In response to skyrocketing growth in organic and non-GMO food sales, food and agrochemical companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past several years on stealth communications campaigns designed to defend industrial agriculture, sway opinion leaders and win over skeptical consumers, according to a new report by Friends of the Earth released today.
The report, “Spinning Food: How Food Industry Front Groups and Covert Communications are Shaping the Story of Food,” documents unprecedented levels of spending from front groups, trade associations, anti-GMO labeling campaigns, federal check-off programs and vast corporate marketing budgets aimed at defusing public concern about the risks of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture and undermining the reputation of organic food.
“The food industry is using a host of covert communication tactics to shape public opinion without most people realizing the stories are being shaped behind-the-scenes to promote corporate interests,” said Anna Lappé, a national bestselling author and founder of the Real Food Media Project, which works with public interest organizations around the country on popular education about food, farming and sustainability. “Our goal with this report is to inspire journalists, opinion leaders, policy makers and the public to bring increased scrutiny to the food industry’s messages and messengers.
In the last four years alone, food and agrochemical corporations have set up six new front groups that often appear as independent experts in the media, but are in fact made up of industry or PR professionals that are pushing coordinated industry messages designed to defend industry profits and win critical national policy battles on GMO labeling, pesticides and antibiotic use in animal agriculture.
“This onslaught of industry-sponsored spin is aimed at stemming the growing tide of consumers seeking healthier food produced without GMOs, toxic pesticides or routine antibiotics,” said Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth. “Rather than spending so much money on PR defending unhealthy and unsustainable food production, these companies should invest in meeting the growing demand for food that is good for people and the environment.”
Key findings include:
- Big food and chemical companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars from 2009 to 2011 to manipulate the public conversation about our food.
- 14 front groups -- often appearing in the media as independent sources -- spent $125 million during that time frame to push coordinated messages that serve industrial agriculture interests. These include groups like the U.S. Farmers and Rancher’s Alliance, whose partners include Monsanto, DuPont, Dow and Syngenta.
- Covert PR tactics these groups are using include efforts to disparage “organic moms,” the growth of “native advertising” disguised to look like real news, stealth engagement on social media and the use of third-party allies to foster an echo chamber for industry talking points.
- Coordinated messages pushed by a range of seemingly independent spokespeople are making their way from PR firms to the pages of leading media outlets. The report details and debunks five of these key messages, including “organic food isn’t worth the money” and “GMOs are needed to feed the world
- “To have an honest conversation about the future of our food system, it’s crucial for consumers and news producers to understand the alarming extent of industry influence on media coverage and to do what we can to make sure we’re hearing the real story, not spin,” said Stacy Malkan, co-author of the report and co-director of consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know.
The report, “Spinning Food: How Food Industry Front Groups and Covert Communications are Shaping the Story of Food,” can be found at www.foe.org/spinning-food. The report includes a detailed summary of industry trade and front groups’ activities, board members and spending.