Environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE) dropped a lengthy and revealing report detailing the deceptive practices of large food and agricultural companies like Monsanto and Tyson Foods yesterday. Called "Spinning Food: How Food Industry Front Groups and Covert Communications are Shaping the Story of Food," it documents the "unprecedented levels of spending" — hundreds of millions of dollars — by corporations and trade associations to defuse "public concern about chemical-intensive agriculture" and attempts to sabotage the reputation of organic food.
FOE notes that in the past four years, the industry has set up six new front groups that "often appear as independent experts in the media," but in reality are just PR professionals. Many of these tactics are reminiscent of the the marketing and truth obfuscating moves pulled by major tobacco companies. Below, the 10 shadiest moves used by big agriculture and food companies:
1) Use Tricky Words
The companies use misleading phrases when talking about controversial topics like hormones and GMOs by swapping the term with a negative connotation for a more positive descriptor.
2) Woo Their Largest Consumer Group
Women are behind 70 percent of consumer spending in the United States, so these groups have created websites and webinars aimed that that subset of the population.
"Cracking the Code on Food Issues: Insights from Moms, Millennials and Foodies," is a Center for Food Integrity webinar aimed at helping food brands communicate with women. SafeFruitsandVeggies.com declares that, "Moms deserve the truth" and describes itself as a "science-based resource about produce." In reality, SafeFruitsandVeggies.com is funded by the Alliance for Food and Farming, a chemical agriculture front group that downplays the risks of agricultural pesticides. These are just two examples of how food industry messaging targets women.
3) Manipulate Influencers
Big food companies have co-opted "Mommy bloggers," or bloggers who run sites by and for women by sponsoring conferences and advertising on these blogs. The mommy blogs have an incredible reach (there are apparently 4.2 million mom blogs today).
Aware of the power of these influencers, the food industry works to shape bloggers' attitudes about key food issues... Food industry giants, for instance, advertise on the BlogHer Network, the biggest women blogger network in the country, and sponsor the network's conferences. At the June 2013 BlogHer Food conference, bloggers could visit the women farmers staffing the Common Ground booth and take home brochures that promised to "sort through the myths" and help them "gather third-party facts" about food.118 Most bloggers would be unaware that this was not an objective third party, but the marketing arm of the federally funded commodity soybean and corn growers — known as check-offs. No wonder, then, that the brochures touted the benefits of industrial agriculture and dismissed concerns about synthetic fertilizers, genetic engineering and antibiotic use in livestock production.
Companies also pay bloggers to attend events hosted by the companies so that they can spread their messages:
Monsanto paid bloggers $150 to attend a brunch hosted by the company, following the 2014 BlogHer conference. The pitch: "An intimate and interactive panel" with "two female farmers and a team from Monsanto," the invite-only, three-hour brunch promised bloggers a chance to learn about "where your food comes from" and to hear about the impact "growing food has on the environment, and how farmers are using fewer resources to feed a growing population."
4) Attack Naysayer Bloggers
The food industry not only tries to influence the influencers, they "actively" work to undermine the efforts of people who are organic food advocates by labeling them bullies.
Examples abound of this demonization of concerned parents, especially women, and the moms-as-bullies meme. At the Pork Network website, you can find this headline: "Stop letting ‘crunchy mommas' tell your story," which states that, "The voices of America's farmers and ranchers are being drowned out by a small minority of consumers called ‘crunchy mommas,' and it's time for producers to fight back." At the Similac website, you can find the Sisterhood of Motherhood campaign, which features a video called "The Mother ‘Hood" with nearly 8 million views. It depicts breastfeeding mothers as bullies and calls them "the breast police"— a message that clearly benefits Similac, the leading infant formula producer in the country.
5) Infiltrate Social Media Platforms
Research shows that nearly 30 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook; others get news from platforms like Twitter. So, companies are recruiting third party bloggers and other active social media users to share "industry-friendly messages."
In recent years, there's been a rise in farmerlinked bloggers have been pushing positive messages about GMOs, pesticides and antibiotics on platforms like NurseLovesFarmer.com, TheFarmersDaughterUSA.com and AskTheFarmers.com, founded in 2014. On Twitter, they affiliate as "agvocates," a term coined by AgChat Foundation, an industry funded communications initiative launched in 2010, whose main backers include industrial meat producers such as Tyson and Smithfield, animal pharmaceutical companies such as Elanco and agrochemical companies such as Bayer CropScience.
6) Set Up Supposedly Transparent Forums
Many of these companies set up websites to "help clear up confusion and dispel mistrust" about many of their products. They were created to make the companies look more transparent and supposedly give consumers access to experts. However, many of these experts are on the the companies' dime.
In 2013, the Council on Biotechnology — funded by Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont and Syngenta — launched GMOAnswers.com to "help clear up confusion and dispel mistrust" about genetic engineering. The platform was designed to promote the appearance of transparency and honesty by offering an opportunity for anyone to post questions about GMOs and get answers from experts. But the experts on the site are not disinterested parties; they're defenders of genetic engineering and some are even paid employees of biotech companies like Monsanto.
7) Discredit the Credibility of Journalists and Scientists
The companies will publicly call the credibility of both journalists and scientists into question by saying that they are prejudiced and that their opinions are clouding their work.
This tactic plays out on social media, too, in the comment sections of news stories or in the Twitter feeds of scientists or journalists. It's become a well-known tactic of PR firms to try to influence social media by posting disparaging comments on news articles or using inflammatory language to attack critics on social media. For example, a Twitter attack on Dr. Mehmet Oz (a vocal proponent of GMO labeling) prompted a Washington Post story with the headline, "Dr. Oz solicits health questions on Twitter, gets attacked by trolls instead." The story describes critics "hammering Oz with a stream of sarcastic questions and attacks on his credibility as a physician." Several Twitter users mentioned in the story happen to be among the most prolific online defenders of GMOs and other food industry talking points.
Using charged language and character attacks, this tactic is meant to distract from the content of the messages by maligning the people — the reporters or scientists — instead. It's a tactic used to against advocates, too.
8) Create Native Advertising
Native advertising — such as a Buzzfeed post authored by a brand — is one the fastest growing segments in marketing. The study notes, "By matching the look and feel of editorial content, native advertising can feel like real news, though it is really meant to sell you a product or a point of view." The companies are spending billions to engage in this practice.
Native advertising works because it is a way to get your brand — or a broader marketing message — in front of consumers who might otherwise tune out an advertisement or clearly branded message. This kind of advertising is rapidly expanding across a wide range of platforms, including mainstream news websites.
In 2014, brands of all types spent $3.2 billion on native advertising, up 47 percent from 2013, according to Ad Age, which expects that number to jump to $4.2 billion in 2015. Today, most online platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr and WordPress, have formats that allow for native advertising, as these sites move away from banners or more clear advertising displays. Even The New York Times now runs native ads on its website; and in November 2014, it promoted the first-ever native print ad, an eight-page section about the urbanization of the world's population, funded by Shell.
9) Turn to Third-Parties as Allies
The companies pay people and groups to appear as if they are independent supporters of the companies.
In 2011, a lawsuit against the chemical and biotech giant Syngenta disclosed internal documents showing company strategies to undermine the science about its most profitable herbicide, atrazine, and its impact on ecosystems and reproductive health. Among other strategies the documents revealed, the pesticide manufacturer "routinely paid ‘third-party allies' to appear to be independent supporters, and kept a list of 130 people and groups it could recruit as experts without disclosing ties to the company."
10) Hide Behind Innocent-Sounding Fronts
The top food and agriculture organizations have names that would not lead customers to believe that they are associated with big corporations. Often the fronts — which spend millions of dollars — focus on issues that appear to be opposite in nature to what their names indicate.