Pulling Back the Curtain on EWG’s Playbook

February 10, 2016

It is easier to sell fear than facts.

This is a concept that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) knows all too well and has built a brand and an empire based on that business model. Scaring people about everything from suntan lotion to farm policy, you name it, they probably have some pseudoscientific report for it. And, if you just “rush a donation to help EWG before midnight tonight,” the group can “shut down” this problem once and for all, the email blasts to their followers usually reads.

But, people are catching on to that game.

Specifically, this past weekend, one mother and writer took EWG to task in an editorial that describes pointedly how the group has been using fear as a revenue raiser while pushing dubious claims.

“It was only fairly recently that I learned that even though the EWG has secured the trust of many parents, some of their warnings and recommendations don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny,” writes Jenny Splitter in the Salon.com story.

In fact, as the story highlights, the EWG uses this misplaced trust to endorse certain products and industries it is financially linked to through other business arrangements. “Now more than ever, their plans for profit are tied to the very companies they’re supposed to be independently reviewing,” continues Splitter. “If parents knew the facts, the EWG couldn’t prey on our fears.”

Farm Policy Facts agrees.

For years, we have tried to sound the alarm on their particular penchant for attacking farmers and spreading misleading and outright false information about farm policy and its cost.

EWG is especially fond of promoting a database that lists the commodity and conservation support that farmers have received in the past and demonizing those farmers – whoever they might be – in the process. Last year after she gave the official GOP response to the State of the Union address, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa became a target. She described life lessons growing up on a farm, which seemingly sent EWG over the edge as they proceeded to gin up a salacious story for the LA Times about her family receiving farm subsidies.

Per usual, EWG and the LA Times left out valuable context as we explained then:

“EWG’s farm support database covers 1995 to 2012. Since 1995 there have been four farm bills. Each of those farm bills changed farm policy to reflect the times in which they were written, and as such, federal funds to farmers have declined rapidly. In the case of the Ernst family, almost no farm policy support has flowed in more than a decade.”

We are now operating under the 2014 Farm Bill, which changed farm policy significantly in an effort to be more cost effective and more efficient. At the time of that story, the new farm law had not even been fully implemented, but that was a nugget of information conveniently omitted.

As we wrote last year:

“EWG has put so much stock in this database to publicly shame hardworking farmers and ranchers while simultaneously using it as a fundraising tool to grow its multi-million dollar operation that it can hardly afford to tell its donors and the world that its database is largely outdated and irrelevant. To read their reports and ‘news’ releases, one would think today’s farm policy is straight from the Great Depression era.”

Similarly, after the epic 2012 drought – the worst in more than 50 years – that gripped a vast majority of the nation, EWG took the opportunity to first overestimate the costs associated with it and then spin the numbers to look like “fat cat” billionaires were cashing in on “taxpayer-funded farm subsidies.”

But, as we pointed out then, the claim didn’t match the facts:

“EWG failed to mention these individuals, like other wealthy non-billionaires, have received almost no money under the 2008 Farm Bill because Congress closed such loopholes long ago.

“It also wasn’t very upfront about the fact that this data, being passed off as new information, is more than a decade old in most cases.

“Ironically, the tiny bit of subsidy money going to billionaires in recent years appears to be tied to conservation – environmental subsidies that EWG supports and would like to expand. Not surprisingly, EWG glossed over conservation subsidies in its shoddy report.”

Congressional leaders have also weighed in on the tactics of EWG to inspire and spread anti-farmer sentiment in the news and beyond. Last spring, after the group released yet another dishonest report attacking crop insurance – a key risk management tool for farmers – some lawmakers didn’t hold back in a counterattack.

Rep. Mike Conaway, the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told a reporter at the time that EWG takes “every opportunity to knife [farmers] in the back.” And, Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota added “The EWG’s report uses cherry-picked data to fit their pre-determined conclusions in an attempt to eliminate the crop insurance program.”

But, it was Rep. Collin Peterson, the Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee, who summed it up best when he said, “EWG has no credibility.”

It is a significant development when farmers, moms, and members of Congress all say the same thing about a single organization. Indeed, “fear sells,” as Splitter concluded in her editorial, but EWG can only cry wolf for so long before people stop listening.