On October 14, 2015, the International Food Information Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation released a free, 38-page, downloadable lesson plan called “Bringing Biotechnology to Life: An Educational Resource for Grades 7-10.”
The International Food Information Council is a front group funded by some of biggest names in biotech and junk food: Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Coca-Cola, Kellogg, Nestle and more. The American Farm Bureau Federation, according to SourceWatch, is a “right-wing lobbying front for big agribusiness and agribusiness-related industries that works to defeat labor and environmental initiatives, including climate change legislation.” The organization is adamantly against GMO labels, and even spoke out against Roberts’ and Stabenow’s deal for being too lenient.
The lesson plan created by the International Food Information Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation is deceptively innocuous until Lesson 7, which includes the theme, “Where would we be without ‘GMOs’?” In the “discussion prompt” section, students are asked to choose between planting magical, problem-solving GMOs or allow people to get sick, go hungry or exploit the environment by not planting GMOs.
Here’s the first prompt:
Imagine you are a sugar beet farmer. You love growing sugar beets that provide about half the sugar in the US, but managing the weeds on your farm is very difficult. Each year the weeds threaten to choke out your crop, and you have to spray more herbicides to control them. You find out about a new genetically engineered sugar beet that is resistant to glyphosate, a common herbicide. This plant will allow you to spray glyphosate directly on your crop, which is less toxic than the other herbicides you have been using, without harming the sugar beet. What do you do?
Glyphosate is the main ingredient in RoundUp, Monsanto’s star weedkiller that’s applied to the company’s genetically modified crops. This $5-billion-a-year herbicide is so widely used that residues can be detected in breakfast foods, wine and even urine. The controversial chemical has been at the center of a global row ever since the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared the substance “probably carcinogenic to humans” in March 2015. Monsanto has defended the safety of its signature product and regularly cites studies from other regulatory bodies that also classify the compound is safe. None of this is mentioned in the lesson.
Here’s another discussion prompt with a thinly veiled reference to Golden Rice, a lightning rod in the overall GMO debate:
You are an aid worker in Asia. Rice is a staple crop for most Asian families. It is inexpensive and readily available. You work in a poor area where people do not get enough vitamin A and are at higher risk for many diseases, including blindness. You hear of a rice crop that has been genetically engineered to contain high levels of betacarotene which humans can convert to Vitamin A. What do you do?
Hiding in Plain Sight
Josh Golin, the executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told AlterNet that the International Food Information Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation are clearly disseminating “sponsored educational materials.”
“Anytime you have an interest that has a financial stake in impressioning students, we shouldn’t allow them in schools,” he said. “That’s not education, it’s propaganda.”
Golin described a similar ploy by the American Coal Foundation when it partnered with Scholastic to release a fourth-grade lesson plan to tens of thousands of teachers. Golin said the widely criticized material “did not have a single negative word about coal” and played down the promise of renewable energy.
This past March, Monsanto teamed up with the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (another corporate front group run by the notorious public relations firm Ketchum), for a chat on “incorporating ag into your classroom.”
— Monsanto Company (@MonsantoCo) March 17, 2016
The two firms touted a slickly produced “Discovering Farmland” curriculum designed for grades 9-12. The material includes the mini-doc Farmland, a virtual field trip and downloadable lesson plans “aligned with Next Generation Science Standards and agribusiness standards under the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.”
Golin said glossy lesson plans like these may be appealing to schools that cannot tell the material is pure PR. Because there is no database, it is difficult to tell how many schools or teachers have used these materials.
Both Sides of the Debate
“There are people who say GMOs have benefits, and that’s one thing,” Golin said. “But to not include differences in opinion is why it’s so important to raise awareness. The number-one thing to teach kids in school is to think critically and these materials don’t do that.”
In September 2015, the New York Times published a story on US Right to Know‘s treasure trove of private emails between university science professors and the GMO industry. The food industry watchdog group obtained the emails through repeated Freedom of Information Act requests.
In one group email, an employee from Ketchum, the PR firm, sought volunteers to sway GMO-related content of a sixth-grade science textbook. The employee linked to a Yahoo! article reporting that Macmillan/McGraw-Hill would be updating a textbook that had been criticized as “GMO propaganda.” The updated textbook would “effectively present a robust discussion about the diversity of research on the topic,” such as the downsides of the technology.
University of Florida professor Kevin Folta responded that he would “torpedo this stupidity,” and added in another email, “I’ve been planning to take a hard point position on this. Diluting facts from science texts due to activist demands, without scientific consultation, is something I will not tolerate.”
GMO proponents like Folta have long defended the benefits and safety of genetically modified foods. This past May, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report largely concluding that GM organisms posed no danger to human health. The 400-page assessment should have shut down the debate over GMOs, but let’s face it, the safety of GMOs is not the only issue of concern to consumers.
In a recent article published in US News & World Report, Megan Meyer, the manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council, argues that since American opinion about GMOs in the food supply is pretty much split, “more education and outreach opportunities need to be made available to consumers about GMOs.”
For all intents and purposes, yes, consumers should know more about the products because they are everywhere. Ever since the first GMO seeds became commercially available in the US in 1996, American farms have adopted the technology so rapidly that the seeds are now planted on more than 90 percent of US corn, cotton and soybean acres, according to the US Department of Agriculture. These ingredients make up the backbone of everyday processed foods such as soda, cereal and chips, with 60 to 70 percent of foods on supermarket shelves containing genetically engineered ingredients. That’s not to mention GMO crops are fed en masse to cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock. Like it or not, most of us have eaten GMOs, probably multiple times a day.
Children today have only known a food system where genetically altered life forms can be patented and profited from. There’s no question that children — as well as consumers of all ages — should know more about what they are eating and who is making it. The question is, who can we really trust?