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.”
Their reactions spurred me on. My alarm was not about Dr. Paarlberg’s views, for they can be addressed in fair debate. My distress was about the threat to democracy itself in Oxford University Press’s choice to lower its standards.
OK, that might sound overblown. But not to me. Democracy depends on honest, fair, accurate debate. Without it, we can’t possibly meet today’s challenges. And if academic presses don’t hold the line — when fair discourse in the wider culture is in collapse — who will?
In time, six distinguished, courageous scholars and leaders in the field of food, hunger and ecological farming, who share my alarm, joined me. First we sent our critique to the leader of Oxford University Press in New York City, Mr. Niko Pfund. We asked to meet to discuss straightforward remedies. At first, I truly believed top leadership at the Press would be distressed that this book had slipped through and would recommit to uphold basic standards.
Instead, after several weeks, we received a letter saying that Food Politics met its standards and no one would meet with us. (On the particular point of lack of disclosure, the Press told us that Dr. Paarlberg did not accept payment from Monsanto and therefore disclosing his advisory role was not required. However, we’d never said that he was paid by Monsanto. Our position is the widely accepted standard that any association, which could appear to influence a writer’s coverage of his or her subject, must be disclosed.)
OK, we thought, what about the home base of Oxford University Press in Oxford, England? Surely, there, where two dozen faculty of the university, known as the Delegates, have final authority, we’ll find leadership who shares our dismay. Calls and offers to travel to Oxford for discussions got nowhere. Finally, the office of Oxford University Vice Chancellor Andrew D. Hamilton, speaking for the Press, wrote to affirm the position of his New York office: The book met Oxford University Press standards; and no one would discuss the matter with us.
With those channels closed, we launched a petition campaign. And here’s where we need your help!
On April 25th, I’ll arrive on the steps of Oxford University Press in Oxford, England. And we would love to have your signature on the petition I’ll deliver. The petition asks for just threebasic standards to be upheld by Oxford University Press: citations for evidence-based claims, full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest (whether financial or other associations), and accurate promotion of publications.
Is not each of these three — transparency about sources, disclosure of conflicts of interest, and accurate promotion — precisely the type of standard that distinguishes an academic press from, say, a Fox News?
We believe our appeal goes to the very heart of democracy itself; for, absent transparency and commitment to evidence-based argument (impossible if authors provide no sources for claims!) democracy’s lifeblood — open, fair dialogue — drains away.
Thank you. It really matters.