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February 10th, 2015

TPP is the Crazy Train, and Fast Track is the Highway to Hell

Stop Secret Trade DealsA quick guide to why the TPP and Fast Track would undermine Democracy and eliminate protections for food and water

By Rich Bindell

We’ve been exposed to an awful lot of banter and propaganda about international trade deals recently. In the past year, the words “Fast Track,” “Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP),” and “trade promotion authority” have been thrown around quite liberally, most recently in the State of the Union Address. While we’ve blogged about the TPP and Fast Track many times already, and produced a fact sheet or two to break it down for the uninitiated, it seems like it might be a nice gesture to explain why this topic is on the tips of many a political tongue as of late.

In a world of endless acronyms, international trade has produced its share, many of which can be noted for their potential to reap havoc on values that Americans hold dear. To put it simply, the TPP is a controversial and largely secretive global trade deal that the Obama administration is trying to push through Congress, and Fast Track is a convenient nickname for the mechanism that political leaders are trying to use to push it through Congress quickly, without any messy arguments about it’s details. If it helps you remember: TPP is the Crazy Train and Fast Track is the Highway to Hell.

For the better part of a year-and-a-half, the corporate lobbying machine, congressional Republicans and the White House have been united in pushing for Fast Track authority on trade deals that will hurt the environment, public health, workers and American democracy, but the TPP has the ability to do all of this in one fell swoop. Read the full article…

February 6th, 2015

People in Carson, California Fight Big Oil – And Win

By Alex Nagy

Carson resident Dianne Thomas, right, rallies against Occidental Petroleum on March 15, 2014 in Sacramento, CA

Carson resident Dianne Thomas, right, rallies against Occidental Petroleum on March 15, 2014 in Sacramento, CA

In a testament to the power of organized and tenacious people, residents of Carson, California, claimed victory over an oil giant’s big money bullying. After a three-year battle, California Resources Corp., formerly Occidental Petroleum (“OXY”), last week pulled its proposal for 200 new frackable wells in the Los Angeles County community.

When OXY swaggered into town in 2012, it thought Carson was an easy target. But residents were no strangers to oil and gas industry greed and haste. Not too long before, residents discovered a buried Shell Oil Co. storage tanker underneath the Carousel Tract neighborhood leaking benzene and other carcinogens into the soil. Shell dodged responsibility for six years before settling for $90 million, but some residents still live with cancer.

So, Carson residents smelled a rat from the start with OXY. But that didn’t faze the second-largest oil producer in the state. In the first face-to-face with residents, the company’s rep shrugged off the community’s concerns about public health and the environment; then, he enthusiastically disclosed that the new wells would be fracked. That’s when residents vowed to fight to keep OXY out of their town.

So Oxy stepped up its game.

OXY Gets Ugly, But Residents Aren’t Fooled

In response to public outcry, OXY promised in an open letter not to frack – unless the company deemed it necessary. Not fooled, hundreds flooded public hearings in protest and OXY feared for its bottom line. Resistance costs companies money.

In March 2014, residents won a temporary 45-day ban – approved unanimously by the City Council – on all oil and gas drilling. OXY’s stock dropped by 4 percent as a result, and even though it had just announced plans to move its corporate headquarters out of California, OXY called in a favor.

When Carson City Council reconvened in April to vote for an extension of the 45-day ban, OXY asked Governor Jerry Brown – whose campaigns have been well-financed by the industry – to make a personal phone call to Carson Mayor Jim Dear. Though Dear had supported the ban, Brown persuaded him to side with OXY and split the council votes needed to keep the ban in place.

Next, OXY invested in an elaborate astroturf campaign with the building and construction and electrical trade unions. Four buses full of union rank and file showed up from Pasadena, Bakersfield and beyond with shirts, buttons, stickers and signs, demanding “Jobs for Carson.” Carson High School kids attended the hearing, and we watched men in suits hand them VISA gift cards. The ban extension went down 2-2-1. But the defeat galvanized both the residents and the California anti-fracking movement watching via live stream.

Weeks later OXY tried to fool residents with a fake fracking ban. The company worked with Mayor Dear, who introduced to Council an ordinance to “ban” fracking … unless approved by the City Engineer. Thankfully, our champions, Councilmembers Lula Davis-Holmes and Albert Robles, refused to tolerate the glaring loophole, and helped defeat the disingenuous ban. They moved instead to update the City’s antiquated oil and gas code.

When public meetings on the oil and gas code resumed in August, the City made OXY cover the costs of the consulting firm hired to update the code. Around this time the price of oil started to plummet. By January, the industry could no longer be assured that the 200 well project would net a profit.

When OXY moved its headquarters to Houston, the newly formed California Resources Corp. picked up Oxy’s projects in the State. On January 26, we learned the company had dropped its proposal in Carson.

But The Fight Isn’t Over

The market was the final nail in the coffin. But, if the residents hadn’t fought from the start, OXY would be drilling there now. Carson residents can proudly claim this victory, but it’s also clear that the fight isn’t over.

When the price of oil goes back up, the industry will shuffle back to Carson. The oil and gas zoning code update is still Carson’s winning ticket. The City can use it to protect residents by banning all extreme oil and gas extraction and enacting setbacks from homes and schools that make it undesirable for the industry to ever come back.

People power can really defeat money power. Carson reminds me not to give up hope even when the chips were down. We must fight on.

RCL rectangleCarson residents, like my friend Dianne Thomas, know they are part of a bigger movement. Dianne will speak at the March for Real Climate Leadership in Governor Jerry Brown’s town, Oakland, on February 7. It’s time to make this personal, and Brown needs to hear from people like Dianne who have been directly affected by his close ties with the oil industry. Thousands will march to urge Brown to be a real climate leader – someone who stands on the right side of history with Dianne and California’s communities – by banning fracking and standing up, like Carson did, to Big Oil.

Alex Nagy is a Southern California Organizer for Food & Water Watch.

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January 30th, 2015

Cereal Killer: Post Holdings Takeover of MOM Brands

By Patrick Woodall CerealMerger2BlogThumb_

If you’re like many people, you may like to start your day with a bowl of cereal. Unfortunately, large food corporations are limiting your choices, making it all the more challenging to find healthy, affordable breakfast foods. That’s because right now, a handful of well-known companies like Kellogg and General Mills have a stranglehold on the breakfast cereal aisle, and a new merger announced this week will give consumers even fewer choices.

Read the full article…

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In Pennsylvania, Making Big Moves Against Fracking

Fracking rigBy Sam Bernhardt

Change happens when we make it happen. In the case of fracking, that change currently happens state-by-state.

Last month, our victory in New York changed the dynamics of what is possible for the fracking movement. With Governor Cuomo’s bold decision to ban fracking, we took what had been a campaign slogan and turned it into a reality. Last week, we brought the momentum that started with a victory in Albany and transformed it into one of the issues on the top of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s radar.

Monday, a day before Wolf was inaugurated, we published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer calling on him to make stopping fracking a priority for his administration. Challenging Wolf to separate himself from former Governor Corbett’s failed policies on fracking, we wrote that Wolf was largely shaping up to be a continuation of the status quo: unchecked pollution and health risks from an unchecked industry.

We knew we would need more than just the facts to be heard by Wolf. So on Inauguration Day, we assembled more than 250 Pennsylvanians from all corners of the state at a church nearby the Capitol. We marched as a group to the Capitol, accompanied by Gasland’s Josh Fox, catching the attention of the legislators and reporters assembling at the inauguration site. Once the inauguration started, we took the demands spelled out in our op-ed the day before and chanted them directly to Wolf and all the attendees at the ceremony.

Attendees chanted “ban fracking now” with such volume it seemed our collective vocal cords would give out after a few minutes. But, as we went on, and reporters Tweeted that they were having trouble making out the content of Wolf’s remarks over our yells, we began to realize just how loud – and powerful – we really were. When all was said and done, we felt more confident than ever that Governor Wolf had truly heard us and internalized our strength.

Later in the week, Food & Water Watch released a report with Berks Gas Truth clarifying exactly why we had had so much trouble being heard by Wolf short of vocally taking over the inauguration: his ears had been clogged with money from the gas industry. Analyzing Wolf’s campaign finance reports, we found individuals, corporations and PACs associated with the gas industry totaled $1.5 million.

We have no illusions regarding how much work it will take to protect Pennsylvanians from fracking by winning a statewide halt. If anything, we now know exactly how much grassroots power we’ll need to show Wolf (roughly the equivalent of $1.5 million in industry payoffs.) But we know that by educating Pennsylvanians and engaging them, one by one, as a part of a statewide movement against fracking, we can win. And I am confident that with our leading partners in Pennsylvanians Against Fracking – Berks Gas Truth, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Marcellus Outreach Butler, Marcellus Protest, and Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Air and Water – we have the commitment and motivation required to build what can be the most powerful –and most successful – coalition in the state.

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The Super Bowl: Football, Food and…Fracking Ads

By Katherine Cirullo

Image courtesy of Grist.org. Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Image courtesy of Grist.org. Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Super Bowl commercials are famous for being the most expensive ad buys of the year. These commercials are designed to persuade by using tactics that tug at our heartstrings, make us laugh or promise a better life. The oil and gas industry is no stranger to these strategies.

After what must have been a devastating loss to the industry—the ban on fracking in New York announced by Governor Cuomo this past December—the American Petroleum Institute (API) is dropping $100,000 dollars on a 30-second ad blitz during halftime that will air in the D.C. area, where many of our country’s decision makers and major influencers will be watching the event. API’s Super Bowl commercial, which touts fracking as the key to American energy independence and job creation, is the most expensive spot the lobbyist group has bought in their recent string of ads. Couple this with API’s spending as a whole, and you’ll understand the outrage.

You see, in 2012, API spent more than $7 million dollars lobbying the federal government. But it also shelled out a whopping $85.5 million to public relations and advertising firms, as a means to, as the Center for Public Integrity puts it, “lobby the American public”. Between 2008 and 2013, API paid one PR giant a total of $327.4 million dollars to shape public opinion, and that’s only one of the many firms they’ve hired.

API isn’t the only one shelling out big bucks to influence the public about fossil fuels. Politico reports the Koch brothers will spend $889 million ahead of the 2016 elections, double what the Republican National Committee spent in the 2012 cycle.

No thanks to Citizen’s United, which just rang in its 5-year anniversary, it is crystal-clear that money rules politics; this week’s football game is yet another arena where the industry will drop cash to wield influence. But we won’t be cowed. Together, we will continue to fight for what’s right: a democracy led by people, not corporations. You can ask your Member of Congress to overturn the Citizen’s United decision here.

Want to learn more about the money machine behind the pro-fracking agenda? Check out our primer on API and other organizations promoting and funding fracking interests at all levels of our government here.

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January 27th, 2015

USDA Defends Weak Food Safety System

Food & Water Watch Food Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo

Food & Water Watch Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo

By Tony Corbo

Last week, Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing concern over an indisputable increase in recalls involving imported meat and poultry products. It seems that ever since USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) implemented its new information technology system, the Public Health Information System (PHIS), in May 2012 to track imported food, some meat and poultry imported into the U.S. has actually escaped inspection from FSIS personnel, ultimately entering our food system.

In the wee-hours of Saturday, January 17, FSIS issued press releases revealing that two different shipments of imported meat had been recalled for lack of import inspection. This agency is notorious for issuing recall announcements on late Friday nights when most people are getting ready for their weekends and turning their attention away from work. What made these recall announcements even more suspicious was that they occurred on a three-day holiday weekend. One of the recalls involved nearly 170,000 pounds of imported pork products from Denmark that had somehow escaped port-of-entry inspection – not exactly a quantity that someone could hide under a coat and slip into the country without detection, but somehow it did.

In our letter to Secretary Vilsack, we pointed out that since October 2013, there had been ten recalls involving imported meat products that had failed to receive inspection prior to being released into our food system (an eleventh was announced on the night of January 21). There were only four such recalls during the George W. Bush administration.

In the afternoon of January 21, I participated in a regularly scheduled meeting with other consumer advocacy organizations and top FSIS management officials. At these meetings, we usually receive updates on the implementation of PHIS. Right before this meeting, however, I received an e-mail indicating that the agenda had been altered to include a presentation on how PHIS tracks imported meat and poultry products that escape import inspection. “Wow,” I said to myself. “Someone has raised hell about our letter.”

During the presentation, it became apparent that there were still glitches in the system. The coordination between PHIS and the information technology system used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection was still not working, forcing FSIS to conduct manual reconciliations of what was coming into the country to determine whether it had received inspection. As we were told, the process is “labor intensive.” Sometimes, weeks can go by before anyone realizes that imported meat has entered the country without receiving inspection. So much for automating the process, eh? We were also told that the President had issued an executive order requiring that the two IT systems be completely compatible with one another by 2016 – so we can expect at least another year of these snafus.

After the presentation, I commented that this item was clearly added to the agenda because of our letter, and was gratified that it had caught someone’s attention. I also noted that when the switch was turned on for PHIS to cover imports in May 2012, we were promised that the coordination between FSIS and Customs would be improved, and that import inspections would be conducted more efficiently. It’s obvious that this has not been the case. In fact, it seemed that the process has gotten worse. The agency claims that while the facts presented in our letter were correct, our conclusions were not. According to the agency, the increase in recalls of uninspected meat is a sign of increased transparency. But if that’s the case, it raises a whole new set of questions about how this agency has conducted its business in the past.

After the meeting, I was asked by a top FSIS official to join him in his office to discuss the matter further. He admitted that glitches remained with PHIS and that they were working to improve the system. He reiterated that the agency was trying to be more transparent with import shipments that failed to receive port-of-entry inspection and that the policy had changed in 2009. But if that’s the case, why couldn’t we find any announcements of recalls for imported meat that had bypassed inspection between 2009 and 2013? Why had the recalls started after PHIS was implemented to cover imported meat products? Were there no problems between 2009 and 2013? I received no response.

I have written before of the problems domestic FSIS inspectors have encountered with the $140 million PHIS. We have raised these issues with members of Congress. The New York Times also exposed some of these problems. Now, the same shortcomings are showing up with import inspections. Until this point, FSIS’s import inspection program has been the envy of the world. One hundred percent of imported shipments are to receive at least a cursory inspection, with intensive inspection scheduled for a portion of those. Some imported meat is detained for visual contaminants; others are detained because they fail microbiological testing conducted for pathogens and chemical contaminants. Bypassing import inspection is a big deal. While we are glad the agency is issuing Class I recalls, the most serious type, there have been far too many holes in the system.

In FY 2014, we imported over 3.5 billion pounds of meat and poultry products. The Obama administration is in the midst of negotiating new trade deals with Europe and Asia. If it gets its way, these trade deals will undoubtedly lead to increased meat and poultry imports. If the import surveillance system can’t handle what is currently showing up on our shores, how can the administration assure U.S. consumers that tainted imported meat won’t reach our dinners tables with these new trade agreements? Instead of fast-tracking the ratification of these new agreements, we say slow-track them to ensure that our food safety system can handle it. At the present time, we are of the opinion that it cannot.

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January 22nd, 2015

Crashing the Pro-GMO Party

GMO_Farming_BlogThumbBy Tim Schwab

As the National Research Council (NRC) continues its ongoing investigation into GMOs, the group held a two-day workshop last week to discuss a related issue: how to successfully communicate the science of GMOs to the public. I had hoped that the two-day meeting might be instructive—at the very least to hear the perspectives of the scientists working on this issue—but I also had my doubts.

The organizers of the workshop included staff from the Cornell Alliance for Science, an industry-aligned, pro-GMO advocacy group. The invited panelists included a representative from Monsanto and several pro-biotech academics. The only journalist presenting was Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, who has not been shy about trumpeting what she sees as the benefits of GMOs. And NRC’s organizing body overseeing the workshop included representatives from Monsanto and Dupont.

Nowhere among all of the invitees and organizers did there appear to be a scientist critical of GMOs—no one who was likely to act as a robust counterpoint or to challenge false assumptions. Though there is a lively scientific debate about GMOs, with many scientists questioning the safety and merits of the technology, the NRC seemed to have excluded these voices. And it is difficult to imagine how the NRC could not have foreseen the impact that such one-sidedness would have on the conversation.

The pro-GMO sentiment in the room was definitely palpable at times, as participants devolved into a conversation that implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—framed the problem at hand as how to convince the public to embrace GMOs or how to challenge GMO opponents. I sat and listened as presenters and panelists mischaracterized GMO opponents as vandalizing labs or threatening and harassing scientists. It was notable that these remarks, which grossly misrepresent GMO critics, including many university scientists, went totally unchallenged. Also notable, I did not hear a single mention of the various abuses of science perpetrated by biotech companies, which censor and restrict unfavorable science—and even engage in attacks on the reputations of scientists pursuing unfavorable research.  Read the full article…

Opportunity for Some, Favoritism to Corporate Interests

Corporate_BS_Detector

By Wenonah Hauter

Once again, dark money ruled on Election Day 2014 when a slew of die-hard reactionaries swept into office, their victories clinched by donations from a small group of selfish big money donors. These wealthy funders seem to believe they can hide behind the gates of their fancy estates and not experience the adverse effects of global climate change or the consequences of the other regressive policies they promote. So how did these radicals, who are out of touch with the values of most Americans, spend their second week of the 114th Congress? Rubbing elbows with one another and the other sycophants that feed at the trough of dirty money.

I’m talking about the Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action’s 2015 Conservative Summit, “Opportunity for All, Favoritism to None,” the perfect setting for a love fest of extremists that included a number of House and Senate members. Speaking on their frightening agenda for energy, the House budget, trade and other matters, the name of the game for the current Congress is DEFENSE. Read the full article…

January 15th, 2015

New Study Pokes Hole in GMO Mosquito Plan

By Genna Reed BlogThumb_GMOMostquito

Few things kill one’s experience of the great outdoors like the dreaded mosquito, and in some cases, a nibble could have serious health consequences. That’s why local governments in places like the Florida Keys are always looking for ways to control mosquito populations. But now mosquito control is colliding with biotechnology. Oxitec, the company behind GMO mosquitoes, wants to release its genetically engineered mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to combat dengue fever as soon as this spring. Read the full article…

Citizens United 101

By Briana Kerensky and Mitch Jones

supreme_court_blogTHUMB

Take action: Tell your members of Congress to overturn Citizens United!

Next week marks the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. Since 2010, corporations have been legally able to use their deep pockets to influence politics, to a destructive degree. According to the Supreme Court, corporations have the same First Amendment right to free speech as people, and as such are allowed to give as much money to political campaigns as they want. But whereas the average Joe or Jane might donate up to a few hundred dollars, corporations have the ability and resources to put millions of dollars into a campaign and change the course of an election.

What does this terrifying concept mean for our work to protect the food you eat and the water you drink? Read on for Citizens United 101, where we break down the landmark case, how it’s changed the electoral process and what it means for the safety of your food and water.

What is Citizens United?

In a nutshell, Citizens United is a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allows for unlimited campaign contributions in the U.S. electoral system. Corporate donations to elections are now supposed to be protected as free speech. There are three big takeaways from the ruling:

  1. Citizens United established that free speech rights are solely about speech, and not the speaker.
  2. Citizens United didn’t create corporate personhood (the idea that businesses have the same rights and protections as humans), but it claims that corporate personhood extends to the First Amendment.
  3. Since political speech is a fundamental First Amendment right, any constraint on it has to be limited. For a long time the U.S. didn’t allow corporations to spend money on political campaigns, in order to avoid political corruption. What Citizens United ruled, though, is that avoiding corruption puts a damper on free speech rights.

What does Citizens United mean for corporate control?

Citizens United opens up the ability of corporations to spend money on political campaigns. So in terms of control of our political system, it allows corporations the ability to take much more overt control of funding of campaigns and pushing through their agenda. It helps corporations make sure that legislative bodies, whether at the federal level or state level, governorships, attorney generals, and even in some instances judges, are aligned with their interests.

What does Citizens United have to do with Food & Water Watch’s work?

Citizens United allows corporations to have yet another avenue for gaming the political system. Corporations have more money to spend than the average citizen or most non-profits, making it more difficult for organizations like Food & Water Watch (which doesn’t accept donations from corporations or the government) and our allies to advocate for legislation that protects our food, that stops damaging trade deals and that bans fracking. Citizens United allows corporations to use their political influence to essentially buy themselves a government that is willing to implement their agenda.

What’s the relationship between Citizens United and the DARK Act, which would allow corporations like Monsanto to keep GMO ingredients off food labels?

The free spending on political campaigns that Citizens United allows certainly makes bills like the DARK Act harder for Food & Water Watch and our allies to defeat. “Thanks” to the 2010 ruling, there is now a large amount of money (think billions) being spent in support of political candidates who support the DARK Act, as well as other Big Ag, Big Oil and Gas, and free trade agendas. As long as Citizens United remains in place, it makes it more likely that pro-corporate candidates will get elected, then introduce and vote for legislation like the DARK Act.

What is Food & Water Watch doing about Citizens United?

Food & Water Watch is working with a group of partner organizations from the environmental community, the faith community and organized labor to push for a constitutional amendment that would grant Congress and the states the power to regulate the amount of money in federal and state elections – reversing some of the problems with Citizens United.

What can I do to help?

In the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court gave corporations massive power over our democracy, treating them just like people… except that, in the case of corporations, protecting their supposed “freedom of speech” means allowing them to make unlimited political donations and effectively buy campaigns.

That’s no way for democracy to function. Corporations shouldn’t control our food supply or our political process. Tell your members of Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to take back democracy for the people and overturn Citizens United!

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