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As The World Spins

There’s an urban myth that makes the rounds every so often about the genealogist researching her own family tree. She discovers that she shares a common ancestor with a prominent politician and so, does a little more digging.

It turns out the ancestor was a notorious criminal, a horse thief who escaped from prison to rob the train several times before finally being nabbed by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hung.

Curious, she e-mailed the politician’s office to see what he had to say about their relative. This is the biological sketch she received:

“…was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honour when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”

Spin, which for the purposes of this editorial we will define as the creative use of words and imagery to shape opinion, is a part of everyday life. We need look no further than mainstream advertising to see how it is used to shape everything from our vote to what we feed our pets.

If you want your cats to like you, feed them Brand A. If you want them to ignore you, don’t.

And whether they mean to or not, the spin doctors reflect certain anomalies about our culture. For example, if you want to convince women to buy your product, it’s the “in” thing in advertising these days to portray husbands as bumbling buffoons. Granted, this approach appeals to women at a certain level, until they consider how being married to such a character reflects on their own intelligence. And imagine the political correctness outrage if these scenes were reversed.

The spin doctors play on our sensitivities – if you want to be thin, you eat this. If you want to be cool, drink that. If you want the country to fall apart, vote this way or that.

Farming is not immune to these tactics, as evidenced by recent statements by Bill Doyle, the senior executive for PotashCorp. In farming, if you want to be noble, apparently, you buy fertilizer.

Doyle was recently explaining to shareholders why the firm’s second-quarter earnings were significantly smaller than during the same period last year. After last year’s record run-up in prices and hefty shareholder returns, he no doubt had some explaining to do.

There was some masterful spin in his report. What some would call a sharp drop in sales, became a “significant deferral of demand.”

“We have been and will continue to be a patient company, preparing for the strong demand that we expect will follow current conditions and protecting the value of our core assets for the future,” he said.

“We believe the upward trend is undeniable,” said Doyle. “After almost a year of unprecedented global destocking, we are now beginning to experience the re-emergence of demand in our key markets. As farmers around the world respond to their noble calling of feeding the world, we expect this will trigger a multi-year process of nutrient replenishment, particularly potash. We will be ready to supply their growing needs and, at the same time, reward our shareholders.”

At the risk of sounding ignoble, we’d like to know why it is up to farmers to feed the world while the companies that supply, process and market what they produce need only answer to shareholders?

Sure, farmers are the ones who grow the commodities that are turned into food, but it would seem to us that the value chain has a kink in it right about the place where farmers withdraw their share. The suppliers on one end may see reduced levels of profit at times, but they are rarely below break-even. The same goes for processors and marketers at the other end.

The “feed the world” spin isn’t restricted to the fertilizer manufacturers. The pursuit of yield in the name of feeding the world is a common thread in much of the input industry’s communications with producers. But it’s really more about selling product than it is about fulfilling an altruistic objective.

Likewise for those efforts to portray efforts to develop lower-input production strategies such as organic as putting the world on to the fast track to mass starvation. Farmers should be wary of such spin.

Whether or not these systems become mainstream, these production systems are identifying strategies that could help farmers maintain productivity with less reliance on purchased inputs. This work should be supported, not ridiculed.

Feeding the world is indeed a noble cause and a formidable challenge. But it is one shared by all of us – including the executives of fertilizer companies – not just the people on the land. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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