Ag opponents plan attacks on water, climate issues

John O'Connell/Capital Press Jay Byrne, president and CEO of v-Fluence Interactive, a public relations agency that tracks issues in agriculture, speaks about the growing influence of conservation organizations and others who oppose conventional agriculture during the National Potato Council's summer meeting in Park City, Utah. Speaking on July 13, Byrne said he believes future attacks on agriculture will center on water and climate issues.

PARK CITY, Utah — Future attacks on conventional agriculture will focus on water and climate, an analyst who tracks activist groups predicts.

Jay Byrne, president and CEO of the intelligence-gathering agency v-Fluence Interactive, told the National Potato Council’s summer meeting that agriculture’s opponents are working together more closely than ever and spending large sums to convey their messages.

Byrne said their campaigns are beginning to shift from labeling genetically modified organisms to water quality concerns — especially algae blooms and “dead zones” in water bodies.

“This is the most intense advocacy period we’ve seen in over 20 years of tracking,” Byrne said. “Today in the U.S. it’s GMO labeling. Very quickly, that’s going to turn around and be issues associated with water, and it’s going to affect every aspect of conventional production.”

Byrne said a “trial balloon” lawsuit filed in Iowa alleges farming is creating downstream environmental challenges, and opponents are already lining up litigants for future cases.

Byrne estimates the groups tracked by v-Fluence have increased spending by 50 to 100 percent annually since 2012.

In 2011, opponents in North America spent $2.5 billion campaigning against GMOs and conventional agriculture, v-Fluence estimated.

Globally, advocacy groups targeting agriculture are likely to spend more than $10 billion this year, he said.

Charlie Cray, research specialist with Greenpeace USA, agrees water and climate will undoubtedly be key issues heading into the future. He questions Byrne’s financial estimates, however.

“I don’t think the entire environmental movement has that much money,” Cray said. “I would love to see him break (his estimates) down.”

Supported by “black marketers” seeking to increase organic sales by discrediting conventional competitors, Byrne said opponents have relied on a relentless “ghost army” of baseless research claims published in “pay-to-play” journals.

Cray agrees the organic sector supports campaigns to point out the benefits of the production system relative to conventional agriculture, but he disagrees that they’re being covert.

V-Fluence estimates water-centric attacks on agriculture have increased by 110 percent during the past year, Byrne said

He believes opponents’ messages resonate with consumers because they craft stories with regulators as the heroes, consumers as the victims and big agriculture as the villain.

Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association, believes farmers should respond with their own narrative.

“Activists have demonized the technology, and farmers can’t leave it to anybody else to educate the American public,” Markwart said.

By contrast, Cray advises farmers to respond to mounting criticisms by being more transparent about their water usage and “reduce petrochemical intensity of their production systems to show they recognize and are addressing any contribution they make to greenhouse gases.”

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