>CAMPAIGNING IN THE '90s:
By Peter Montague
How can environmental justice advocates win in the 1990s?
Will the techniques of the 1970s work, when lobbying Congress resulted in
passage of a dozen environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act? Probably
not. This Congress hardly seems in a mood to pass new legislation to protect
people or wildlife.
Will the techniques of the 1980s work? During the '80s, activists learned
to use visible (and photogenic) protests--combined with the issuance of
well-researched reports--as a way of getting their story into the mainstream
media. Publicity sometimes led to the collapse of bad projects (such as
nuclear power plants and solid waste incinerators) or at least to compromises
and improvements in bad projects.
Certainly these publicity techniques may still have some merit in particular
instances, but mostly they don't seem to work any more. Therefore the '90s
require something different. The '90s require the building of a large base
of support among people who are being harmed or frightened or in some way
screwed by "the system." And those people have to be convinced
that their support will lead to some real demands for real change--not just
another law that can't (or won't) be enforced, not just another picture
on page 28 of the newspaper.
As the big environmental organizations have started emulating corporate
polluters in almost every way, activist-oriented people have become disgusted
and have turned away from them--with good reason. So something new is needed
for winning in the '90s.
As the environmental justice movement meets in Baton Rouge March 15-17 to
discuss a strategy for ending the poisoning of Americans by dioxin (see
"Paper Mill Waste and Declining Sperm Counts, Progressive Populist,
February 1996), it makes sense to think generally about campaigning in the
Take for example a campaign style developed by Food & Water, Inc., in Walden,
Vermont. To defeat food irradiation (the proposal to zap food with large
quantities of radiation, as a preservative), Food & Water placed placards
in health food stores around the country, and they mailed out hundreds of
thousands of "pledge cards," asking people to send back the cards,
pledging that they would take several actions to prevent the irradiation
of the American food supply.
The goal of the campaign was to stop food irradiation--not to "regulate"
it or "control" it, but to kill it, plain and simple. Tens of
thousand of people sent back pledge cards, often with a hand-written note,
such as "Great! Finally someone who is unwilling to compromise! Count
Food & Water sees the American people divided into three groups: ones, twos
The threes wear black hats. They are the environmental destroyers, and we
all know who they are. Although they personally may be very nice people
who are merely trapped inside a corporate structure that has deprived them
of the freedom to make decisions based on their own consciences, from the
viewpoint of campaigning for environmental justice, they are hopeless and
should be ignored.
The twos are "on the fence." They are often good-hearted people
who "want more information." They are not ready to act. They want
to be convinced. These people, too, are hopeless from the viewpoint of campaigning
in the '90s. They too should be ignored. Talking to them or sending them
information will sap precious resources and will not lead to any action.
(If a two is in a position of power, such as a reporter, it may be worthwhile
spending some time trying to convince him or her --but ordinary twos should
be ignored by campaigners.)
Ones are people who "get it" and are ready to take action. These
are the people who mail back the pledge cards--especially those who write
personal notes on the cards. These are the "troops" for a campaign.
Their names go into a database. When asked, they will write a letter, make
a phone call, or take some other action.
What do the troops do? In the case of food irradiation, Food & Water threatened
to boycott supermarkets that said they would place irradiated food on their
shelves. Furthermore, Food & Water threatened to boycott particular food
producers who were leaning toward adopting food irradiation, such as Frank
Perdue, the chicken magnate. Food & Water asked ones to phone Mr. Perdue
explaining that they were about to start a national boycott of Perdue products,
starting with a picket line at their local grocery store.
After a few dozen phone calls, Mr. Perdue did an about-face on food irradiation
and wrote Food & Water a letter pledging to abandon irradiation plans.
This strategy has another component: purchased media. Food & Water hires
advertising agencies and publicists to produce print ads and radio spots.
The results are slick, professional work. The print ads appear in such places
as the New York Times and in industry newspapers and magazines read by executives
of supermarkets and food-industry trade associations.
The ads are blunt and hard-hitting. The ads send several messages, in addition
to whatever appears in the text: They convey that Food & Water is sophisticated,
savvy, aggressive, capable, and well-heeled. They convey that a serious
campaign--including punishing boycotts--has begun. And they convey a sense
that there is more to come.
Radio spots are mass-produced on audio tape, and are mailed to several thousand
executives in the food industry, with a note saying, "You should listen
to this tape. We plan to run it on radio stations in your area soon, unless
you pledge to turn your back on irradiated food." The tape explains
in 30 seconds why food irradiation is dangerous and how a supermarket boycott
Naturally, the executives do listen to the tapes, and they immediately recognize
that their slim profit margin is about to disappear. (Supermarkets run on
a 1% to 2% profit margin, so even a modestly successful boycott can throw
them into the red.) Suddenly, irradiated food doesn't look as profitable
as it used to.
Taking the Food & Water pledge begins to make sense. The only food irradiation
plant ever built was called Vindicator, in Florida, and as a result of Food
& Water's campaign, Vindicator went bankrupt. There are now rumors of new
plans to irradiate food in Illinois, but for now Food & Water has a total
The basic technique that worked was forcing the food industry to adopt Food
& Water's position, thus giving Food & Water economic clout that it otherwise
lacked. Now Food & Water has taken on pesticides, using the same strategy.
The goal is to end pesticide use on food. Not regulate it. Not reduce it.
End it. Pledge cards have gone out to hundreds of thousands of people, and
professionally done placards are appearing near the check-out counters at
health food stores across the country. The ones are being identified.
Simultaneously, a media campaign has begun. This summer, ads began appearing
in the New York Times, sponsored by Food & Water and by Environmental Research
Foundation. The ads were written and produced by the advertising firm Montague
&, in Westport, Conn. The first two ads ran in the New York Times and
didn't seem to attract much notice. The third ad ran in Supermarket News
December 11, 1995, and it got the food industry's attention.
The ad is dominated by a large black silhouette of an assault rifle. The
headline says, "More people are killed by their salad." The text
reads, "The assault rifle ban is a good law, and it will save hundreds
of lives. But every year, literally thousands of men, women, and children
die from a silent and invisible assault: Toxic pesticides on fruits and
vegetables. So we've launched a nationwide campaign to alert food industry
professionals and everyday consumers to the dangers of toxic pesticides.
As we all work hard to promote the increased consumption of fresh fruits
and vegetables for better health, we had better make sure that the produce
is really healthy. And that means produce that is free of toxic pesticides.
To join us, or for more information on what you can do right now, call 1-800-EAT-SAFE.
Because telling children to eat their vegetables shouldn't be a death sentence."
The ad ran in Supermarket News December 11th. The Packer, another food industry
newspaper, refused to run the ad. However, on December 18, The Packer wrote
a news story announcing that the ad had run in Supermarket News, thus conveying
to food industry executives the very message that the ad was intended to
convey. A week later The Packer reported that "three major produce
industry associations wasted no time" in responding to the ad.
The Packer reported that the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) had faxed
the ad to all of its "retailer and service wholesaler members"--thus
spreading the message further inside the industry. The ad space had been
purchased as a "two for one holiday special."
Supermarket News readers complained about the ad, and the News decided not
to run the ad a second time; they also did not charge Food & Water for the
first placement, so the ad ran free. On January 3rd, the PMA announced they
had formally requested the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate
Food & Water and Environmental Research Foundation for "unfair and
deceptive advertising." The PMA asked the FTC to "enjoin"
further dissemination of the ad, and to enter a "cease and desist order
declaring the Food & Water advertisement to be unfair and deceptive."
The PMA has further asked the FTC to "issue a cease and desist order
to prohibit Food & Water, Inc. from representing, directly, or indirectly,
that produce treated with agricultural chemicals in compliance with EPA
regulations is unsafe."
Michael Colby, executive director of Food & Water, responded saying, "1996
is going to be filled with new ads and efforts to tell people at the grass
roots about pesticides and chemical residues." Colby promised radio
ads targeted at seven supermarket chains: Shaw's, Grand Union, Winn-Dixie,
Kroger, Hy-vee, Safeway and Albertson's. The aim is to mobilize ones to
pressure their supermarket managers to offer pesticide-free (and preferably
locally-grown) foods, thus putting "market forces" to work protecting
human health and the environment (while helping local farmers and the local
For the past five years, the food industry--especially the produce industry
(fruits and vegetables)--has been developing a campaign called "5-a-Day."
They want everyone to eat five helpings of fruits and vegetables each day.
This is a multi-million-dollar food-industry campaign, directed by the Produce
for Better Health Foundation. Because we read food industry publications
like Produce News, Supermarket News and The Packer, we know that the food
corporations are banking on this campaign to provide greatly increased profits
for agrichemical food growers. That's why they went nuts when Food & Water
struck their Achilles heel, which is the fact that most of the fruits and
vegetables in supermarkets today contain pesticide residues that can cause
This is a dirty little secret that the food industry doesn't want anyone
talking about. In fact, agribusiness corporations are so eager to close
off discussion of toxic pesticide residues on food that the industry has
been campaigning state by state in recent years to pass "food disparagement"
laws making it a crime to criticize agricultural products without "a
sound scientific basis."
Such "banana laws" (as they are called) are now on the books in
eleven states (Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana,
Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas) and they are under consideration
in California, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania,
South Carolina, and Washington state. Further, the food industry is trying
to stick a "food disparagement" provision into the 1996 Farm Bill,
which at this writing is still being bitterly debated in Congress.
It seems clear that these banana laws will be declared unconstitutional
when they are challenged in court, but it will be a long, expensive fight--probably
costing upwards of half a million dollars to litigate. As a result, such
laws will very likely have a chilling effect on journalists and others who
might be inclined to discuss the possibility that pesticide-laced foods
aren't as healthy for you as fruits and vegetables that are free of poisonous
Proponents of banana laws openly admit that their purpose is to silence
food-safety activists. In Florida, anyone found guilty of "agricultural
disparagement" must pay a fine equal to three times the estimated dollar
amount of damage done to agribusiness plaintiffs. The Georgia statute defines
disparagement as "the willful or malicious dissemination to the public
in any manner of false information that a perishable food product or commodity
is not safe for human consumption" and defines false information as
"not based on reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or
data." It's anybody's guess what "reasonable" and "reliable"
We can recall a time not long ago when "reasonable" and "reliable"
data showed that diethylstilbestrol (DES) and DDT were both "safe"
for humans and the environment. Unfortunately those "reasonable"
and "reliable" data were quite wrong. The food industry flatly
denies that anyone has ever been harmed by the roughly 600 million pounds
of toxic chemicals that have been intentionally sprayed on the nation's
food and fiber crops each year for the past 50 years.
Bob Carey, president of the Produce Marketing Association in Newark, Delaware,
told Supermarket News that he was "dismayed and appalled" by the
Food & Water advertisement which said thousands of Americans are killed
each year by pesticide residues. "No one... has ever been harmed by
eating fresh produce properly treated with crop protection tools,"
Carey told the News. He told the Packer, "Produce on store shelves
and on restaurant plates is safe."
Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association
called the statements in the ad "pure fabrication." David Moore,
president of the Western Growers Association said that comparing the hazards
of fresh produce to assault weapons was "tantamount to yelling 'fire'
in a crowded theater."
Falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded theater has been used by the
U.S. Supreme Court as a legal test for determining when society has the
right to limit a person's Constitutional right of free speech. But suppose
it is true that pesticides kill more people than assault rifles do each
year. Then Mr. Carey, Mr. Stenzel, Mr. Moore are making false statements
that would tend to harm people by inducing them to consume toxic chemicals.
(We agree that organic, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables are excellent
for health. However, putting poison on your salad just doesn't make sense
So who's right? Unfortunately, good data are scarce. The only book-length
study of pesticide hazards was published by the National Academy of Sciences
(NAS) in 1987. The NAS reported in 1987 that they could find "very
limited actual data" regarding pesticide residues on food.
David Pimental at Cornell University pointed out in 1993 that "U.S.
analytical methods now employed detect only about one-third of the more
than 600 pesticides in use." So estimates must be substituted for real
Fifty years into pesticide technology, this lack of data is shocking and
pathetic. (Ask yourself, who benefits from the absence of such data?)
The NAS study restricted itself to pesticides in and on food. It omitted
pesticide exposures that occur as a result of drinking pesticide-contaminated
ground water, a phenomenon that is very common in parts of the U.S.
Pesticides come in 3 flavors: herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.
According to the NAS, about 480 million pounds of herbicides are used annually
in the U.S.; of these, 300 million pounds (62.5%) are agents that "the
EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] presumes to be oncogenic or for
which positive oncogenicity data are currently under review by the agency."
Oncogenic means tumor-producing. The NAS estimate omitted two large-volume
herbicides, atrazine and 2,4-D, because EPA received data indicating oncogenicity
of these chemicals after the NAS study was completed. Quantities of oncogenic
insecticides are not described in detail in the NAS study.
Insecticides are described in terms of acre treatments; one acre-treatment
is defined as one acre to which one pesticide has been applied one time.
NAS says that presumed oncogens make up between 35% and 50% of all insecticidal
acre-treatments. About 90% of all fungicides show positive results in oncogenicity
tests. These oncogenic fungicides represent from 70 million to 75 million
of the 80 million pounds of all fungicides applied annually in the United
The NAS committee worked with a 1985 list of 53 pesticides that EPA considered
oncogenic. However, an estimate of oncogenic potency was only available
for 28 of the 53, or 53%. In other words, NAS found that it could not estimate
the risks for 47%--roughly half--of the pesticides that EPA identified as
oncogenic because necessary data on oncogenic potency were not available.
The NAS therefore restricted its analysis to the 28 pesticides for which
NAS used EPA's data and EPA's risk assessment methods. NAS says that, in
doing risk assessments, EPA "tries to make necessary assumptions in
a way that minimizes the chance of underestimating risks."
"The result is that these [NAS] risk assessments probably overstate
true oncogenic risk," NAS said. Risk refers to incidence of cancer
cases, not death. The NAS said there are four reasons why its risk estimates
may overstate the risk, and four reasons why its estimates may understate
the risk. Reasons why NAS estimates may overstate the risk: ·
In extrapolating from high-dose tumor incidence data to low-dose estimates,
conservative assumptions have been made; · NAS assumed that all acres
of all crops are treated with the pesticides which are registered for use
on those crops; · NAS assumed that residues are always present at the
legally allowable level, when in fact they are usually present at lower
levels; · NAS assumes that daily exposure occurs during a 70-year lifetime.
Reasons why NAS may have understated the risk: ·
-- NAS lacked toxicological data for some active ingredients and for most
"inert" ingredients, degradation products, and metabolites. [So-called
"inerts" make up the bulk of most pesticides and are closely-held
secrets. Some "inerts" are toxic in their own right. Likewise,
metabolites and degradation by-products can be more poisonous than the parent
compound; for example, DDE is more toxic than its parent, DDT.] ·
-- The models used for extrapolating from animal data to humans may have
been insufficiently conservative in some respects. ·
-- Certain routes of exposure were omitted. ·
-- Possible synergistic (multiplier) effects of pesticides and metabolites)
were omitted from consideration.
NAS estimated that the total risk from the 28 pesticides was 5.85 cancers
per thousand people per lifetime. Dividing this by 70 (years in a lifetime)
and multiplying it by the number of groups of 1000 in the U.S. population
(250,000 such groups) yields an annual estimated pesticide-caused cancer
incidence of 20,800 in the United States. If half of the new pesticide-caused
cancers each year result in death, this brings NAS's estimate of annual
deaths from pesticides-in-food to 10,400 per year.
How does this compare to deaths by assault rifles?
Peter Montague is editor of the Environmental Research Foundation and
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