State of NOW Conference: Healthcare Forum Or Corporate Spin-fest?

With a stellar line-up of holistic physicians, health writers, IT mavens, and fitness facilitators, the State of NOW conference promised a fascinating excursion into healthcare, personal empowerment, and social media.

State-of-Now-Logo-300x300In many ways, it delivered. State of NOW provided plenty of prevention tips, health trends data, provocative perspectives, and guided tours of emerging products and services, all focused on moving people toward better health.

The conference is the brainchild of Jeff Pulver, an IT entrepreneur, co-founder of Vonage, and early investor in Twitter, who discovered the path to wellness after losing his father at a young age, and struggling for years with obesity. Now an increasingly fit 50-something, Pulver founded a new organization, #140You, “to help accelerate serendipity and synchronicity.”

The name reflects 140-character limit set by Twitter–the sine qua non of interactive media–as well as the idea that health, wellness & media are really “all about you.” Pulver’s co-producer is Mallika Chopra, daughter of Dr. Deepak Chopra, and herself a noted author (100 Promises to My Baby (Rodale)) and health media entrepreneur (

Together, they hosted two days of rapid-fire TED style talks by healthcare visionaries like Drs. Mark Hyman, Kevin Campbell, and Sayantani DasGupta; IT entrepreneurs like Tal Givoly of, and Jeff Cutler of; cutting-edge nutrition pros like Patsy Catsos, RD; and dozens of experts on fitness, food and facebooking.

I’ll share gleanings from the conference in future posts.

Unfortunately, there was a big worm at the center of #140You’s apple: a publicist from a biotech giant using this health forum to indirectly but very definitely promote a corporate agenda many people deem anything but healthy.

I’m talking about Janice Person, Social Media & Public Affairs Director for Monsanto.

Yup, you read that right. Monsanto, the company that makes Roundup herbicide, pioneered the genetic modification of plants, and sells “Roundup Ready” biotech seeds that farmers must buy, but never share. The company that vigorously opposes GMO labeling. The company that millions march against, and European governments have banned.

Ms. Person led a panel titled, Have No Fear, Empower Yourself, which purported to dispel “a lot of fear about food and farm that distracts people from getting solid information that can be beneficial to making choices about personal health and nutrition.”

Gotta say, Ms. Person’s surname suits her well: she’s a lively, down-to-earth individual who loves blues, travel, photography and all things agriculture (her twitter handle is “JPLovesCotton”). She seems genuinely passionate about farms & farmers and eager to turn people on to the world of agriculture—especially cotton farming.

City Mouth, Country Mouth

She kicked off the 15-minute, no-questions session (the format for all State of NOW talks), by noting that, “When I lived in the (NYC) metro area…people used to be blown away that I knew cotton farmers, or I knew cattlemen.” She then added that, “I also work for a business that maybe gets a different level of interest in a city like New York. I work for Monsanto Company. And I know for a lot of people that brings up specific images, and it may not be people like me sitting on this stage that this brings up for you.”

This led to a rambling, not entirely coherent discussion on stereotypes & how “people” have misconceptions about farmers that are divisive and not based on “full truth.” Said stereotypes, she says, are perpetuated because said people rely on Google and Bing for their food and farm info.

“It’s a great thing. But what that also does, is it starts to limit the amount of information that you’re really gonna see. So if it’s a topic that your friends are very incredibly interested in, that may overwhelm some of the other things,” she told the audience. “We get caught by the headlines a lot. And a lot of the question for us is, we don’t get to see real people that do the real work.”

“Real people doing real work.” Take that, you fake people with uncalloused hands twittering away in the audience or reading at home!

Person went on to say, “All of us who participate in that space…we notice there’s a lot of polarization and farmers don’t have their voices heard.”

She never mentioned what, specifically, this “polarization” is about—-could be anything: GMOs? Climate Change? Labeling? Or maybe, something that happened on American Idol? Who knows! She wasn’t saying; we couldn’t ask.

Whatever it’s about, this “polarization” is bad, according to Ms. Person, who’s all about consensus and “shared values.” Anyway, it was a good way to tee up panelist Debbie Lyons-Blythe, a rancher and mother of five from a different Manhattan, who has a blog called “Life on a Kansas Cattle Ranch.” Asked what sort of polarization she has felt, Lyons-Blyth answered:

“One of the biggest reasons that I started blogging is that I have a family member who lives in a metropolitan area and she visits the farm with her family, and she’s feeling a real pull to make certain food choices because of her friends and because of where she lives. She does have a tie to the farm, so she’s really blessed that she’s able to kind of figure out the true answers and see for herself what happens on a farm.”

Wait….What “certain food choices,” are we talking about here? Dunno. Lyons-Blythe didn’t say. We audience-members didn’t get to ask.

(Editor’s note: “Metropolitan area”…. that’s code for “city slickers” isn’t it? Y’know, urban dwellers who don’t know diddley about farming but have the audacity to want produce without pesticides, and who make these preferences known to their friends).

Lyons-Blythe went on: “I feel like then she goes back to the city, and they want to know from her what happens on the farm, and they ask those questions of her. And I think that’s a real positive thing. But without that farmer tie, for our family member, she probably would not feel like she is fully informed to make those decisions.”

What decisions are we making here? Dunno. Can’t ask. They’re leaving it up to us to fill in the blanks.

Some of My Best Friends are Organic

Lyons-Blythe, who tends cows while her husband works at the bank “in town,” is concerned that, “There’s a lot of information out there, a lot of studies in the media, and a lot of, you know, push that you have to do things this way, or whatever. I really appreciate the previous speaker saying, “get fully informed.” And that is the point. If all you do is Google or Bing, and it continues to bring up the same information for you, you’re never getting the other side of the story. You’re never following the truth.”

Ahh yes, those culprits Google and Bing, again.

Ms. Person says social media provides Ag people like herself with a remedy for stereotypes.

“Social Media has allowed me to put a real face on who I am. A lot of times people assume because I work for Monsanto I think that everything should be GMO everywhere. And people are really shocked to know my brother has an organic co-op, and that I was really supportive of that, and that that’s the way he spends his summers. He’s great. He’s got a job where he has that kind of time. He’s a professor. And we have organic farmers that are customers as well. It’s not an either-or.”

Didja catch that? Her brother has an organic co-op! That’s the eco-wars version of, “Some of my best friends are Black.”

Of course, Brother has that organic luxury because he’s a professor with summers off. Implication here is that organic farming’s a lovely vacation hobby for the gentleman, but for “real people who do real work?” Not so much. But don’t forget, even some “organic” farmers buy from Monsanto.

Pesky stereotypes can really ruin a good time, says Ms. Person. “It’s really problematic for me. I mean last night, I loved dinner at the Hu Kitchen ,” she said, referring to the State of NOW reception at a new lower Manhattan eatery serving, “unprocessed, and unequivocally delicious” fare.

“I mean, that was awesome! The bowl with the quinoa and the spicy beef and everything? It was a fantastic meal! Bright fresh foods, and everything. I think there’s a lot more of that shared value than when people throw up a specific label and kind of pull you away, so that they assume a lot of information based on that.”

Wow! You mean it’s possible to work for Monsanto and also enjoy organic vegetables??? Who knew!

No doubt many of us urbanites—and suburbanites–do hold harmful misconceptions about farmers and farming. It is true that most of us have no real understanding of where our food comes from and no connection with the people who work to produce it.

Panelist Ulla Kjarval, who grew up on a sheep farm, and now helps her family market their grass-fed lamb online, said she felt misunderstood as a farmer’s daughter growing up in an increasingly suburbanized area. “I was bullied because we raised sheep for meat and things like that.”

Kjarval is genuinely committed to the cause of helping small indie farmers, and as a farm girl now living in NYC, she’s working to bridge the gulf between city dwellers and rural farmers. She agreed with Lyons-Blythe that the web is a powerful ally in this effort, allowing farm families to “connect with people and show people that we’re regular people like you, we’re hardworking, and we’re trying to make a profit. The polarization isn’t really constructive.”

Glad to know Kjarval recognizes that we non-farmers also work hard. But, again, what “polarization” are we talking about here? Nobody on this panel wants to get specific.

Lyons-Blythe said many people see farmers as uneducated, a notion she dispels by telling us that her oldest just graduated college, two more are in college now, and her youngest sons are college-bound high schoolers. “I tell you what, farmers and ranchers these days need a college education. It’s not all just hoppin’ on a tractor…It’s a lot of science, it’s a lot biology.”

She also stressed that farmers and ranchers are “the first environmentalists. We absolutely positively have to work very hard to take care of the land.” She’s hoping some of her children will take over the ranch, so she has, “a responsibility to the land, and to those animals to make sure that its there for our kids. Not just there for the world, but what matters to me directly is, it’s there for the kids. And if it’s good for the land it’s good for all of us.”

Tell that to the Native Americans.

The point of this article is not to debate the complex issues around organic vs conventional farming, use of pesticides, GMO crops, labeling, land management or anything of the sort. It’s certainly not about bashing independent farmers or vilifying people who work in agriculture or biotech.

The issue here is the role of industry spin on public discourse about vital issues—like food.

A Question of Intent

At a forum allegedly about health and empowerment—one for which attendees spent $1,300—we got a dose of high-potency corporate spincraft from a paid spokeswoman for the world’s largest Ag/Biotech company, who made an appeal for shared values while actually fostering discord.

Person’s insinuations about effete misinformed urbanites putting unnamed pressures on hardworking farm folk did not feel like a step toward common ground!

If the intention was really to help us non-aggies understand the what’s and why’s of farming, then why not actually state the issues? Why the vague intimations about “polarizations” and “decisions” and “pushes to do things a certain way”? Why the Sarah Palin-esque invocation of “real people” and “real work”?

If this panel was about giving the full truth about American agriculture, why not include a certified organic farmer? It can’t be that hard to find one who also works hard, cares about her kids, protects the land, and feels misunderstood.

The session’s take-homes?

• “Metropolitan” people are out of touch with reality, getting questionable info from Google, and putting inappropriate pressure on “real” hardworking people just doing the best they can to protect their land.
• Organic farming—and presumably organic eating–is an elitist pursuit best suited to professors with a lot of time off in the summer.
• “Real people doing real work” on farms are only 2% of the entire population (but let’s not talk about why most family farmers cannot make a go of it, or how the overwhelming majority of farm operations and farmlands came to be owned by a handful of conglomerates).
• A communications officer for one of the most profitable and influential companies is well-qualified to speak on behalf of family farmers.
• Said officer feels really misunderstood, and needs to make sure the wellness world knows how much she, too, likes well-prepared fresh veggies.

I requested comments from #140You organizers, hoping they would share their reasons for having Ms. Person on the program. So far they have not responded.

The timing’s pretty curious, what with the Farm Bill cooking in congress as we speak, and Monsanto’s EVP/ Chief Tech Officer, Robert Fraley, winning the World Food Prize for his biotech work in crop modification the very same week.

Ms. Person was not the only Big-Ag apologist on the State of NOW program. I checked the blog postings of a number of other presenters and found quite a few eyebrow-raisers:

There’s Carrie Mess aka “Dairy Carrie,” whose blog explains that while she’s against “gag” laws that would make it a crime for activist filmmakers to document animal abuse on farms, she believes that any such videographer who posts clips on Youtube rather than turning them over to police, should be charged as “animal abusers” themselves.

In a separate post, Carrie also explains that the National Milk Producers Foundation isn’t trying to get away with putting aspartame in milk without labeling it. They simply want “the ability to add aspartame to dairy products without having to call their products something other than milk.” Oh, the nuances!

Then there’s Marie Bowers, a 5th generation farmer growing grass seed on her family’s land in Oregon, and president of the Oregon Women for Agriculture . On her blog, titled “OregonGreen” Bowers makes it clear that she doesn’t like it when food activists bash “corporate ag.” After all, her family’s farm is a corporation, and they’re not evil. Her message to those who want to “Occupy” the Food Supply? “Eat what you want and don’t insult my family.”

OK, fair enough.

Bowers is also here to let us know that “there’s no such thing as a “Monsanto Protection Act,” and that the Plant Protection Act as the bill is properly known, is to protect farmers “who had legally purchased and planted seed from activist judges who make decisions based on rhetoric and emotion from declaring legal seeds and plants to be illegal.” Whatever that means, it’s clear OregonGreen don’t like activists….or judges for that matter.

Oh, and in case you’re one of those Metropolitans who are worried about the unapproved GM wheat that turned up in an Oregon field, OregonGreen’s there to let you know that this is “an isolated incident.”

I bet we’ll be hearing that term a lot in the coming months.


Subscribe to Holistic Primary Care