Ethical Communications about Agriculture

Ethical Communications about Agriculture

April 29, 2020
Annette Maggi

By RDBA Executive Director Annette Maggi, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

We’ve all learned that science is crucially important in a global pandemic based on a novel virus (Disinfectant kills the virus on surfaces but should not be injected it into the human body.). At the same time, the situation has brought to life the importance of ethics (Harvard, with the largest endowment in the world, should you have applied for federal relief funding?). Given the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a professional code of ethics, dietitians have experience in balancing science and ethics.

Today’s expanded definitely of healthy in consumers’ minds as well as social media demand to respond quickly, creatively and in short spurts of content, however, add challenge to the balancing act of engaging communications within ethics and based on science. This is especially true in the area of agriculture.

Consider this example. Earlier this month, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released the most recent version of their Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists. While at first glance, retail RDNs may perceive this information as helpful to shoppers, our professional code of ethics dictates we must practice using an evidence-based approach and demonstrate in-depth scientific knowledge of food, human nutrition and behavior. The lists are based on EWG's interpretation of USDA data and their message is that the items on the Dirty Dozen list contain pesticide residues. What EWG fails to communicate is that findings from the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program indicate more than 99% of samples tested had residues well below the tolerances established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The point is, presence isn't an indication of risk, making EWG's lists irresponsible. As dietitians practicing within our code of ethics, we have a responsibility to dig into the details, understanding the science behind EWG’s lists. We must base communications on the most important messages for health and based in science. Clearly, the central message in this category is the importance of fruits and vegetables in healthy eating habits.

Several months ago, while at a local grocery store, I came across the sign pictured here. While this retailer doesn’t currently have a dietitian, if they did, this RDN would be bound by the code of ethics to react and take action based on professional ethics and given the multitude of inaccuracies and misleading points: organic production does allow pesticides, just not synthetic ones; there is no science to indicate happy cows produce healthier milk; hormones are naturally occurring in all milk; all milk is tested for the presence of antibiotics and cannot be sold if antibiotics are present.

Retailers are uniquely position at the end of the supply chain and have the opportunity to communicate facts about agriculture and food production to shoppers. Retail RDNs can do this effectively, balancing science, ethics and engaging communications.