Exposing Toxic Legacies in an Age of Fake News
by Anna Lappé
As the daughter of an epidemiologist who took on some of the biggest chemical companies in the world, I had a ringside seat to an industry causing global harm and shirking its responsibility for doing so. Through Real Food Media and in my writing and public speaking, I’ve spent nearly two decades uncovering food system solutions and documenting the impact of agrochemical companies on vulnerable populations. On a recent trip to the lush island of Kauai—ground zero for pesticide testing by the world’s biggest agrochemical companies—I witnessed both.
There, I saw acres of monochromatic genetically modified corn on the island’s windswept west side where DowDuPont, Monsanto, and other agrochemical companies are testing some of their most toxic chemicals. I heard of workers hospitalized with acute pesticide poisoning and kids evacuated from school due to pesticide drift. I learned of local doctors raising the alarm about cancers and birth defects potentially associated with the testing. I also heard about the 2014 legislation that would have provided some basic protections like buffer zones and mandatory spraying disclosure, but that was overturned after the industry waged a high-priced legal battle to fight it.
So I was shocked when I got back from Hawaii to the news that AtlanticLive would be hosting an event called Harvest: Transforming the Food We Eat underwritten by DowDuPont. AtlanticLive is the events arm of Atlantic Media, an online and print media company that publishes The Atlantic magazine, among other publications. And DowDuPont, after its recent merger, is now the world’s largest chemical corporation, with products spanning neurotoxic insecticides like chlorpyrifos and a host of other agricultural pesticides and industrial chemicals.
Colleagues at the Kauai-based Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action wrote a public letter to express their dismay that The Atlantic“would choose to align itself with DowDupont, a company that has so recklessly endangered members of our community.”
You may be familiar with Dow and DuPont: each company has its own long and toxic history, from Dow’s legacy in Bhopal and its herbicide Agent Orange used in Vietnam to DuPont’s Teflon. Both companies also have a long history of suppressing science and covering up their toxic toll. Dow, for instance, knew for years that the defoliant Agent Orange was “one of the most toxic materials known,” but downplayed the risks. It did the same with the toxic herbicide of dioxin. And for decades, DuPont covered up the harm of Teflon.
It’s a critical time for the newly merged company: the EPA nearly banned Dow’s insecticide chlorpyrifos, the difficult-to-pronounce neurotoxin that New York Times opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof dubbed simply “Dow’s nerve gas pesticide.” But Trump’s EPA, under the direction of Scott Pruitt, deemed chlorpyrifos safe enough despite findings to the contrary from the agency’s own scientists. Now, community advocates across the country—including California, New Jersey, Maryland, and Hawaii—are pushing forward legislation to ban the toxic pesticide.
It’s also a critical time for the media. As you may have noticed, fake news undermines the Fourth Estate’s credibility. Now more than ever, media institutions need to hold the corrupt accountable and draw clear lines between themselves and the industries they report on. It’s one reason I’ve been delighted by institutional funders and individual donors stepping up to support critical media, projects such as The Intercept, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and The Marshall Project, to name just a few. And it’s why I was pleased to see the Emerson Collective, founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’s widow, support The Atlantic, buying a majority stake last year. But it’s also why I was so upset to see The Atlantic continue its corporate-sponsored event model with this DowDuPont deal.
We’ll never know whether DowDuPont’s financial support for the Republican National Convention, topping out at $250,000, influenced the Trump administration’s reversal on chlorpyrifos. Nor whether the fact that a former event manager for said Republican convention is now at AtlanticLive influenced this event. But given the controversy surrounding the chlorpyrifos decision, DowDupont likely understood that additional effort would be needed to contain the brand damage that could result from the company’s closeness to one of the least popular administrations in US history. Cue the greenwashing.
I am not alone in my alarm. Colleagues at the Kauai-based Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action wrote a public letter to express their dismay that The Atlantic “would choose to align itself with DowDupont, a company that has so recklessly endangered members of our community.”Pesticide Action Network, whose 2007 lawsuit with NRDC and Earthjustice brought chlorpyrifos to the brink of withdrawal, also raised concerns—and its members flooded Twitter with their outrage. Folks at the Center for Environmental Health, the Bhopal Medical Appeal, author Stacy Malkan, among many others, also weighed in.
As distress mounts about the growing collusion between industry and elected officials, we need media we can trust for unvarnished muckraking—and we need it more than ever.
I reached out to several people close to The Atlantic to raise these concerns. The Emerson Collective individuals I reached out to said their institution didn’t have any power over the decision: they aren’t involved with the day-to-day operations of the outlet. An Atlantic magazine editor said he didn’t have any influence over AtlanticLive events. Others justified the decision, saying it’s the job of media institutions, and those engaging with events like this, to bring diverse voices together to have “uncomfortable conversations.”
Well, the event was anything but uncomfortable. As the evening began, Neal Gutterson from DowDuPont’s agricultural division received a warm welcome and opened the proceedings. On social media and beyond, the company got to boast about its association with a venerable media institution. And while some presenters may have had diverging views, no one spoke to the toxic elephant in the room: the company underwriting the program.
I love that old saying: media should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. DowDuPont’s Gutterson was definitely not afflicted.
No one asked what place DowDupont’s toxic chemicals should have in the future of food. No one talked about the children whose brains have been damaged by childhood or in vitro exposure to Dow’s chlorpyrifos. No one mentioned the Vietnamese and veterans who suffered from exposure to Agent Orange and the generations still born with birth defects or illnesses from the dioxin left behind in the environment. No one reminded listeners of the families in and around Midland, Michigan, home to Dow’s manufacturing headquarters, where the EPA detected the highest concentration of dioxin anywhere in the country and where women suffer a greater risk of developing breast cancer than the national average. No one mentioned the half a million people exposed to toxic gas in Bhopal, India, from a Dow chemical factory leak or the three-decade-long battle to hold the company accountable.
Nor did anyone mention the mothers in Kauai who have given birth to babies with gastroschisis, a birth defect associated with pesticide exposure that causes intestines to grow outside of the body with life-long health implications. No one pointed out how Dow, along with other chemical corporations with a presence on Kauai, took the community to court after the island passed a Bill 2491 with common sense policies like buffer zones to protect schools and communities from spraying and mandatory disclosures of spraying. With its well-paid lawyers fighting the community all the way to the Ninth Circuit federal court, Dow and the other chemical companies won and overturned the policy. Today, there are still no buffer zones, no mandatory disclosures of spraying, and no birth defect registries.
There are living-and-breathing consequences of this multinational corporation: no one heard about them at Harvest: Transforming the Food We Eat.
It should go without saying that media should not be helping to never have a role in normalizeing a company like DowDuPont or sugarcoating its toxic history by providing the platform of a public event like this one. As distress mounts about the growing collusion between industry and elected officials, we need media we can trust for unvarnished muckraking—and we need it more than ever. When an institution like The Atlantic plays host to events like this, that fragile trust is lost.
Anna Lappé is the national bestselling author of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and is the founder and director of Real Food Media.