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Update: This article has been updated to reflect the correct fee paid to Ms. Hari, aka Food Babe. She was paid $6,000, not $16,000 as previously stated. Guardian Liberty Voice sincerely apologizes for the error.
The world may be coming closer to an end when The University of Florida paid Vani Hari, aka Food Babe, to speak on its campus as part of the “The Good Food Revolution” last Monday, October 21. Why would a prestigious university — home of the Gators — hire a self-proclaimed food “expert” to give students “a clear plan of action for making positive food choices” instead of more qualified professionals, such as one of their food science professors? The $6,000 fee that Food Babe received to speak is quite a hefty amount to spread false information. This prompted Dr. Kevin Folta, Professor and Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department, to write his thoughts about the event on his blog. After Food Babe spoke at the university, Professor Folta may have a somewhat challenging task of undoing the damage.
“The problem is that giving non-experts a forum to spread outright lies and bad information just pollutes the discussion. There are important issues in farming, diet and food science,” explained Dr. Folta in an online interview with Guardian Liberty Voice. “We need to acknowledge them, and get students excited about participating in solutions. Hari’s tactics are to use social media as a means to essentially blackmail corporations into changes she mandates, not based on science.”
Folta’s blog highlights some of the claims Hari made, such as GMO labeling in other countries, transgenic crops linking to cancer and autism, and the increase use of pesticides in crops. “She coordinates elaborate smear campaigns against companies that [she feels] use ingredients that should not be used. Teaching students that achieving your goals by harming the reputations of others is something that should not be tolerated, let alone endorsed as part of an ‘expert’ series.”
It is no surprise that about half of the students who attended the speech walked out, which was something Folta and other students had observed. “I was gauging the reaction from the room. There was no reaction to statements she was making,” Folta described. “Students were not applauding or filling the gaps she’d leave for applause. As someone with a long public speaking history, I know how to ‘work’ a room, and clearly she was trying to do the same but to no avail. It was like watching a stand-up comedian tell jokes, and nobody was laughing.”
While there are currently no videos online that showed Food Babe speaking at the university or people leaving while she spoke, Folta recorded some of Hari’s speech and took a few pictures with his smartphone, hoping these would undo some of the damage. “Several students did write to me afterwards after reading my blog post on the subject,” Folta said. “They clearly felt that they were witness to an unqualified speaker with a personal agenda superseding what should have been critical scientific discourse. I have their permission to share these on a blog I’m preparing for this week.”
Hari claimed on her Food Babe Facebook page that she did stay after her speech for Q&A, however, neither Folta nor other students who stayed through the event said that she did so. “I was hoping she’d answer questions in front of the audience, but the event ended and everyone left,” Folta explained. “She stuck around to take photos and meet with a dozen students or so up at the stage. This is what she considers a question and answer period. It is way for her to control perception, as with one question I would have made her look bad publicly in front of an auditorium of students.”
Chow Babe, a social media entity that parodies and points out Food Babe’s logical fallacies of her claims, posted about her “Q&A” last week, “Did you know that Big Shill, Inc. paid half the students to attend the lecture and then to walk out, just to make Vain Hair look bad?” Several people countered Food Babe’s claim that she did stay for Q&A. It is not known whether these people were university students or not since Food Babe has a tendency to delete “negative” or critical comments from the page.
This “shill” is a running gag that has been going on for over a month since Food Babe was on the cover of Experience Life Magazine when the magazine claimed that negative comments on its Facebook page were made by those who were “designed to appear as though it is coming from individual consumers, but that is motivated and subsidized by a behind-the-scenes special interest.”
“[Q&A] is an important time to interact with the audience. If someone hides from Q&A it is because they are hiding something,” Folta remarked. “She knows she can’t go to a university with hundreds of world-class scientists on staff, spread blatant falsehoods, and then not be held accountable by faculty in attendance. Student welfare is ‘Job Number One.’ We’re all happy with students hearing independent viewpoints, but they need to be from experts that use science and evidence to frame their arguments. It can’t be information from a self-appointed expert with no training and no clue about how science works.”
So why is this topic and awareness important for the public and future professionals who are involved with food science? Folta answered, “Food is a critical issue. In the industrialized world we have plenty of calories and plenty of choices. There is an emerging elitist movement of affluent boutique-food consumers that are expanding their markets by deliberately chastising other products that don’t fit their liking. Products made by big companies or produced from products using modern technology are targeted for contempt. The use of perfectly safe food additives or preservatives is also frowned upon. They can afford alternatives.”
“There is an interest in motivating others to reject these foods also,” Folta added. “Instead of using scientific reasons to persuade people to alternatives, they use fear. Hari is a perfect example. Her statements about azodicarbonamide and GMOs were completely inconsistent with science. Worse, in my opinion, she worded her statements carefully so she could change gears if she was questioned.”
While it may take some time for Professor Folta and his colleagues to undo the damage after Food Babe spoke at The University of Florida, education that encourages reason and critical thinking may be the right tools to combat false information. “Right now we are in a time of food abundance,” Folta continued. “We have never had a more safe or plentiful food supply in human history. It is shameful that celebrity food critics vilify good food because they believe there is something inferior about it. Most people on this planet will go to sleep hungry tonight and would be grateful for a piece of Hari’s Yoga Mat Bread.”
Opinion by Nick Ng