CommonGround

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CommonGround is an Astroturf advocacy front group created by the agricultural marketing company Osborn & Barr Communications on behalf of the United Soybean Board and National Corn Growers Association. It calls itself "a group of volunteer farm women" and says "it’s all about starting a conversation between women who grow food, and the women who buy it. It’s a conversation based on our personal experience as farmers, but also on science and research. Our first goal is to help consumers understand that their food is not grown by a factory. It’s grown by people and it’s important to us that you understand and trust the process."[1] The fine print at the bottom of the webpage, however, as well as the group's Facebook page, explains that this "grassroots movement" is "brought to you by America's soybean and corn farmers and their checkoffs" (emphasis added).[2]

According to WhoIs.com, CommonGround's website is registered to Jack Lawry at Osborn & Barr Communications in St. Louis, Missouri.[3] The LinkedIn.com profile of Osborn Barr manager Gina Ehrhard explains that she works "on behalf of the United Soybean Board and National Corn Growers Association to support and promote CommonGround, a national, grassroots consumer awareness program aimed at increasing trust and understanding of today’s agriculture among key consumers and influencers."[4]

Osborn & Barr's other clients include its largest client, Monsanto,[5] as well as Merck Animal Health and Livestock Improvement Corp.[6]

Positions on Controversial Issues

According to a CommonGround brochure obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy at a public event in April 2013, formatted as a Q&A fold-out, CommonGround takes the following positions on controversial issues of food and agriculture:

Poultry Cages

In response to the question, "Should I buy MODERN CAGE or FREE-RANGE chicken and eggs?," CommonGround answers, "The choice is yours but you can expect cleaner, safer eggs, with lower shell bacteria levels from modern cages versus free-range egg production systems." The brochure cites a study paid for by the United Egg Producers, a "Capper-Volstead cooperative of egg farmers from all across the United States and representing the ownership of approximately 95% of all the nation's egg-laying hens."[7] (The Capper-Volstead Act "provides limited antitrust exemption to associations of producers," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).[8]) Actually, a review of the available peer-reviewed scientific literature on shell bacteria levels from eggs laid in different hen housing situations produced inconclusive results:[9] A January 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) white paper published in Poultry Science came to the conclusion that "[t]here is no general consensus demonstrating the superiority of one housing situation over another regarding food safety and egg quality."[10]

GMO Food

In response to the question, "Is the food produced from GENETICALLY MODIFIED, or BIOTECH, plants safe?," CommonGround answers, "Farmers and gardeners have been creating plant hybrids for as long as they've been growing plants. Biotechnology simply serves as a more technologically advanced method." This is a false equivalency. As PBS pointed out in an article accompanying the 2002 premiere of the documentary "Hybrid," "Genetic engineering is the process of breaking the natural boundaries that exist between species to produce new life forms that will produce a variety of desired traits. For example, genes from salmon can be spliced into tomatoes to make them more resistant to cold weather . . . Hybridization is the fertilization of the flower of one species by the pollen of another species -- or artificial cross pollination . . ."[11] The former takes place in a laboratory, and often involves the insertion of genes from a completely unrelated species or even biological kingdom for resultant crosses that could never occur naturally. The World Health Organization (WHO) makes this difference explicit: "Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally."[12]

CommonGround's answer continues, "Every plant improved through the use of biotechnology for food is examined by the FDA and EPA for potential health risks. Tests are done on plants before entering the food and animal feed supply." Actually, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for the safety of food and animal feed, has only an "informal consultation process" in order "to identify unresolved safety issues without going through the food additive regulatory process," according to a comprehensive review of the regulatory processes governing food biotechnology by Pew Charitable Trusts. It notes that "under the voluntary consultation process the manufacturer, not FDA, makes the determination of safety; therefore, the burden of proof regarding safety remains with the manufacturer" (emphasis added). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is only consulted when the genetically modified organism (GMO) contains a pesticide or non-pesticidal toxic substance. For example, corn that contains genes of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and therefore expresses its own insecticidal protein is regulated by the EPA as a pesticide under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). According to Pew, "FIFRA requires that a pesticide not cause 'unreasonable adverse effects on the environment,' 7 U.S.C. 136a(c)(5), which is defined to mean '(1) any unreasonable risk to man or the environment, taking into account the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of the use of any pesticide, or (2) a human dietary risk from residues that result from a use of a pesticide in or on any food inconsistent with the [standard under the] Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.' 7 U.S.C. 136(bb)." Therefore, EPA regulates these pesticides produced by plants "to establish levels at which their presence in food is safe for consumption (i.e., sets tolerances)." It "regulates the pesticidal protein expressed by the plant, not the plant itself."[13]

CommonGround's answer posits that "no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of biotech foods." However, as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) points out, "only dramatic effects easily connected to engineered foods would likely have been detected. Because genetically modified foods are not labeled [in the United States], people suffering ill effects would have difficulty relating them to consumption of engineered products."[14]

Antibiotics Used by the Meat Industry

In response to the question, "Should I be worried about ANTIBIOTICS in my meat?," CommonGround answers: "The FDA does not allow meat to be sold with traces of antibiotics above strict safety limits. The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service performs scheduled, but random, testing of meat nation- wide (sic). Any antibiotics used to keep animals healthy are carefully selected and administered in accordance with industry training and principles. Antibiotics have required withdrawal times, or a specific number of days that must pass between the last antibiotic treatment and before the animal can enter the food supply, to ensure the products have sufficiently cleared an animal's system."

According to a report prepared by Consumer Reports in June 2012, it is true that there are required withdrawal times, but "antibiotics can still be heavily used in the growing process for pigs and chickens . . . Technically, meat could be free of antibiotic residue despite the earlier use of antibiotics." However, the use of antibiotics in meat animals is a concern for consumers not just because of possible residues, according to March 2012 survey results published in the same report. 72 percent of consumers were "extremely or very concerned" about "creating new superbugs that cause illnesses that antibiotics cannot cure," and 67 percent were concerned about antibiotics "in livestock feed, allowing them to be raised in crowded and unsanitary conditions," while 65 percent were concerned about antibiotics "leaving residues in the meat for human consumption" and 61 percent were concerned about antibiotics "in feed leading to antibiotics polluting the environment through agricultural runoff." The withdrawal of antibiotic use a period of time before slaughter so that residue levels move below FDA limits does not address the other three of these four issues, especially the issue of top concern, the creation of antibiotic-resistant pathogenic microorganisms.[15]

United Soybean Board

The United Soybean Board (USB) calls itself the "checkoff" organization for producers of the commodity crop soy. According to USB, "The soybean checkoff helps facilitate market growth and creation by funding and directing marketing, research and commercialization programs. By building demand both at home and abroad, the soybean checkoff helps ensure a strong and profitable future for U.S. soybean farmers." By law, as a checkoff, USB cannot engage in lobbying or other advocacy on policy issues.[16]

USB's 501(c)4 counterpart, the American Soybean Association (ASA), "focuses on state and national policy issues," i.e. lobbying.[16]

National Corn Growers Association

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) calls itself "a membership organization and a federation of states" that exists to "create and increase opportunities for corn growers." Unlike the USB, the NCGA has a "united coordinated policy effort," i.e. it lobbies.[17]

A "current action alert" for its members provides text for a letter to representatives claiming that, "as for the Food vs. Fuel issue your colleagues are trying to drum up once more, it's been proven time and time again that ethanol had little to do with food prices," and that "the ethanol industry is saving money for American consumers and producing jobs during a time of financial difficulty for rural America." Yet even in 2001, Cornell ecologist David Pimentel stated, "Abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuel amounts to unsustainable, subsidized food burning."[18]

Contact

The only contact information available for CommonGround on its website, http://findourcommonground.com/, is a news media contact email address, media at findourcommonground dot com, as well as a web contact form.[19]

Resources

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References

  1. CommonGround, About CommonGround, organizational website, accessed May 2012
  2. CommonGround, About, organizational Facebook page, accessed May 8, 2012
  3. WhoIs, FindOurCommonGround.com Registrar, domain registration website, accessed May 8, 2012
  4. Gina Ehrhard, Gina Ehrhard, LinkedIn.com career profile, accessed May 2012
  5. Osborn & Barr, Public Relations Management Supervisor, company website, accessed May 2012
  6. Osborn & Barr, O+B PR Strikes Gold at 2012 Golden ARC Awards, company blog, April 4, 2012, accessed May 2012
  7. United Egg Producers, About Us, association website, accessed April 2013.
  8. David Volkin, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Understanding Capper-Volstead, government agency report, June 1985.
  9. Google Scholar search for "caged free-range chickens shell bacteria", Google Scholar search, performed May 2, 2013.
  10. P. S. Holt, R. H. Davies, J. Dewulf, R. K. Gast, J. K. Huwe, D. R. Jones, D. Waltman, and K. R. Willian, The impact of different housing systems on egg safety and quality, Poultry Science (Vol. 90, No. 1), January 2011, pp. 251-262.
  11. Genetically Modified Foods, PBS article accompanying premiere of documentary "Hybrid," July 9, 2002.
  12. World Health Organization, 20 questions on genetically modified foods, organizational website, accessed May 2013.
  13. Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Guide to U.S. Regulation of Genetically Modified Food and Agricultural Biotechnology Products, organizational report, September 3, 2001, p. 21.
  14. Margaret Mellon, Ph.D, J.D., and Jane Rissler, Ph.D, Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Effects of Genetically Modified Food Crops -- Recent Experiences, scientific paper presented by Margaret Mellon at a conference, Genetically Modified Foods—the American Experience, sponsored by the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, Copenhagen, Denmark, June 12-13, 2003, accessed on UCS website May 2013.
  15. Meagen Bohne and Jean Halloran, Consumers Union, Meat on Drugs, Consumer Reports, June 2012, pp. 8 & 21.
  16. 16.0 16.1 United Soybean Board, Your United Soybean Board (USB), BeyondTheBean Online, organizational website, accessed May 2012
  17. National Corn Growers Association, Mission Vision, organizational website, accessed May 2012
  18. Roger Segelken, scientist terms corn-based ethanol 'subsidized food burning', Cornell Chronicle, August 23, 2001, accessed May 2012.
  19. CommonGround, Contact Us, organizational website, accessed May 2012
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