You’ve probably read a lot in the news about a vast corporate conspiracy to undermine science and mislead the public about food safety. Wealthy corporations, the media says, are buying off scientists and setting up astroturf groups to push policies that will protect their financial interests, at the expense of public health.
Sadly, this is true—but not in the way you may think. The villains in this story aren’t soda companies, McDonald’s or Republicans. Rather, the organic food industry is at the heart of this conspiracy, specifically their trade group, the Organic Consumers association (OCA).
By funneling stunning amounts of industry money to fringe scientists, radical nonprofits and political campaigns, the OCA is promoting myths about agriculture and biotechnology. And lying about their motives.
If you’re not familiar with the OCA, they function like any trade group. They promote their industry’s products and lobby for policies favorable to their members’ bottom lines, calling themselves a “public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability,” focused primarily on food safety. There’s nothing wrong with those goals in principle. But when a campaign for “sustainability” morphs into a well-financed conspiracy to promote scientific misinformation, we have a very serious problem.
“Grants to Governments and Organizations”
According to their financial statements, one of OCA’s biggest expenses is “grants to governments and organizations” inside and outside the U.S., over $600,000 worth in 2014 alone. In 2013 the organization paid out more than $500,000 in grant money to various groups that help promote OCA’s agenda, and since 2009 the trade group has contributed $230,000 or more to bolster its political causes in this fashion.
That massive increase in OCA’s grant budget from 2009-13 got us speculating about whether this trend in spending has continued. So, we wrote to the OCA and asked how much money they’ve given in grants since 2014. We received no reply, but they spent $924,575 in 2015, according to their 990 on Charity Navigator. We suspect that their silence has something to do with where this money goes.
Financing Smear Campaigns Against Scientists
The beneficiaries of this largesse are non-profits like U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), established in 2014 to steal the emails of biotechnology researchers and ruin their reputations by leaking selections of the emails to the media. The charges leveled against scientists by USRTK have been thoroughly refuted in the preceding three years. Nonetheless, the fictional scandal USRTK invented with funding from the OCA has created a lot of confusion among the public–and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Paying for Research, Media Coverage and Promoting Quackery
Ad-hominem attacks, unfortunately, are just the start of this shameless anti-science crusade. The OCA has helped finance every major GMO labeling initiative across the U.S., spending $500,000 on ballot measures in WA, MD, VT, OR, and CA. Labeling campaigns have been debated to death, but suffice it to say that experts are convinced that transgenic foods are perfectly safe, and thus labeling them is an unjustifiable scare tactic designed to play on consumer fears about GMOs.
Publicly campaigning against safe, affordable food to protect corporate profits is bad enough, but the story gets worse, still. OCA’s founder Ronnie Cummins and his subordinates are on the record denying the efficacy of vaccines, which means the OCA is paying people full salaries to promote the spread of entirely preventable diseases. With the help other organic industry players, the OCA similarly finances junk studies, at a cost $100,000, designed to demonstrate the health benefits of eating organic products, whether or not those benefits are real.
The OCA also paid one researcher to recruit sympathetic food writers to cover these bogus studies favorably in the popular press. This group of journalists is considered the organic industry’s “A-Team of Commentators, Strategists and Influencers,” because they reliably shill OCA’s political agenda in the public square.
Behind Closed Doors
What makes all of the OCA’s activities truly malevolent is that they were conducted in secret. It wasn’t until 2015 that a FOIA request, ironically enough, revealed that the trade group was paying for science with predetermined conclusions and feeding talking points to the media in an attempt to pass GMO labeling legislation.
The organic industry has set itself up as a provider of healthy food, an advocate for the consumer and a bulwark against an unsustainable food system that corrupts science. In reality, the industry, with the help of the OCA, is merely trying to protect its revenue, and they’re happy to pay dishonest people who manipulate evidence to help them achieve that goal.