3 Dirty and Illegal Tricks the Biotech Industry Uses to Keep You in the Dark

As GMO labeling builds steam around the country, the industry is digging into its PR playbook to make sure you stay confused and uninformed.

October 21, 2013

The biotech industry uses its financial clout to cover up the tricks they're using to keep you in the dark about your food.

The issue of labeling genetically modified foods (GMOs) is gaining serious national momentum. Though a ballot initiative that would have required GMO labeling in California was defeated last November, the states of Connecticut and Maine have since passed labeling laws, and the little island of Kauai just passed a law giving prison time and fines to any farmer who doesn't disclose when he or she uses pesticides or plants GMO crops.


And in one month, residents in the state of Washington will go to the polls to vote on Initiative 522, or I-522, which would require labeling noting GMO content on all processed foods, seeds, and agricultural commodities. If passed, it would be the first labeling law to have teeth, considering that both Connecticut's and Maine's laws require other northeastern states to pass similar laws before theirs go into effect.

More from Rodale News: Whole Foods Officially Endorses GMO Labeling

Not surprisingly, the food and biotech industries have been out in force to defeat the bill, with their "no on 522" side spending $17 million (versus the pro-522 side's $5 million). And they're using the same tricks in Washington they've used in other states—and nationwide—to confuse people. Here are some of the worst ways the biotech industry is trying to keep you in the dark about what's really in your food.

1. Lying about Their Donors

During the campaign for California's version of a GMO labeling bill, known as Prop 37, a huge number of food companies spent millions on anti-Prop 37 advertising. The result? Serious backlash from consumers—especially against companies that own both non-organic and organic brands. While the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a Washington, DC, lobbying group for the food industry, spent just $375,000 fighting California's law, it was outspent by General Mills (about $520,000), which owns the Muir Glen and Cascadian Farms organic brands; Coca-Cola (about $1.2 million), which owns the Honest Tea line of certified-organic teas; and Kellogg's ($632,000), which owns the natural (and sometimes organic) food brand Kashi and veggie-burger brand Morningstar Farms. Dean Foods, which owns the Horizon organic dairy brand, spent around $250,000 fighting it.

Leading up to the Washington state vote, those companies seem to want to avoid the consumer backlash they saw in California by funneling money through the GMA. Washington's attorney general, Bob Ferguson, filed a lawsuit against the GMA alleging that the lobbying group collected and spent more than $7 million to fight I-522 while shielding the identity of its contributors, which is illegal according to Washington state campaign finance laws. In response, the GMA caved and announced on October 17th that it is forming a political action committee, which obligates the group to disclose its funders.

2. Lying to You about Costs

Another trick used in the California campaign and now in Washington state has been the flooding of TV and radio airwaves with ads from biotech companies (and their lobbying groups) insisting that GMO labeling would raise food costs. In California, the industry generated an arbitrary figure of $400 per year in added food costs for the average person, though no independent study or analysis existed to support that claim.

The fact is, that just isn't true, says Scott Faber, a former lobbyist for the GMA who now serves as vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group and as executive director for the pro-nationwide-GMO labeling group Just Label It. In a piece for the Huffington Post, he wrote: "The price you pay for food is driven by much more complex factors than just the cost of making it. Everything from competition among retailers to competition among brands to shopper demographics influences the price on the package." He goes on to note that food manufacturers are constantly changing labels on their packages, whether to highlight something that's "new and improved" or, say, adding their own industry-created "Facts Up Front" label about nutrition information that may or may not be useful. "Although it varies from product to product, the average 'refresh' cycle for a food label is about a year," he writes. "Adding the words 'may contain genetically engineered ingredients' will add as much to the cost of making food as adding the words 'can help reduce cholesterol'—nothing."

More from Rodale News: 7 Things You Need to Know about GMOs

And any argument that changing labels would increase costs runs counter to what the GMA admitted way back in the early 1990s, when federal nutrition labeling laws were enforced. According to this 1990 article from The New York Times, "Industry officials said that labels are changed frequently and if the rule is phased in as planned, little cost would be added. Some minor costs would also be incurred in chemical analysis of foods to produce the label information. But 'we do not consider this a major economic item,' said Jeffrey I. Nedelman, a spokesman for the grocery manufacturers."

3. Forming Front Groups

Though it was fairly obvious that ads meant to defeat Prop 37 were funded by biotech companies and big food manufacturers, the No on 37 group's website described it as a "coalition of family farmers, grocers, food companies, small businesses and others." And that's hardly the only group funded by big multinationals claiming to represent farmers and other food experts who are just trying to "do the right thing," according to a May 2013 report on front groups by Michele Simon, JD, MPH, policy consultant with the Center for Food Safety Center for Food Safety.* Monsanto and other biotech companies have funded a huge number of groups with reassuring-sounding names meant to confuse the public about the safety and environmental hazards associated with GMOs.

Here are just a few highlighted in the report:

• American Council on Science and Health, which said in 2010 that GMOs (along with soda and high-fructose corn syrup) were one of the "biggest unfounded health scares" of the year

• International Food Information Council Foundation, which puts out literature in multiple languages that contains "key messages and a menu of science-based supporting points on food biotechnology as it relates to food safety, consumer benefits, sustainability, and feeding the world"

• Alliance to Feed the Future, a pro-biotechnology coalition that compiles educational curricula for elementary school teachers 

• Center for Food Integrity, founded with the intention of building "consumer trust and confidence in today's food system"

• Global Harvest Initiative, a biotech-funded research project that publishes an annual global agriculture productivity "index" that measures how much food the world is producing and funds studies that, not surprisingly, always come out in favor of biotechnology

• U.S. Alliance for Farmers and Ranchers, a food- and biotech-industry funded coalition that airs television ads that downplay the benefits of organic and tout "traditional" farming, i.e. big ag, which the group terms "very large family farms."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the May 2013 report on front groups to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group that issued the report is the Center for Food Safety.

Tags: GMOs