Let me be the first to say that I’m all for fighting for justice the little guy and when necessary, boycotting the big evil corporations of the world. But because we live in the age of “astroturfing,” “Tea Parties,” and “Birthers” there is plenty of false, misleading and sometimes offensive information presented in the guise of educational materials or concerned citizenship. Needless to say, I’ve grown cynical enough not just to swallow every bit of Michael-Moore-like corporate bashing I come across.
Take for example a recent report by the Cornucopia Institute a Wisconsin-based think tank that according to their website is a group “seeking economic justice for the family-scale farming community.” It wasn’t their mission that caused me pause as much as their vehement attacks on certain brands of soy products readily found in most grocery stores.
It first started out with my boyfriend’s favorite brand of chocolate soymilk – Silk. One day he came home from shopping and said, “The co-op isn’t selling Silk anymore.” Curious he tried to figure out why. “Oh, I guess there is a question about their organic soy products. They are not using all organic soybeans like they used to and the company has not been very forthcoming about it.” The information that sparked the change in product availability at our co-op had come from the Cornucopia Institute’s report Behind the Bean: The Heroes and Charlatans of the Natural and Organic Soy Foods Industry.
Then last week, that same boyfriend said, “Oh man, now veggie-burgers are going to kill me.” It turns out that the Cornucopia report also lists a number of popular soy products that contain trace amounts of hexane – a hazardous air pollutant according to the EPA also known to cause nervous system failure and skin disorders in humans.
So who are these Cornucopia people, and why do they seem to hate soy so much? Sure, I’m used to grass-roots groups and unions bashing huge companies like Wal-Mart and Sodexo but something felt a little odd about a think-tank I had never heard of attacking soy milk and veggie burgers. With a little Internet research I quickly found a few suggestions of conflicts of interest associated with the Cornucopia Institute.
- After the “hexane in your soyburgers” story came out, other stories were published claiming that the report had actually been funded in part by a pro-meat anti-soy company. This however was quickly debunked by a Mother Jones reporter who talked to Mark Kastel, the Director of the Cornucopia Institute who denied any such funding for the report.
- Prior to his work at the Cornucopia Institute, Mark Kastel had been the President of M.A. Kastel and Associates, Inc., which had at one time represented Organic Valley – a competitor to brands like Silk. Kastel denies any existing relationship with Organic Valley.
So, despite initially rubbing me the wrong way, the Cornucopia Institute doesn’t really appear to be thinly veiled front group set up to bash the competition for other corporate interests. And some good apparently has come from their work. After the Cornucopia Institute’s inclusion of Amy’s on the bad list of companies, Amy’s website now reads, “Because of concerns around soy protein extracted with hexane, we have eliminated the use of any soy protein ingredient that uses hexane in its processing.” In return, the Cornucopia Institute has modified its list.
Perhaps more so than other issues, food policy advocacy is difficult and terribly nuanced work. There are very few, very large corporate entities that own most everything you can buy in a grocery store. So it is understandable to want to know who is really behind any group that has an ax to grind against popular food products. I want there to be watchdogs in the world willing to fight against the shenanigans of large corporations, but I also want to know if these groups have any ulterior motives.