Over the last few years, lawmakers have been wrestling with the controversial issue of GMO labels. The man behind the GMO labeling crusade is Gary Hirshberg, a wealthy Democratic Party donor and chairman of the organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm. A foe of genetically engineered crops, Hirshberg has spent millions trying to pass laws at the state and federal level that would require food companies to label products with GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
As the labeling battle came to a head on Capitol Hill earlier this year, Hirshberg ramped up his efforts to lobby the U.S. Senate to pass a mandatory GMO labeling bill, even urging Hillary Clinton to support his position. Now several emails between Hirshberg and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta released by WikiLeaks expose Hirshberg’s duplicitous narratives and aggressive approach to push the Clinton campaign into the fray.
Hirshberg often laments the amount of money spent by corporate interests to fight GMO labels, but flexes his own insider influence and fundraising prowess to get his way. On July 3, 2015, the Hirshberg’s hosted a $2,700 per-person fundraiser for Clinton at their New Hampshire home.
Two days before the event, Hirshberg urged Podesta to get Secretary Clinton to support mandatory GMO labels, telling him “nothing less than mandatory labeling is going to ensure a level playing field.” After the event, Clinton advisor Huma Abedin emailed Podesta to say Clinton “had some wine and hung out for an hour after event. She also agreed to call (Secretary of Agriculture Tom) Vilsack on the labeling issue” (Vilsack was negotiating a labeling compromise between the two opposing sides at the time).
Hirshberg repeatedly pushed Podesta to get Clinton to publicly endorse mandatory GMO labels, sending talking points for her to use and claiming it would help the candidate in the Democratic primary against Bernie Sanders. In one email exchange, Hirshberg insists a Clinton statement supporting GMO labels “would go a long way to putting an end to this flank of Bernie's support.”
When Clinton did not come out in support of mandatory GMO labels, Hirshberg expressed his displeasure. In a December 2015 email to Podesta, Hirshberg harshly criticized the campaign for comments Clinton made at a fundraiser that seemed to run counter to his position:
That is not what she should be saying anywhere, but Denver is an especially bad spot for that message due to the number of well-heeled labeling supporters there. It is clear that she does not have a consistent message so I hope you can get through to her on this with my suggestion from earlier today. Hillary's publicly opposing this is both the wrong policy position but also a direct breach of what she told me. I have raised nearly $400K for her because I believed what she told me. If that is not the case, I'd like the chance to speak to her.
Once the emails were revealed, Hirshberg told Politico he makes “no apologies for doing everything in my power to sound whatever alarms were necessary to get Secretary Clinton…to support mandatory labeling.” He also told Politico he has since raised $600,000 for Clinton.
As a bill sponsored by Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) advanced through the Senate last spring, Hirshberg became increasingly desperate for Clinton’s support (the bill would’ve pre-empted state laws and encouraged voluntary GMO labels). Hirshberg wrote to Podesta before the vote saying:
I can't stress too strongly how important it is for HRC to come out strongly against the Roberts bill. As I said to her last July, regardless of how she or any of us feel about genetically engineered foods, that is a separate issue from whether or not people have the rights to know and choose whether to buy them for their families. She must come out against this asap
When the bill failed to pass the Senate in March, the Clinton camp threw Hirshberg a crumb: a tweet. On March 16, the Clinton campaign tweeted out “Congress shouldn’t block states from giving families information about their food – glad the senate stopped this bill.”
When Hirshberg emailed the campaign to express his gratitude, one staffer replied: “Thanks Gary! It was thanks to your initial emails on this that we got the machinery in action and produced this tweet.”
The emails also expose Hirshberg’s hypocrisy when it comes to his most often-used marketing tool – “moms.” Hirshberg both targets and uses moms to push his agenda. He invited Gwyneth Paltrow to a press conference on Capitol Hill in August 2015 where she spoke “as a mom who honestly believes I have the right to know what’s in the food I feed my family.” He produced a video featuring several B-list celebrity moms supporting GMO labels. But while Hirshberg employs moms as useful props to advance his cause, a January 2016 email to Podesta reveals what he really thinks about us:
…this is in fact one of those topics that is on many women's minds, not because they know anything about GMO's, but because GMO's are symbolic of the bigger narrative of our foods being produced by people who care only about profits and not really about what is best for our families.
Here, Hirshberg privately admits GMO labels aren’t really about what he publicly says they are. GMO labels are a marketing attack against major food companies. He insists moms want to know whether the food they feed their families have GMOs, yet tells Podesta we really don’t know anything about them.
That’s not the only time Hirshberg’s private comments betray his public narrative. He portrays himself as a champion of consumers’ rights, claiming GMO labels are all about transparency; he mocks any lawmaker or company that objects to labels as wanting to “keep consumers in the dark.” But Hirshberg’s real reason for pushing GMO labels is to use them to demonize GMOs and warn consumers about their imaginary dangers. In a June 2015 email to Podesta, Hirshberg lays out a number of falsehoods to convince Podesta why Clinton should support his cause:
…there is very clear and compelling USDA and USGS data demonstrating a strong likelihood of serious health and environmental threats due to the skyrocketing increases in herbicides associated with GMO usage. Leading agronomists and public health scientists are extremely concerned that these trends are rapidly increasing. To me, this is the key reason why citizens need the right to know and therefore choose…
What the emails show about Hirshberg’s hardball tactics is not inconsequential (just imagine for a minute the blowback had another corporate CEO done the same thing.) President Obama signed a mandatory GMO labeling bill in July, but the USDA has two years to figure out the details. While the law now allows for information via QR codes and websites, that doesn’t satisfy Hirshberg and his labeling allies. They will continue to work behind the scenes in a Clinton Administration to get mandatory, on-package GMO labels. Labeling opponents should look no further than Hirshberg’s emails to see what’s coming next.
This article appeared originally on The Hill under the title “Hirshberg to Podesta: We don't really know anything about GMOs" and is being reproduced here with permission of the author.
Julie Kelly is a cooking teacher, food writer and National Review online contributor. Follow her on Twitter at @julie_kelly2