The following was published with special permission to Vance Publishing. The opinions expressed here are the work of Kevin Folta and do not necessarily represent those of those of the University of Florida, the Horticultural Sciences Department or its faculty. To read more from Folta, click here.
It was 6:30 p.m. in the lab and I was just thinking about the last things I'd need to get done before I could go home. Typical night.
Usually I'm riding home about 7 p.m., but an email popped up asking me if I was going to go watch the Food Babe.
A click on a link would take me to the note on a UF Dean for Students Good Food Revolution Events website. Vani Hari would be spreading her corrupt message of bogus science and abject food terrorism here at the University of Florida.
She might have started from honest roots. Her story says she was duped by an organic yogurt stand (join the club) into buying taro toppings that were filled with artificial, non-organic colors. She realized that she could use social media to coalesce affluent consumers in a formation to cyber-slander change from businesses.
Shove this dookie through a conduit of the science illiterate and...
An entrepreneur was born!
She found that a popular social media site was more powerful than science itself, more powerful than reason, more powerful than actually knowing what you're talking about. Her discussion was a narcissistic, self-appointed attack on food science and human nutrition. There is a vein in my head that pulses when I hear someone deliberately misrepresent science for personal celebrity, and it was pounding.
She went on about her exploits against Chik-fil-A, forcing them to change their formulation. She spoke about how she and her army of online vandals slammed Subway into removing a safe and useful food chemical from their bread.
She spoke of her "5 million person army" with a sly and knowing smile.
Vani likes Vani.
Fallacy and deception.
She went on about labeling GMO, making the argument ad populum that '64 countries label them so why don't we get the same rights?" She explained transgenic crops (of course not using that language) as dangerous, and untested.
There were claims about how the crops were linked to cancer and autism. She also claimed that "GMO crops cause an increase in pesticides" which is completely false-- and she knows it. Her words were cleverly chosen, carefully stated, so if someone holds her accountable she can weasel out.
Hari then went on to talk about her successes in strong-arming Chick-fil-A, Budweiser and Subway into reformulating their foods and beverages. She's proud that she was invited to corporate headquarters to force change, proud that a know-nothing with a following can affect change simply by propagating false information via the internet.
That's not healthy activism or change based on science. That's coercion, fear mongering and (yes) terrorism to achieve short-sighted political non-victories in the name of profit and self-promotion, ironically the same thing she accuses the companies of.
Luckily, Starbucks didn't fold. They refused her assault on Pumpkin Spiced Lattes and the demand for organic milk. Unfortunately it was not corporate cojones it was likely simple economics. There's no way that they could source that much organic milk. Otherwise, Hari would have blackmailed them too.
The UF Audience Reaction
There was a silver lining on that cloud. I was really proud to see that the student audience was not buying it. Throughout her presentation that was about Hari in the spotlight and "me-me-me", students got up and left. She left gaping pregnant pauses where previous performances got applause-- only to hear nothing. Not even crickets.
This audience was not buying it, at least as a whole it was not excited by it. Maybe they just wanted a Chick-fil-A and Starbucks.
No Public Question and Answer Session
While microphones stood ready in the audience to answer questions, there was no public Q&A period where a scientist that knows the research could publicly challenge her false assertions.
The audience filed out of the building, and apparently she may have stuck around to meet with individuals. However, I wanted her answers in a way students could hear, helping them to critically assess the arguments of scholars vs. self-appointed celebrities. Questions like:
- Why am I blocked for posting hard science facts to your websites?
- How do you feel about transgenic solutions to citrus greening?
- What is your evidence for higher pesticide rates?
... and a dozen others.
It was disappointing. If this is a charismatic leader of a new food movement it is quite a disaster. She's uninformed, uneducated, trite and illogical. She's afraid of science and intellectual engagement. She's Oz candy at best.
I guess I'm just angry because I didn't get to lock science horns with The Food Babe. I would have liked to have asked a few questions that she could never answer.
Moreover, the funds my university spent to bring her here would have bought a lot of seeds for school gardens county wide, field trips to real farms, and the opportunity to visit functioning labs and ask questions of actual scientists. But who needs actual scientists in lab coats with lifetime dedication to science, when you can have a fly-by-night activist profiting from ignorance?
After all, she is a (self described) babe...
I have to put a lid on this post. I have an undergrad spending her first morning in the lab tomorrow and I need to meet her at 7 a.m. If I teach her well, maybe she'll get to stand up and hold the Food Babe accountable for her junk science someday.
That would make me remarkably happy.