A Public Resource Compiled by the

Narratives

We’ve provided a large dataset and many ways to explore it, so you may get lost. Here are some narratives you can use as guides – all are supported by the data.

What stories emerge from this data?

Large foundations committed to funding science-based projects also fund, perhaps unknowingly, anti-GMO advocacy groups that promote propaganda.

Anti-GMO propaganda is contrary to the scientific consensus that GMO and gene editing technology are safe. Our data show that some of the most prominent foundations, which generally support mainstream science, also fund organizations that aggressively oppose the scientific consensus on GMO safety.

For example, 3 of the top 10 donors in our dataset have given to environmental activist NGOs with strong anti-GMO positions over the years 2012-2016: Packard ($28 million), McArthur ($34 million and Bloomberg ($43 million). Each of these foundations indicate on their website that they support well-founded ideas backed by “reliable scientific knowledge,” “a vast scientific literature”, and “data and evidence,” but with these donations they do just the opposite. All these donations went to groups devoted in whole or in part to anti-GMO advocacy.

Even some of the most aggressive anti-GMO groups devoted solely to attacking biotechnology have received sizable grants from otherwise pro-science foundations. The Environmental Working Group, among the least scientifically credible groups criticizing biotechnology, is supported by the Packard, Walton Family, Schmidt, and Turner Foundations. Are these foundations aware that they are funding activist groups that rely on scientifically unsound research and reject the overwhelming scientific consensus that GMO technology is safe?

Large, well-known environmental organizations with a reputation for supporting science-based causes campaign against GMO technology.

The anti-GMO viewpoints expressed by these recipients are contrary to the scientific consensus that GMO and gene editing technology are safe. Four of these well-known recipients fall into what we call Level 2, which means that only part of their budgets is devoted to targeting agricultural biotechnology. They include the Sierra Club (2012-2016 donation total $100 million), Natural Resources Defense Council ($67 million), Friends of the Earth ($11 million), and Greenpeace ($9 million).

As Level 2 recipients these organizations engage in anti-GMO advocacy as only one part of their platform, and therefore we don’t know how much was spent on GMO-related advocacy.

The Sierra Club works on scientifically-supported causes such as retiring coal plants, transitioning to clean energy and preserving public lands. However, its policy positions and public statements include extreme anti-GMO positions, including “Based on the precautionary principle, the Sierra Club calls for a ban on the propagation and release of all genetically engineered organisms” and “Releases should be delayed until extensive, rigorous research is done”.

The Natural Resources Defense Council misrepresents research on agrochemicals such as glyphosate. Although the weedkiller has been declared safe by every major regulatory agency in the world with no exceptions the activist group misleadingly claims, “New findings that glyphosate can cause cancer in humans…only add urgency to the need to reduce use of these chemicals.” It also promotes conspiracies such as “chemical companies and food manufacturers have a stranglehold on the system of government oversight that is supposed to ensure the safety of our food supply” and support the Environmental Working Group’s debunked Dirty Dozen list of fruits and vegetables it claims are ‘dangerously contaminated’ by trace chemicals.

Not so small: Anti-GMO advocacy organizations spend millions of dollars and sometimes lobby in opposition to GMOs.

It’s often argued that the agrichemical industry (Goliath) influences policy by lobbying and overwhelms the under-funded environmental advocacy groups (David) that don’t lobby. Our data raise questions about this claim: Recipient organizations in our database collectively received almost $1 billion in donations over 5 years. Organizations that focus solely on anti-GMO advocacy (classified Level 1) alone received $7 million. Organizations that engage in anti-GMO advocacy as a key part of their platform (classified Level 2) received $448 million.

In addition to receiving sizable donations, many anti-GMO advocacy groups engage in lobbying either directly or indirectly. 501(c)(3) nonprofits are allowed to attempt to influence legislation (aka lobby) as long as this activity does not form a substantial part of their activities, while 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations may lobby as their sole activity.

Numerous recipients in our database, such as the Sierra Club, are 501(c)(3) non-profits with associated 501(c)(4) lobbying arms, but are perceived by the public as purely non-lobbying environmental groups. The 501(c)(3) Center for Food Safety established the 501(c)(4) Center for Food Safety Action Fund, which “works at the state and federal levels to introduce, support, and defend the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.” CFS spent $1.1 million from 2013-2015 to lobby for biotech-related bills.

Another way for 501(c)(3) non-profits to influence legislation without themselves engaging in lobbying is to partner with other 501(c)(4) organizations that do lobby. The Environmental Working Group and Just Label It, both 501(c)(3) nonprofits, are funded in part by established anti-biotechnology lobby groups such as the 501(c)(4) Organic Voices Actions Fund (OVAF), which is funded by numerous organic companies. EWG notes it collaborates with OVAF “to highlight the benefits of organic food and advance the fight for labeling food that contains genetically-engineered ingredients”. Just Label It notes that it is “a project of Organic Voices Action Fund…to educate and empower consumers by promoting the benefits of organic food and by advocating for mandatory GMO labeling”. In addition, EWG spent $6 million on federal lobbying since 2010, including $1.4 million from 2013-2015 to directly lobby Congress on GMO labeling bills.

The battle over two state-wide GMO labeling bills illustrates the influence of anti-GMO spending. In 2014, Oregon’s Measure 92 raised $8 million in support and $20 million in opposition; in 2012, California’s Proposition 37 raised $8 million in support and $45 million in opposition. For the California proposition, the Organic Consumers Fund was the top pro donor at $1.3 million, and Monsanto was the top anti donor at $8.1 million. Both measures failed, Oregon’s by a tiny margin. In both cases funding for the anti-labeling campaign did significantly outstrip funding for pro-labeling, but both sides spent millions of dollars.

Considering these millions of dollars in pro-labeling campaign funding and significant anti-GMO lobbying, anti-GMO advocacy groups aren’t the “David” they claim to be in the battle against the biotechnology industry “Goliath”.

Which foundations are the biggest donors to anti-GMO activism?

The top 10 donors in our dataset (by total dollars donated from 2012-2016) range from Foundation for the Carolinas ($126 million in donations) to The Frances Fund ($25 million). The largest Level 1 donors are the Cornerstone Campaign ($1.8 million), Organic Consumers Fund ($1.6 million) and Robert P. Rotella Foundation ($634k). Of the top 10 donors, 4 foundations are rated Level 2: NoVo ($57 million), MacArthur ($34 million), Columbia ($26 million), and Packard ($28 million).

Which recipient organizations are solely dedicated to anti-GMO advocacy?

Most Level 1 recipient organizations are small. Center for Food Safety is one of the largest; 2012-2016 donations total just over $6 million. Other Level 1 organizations have donation totals under 500k, for example Institute for Responsible Technology ($484k) and US Right to Know ($205k, although those numbers have ballooned in recent years). Despite small budgets, these Level 1 organizations can have large impacts. For example, USRTK has used the Freedom of Information Act to target researchers and science writers.

Note that there are three “levels” of both donors and recipients.

Donors
Donations to advocacy groups are sometimes designated to support a specific cause, such as organic agriculture or mitigating climate change. There is no way for us to know from publicly-available documents on what the money will be spent, as we can only see the total amount donated. When we assign the levels below to donors and recipients, we assume that all donations are available to the recipient for all advocacy, including anti-GMO advocacy.

  • Level 1: Donates primarily to dedicated anti-GMO organizations
  • Level 2: A large portion of donations go to anti-GMO organizations; some donations go to organizations without a position on GMOs
  • Level 3: A small portion of donations go to anti-GMO organizations
    * Most donations go to organizations without a formal position on GMOs but which have aligned themselves with anti-GMO activists

Recipients
For Level 1 recipients, all donations are used for anti-GMO advocacy. For Level 2 and 3 recipients, we don’t know how much of each donation is used for anti-GMO advocacy.

  • Level 1: Dedicated to anti-GMO advocacy
  • Level 2: Involved in anti-GMO advocacy along with other causes
  • Level 3: No specific anti-GMO advocacy, but general support
    * Organizations without a formal position on GMOs but which have aligned themselves with anti-GMO activists

David v Goliath:
Are pro-biotech groups spending ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ to promote ‘dangerous’ GMOs?

Why does this Funding Tracker focus on anti-GMO organizations and not the lobbying efforts of the agricultural biotechnology industry and conventional farm groups? Primarily because their actual spending on marketing and advertising is challenging to document. Also, no pro-GMO groups are dedicated primarily or largely to challenging activists. Based on the data we’ve been able to ferret out, some of which we found on the sites of anti-GMO groups (and some of which is exaggerated as we document)—pro-GMO spending is sizable but remains a fraction of the expenditures of anti-GMO groups.

How much money is spent to support GMOs?

Why does this Funding Tracker focus on anti-GMO organizations and not the lobbying efforts of the agricultural biotechnology industry and conventional farm groups? Actual spending on marketing and advertising is challenging to document, but we’ve outlined what has been found here. The disparity between spending by anti-biotech activists and biotechnology supporters is stark, and perhaps surprising to some, considering the allegations made by many environmental advocacy groups.

Anti-GMO organizations have long contended that corporations and other companies engaged in agricultural biotechnology spend ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ to influence pro-biotechnology legislation. They portray themselves as the biblical David battling the agro-chemical Goliath, with pockets bulging with cash. Commonly cited corporations include Monsanto (now owned by Bayer), Syngenta (now owned by ChemChina), and Dow and Dupont (now operating under the name Corteva).

For example, US Right to Know, an organic-industry funded advocacy group devoted solely to lobbying against agricultural biotechnology, dedicated a page to ‘documenting’ GMO supporters in 2016, attacking Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and even the entire Obama Administration as stooges of Big Ag, and outlining estimated expenditures on lobbying.

Food and agriculture news outlet Civil Eats, which is consistently critical of biotechnology, promoted what is now a popular belief that large agri-businesses and supportive associations bought their way out of stringent labeling laws, headlining a 2015 article, “Big Food is Spending Millions to Lobby for Less Transparency,” writing, “From GMO labeling to pesticides to the source of the meat you buy, a handful of companies are spending heavily to keep information off your food labels.”

Are these claims accurate?

State-wide GMO labeling fights: 2012-2014

Most claims of huge industry spending originated during the debate over statewide GMO labeling initiatives from 2012-2014. GMO labeling emerged as a political issue in 2012, when anti-GMO groups attempted to make their case that foods grown from genetically engineered seeds pose risks to public health and the environment. They focused on labeling as a stigmatization technique.

Labeling campaigns were launched in 2012 in California, 2013 in Washington, and 2014 in Vermont, Colorado and Oregon. All the public votes failed, although the Vermont legislature passed a labeling law.

California—In 2012, opponents of Proposition 37, a statewide initiative that would have required labeling of GM foods, reportedly spent $45.6 million against the campaign, mostly on television advertising. Opponents included Monsanto ($8.1 million), Dupont ($5.4 million), Pepsico ($2.1 million) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association ($2 million). Anti-GMO advocates spent $8.7 million. “I think it’s a David and Goliath story with the companies that manufacture or benefit from genetically engineered food being the Goliath,” said David Newman, president of Maplight, which tracked the influence of money in politics. But the formal dollar advertising expenditures tell only part of the money story. The labeling bill proponents had an overwhelming edge on social media and generally sympathetic support in the media, worth tens of millions of dollars, swamping GMO labeling opponents. The initiative lost.

An academic analysis attributed the defeat not to Goliath’s TV ad spending advantage but to genuine lack of support for labeling and, ironically, big money spending upfront by organic industry opponents of GMO foods: (1) The ballot initiative never had broad support of the people to begin with, the analysis found; the support was a mile wide and an inch deep. The initiative got “onto the ballot not through some mass movement but because a handful of highly motivated people prepared to pay for signatures to qualify the measures and persuade the voters that they are worth supporting…. That was clearly the case with Prop 37, with donations of over one million dollars submitted by Joseph Mercola, a personal health advocate, and Kent Whealy, the founder of Seed Savers Exchange. Another half a million was donated by David Bronner, founder of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps”; and (2) The public began to see through the proponents representations that the vote was for ’transparency in labeling,’ when in fact the pro-labeling organization, The Organic Consumers Fund, was a front to promote organic food at the expense of conventional agriculture. “It is closer to the truth to look at it not as campaigns of inequality,” wrote the authors. “[M]ore like Little Goliaths vs. Bigger Goliaths.”

Washington—In 2012, state voters rejected an initiative that would have required labeling of genetically engineered foods. At $17.1 million spent, the opposition set a record in the state for money spent against an initiative ($11 million of which came from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry lobbying group that no longer exists).

Colorado and Oregon—Voters in these two states rejected ballot propositions in November 2014 demanding labeling of GM food. According to a Reuters story written by Carey Gillam, now research director at the prominent and well-funded anti-GMO advocacy group USRTK, opponents of the Colorado measure—agro-chemical companies and the Grocery Manufacturers Association—“raised” $16 million, while proponents raised $895,000. In Oregon, campaign money against that measure totaled $20 million versus $8 million from pro-labeling supporters. According to the pro-organic Cornucopia Institute, proponents included Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which donated more than $2 million, Mercola.com, a popular natural health website, spent more than $1 million, and the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group with organic industry ties, put up $1.2 million, all between the two states.

Vermont—The state legislature passed a bill, signed into law by the governor, requiring labeling of GM food if neighboring states passed similar laws. The federal law ultimately superseded this and other pending state laws.

Battle over national labeling standards: 2015-2016

Ultimately, state-focused efforts ended with the intervention of the federal government and passage of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard in 2018. Funding for these state-wide labeling campaigns is easier to track than federal lobbying expenses. The 2015-2016 Congressional battle over the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (HR-1599) also led to charges of exorbitant lobbying by ‘Big Ag’. However, these claims are difficult to substantiate.

The federal mandatory labeling bill was arguably the most significant legislation affecting agricultural biotechnology in decades. The legislation was designed to supersede all state laws, essentially derailing the state-by-state labeling movement. Some companies in the food and agricultural biotech industries supported the bill, believing that piecemeal and often contradictory state laws could lead to chaos; others were opposed to any mandatory labeling.

Anti-GMO activists claim that corporations spent freely in support of the legislation. The most dramatic claim, publicized widely by the media, originated with a release issued in 2016 by the Environmental Working Group, claiming that the “food lobby” spent $101 million on federal lobbying in 2015, and $192 million from 2013-2015 trying to block federal and state labeling laws.

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How accurate are these numbers cited by EWG and others? To answer that question, it is important to understand how federal lobbying works and how lobbying dollars are reported.

The article itself notes, “[EWG’s analysis] counted filings that mentioned GMO labeling legislation among various policy issues and not those that made no reference to the topic.” What does that mean? It means that EWG has no idea how much money was spent on lobbying against HR 1599.

Lobbying expenses are difficult to attach to a given cause or piece of legislation; this is because reporting often bundles total lobbying expenditures involving multiple pieces of legislation. A single reporting form cites total lobbying expenses for a given quarter, but may list many different lobbying issues. As an example, PepsiCo reported $2.4 million in lobbying expenses from 2009 to September 2015; however, there is no way to determine what fraction went towards lobbying against GMO labeling. Therefore EWG’s analysis includes all lobbying expenses from quarters that included GMO labeling among many other issues; these totals are hugely exaggerated and misleading.

What lobbying groups are pro- or anti-GMO?

While anti-GMO groups frequently make undocumented claims that biotechnology advocates spend ‘tens of millions of dollars’ in lobbying, it should be noted that some of these environmental organizations also lobby, both directly and indirectly. Federal registration records related to the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (HR 1599) show lobbying by both proponents and opponents.

Congressional lobbying by anti-GMO advocacy groups

Nonprofits such as the Environmental Working Group, GMWatch and Just Label It, are funded in part by established anti-biotechnology lobby groups such as the Organic Voices Actions Fund (OVAF), which operates as a 501(c)(4) and is allowed to participate widely in politics. OVAF was started by Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield Organic, now owned by Dannon, who is one of the most aggressive funders of anti-biotechnology activism, and a vocal proponent of organic agriculture as an alternative to mainstream modern farming techniques.

Most nonprofit environmental groups operate as 501(c)(3) organizations, which are mainly prohibited from lobbying (as a “substantial part” of their activities), but often do, as this GLP article notes:

Between social media, the internet and heavily funded front groups that have no donor disclosure requirements, lots of “lobbying” is being conducted by so-called good food merchants. I’ve identified tens of millions of dollars spent by organic interests to lobby legislators and government agencies, pass state GMO labeling initiatives and fund the political campaigns of sympathetic candidates and lawmakers.

Beyond spending and reporting on official (i.e., disclosable) lobbying efforts, numerous environmental advocacy groups spend millions of dollars on “grass roots” efforts, including sending mailings to the public, mounting internet campaigns, and arranging meetings with legislators on “educational” programs, all of which fall outside lobbying disclosure requirements.

Pro-GMO lobby group: Grocery Manufacturers Association

While there are dozens of anti-GMO advocacy and lobbying groups, there is only one organization identifiable as a pro-biotechnology lobby group. During the labeling battles, anti-GMO groups pointed to the Grocery Manufacturers Association as a leader (if not the leader) in the legal/legislative battles over GM labeling. GMA was often referred to as the ‘Voice of Big Food’. According to EWG in 2016, the GMA:

…filed disclosures reporting $10.5 million in lobbying expenditures [in 2014] for the anti-labeling battle and other GMA legislative priorities. An EWG analysis of the group’s disclosure forms revealed that since January 2014 it had hired 34 lobbyists and spent $2.8 million on lobbying that went exclusively to advocate anti-GMO-labeling legislation.

The GMA’s lobbying efforts on behalf of agricultural biotechnology were short lived. By 2017, conflict was brewing among the funders of the GMA. Key corporate backers left the organization, spurred in part by a rift in the industry over the handling of a number of economic and social issues impacting nearly every step in the food supply, including the debate over GMOs. The GMA essentially collapsed and reorganized as the Consumer Brands Association with minimal corporate backing from agricultural biotechnology companies.

Other pro-industry lobby groups?

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is the world’s largest biotech trade organization. It hosts scientific meetings, provides industry news, and lobbies on all matters related to biotech. Most of its funding comes from the pharmaceutical industry and industrial technology companies, so these sectors are the major focus of its lobbying efforts. It has steadfastly promoted agricultural biotechnology.

CropLife America, a division of CropLife International, was formed by industry partners in agriculture as a trade group dedicated to farm products, including pesticides, fertilizers and biotechnology. CropLife funded and now manages GMO Answers, a forum in which industry and often academic scientists answer questions from the public about biotechnology and agriculture. CropLife members include BASF, Bayer, Corteva, FMC, Sumitomo Chemical and regional organizations in 91 countries.

Farm bureaus also lobby to one degree or another on behalf of biotechnology, although they also represent the organic farming industry. Besides the national American Farm Bureau Federation, nearly every agricultural county in the United States has a local farm bureau. State and regional bureaus also play a role, bringing new technologies to farmers and ranchers, as well as lobbying in legislatures and making some donations to agriculture-related ballot propositions.

Research & Development:
Where biotechnology companies spend most money?

While anti-GMO groups spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying through the media and the internet to make their case that transgenic and gene-edited crops are unhealthy or unsustainable and therefore should be banned or labeled, biotechnology companies spend most of their money on product development. Almost all the dollars spent in the agricultural biotechnology sector go to research and development by private companies, supplemented by research conducted in universities and academic institutions.

According to the USDA (the latest comprehensive study was published in 2016), out of a total of $16.3 billion spent on food and agricultural R&D in 2013, private companies contributed $12.4 billion, or 76.3%. Between 2008 and 2013, real (inflation-adjusted) public food and agricultural R&D fell by about 20% while real private R&D increased by 64 %. The government supplies almost no subsides to agricultural companies for research. All but $21 million of public funding in 2013 went to public institutions.

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USDA

Monsanto spent about $1 billion a year in research and development on genetically modified agricultural products (as well as other products) over the course of 10 years, ending in 2017. Monsanto also had an aggressive public relations division to influence scientist and journalists.

Syngenta used to spend about $1.4 billion a year on research and development, which includes genetically modified agricultural products, although it cut spending starting in 2016.

The offspring of a merger (and subsequent split) between Dow and Dupont, Corteva is a new agriculture technology company with a research and development budget of $1.2 billion a year.

These are just three players in the agricultural biotech industry. Overall, according to the USDA, about 10,000 permits to release biotech agriculture products are held (as of 2014). USDA numbers also show research investment in biotech was about $28 billion in 2010, assuming that animal genetics and breeding, and “biotech” and crop breeding, mainly consist of biotechnological solutions.

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Note that there are three “levels” of both donors and recipients.

Donors
Donations to advocacy groups are sometimes designated to support a specific cause, such as organic agriculture or mitigating climate change. There is no way for us to know from publicly-available documents on what the money will be spent, as we can only see the total amount donated. When we assign the levels below to donors and recipients, we assume that all donations are available to the recipient for all advocacy, including anti-GMO advocacy.

  • Level 1: Donates primarily to dedicated anti-GMO organizations
  • Level 2: A large portion of donations go to anti-GMO organizations; some donations go to organizations without a position on GMOs
  • Level 3: A small portion of donations go to anti-GMO organizations
    * Most donations go to organizations without a formal position on GMOs but which have aligned themselves with anti-GMO activists

Recipients
For Level 1 recipients, all donations are used for anti-GMO advocacy. For Level 2 and 3 recipients, we don’t know how much of each donation is used for anti-GMO advocacy.

  • Level 1: Dedicated to anti-GMO advocacy
  • Level 2: Involved in anti-GMO advocacy along with other causes
  • Level 3: No specific anti-GMO advocacy, but general support
    * Organizations without a formal position on GMOs but which have aligned themselves with anti-GMO activists
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