrial food, it was probably raised more like industrial food. There are few shortcuts to quality.
4. See for yourself. Ask if you can visit the farm. Don’t expect the farm to have a drop-by-any-time policy. Farmers have a business to run with schedules (farmers’ markets), deadlines (trying to beat the weather), and family commitments (kids’ soccer) like everyone else. You at least want to know if the farm is open to any visits. As a chef told me, “When a farmer hems and haws about a site visit, I start to wonder what he’s hiding.”
Visits take time for the farmer and the consumer, but it can be a win-win outcome. Half of my customers from 2016 came out to see the pigs on pasture. Those customers are some of my most enthusiastic supporters. Visits also allow you to see the farm in its larger context and notice things that might not appear in promotional text and photos, like the feedlot for “grass fed” cattle. (Full disclosure: I avoid taking pictures that capture the full immensity of the all-brown, metal sided structure that the previous owners built for horses. Come out to visit if you want to see pigs on pasture with a back-drop of what the Death-Star would look like as a 1970s pole-building.)
There’s no particular order to these steps. You may visit a farm at an open house and ask questions, the steps that lead to knowing your farmer. However you follow the steps, I hope you become an empowered consumer who can see through the greenwashing.
*The USDA defines local as four hundred miles—farther than the distance from Indianapolis to Iowa City. Under that definition, the CSA could have been selling local produce, but when was the last time you crossed two state lines to get groceries?
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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