Broccoli, Beyonce and Biosolids Marketing

I found this quotation arresting: “As of 2010, diet surpassed smoking as the No.1 risk factor for disease and death in America. One in three children is on track to develop diabetes, joining one in three adults who are already clinically obese. The resulting medical costs total tens of billions of dollars a year.”

The status of diet and health in the US was not what attracted me to the New York Times article with this quotation. It was the title: Broccoli’s Extreme Makeover.  The Time’s reporter Michael Moss was describing an amazing volunteer effort by a major public relations/advertising firm to convince Americans that they ought to eat more broccoli. This was a ”healthy” response to a finding in a government survey that only 5% of Americans were eating the recommended daily servings of vegetables. The reporter followed this up with a NYT video story, Creating a Broccoli Craze, in which dieticians, kids, adults and “madmen”-type creatives discussed options to make broccoli “cool” and “awesome.” One option was to set broccoli up against kale as if it were in a competition for healthfulness -- Kale vs Broccoli. A second was to imbue broccoli with an “alpha” quality; one idea was a video showing broccoli roasting in a large vessel suspended over a volcano by a hovering helicopter. I kid you not!

In case the idea of “Kale vs Broccoli” caused you to pause, I am glad it did. In fact, the emergence of kale as a “superfood” is no accident. As an article “How Kale Became Cool” in SELF explained: ”...the kale craze was ignited not just by a newfound interest in health and green juice, but in the same way many other trends have become “the new black”: a great PR team. Yes, the kale industry group—the American Kale Association (which is basically like the National Confectioners Association, but healthier)—hired hip New York PR maven Oberon Sinclair….” The enthusiasm for kale is an intentional output of PR! Broccoli now has to fight for its own share of attention.

The question posed by the NYTimes was: “What happens if an advertising agency markets fresh fruits and vegetables the way they do processed foods?”

It hadn’t really dawned on me that, except for Dole (banana) and Driscoll (strawberries), brand names do not readily come to mind when I think of fresh fruit and vegetables. But more than that, except for articles written by science or food writers on the inside pages of the daily newspapers, little concerted messaging on the benefits and joys of fresh vegetables and fruit pierce through the noise of ads for processed foods. I have been part of a rabble-rousing group of biosolids folks putting forth an argument for a national communications director for biosolids. Even among our hepped-up group doubt has been expressed whether our national and state associations would care to put even one dime into “marketing” or “advertising.” So, we have done some wordsmithing to cast the duties and responsibilities of such a “communications” director in terms that didn’t smack of mere poo-puffery (my play on words).

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could ask the question: “What happens if an advertising agency markets biosolids the way they do Scotts fertilizer?”

I doubt we will be asking that question anytime soon.

Nevertheless, broccoli and biosolids have a lot in common! Biosolids may even have a leg up. After all, biosolids compost was used in the White House gardens, but George Bush (the first) boldly exclaimed he didn’t like broccoli and he wouldn’t have it at the White House. (This is relived in the NYTimes video.)

Broccoli and biosolids have mutuality beyond that of poor public opinion. I learned of a special symbiosis between the two in research at Kansas State University, undertaken by George F. Antonious, a ”natural products chemist.” He has been developing botanical insecticides from collard greens and kale, and he has been enhancing their vitamin density for human consumption, as well. How did he do this? He used heat-dried biosolids!

Dr. Antonious has several interesting papers supporting the important value of biosolids in boosting broccoli and other cruciferous veggies (he also works with solanaceous veggies like tomatoes and peppers). Here are some of his top hitters:

Glucosinolates in collard greens grown under three soil management practices. This paper concludes: “Leaves of collard grown in soil amended with SS [sewage sludge] contained the greatest concentrations of GSLs [glucosinolates] compared to leaves of plants grown in CM [chicken manure] and NM [no mulch] treatments. Accordingly, leaves of collard plants grown in soil amended with SS could play a significant role in sustainable agriculture as alternative tools for soil-borne disease management in conventional and organic agriculture.”

Yield, quality, and concentration of seven heavy metals in cabbage and broccoli grown in sewage sludge and chicken manure amended soil. This paper concludes: “Total metals and plant available metals were also determined in the native and amended soils. Results indicated that the concentration of heavy metals in soils did not necessary reflect metals available to plants. Regardless of soil amendments, the overall bioaccumulation factor (BAF) of seven heavy metals in cabbage leaves and broccoli heads revealed that cabbage and broccoli were poor accumulators of Cr, Ni, Cu, Cd, and Pb (BAF <1), while BAF values were >1 for Zn and Mo.”

Chicken manure enhanced yield and quality of field-grown kale and collard greens. The findings are: “Overall, CM [chicken manure] and SS [sewage sludge] enhanced total phenols and ascorbic acid contents of kale and collard compared to NM [no mulch] native soil.”

Impact of soil management practices on yield, fruit quality, and antioxidant contents of pepper at four stages of fruit development. This article reports: “Total marketable pepper yield was increased by 34% and 15% in SS [sewage sludge] and CM [chicken manure] treatments, respectively, compared to NM [no mulch] bare soil; whereas, the number of culls (fruits that fail to meet the requirements of foregoing grades) was lower in YW [yard waste] compared to SS and CM treatments.”.

This is very exciting research, as it addresses tangible benefits in vegetable crop quality. We have confirmation that biosolids products can enhance the value of vegetable crops. But have you heard of it?

You might first ask how it is that this research was undertaken. You can thank the Louisville and Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District. This agency developed a biosolids dryer and has been supporting research around its Louisville Green pellets. This is research that benefits all of us. We should be taking this to the billboards, media and Beyonce’s chest.

Beyonce? She is not an insignificant part of the kale promotion. You can see the Beyonce Kale Sweatshirt on her 7-11 Music Video. You can buy a Beyonce Kale Sweat for only $49. Today kale, tomorrow broccoli; someday biosolids?

Broccoli (and its brassica cousins kale and collard) have a lot in common with biosolids. They are undervalued, even disrespected, and definitely under promoted, even though the scientific evidence repeatedly supports their positive contribution to human and environmental health. Low public opinion does not change by accident, and actually concerted effort at creative promotion is needed to change opinion. We need Beyonce.

Broccoli and Beyonce—lessons for biosolids marketing.