Conflict of interest? Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott’s connections to organic industry raise concerns

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Is it appropriate for a Mother Jones columnist to write glowing columns about industry-funded research while appearing at pro-industry events?

On March 9, 2017, the Organic Center held their 14th annual fundraising gala. A project of the Organic Trade Association, The Organic Center’s goal is to “strengthen and expand organic practices and commodities”.

Sponsors and donors include Whole Foods, Annie’s, Horizon Organic, Nature’s Path, Organic Valley, Stonyfield, and Clif Bar.

Tom Philpott is a reporter for Mother Jones. His blog there won an award for best food blog by the Association of Food Journalists in 2014. In 2015 he won the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism for his story exposing major concerns with almond farming in California.

On December 1, 2013, Charles Benbrook, who works closely with the organic industry for public relations, cited Tom Philpott as part of a group that can be counted on to:

help out with strategic Tweets, comments to media, etc. Can be asked upfront to take defined actions at key time, and play certain roles in specific communities.

On December 13, 2013, Mother Jones published an article by Tom Philpott, titled “Organic Milk Proves Higher in Healthy Fats”. The research was conducted by Benbrook with a grant from Organic Center sponsor Organic Valley.

On March 9, 2017, Tom Philpott was a keynote speaker at the Organic Center’s fundraising dinner. According to the Organic Center’s press release about the event, Tom Philpott “dined on center stage with Dr. Shade”. Dr. Jessica Shade is the Director of Science Programs at the Organic Center.

While the Benbrook study was criticized by many independent scientists as “rife with methodological problems and questionable scientific assumptions”, none of this criticism appeared in Philpott’s article.

Often critical of what he sees as “industry defenders” using “industry talking points”, Philpott himself was “fully briefed” and was asked to make sure the released research and “outreach effort is broad and on-message.”

How much money has Philpott received from organic industry interests? Ben Bradlee, former Executive Editor at the Washington Post once wrote, “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.” A concept known as “buckraking”.

In order for people to consider buying organic, the industry must convince them of two things. One is that conventional food is more dangerous, and the other is that organic food is in some way healthier. There is no credible evidence either is the case. Instead, the organic industry is relying on public relation firms, their agents, and those journalists who are in their pockets.

A version of this article appeared on Medium as “Organic industry ‘A Team’ journalist Tom Philpott ‘dines on center stage’ at sponsored event” and has been republished here with permission from the author. 

Stephan Neidenbach is a middle school teacher in Annapolis, Maryland. He holds a BS in business administration from Salisbury University and an MS in Instructional Technology from the University of Maryland. He started and runs the Facebook group We Love GMOs and Vaccines. Follow him on twitter @welovegv.

  • RobertWager

    No no no. Don’t you know that it is only a COI when one is working with modern agriculture or GE crop developers. Nothing to see here…[sarc off]

  • Aguirre15

    No surprise here. It has been painfully obvious to many of us who worked in this field that the anti GMO movement was largely cynical and self serving.

    • Kevin Patti

      you forgot: and actually guilty of the things they accuse their opponents of doing.

      • Maia

        See my reply to Aguirre15’s comment of 3 days ago.

    • Maia

      Not true for all involved, only for some…like any other “BIG” version of anything, it gets corrupted by its own bigness, by becoming an “industry” subject to the usual demands.
      That does not mean there are not plenty of businesses and groups and individuals who are totally sincere AND knowledgeable about their support of organic over commercial/GE foods.

      • Stuart M.

        As the article said, scientific research indicates that organic food is not healthier than conventional food and that conventional foods are not more dangerous than organic. So while someone can be “sincere” about their support of organic over conventional foods, they cannot be “knowledgeable” about any difference. “Sincerity” is no excuse for spreading false information. Really sincere people should first inform themselves of the facts. Those that don’t are just useful idiots for the organic food industry.

      • Aguirre15

        Nothing wrong with producing and selling fresh organic produce. Its the kneejerk use of the tagline non GMO which is self serving. I rather doubt those who either use that tagline or read it have any idea what it means. Its just fearmongering to gain some kind of marketing edge if you ask me. Technically, I don’t even think “organic” and GMO are distinguishable. What exactly is not organic about a sequence of nucleotides or a protein?

        • Maia

          Actually, I know that (as a member of a natural foods Co-op) people who look for the healthiest foods, DO care if a food is engineered in a lab or not. But actually the main attraction is usually that organic is grown and harvested without Roundup and many other highly toxic chemicals. If it’s animal product, the animal treatment standars are higher, too. And they can’t be fed trash or shot up with hormones, et al. Of course, a food COULD be engineered and also grown organically, but that virtually never happens since many engineered foods are made to used with pesticides, the most well known of which is Roundup.
          There are two very different meanings to the word “organic”. One is what I just described, and the other is the way you are using it in your comment: a term from chemistry or soil biology. NOT synonymous.
          If shoppers whant to know whether a food is GMO or not, what is wrong with supplying that information?

          • Aguirre15

            “If shoppers want to know whether a food is GMO or not, what is wrong with supplying that information?”

            90% + of GMO grains and oilseeds are fed to animals all around the world where the question of GMO is rendered completely irrelevant because intact DNA sequences and proteins do not survive the animals digestion. A majority of the remaining 10% is made into refined oils and sugars which, again, renders the question irrelevant as these products by definition do not ontain DNA. As you can see simply supplying that information would lead to endless confusion and probably litigation which is why the regulators in their infinite wisdom said it was not necessary some 25 years ago.

  • WeGotta

    In order for people to consider buying gmo, the industry must convince them of two things. One is that non-gmo is not science based, and the other is that gmo food offers them some kind of benefit. There is no credible evidence either is the case.
    Instead, the gmo industry is relying on public relation firms, their agents, bribing government and those journalists who are in their pockets.

    • Stuart M.

      Isn’t the writing style of “pro-GMO” writers so beautiful? You are paying Mr. Neidenbach the ultimate compliment, repeating his words, with nonsensical changes on your part, to further your agenda. Non-GMO can also be non-organic, don’t you know that? But to define a genetically engineered organism as “not organic” is entirely arbitrary. What is “not organic” about DNA? It is completely unscientific to try to say an organism is not organic based on some slightly changed DNA. And herbicide resistant and Bt crops offer FARMERS very real benefits, why else would they pay a premium and sign contracts to use the seeds? The only thing that GMO growers, and government regulators, should have to convince the non-farming public of is that GMOs are safe for human consumption and the environment and that they provide equivalent nutrition to non-GMO foods. If they are cheaper too, that is great. Like any industry group, growers are allowed to hire public relations firms and lobbyists to legally influence legislation. Recruiting journalists into unscientific fear-mongering campaigns seems to be the tactic of the organic industry.

      • WeGotta

        I never was one for the snarky hypocritical style in the medium of bullshit.

        Organic has a definition. Part of that definition is that it’s non-gmo. That’s all you really need to understand about the situation.
        Like how the border of the US and Mexico is made up of the Rio Grande. Go ahead and run around screaming that the border could be somewhere else. As if that is some revelation for humankind.
        Sure, gmo “could be” organic…………but it’s not.

        Farmers should care about what their customers want. Many of them do. I’d rather give my money to those who care about me and my opinions. Good thing there are many around who do.

        You said “The only thing that GMO growers, and government regulators, should have to convince the non-farming public of is that GMOs are safe for human consumption and the environment and that they provide equivalent nutrition to non-GMO foods.”

        But you left out the fact that they should convince us first that they are honest and credible. There is plenty of evidence to show they are not. Are we supposed to ignore all the warning signs of corruption in the setting of abundant factual evidence where they repeatedly violate our trust to the benefit of those industries who give them lots of money?
        It’s really funny how science and facts only matter to gmo pushers in very specific contexts.

        Yes, anybody can hire lobbyists to shower money on the government officials that keep lobbying legal in the first place.

        Journalists are for hire too. Like Mr. Neidenbach. That’s the real problem. Doesn’t erase the sins of gmo pushers because the “organic industry” does it too. Which is the whole premise of this article.
        What is this? The kindergarten playground or something?

        Why are journalists such sell outs anyway? Could it be for the same reason we shouldn’t trust scientists who push gmo?

        • Stuart M.

          “I never was one for the snarky hypocritical style in the medium of bullshit.” Well, we always knew what kind of medium you considered the Internet. What’s mysterious is how you can dish it out, but you claim to be annoyed by it. “Organic has a definition. Part of that definition is that it’s non-gmo. That’s all you really need to understand about the situation.” That’s apparently all you want to know, but “inquiring minds” aren’t satisfied with bullshit on a platter, they like to know the reasons for things. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers defined themselves as the “Master Race” and had a long list of races that were not part of it. Well, you would say, “Master race has a definition. Part of that definition is that it’s non-Jew. That’s really all you need to know about the situation.” Your Mexican-American border example is stupid: A river is not arbitrary, a mountain range, a fence, even a longitude or latitude on a map can serve as a boundary between countries. What counts is the jurisdiction of the countries: where does Mexican jurisdiction end and where does American jurisdiction begin? Jurisdiction is a real thing, ask the Mexicans getting deported right now. To say a GMO is not “organic” is completely arbitrary. DNA, no matter where it comes from, is made of organic compounds, it is not an inorganic chemical. You don’t care, you are just going to continue to claim Jews are not members of the Master Race.

          • WeGotta

            WOW!!!
            What a big steaming pile of bullshit.

            You just said that anyone who accepts that certain words have certain definitions is a racist Nazi sympathizer. Oh boy! Wait till I tell all my teachers they are all Jew haters for grading schoolwork.
            Bravo Stuart!! Bravo!!!

          • WeGotta

            Yes, jurisdiction is a real thing.
            Its the official power to make legal decisions and judgments. Who has jurisdiction depends on which side of the border you are on. Borders can be arbitrary.
            It’s not Texas here, Mexico there because they saw American jurisdiction on one side of the river and Mexican on the other.

            To say “gmo is not part of organic” is just the same as saying that European history is not part of the biology curriculum.

            But gmo pushers love to ignore definitions. They refuse to accept the same definitions as the rest of us. They try to wriggle out of definitions (like the media blitz to try and fool people into thinking CRISPR is not gmo).
            Now you foolishly try and claim that support for strict definitions of words is the same as being a xenophobic.

          • Stuart M.

            But science tells us (even the European Commission tells us) that GMOs are no more dangerous than conventional foods for humans or the environment. American jurisdiction is very different from Mexican jurisdiction, so there is a real difference between one side of the border and the other. Claiming GMOs are not organic is just as arbitrary as saying Jews aren’t members of the master race AND FORCING THEM TO WEAR THE STAR OF DAVID ON THEIR SLEEVES!

          • WeGotta

            You are so confused.

            You have science confused for reality.
            The evidence is clear that, in reality, you can still be harmed by things “science tells us” is safe.

            You have confused the definition of arbitrary to have the quality of something “bad”.
            A decision can be arbitrary and “good” at the same time.

            You have confused acceptance of a definition as an acceptance of a belief system.
            One can accept that the given definition of a “master race” AND think whoever believes in a “master race” is a racist moron. For instance, I accept the definition of a unicorn but I don’t think they are real.

            Gmo is not organic. This isn’t arbitrary.
            Nobody has to change definitions because you don’t agree with them.

            You actually aid the crazy people of the world with your confusion and sanctimonious ignorant screeching.
            When such rantings become normalized we get book burnings, double speak, nazis, wars for freedom, chemicals for food, dangerous mental midgets for presidents, corporations with more rights than people, two party dictatorships, and alt-right resurgence.

          • Stuart M.

            Who is engaging in double speak here? Organic DNA is not organic? WHY is a genetically engineered organism not organic? Genetic engineering is a breeding technique, NOT A CHEMICAL OR NON-ORGANIC INGREDIENT. You might as well say people who were conceived “doggy-style” instead of “missionary-style” are not human. You are just as sick as Donald Trump in your warped hatred and denial of science.

          • WeGotta

            You definitely are the one engaging in double speak here.

            “Platypus are mammals? WHY is an animal that lays eggs considered to be a mammal? You might as well say people who were conceived “doggy-style” instead of “missionary-style” are not human. You are just as sick as Donald Trump in your warped hatred and denial of science.”

            You also sound emotionally unhinged.

          • Maia

            You are confused about two very definitions of th word “organic”. Do your research!

          • Aguirre15

            Yes two different definitions. One is a commercial definition negotiated with the USDA and the other is a technical definition based on biology and chemistry which is not negotiable. You seem to be the ones who are confused.

          • Maia

            🙂

          • Aguirre15

            Can’t tell if thats a smile of agreement or sarcasm but let me be clear. Just because Big Organic was able to include non GMO in the commerical definition of “Organic” for marketing reasons does not mean that GMO grains and oilseeds are not organic technically. I also think this is needlessly confusing for the average consumer.

          • WeGotta

            What a laugh.
            How did “big organic” exist before the word organic was defined?

            Yes, it specifically and exactly means that gmo grains and oilseeds are not organic.
            No, it’s not confusing at all.

          • Aguirre15

            Bullshit! Organic has always meant no synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides etc. Non GMO is a an add on contrived simply for marketing reasons. It has no meaning in and of itself.

          • WeGotta

            No person would believe that organics is non-gmo “simply for marketing reasons”.

            Even if that were true, it means nothing on the world of definitions.

            There is no “definition exclusionary clause” for marketing reasons.
            Ever heard of a”trademark”?

            My god, you gmo pushers are impaired or something.

          • WeGotta

            There is no special commercial, technical, biological or chemical requirement necessary to create a word and define it exactly.

            Definition of definition:
            A statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary.

            You are the ones dangerously confused.

          • Stuart M.

            Here we go again. What is not organic about DNA? DNA is a part of the organism, it is not a pesticide or other chemical which has been applied to the outside of the organism. It is an integral part of every cell in that organism, every cell contains a completely organic copy of the DNA of the original spliced DNA. It is entirely arbitrary and unscientific to say a GMO is “not organic.” Even if you say a GMO might have been exposed to a pesticide and that makes it not organic, that is also arbitrary because there are many pesticides which are arbitrarily deemed organic by the “organic police.” The whole “organic” label is an artificial construct dreamed up to justify charging higher prices.

          • Maia

            Still confused, Stuart. There are two different definitions to the word “organic” and you are mixing them up.

          • Stuart M.

            I can accept the label “organic” if it is describing something that is organic, not a man-made chemical like a pesticide. But arbitrarily decreeing that organic cannot mean something that is obviously organic like DNA is a fraud. It’s like me taking a perfectly good word like “human” and then claiming that African-Americans are not human. If the organic crowd would come to its senses and embrace genetic engineering instead of vilifying it for totally unscientific reasons, I would have more respect for them and their use of the word “organic.” But they won’t, so I don’t.

          • Maia

            Didn’t say what you are claiming I am claiming! Read more carefully.

          • Maia

            Definition of organic #1: carbon compounds (other than simple salts such as carbonates, oxides, and carbides.

            Defintion #2: food grown/raised as per specific legal requirements to use the label “organic”. One of the many requirements to use this label: non-GMO.

            If it helps you, please start using the word organic to refer to carbon-based compounds and the word “organic” to refer to foods that meet all the specifications required to sell food bearing the label: “organic”.

            DNA is organic, but NOT NECESSARILY “organic”! Got it?

          • walterjessesmith

            That is very precise, poignant, and helpful for any who care to address these issues! Thank you, Maia!