A welcome addition to the conversation about the nature of the food movement and how change occurs. But Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel’s work has raised serious questions. At what point does allowing a food and ag columnist to accept compensation from agrochemical industry groups become another corruption of journalistic ethics? After the first dollar changes hands? When you walk the industry walk, talk the industry talk, and accept industry compensation for it, you’ve likely been captured and corrupted. Decide for yourself.
Read Patrick Clinton writing about WaPo columnist Tamar Haspel below, then continue for a far more critical view by Stacy Malkan and FAIR. – RR
Tamar Haspel: “The idea that these things are going to get fixed in the absence of consumer concern is a pipe dream.”
For the food movement, an unwelcome truth
Feb. 3, 2016 – by Patrick Clinton at The New Food Economy
Tamar Haspel’s recent article, which questioned consumers’ commitment to the food movement, ruffled feathers. Why?
What happens when you tell the food movement it isn’t really as big as it thinks? We called Tamar Haspel to find out. Haspel, a highly-regarded reporter who writes about food issues for the Washington Post, last week published an article that made exactly that point, arguing that the apparent support for issues like the labeling of GMOs may say more about survey techniques than about how people actually feel about food.
Haspel worked with data from William Hallman, chairman of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, who has been exploring the question by asking people their opinions about food in two different ways. On the one hand, he asks people yes or no questions: whether they think, say, GMOs should be labeled, or whether it is important to them to know where food was grown or what pesticides were used. But when he asks questions in a more open-ended fashion, the results are very different.
Haspel’s argument is that closed-ended questioning has led us to believe that Americans are more food-progressive than they actually are.
“Polls routinely show that, when you ask people whether they want GMOs labeled, upwards of 90 percent say yes,” Haspel wrote. “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!”
Open-ended questions are great for certain kinds of research, but they’re a cumbersome and expensive approach because someone has to review and code every response. But closed-ended research—though lends itself to dramatic conclusions and eye-catching headlines—can be misleading. Haspel’s argument is that closed-ended questioning has led us to believe that Americans are more food-progressive than they actually are; she goes on to cite data that vegetable consumption has actually declined over the past few years and that only about 14 percent of consumers met one researcher’s criteria for belonging to the food movement.
People are never happy to hear that the battle is only begun, not won. And though the article has been widely praised and supported, Haspel has been feeling a bit of push-back. On Twitter, commenters have accused her of pro-GMO bias and of using disreputable sources in the form of Ketchum, a major PR agency. Several accused her of not paying attention to what’s going on around her, and Reuters reporter Carey Gillam tweeted “Maybe my friends, family, neighbors more savvy than @TamarHaspel ‘s? Organics, GMOs, etc. hot topics in my ‘hood.’”
Washington Post’s Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto–Again
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 onTwitter. 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 pondering the 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.
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.
Stacy Malkan is co-director of US Right to Know, a nonprofit that voluntarily discloses its funding at www.usrtk.org. She is a longtime environmental health advocate and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society, 2007).
Buckraking on the Food Beat: When Is It a Conflict of Interest?
October 28, 2015
By Stacy Malkan
In an age of shrinking newspaper budgets, it’s common for editors to rely on freelance writers–and for freelancers to add to their incomes with side projects. But is it a conflict of interest for a columnist who covers food and agriculture to take money from agrichemical industry interest groups?
The issue arose in a September 23 Washington Post chat, when a reader noted an article about the funding of GMO experts, and asked Post food columnist Tamar Haspel to speak to the issue of who pays what for her services.
I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for. I have two criteria. First is that the event has to be consistent with my public mission, which is to have more constructive debates about food issues. Second is that, if for-profit companies are involved in the event (which they often are), they can’t be the only voice. I try to get people with very different views in the same room. And so I was able to moderate a panel on GMO labeling that included a Monsanto scientist and a representative from Just Label It, and a debate between GMO Answers and Ben & Jerry’s.
But I would encourage you to consider the source of the piece you quoted. Its author, Jonathan Latham, is very invested in the idea that GMOs are bad, and ideology can warp perception just as reliably as money can. Transparency is critical to public discourse, but labeling anyone who believes biotech has something to offer agriculture as an arm of the industry is advocacy run amok.
Then came this Twitter exchange between Haspel and Gary Ruskin, my fellow co-director of US Right to Know, a nonprofit that promotes transparency in the food system:
— Gary Ruskin (@garyruskin) September 24, 2015
— Tamar Haspel (@TamarHaspel) September 24, 2015
Haspel had previously criticized Ruskin for filing Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) requests to investigate the ties between the agrichemical companies, their PR firms, and academics at public universities.
But the FOIAs turned up newsworthy information, prompted a front-page New York Times story (9/5/15) by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Lipton, and generated an ongoing national discussion about transparency and the public’s right to know how industry groups and public university professors work together to promote genetically engineered foods.
Lipton’s story described how Monsanto, under fire from critics of GMO foods, “retooled their lobbying and public relations strategy to spotlight a rarefied group of advocates: academics, brought in for the gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”
As one PR professional explained in an email, “Professors/researchers/scientists have a big white hat in this debate and support in their states, from politicians to producers.”
The story revealed an undisclosed grant from Monsanto to University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, who promised the company “a solid return on the investment,” while repeatedly claiming he had no association with Monsanto. In addition, the public relations firm Ketchum organized lobby and media tours for Folta, even ghostwriting text for him that he used nearly verbatim–all while presenting Folta as an independent expert.
The US Right to Know FOIA requests focused on publicly funded professors, agrichemical companies, PR firms and front groups (groups established to covertly represent the interests of a corporation or industry), and did not include journalists. But the names of a few journalists, including Haspel, turned up in the documents.
One document describes the June 2014 Biotechnology Literacy Project conference called “Risk and the Future of Food: How Can Scientists Best Engage the GMO Debate with a Skeptical Public?” The conference was described as a “pilot boot camp” to provide communications skill training and follow-up communications assistance to scientists and other credible influencers to help them play a role in “reframing the food safety and GMO debate to focus on science and connect emotionally with skeptical parents”–-a project that sounds remarkably in line with Monsanto’s PR effort to get “white hat” experts promoting GMOs.
Lead organizers of the event were Jon Entine, who has a long history of spinning science to deny or downplay the risks of chemicals, and Cami Ryan, now employed by Monsanto. It was sponsored by two agrichemical industry front groups, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, along with the University of Florida, which, as the Times article noted, receives major funding from agrichemical companies.
Haspel is listed as a “faculty” member of BLP, along with an array of prominent GMO promoters, including Entine, Folta, Val Giddings, Bruce Chassy and representatives of the companies producing the first GE salmon and GE apple.
This event is listed on Haspel’s website with vague “hosted by” language that doesn’t reveal who paid for the events or Haspel’s participation. Other speaking engagements on her list include:
- A panel organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which “provides long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina through support of biotechnology research, business, education and strategic policy statewide.”
- The North American Strategy Conference on Animal Agriculture, hosted by the industry front group Center for Food Integrity (slogan: “Building Trust & Confidence in Today’s Food System”).
- A conference in Nairobi, Kenya, co-hosted by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Operations (ISAAA), an industry-funded nonprofit that “shares the benefits of biotechnology.”
In a Post chat on October 7, I asked Haspel to explain which companies or groups pay her and how much, and whether it was a conflict of interest to get paid by agricultural interest groups and also to write about these issues as part of her regular beat. Haspel answered:
You can find a complete list of the places I speak, and the criteria that I use to decide whether to speak, at tamarhaspel.com. In short, though, if you believe that any group involved in agriculture, with interest in or an opinion on biotechnology, is a group that no journalist should be associated with, there’s not much to talk about here.
Food editor Joe Yonan added, “Tamar’s not a beat reporter covering agriculture; she’s a columnist, and therefore the result is more pointed and even opinionated, even though she anchors everything she writes in much, much research.”
Yonan pointed out that, as a freelancer, Haspel
is not subject to quite the same level of restrictions on travel as a staffer — we can’t accept travel expenses or payment from almost anybody — although I can impose whatever rules on freelancers I deem necessary. I support Tamar’s way of approaching these things — I find it a reasonable balance.
So what about Haspel’s writing in the Post? Her monthly column, “Unearthed,”launched in October 2013 with a promise to “dig deep to try and figure out what’s true and what isn’t in the debate about our food supply.” In 2015, Haspel won the prestigious James Beard Award for her efforts to “cut through divisive food-policy debates and illuminate the facts and the middle ground.”
One early column was a good example of that approach: For “GMO Common Ground: Where Supporters and Opponents Agree” (11/12/13), Haspel spoke to “dozens of organizations across the ideological spectrum,” and described three areas of agreement.
Later columns, however, share a troubling pattern: many of her sources seem to agree with each other, leading to conclusions that don’t so much illuminate a middle ground as present an echo chamber of ideas from one side of the ideological spectrum – the side that promotes agrichemical industry interests.
For example, “It’s the Chemical Monsanto Depends On. How Dangerous Is It?” (10/4/15) looked at glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, whose use has greatly increased thanks to Monsanto’s various genetically modified “Roundup Ready” crops.
Haspel’s column relied on sources who downplay risk (including fellow BLP faculty member David Ropeik, author of “How Risky Is It, Really?”), used chemical industry talking points (salt fish is carcinogenic, too), and ignored the most pressing health concerns about glyphosate — farmworker exposures and community exposures in heavily sprayed areas — to cast doubt on concerns arising from the recent listing of glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen by the world’s cancer experts.
Haspel concluded, “The most destructive consequence of herbicide tolerance, though, is consumer hostility in a conversation about GMOs that is dominated by that trait.” Her column ran in the Post just as the US Senate was poised to consider a bill that would make it illegal for states to label GMOs.
Many of Haspel’s columns similarly rely on industry-friendly sources or data that support industry positions:
- In “Is Organic Better for Your Health?” (4/7/14), Haspel concludes there is little difference between conventional and organic produce. (The Organic Center rebuts the column here.)
- In “Are Patents the Problem?” (9/29/14), she finds, “The story of Big Ag forcing GMOs down the throats of unsuspecting farmers…is largely fiction. And it’s a story that lots of farmers find really irritating, because it makes them out to be dupes or patsies.”
- On GMO labeling (1/14/14), Haspel is for it in theory, but “we already know if we’re eating GMOs, most people don’t care, and the labeling issue is using up important resources.”
(For more of Haspel’s Post columns that are viewed favorably from an industry perspective, see the Genetic Literacy Project page of her work. Note that GLP changed the headlines and excerpted the pieces to make them more promotional.)
On October 20, journalist Brooke Borel wrote in Popular Science that she attended the Bioliteracy Project Boot Camp in 2015, and accepted travel funds but declined the $2,000 honorarium that was to be paid by funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money and the Biotechnology Industry Organization trade group. In her piece, Borel called on fellow journalists, especially columnists, to ask where money is coming from, and to “disclose, disclose, disclose” to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest.
I reached out to Haspel again by email and phone to ask again if she would disclose who pays her for what work activities outside the Post. She replied:
I disclose every event I speak at, and all the sponsors of those events (unless I’ve overlooked one, in which case I welcome a correction). Should I decide to change my policy, any new information will go up on my website, for all the world to see.
But Haspel doesn’t disclose who pays her, or how much. She also declined to explain how the Biotechnology Literacy Project fits with her criteria for having more constructive debates about food issues.
So, is it a conflict of interest for a columnist who covers food and agriculture to take money from agrichemical industry interest groups?
Former Post editor Ben Bradlee was clear about his view of reporters “buckraking” on the speaking circuit (AJR, 3/95):
I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.
In my correspondence with Yonan, I asked if the Post could at least add another food columnist who writes from the perspective of consumers and the public interest.
His response: “I believe that Tamar’s column does serve the public interest, so I don’t feel the need for another columnist, but you are certainly welcome to submit one-off op/ed columns to the Opinions team at the Post.”