Source – Forbes.com
By Jay Byrne and Henry I. Miller
Date – Oct 22, 2012
Website – www.forbes.com
Like much that transpires in politics, most of the anti-genetic engineering campaigns we’ve seen over the past 30 years are not what they seem; they are more propaganda than populism. An example is this year’s Proposition 37 on the California ballot – which would require the labeling of certain “genetically engineered” foods. It is far from a “grassroots” movement of moms and grannies concerned about the safety of their children, although it has been portrayed as such.
Many mainstream media “news” stories have romanticized the intentions of those who oppose the newer genetic improvement techniques in agricultural biotechnology, but the facts tell a very different story: well-financed special interests conducting a highly organized assault on important, superior products and technologies.
There exists in this country a vast, well-established, highly professional, protest industry fueled by special interest groups seeking to line their own pockets while harming the public interest. How vast? A review of tax returns of the “non-profit” activist organizations opposing agricultural biotechnology and other modern production methods reveals more than $2.5 billion is being spent annually in the United States by these professional advocacy groups to shape our beliefs and influence our purchasing habits. Like Prop. 37 in California, the majority of this money comes not from “grassroots” donations, but from big-money special interests that benefit from these foods scares.
The leading corporate contributors and the biggest donors behind the Prop. 37 campaign in California are organic food, natural product and alternative (read: quack) health product companies. These “fear profiteers” prosper from scare campaigns about food and how it’s produced. Their support enables activists to foment bogus health and safety fears about the agricultural products and production techniques used to grow conventionally produced (i.e., non-organic) foods, thereby helping to drive customers to higher-priced organic offerings. Boosting costs through labeling initiatives and other tactics allows the less efficient organic alternatives to become more cost-competitive. Misled, bamboozled consumers are the losers.
The purveyors of “natural” and “organic” offerings often partner with a variety of reprobates, including the promoters of dubious alternative medicines such as chelation therapies, miracle supplements, and purgatives to remove or neutralize “toxins”; and trial lawyers seeking windfalls from spurious lawsuits. These modern-day snake oil salesmen have become multi-billion dollar industries that thrive by fanning health and safety fears via advocacy propaganda and marketing claims that the expert scientific and medical communities (and government regulators) say simply aren’t based in fact.
These activists and their marketing partners concoct compelling human interest stories that transform issues of health and environmental protection into morality tales of villains, victims and heroes. An example is the current fairy tale promoted in California via articles, blogs and campaign literature that depicts the Prop. 37 campaign as the brainchild of small-town grandmother Pamm Larry who “woke up one morning” during the summer of 2011 with the idea for the ballot initiative and transformed it into reality ten months later through the hard work of a “decentralized movement of citizens.”
In this fable, Granny Pamm (the heroine) is fighting to protect vulnerable children (the victims) from scary genetic engineering pushed by big agribusiness and food companies (the villains). Although it might make a good Hollywood film, it’s untrue.
Granny Pamm herself admitted to the Huffington Post that hard-core, professional activists like Ronnie Cummins of the Minnesota based Organic Consumers Association, Jeffrey Smith of the Iowa-based Institute for Responsible Technology and Andrew Kimbrell of the Washington, DC-based Center for Food Safety were “there from the beginning” to help. And help they did – with drafting the ballot proposal, providing professional political field organizers, and a media relations campaign led by head-case Jeffrey Smith that has been spreading the word on nationally syndicated television programs. All of this was put in place long before Granny Pamm’s 2011 supposed epiphany.
For more than four years, special interests with deep pockets opposed to genetic engineering were laying the groundwork by investing tens of millions of dollars – monies that did not appear on any California campaign finance disclosure reports. Granny Pamm, you see, didn’t actually have some divine inspiration in 2011 to lead a grassroots movement of “right to know” volunteers as the mythology goes. Rather, Granny had worked behind the scenes with Smith and the other campaigners for several years preparing for this assault.
These activists have been aided by powerful allies in the media, especially columnists at the New York Times. And last week viewers of the popular Dr. Oz Show were warned by “friend of the show” and anti-biotechnology activists Jeffrey Smith and Stonyfield Organic CEO Gary Hirshberg that genetically engineered crops are inadequately tested and, even worse, responsible for widespread adverse health effects. (The scientific and medical communities categorically deny such allegations, of course.)
What wasn’t revealed was that Oz’s wife and the co-producer of his program, Lisa Oz, has been a longtime supporter of Smith and an active campaigner against genetic engineering and in favor of Prop. 37. An advocate of alternative health products — whose producers not coincidentally sponsor her and Dr. Oz’s radio and television programs — she recently collaborated with Smith and served as narrator for his lurid and ludicrous anti-genetic engineering movie. (See Professor Bruce Chassy’s scathing rebuke to the producers of Dr. Oz’s show at http://academicsreview.org/2012/10/letter-to-dr-oz-show-producers-by-bruce-chassy-phd/.) The release of Smith’s movie and the disgraceful platform provided by Dr. Oz for propaganda were obviously timed to coincide with and influence the Prop. 37 ballot initiative in California.
Had you tuned in to Dr. Oz in 2010 you would have seen an almost identical program with Jeffrey Smith repeating his already thoroughly debunked fear-mongering — accompanied by none other than Granny Pamm (!) applauding his claptrap from the front row. Sharp-eyed readers will note that that was a full year before her proclaimed “Aha!” inspiration launched her “grassroots” campaign.
Since 2009 the corporate financial backers behind the current Prop. 37 initiative have been funneling millions of dollars to Granny Pamm’s “helpers” in order to establish a California presence and laying the groundwork for this initiative campaign. Their funding has been used to generate phony research alleging health problems from genetically engineered crops and foods, “documentary” films and other propaganda tactics, all timed to be released for maximum impact before the November 2012 election.
However, campaign financial disclosure reports will not show the millions that organic industry marketers like Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg provided to activists like Smith, Kimbrell and Cummins to trash competing conventionally produced products. Nor will campaign reporting account for prodigious in-kind contributions such as an hour of nationally broadcast air time by Dr. Oz to promote Prop 37.
Although labeling proponents love to portray themselves as underdogs in a David versus Goliath battle against big agribusiness, the reality is exactly the opposite. The organic and natural products special interests are spending more than $2.5 billion a year in no-holds-barred advocacy, and hundreds of millions more in unreported marketing activities to disparage farming methods and promulgate fraudulent health claims about the foods we eat – to no other purpose than to increase sales of their own exorbitantly priced offerings.
Recall the advice of “Deep Throat,” the confidential source for journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate scandal: “Follow the money. Always follow the money.”
Jay Byrne is president of v-Fluence Interactive Public Relations, Inc.; he was a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development. (Disclosure: Byrne headed corporate communications for the Monsanto Corporation from 1997 to 2001.) Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.