A few months ago, I raised concerns about Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel (FAIR.org, 10/28/15) after she admitted taking money from agribusiness interest groups that she covers.
I pointed out that her columns are biased in favor of those industry groups, particularly on the topic of GMOs, even though her column is presented to readers as an unbiased effort to find middle ground in debates about our food system.
My article was met with crickets of silence from Haspel, her Post editor Joe Yonan and the band of biotech promoters who prolifically praise Haspel on Twitter. I figured that, soon enough, Haspel might write another column that would warrant raising the concerns another notch up the pole. She didn't disappoint.
In her January column (Washington Post, 1/26/16), Haspel offered an investigation ("the surprising truth") about the food movement—without speaking to anyone in the food movement—concluding that there isn't much of a food movement after all, and most people don't really care about labeling genetically engineered foods (GMOs).
Her sources? A two-year-old survey, another survey conducted by a food-industry front group, and consumer research by the agrichemical industry's public relations firm. Let's take a closer look.
Sourcing the Food Movement
On the question of public support for GMO labeling, Haspel makes the following case:
Polls routinely show that, when you ask people whether they want GMOs labeled, upwards of 90 percent say yes. Overwhelming support for labeling GMOs! But if, instead, you ask consumers what they'd like to see identified on food labels that isn't already there, a paltry 7 percent say "GMOs." Almost no support for labeling GMOs!
Haspel devotes seven paragraphs of her column to explaining and ponderingthe 7 percent figure, which comes from a study by Rutgers professor William Hallman. Hallman's study was based on an online survey conducted in October 2013—old news by any standard.
Haspel cites another survey with similar findings from the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a group "supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries," according to its press releases—though not identified as such by Haspel.
IFIC has reported on consumer acceptance of GMOs using surveys designed by Thomas Hoban, a North Carolina State University professor and leading proponent of biotechnology who later took a more critical view and worried that his own surveys didn't tell the whole story about consumer preferences.
Hoban believed that since the majority of people surveyed said they knew little or nothing about GMOs, the findings did little to illuminate anything useful about consumer interests, but instead indicated that the government needed to do a better job educating people about what's in their food. He warned the food industry not to dismiss the educated minority who were raising concerns, and said the government should require companies to disclose if their food contained GMOs.
To understand "the kind of consumer we think of as part of the food movement," Haspel turned to Ketchum, identified in her story as "a public relations firm that works extensively with the food industry."
More specifically, Ketchum is the public relations firm the agrichemical industry hired to bolster public support for GMO foods after the 2012 ballot attempt to label them in California. Ketchum runs the GMO Answers website, funded by agrichemical corporations, which was shortlisted for a Clio advertising award in 2014 for "crisis management and issue management." The firm bragged in a video about the website's success in spinning media coverage of GMOs.
Emails from the late 1990s indicate that Ketchum was also involved in an espionage effort against groups that were raising concerns about GMOs.
Echo Chamber Effect
Haspel and Professor Hallman from Rutgers travel in similar circles; both spoke at an event last year about public engagement on GMOs hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. Hallman shared a panel with Roger Pielke, Jr., whom Paul Krugman has described as "a known irresponsible skeptic" on climate science. Haspel spoke on a panel with Monsanto's Eric Sachs.
As I wrote in my previous piece, Haspel is fond of using a particular style in her columns: citing sources of a particular ideology who all seem to agree with each other, then emphasizing their points with sweeping statements to the effect that "everybody else thinks so, too."
For example, for her food movement investigation, she writes:
Is there a food movement? Hallman at Rutgers says there is, but he says "it is much smaller than is assumed by many in government and the food industry," and everything I've read and heard indicates that he's right.
Convenient Timing for Monsanto
Haspel's conclusions diminishing the food movement and public support for GMO labeling spun a very helpful tale for Monsanto at a politically crucial moment for one of the company's highest political priorities: stopping GMO labeling.
Monsanto and its allies in the food industry are right now frantically lobbying Congress to pass a bill that would make it illegal for states to require labels on genetically engineered foods—and thereby nullify Vermont's GMO labeling law, which is set to go into effect this summer.
The Hill (2/3/16) reported this week that the Grocery Manufacturers Association increased their lobbying expenditures by 83 percent last year (to $8.4 million) as the trade group "adopted a more aggressive posture on Capitol Hill in response to the increased activity around the labeling of genetically modified food."
The day after Haspel's column appeared, the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food—an industry front group set up by the Grocery Manufacturers Association in the wake of the Monsanto-led fights to stop state ballot initiatives for GMO labeling—sent out an ICYMI email to reporters touting the column.
"Time is running out. It's critical for Congress to act soon," the Coalition's email began. It claimed that GMO labeling would hurt efforts to feed the world, and urged people to read the Washington Post column that "counteracts the false claims that consumers widely support mandatory labeling" of GMOs.
This is the second time in a few months Haspel has written an almost desperately biased column favoring Monsanto, timed to a politically important moment in the congressional debate about GMOs. (The other, which I wrote about here, was a clumsy attempt at dismissing the significance of a decision by the World Health Organization to classify the herbicide glyphosate—the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup—as "probably carcinogenic to humans.")
It is not out of the ordinary, of course, for columnists to take strong positions on issues in hopes of influencing political outcomes. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, for example, really doesn't want Democrats to nominate Bernie Sanders for president (and the Post editorial board is throwing its weight behind that position, too). Whatever readers think of the viewpoint, they at least understand that this is an opinion designed to influence an outcome. Milbank is acting aboveboard as he winds up his most dramatic spin and takes his best swing at moving the ball in the direction he thinks it should go.
Haspel's columns are more covert. She is not being aboveboard as she bats out industry talking points from industry-aligned or outdated sources to influence Congress against GMO labeling, while claiming she personally supports GMO labeling. Her columns are presented to readers as honest investigations—her editor Yonan has said Haspel "anchors everything she writes in much, much research."
The integrity of that approach depends on where the research comes from. If you use old, irrelevant polling data and industry PR firms to source a report about the food movement, it is not surprising you would conclude there is no food movement, and so politicians can go ahead and ignore evidence to the contrary.
Readers of the Washington Post deserve better. The Post should require Haspel to disclose funding she receives from agrichemical industry interests and take action accordingly.