Food Evolution GMO Film Serves Up Chemical Industry Agenda

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This post has been updated with reviews of Food Evolution: 

By Stacy Malkan, 6/19/2017 

Some industry messaging efforts are so heavy-handed they end up highlighting their own PR tactics more than the message they are trying to convey. That’s the problem with Food Evolution, a new documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The film, opening in theaters June 23, claims to offer an objective look at the debate over genetically engineered foods, but with its skewed presentation of science and data, it comes off looking more like a textbook case of corporate propaganda for the agrichemical industry and its GMO crops.

That the film’s intended purpose was to serve as an industry-messaging vehicle is no secret. Food Evolution was planned in 2014 and funded by the Institute for Food Technologists, a trade group, to culminate a multi-year messaging effort.

IFT is partly funded by big food corporations, and the group’s president at the time was Janet Collins, a former DuPont and Monsanto executive who now works for CropLife America, the pesticide trade association. IFT’s President-Elect Cindy Stewart works for DuPont.

IFT chose Kennedy to direct the film, but he and producer Trace Sheehan say they had complete control over the film they describe as a fully independent investigation into the topic of GMOs including all points of view.

The film’s credibility suffers from their choice to embrace only the science and scientists who side with the chemical industry players who profit from GMOs and the chemicals used on them, while ignoring science and data that doesn’t fit that agenda.

The Monsanto Science Treatment

The clearest example of the scientific dishonesty in Food Evolution is the way the film deals with glyphosate. The weed killer chemical is at the heart of the GMO story, since 80-90% of GMO crops are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate.

Food Evolution reports that the increase in glyphosate use due to GMOs is not a problem, because glyphosate is safe. Two sources establish this claim in the film: a farmer says glyphosate has “very, very low toxicity; lower than coffee, lower than salt,” and Monsanto’s Robb Fraley – in response to a woman in an audience who asks him about science linking glyphosate to birth defects and cancer – tells her that’s all bad science, “it’s pseudoscience.”

All science raising concerns about glyphosate is “pseudoscience,” says Monsanto.

There is no mention of the carcinogenicity concerns that are engulfing Monsanto in an international science scandal, or the many farmers who are suing Monsanto alleging they got cancer from the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide.

There is no mention of the 2015 report by the World Health Organization’s cancer agency that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, or California’s decision to add glyphosate to the Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, or the peer-reviewed studies that have linked various adverse health outcomes to glyphosate and Roundup.

Instead of an objective look at the evidence, Food Evolution gives viewers the full Monsanto science treatment: any science that raises concerns about the possible health risks of agrichemical products should be ignored, while studies that put those products in a favorable light is the only science worth discussing.

Double Standards in Science and Transparency

Equal treatment of interview subjects with different points of view would have helped the credibility of Food Evolution. Instead, the film paints the GMO critics it features as dishonest or out to make a buck off the organic industry, while leaving out key details about its pro-industry sources.

In one scene, the film’s main character, UC Davis professor Alison van Eenennaam, frets that appearing onstage with a Monsanto executive at a debate could sully her independent reputation. Viewers never learn that she used to work for Monsanto, or that she holds several GE patents which suggest a financial interest in the topic at hand.

Pro-industry scientist Pamela Ronald, another key science source, gets the hero treatment with no mention that two of her studies have been retracted. Yet viewers are hammered with news that a study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini – which found kidney problems and tumors in rats fed GMO corn – was “retracted, retracted, retracted!”

The film leaves out the fact that the study was subsequently republished, and was retracted in the first place after a former Monsanto employee took an editorial position with the journal where it was originally published.

The “Africa Needs GMOs” Narrative

In another neatly spun narrative, Food Evolution takes viewers on an emotional journey to the developing world, and along another favorite industry messaging track: rather than focus on how genetic engineering is used in our food system now – primarily to convey herbicide tolerance – we should focus on how it might possibly be used in the future.

With plenty of airtime and dramatic tension, the film examines the problem of banana wilt, a disease killing staple crops in Africa, and leads viewers to believe that genetic engineering will save the crop, the farmers and the community.

Maybe. But the film neglects to mention that the savior GE technology is not yet available and might not even work. According to a paper in Plant Biotechnology Journal, the resistance shown in the lab is robust but may not be durable in open fields.

The film is “fundamentally dishonest.”

Meanwhile, a low-tech solution is working well and looks like it could use some investment. According to a 2012 paper in the Journal of Development and Agricultural Economics, farmer field schools, which help growers acquire hands-on knowledge of techniques to prevent banana wilt, led to lower infection rates and high crop recovery in Uganda. Results from farmer field schools “have been remarkable,” according to the UN.

The solution doesn’t warrant a mention in Food Evolution.

“It’s fundamentally dishonest of the film to tout a GE solution that may not even work, as the scientists themselves acknowledge,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, “while failing to point out another way to control the problem that works very well, but doesn’t involve selling a product to make money.”

Did Monsanto have anything to do with Food Evolution?

Monsanto and allies were discussing plans for a documentary in late 2013, according to emails obtained by US Right to Know. The emails do not contain evidence linking those discussions to Food Evolution, but they do establish Monsanto’s desire for a film that sounds surpassingly similar to the one Kennedy created.

Monsanto’s Eric Sachs wrote in Dec. 2013 to a group of PR advisors, “there is clearly a lot of interest to pursue a documentary film. Importantly, the consensus was that Monsanto’s participation was welcome, particularly in the planning phase.”

He recommended a January 2014 planning call. Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project stepped up to take the lead, and mentioned he had “gotten a personal pledge of $100,000 from a private business person if we can get” (the rest of the line is cut off). Entine also has a connection to the Institute for Food Technologists; he spoke about “anti-food activism” at IFT’s 2012 annual meeting.

Another person mentioned in the Monsanto emails, Karl Haro von Mogel – who had discussed with Sachs “the downsides of a film funded by the ‘Big 6’” and suggested “what would matter more than their money is their participation” – was interviewed in Food Evolution, and was also involved in filming one scene, which suggests some behind the scenes coordination with the filmmakers.

In reaction to the emails, Kennedy wrote on Twitter: “@foodevomovie has had ZERO $ or INPUT from #Monsanto. We are fully transparent & happy 2 have fact-based dialogue.”

He said in an interview, “that email exchange had absolutely nothing to do with our project whatsoever … we hadn’t even committed to making the film with IFT at that date in 2013.”

The people in the email exchange were not involved in filming or advising, he said, and Karl Haro von Mogel “was a subject in the film and had no involvement or influence on any creative/editorial decisions on the film at any point in the production. Also it may be useful to point out that the email conversation you reference occurred long before we ever even knew Karl or any of these people.”

Sneak Peek Behind the Scenes

Another email exchange obtained by US Right to Know offers a peek behind the scenes at the narrative development in Food Evolution. The exchange depicts Kennedy’s search for examples to feature for “us/developing world need GMO.”

“Any other ‘us/developing world need GMO’ you can give me names of aside from oranges? Shintakus lettuce?” Kennedy asked. Producer Trace Sheehan responded with a list of GMO products including drought-tolerant rice, allergy-free peanuts, carcinogen-free potatoes … “and then button with Golden Rice.”

When Kennedy pushed for “the top GMO crops currently in use, and what countries,” Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science wrote, “Really Bt brinjal in Bangladesh is the only one that is truly GMO in and is in widespread operation.”

The film’s frame-driven reporting ignores that detail about the lack of operational GMO solutions, and doesn’t mention that the closer example, vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, still isn’t available despite huge investments and years of trials, because it doesn’t work as well in the field as existing rice strains.

What is propaganda?

In a scene that is supposed to convey scientific credibility, Food Evolution flashes the logo of the American Council on Science and Health at the very moment Neil deGrasse Tyson says there is a global consensus on the safety of GMOs. It’s a fitting slip. ASCH is a corporate front group closely aligned with Monsanto.

The ACSH logo scene also appears in the background in this 2-minute clip from a recent Climate One debate, as Kennedy pushed back against the suggestion that his film is propaganda.

“How do we determine what is propaganda?” Kennedy asked. “I say one of the ways we do it is (to ask), are results asked for, or results promised? I was not asked for results and I did not promise results. If you have a problem with the film, the problem lies with me.”

This review originally appeared in Huffington Post and has been reprinted in Alternet. 

See also: Stacy Malkan’s follow-up article, Neil deGrasse Tyson Owes Fans a More Honest Conversation About GMOs than Food Evolution. “Interviews with several other GMO critics who appear in the film, or were asked to be in it, corroborate the picture of a strange process involving sneaky filming, selective editing, misrepresentation and lack of disclosure about the film’s funding.”

Climate Science Denial Network Funds Toxic Chemical Propaganda

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They promote GMOs and pesticides, defend toxic chemicals and junk food, and attack people who raise concerns about those products as “anti-science.” Yet Jon Entine, Trevor Butterworth and Henry Miller are funded by the same groups that finance climate-science denial.

By Stacy Malkan

British writer George Monbiot has a warning for those of us trying to grasp the new political realities in the U.S. and the U.K.: “We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates,” he wrote in the Guardian.

Corporate America may have been slow to warm up to Donald Trump, but once Trump secured the nomination, “the big money began to recognize an unprecedented opportunity,” Monbiot wrote. “His incoherence was not a liability, but an opening: his agenda could be shaped. And the dark money network already developed by some American corporations was perfectly positioned to shape it.”

This network, or dark money ATM as Mother Jones described it, refers to the vast amount of hard-to-trace money flowing from arch-conservative billionaires, such as Charles and David Koch and allies, and corporations into front groups that promote extreme free-market ideas – for example, fights against public schools, unions, environmental protection, climate change policies and science that threatens corporate profits.

“We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates.”

Investigative writers Jane Mayer, Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway and others have exposed how “the story of dark money and the story of climate change denial are the same story: two sides of the same coin,” as U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse described it last year in a speech.

The strategies of the “Koch-led, influence-buying operation” – including propaganda operations that spin science with no regard for the truth – “are probably the major reason we don’t have a comprehensive climate bill in Congress,” Whitehouse said.

While these strategies have been well-tracked in the climate sphere, less reported is the fact that the funders behind climate science denial also bankroll a network of PR operatives who have built careers spinning science to deny the health risks of toxic chemicals in the food we eat and products we use every day.

The stakes are high for our nation’s health. Rates of childhood cancer are now 50% higher than when the “war on cancer” began decades ago, and the best weapon is one we are hardly using: policies to limit exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

“If we want to win the war on cancer, we need to start with the thousand physical and chemical agents evaluated as possible, probable or known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization” wrote scientist and author Devra Lee Davis, PhD, MPH, in The Hill.

Reducing known agents of harm has had “less to do with science, and more to do with the power of highly profitable industries that rely on public relations to counteract scientific reports of risks,” Davis noted.

Defending toxic chemicals and junk food 

When products important to the chemical and junk food industries run into trouble with science, a predictable cast of characters and groups appear on the scene, using well-worn media strategies to bail out corporations in need of a PR boost.

Their names and the tactics they use – lengthy adversarial articles, often framed by personal attacks – will be familiar to many scientists, journalists and consumer advocates who have raised concerns about toxic products over the past 15 years.

Public records requests by U.S. Right to Know that have unearthed thousands of documents, along with recent reports by Greenpeace, The Intercept and others, are shining new light on this propaganda network.

Key players include Jon Entine, Trevor Butterworth, Henry I. Miller and groups connected with them: STATS, Center for Media and Public Affairs, Genetic Literacy Project, Sense About Science and the Hoover Institute.

Despite well-documented histories as PR operatives, Entine, Butterworth and Miller are presented as serious science sources on many media platforms, appearing in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Philadelphia Enquirer, Harvard Business Review and, most often, Forbes – without disclosure of their funding sources or agenda to deregulate the polluting industries that promote them.

Their articles rank high in Google searches for many of the chemical and junk food industry’s top messaging priorities – pushing the narratives that GMOs, pesticides, plastic chemicals, sugar and sugar substitutes are safe, and anyone who says otherwise is “anti-science.”

In some cases, they are even gaining in influence as they align with establishment institutions such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cornell University and the University of California, Davis.

Yet their funding sources trace back to the same “ultra free market” ideologues from oil, pharmaceutical and chemical fortunes who are financing climate science denial – Searle Freedom Trust, Scaife Foundations, John Templeton Foundation and others identified as among the largest and most consistent funders of climate science denial groups, according to a 2013 study by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, PhD.

Those seeking to understand the dark money network’s policy goals for dismantling health protections for our food system would do well to keep an eye on these modern propagandists and their messaging.

Jon Entine – Genetic Literacy Project / STATS

Jon Entine, a former journalist, presents himself as an objective authority on science. Yet ample evidence suggests he is a longtime public relations operative with deep ties to chemical companies plagued with questions about health risks.

Over the years, Entine has attacked scientists, professors, funders, lawmakers and journalists who have raised concerns about fracking, nuclear power, pesticides and chemicals used in baby bottles and children’s toys. A 2012 Mother Jones story by Tom Philpott describes Entine as an “agribusiness apologist,” and Greenpeace details his history on their Polluter Watch website.

Entine is now director of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group that promotes genetically engineered foods and pesticides. The site claims to be neutral, but “it’s clearly designed to promote a pro-industry position and doesn’t try to look neutrally at the issues,” said Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union.

“The message is that genetic engineering is good and anybody who criticizes it is a horrible ideologue, but that’s just not indicative of where the scientific debate actually is.”

Entine claims, for example, that the “scientific consensus on GMO safety is stronger than for global warming” – a claim contradicted by the World Health Organization, which states it is not possible to make general statements about GMO safety, and by hundreds of scientists who have said there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety.

The Genetic Literacy Project also has not been transparent about its connections to Monsanto. As one example, the site published several pro-GMO academic papers that emails later revealed were assigned to professors by a Monsanto executive who provided talking points for the papers and promised to pump them out all over the internet.

Another example: Genetic Literacy Project partners with Academics Review on the Biotechnology Literacy Project, pro-industry conferences that train scientists and journalists on how to “best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public.”

“The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”

Academics Review, which published a report in 2014 attacking the organic industry, presents itself as an independent group, but emails revealed it was set up with the help of a Monsanto executive who promised to find funding “while keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.” Emails also showed that Academics Review co-founder Bruce Chassy had been receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto via the University of Illinois Foundation.

So who funds Genetic Literacy Project and Entine?

According to their website, the bulk of funding comes from two foundations – Searle and Templeton – identified in the Drexel study as leading funders of climate science denial. The site also lists funding from the Winkler Family Foundation and “pass through support for University of California-Davis Biotech Literacy Bootcamp” from the Academics Review Charitable Association.

Previous funding sources also include climate science denial supporters and undisclosed pass-through funding.

The Genetic Literacy Project and Entine previously operated under the umbrella of Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a group located at George Mason University, where Entine was a fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication from 2011-2014.

STATS was funded largely by the Scaife Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust between 2005 and 2014, according to a Greenpeace investigation of STATS funding.

Kimberly Dennis, the president and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust, is also chairman of the board of Donors Trust, the notorious Koch-connected dark money fund whose donors cannot be traced. Under Dennis’ leadership, Searle and Donors Trust sent a collective $290,000 to STATS in 2010, Greenpeace reported.

In 2012 and 2013, STATS received loans from its sister organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which received donations during those years from the George Mason University Foundation, which does not disclose funding sources.

Entine has at times tried to distance himself and GLP from these groups; however, tax records show Entine was paid $173,100 by the Center for Media and Public Affairs for the year ending June 30, 2015.

By 2014, emails show, Entine was trying to find a new home for Genetic Literacy Project, and wanted to establish a “more formal relationship” with the University of California, Davis, World Food Center. He became a Senior Fellow at the school’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy and now identifies as a former fellow. GLP is now under the umbrella of a group called the Science Literacy Project.

Entine said he would not respond to questions for this story.

Trevor Butterworth – Sense About Science USA / STATS

Trevor Butterworth has been a reliable industry messenger for many years, defending the safety of various risky products important to the chemical and junk food industries, such as phthalates, BPA, vinyl plastic, corn syrup, sugary sodas and artificial sweeteners. He is a former contributor at Newsweek and has written book reviews for the Wall Street Journal.

From 2003 to 2014, Butterworth was an editor at STATS, funded largely by Scaife Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust. In 2014, he became the founding director of Sense About Science USA and folded STATS into that group.

A recent exposé by Liza Gross in The Intercept described Sense About Science, its director Tracey Brown, Butterworth, STATS and the founders of those groups as “self-appointed guardians of sound science” who “tip the scales toward industry.”

Sense About Science “purports to help the misinformed public sift through alarming claims about health and the environment” but “has a disturbing history of promoting experts who turn out to have ties to regulated industries,” Gross wrote.

“When journalists rightly ask who sponsors research into the risks of, say, asbestos, or synthetic chemicals, they’d be well advised to question the evidence Sense About Science presents in these debates as well.”

Sense About Science USA posted this response to the piece, and Butterworth said via email he was “disappointed with the Intercept’s misleading article, which lumped people and organizations with no connection to Sense About Science USA together.” He said his group takes no corporate funding and is legally independent from the UK Sense About Science.

He also said, “I have never been involved in industry messaging campaigns — in any capacity, paid or not.”

Some journalists have concluded otherwise. 

Reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Atlantic and Consumer Reports portrayed Butterworth as a key player in the chemical industry’s aggressive PR efforts to defend the chemical BPA.

In 2009, journalists Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger of the Journal Sentinel described Butterworth as BPA’s “most impassioned” defender, and an example of “chemical industry public relations writers” who do not disclose their affiliations.

 “The most impassioned defense of BPA on the blogs comes from Trevor Butterworth.”

STATS, they wrote, “claims to be an independent media watchdog” but “is funded by public policy organizations that promote deregulation.” Its sister organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, “has a history of working for corporations trying to deflect concerns about the safety of their products.” Butterworth said his reporting on BPA reflected the evidence at the time from authoritative sources, and STATS posted responses here and here to the critical reporting.

A more recent example of how Butterworth’s writings played a key role in corporate lobby efforts to discredit troublesome science can be seen in his work on the controversial artificial sweetener sucralose.

In 2012, Butterworth wrote a Forbes article criticizing a study that raised concerns about the cancer risk of sucralose. He described the researchers, Dr. Morando Soffritti and the Ramazzini Institute, as “something of a joke.”

In 2016, a food industry front group featured Butterworth’s 2012 article and “something of a joke” critique in a press release attacking a new Soffritti “panic study” that raised concerns about sucralose. Reporters at The IndependentThe Daily MailThe Telegraph and Deseret News picked up Butterworth’s quotes discrediting the researchers, and identified him only as a reporter from Forbes.

Similarly, in 2011, Butterworth was a featured expert at the International Sweeteners Association Conference, and claimed in their press release there is “no evidence of a risk to health” from sucralose. He was identified as a “journalist who regularly contributes to the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.”

Emails obtained by USRTK show that Coca Cola VP Rhona Applebaum described Butterworth to the leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network – a Coca-Cola front group working to spin the science on obesity – as “our friend” and a journalist who was “ready and able” to work with them. Butterworth said he never worked with that group.

Butterworth is now affiliated with Cornell University as a visiting fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science, a group launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million Gates Foundation grant to promote GMOs. The Gates-funded group now partners with Sense About Science USA on a workshop to teach young scientists to “Stand Up for Science.”

Sense About Science USA also runs public engagement workshops for scientists at such venues as the University of Washington, University of Pittsburg, Carnegie Melon, Rockefeller University, Caltech and University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Henry I. Miller – Hoover Institution

Henry I. Miller, MD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is one of the most prolific defenders of genetically engineered foods and fiercest opponents of labeling them. He has penned numerous attacks on the organic industry, including “The Colossal Hoax of Organic Agriculture” (Forbes), “Organic Farming is Not Sustainable” (Wall Street Journal) and “The Dirty Truth About Organic Produce” (Newsweek).

Miller has also written in defense of bee-harming pesticides, plastic chemicals and radiation from nuclear power plants, and has repeatedly argued for the reintroduction of DDT. He did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

Unlike Butterworth and Entine, Miller has a science background and government credentials; he is a medical doctor and was the founding director of the FDA’s office of biotechnology.

Like Butterworth and Entine, Miller’s funding comes from groups that finance climate science denial – the Hoover Institute’s top funder is the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the group has also taken money from the Searle Freedom Trust, Exxon Mobile, American Chemistry Council, Charles Koch Foundation and Donors Trust.

Like the founders of STATS and Sense About Science, Miller also has ties to the tobacco industry PR campaigns. In a 1994 PR strategy memo for the tobacco company Phillip Morris, Miller was referred to as “a key supporter” of the global campaign to fight tobacco regulations. In 2012, Miller wrote that nicotine “is not particularly bad for you in the amounts delivered by cigarettes or smokeless products.”

Miller is also a member of the “scientific advisory board” of the George C. Marshall Institute, which is famous for its oil and gas industry funded denials of climate change, and a former trustee of the American Council on Science and Health, which “depends heavily on funding from corporations that have a financial stake in the scientific debates it aims to shape,” according to Mother Jones.

Perhaps recognizing that pontificating men aren’t the best sources to influence the women who buy food, Miller has recently been sharing bylines with female protégés who have joined his attacks on health advocates and organic farmers.

Examples include a co-authored piece with Kavin Senapathy, co-founder of a group that tries to disrupt speaking events of GMO critics, headlined “Screw the Activists;” and one with Julie Kelly, a cooking instructor whose husband is a lobbyist for the agribusiness giant ADM, describing organic agriculture as an “evil empire.”

Recent work by Kelly includes a piece in National Review casting doubt on climate science researchers, and an article in The Hill calling on Congress to defund the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which she accused of “cancer collusion” and “using shoddy science to promote a politically motivated agenda.”

As we enter the fifth decade of losing the war on cancer, and as climate instability threatens ecosystems and our food system, it’s time to unravel the network of science deniers who claim the mantle of science and expose them for what they are: propagandists who do the dirty work of industry.

This article was originally published in The Ecologist.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the nonprofit public watchdog group US Right to Know. She is author of “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” a co-founder of the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and a former newspaper publisher.

Broken FOIA Far from Healing as U.S. Agencies Cheat Public

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In America, one of the fundamental principles of our democracy is that our government works for us. We are supposed to have a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as President Abraham Lincoln famously said. To help ensure that principle is upheld we recognize that public access to information about government actions is critical to sustaining individual and collective freedoms.

But this year, as we notch the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), mounting evidence shows that many of our federal agencies are actually working to stifle that freedom by wrongfully withholding information from the public. In June, President Obama signed a bill presumably aimed at strengthening FOIA. But while the law offers a range of new procedural improvements, the provisions do little to actually prevent the continuation of common abuses and excuses we see from agencies reluctant to turn over information about their activities.

Attempts to evade the FOIA law have become so routine that the U.S. Government Accountability Office is convening a team now to begin a broad audit of FOIA compliance at federal agencies. The GAO review will get underway this month, according to the GAO.

The investigation comes in response to a directive issued by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, congressional bodies that have oversight of FOIA operations. And it comes after a damning report from the House committee that found the culture of the executive branch of the federal government “encourages an unlawful presumption in favor of secrecy when responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.” Agencies are supposed to act upon and respond to FOIA requesters within 20 working days, but anyone who regularly makes FOIA requests knows that it will likely be months, if not years, before any records are produced. If and when records are turned over, they often are heavily redacted, making them essentially useless. The House committee on oversight also found that political pressures often are at play, with documents deemed problematic or embarrassing withheld from release.

“Secrecy fosters distrust,” the committee report noted.

In their letter to the GAO, congressional committee leaders cited an Associated Press analysis that found people who asked for records received censored files or none at all in a record 77 percent of requests last year. Overall, the Obama administration censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them in a record 596,095 cases.

Filing a FOIA these days is a little like stepping through the looking glass into an alternative reality where order and logic are elusive. Pro Publica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, recently offered a litany of examples of governmental side-stepping of the law.

And I remain mired in my own frustrating FOIA odyssey. In January, I requested certain records from the Food and Drug Administration regarding a food safety testing program the agency conducts to measure pesticide residues in food. When I inquired about the status of my request, after the requisite 20 working days had passed, the agency told me it was waiting for its drug evaluation unit and its center for veterinary medicine to search for records. My protests that the records obviously were not housed in the FDA’s drug or veterinary units got me nowhere. After several months, the FDA acknowledged the request should be assigned to its food safety unit, but then I was told a response would be delayed because there was a “backlog due to staff changes.” I was also told some records had to be cleared with the Environmental Protection Agency, but the FDA FOIA officer assigned to my request wasn’t clear on how to make that referral. I’ve since been told the agency has found several hundreds of records that are responsive to my request, but all I’ve actually received are a litany of excuses and delays, and a handful of records with several sections blacked out.

The FDA has repeatedly cited the infamous “(b)(5)” exemption, which allows agencies to redact information they deem part of a “deliberative process.” The House committee found that the (b)(5) exemption is misapplied by federal agencies so frequently that it is known as the “withhold it because you want to” exemption.

And it’s not just federal agencies working to block public access to information that rightfully belongs to the public. Many of our public universities have also been found balking at complying with state open records laws. The organization I work for, the consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know, last month filed a lawsuit against the University of California-Davis after the university failed for more than a year and a half to turn over public records. As well, state officials in Michigan were exposed last year promoting the charging of exorbitant fees as a way to discourage records requests. And North Carolina state officials are being sued for circumventing the public records law in that state, also with delays and unreasonable fees.

These are not trivial matters. Information is being withheld about the safety of our food and the chemicals in our environment, housing and home lending programs, banking oversight, police actions, customs and border control concerns, election issues and more. Without factual information about the workings of government, the public cannot make informed choices at the ballot box or even know whether to support or oppose public policies.

Former President Jimmy Carter said: “Most often, the revelation of the truth, even if it’s unpleasant, is beneficial.”

One provision of the new law signed this June is the formation of the Chief  FOIA Officers Council (CFO), a group of federal agency FOIA officials who are charged with developing recommendations for increasing FOIA compliance and working on initiatives that will increase transparency.  The group is holding a public meeting Sept. 15. Journalists and others interested are encouraged to attend.

It’s a good small step forward. But our leaders in Washington can, and should, do more to ensure that the truth about our government is not so hard to find.

(Article originally appeared in The Hill http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/healthcare/294192-how-freedom-falls-broken-foia-far-from-healing-as-us-agencies)