April 9, 2012
Eighteen months ago I read a book that changed my life. Yeah, yeah, I know... sounds corny. But it's not what you think. This book changed my life not because of what it said but because of what it didn't say.
On a nothing-special summer afternoon in 2010, I sat in the Cambridge Public Library preparing a speech on something I'd been studying for decades. I plugged "world hunger" into the library's computer. Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know popped up.
Perfect, I thought. I knew I would have differences with the book because I'd just read a critique of the views of its author, Robert Paarlberg, by my daughter Anna Lappé on the Foreign Policy website. But I'm always eager to know how those with whom I disagree make their case. Noticing that Food Politics was published by Oxford University Press, I felt confident I could count on it being a credibly argued and sourced counterpoint.
So I began reading.
"I couldn't believe my eyes" doesn't do justice to the shock I experienced.
The book's subtitle suggests coverage of essential food issues and its back cover indicates Food Politics is not just another example of "conflicting claims and accusations from advocates," but rather "maps this contested terrain." Yet, I was finding only one piece of the "map" with key issues at the center of the global food debate omitted altogether. But what was jaw-dropping for me was that Food Politics lacked any citations for the book's many startling claims.
What? Why would the gold standard of academic presses, Oxford University Press, release such a work and misleadingly promote it, to boot? The UK Oxford University Press website says that " all books are referred to them [the Delegates, i.e., selected faculty of the university] for approval." The Press' USA website stresses its peer review process.
But how, I wondered, could a book on any serious topic be evaluated in the absence of citations?
I soon learned that Oxford University Press had published other books on vital public concerns, including nuclear power, with no citations. Hmm, I thought, even high school students are required to provide sources.
Then I got to the author's defense of Monsanto. He cites the "political stigma" that has been attached to GMOs, which "dried up investment" in GMOs in Europe, as a reason that the company now dominates the industry.
The claim seemed so wild that my suspicion was piqued. From there, a quick search on Monsanto's website showed that the author had been an advisor to the company's CEO. In the book's opening, moreover, Dr. Paarlberg thanks the Gates Foundation, among others, for supporting his independent work, without noting that the foundation is itself an investor in Monsanto.
My journalist son Anthony Lappé has always stressed to me the absolute rule of "full disclosure" of ties that could influence, or appear to influence, one's reporting. Surely, Oxford University Press grasps that such transparency is a foundation of democratic discourse; and how especially critical it is to uphold in a work on the life-and-death matter of hunger.
I had to act. After all, almost every speech I give ends with a call for greater boldness. I argue that humans are "good enough." It's our courage we need to stoke. So what could I do?
I began reaching out to scholars, and others whom I trust, to present a constructive challenge to Oxford University Press, asking it to hold the line on academic standards. Some weren't moved, saying, "Oh, Frankie, why don't you just publish a critical review yourself somewhere?" Or, "You'll never get anywhere going to the Press."