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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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bd9fda1316965a9ba24dd60fd9cc34d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3KaMnkmf0tc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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