Reflections, Part One: Pesticide industry’s playbook | Pesticide Action Network
Reclaiming the future of food and farming

Reflections, Part One: Pesticide industry’s playbook

Kristin Schafer's picture
Businessman in field on farm

This blog is the first in a three-part series highlighting some of what I’ve seen and learned during 25 years of advocacy at PAN. These storytelling pieces are a bit longer than PAN’s usual blogs; parts two and three will be posted before my departure early next year.  - Kristin

As I look back on two and a half decades of work with PAN, I see one very clear through-line: aggressive industry efforts, year after year, to block any and all initiatives that threaten their bottom line.

These efforts look different in different arenas, but the playbook is the same: cozy up to those with decision-making power, intimidate activists pressing for change, and throw money (lots!) at controlling the story. Oh — and regularly consolidate/rebrand your way out of trouble too.

Schmoozing, for profit

When I first started with PAN in 1996, I joined our global campaign to phase out methyl bromide under the Montreal Protocol, a global treaty to control ozone-depleting chemicals. A broad-spectrum biocide, methyl bromide is also a potent ozone depleter that was being targeted for a global ban. 

My job-share partner Anne Schonfield and I organized alongside farmworkers and rural communities in California whose health was most directly at risk from exposure to this extremely toxic fumigant. In our advocacy around the treaty, we pressed hard to limit exemptions, ensure adequate funds for farmer transitions, and win a speedy methyl bromide ban — bringing the voices of frontline partners into the international policy arena throughout.

The methyl bromide industry pushed back, hard. It turns out that for some producers, methyl bromide was actually a by-product of producing a toxic flame retardant (tetrabromobisphenol A), so if production and sales of this pesticide were blocked under the treaty, producers would have to pay to dispose of methyl bromide as hazardous waste. Every exemption or year of delay meant combined profits from continued global sales plus savings from sidestepping disposal costs.

As we see much too often in UN settings, U.S. officials were eager to help. Industry lobbyists were basically treated as unofficial members of the U.S. delegation, offering draft language as the treaty’s implementation agreements were being negotiated.

The phaseout of methyl bromide happened eventually, though some “critical use” exemptions still exist. Industry's lobbying efforts led to years and years of delay — despite clear evidence showing that viable alternatives were available for almost every use, way back in the early 90s.

Targeting moms, media, & activists

We’ve also seen the pesticide industry create front groups purporting to represent farmers and/or consumers — a particularly insidious tactic. The Safe Fruits & Veggies website, for example, provides “resources” to concerned parents (specifically moms), showing that fruits and vegetables grown with chemicals are “perfectly safe.” 

Those of us pressing for safe and healthy food for all are portrayed as troublemakers trying to stir up fear among consumers, and somehow cash in on it. The site is produced by The Alliance for Food & Farming, which if you dig just a bit, you’ll find is funded by the Western Growers Association and other industry lobby groups.

Another key industry strategy is pouring money into messaging to convince the public that their products are needed to feed the world, and portray policy initiatives that might impact their bottom line as confusing, unnecessary and/or expensive.

One stark example of this is the Prop 37 ballot initiative in California in 2012, which aimed to require labeling of products that included genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. A simple right-to-know measure that would have had minimal impact on product prices, the initiative was leading in the polls by a healthy margin — until Monsanto and other pesticide industry actors poured $46 million into opposition advertising. The high-profile, statewide ad campaign claimed the measure was “too complicated” and would foist new costs onto consumers. The ballot measure was narrowly defeated.

Pesticide corporations also target activists directly with lawsuits and other forms of intimidation. PAN was served with a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” (SLAPP) suit like this in 2011. Staff had to collect and submit to the court every email mentioning Syngenta over the course of several years — a project representing many many hours of work for a small, nonprofit organization. The suit was eventually dismissed, as most SLAPP suits are.

Local intimidation too

Apparently, no political battle is too small for the pesticide industry — especially if there’s the possibility that a precedent could be set. The battle over Bill 2491 in Kauai provides a powerful example.

This county-level measure was designed to require industry to publicly report pesticide use and notify nearby families when they were dousing their GE seed test fields with “restricted use” — e.g. dangerous — pesticides. Incredible local organizing took this bill across the finish line, in an historic win for Kauai communities. The pesticide industry promptly sued, tying up implementation in court. They’ve now invested millions in a campaign at the statehouse to ensure that counties in Hawai'i can’t have rules like Bill 2491, that are more restrictive than the state. 

This local control battle is playing out in Minnesota too. For the last several years, PAN has been working with communities to win the right to protect their pollinators and people from harmful pesticides. In response, industry has been using all the usual tactics, from backdoor deals at the statehouse to aggressive media campaigns. While the local control campaign hasn’t won the day yet, momentum continues to build.

It’s no accident, by the way, that “state preemption” of pesticide regulation exists. Stripping away local control of these rules was a concerted, nationwide industry effort — you’ll find the backstory here.

PAN vs pesticide industry

Shining a light on and directly challenging corporate control of the food system has been a core PAN commitment since day one. I’ve often heard my longtime colleague Marcia Ishii tell the story of what brought her to PAN 25+ years ago: an inspiring panel of PAN leaders from around the world telling the truth, in a very public way, about the pesticide industry’s aggressive efforts to keep their hazardous products on the market.

Here are just a handful of specific battles PAN has taken on:

  • In 2010, PAN joined farmers testifying in outrage about ag industry consolidation, in anti-trust hearings organized by the Department of Justice. Despite hours of impassioned testimony from farmers across the country, then USDA Secretary Vilsack (who leads the agency again today) pulled the plug on DOJ’s inquiry.
  • In 2011, we joined our PAN International partners to host the Permanent People’s Tribunal, documenting damage the pesticide industry’s products caused to human health, the environment, livelihoods and culture around the world. The global Tribunal found the pesticide industry guilty as charged — check out this video collection of testimonies.
  • In 2012 PAN and our California partners — working closely with public health scientists — successfully blocked the introduction of a dangerous new fumigant. Methyl iodide was touted by its producer as a viable replacement for methyl bromide, but the chemical was so good at causing cancer that it was used in the lab as a “control” when testing carcinogenicity.

And the work continues today. Earlier this month, our global Stop the #ToxicAlliance campaign delivered more than 187,000 signatures from across the globe to the leader of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, urging him to immediately break ties with CropLife International, the global trade association and lobby arm for the pesticide industry.

At the national level, we stood up to Dow (now Corteva) as they pressed to keep their brain-harming insecticide chlorpyrifos on the market. After years of organizing, grassroots science and legal action, we won a ban of this pesticide in food production this year! We and our partners are now pressing for withdrawal of all remaining uses. 

We’re also demanding that this Administration’s EPA leaders pull the agency’s reins out of industry hands, which is where they’ve been firmly held for much too long — especially when it comes to pesticides.

Of course to make things just a bit more challenging, the pesticide industry has a habit of consolidating and rebranding when public concern gets to be too much (remember Monsanto? And Dow?). Which of course makes PAN’s role through the years as a steadfast, global watchdog of these powerful corporations all the more critical.  

 

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Kristin Schafer
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Kristin Schafer's picture

Kristin Schafer was PAN's Executive Director until early 2022. With training in international policy and social change strategies, Kristin was at PAN for over 25 years. Before taking on the Executive Director role in 2017, she was PAN's program and policy director. She was lead author on several PAN reports, with a particular emphasis on children's health. She continues to serve on the Policy Committee of the Children's Environmental Health Network. Follow @KristinAtPAN