Ever had lunch with a high-powered lobbyist for the chemical industry? As the Monterey County Weekly reported last week, a small-town high school teacher and a university graduate student were invited to share cookies at the offices of a well-known Sacramento lobbying firm concerned about the growing public opposition to the cancer-causing strawberry pesticide methyl iodide.
Goal of lunch: Diffuse and disorient the local movement against methyl iodide.
Target: visible community leaders.
Didn't work. The problem with the lobbyist's approach is that it's hard to dissect a movement, especially when so many people have the facts. As PAN's Kathryn Gilje previously reported, the movement is made up of high school students, chemists, farmers, farmworkers, moms and many others working in different ways to protect health and the environment. Just last May, over 200,000 people across the country called on EPA to ban methyl iodide.
The lobbyists settled on high school teacher Jenn Laskin because she helped author a resolution calling on the California State Teacher Retirment System, which all teachers pay into, to divest nearly $1 billion from methyl iodide manufacturer Arysta LifeScience and its parent company Permira. And they were worried by her persistence: though "it could take years to divest," Laskin said, "I'm very proud of my union." Laskin knew the lobbyists were serving PR spin along with lunch, and later told them so.
PR does not a movement make
The strength of lobbyists, and the companies they act on behalf of, is still felt in California's Capital. Recent documents highlight how political appointees of the Schwarzenegger Administration ignored the recommendations of their own scientists, as well as independent scientists commissioned by the state, and rushed to approve the chemical using "mix and match math." And these machinations largely benefitted one company — Arysta.
Under pressure from Arysta, methyl iodide (trade name: Midas) was originally approved by EPA in 2007. Arysta employs a team of public relations firms and lobbyists to advance its agenda, including Katie Whelan of the firm Patton Boggs, who previously worked for the Schwarzenegger Administration. And, as one investigative report notes, "Arysta hired the company J. Scott Jennings works for, Peritus Public Relations. Jennings was a White House deputy political director under George W. Bush."
Arysta owes much of its current success to its team of connected lobbyists. George Soares of Kahn, Soares and Conway LLP (KSC) brokered the meeting with community leaders. KSC has long represented agrichemical interests, including the Swiss-based pesticide giant Syngenta and pesticide trade association CropLife America. Recently the firm added Arysta to its roster.
Yet for all their money spent on public relations, Arysta and its lobbyists remain outnumbered.
PAN joined over 150 vocal community members at a local forum last week in Salinas, CA, heart of strawberry country, where a biochemist, medical doctor, farmer and legislator discussed the dangers of methyl iodide and the need to transition to more sustainable farming. As the forum demonstrated, the movement doesn't show any sign of diminishing and is now focusing its attention on Governor Jerry Brown.
Take Action » Tell Governor Brown to listen to scientists, not Sacramento lobbyists. PAN joins allies including Change.org in a nation-wide effort to write to Gov. Brown and urge him to reverse the approval of methyl iodide before it is too late.