- Hundreds of endangered species — including dozens of important wild plants, birds, and insect pollinators — were at risk from this pesticide.
- By winning this case, we have likely stopped more than 25 million pounds of dicamba being sprayed over 100 million acres!
- By banning the use of dicamba on GMO crops, this victory has the potential to massively reduce the use of GMO soy and cotton!
*Our right to know if it’s GMO is officially under attack—again.
On June 6, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a new rule that would revise the agency’s current method for regulating genetically modified plants, and would exclude newer so-called “gene-edited” GMOs.
In a statement, the USDA justified the new rule by claiming that it came “in response to advances in genetic engineering.”
A week later, Trump bolstered the USDA’s proposal by signing an executive order directing the USDA, as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to “streamline” GMO regulations in the U.S. for agricultural biotechnology, including for genetically modified livestock and seeds.
The full import of these two moves, and specifically the threat that they represent to consumer freedom, is only just starting to sink in—and the need for consumer action is urgent.
*Excerpt From Organic Consumers
Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with help from then-President Obama, effectively stripped consumers of their right to know if their food contains GMO ingredients.
Now, under the Trump administration’s “free-for-all” approach to regulation, the USDA wants to let companies like Monsanto-Bayer, DowDupont and Syngenta (now owned by ChemChina) “regulate” their own genetically engineered products.
From the department of “you can’t make this stuff up,” the USDA calls its new proposed rule for reviewing and approving GMOs “Sustainable, Ecological, Consistent, Uniform, Responsible, Efficient,” or “SECURE” for short.
If this rule is allowed to take effect, biotech companies will for sure be more secure—secure in the fact that they will be allowed to unleash any genetically engineered organism they want into the environment or into the food system—with no oversight, no independent testing and no accountability.
Excerpt from Organic Consumers
The many loopholes in the new federal law for labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods make it a very disappointing standard to those of us who have spent 20 years advocating for transparency. Many GE-derived foods are exempt and won’t be labeled under the new regulation, making our job at PCC of providing transparency more difficult.
The final National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard was announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just before Christmas. At press time, we still were analyzing the rule, but some things are clear.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says one in six foods that contain highly refined GE products are exempt. Highly refined cooking oils, sugars and high fructose syrup in sodas and candies won’t be labeled if current testing methods are unable to detect their GE content.
The rule also sets a high 5 percent threshold for any “unintended presence” of GE ingredients. The 5 percent allowance is the weakest in the world, more than five times higher than the European Union’s 0.9 percent standard.
In addition, the rule does not require disclosure on actual food labels. It allows manufacturers options to avoid on-package declarations.
One option is to print QR codes on packages that must be scanned by a smartphone to get information. Studies show QR code disclosures discriminate against more than 100 million Americans.
Consumer Reports’ Senior Scientist, Michael Hansen, PhD, says, “No information is required on packages and manufacturers can get away with simply providing a QR code and phone number for consumers to learn more. Even consumers who have a smartphone and take the time to do that won’t necessarily get the full picture since many genetic engineering technologies and ingredients are exempt from disclosure.”
“Not everyone has a smartphone or lives in an area with reliable internet service,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumer Reports. “Even for those who do, it’s inconvenient to have to scan every food you put into your grocery cart.”
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), says “USDA’s own study found QR codes are inherently discriminatory against one-third of Americans who do not own smartphones or those without access to the internet. These are predominantly rural, low income and elderly populations.”
Similar objections apply to USDA’s option for disclosure through text messaging, which will entail messaging fees for some consumers. Both off-package methods are time-consuming and clearly designed to inhibit — not facilitate — access to GE content information.
Whatever the method of disclosure for products that are required to be labeled, the regulation prohibits the best-known terms — genetically engineered and GMO — used by consumers, companies and regulators for more 30 years. Instead, USDA permits only a new unfamiliar term, “bioengineered,” which may confuse shoppers. The law does appear to permit voluntary, non-GMO “absence” claims from the Non-GMO Project.
“Right now, certified organic and certified Non-GMO Project labels remain the only dependable way to avoid GMOs,” states Rebecca Spector, West Coast director for the Center for Food Safety.
Unfortunately, instead of settling the demand for transparent labeling, stakeholders say the weak rule and its loopholes almost certainly will lead to lawsuits, more state legislation, and efforts to amend the federal law. CFS already has said it “will explore all legal avenues to ensure meaningful labeling and protect the public’s right to know.”
Congressional leaders say they’re ready to fight for improvements. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) released a statement saying, “USDA’s plan for labeling GE food is an insult to consumers … What USDA has produced is a marketing campaign aimed at putting a positive spin on GMO food. These labels should give people the facts of whether ingredients in their food have been genetically altered, plain and simple. It seems like USDA is trying to paper over those facts here. In the coming Congress, I will be working on the House Appropriations Committee to push against this deceptive campaign.”
The regulations are effective beginning January 2020. Labeling by food manufacturers is not required until January 2022.
PCC will be working in 2019 to determine what GE products in our stores we can identify legally, if not covered in the scope of this rule. Look for more detailed information in future Sound Consumer issues.
Article printed in PCC Newsletter Feb 2019 by Trudy Bialic, PCC’s director of public affairs and quality standards.
- More than two dozen state legislatures have passed “seed-preemption laws” designed to block counties and cities from adopting their own rules on the use of seeds, including bans on GMOs
EXCERPT: “There is no looming threat that warrants forfeiting the independence of local agricultural communities in the form of sweeping language that eliminates all local authority governing one of our most valuable national resources,” says [Kristina] Hubbard of the Organic Seed Alliance.
Twenty-eight states make it illegal for counties and cities to pass seed laws
By Kristina Johnson
The Fern, August 17, 2017
With little notice, more than two dozen state legislatures have passed “seed-preemption laws” designed to block counties and cities from adopting their own rules on the use of seeds, including bans on GMOs. Opponents say that there’s nothing more fundamental than a seed, and that now, in many parts of the country, decisions about what can be grown have been taken out of local control and put solely in the hands of the state.
“This bill should be viewed for what it is — a gag order on public debate,” says Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy and communications at the Organic Seed Alliance, a national advocacy group, and a resident of Montana, which along with Texas passed a seed-preemption bill this year. “This thinly disguised attack on local democracy can be easily traced to out-of-state, corporate interests that want to quash local autonomy.”
Seed-preemption laws are part of a spate of legislative initiatives by industrial agriculture, including ag-gag laws passed in several states that legally prohibit outsiders from photographing farms, and “right-to-farm” laws that make it easier to snuff out complaints about animal welfare. The seed laws, critics say, are a related thrust meant to protect the interests of agro-chemical companies.
Nearly every seed-preemption law in the country borrows language from a 2013 model bill drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The council is “a pay-to-play operation where corporations buy a seat and a vote on ‘task forces’ to advance their legislative wish lists,” essentially “voting as equals” with state legislators on bills, according to The Center for Media and Democracy. ALEC’s corporate members include the Koch brothers as well as some of the largest seed-chemical companies — Monsanto, Bayer, and DuPont — which want to make sure GMO bans, like those enacted in Jackson County, Oregon, and Boulder County, Colorado, don’t become a trend.
Seed-preemption laws have been adopted in 28 states, including Oregon — one of the world’s top five seed-producing regions — California, Iowa, and Colorado. In Oregon, the bill was greenlighted in 2014 after Monsanto and Syngenta spent nearly $500,000 fighting a GMO ban in Jackson County. Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, and Syngenta also spent more than $6.9 million opposing anti-GMO rules in three Hawaiian counties, and thousands more in campaign donations. (These companies are also involved in mergers that, if approved, would create three seed-agrochemical giants.)
Montana and Texas were the latest states to join the seed-preemption club. Farming is the largest industry in Montana, and Texas is the third-largest agricultural state in terms of production, behind California and Iowa.
Language in the Texas version of the bill preempts not only local laws that affect seeds but also local laws that deal with “cultivating plants grown from seed.” In theory, that could extend to almost anything: what kinds of manure or fertilizer can be used, or whether a county can limit irrigation during a drought, says Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. Along with other activists, her organization was able to force an amendment to the Texas bill guaranteeing the right to impose local water restrictions. Still, the law’s wording remains uncomfortably open to interpretation, she says.
In both Montana and Texas, the laws passed with support from the state chapter of the Farm Bureau Federation — the nation’s largest farm-lobbying group — and other major ag groups, including the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Texas Seed Trade Alliance. In Texas, DuPont and Dow Chemical also joined the fight, publicly registering their support for the bill.
Echoing President Trump’s anti-regulatory rhetoric, preemption proponents argue that, fundamentally, seed-preemption laws are about cutting the red tape from around farmers’ throats. Supporters also contend that counties and cities don’t have the expertise or the resources to make sound scientific decisions about the safety or quality of seeds.
“We don’t believe the locals have the science that the state of Texas has,” said Jim Reaves, legislative director of the Texas Farm Bureau. “So we think it’s better held in the state’s hands. It will basically tell cities that if you have a problem with a certain seed, the state can ban it, but you can’t.”
Other preemption proponents claim that local seed rules would simply get too complicated, forcing growers to navigate conflicting laws in different counties. “Many of us farm fields in more than one county,” said Don Steinbeisser Jr., a Sidney, Montana, farmer who testified in support of his state’s bill at a legislative hearing this spring. “Having different rules in each county would make management a nightmare and add costs to the crops that we simply do not need and cannot afford.”
But critics of preemption laws, including farmers (organic and conventional) and some independent seed companies, are afraid of losing their legislative rights. They claim something far more serious than a single farmer’s crop is at stake.
“There is no looming threat that warrants forfeiting the independence of local agricultural communities in the form of sweeping language that eliminates all local authority governing one of our most valuable national resources,” says Hubbard of the Organic Seed Alliance.
Organic farmers can lose their crop if it becomes contaminated with genetically modified material. Even conventional farmers who rely on exports to Asia, where GMOs are banned by some countries, face risks from contamination. There are currently no plans to push for a GMO ban anywhere in Texas or Montana, and neither state requires companies to disclose the use of GMOs. (In Montana, at least, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, added an amendment to the preemption bill when he signed it, preserving the right of local governments to require that farmers notify their neighbors if they’re planting GMO seeds.) Yet critics of the preemption laws fear that they tie the hands of local governments, which will make it harder for communities to respond to problems in the future.
Still, the fight isn’t just about GMOs, says Judith McGeary, noting that seeds coated with neonicotinoids — a class of pesticides linked to colony collapse disorder in bees — are also at issue. Under the Texas bill, a local government can’t ban neonic seeds in order to protect pollinator insects, and in the current political climate, it’s hard to imagine that such a ban would happen on the state level.
“We have an extremely large state with an incredible diversity of agricultural practices and ecological conditions, and you’ve now hobbled any ability to address a problem that’s found in one local area,” says McGeary. “Until it’s a big enough issue for a state of 23 million to pay attention to through the state legislature, nothing is going to happen,” she says.
In April 2016, Monica Eng of WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station, published a critical story revealing that the agrichemical giant Monsanto had quietly paid a professor at the University of Illinois to travel, write, and speak about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and even to lobby federal officials to halt further GMO regulation. In a grueling, year-long reporting project, Eng uncovered documents proving that Monsanto made the payments to University of Illinois professor Bruce Chassy, and that he advised Monsanto to deposit money in the university’s foundation, where records are shielded from public disclosure.
“I knew that this would be a big story,” Eng says.
What she didn’t expect was the massive blowback: The university accused her of being an activist, not a journalist, and she was hounded by Twitter trolls who jumped on her story and waged a campaign to discredit her personally.
“I’ve worked as a professional journalist in Chicago for more than three decades,” Eng says. “I’ve uncovered questionable activity in government groups, nonprofits, and private companies. But I don’t think I have ever seen a group so intent on trying to personally attack the journalist covering the issue.”
Eng’s experience is just one example of a strategy first invented by Big Tobacco to smear critics, spin reporters, and tamp down information that could damage the industry’s image.
“I don’t think I have ever seen a group so intent on trying to personally attack the journalist covering the issue.”
In recent months, media outlets have reported on a disturbing trend of corporate-sponsored journalism. The British Medical Journalexposed a multiyear campaign by Coca-Cola to influence reporters covering obesity by secretly funding journalism conferences at the University of Colorado. The watchdog group Health News Review reported that two journalism professors at the University of Kansas asked more than 1,100 health-care reporters about their views on opioids in a survey that was funded, in part, by the Center for Practical Bioethics, a group the U.S. Senate Finance Committee investigated for its ties to opioid manufacturers.
The biotech industry is particularly focused on taming controversies surrounding GMOs and the chemicals that are used on genetically modified crops, including Monsanto’s weedkiller glyphosate. The world’s most widely used herbicide, glyphosate is critical for the successful cultivation of GMO corn and soybeans. A recent study found that the chemical’s use by farmers has jumped fifteen-fold since 1996. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
In January, a judge overruled Monsanto’s objections, and the state of California will add a label with a cancer warning to the popular glyphosate-based weed killer RoundUp. The Inspector General for the Environmental Protection Agency just announced he is investigating whether a former high-ranking EPA official colluded with Monsanto. In addition to filing lawsuits and hiring lobbyists, the chemical industry is deploying industry-allied scientists and using pro-GMO websites to discredit journalists covering glyphosate and GMOs.
New York Times investigative reporter Danny Hakim has dealt with online abuse in recent months for writing articles critical of the agrichemical industry. Google Hakim’s name and you find little mention of seventeen years at the Times, during which time he won a Pulitzer Prize. Instead, you’ll find articles criticizing his reporting at sites like the American Council on Science and Health (“Glyphosate: NYT’s Danny Hakim Is Lying to You”) and the Genetic Literacy Project (“Why Danny Hakim’s New York Times GMO exposé misleads”).
“The industry’s PR campaign to reframe the GMO debate and intimidate journalists through harassment and name-calling has been remarkably successful in my view,” says food author and journalism professor Michael Pollan. “I think this is partly a function of the political and public relations naiveté of many of my fellow science writers.”
One tactic industry allies employ to discredit questions about GMOs is to narrow the discussion to food safety. Pro-GMO scientists and writers mock experts and critics, by portraying them as loonies who think eating a bag of corn chips is akin to ingesting a bottle of arsenic. But this is a misleading line of attack, since GMO concerns are wide-ranging, including how well they are tested for safety, their impact on agriculture and the ecosystem, and the toxicity of glyphosate.
“The industry’s PR campaign to reframe the GMO debate and intimidate journalists through harassment and name-calling has been remarkably successful in my view…”
Most of all, there is legitimate debate about whether industry should be engineering a crop that requires the heavy use of pesticides. Industry and its allies attempt to discredit such questions by comparing GMO critics to climate denialists and vaccine safety denialists.
Hints of the biotech industry’s media tactics have leaked from court cases filed against Monsanto alleging glyphosate causes cancer. Several filings reference internal Monsanto documents that describe the company’s social media strategy called “Let Nothing Go”—a program in which individuals who appear to have no connection to the industry rapidly respond to negative social media posts regarding Monsanto, GMOs, and agrichemicals.
Lawyers in one case told a judge that documents show Monsanto funnels money to the Genetic Literacy Project and the American Council on Science and Health in order to “shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers.”
Industry has also secretly funded a series of conferences to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate. The most widely attended of these events happened in 2014 at the University of Florida and in 2015 at University of California-Davis. In emails, organizers referred to these conferences as biotech literacy bootcamps, and journalists are described as “partners.” Organizers included the chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, Kevin Folta, the Genetic Literacy Project’s Jon Entine, University of Illinois’s Bruce Chassy, and consultant Cami Ryan.
While claiming to be “independent” of industry influence, Folta was exposed in The New York Times for taking money from Monsanto to promote GMOs. Shortly before the Times article reported on his connection to Monsanto, Folta’s university declared its intention to donate these undisclosed payments to charity.
Entine was affiliated with a now-defunct group called STATS, which promotedpositive messages about chemicals and provided communications support for tobacco companies. Last year, Entine wrote an article attacking professors at Columbia Journalism School for their investigations of ExxonMobil’s involvement in climate change denial. Years ago, an article in The New Yorkerreported on Entine’s apparent involvement in the industry’s coordinated condemnation of a professor at University of California-Berkeley, whose research is critical of pesticides.
Besides receiving money to help Monsanto, Chassy runs Academics Review, a site suggested to him by an executive at Monsanto who emailed, “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
“These are distressing materials,” says Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University, after reviewing documents and emails about the conferences. Oreskes says the involvement of the American Council on Science and Health is especially problematic, given its long history of undermining the science on chemical safety and pesticides. She added: “It is clearly intended to persuade people that GMO crops are beneficial, needed, and not sufficiently risky to justify labeling.”
After early discussions in 2013, Entine later emailed Folta, Chassy, and Ryan noting that the conferences needed to include people “strategically located” in key states where political battles over GMO foods were occurring. Entine added that once the program is figured out, “I’ll take on proposing the handful of journalists and media experts that we would hope to bring on board.”
When a journalist asked who was behind the 2015 conference at UC-Davis, Entine wrote that the biotech literacy events had university sponsorship, as well as support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State Department, and Academics Review, which gets some industry support. In an email to several scientists, Chassy also claimed that universities and U.S. federal agencies were funding the literacy bootcamp conferences, and said the honoraria for presenters would be $2,500. Chassy added, “Journalists aren’t inexpensive.”
But both the University of Florida and UC-Davis denied financially supporting these conferences. A spokesperson from the State Department said the agency merely sent a speaker to the 2014 conference at the University of Florida. After weeks of repeated requests, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture was unable to find evidence of the federal agency’s financial support for the conferences.
So where did the cash come from? It’s a twisted money trail.
An agreement signed by Entine states that the literacy bootcamp at UC-Davis anticipated having many expenses paid by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). When contacted, BIO confirmed that it gave Academics Review $175,000 for the 2014 conference at the University of Florida and $165,000 for the 2015 conference at UC-Davis. But BIO added that the money was cycled through a nonprofit it operates called the Council on Biotechnology Information (CBI). In fact, the tax forms for CBI state that it gave a total of $300,000 to Academics Review in both 2014 and 2015. And tax forms for Academics Review, which Chassy runs with his wife, note that the group spent more than $160,000 on the UC-Davis conference in 2015.
In short, the only traceable money source is the biotech industry. So, what did industry money buy?
A flyer for the 2015 event at UC-Davis lists more than a dozen faculty, including Jay Byrne, a former public relations officer at Monsanto who now runs a PR firm that promotes GMOs. Also listed as faculty is Nina Fedoroff, a professor at Penn State, who also serves as a science adviser, and resident media critic, for a law firm that represents the biotech industry.
Among the attendees at the UC-Davis conference listed as “journalists” were Hank Campbell of the website Science 2.0, which regularly posts pro-GMO propaganda. Campbell is now president of the American Council on Science and Health, which attacks reporters for exposing scientists’ hidden ties to industry and the potential dangers of pesticides.
After reviewing conference documents, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said, “If journalists attend conferences that they are paid to attend, they need to be deeply suspicious from the get-go.” She added that the conference organizers were likely trying to convince journalists that anyone questioning the safety of GMOs “is anti-science and in the same category as climate change deniers.”
Gary Schwitzer, who is the publisher of HealthNewsReview and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, is also concerned.
“Far too many journalists are sliding down the slippery slope of attending conferences that are sponsored by entities with financial interests,” he said. “This practice changes journalism [into] another form of pay-for-play.”
When asked about the funding for the bootcamps and the financial support from industry to his organization, Entine responded, “Sorry, I’ve never heard of you. I don’t respond to activists with no history of credible reporting.”
Folta said he understands the conferences were funded by BIO and he organized the events outside of work hours. “All of my funding, as always, is and has been fully disclosed in accordance with university policy,” he added.
In a statement to The Progressive, Monsanto wrote that the company collaborates with multiple organizations and provides financial support in a transparent manner to many industry organizations including CBI, of which the American Council on Science and Health is a supporting partner. Monsanto added that it does not provide funding to the Genetic Literacy Project, but ignored repeated questions about their financial support for the American Council on Science and Health.
Chassy did not respond to queries about funding for Academics Review and the biotech conferences. But he did join Entine and Folta in sending a letter to The Progressive accusing the author of unspecified “bias and harassment tactics” and “multiple false and potentially libelous insinuations and claims.”
“Many reporters are simply too intimidated and afraid to report on the health and environmental effects of the agrichemical industry and its products.”
Gary Ruskin is codirector of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit that works on transparency in the food industry and receives some funding from the Organic Consumers Association. His group first got public records of industry-supported conferences.“Many reporters are simply too intimidated and afraid to report on the health and environmental effects of the agrichemical industry and its products,” he says.
Industry tars public health advocates and reporters as anti-science for raising issues the public needs to understand. That should worry us all.
On July 14, the House of Representatives voted 306-117 to kill Vermont’s popular mandatory GMO food labeling law, which had already begun to force major junk food and beverage giants (Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Nestlé, Campbell’s, Dannon, Smuckers, Starbucks) to label their GMO-tainted products nationwide.
As soon as President Obama signs the DARK Act, (or lets it take effect by not vetoing it) states will no longer have the right to mandate labeling of genetically engineered foods. That means that the 90 percent of consumers who want to know what they’re eating can now look forward, on a permanent basis, to what amounts to no labeling. What we will get, if anything, in a few years will be bogus Grocery Manufacturers Association trade-marked QR smart codes, or 1-800 numbers on processed food packages that will serve to keep consumers in the dark about Frankenfoods and their omnipresent toxins, while pretending to provide so-called “disclosure.”
But today, while the bill is still just a bill (and not a law), we need your signature.
If you haven’t already, please sign this White House petition today, asking Obama to veto the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act.
Call the White House 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 to leave your comment! The comment line is open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.