Is Big Food's Lobbying Arm on the Brink of Extinction?
By Katherine Paul
Last week, a former GMA executive told Politico that to him, the food industry lobbying group seems like "the dinosaur waiting to die."
For consumers who blame the GMA for engineering the defeat of four state ballot initiatives that would have required labels on genetically engineered foods, then teaming up with Monsanto and some Big Organic brands to ram through federal legislation that stripped states of the right to pass GMO labeling laws, visions of the GMA drawing its last bullying breath are accompanied by the sweet taste of karma.
Consumers can take satisfaction in the fact that they've played a role in what some say is the diminishing power of the GMA over Washington policy.
For many, gratification—even the delayed variety—is worth stirring up trouble in the marketplace if it results in brands cleaning up their acts on issues of health, transparency and accountability.
#GMAExit—A "Burgeoning Trend?"
On Dec. 1, Mars, Inc., the sixth-largest privately held food company in the U.S., confirmed reports it will exit the GMA.
Mars is the fourth Big Food company to exit GMA this year. The first was Campbell Soup Co., which said in July that it wouldn't renew its membership. Campbell CEO Denise Morrison said at the time that Campbell's had found itself "at odds with some of [GMA's] positions."
Nestlé, the world's largest food company, followed Campbell out the GMA door, announcing in October its own plans to quit the GMA at the end of this year (2017).
Last week Dean Foods "quietly" exited the trade group.
GMA executives interviewed by Politico downplayed the loss of some of the group's big-name members. But Politico was quick to point out that as one of the GMA's top dues-paying members, Nestlé's exit could deal "a tough blow" to the GMA's operating budget. Campbell's doled out about $317,000/year to belong to the trade association Politico said, citing the company's financial disclosures.
It remains to be seen how many more companies will join the #GMAExit, or what the financial consequences may be for the GMA. But Politico calls the recent announcements "part of a burgeoning trend" as opposed to just a few "one-offs."
GMO Labeling at the Heart of Consumer Demand for Transparency
What's behind the "splintering" of the food lobby?
Politico reports that "complacency and a lack of leadership" are factors. But it also blamed "an upheaval at the grocery store, where iconic brands are stagnating as millennials and moms seek healthier and more transparent products."
Nowhere was the issue of "transparency" more apparent than during the more-than-four-year battle for labels on GMO foods. More than 90 percent of consumers consistently supported laws requiring labels on GMO foods. Consumers felt so strongly that many were willing to boycott their favorite organic and natural brands, if those brands were owned by members of the GMA which poured $46 million into defeating GMO labeling in California alone.
Shortly after the narrow defeat of California's Prop 37 in May 2012, the Organic Consumer Association (OCA) launched its "Traitor Boycott." Initially, Campbell's (Plum Organics, Wolfgang Puck), Dean Foods (Horizon Organic, Silk) and Nestlé (Gerber Organic, Sweet Leaf Tea)—which combined had dumped almost $4 million into the campaign to defeat labeling in California—made OCA's boycott list.
Campbell's, which like many other companies subsequently contributed to defeat labeling in Washington State (2013), was eventually dropped from the list when the company decided not to financially support campaigns to thwart GMO labeling initiatives in Oregon and Colorado (2014).
Unilever, which remains a GMA member, stopped throwing money at subsequent efforts to defeat GMO labeling initiatives, presumably because the multi-national food giant didn't like that its poster child for "social responsibility," Ben & Jerry's, was taking heat from consumers unhappy with Unilever's unholy alliance with the GMA. (Ben & Jerry's told consumers the Vermont-based brand supported labeling, yet it never contributed financially to the cause. OCA launched a new boycott of Ben & Jerry's in July, demanding that the ice cream brand go 100 percent organic).
After the Traitor Boycott was launched in May 2012, food companies were more skittish about ponying up donations to defeat labeling in Washington—so much so, that the GMA broke the law by collecting donations from companies like Pepsi, Nestlé, Coke, General Mills, ConAgra, Campbell and others, and hiding the source of those donations from the public. In a win for consumers, Washington fined the GMA $18 million last year for violating state campaign finance laws.
Today, the GMA says it has about 250 members—down from the 300 it claimed in 2012. According to Politico:
The membership used to be listed on GMA's website, but it was taken down after a nasty battle over GMO labeling in California, during which a handful of GMA member companies were boycotted for spending millions to defeat a ballot initiative there.
OCA archived the list in 2012—here it is.
Out With the Old, In With the Truth
GMO labeling isn't the only reason consumers have lost their taste for Big Food brands. Consumers have become increasingly wary of labels like "natural," "all-natural" and "100% natural." Absent any regulatory or industry definition for the term "natural," those labels are used by food companies (some of which have been sued by OCA) on products containing everything from Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller to drugs like ketamine.
According to a recent report in Food Dive:
Almost half of consumers don't feel like they know enough about a product despite reading the label, and two-thirds of them think the manufacturer or brand should be communicating important information to help them make an educated purchasing decision...
Only 12 percent of consumers trust brands to tell them what's in their food. Most consumers do their own independent research, via phones and personal computers.
Other consumer trends according to Food Dive?
Nearly 60 percent of consumers think brands need to advocate for them and their interests, and 24 percent said they have refused to buy a company's produce when its actions didn't align with their values. The most important issue area was the environment, where 71 percent said produce brands should be active.
By those standards Big Food, represented by the GMA, isn't doing too well—and it shows. From Politico:
The top 20 U.S. food and beverage companies lost roughly $18 billion in market share between 2011 and 2017, according to a recent analysis by Credit Suisse.
Is it any wonder Big Food is also experiencing a mass exodus of CEOs?
The #GMAExit, plummeting market shares and CEOs jumping ship (or being pushed overboard) are signs that consumers are having a big pact. And advances like the proposed Regenerative Organic Certification, which intends to help consumers identify products produced to "beyond organic" standards, signal that more consumers are willing to reward producers whose methods promote soil health, animal welfare and social fairness, in addition to truthfully labeled, nutritious food.
A New #Food Label Is Coming Soon and It Goes 'Beyond Organic' https://t.co/R2EMWymK2P @OrganicConsumer @GMWatch @foodandwater @CFSTrueFood— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1505417560.0
We can't do much about the current state of affairs in Washington, DC these days—but as consumers, we can exercise our power over food corporations, and the lobbying groups that represent them.
Clearly, we're succeeding.
Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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