Big news earlier this week was that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) with its $98 million budget has decided to join the war on food. So we decided to do some digging on NRDC and see if we could decipher its motivations for entering this fight. As it turns out, it isn’t the first time these radical environmentalists have entered this realm, and if the past is a good predictor of the future, there may be trouble ahead. (The fact that Marion Nestle considered this a positive development is also a warning sign.)
Perhaps the most flagrant campaign in which NRDC has engaged came in 1989 with the “Alar-on-apples” food scare. That year, NRDC released a report titled “Intolerable Risk,” which claimed that Alar, a ripening agent used on apples, was “the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply” and had caused “as many as 5,300” cases of childhood cancer. NRDC, with assistance from Washington PR firm Fenton Communications, then went on a five-month media blitz to scare the public about this supposed killer, including a CBS 60 Minutes feature seen by over 50 million Americans. There was only one problem: The allegations weren’t true. By the time this had all been sorted out, the damage had already been done. Grocery stores had pulled apples off their shelves and schools had pulled apples out of lunchrooms. The entire episode cost apple farmers nationwide over $250 million.
Why would the NRDC do this? For money, that’s why. After the hoax was publicly revealed, The Wall Street Journal printed an internal memo from Fenton Communications chief David Fenton, in which he boasted, “We designed [the Alar Campaign] so that revenue would flow back to the Natural Resources Defense Council from the public . . . And to date there has been $700,000 in net revenue from it.”
Unfortunately for consumers, NRDC and Fenton weren’t done. In 1998, the two peddlers of fear again teamed up to launch another food scare campaign, this one called “Give Swordfish a Break!” The campaign was operated by a group called SeaWeb, which, conveniently, had been created by Fenton specifically for this purpose. Nearly 100% of the funding for this campaign came from pass-through grants solicited by NRDC, but on behalf of SeaWeb. The whole stunt was based on the myth that Atlantic swordfish were being over-fished, with claims that America’s taste for it “threaten[ed] the livelihood of the species.” But, as with the Alar scare, these claims were utterly false, ultimately leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to condemn the campaign as “flawed to the core,” while the National Marine Fisheries Institute declared that swordfish were never in any danger of extinction at all.
Regarding our prediction above, we hope we’re wrong in that another erroneous food scare is not on the horizon. But based on NRDC’s shady past and propensity for disregarding the truth in the name of the environment, such hope may be naïve. At least this time, though, we’ll have our guards up and be prepared.