Monsanto’s Tricky Plan to Defeat GMO Labeling?

Who is behind the recent study of organic food and why?

September 24, 2012

Okay—let’s not miss the point about the Stanford “study” on organic food, the one released in early September that concludes that the scientific literature “lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”

Every reaction I’ve seen in the press grants that maybe organic food isn’t more nutritious, but it’s healthier in many other ways, like much lower amounts of toxic agricultural chemicals, and so on. But there are many studies that show that organic food is indeed more nutritious. To really understand those studies, you have to know who paid for them. If Monsanto or Cargill is paying a researcher at a land-grant university to look into the nutritional value of foods, there’s a temptation there to work the data in favor of the company paying the bills, especially if they like your work and order more studies.


So who’s paying for the Stanford study? The Stanford doctor who was the principal author, Crystal Smith-Spangler, M.D., writes that there was no funding for the study, which appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine (vol. 157, no. 5 [4 September 2012]: 348–366)—this despite the listing of 11 coauthors including physicians and health specialists along with Dr. Smith-Spangler. Since no funding is listed, we can’t know whether Dr. Smith-Spangler and cohorts did the rather exhaustive study out of the goodness of their hearts or if someone took them to lunch, so to speak. But even that isn’t the point.

The real question is, why do you think this Stanford study came out now? The title of the study raises a red flag as it asks, “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives?” Its conclusion states, “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” So it casts doubt on the value of organic food, even as it admits organic food has fewer toxic residues and pathogenic microbes. Yet I’m aware of several strong studies supporting the nutritional superiority of organic food,* and I looked through all 298 studies cited in the Stanford overview of the scientific literature, but they were nowhere to be found. But even that’s not the point.

Remember: This November, Californians will be asked to vote on Proposition 37, which will require foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be so labeled. Remember too that organic food is not allowed by law to contain any genetically modified ingredients.

Now think about Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, and other corporations turning out genetically modified farm seed. Why do you think they’re doing that? They say it’s to improve agriculture, to feed the world, to solve farming’s problems—but there’s another reason they seldom mention. When they make a genetically modified (GMO) seed, they patent it. And those who hold the patents reap the financial rewards.


Farmers, who used to be able to save seed from year to year, now must buy GMO seed from Monsanto and their pals each year to get the “advances” in agricultural technology that the corporations say their seed will deliver. Conventional farmers buy the genetically altered corn, for instance, because it’s Roundup Ready, meaning that glyphosate herbicide won’t damage the corn. And patented corn seed has been genetically altered to manufacture its own pesticide within its cells—a function borrowed from Bacillus thuringiensis and inserted into the corn’s genes, meaning farmers don’t have to spray for corn earworm or corn rootworm; this is killer corn, ready for any caterpillar that comes along. Once patented, the seeds of the world’s major crops like corn, soybeans, and alfalfa represent a cornered market. You think that’s hyperbole? Worldwide, 395 million acres of farmland were planted in GMO crops, according to figures in the 2011 International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. The United States leads the world in GMO plantings with 170 million acres in 2012—that’s 95 percent of this nation’s sugar beets, 94 percent of its soybeans, 90 percent of the cotton and 88 percent of our feed corn.

And woe betide any farmer who saves those seeds, or whose seeds have cross-pollinated with the GMO crops, because they will be—and have been—sued.

But there are always those pesky organic farmers and consumers. So here comes Prop 37, and Monsanto and its pals realize that if it passes in California, other states may start passing similar laws. As Norman Braksick, president of Asgrow Seed Company, a Monsanto subsidiary, was quoted in the Kansas City Star, “If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.” So Monsanto and pals know that labeling means sharp cuts in the market for those foods—and more importantly for them, in the profit from seeds farmers plant to grow those foods. To stop Prop 37, they have put together a coalition that has already started a disinformation campaign and amassed a $32 million war chest. The coalition is called No on 37, and includes a long list of biotech, big ag, and drug and chemical manufacturers, including front groups like the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), whose president, Elizabeth Whelan, describes herself as a lifelong conservative “more libertarian than Republican.” ACSH supporters include Dow, DuPont, Exxon, General Mills, David H. Koch Charitable Foundation, and of course Monsanto. And Coke and Pepsi if you need an artificially sweetened beverage.

The first volley of propaganda has been fired in California. A mailing has been sent out by a group called No on 37: Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, whose major funding comes from Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and Syngenta, among others on the Council on Biotechnology Information, and from the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The mailing is a flier that proclaims, in all-caps, 60-point type: “DEMOCRATS OPPOSE PROP 37.”

The three Democrats cited include two Central Valley members of the California Assembly, Henry Perea and Manuel Perez, and the vice chairperson of the California Democratic Party, Alexandra Rooker. I sent emails to all three, asking them to explain their opposition to Prop 37 and, additionally, whether they had received any campaign contributions from the Council on Biotechnology Information, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, or from BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, or Syngenta. Perea’s office said he was away on family business and that was all I heard from him. Rooker never responded. Perez’s office passed my request for elaboration to Kathy Fairbanks of Bicker, Castillo, and Fairbanks, a Sacramento lobbying firm hired by the anti-Prop 37 forces. Here’s what Perez said in the flier:

“This initiative was rushed to the ballot and contains flaws that will lead to unintended consequences. Prop 37 is an unfunded mandate filled with confusing loopholes, contradictory exemptions, and extreme restrictions that will cost the state millions of dollars to administer.” Some of his wording is identical to wording in an accompanying “fact sheet.”


And Fairbanks responded to all his complaints, but summed up the thrust of the opposition at the end of her email by saying that Prop 37 will have a “detrimental impact on California’s economy. It will increase state costs at a time when the state has a severe budget deficit. It will raise grocery bills when families are still struggling.”

Higher food prices! Whoa! That’ll get the public’s attention. But, people may say, it could be worth paying more if the food is organic. After all, a 4-year British study showed that organic fruits and vegetables contained up to 40 percent more antioxidants and on average 12 percent higher levels of nutrients than conventional varieties, according to Professor Carlo Leifert at Newcastle University, which did the EU-funded study that appeared in Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences (vol. 30, no. 1: 177–197). Even larger differences were found in milk, with organic varieties containing more than 60 percent more antioxidants and healthy fatty acids, Leifert reported.

So here comes Stanford University’s impeccable reputation and a group of its doctors and health personnel to go over 298 studies from the 1970s to the 2000s, looking to see how organic and conventional foods stack up nutritionally. But where is the Newcastle study? Not there. I’ve selected just a few of the studies that show organic foods’ nutritional superiority and listed them as footnotes at the end of this article. Not one appears among the 298 studies perused by the Stanford team. Are they ignoring these studies and others that show a nutritional benefit of organic food on purpose? Looks that way. And they conclude there really is no difference in nutrition between organic and conventional. In reaction, Frances Moore Lappé, writing an opinion piece in Reader Supported News, called the Stanford study “reprehensible.” 

So Monsanto and its pals can now say that science (pointing at the Stanford study) shows that if Proposition 37 passes, not only will you pay much more for your food, but it will be for no good reason.

This Stanford study, no matter how or why it came about, certainly drops an armload of ammunition in Monsanto and pals’ laps. How fortunate for the Council on Biotechnology Information and the Grocery Manufacturers Association that this study comes along just in time for the big campaign against Proposition 37! What luck.

Wake up, people. Of course organic food can be and often is more nutritious. And it has fewer toxic chemicals, antibiotics, and pathogenic microbes. And it keeps farm workers and farm families safe from toxic chemicals. And it protects the environment and the ecosystems around the farms. And, as a 30-year study conducted at the Rodale Institute’s Maxatawny, Pennsylvania, farm has shown, organic farms can out-yield their conventional counterparts in terms of bushels of corn produced per acre.

It’s a shame that Stanford, a respected university, finds itself in a position to be used for a blatant disinformation campaign mounted by Monsanto and its pals. Isn’t anyone awake there in Palo Alto? Well, neither Dr. Smith-Spangler nor Dan Stober of Stanford’s Office of Public Affairs responded to my queries about the university’s one-sided study.

*Just some of the well-known studies citing the nutritional superiority of organic over conventional food that were not listed in the Stanford group’s article:

  • American Chemical Society. 2002. Research shows more vitamin C in organic oranges than conventional oranges. ScienceDaily, June 3, 2002.
  • Benbrook, Charles. 2005. Elevating antioxidant levels in food through organic farming and food processing. The Organic Center State of Science Review, January 2005.
  • Benbrook, Charles, Xin Zhao, Jaime Yanez, Neal Davies, and Preston Andrews. 2008. New evidence supports the nutritional superiority of organic plant-based foods. The Organic Center State of Science Review, March 2008.
  • Brandt, K., and J. P. Melgaard. 2001. Organic agriculture: does it enhance or reduce the nutritional value of plant foods? Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 81, no. 9:924–931.
  • Paddock, C. 2007. Organic food is more nutritious say EU researchers. Medical News Today, 29 Oct 2007.
  • Reganold, J. P., P. K. Andrews, J. R. Reeve, L. Carpenter-Boggs, C. W. Schadt, et al. 2010. Fruit and soil quality of organic and conventional strawberry agroecosystems. PLOS One 5(9): e12346. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012346.
  • Rist L., et al. 2007. Influence of organic diet on the amount of conjugated linoleic acids in breast milk of lactating women in the Netherlands. British Journal of Nutrition 97, no. 4 (April 2007), 735–743.

Jeff Cox started his career at Rodale in 1963, was Organic Gardening's managing editor in the 1970s, and the company's Director of Electronic Publishing in the early 80s. He's the author of the James Beard-nominated The Organic Cook's Bible, and currently writes a regular science column for Horticulture magazine. His newest book, The Essential Book of Fermentation will be published in early 2013 by Avery.

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