Has media negligence contributed to the latest worldwide food concerns?
I suggest that one of the greatest failures of today’s media, is its failure to periodically turn a critical eye on itself.
In the United States, the media players are at constant war with each other; NBC criticizes Fox, Fox criticizes The New York Times, and media watchdog groups criticize them all.
This infighting becomes an effective tool for media to audit themselves and be audited by others.
Perhaps the lack of criticism within Canadian media reinforces the stereotype that Canadians are too polite. Regardless, this laissez-faire approach runs in opposition to just how influential the media is. Just as our political leaders are constantly criticized, exalted, shamed and applauded, the media should not escape such scrutiny. In the end, political decision-making is, in principle, supposed to represent the interests of the people; and if the interests of the people are being influenced by media, then the media clearly have a stronger influence on public policy.
So what happens when the media turns the story onto itself? Well the recent coverage of the global food crisis presents a great window into the result of such examination.
Recent headlines read, "Food Crisis Being Felt Around the World” (National Post), "World Facing Hunger Tsunami” (Toronto Star), and "Is the World Running out of Food?” (CBC).
Such stories are indeed important, but one must ask; Where was the media when food prices were predicted to rise significantly, and where was the media in the years leading up to the global food system’s failure to serve the global population? The answer; busy covering everything but food and agricultural concerns.
The warnings have sounded for years (if not decades) that the globalized food system was/is unsustainable. Referred to were peak oil, climate change, biofuel production, soil degradation, decreasing biodiversity, corporate control of seed, intentionally imposed food insecurity by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Unfortunately, Canadian media seemingly required a dramatic crisis to cover the story.
Here is an example of the media ignoring the developing story of the dysfunctional food system. In May 2006, Canada’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU) issued a plea to the United Nations in the wake of research conducted by the NFU’s Darrin Qualman. The letter was addressed to the-then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan and the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Jacque Diouf. The letter was titled "Rapidly declining global food supplies” – and requested that the UN and FAO immediately make public their assessments of current agricultural production and its ability to keep pace with a growing population. In a January 2007 broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner, Qualman indicated that the letter came following his discovery that the world had consumed more grain than was produced in 6 of the previous 7 years. In other words, global food reserves were shrinking. Qualman further warned that Canadian governmental support for biofuels constituted the "worst public policy mistake in a generation”.
According to Qualman, the UN’s response to the letter was "long and confusing” and they never did heed the NFU’s advice.
The first mention of this letter in Canada’s mainstream media came in the form of an on-line and brief article on CBC.ca in May 2007. However, it was only when the global food crisis hit new levels in 2008, that the mainstream media began giving the world’s food supply the attention it deserves.
The same story plays out with biofuels. Propositions of converting land from food to fuel had long been accompanied by warnings that such shifts would devastate global food prices. It was only as recent as the latter quarter of 2007, that Canadian media touted biofuels as the saving grace for eco-savvy Canadians. This too has all but been replaced by "Stop Biofuels to Fight World Hunger” (CBC), and "Biofuels Go From Saviour to Villain” (National Post). Again, due to a crisis, the media has begun to pay attention to a concern that now dates back years.
Canadian media now ask the usual question; "Where is all the food aid?” As expected, the Canadian government has promised close to a quarter billion dollars of taxpayer money to the UN World Food Program in response to this recent crisis. While certainly an important short-term gesture, the media must now be scrutinized for painting Canada as hero.
In the end, Canada is no saint. Our federal government too had received the warning that the globalized food system would fail the world’s poorest, yet we continued to push fossil-fuel dependent agriculture, biofuels, and the same policies that encourage export-oriented agriculture instead of self-sufficiency.
Closer to home are warnings that the failure of the food system will now affect those of us in the ‘developed’ world. We can only hope that empty shelves or $10 apples won’t appear before we read about it in the papers.
Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. This commentary can be heard at (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/050108.htm).