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Tamar Haspel's recent article, which questioned consumers' commitment to the food movement, ruffled feathers. Why?

Commentary Culture

What happens when you tell the food movement it isn’t really as big as it thinks? We called Tamar Haspel to find out. Haspel, a highly-regarded reporter who writes about food issues for the Washington Post, last week published an article that made exactly that point, arguing that the apparent support for issues like the labeling of GMOs may say more about survey techniques than about how people actually feel about food.

Haspel worked with data from William Hallman, chairman of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University,  who has been exploring the question by asking people their opinions about food in two different ways. On the one hand, he asks people yes or no questions: whether they think, say, GMOs should be labeled, or whether it is important to them to know where food was grown or what pesticides were used. But when he asks questions in a more open-ended fashion, the results are very different.

Haspel’s argument is that closed-ended questioning has led us to believe that Americans are more food-progressive than they actually are.

“Polls routinely show that, when you ask people whether they want GMOs labeled, upwards of 90 percent say yes,” Haspel wrote. “Overwhelming support for labeling GMOs! But if, instead, you ask consumers what they’d like to see identified on food labels that isn’t already there, a paltry 7 percent say ‘GMOs.’ Almost no support for labeling GMOs!”

Open-ended questions are great for certain kinds of research, but they’re a cumbersome and expensive approach because someone has to review and code every response. But closed-ended research—though lends itself to dramatic conclusions and eye-catching headlines—can be misleading.  Haspel’s argument is that closed-ended questioning has led us to believe that Americans are more food-progressive than they actually are; she goes on to cite data that vegetable consumption has actually declined over the past few years and that only about 14 percent of consumers met one researcher’s criteria for belonging to the food movement.

Reporter Tamar Haspel reviews consumer opinion data about food movement issues, GMOs, food waste, and food labels, while touching on controversy around her conclusions.

People are never happy to hear that the battle is only begun, not won. And though the article has been widely praised and supported, Haspel has been feeling a bit of push-back. On Twitter, commenters have accused her of pro-GMO bias and of using disreputable sources in the form of Ketchum, a major PR agency. Several accused her of not paying attention to what’s going on around her, and Reuters reporter Carey Gillam tweeted “Maybe my friends, family, neighbors more savvy than @TamarHaspel ‘s? Organics, GMOs, etc. hot topics in my ‘hood.’”

“It was interesting that most of the people who said I was wrong said, ‘My family, my friends care,’” Haspel says. “People are very unclear on the difference between anecdote and data.”

And as for using Ketchum: “If you want to know what consumers really think and care about, a firm like Ketchum is who you want to hear from, because they live and die by getting it right. I repeatedly asked, ‘Do you have any data that contradicts it?’ In all the controversy, I didn’t see any contradictory data.”

Predictably, a more nuanced discussion of Haspel’s article took place on the listserv Comfood, from Tufts University. There, commenters focused on the difference between market-driven and politically driven change. Here’s one of the best analyses:

1. [The article] focuses exclusively on the public’s role as food consumer. It assumes that change through the marketplace has primacy over change through policy or other forms of social action. Reducing the food movement—or any social movement—to the actions of consumers minimizes our role as political actors. It is a neoliberal argument at its core. 2. The food movement has brought this situation upon ourselves to some degree. There has been a long standing tension within the movement about whether to organize and act through policy change or whether market-based change is the best way to go. Now, Tamar points out the disconnect between what consumers evidently want and what the movement’s activists seek. We have put too much focus on changing the food system through stimulating changes to consumer demand. In doing so, the activist reasons for changing the food system—because of the harm it causes to workers, the planet, our health, and our democracy are ignored, because those are not as well embedded in people’s shopping lists as we would like.

To Haspel, that’s still missing the point, at least partly: “I think if you start talking about how to solve these problems from the government down you run into all kinds of obstacles—including political feasibility in the political climate we have today. Consumer pressure, I think is the most important tool that we consumers have, because we hold the power, we have the wallet, and that’s why the size of the food movement really is important, because if it’s small and scattered, we’re not going to have the pressure to change. If you think this is government’s job to fix, then the size of consumer concern still matters.

“The idea that these things are going to get fixed in the absence of consumer concern is a pipe dream.”

Patrick Clinton

Patrick Clinton is a long-time journalist and educator. He edited the Chicago Reader during the politically exciting years that surrounded the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; University Business during the early days of for-profit universities and online instruction; and Pharmaceutical Executive during a period that saw the Vioxx scandal and the ascendancy of biotech. He has written and worked as a staff editor for a variety of publications, including Chicago, Men’s Journal, and Outside (for which he ran down the answer to everyone’s most burning question about porcupines). For seven years, he taught magazine writing and editing at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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