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Ben & Jerry's Pt. III-Reality vs. Vision PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Wednesday, 23 November 2005
AFF Sentinel Vol.2, #53

Reality Doesn't Get in the Way of the Vision

Last time we talked about Ben & Jerry's opposition to "industrialized" agriculture, from the way it runs as a business to the technology used and plain misconceptions. Then there is the hypocritical opposition to technology when they use it, too. What is their vision of the world?

You will not see headlines examining the further implications of the Ben & Jerry's campaign - things like "Ben & Jerry's Oppose Farmer Growth and Success," or "Ben & Jerry's Propose Outlawing Farm Expansion to Keep Kids on the Farm," or "Ben & Jerry's Prefers Milk from Part-Time Dairy Farmers, Opposes Farm Specialization."

It is a free country and Ben & Jerry's has every right to plow whatever money they want into their causes. But they should tell their customers the whole story, not just the romanticized parts, so customers are aware they're supporting those causes. They give millions of dollars a year away to oppose pesticide use, genetically modified organisms and biotechnology, "heterosexism," corporate-driven globalization, factory farms, free trade, elimination of the estate tax, nuclear power, CAFOs, military recruitment, "environmental racism" and "biodevastation."

Oppose heterosexism?!? I'm not sure, but I think opposing heterosexism is kind of like their opposing both fertilizer and manure on soil. If we don't have heterosexuals, we will eventually solve the problem of overpopulating the planet, though. These are the guys with the long-term solutions?

They support wolves, cougars, removing the Glen Canyon Dam, alliances between unions and environmental groups, transforming agriculture into a "wildlife friendly agriculture," "non-violent civil resistance" (Ruckus Society) and putting people before corporate profits. They are fervent on the subject of global warming, supporting a coalition called that includes Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace, Earthjustice, the National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others.

And don't let them fool you by saying it's Ben & Jerry's Foundation putting up the money. Unilever pitched in $5 million to start with and they contribute a million or more each year, based on sales. Ben & Jerry's also puts out an annual "Social and Environmental Assessment" report of some 46 pages to explain how their efforts to change the world and their company are coming along.

Will a $45 billion a year international conglomerate continue to go along with this stuff? It could be more chilling than that. Unilever is headquartered in Europe, used to going along with touchy-feely stuff for Europeans radical on animal welfare and fair trade issues. They are already trying to figure out how to source enough "free range" eggs to produce Ben & Jerry's in the Netherlands.

As for me, I'll go get my wooden freezer out and make some more of our old family recipe, old- fashioned vanilla. And yes, it won't taste as good as it did when I watched Grandpa take that rich yellow cream from the separator spout, the milk from the other spout and the eggs from Grandma's chickens. But if all of American agriculture was farming like my grandpa did 50 years ago, most of us could only afford to live like the people my mission relatives see in Africa - on beans and rice and no beef and certainly, no premium ice cream.

For most agriculture, this age went into history nearly two generations ago. It is just as gone as farming with oxen. But it is close enough in memory that folks unexposed to mainstream agriculture are tempted to try to bring it back, just like they'd like to bring Grandpa back. And while certain segments of agriculture are free to continue those old-time ways as long as they can find a market willing to pay the price, if those methods were efficient enough for mainstream agriculture we would still be using them. Instead, the Ben & Jerry's Web site has to answer questions from consumers asking, "Why is your ice cream so expensive?"

That the St. Albans Coop has organized and found a market willing to pay a premium so they can survive as small operators, they are to be congratulated. But that doesn't give them the right to ask government to restrict everyone else to methods that will work only on Vermont farms with access to a small, high dollar slice of the market. And they should not contribute to leading consumers to believe that only Vermont, small-farm methods are somehow right, moral, safe and efficient.

How many gullible consumers will swallow this mixture of half-truths, inaccuracies, fictions and nostalgia? Who knows, but Ben & Jerry's is going to spend millions of dollars to recruit them to into the "we must save agriculture" movement.

At least one member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board isn't quite so gullible ("Ice Cream Hangover," 10/20/05). Stephen Moore had some sterling comments to make after touring what he called Ben & Jerry's giant, computer-controlled ice cream FACTORY, powered by electricity NOT generated from solar panels or windmills.

Moore noted that, while decades ago it took 35 people working in agriculture to feed 100 people, now it only takes two.

"This is called progress. What is Ben & Jerry's proposed solution, anyway?" Moore asked. "To turn back the clock and abolish the tractor? Many Americans seem to be under the illusion that the small family farmer has lived a carefree, idyllic lifestyle. In truth, the livelihood has traditionally involved backbreaking toil, work days that last from sunup to sundown, and monotony - which is why sons and daughters have been fleeing the farm for five generations."

Moore also noted another irony, asking his earnest tour guide that if the corporatization of farming is such a horrid trend, why "isn't that true of the corporatization of ice cream." That question didn't go over so well.

I loved my Grandpa and Grandma, and their little farm with the milk cows, beef steer, mules, hogs, chickens, turkeys, guineas and sheep. But it doesn't mean we can bring them back and make them the model for all agriculture today. Feeding the world at a price more people can afford has changed how agriculture functions.

Mainstream agriculture is going to have to make the effort to explain to the world what food production is really all about, because Ben & Jerry's $5 million campaign is just one example of many out there determined to "fix" agriculture for us.

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