Murphy: Re-Purposing What ‘Factory’ Means

December 22, 2017 10:00 AM
It’s a term anti-industry activists always roll out as if it were a curse word: ‘factory,’ as in factory farming. These days, it should be used not for farming, but for food.

As a (wanna-be) wordsmith, who’s spent a professional career trying to position ideas and concepts through the use of language, I’m extremely sensitive to the power of phrasing.

Come up with terminology that “sticks,” and you’re halfway to the goal of winning hearts and minds in support of whatever notion you want your audience to embrace.

Thus, I have to give it up to the animal welfare/eco-activist community (loosely defined) for creating and marketing three powerful phrases that have gained them enormous traction. Gotta do it, because if you intend to retain any integrity as a commentator, it’s essential to credit even the most entrenched of enemies when they come up with a winner.

The three words/phrases that I believe have had maximum impact for the groups and individuals opposed to modern animal agriculture, and the associated science and technology that supports it, are “meat is murder;” “Frankenfoods;” and “factory farming.”

Agree or disagree that those particular phrases are the top three, they all share core characteristics that give them their power.

For one, they’re short, memorable, easily remembered and thus capable of triggering resonance and familiarity when spoken or heard.

More importantly, they all make clever use of what marketers call juxtaposition, using common words or phrases in a new or unexpected context, and it doesn’t matter whether people understand this consciously, or whether they’re able to verbalize the incongruity to some pollster. It still works to leverage people’s opinions.

That’s because we think of “murder” in terms of killing a person, or maybe a pet, not as a description of what’s on the menu at mealtime.

Frankenstein refers to a monster created by a deranged scientist, not something edible that was the product of cutting-edge research by laboratories whose scientists win Nobel Prizes.

And when we visualize a factory, it’s a sprawling structure in some urban environment where blue-collar laborers operate machines that “make stuff.”

But it’s time that we apply the term “factory” not to farming, as activists urge consumers to do, but to the products derived from farming, ie, the processed, packaged foods that comprise the bulk of most people’s daily diets throughout the developed world.

The Source of the Problem
For all the real and perceived problems with so-called industrial farming — and by extension, animal agriculture — modern methods of planting, cultivating and harvesting food crops have, at least for now, done an outstanding job of addressing the most pressing food-related problem with which the world has struggled for millennia: having enough to go around.

Even diehard opponents of everything associated with modern agriculture acknowledge that if only it could be equitably distributed, there’s enough food to feed everyone on Earth.

That may not be the case going forward if demographers are right, and there will be another two (or more) billion people to feed by mid-century. But for the first time in history, since our prehistoric ancestors made their first tentative attempts to survive with more than mere hunting and gathering, we have a global food supply that allows most of the world to avoid famine and starvation.

And for those nations that still suffer such plagues, it’s the result of warfare and/or corrupt politics that cause the problems, not a fundamental lack of agricultural productivity.

Given the need to increase farm productivity even further in this 21st century, factory farming is here to stay, and truth be told, the problems associated with such systems are readily fixable though a mixture of better technology and political will.

The real danger with “factories” lies not in farm country but in the realm of food processing. Way too much of what we modern creatures consume is formulated, processed and packaged to the point that our diets no longer even resemble the dietary choices that have sustained humanity throughout history, and more importantly, shaped the physiology of Homo sapiens in ways that exacerbate the negative impact of eating processed foods as mainstays of our daily sustenance.

Biologically speaking, our food is supposed to come from animals and plants, not factories. Whether it’s a strict vegan diet or a protein-rich Paleo or South Beach Diet, the common thread that unites even such disparate approaches to nutrition is that they focus on “real” foods, not the fast-food/ready-to-heat-’n-eat/convenience-oriented products that line the shelves in almost every aisle in every supermarket you care to name.

In one sense, I don’t care if it’s meat, eggs, milk and butter, or if it’s tofu, vegetables and tree nuts: the value of eating natural, unprocessed foods is undisputed.

The problems that people in modern, industrialized countries now have with a slew of chronic diseases related to diet and lifestyle — obesity, diabetes and heart disease — have less to do with being a vegetarian or a carnivore, and much more to do with choosing processed foods as staples, rather than supplements, to one’s daily diet.

The term “factory” symbolizes a big problem with contemporary diets.

But that problem originates in processing plants, not on farms.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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Spell Check

Canton, MO
12/24/2017 06:08 PM

  I will have to disagree with you about the value of GMO's based of originators winning a Nobel Prize. The Nobel award committee has cheapened the value of the awards to the point where they now have the equivalent value of a bag of skittles. Remember the U.S. President who won a Nobel Peace Prize just for breathing? Other than that, you're right on with your assessment of real food. My neighbor's wife was commenting about having to find ever new ways to cook chicken for her husband because his cholesterol is off the chart. He raises grain fed beef, but can no longer eat it. I thought, how does this not raise a red flag, when you can't eat what you produce, because it will kill you. You think it might hurt other people too. Not to get too far off on a tangent, but what we feed, and how we feed has nearly as much effect on the dietary health quality of the food we produce as the processors. Think about it.


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