An Unappetizing Analysis from the FDA

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Last month the Food & Drug Administration published its latest annual analysis of the levels of pesticide residues that contaminate the fruits and veggies and other foods we Americans routinely put on our dinner plates. The fresh data adds to growing consumer concern and scientific debate over how pesticide residues in food may contribute – or not – to illness, disease and reproductive problems.

Over 55 pages of data, charts and graphs, the FDA’s “Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program” report also provides a rather unappetizing example of the degree to which U.S. farmers have come to rely on synthetic insecticides, fungicides and herbicides in growing our food.

We learn, for instance, in reading the latest report, that traces of pesticides were found in 84 percent of domestic samples of fruits, and 53 percent of vegetables, as well as 42 percent of grains and 73 percent of food samples simply listed as “other.” The samples were drawn from around the country, including from California, Texas, Kansas, New York and Wisconsin.

Roughly 94 percent of grapes, grape juice and raisins tested positive for pesticide residues as did 99 percent of strawberries, 88 percent of apples and apple juice, and 33 percent of rice products, according to the FDA data.

Imported fruits and vegetables actually showed a lower prevalence of pesticides, with 52 percent of fruits and 46 percent of vegetables from abroad testing positive for pesticides. Those samples came from more than 40 countries, including Mexico, China, India and Canada.

We also learn that for the most recently reported sampling, among the hundreds of different pesticides, the FDA found traces of the long-banned insecticide DDT in food samples, as well as chlorpyrifos, 2,4-D and glyphosate.  DDT is linked to breast cancer, infertility and miscarriage, while chlorpyrifos – another insecticide – has been scientifically shown to cause neurodevelopmental problems in young children.

Chlorpyrifos is so dangerous that the European Food Safety Authority has recommended a ban of the chemical in Europe, finding that there is no safe exposure level. The herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate are both linked to cancers and other health problems as well.

Thailand recently said it was banning glyphosate and chlorpyrifos due to the scientifically established risks of these pesticides.

Despite the prevalence of pesticides found in U.S. foods, the FDA, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), assert that pesticide residues in food are really nothing to worry about. Amid heavy lobbying by the agrichemical industry the EPA has actually supported continued use of glyphosate and chlorpyrifos in food production.

The regulators echo the words of Monsanto executives and others in the chemical industry by insisting that pesticide residues pose no threat to human health as long as the levels of each type of residue falls under a “tolerance” level set by the EPA.

In the most recent FDA analysis, only 3.8 percent of domestic foods had residue levels that were considered illegally high, or “violative.” For imported foods, 10.4 percent of the foods sampled were violative, according to the FDA.

What the FDA did not say, and what regulatory agencies routinely avoid saying publicly, is that the tolerance levels for certain pesticides have risen over the years as the companies that sell the pesticides request higher and higher legal limits. The EPA has approved several increases allowed for glyphosate residues in food, for instance. As well, the agency often makes the determination that it need not comply with a legal requirement that states the EPA  “shall apply an additional tenfold margin of safety for infants and children” in setting the legal levels for pesticide residues. The  EPA has overridden that requirement in the setting of many pesticide tolerances, saying no such extra margin of safety is needed to protect children.

The bottom line: The higher the EPA sets the “tolerance” allowed as the legal limit, the lower the possibility that regulators will have to report “violative” residues in our food.  As a result, the U.S. routinely allows higher levels of pesticide residues in food than other developed nations. For example, the legal limit for the weed killer glyphosate on an apple is 0.2 parts per million (ppm) in the United States but only half that level – 0.1 ppm – is allowed on an apple in the European Union. As well, the U.S. allows residues of glyphosate on corn at 5 ppm, while the EU allows only 1 ppm.

As legal limits rise for pesticide residues in food, many scientists have been increasingly raising alarms about the risks of regular consumption of the residues, and the lack of regulatory consideration of the potential cumulative impacts of consuming an array of bug and weed killers with every meal.

A team of Harvard scientists are calling for in-depth research about potential links between disease and consumption of pesticide as they estimate that more  than 90 percent of people in the United States have  pesticide residues in their urine and blood due to consumption of pesticide-laced foods.  A study connected to Harvard found that dietary pesticide exposure within a “typical” range was associated both with problems women had getting pregnant and delivering live babies.

Additional studies have found other health problems tied to dietary exposures to pesticides, including to glyphosate.  Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world and is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup and other weed killing products.

Pesticide Industry Push Back 

But as the concerns mount, agrichemical industry allies are pushing back. This month a group of three researchers with long-standing close ties to the companies that sell agricultural pesticides released a report seeking to soothe consumer worries and discount the scientific research.

The report, which was issued Oct. 21, stated that “there is no direct scientific or medical evidence indicating that typical exposure of consumers to pesticide residues poses any health risk. Pesticide residue data and exposure estimates typically demonstrate that food consumers are exposed to levels of pesticide residues that are several orders of magnitude below those of potential health concern.”

Not surprisingly, the three authors of the report are closely tied to the agrichemical industry. One of the report’s authors is Steve Savage, an agrichemical industry consultant and former DuPont employee. Another is Carol Burns, a former scientist for Dow Chemical and current consultant for Cortevia Agriscience, a spin-off of  DowDuPont. The third author is Carl Winter, Chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis. The university has received approximately $2 million a year from the agrichemical industry, according to a university researcher, though the accuracy of that figure has not been established.

The authors took their report directly to Congress, holding three different presentations in Washington, D.C., designed to promote their message of pesticide safety for use in “media food safety stories, and consumer advice regarding which foods consumers should (or should not) consume.”

The pro-pesticide sessions were held at the office buildings for members of Congress and, appropriately it seems, at the headquarters for CropLife America, the lobbyist for the agrichemical industry. 

 

International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a Food Industry Lobby Group

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The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a corporate-funded nonprofit organization based in Washington DC, with 17 affiliated chapters around the world. ILSI describes itself as a group that conducts “science for the public good” and “improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment.” However, investigations by academics, journalists and public interest researchers show that ILSI is a lobby group that protects the interests of the food industry, not public health.

Recent news:

  • September 2019: New York Times investigation by Andrew Jacobs reported that a trustee of the industry-funded nonprofit ILSI advised the Indian government against going ahead with warning labels on unhealthy foods. The Times described ILSI as a “shadowy industry group” and “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of.” 
  • The Times cited a June 2019 study in Globalization and Health co-authored by Gary Ruskin of U.S. Right to Know reporting that ILSI operates as a lobby arm for its food and pesticide industry funders.
  • October 2019: The New York Times revealed the undisclosed ILSI ties of Bradley C. Johnston, a co-author of five recent studies that claimed red and processed meat don’t pose significant health problems. Johnston used similar methods to claim sugar is not a problem in a study funded by the food industry via ILSI.
  • See also Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog: ILSI: true colors revealed

ILSI background and funding

ILSI was founded in 1978 by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola who worked for Coke from 1969-2001. Coca-Cola has kept close ties with ILSI. Michael Ernest Knowles, Coca-Cola’s VP of global scientific and regulatory affairs from 2008–2013, was president of ILSI from 2009-2011. In 2015, ILSI’s president was Rhona Applebaum, who retired from her job as Coca-Cola’s chief health and science officer (and from ILSI) in 2015 after the New York Times and Associated Press reported that Coke funded the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network to help shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks.  

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and reported in a 2016 study revealed that Coke proposed and financed the Global Energy Balance Network as a “weapon” in the “growing war between the pubic health community and private industry” over obesity and the obesity epidemic. 

ILSI is funded by its corporate members and company supporters, including leading food and chemical companies such as Coca-Cola, BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta, Mars, McDonalds, chemical industry trade groups, and many others. In its annual report, ILSI and its branches reported $17,481,251 in expenses for 2017 but did not disclose specific donor information. 

U.S. Right to Know obtained a document via a state freedom of information request showing corporate contributions to ILSI Global amounting to  $2.4 million in 2012. The largest donations were $500,000 from Monsanto and over $500,000 from the pesticide industry trade group, Crop Life International. ILSI’s draft 2013 IRS tax returns show $337,000 in donations from Coca-Cola and over $650,000 from six agrichemical companies, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi Bred and Syngenta. 

Emails show how ILSI seeks to influence policy to promote industry views 

A June 2019 paper in Globalization and Health provides several examples of how ILSI advances the interests of the food industry, especially by promoting industry-friendly science and arguments to policymakers. The study is based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records laws.  

The researchers concluded: “ILSI seeks to influence individuals, positions, and policy, both nationally and internationally, and its corporate members deploy it as a tool to promote their interests globally. Our analysis of ILSI serves as a caution to those involved in global health governance to be wary of putatively independent research groups, and to practice due diligence before relying upon their funded studies and/or engaging in relationship with such groups.”   

As one example, the paper quotes an email from Alex Malaspina, the former Coca-Cola executive who founded ILSI, lamenting the failure of ILSI Mexico to follow the industry position on soda taxes. Malaspina describes “the mess ILSI Mexico is in because they sponsored in September a sweeteners conference when the subject of soft drinks taxation was discussed. ILSI is now suspending ILSI Mexico, until they correct their ways. A real mess.” 

ILSI undermined obesity fight in China

In January 2019, two papers by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh revealed ILSI’s powerful influence on the Chinese government on issues related to obesity. The papers document how Coca-Cola and other corporations worked through the China branch of ILSI to influence decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Read the papers:

ILSI is so well-placed in China that it operates from inside the government’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.

Professor Geenhalgh’s papers document how Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants “helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related diseases” by operating through ILSI to cultivate key Chinese officials “in an effort to stave off the growing movement for food regulation and soda taxes that has been sweeping the west,” the New York Times reported.  

Additional academic research from U.S. Right to Know about ILSI 

The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has over 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI.  

ILSI sugar study “right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook”

Public health experts denounced an ILSI-funded sugar study published in a prominent medical journal in 2016 that was a “scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar,” reported Anahad O’Connor in The New York Times. The ILSI-funded study argued that warnings to cut sugar are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.  

The Times story quoted Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research, on the ILSI study: “This comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science,” Nestle said. “This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful.” 

Tobacco companies used ILSI to thwart tobacco policies 

A July 2000 report by an independent committee of the World Health Organization outlined a number of ways in which the tobacco industry attempted to undermine WHO tobacco control efforts, including using scientific groups to influence WHO’s decision-making and to manipulate scientific debate surrounding the health effects of tobacco. ILSI played a key role in these efforts, according to a case study on ILSI that accompanied the report. Findings indicate that ILSI was used by certain tobacco companies to thwart tobacco control policies. Senior office bearers in ILSI were directly involved in these actions,” according to the case study. See: 

The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has more than 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI

ILSI leaders played key role in defending glyphosate as chairs of JMPR panel 

In May 2016, ILSI came under scrutiny after revelations that the vice president of ILSI Europe, Professor Alan Boobis, was also chairman of a UN panel that found Monsanto’s chemical glyphosate was unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. The co-chair of the UN Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), Professor Angelo Moretto, was a board member of ILSI’s Health and Environment Services Institute. Neither of the JMPR chairs declared their ILSI leadership roles as conflicts of interest, despite the significant financial contributions ILSI has received from Monsanto and the pesticide industry trade group. See: 

ILSI’s cozy ties at U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  

In June 2016, U.S. Right to Know reported that Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of a CDC division charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, tried to help ILSI’s founder Alex Malaspina influence World Health Organization officials to back off policies to reduce sugar consumption. Bowman suggested people and groups for Malaspina to talk to, and solicited his comments on some CDC summaries of reports, the emails show. (Bowman stepped down after our first article was published reporting on these ties.)

This January 2019 study in the Milbank Quarterly describes key emails of Malaspina cozying up to Dr. Bowman. For more reporting on this topic, see: 

ILSI influence in India 

The New York Times reported on ILSI’s influence in India in its article titled, “A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World.”

ILSI has close ties to some Indian government officials and, as in China, the nonprofit has pushed similar messaging and policy proposals as Coca-Cola – downplaying the role of sugar and diet as a cause of obesity, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution, according to the India Resource Center. 

Members of ILSI India’s board of trustees include Coca-Cola India’s director of regulatory affairs and representatives from Nestlé and Ajinomoto, a food additive company, along with government officials who serve on scientific panels that are tasked with deciding about food safety issues.  

Longstanding concerns about ILSI 

ILSI insists it is not an industry lobby group, but concerns and complaints are longstanding about the group’s pro-industry stances and conflicts of interest among the organization’s leaders. See, for example:

Untangle food industry influences, Nature Medicine (2019)

Food agency denies conflict-of-interest claim. But accusations of industry ties may taint European body’s reputation, Nature (2010)

Big Food Vs. Tim Noakes: The Final Crusade, Keep Fitness Legal, by Russ Greene (1.5.17) 

Real Food on Trial, by Dr. Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros (Columbus Publishing 2019). The book describes “the unprecedented prosecution and persecution of Professor Tim Noakes, a distinguished scientist and medical doctor, in a multimillion rand case that stretched over more than four years. All for a single tweet giving his opinion on nutrition.”

Monsanto Relied on These “Partners” to Attack Top Cancer Scientists

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Related: Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists, by Stacy Malkan

This fact sheet describes the contents of Monsanto’s confidential public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, the international group of experts on the IARC panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

The Monsanto plan names more than a dozen “industry partner” groups that company executives planned to “inform / inoculate / engage” in their efforts to protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent the “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies.” Partners included academics as well as chemical and food industry front groups, trade groups and lobby groups — follow the links below to fact sheets that provide more information about the partner groups.

Together these fact sheets provide a sense of the depth and breadth of the corporate attack on the IARC cancer experts in defense of Monsanto’s top-selling herbicide.

Monsanto’s objectives for dealing with the IARC carcinogenicity rating for glyphosate (page 5).

Background

A key document released in 2017 in legal proceedings against Monsanto describes the corporation’s “preparedness and engagement plan” for the IARC cancer classification for glyphosate, the world’s most widely used agrichemical. The internal Monsanto document — dated Feb. 23, 2015 — assigns more than 20 Monsanto staffers to objectives including “neutralize impact of decision,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “lead voice in ‘who is IARC’ plus 2B outrage.” On March 20, 2015, IARC announced its decision to classify glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

For more background, see: “How Monsanto Manufactured Outrage at Chemical Cancer Classification it Expected,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (9/19/2017)

Monsanto’s Tier 1-4 “Industry Partners”

Page 5 of the Monsanto document identifies four tiers of “industry partners” that Monsanto executives planned to engage in its IARC preparedness plan. These groups together have a broad reach and influence in pushing a narrative about cancer risk that protects corporate profits.

Tier 1 industry partners are agrichemical industry-funded lobby and PR groups.

Tier 2 industry partners are front groups that are often cited as independent sources, but work with the chemical industry behind the scenes on public relations and lobbying campaigns.

Tier 3 industry partners are food-industry funded nonprofit and trade groups. These groups were tapped to, “Alert food companies via Stakeholder Engagement team (IFIC, GMA, CFI) for ‘inoculation strategy’ to provide early education on glyphosate residue levels, describe science-based studies versus agenda-driven hypotheses” of the independent cancer panel.

Tier 4 industry partners are “key grower’s associations.” These are the various trade groups representing corn, soy and other industrial growers and food manufacturers.

Orchestrating outcry against the cancer report on glyphosate

Monsanto’s PR document described their plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.”

How that played out can be seen in the writings of the industry partner groups that used common messaging and sources to accuse the cancer research agency of wrongdoing and attempt to discredit the scientists who worked on the glyphosate report.

Examples of the attack messaging can be seen on the Genetic Literacy Project website. This group claims to be an independent source on science, however, documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Genetic Literacy Project works with Monsanto on PR projects without disclosing those collaborations. Jon Entine launched the group in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his PR firm. This is a classic front group tactic; moving a company’s messaging through a group that claims to be independent but isn’t.

Plan suggests Sense About Science to “lead industry response”

Monsanto’s PR document discusses plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.” The plan suggests the group Sense About Science (in brackets with a question mark) for “leads industry response and provides platform for IARC observers and industry spokesperson.”

Sense About Science is a public charity based in London that claims to promote public understanding of science, but the group is “known to take positions that buck scientific consensus or dismiss emerging evidence of harm,” reported Liza Gross in The Intercept. In 2014, Sense About Science launched a US version under the direction of  Trevor Butterworth, a writer with a long history of disagreeing with science that raises health concerns about toxic chemicals.

Sense About Science is related to the Science Media Centre, a science PR agency in London that receives corporate funding and is known for pushing corporate views of science. A reporter with close ties to the Science Media Centre, Kate Kelland, has published several articles in Reuters critical of the IARC cancer agency that were based on false narratives and inaccurate incomplete reporting. The Reuters articles have been heavily promoted by Monsanto’s “industry partner” groups and were used as the basis for political attacks against IARC.

For more information:

  • “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article,” IARC statement (3/1/18)
  • Reuters’ Aaron Blair IARC story promotes false narrative, USRTK (7/24/2017)
  • Reuters’ claim that IARC “edited out” findings is also false, USRTK (10/20/2017)
  • “Are corporate ties influencing science coverage?” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (7/24/2017)

“Engage Henry Miller”

Page 2 of the Monsanto PR document identifies the first external deliverable for planning and preparation: “Engage Henry Miller” to “inoculate / establish public perspective on IARC and reviews.”

“I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.”

Henry I. Miller, MD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, has a long documented history of working with corporations to defend hazardous products. The Monsanto plan identifies the “MON owner” of the task as Eric Sachs, Monsanto’s science, technology and outreach lead.

Documents later reported by The New York Times reveal that Sachs emailed Miller a week before the IARC glyphosate report to ask if Miller was interested in writing about the “controversial decision.” Miller responded, “I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.” On March 23, Miller posted an article on Forbes that “largely mirrored” the draft provided by Monsanto, according to the Times. Forbes severed its relationship with Miller in the wake of the ghostwriting scandal and deleted his articles from the site.

American Council on Science and Health 

Although the Monsanto PR document did not name the corporate-funded American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) among its “industry partners,” emails released via litigation show that Monsanto funded the American Council on Science and Health and asked the group to write about the IARC glyphosate report.  The emails indicate that Monsanto executives were uncomfortable about working with ACSH but did so anyway because, “we don’t have a lot of supporters and can’t afford to lose the few we have.”

Monsanto’s senior science lead Daniel Goldstein wrote his colleagues, “I can assure you I am not all starry eyed about ACSH- they have PLENTY of warts- but: You WILL NOT GET A BETTER VALUE FOR YOUR DOLLAR than ACSH” (emphasis his). Goldstein sent links to dozens of ACSH materials promoting and defending GMOs and pesticides that he described as “EXTREMELY USEFUL.”

See also: Tracking the Agrichemical Industry Propaganda Network 

Follow the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between food industry groups and academics on our investigations page. USRTK documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by UCSF.

Pamela Ronald’s Ties to Chemical Industry Front Groups

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Updated in June 2019

Pamela Ronald, PhD, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis and author of the 2008 book “Tomorrow’s Table,” is a well-known advocate for genetically engineered foods. Less known is Dr. Ronald’s role in organizations that portray themselves as acting independently of industry, but in fact are collaborating with chemical corporations to promote and lobby for GMOs and pesticides, in arrangements that are not transparent to the public. 

Ties to key agrichemical industry front group

Pamela Ronald has multiple ties to a leading agrichemical industry front group, the Genetic Literacy Project, and its executive director, Jon Entine. She assisted them in many ways. For example, documents show that in 2015, Dr. Ronald appointed Entine as a senior fellow and instructor of science communications at UC Davis, and collaborated with Genetic Literacy Project to host an agrichemical industry-funded messaging event that trained participants how to promote agrichemical products. 

The Genetic Literacy Project is described in an award-winning Le Monde investigation as a “well-known propaganda website” that played a key role in Monsanto’s campaign to discredit the World Health Organization cancer research agency’s report on glyphosate. In a 2015 PR document, Monsanto identified Genetic Literacy Project among the  “industry partners” the company planned to engage to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report. GLP has since published many articles attacking the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who lied and engaged in corruption, distortion, secrecy and fraud.

Entine has longtime ties to the chemical industry; his body of work includes defending pesticides, industrial chemicals, plastics, fracking, and the oil industry, often with attacks on scientists, journalists and academics.  Entine launched the Genetic Literacy Project in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his public relations firm. The GLP was originally associated with STATS, a nonprofit group journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that seeds doubt about science and is “known for its defense of the chemical industry.” 

In 2015, the Genetic Literacy Project moved to a new parent organization, the Science Literacy Project. IRS tax filings for that year indicated that Dr. Ronald was a founding board member of the Science Literacy Project, but emails from August 2018 show that Dr. Ronald convinced Entine to retroactively remove her name from the tax form after it became known she was listed there (the amended tax form is now available here). Dr. Ronald wrote to Entine, “I did not serve on this board and did not give permission for my name to be listed. Please take immediate action to notify the IRS that my name was listed without consent.” Entine wrote that he had a different recollection. “I clearly recall you agreeing to be part of the board and head the initial board … You were enthusiastic and supportive in fact. There is no question in my mind that you agreed to this.” Nevertheless he agreed to try to get her name removed from the tax document.

The two discussed the tax form again in December 2018 after this fact sheet was posted. Entine wrote, “I listed you in the original 990 based on a telephone conversation in which you agreed to be on the board. When you represented to me that you disagreed, I purged the record as you requested.” In another email that day, he reminded Dr. Ronald that “in fact you were associated with ‘that organization: as we worked together, seamlessly and constructively, in making the boot camp at your university a great success.”  

Science Literacy Project tax forms now list three board members: Entine; Drew Kershen, a former law professor who was also on the board of “Academics Review,” a group that claimed to be independent while receiving its funds from agrichemical companies; and Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist who serves on the board of scientific advisors for the American Council on Science and Health, a group that received money from Monsanto for its work defending pesticides and GMOs.

Founded, led UC Davis group that elevated industry PR efforts

Dr. Ronald was the founding director of the World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL), a group launched in 2014 at UC Davis to train faculty and students to promote genetically engineered foods, crops and pesticides. The group does not fully disclose its funding.

Documents show that Dr. Ronald gave Jon Entine and his industry front group Genetic Literacy Project a platform at UC Davis, appointing Entine as an unpaid senior fellow of IFAL and an instructor and mentor in a science communications graduate program. Entine is no longer a fellow at UC Davis. See our 2016 letter to the World Food Center inquiring about funding for Entine and IFAL and their obscure explanation about where their funding comes from.

In July 2014, Dr. Ronald indicated in an email to a colleague that Entine was an important collaborator who could give them good suggestions on who to contact to raise additional funds for the first IFAL event. In June 2015, IFAL co-hosted the “Biotech Literacy Project boot camp” with Genetic Literacy Project and the Monsanto-backed group Academics Review. Organizers claimed the event was funded by academic, government and industry sources, but non-industry sources denied funding the events and the only traceable source of money came from industry, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive.

Tax records show that Academics Review, which received its funding from the agrichemical industry trade group, spent $162,000 for the three-day conference at UC Davis. The purpose of the boot camp, according to the agenda, was to train and support scientists, journalists and academic researchers to persuade the public and policy makers about the benefits of GMOs and pesticides.

Speakers at the UC Davis boot camp included Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former director of corporate communications; Hank Campbell of the Monsanto-funded American Council on Science and Health; professors with undisclosed industry ties such as University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy and University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta; Cami Ryan, who now works for Monsanto; David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant who has a PR firm with clients including Dow and Bayer; and other agrichemical industry allies.

Keynote speakers were Dr. Ronald, Yvette d’Entremont the Sci Babe, a “science communicator” who defends pesticides and artificial sweeteners while taking money from companies that sell those products, and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute. (Nordhaus was also listed as a Science Literacy Project board member on the original 2015/2016 tax form, but his name was removed along with Dr. Ronald’s in the amended form Entine filed in 2018; Nordhaus said he never served on the board.)

Cooking up a Chipotle boycott

Emails indicate that Dr. Ronald and Jon Entine collaborated on messaging to discredit critics of genetically engineered foods. In one case, Dr. Ronald proposed to organize a boycott against the Chipotle restaurant chain over its decision to offer and promote non-GMO foods.

In April 2015, Dr. Ronald emailed Entine and Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a former Monsanto employee and cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, to suggest they find a student to write about farmers using more toxic pesticides to grow non-GMO corn. “I suggest we publicize this fact (once we get the details) and then organize a chipotle boycott,” Dr. Ronald wrote. Entine directed an associate to write an article for Genetic Literacy Project on the theme that “pesticide use often soars” when farmers switch to a non-GMO model to supply restaurants like Chipotle. The article, co-authored by Entine and touting his UC Davis affiliation, fails to substantiate that claim with data.

Co-founded biotech spin group BioFortified

Dr. Ronald co-founded and served as board member (2012-2015) of Biology Fortified, Inc. (Biofortified), a group that promotes GMOs and has a partner activist group that organizes protests to confront Monsanto critics. Other leaders of Biofortified include founding board member David Tribe, a geneticist at University of Melbourne who co-founded Academics Review, the group that claimed to be independent while receiving industry funds, and collaborated with IFAL to host the Biotech Literacy Project “boot camp” at UC Davis.

Former board member Kevin Folta (2015-2018), a plant scientist at the University of Florida, was the subject of a New York Times story reporting that he misled the public about undisclosed industry collaborations. Biofortified bloggers include Steve Savage, a former DuPont employee turned industry consultant; Joe Ballanger, a consultant for Monsanto; and Andrew Kniss, who has received money from Monsanto. Documents suggest that members of Biofortified coordinated with the pesticide industry on a lobbying campaign to oppose pesticide restrictions in Hawaii.

Played leading role in industry-funded propaganda movie

Dr. Ronald featured prominently in Food Evolution, a documentary film about genetically engineered foods funded by the trade group Institute for Food Technologists. Dozens of academics have called the film propaganda, and several people interviewed for the film described a deceptive filming process and said their views were taken out of context.

https://www.foodpolitics.com/2017/06/gmo-industry-propaganda-film-food-evolution/

Advisor for Cornell-based GMO public relations campaign

Dr. Ronald is on the advisory board of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a PR campaign based at Cornell University that promotes the GMOs and pesticides using agrichemical industry messaging. Funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has opposed the use of Freedom of Information Act to investigate public institutions, misled the public with inaccurate information and elevated unreliable messengers; see documentation in our fact sheet.

Receives money from the agrichemical industry

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Ronald receives compensation from agrichemical companies to speak at events where she promotes GMOs to key audiences that companies seek to influence, such as dieticians. Emails from November 2012 provide an example of how Dr. Ronald works with companies.

Monsanto staffer Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, a dietician who formerly worked for the food-industry spin group IFIC, invited Ronald to speak at two conferences in 2013, Food 3000 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. Emails show that the two discussed fees and book purchases and agreed Dr. Ronald would speak at Food 3000, a conference organized by the PR firm Porter Novelli that Kapsak said would reach “90 high media impact food and nutrition professionals/influencers.” (Dr. Ronald invoiced $3,000 for the event). Kapsak asked to review Dr. Ronald’s slides and set up a call to discuss messaging. Also on the panel were moderator Mary Chin (a dietician who consults with Monsanto), and representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto, with Kapsak giving opening remarks. Kapsak later reported that the panel got rave reviews with participants saying they would share the idea that, “We have to have biotech to help feed the world.”

Other industry-funded speaking engagements for Dr. Ronald included a 2014 speech at Monsanto for $3,500 plus 100 copies of her book which she declined to tweet about; and a 2013 speaking engagement for which she invoiced Bayer AG for $10,000.

Retracted papers

Retraction Watch reported that, “2013 was a rough year for biologist Pamela Ronald. After discovering the protein that appears to trigger rice’s immune system to fend off a common bacterial disease – suggesting a new way to engineer disease-resistant crops – she and her team had to retract two papers in 2013 after they were unable to replicate their findings. The culprits: a mislabeled bacterial strain and a highly variable assay. However, the care and transparency she exhibited earned her a ‘doing the right thing’ nod from us at the time.”

See coverage:

What do you do about painful retractions? Q&A with Pamela Ronald and Benjamin Swessinger,” Retraction Watch (7.24.2015)

Can the scientific reputation of Pamala Ronald, the public face of GMOs, be salvaged?” by Jonathan Latham, Independent Science News (11.12.2013)

Pamela Ronald does the right thing again, retracting a Science paper,” Retraction Watch (10.10.2013)

Doing the right thing: Researchers retract quorum sensing paper after public process,” Retraction Watch (9.11.2013)

IFIC: How Big Food Spins Bad News

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Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and other sources shine light on the inner workings of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a trade group funded by large food and agrichemical companies, and its nonprofit “public education arm” the IFIC Foundation. The IFIC groups conduct research and training programs, produce marketing materials and coordinate other industry groups to communicate industry spin about food safety and nutrition. Messaging includes promoting and defending sugar, artificial sweeteners, food additives, pesticides and genetically engineered foods.

Spinning pesticide cancer report for Monsanto 

As one example of how IFIC partners with corporations to promote agrichemical products and deflect cancer concerns, this internal Monsanto document identifies IFIC as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research team, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, IARC judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

Monsanto listed IFIC as a Tier 3 “industry partner” along with two other food-industry funded groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Center for Food Integrity.

How IFIC tries to communicate its message to women.

The document identifies IFIC, GMA and the Center for Food Integrity as part of a “Stakeholder Engagement team” that could alert the food companies to Monsanto’s “inoculation strategy” for the glyphosate cancer report.

Blogs later posted on the IFIC website illustrate the group’s patronizing “don’t worry, trust us” messaging to women.  Entries include, “8 crazy ways they’re trying to scare you about fruits and vegetables,” “Cutting through the clutter on glyphosate,” and “Before we freak out, let’s ask the experts … the real experts.”

Corporate funders  

IFIC spent $23,659,976 in the five-year period from 2012-2016, while the IFIC Foundation spent $5,639,289 from 2011-2015, according to tax forms filed with the IRS. Corporations and industry groups that support IFIC, according to public disclosures, include the American Beverage Association, American Meat Science Association, Archer Daniels Midland Company, Bayer CropScience, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Dannon, DowDuPont, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Mars, Nestle, Perdue Farms and PepsiCo.

Draft tax records for the IFIC Foundation, obtained via state records requests, list the corporations that funded the group in 2011, 2013 or both: Grocery Manufacturers Association, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Hershey, Mars, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever. The US Department of Agriculture gave IFIC Foundation $177,480 of taxpayer money in 2013 to produce a “communicator’s guide” for promoting genetically engineered foods.

IFIC also solicits money from corporations for specific product-defense campaigns. This April 28, 2014 email from an IFIC executive to a long list of corporate board members asks for $10,000 contributions to update the “Understanding our Food” initiative to improve consumer views of processed foods. The email notes lists the previous financial supporters: Bayer, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Mars, McDonalds, Monsanto, Nestle, PepsiCo and DuPont.

Promotes GMOs to school children  

IFIC coordinates 130 groups via the Alliance to Feed the Future on messaging efforts to “improve understanding” about genetically engineered foods. Members include the American Council on Science and Health, the Calorie Control Council, the Center for Food Integrity and The Nature Conservancy.

The Alliance to Feed the Future also provides free educational curricula to teach students to promote genetically engineered foods, including “The Science of Feeding the World” for K-8 teachers and “Bringing Biotechnology to Life” for grades 7-10.

The inner workings of IFIC’s PR services 

A series of documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know provide a sense of how IFIC operates behind the scenes to spin bad news and defend the products of its corporate sponsors.

Connects reporters to industry-funded scientists  

  • May 5, 2014 email from Matt Raymond, senior director of communications, alerted IFIC leadership and “media dialogue group” to “high profile stories in which IFIC is currently involved” to help spin negative news coverage, including responding to the movie Fed Up. He noted they had connected a New York Times reporter with “Dr. John Sievenpiper, our noted expert in the field of sugars.” Sievenpiper “is among a small group of Canadian academic scientists who have received hundreds of thousands in funding from soft-drink makers, packaged-food trade associations and the sugar industry, turning out studies and opinion articles that often coincide with those businesses’ interests,” according to the National Post.
  • Emails from 2010 and 2012 suggest that IFIC relies on a small group of industry-connected scientists to confront studies that raise concerns about GMOs. In both emails, Bruce Chassy pushes the view that there is no difference between conventional bred and genetically engineered crops.

DuPont exec suggests stealth strategy to confront Consumer Reports

  • In a February 3, 2013 email, IFIC staff alerted its “media relations group” that Consumer Reports had reported about safety and environmental concerns of GMOs. Doyle Karr, DuPont director of biotechnology policy and vice president of the board of Center for Food Integrity, forwarded the email to a scientist with a query for response ideas, and suggested confronting Consumer Reports with this stealth tactic: “Maybe create a letter to the editor signed by 1,000 scientists who have no affiliation with the biotech seed companies stating that they take issue with (Consumer Reports’) statements on the safety and environmental impact. ??”

Other PR services IFIC provides to industry

  • Disseminates misleading industry talking points: April 25, 2012 mail to the 130 members of the Alliance to Feed the Future “on behalf of Alliance member Grocery Manufacturers Association” claimed the California ballot initiative to label genetically engineered foods “would effectively ban the sale of tens of thousands of grocery products in California unless they contain special labels.”
  • Confronts troublesome books: February 20, 2013 describes IFIC’s strategy to spin two books critical of the food industry, “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss, and “Pandora’s Lunchbox” by Melanie Warner. Plans included writing book reviews, disseminating talking points and exploring additional options to enhance engagement in the digital media.
  • Research and surveys to support industry positions; one example is a 2012 survey that found 76% of consumers “can’t think of anything additional they would like to see on the label” that was used by industry groups to oppose GMO labeling.
  • “Don’t worry, trust us” marketing brochures, such as this one explaining that artificial sweeteners and food dyes are nothing to worry about.

Are You Ready for the New Wave of Genetically Engineered Foods?

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A version of this article was first published in Common Ground Magazine March 2018 (PDF version).

By Stacy Malkan

Everyone loves a feel-good story about the future. You’ve probably heard this one: high-tech foods enhanced by science will feed the 9 billion people expected on the planet by 2050. Food made in labs and crops and animals genetically engineered to grow faster and better will make it possible to feed the crowded world, according to stories that spin through our institutions of media and education.

“6th grade students brainstorming big biotech ideas to #Feedthe9″ touted a recent tweet tagged to the chemical industry’s promotional website GMOAnswers. Student ideas included “breed carrots to have more vitamins” and “corn that will grow in harsh winter conditions.”

It all sounds so promising until you look at the realities behind the rhetoric.

For starters, in a country that leads the world in growing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), millions go hungry. Reducing food waste, addressing inequality and shifting to agroecological farming methods, not GMOs, are the keys to world food security, according to experts at the United Nations. Most genetically engineered foods on the market today have no consumer benefits whatsoever; they are engineered to survive pesticides, and have greatly accelerated the use of pesticides such as glyphosate, dicamba and soon 2,4D, creating what environmental groups call a dangerous pesticide treadmill.

Despite decades of hype about higher nutrients or heartier GMO crops, those benefits have failed to materialize. Vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, for example – “the rice that could save a million kids a year,” reported Time magazine 17 years ago – is not on the market despite millions spent on development. “If golden rice is such a panacea, why does it flourish only in headlines, far from the farm fields where it’s intended to grow?” asked Tom Philpott in Mother Jones article titled, WTF Happened to Golden Rice?

“The short answer is that the plant breeders have yet to concoct varieties of it that work as well in the field as existing rice strains…When you tweak one thing in a genome, such as giving rice the ability to generate beta-carotene, you risk changing other things, like its speed of growth.”

Nature is complex, in other words, and genetic engineering can produce unexpected results.

Consider the case of the Impossible Burger.

The plant-based burger that “bleeds” is made possible by genetically engineering yeast to resemble leghemoglobin, a substance found in soybean plant roots. The GMO soy leghemoglobin (SLH) breaks down into a protein called “heme,” which gives the burger meat-like qualities — its blood-red color and sizzle on the grill — without the environmental and ethical impacts of meat production. But the GMO SLH also breaks down into 46 other proteins that have never been in the human diet and could pose safety risks.

As The New York Times reported, the burger’s secret sauce “highlights the challenges of food tech.” The story was based on documents obtained by ETC Group and Friends of the Earth under a Freedom of Information Act request – documents the company probably hoped would never see the light of day. When Impossible Foods asked the Food and Drug Administration to confirm its GMO ingredient was “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), the Times reported, the agency instead “expressed concern that it has never been consumed by humans and may be an allergen.”

FDA officials wrote in notes describing a 2015 call with the company, “FDA stated that the current arguments at hand, individually and collectively, were not enough to establish the safety of SLH for consumption.” But, as the Times story explained, the FDA did not say the GMO leghemoglobin was unsafe, and the company did not need the approval of FDA to sell its burger anyway.

The arguments presented did not establish safety – FDA

So Impossible Burger is on the market with the company’s assurances of safety and most consumers are in the dark about what’s in it. While the GMO process is explained on the website it is not marketed that way at the point of sale. On a recent visit to a Bay Area restaurant that sells the Impossible Burger, a customer asked if the burger was genetically modified. He was inaccurately told, “no.”

Lack of government oversight, unknown health risks and consumers left in the dark – these are recurring themes in the unfolding narrative about the Wild West of genetic engineering experimentation that is galloping toward a store near you.

A GMO By Any Other Name …

Synthetic biology, CRISPR, gene editing, gene silencing: these terms describe the new forms of genetically engineered crops, animals and ingredients that companies are rushing to get onto the market.

The old method of genetic engineering, called transgenics, involves transferring genes from one species to another. With the new genetic engineering methods – what some environmental groups call GMOs 2.0 – companies are tampering with nature in new and possibly riskier ways. They can delete genes, turn genes on or off, or create whole new DNA sequences on a computer. All these new techniques are GMOs in the way consumers and the U.S. Patent Office consider them – DNA is altered in labs in ways that can’t occur in nature, and used to make products that can be patented. There are a few basic types of GMOs 2.0.

Synthetic biology GMOs involve changing or creating DNA to artificially synthesize compounds rather than extract them from natural sources. Examples include genetically engineering yeast or algae to create flavors such as vanillin, stevia and citrus; or fragrances like patchouli, rose oil and clearwood – all of which may already be in products.

Some companies are touting lab-grown ingredients as a solution for sustainability. But the devil is in the details that companies are reticent to disclose. What are the feedstocks? Some synthetic biology products depend on sugar from chemical-intensive monocultures or other polluting feedstocks such as fracked gas. There are also concerns that engineered algae could escape into the environment and become living pollution.

And what is the impact on farmers who depend on sustainably grown crops? Farmers around the world are worried that lab-grown substitutes, falsely marketed as “natural,” could put them out of business. For generations, farmers in Mexico, Madagascar, Africa and Paraguay have cultivated natural and organic vanilla, shea butter or stevia. In Haiti, the farming of vetiver grass for use in high-end perfumes supports up to 60,000 small growers, helping to bolster an economy ravaged by earthquake and storms.

Does it make sense to move these economic engines to South San Francisco and feed factory-farmed sugar to yeast in order to make cheaper fragrances and flavors? Who will benefit, and who will lose out, in the high-tech crop revolution?

Genetically engineered fish and animals: dehorned cattle, naturally castrated pigs, and chicken eggs engineered to contain a pharmaceutical agent are all in the genetic experimentation pipeline. An all-male “terminator cattle” project – with the code name “Boys Only” – aims to create a bull that will father only male offspring, thereby “skewing the odds toward maleness and making the (meat) industry more efficient,” reported MIT Technology Review.

What could go wrong?

The geneticist working on the terminator cattle, Alison Van Eenennaam of the  University of California, Davis, is lobbying FDA to reconsider its 2017 decision to treat CRISPR-edited animals as if they were new drugs, thereby requiring safety studies; she told the MIT Review that would “put a huge regulatory block on using this gene-editing technique on animals.” But shouldn’t there be requirements for studying the health, safety and environmental impacts of genetically engineered foods, and a framework for considering the moral, ethical and social justice implications? Companies are pushing hard for no requirements; in January, President Trump talked about biotechnology for the first time during his presidency and made a vague declaration about “streamlining regulations.”

The only GMO animal on the market so far is the AquaAdvantage salmon engineered with the genes of an eel to grow faster. The fish is already being sold in Canada, but the company won’t say where, and US sales are held up due to “labeling complications.” The urge for secrecy makes sense from a sales perspective: 75% of respondents in a 2013 New York Times poll said they would not eat GMO fish, and about two-thirds said they would not eat meat that had been genetically modified.

Gene silencing techniques such as RNA interference (RNAi) can turn genes off to create particular traits. The non-browning Arctic Apple was engineered with RNAi to turn down the expression of genes that cause apples to become brown and mushy. As the company explains on its website, “when the apple is bitten, sliced, or otherwise bruised … no yucky brown apple left behind.”

Are consumers actually asking for this trait? Ready or not here it comes. The first GMO Arctic Apple, a Golden Delicious, began heading for test markets in the Midwest last month. Nobody is saying exactly where the apples are landing, but they won’t be labeled GMO. Look out for the “Arctic Apples” brand if you want to know if you’re eating a genetically engineered apple.

“I am confident we’ll see more gene-edited crops falling outside of regulatory authority.” 

Gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, TALEN or zinc finger nucleases are used to cut DNA in order to make genetic changes or insert genetic material. These methods are faster and touted as more precise than the old transgenic methods. But the lack of government oversight raises concerns. “There can still be off-target and unintended effects,” explains Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist of Consumers Union. “When you alter the genetics of living things they don’t always behave as you expect. This is why it’s crucial to thoroughly study health and environmental impacts, but these studies aren’t required.”

A non-browning CRISPR mushroom escaped US regulation, as Nature reported in 2016. A new CRISPR canola oil, engineered to tolerate herbicides, is in stores now and may even be called “non-GMO,” according to Bloomberg, since the US Department of Agriculture has “taken a pass” on regulating CRISPR crops. The story noted that Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical have “stepped through the regulatory void” and struck licensing deals to use the gene-editing technology.

And that raises another red flag with the narrative that new GMOs will provide consumer benefits that the old transgenic methods didn’t. “Just because the techniques are different doesn’t mean the traits will be,” Dr. Hansen pointed out. “The old method of genetic engineering was used mostly to make plants resist herbicides and increase sales of herbicides. The new gene editing techniques will probably be used in much the same way, but there are some new twists.”

Corporate Greed Versus Consumer Needs

The Atlantic’s “transforming food” summit was sponsored by DowDuPont. See our reporting on that story.

The world’s largest agrichemical companies own the majority of seeds and pesticides, and they are consolidating power in the hands of just three multinational corporations. Bayer and Monsanto are closing in on a merger, and the mergers of ChemChina/Syngenta and DowDuPont are complete. DowDuPont just announced its agribusiness unit will operate under the new name Corteva Agriscience, a combination of words meaning “heart” and “nature.”

No matter what re-branding tricks they try, these corporations have a nature we already know: all of them have long histories of ignoring the warnings of science, covering up the health risks of dangerous products and leaving behind toxic messes – Bhopal, dioxin, PCBs, napalm, Agent Orange, teflon, chlorpyrifos, atrazine, dicamba, to name just a few scandals.

The future-focus narrative obscures that sordid past and the present reality of how these companies are actually using genetic engineering technologies today, mostly as a tool for crops to survive chemical sprays. To understand how this scheme is playing out on the ground in leading GMO-growing pesticide-using areas, read the reports about birth defects in Hawaii, cancer clusters in Argentina, contaminated waterways in Iowa and damaged cropland across the Midwest.

The future of food under the control of big agribusiness and chemical corporations is not hard to guess – more of what they are already trying to sell us: GMO crops that drive up chemical sales and food animals engineered to grow faster and fit better in factory farm conditions, with pharmaceuticals to help. It’s a great vision for the future of corporate profits and concentration of wealth and power, but not so great for farmers, public health, the environment or consumers who are demanding a different food future.

Growing numbers of consumers want real, natural food and products. They want to know what’s in their food, how it was produced and where it came from. For those who want to be in the know about what they are eating, there is still a surefire way to avoid old and new GMOs: buy organic. The Non-GMO Project verified certification also ensures products are not genetically engineered or made with synthetic biology.

It will be important for the natural foods industry to hold the line on the integrity of these certifications against the wild stampede of new GMOs.

Stacy Malkan is the co-director of US Right to Know and author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

GMO Answers is a Crisis Management PR Tool for GMOs & Pesticides

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Update May 2018: Tax records show that the Council for Biotechnology Information, a chemical industry trade group, paid Ketchum public relations firm more than $11 million from 2013-2016 to to run GMO Answers. In a 2015 Monsanto PR plan, Monsanto named GMO Answers as one of the “industry partners” it planned to engage to discredit a report about glyphosate cancer concerns from the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel, see “Monsanto Relied on These Partners to Attack Top Cancer Scientists” (5/31/18).

ketchum gmo answers

By Stacy Malkan

GMO Answers is billed as a forum where consumers can get straight answers from independent experts about genetically engineered foods, and some journalists take it seriously as an unbiased source. But the website is a straight-up industry marketing tool to spin GMOs in a positive light.

Evidence that GMO Answers is a crisis-management propaganda tool that lacks credibility:

1) GMO Answers was created as a vehicle to sway public opinion in favor of GMOs. Soon after Monsanto and its allies beat back the 2012 ballot initiative to label GMOs in California, Monsanto announced plans to launch a new public relations campaign to reshape the reputation of GMOs. They hired the public relations firm FleishmanHillard (owned by Omnicom) for a seven-figure campaign.

As part of the effort, the PR firm Ketchum (also owned by Omnicom) was hired by the Council for Biotechnology Information – funded by Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta – to create GMOAnswers.com. The site promised to clear up confusion and dispel mistrust about GMOs using the unedited voices of so-called “independent experts.”

But how independent are those experts?

The website hews to carefully crafted talking points that tell a positive story about GMOs while downplaying or ignoring the health and environmental risks. For example, when asked if GMOs are driving up the use of pesticides, the site offers a convoluted no, despite peer-reviewed data showing that, yes, in fact, they are.

“Roundup Ready” GMO crops have increased use of glyphosate, a probable human carcinogen, by hundreds of millions of pounds. A new GMO/pesticide scheme involving dicamba has led to the destruction of soybean crops across the U.S., and the FDA is bracing this year for triple the use of 2,4-D, an older toxic herbicide, due to new GMO crops that are engineered to resist it. All of this is nothing to worry about, according to GMO Answers.

Questions about safety are answered with false statements such as “every leading health organization in the world stands behind the safety of GMOs.” We found no mention of the statement signed by 300 scientists, physicians and academics who say there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety,” and we received no answers to questions we posted about the statement.

Examples have since come to light that Ketchum PR scripted some of the GMO answers that were signed by “independent experts.”

2) As further evidence the site is a spin vehicle: In 2014, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.”

3) And the PR firm that created GMO Answers boasted about its influence on journalists. In a video posted to the CLIO website, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.

Why reporters would trust a marketing vehicle designed by Ketchum as a reliable source is difficult to understand. Ketchum, which until 2016 was the PR firm for Russia, has been implicated in espionage efforts against nonprofits concerned about GMOs. Not exactly a history that lends itself to dispelling mistrust.

Given that GMO Answers is a marketing tool created and funded by companies that sell GMOs, we think it’s fair game to ask: Are the “independent experts” who lend credibility to the website – several of whom work for public universities and are paid by taxpayers – truly independent and working in the public interest? Or are they working in league with corporations and public relations firms to help sell the public a spin story?

In search of these answers, U.S. Right to Know submitted Freedom of Information Act requests seeking the correspondence of publicly funded professors who write for GMOAnswers.com or worked on other GMO promotion efforts. The FOIA’s are narrow requests that cover no personal or academic information, but rather seek to understand the connections between the professors, the agrichemical companies that sell GMOs, their trade associations and the PR and lobbying firms that have been hired to promote GMOs and fight labeling so we’re kept in the dark about what we’re eating.

Follow the results of the U.S. Right to Know investigation here.

Keeping Secrets From Consumers: Labeling Law a Win for Industry-Academic Collaborations

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You’ve heard the mantra over and over – there are no safety concerns associated with genetically engineered crops. That refrain, music to agrichemical and biotech seed industry ears, has been sung repeatedly by U.S. lawmakers who have just passed a national law that allows companies to avoid stating on food packages if those products contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Sen. Pat Roberts, who shepherded the law through the Senate, dismissed both consumer concerns and research that has fed fears about potential health risks related to genetically engineered crops, in lobbying on behalf of the bill.

“Science has proven again and again that the use of agriculture biotechnology is 100 percent safe,” Roberts declared on the Senate floor on July 7 before bill passed. The House then approved the measure on July 14 in a 306-117 vote.

Under the new law, which now heads to President Obama’s desk, state laws mandating GMO labeling are nullified, and food companies need not clearly tell consumers if foods contain genetically engineered ingredients; instead they can put codes or website addresses on products that consumers must access for the ingredient information. The law intentionally makes it difficult for consumers to gain the information. Lawmakers like Roberts say it’s okay to cloud the issues for consumers because GMOs are so safe.

But many consumers have fought for years for foods to be labeled for GMO content precisely because they do not accept the safety claims. Evidence of corporate influence over many in the scientific community who tout GMO safety has made it difficult for consumers to know who to trust and what to believe about GMOs.

“The ‘science’ has become politicized and focused on serving markets,” said Pamm Larry, director of the LabelGMOs consumer group. “The industry controls the narrative, at least at the political level.” Larry and other pro-labeling groups say there are many studies indicating that GMOs can have harmful impacts.

This week, the French newspaper Le Monde added fresh reason for skepticism about GMO safety claims when it unveiled details of University of Nebraska professor Richard Goodman’s work to defend and promote GMO crops while Goodman was receiving funding from top global GMO crop developer Monsanto Co. and other biotech crop and chemical companies. Email communications obtained through Freedom of Information requests show Goodman consulting with Monsanto frequently on efforts to turn back mandatory GMO labeling efforts and mitigate GMO safety concerns as Goodman conducted “scientific outreach and consulting on GM safety” in the United States, Asia and the European Union.

Goodman is but one of many public university scientists engaged in such work. Similar collaborations have been revealed recently involving public scientists at several universities, including the University of Florida and the University of Illinois. Cumulatively, the relationships underscore how Monsanto and other industry players exercise influence in the scientific arena of GMOs and pesticides to push points that protect their profits.

In its examination of those concerns, the Le Monde article shines a light on how Goodman, who worked at Monsanto for seven years before moving to the public university in 2004, came to be named associate editor of the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) to oversee GMO-related research reports. Goodman’s naming to the FCT editorial board came shortly after the journal angered Monsanto with the 2012 publication of a study by French biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini that found GMOs and Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide could trigger worrisome tumors in rats. After Goodman joined the FCT editorial board the journal retracted the study in 2013. (It was later republished in a separate journal.) Critics at the time alleged the retraction was tied to Goodman’s appointment to the journal’s editorial board. Goodman denied any involvement in the retraction, and resigned from FCT in January 2015.

The Le Monde report cited email communications obtained by the U.S. consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know (which I work for). The emails obtained by the organization show Goodman communicating with Monsanto about how best to criticize the Séralini study shortly after it was released “pre-print” in September 2012. In a Sept. 19, 2012 email, Goodman wrote to Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond: “When you guys have some talking points, or bullet analysis, I would appreciate it.”

Emails also show that FCT Editor in Chief Wallace Hayes said Goodman started serving as associate editor for FCT by Nov. 2, 2012, the same month the Séralini study was published in print, even though Goodman was later quoted saying that he was not asked to join FCT until January 2013. In that email, Hayes asked Monsanto’s Hammond to act as a reviewer for certain manuscripts submitted to the journal. Hayes said the request for Hammond’s help was also “on behalf of Professor Goodman.”

The email communications show numerous interactions between Monsanto officials and Goodman as Goodman worked to deflect various criticisms of GMOs. The emails cover a range of topics, including Goodman’s request for Monsanto’s input on a Sri Lankan study submitted to FCT; his opposition to another study that found harmful impacts from a Monsanto GMO corn; and project funding from Monsanto and other biotech crop companies that makes up roughly half of Goodman’s salary.

Indeed, an October 2012 email exchange shows that around the time Goodman was signing on to the FCT journal and criticizing the Seralini study, Goodman was also expressing concern to his industry funders about protecting his income stream as a “soft-money professor.”

In an October 6, 2014 email, Goodman wrote to Monsanto Food Safety Scientific Affairs Lead John Vicini to say that he was reviewing an “anti-paper” and hoped for some guidance. The paper in question cited a 2014 report from Sri Lanka about a “possible exposure/correlation and a proposed mechanism for glyphosate toxicity related to kidney disease.” Glyphosate is the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and is used on Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops. The World Health Organization in 2015 said glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen after several scientific studies linked it to cancer. But Monsanto maintains glyphosate is safe.

In the email to Vicini, Goodman said he did not have the expertise needed and asked for Monsanto to provide “some sound scientific arguments for why this is or is not plausible.”

The emails show other examples of Goodman’s deference to Monsanto. As the Le Monde article points out, In May 2012, after the publication of certain comments by Goodman in an article on a website affiliate with the celebrity Oprah Winfrey, Goodman is confronted by a Monsanto official for “leaving a reader thinking that we really don’t know enough about these products to say if they are ‘safe.’” Goodman then wrote to individuals at Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, BASF and Dow and Bayer and apologized “to you and all of your companies,” saying he was misquoted and misunderstood.

Later in one July 30, 2012 email, Goodman notified officials at Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta and BASF that he has been asked to do an interview with National Public Radio about whether or not there is a relationship between GMO crops and increasing food allergies. In an Aug 1, 2012 reply, an official at Bayer offered him free “media training” before his interview.

The emails also show Goodman’s collaborative work with Monsanto to try to defeat GMO labeling efforts. In one October 25, 2014 email to Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs and Vicini, Goodman suggests some “concepts and ideas” for advertisements that can educate “consumers/voters.” He wrote that it was important to convey the “complexity of our food supplies” and how mandatory labeling could add to costs if companies responded by sourcing more non-GMO commodities. He wrote of the importance of conveying those ideas to the Senate and the House, and his hope that “the labeling campaigns fail.”

The emails also make clear that Goodman depends heavily on financial support from St. Louis-based Monsanto and other biotech agricultural companies who provide funding for an “Allergen Database” overseen by Goodman and run through the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska. A look at the sponsorship agreement for the allergen database for 2013 showed that each of six sponsoring companies were to pay roughly $51,000 for a total budget of $308,154 for that year. Each sponsor then can “contribute their knowledge to this important process,” the agreement stated. From 2004-2015, along with Monsanto, the sponsoring companies included Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Bayer CropScience and BASF. One 2012 invoice to Monsanto for the Food Allergen Database requested payment of $38,666.50.

The purpose of the database is aimed at “assessing the safety of proteins that may be introduced into foods through genetic engineering or through food processing methods.” The potential for unintended allergens in some genetically engineered foods is one of the common fears expressed by consumer groups and some health and medical experts.

In comments on the House floor, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said the QR codes were a gift to a food industry seeking to hide information from consumers. The law is “not what’s in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want,” he said. “Every American has a fundamental right to know what’s in the food they eat.”

Goodman, Monsanto and others in the biotech ag industry can celebrate their win in Congress but the new labeling law is likely to only breed more consumer skepticism about GMOs given the fact that it negates the type of transparency consumers seek – just a few simple words if a product is “made with genetic engineering.”

Hiding behind a QR code does not inspire confidence.

GMOs 2.0: Is Synthetic Biology Heading to a Food or Drink Near You?

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Old school stevia.

Old school stevia plant made by nature.

This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

By Stacy Malkan

Our culture is smitten with the notion that technology can save us – or at least create great business opportunities! Cargill, for example, is working on a new food technology that mimics stevia, a sugar substitute derived from plant leaves, for the “exploding sports nutrition market.”

Cargill’s new product, EverSweet, uses genetically engineered yeast to convert sugar molecules to mimic the properties of stevia, with no need for the plant itself.

It was developed using synthetic biology (or “synbio” for short), a new form of genetic engineering that involves changing or creating DNA to artificially synthesize compounds rather than extract them from natural sources – a process sometimes referred to as GMOs 2.0.

On June 1, U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for EverSweet with a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) designation. Eventually it could be used in “everything from dairy to tabletop sweeteners and alcoholic beverages, but low or zero calorie beverages are the sweet spot,” according to Food Navigator.

And so begins the next new food technology revolution: corporations racing to move food production from the land to the lab without laws or regulations in place that require scientific assessments or transparency.

How will they sell synthetic biology to consumers?

A big challenge facing synthetic biology is that today’s consumers want fresh natural foods with simple clear labels – what Food Business News dubbed the “trend of the year” last year.

“Why would we want synbio foods?” Eve Turrow Paul, a writer and corporate brand advisor, asked rhetorically in The Huffington Post. “Well, a few reasons. Number one on the list is climate change.”

Climate change is the number one reason for synthetic biology? What about capturing the exploding sports nutrition market?

Therein lies the PR challenge facing new food technologies: how to position food products created with strange-sounding lab techniques for the purposes of patents and profits as something safe that actually benefits consumers.

The largest agribusiness, food and synthetic biology companies got together in San Francisco in 2014 to discuss this PR challenge.

Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth, who attended the meeting, described it as “an alarming insight into the synthetic biology industry’s process of creating a sugar-coated media narrative to confuse the public, ignore the risks, and claim the mantle of ‘sustainability’ for potentially profitable new synthetic biology products.”

PR strategists at the meeting recommended avoiding terms like “synthetic biology” and “genetic engineering” (too scary, too much backlash), and suggested going with more vague descriptions such as “fermentation derived” and “nature identical.”

They recommended focusing the media on stories of hope and promise, capturing public emotion, and making food activists “feel like we are we are all marching under the same banner” for food sustainability, transparency and food sovereignty.

Targeting transparency

Somebody was listening. The story about Cargill’s big stevia opportunity didn’t mention genetic engineering or synthetic biology, but did describe “fermentation as a path.” It ended with a promise that Cargill has nothing to hide about how the ingredients are made and will clearly and accurately label products.

“We have targeted this space in a completely transparent manner,” said Steve Fabro, Cargill global programs marketing manager.

The new ingredient coincides with big changes at Cargill. After two years of declining profits, America’s largest private company is repositioning itself “to satisfy consumers in Western markets who are shying away from the mainstream food brands that rely on low-cost, commoditized ingredients that have been the specialty of companies like Cargill,” reported Jacob Bunge in the Wall Street Journal.

Consumers “want to know what’s in their food, who made it, what kind of company is it, are they ethical, how do they treat animals?” Cargill Chief Executive David MacLennan told Bunge.

With synthetic biology ingredients, that could prove to be a challenge.

When asked exactly how they plan to label EverSweet, Cargill communications lead Kelly Sheehan responded via email, 

“Consumers should be able to tell the difference on a label between stevia from leaf and steviol glycosides produced through fermentation. Stevia from leaf in the US is currently labeled as ‘stevia leaf extract.’ EverSweet will be labeled in the US as ‘steviol glycosides’ or ‘Reb M and Reb D.’ In the EU the expectation is EverSweet would receive a modified E number to differentiate the two products.”

 Sheehan added, “Cargill is committed to transparency and sharing product information at Cargill.com from ‘stevia leaf extract’ to ‘non-GMO stevia leaf extract.’”

Confusing? Perhaps, but labeling decisions may be left up to the companies. As with first-generation GMOs, labeling is not required in the U.S. (although Vermont will require GMO labeling starting July 1 unless Congress intervenes) and companies are free to market their products as “natural” (although FDA is reviewing use of that term). There are no safety standards and no testing requirements for foods developed with synthetic biology.

This lax system pleases the companies eager to patent new food technologies.

As Perls described the synthetic biology PR meeting, “A clear theme at the meeting was that the fewer government regulations the better, and industry self-regulation is best. There was a general consensus in the room that the public should not be concerned about a lack of data on safety; however, the internal and self-funded corporate studies are proprietary and cannot be shared with the public.”

Where have we heard this story before?

Proprietary information, patents, lack of transparency and industry self-scrutiny have been the hallmarks of first-generation GMOs – and the fuel for growing consumer distrust and demands for transparency that have caught the food industry off guard.

The corporations that profit from traditional GMOs – primarily Monsanto, Dow and other big chemical-seed companies – have responded to the backlash as big corporations often do: by throwing huge amounts of money at PR operations to attack critics and spin their products as necessary to feed the world.

The marketing promises have failed to materialize. A May 2016 report by the National Academy of Sciences found no evidence that GMO crops had changed the rate of increase in yields, and no clear benefits for small, impoverished farms in developing countries.

Nevertheless, GMO proponents claim, as Bill Gates did in a Wall Street Journal interview, that Africans will starve unless they embrace climate-friendly, vitamin-enriched GMO crops. Gates neglected to mention that these crops still don’t exist after 20 years of trials and promises.

Instead, most genetically engineered crops are herbicide-tolerant crops that are raising concerns about health problems linked to chemical exposures. These crops have increased sales of chemicals owned by the same corporations that own the patents for GMO seeds – an excellent profit model, but one that is turning out to be not so great for health and ecology.

The promise of synthetic biology

The same sorts of promises that failed to materialize in 20 years of GMO crops are fueling the buzz around next-generation genetic engineering.

Synthetic biology techniques “could deliver more-nutritious crops that thrive with less water, land, and energy, and fewer chemical inputs, in more variable climates and on lands that otherwise would not support intensive farming,” reported Josie Garthwaite in The Atlantic.

While proponents focus on possible future benefits, skeptics are raising concerns about risks and unintended consequences. With no pre-market safety assessments for synthetic biology foods, environmental and health impacts are largely unknown, but critics say there is one area in which the dangers are already apparent: economic damage to indigenous farmers as lab-grown compounds replace field-grown crops. Farmers in Paraguay and Kenya, for example, depend on stevia crops.

“By competing with poor farmers and misleading consumers about the origins of its ingredients, EverSweet and other examples of synthetic biology are generating bitterness at both ends of the product chain,” wrote Jim Thomas and Silvia Rabiero of The ETC Group in Project Syndicate.

The path forward for synthetic biology

As battle lines get drawn on the new food frontier, some difficult questions arise. How can we ensure that innovations in agriculture benefit society and consumers? How can new food technologies developed to capture markets, patents and corporate profits ever prioritize sustainability, food security and climate change solutions?

It’s going to take more than marketing slogans, and the clock is ticking to figure it out as new technologies race forward.

As Adele Peters reported in Fast Company, a new gene morphing technology called CRISPR, which makes it “possible to quickly and easily edit DNA,” is coming to a supermarket near you.

“If editing a single gene might have taken years with older techniques, now it can happen in a matter of days with a single grad student,” Peters reported.

What could possibly go wrong?

In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that a CRISPR mushroom will not be subject to regulation.

On June 1, scientists announced the start of a 10-year project that aims to synthetically create an entire human genome. The project is called Human Genome Project – Write, “because it is aimed at writing the DNA of life,” reported Andrew Pollack in The New York Times.

On June 8, the National Academy of Sciences released a report about “gene drives,” a new type of genetic engineering that can spread gene modifications throughout an entire population of organisms, permanently altering a species.

Gene drives “are not ready to be released into the environment,” NAS said in its press release calling for “more research and robust assessment.” Unfortunately, the NAS report failed to articulate a precautionary regulatory framework that would protect people and the environment.

Could synthetic biology, gene editing and gene drives have benefits for society? Possibly yes. But will they? And what are the risks?

If corporations are allowed to deploy genetic engineering technologies for commercial gain with no government oversight, no independent scientific assessments, and no transparency, benefits to society will be left off the menu and consumers will be in the dark about what we’re eating and feeding our families.

Stacy Malkan is the co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit food industry research group. She also does consulting work with Friends of the Earth. Follow her on Twitter @StacyMalkan

Will Senate Democrats Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory on GMO Labeling?

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Update June 27: A new “compromise” bill announced by Senator Stabenow is “completely unacceptable” and worse than the original bill, say consumer advocates. Read the latest news here.

By Stacy Malkan

Nearly 90% of Americans say genetically engineered food should be labeled, with high support across all ages, races and political affiliations, according to a December 2015 Mellman Group poll. It’s hard to think of a political issue that shares such broad appeal. Belief in our right to know what’s in our food is as American as apple pie.

Now, after a hard-fought battle led by millions of consumers and the nation’s largest environmental, health and consumer groups, we are winning that right. Large food companies from General Mills to Kellogg to Campbell’s have said they are putting labels on food products to indicate if they are produced with genetic engineering.

Is it possible to undo this progress? Could the new food labels actually roll back to the factories to be replaced by incomprehensible black blobs called QR codes?

Are Senate Democrats, led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, about to make a deal that will stop GMO labeling in its tracks?

spaghettiosThe agrichemical industry is swarming the U.S. Senate right now with a last-ditch lobbying effort to pass the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act, and thereby nullify state labeling efforts. They have just a few weeks left to get this done before Vermont implements the nation’s first mandatory GMO labeling law July 1.

The House of Representatives passed the DARK Act last year. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said at the time in a CNN op ed, “The fact that Congress is even considering a proposal to deny Americans basic information about their food speaks to overwhelming power of these corporate lobbyists over the public interest.”

All eyes are now on Sen. Stabenow, who, according to the Hagstrom Report, just proposed new language for a “compromise.” This may or may not include QR codes, an 800 number, or some other way of claiming “mandatory” labeling while allowing food companies to remove the words “genetic engineering” from the new labels that are already on their way to a store near you.

Details on the compromise are murky. But one thing is clear: as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Stabenow holds the keys to decide whether or not Americans will finally get clear, on-package GMO labels that are already required in 64 other countries around the world.

Both sides are doing their best to influence her. As Politico reported, organic industry leaders held a fundraiser for Sen. Stabenow in March, just days before the last vote on the DARK Act, and organic industry leaders donated several thousand dollars to her campaign in 2015 and 2016.

A review of Federal Election Commission filings for donations to Sen. Stabenow’s campaign from corporations and trade groups over the past five years found little from the organic industry – just one donation from the Organic Trade Association in 2012 for $2,500.

Big food, chemical and agribusiness groups, meanwhile, donated well over $100,000 to her campaign in that time period, including a combined $60,000 from Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Bayer and ConAgra.

Those corporations were among the top 10 donors to anti-labeling campaigns that spent over $100 million to defeat GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California, Washington, Oregon and California – using dirty tricks to do so, such as mailers from fake front groups, false claims in ads and voter guides, and the largest money laundering operation in Washington State election history.

Why are these companies so afraid to give Americans an informed choice about GMOs in our food?

Big agribusiness groups are sending the message that it’s none of our business what’s in our food and how it’s produced. Political cartoonist Rick Friday learned that lesson the hard way when he was recently fired from his job of 21 years at Iowa’s Farm News for pointing out in a cartoon that top executives at Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere made more money last year than 2,129 Iowa farmers.

What else don’t these companies want us to know about our food?

The fact is, most genetically engineered crops are engineered to survive chemical herbicides, which is great for chemical company profits but not so good for farmers and families in GMO-growing communities such as Hawaii, Argentina and Iowa – or for the rest of us who may be eating food every day that contains glyphosate, which was recently classified as probably carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization’s cancer panel.

The good news is, consumer demand for transparency is now too loud to ignore.

State drives for GMO labeling succeeded in educating millions of people that our most important food crops have been genetically engineered with no transparency. Vermont’s labeling law is a victory for the nation and food companies are already well on their way to labeling GMOs for the first time in the U.S. history.

If the agrichemical lobby succeeds in pushing Democrats to accept a Dark Act deal that involves anything less than mandatory on-package labeling, Sen. Stabenow will be forever remembered for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for our right to know what’s in our food.

This story originally appeared in Huffington Post. Want more food for thought? Sign up for the USRTK Newsletter.