Forget international terrorism. Ongoing pocket-padding terrorist activities perpetrated by domestic environmental and animal rights activist groups pose a cataclysmic threat to agricultural producers and their industries.

“Recognize that there is a coalition out there, large and well funded, that wants to move America away from a corporate economy to what they believe would be a more bucolic lifestyle,” says John Doyle. He's director of communications for Guest Choice Network (GCN), a coalition of food and beverage distributors fighting to preserve consumer choice by battling activist fiction with fact.

Sure, there are the visible zealots like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), whose president said publicly last spring that she hoped foot-and-mouth disease came to America — far better for livestock to perish that way than be harvested for food.

And, there are the out-and-out felons like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) who have taken credit for such crimes as arson, theft and blowing up buildings.

But, Doyle says the most dangerous of these may be the ones many producers never hear of. These are organizations that promulgate a national agenda within local communities, decrying the environmental compliance of a livestock feeding organization, for instance. In fact, their agenda is really to do away with corporations (not just those in the agricultural industry), interstate commerce and technology.

“They're trying to sabotage corporate America, and they're using food because people can relate to that,” explains Doyle. “If you bring down the red meat industry, as an example, you accomplish the specific agendas of these animal rights and environmental groups while also accomplishing the broader agenda of doing away with agricultural corporations.” And, you set a precedent for dismantling corporations in other industries.

Here's how it looks at home. A feedlot wants to begin or expand. A local person starts a campaign against it for whatever reason. It appears this community member, while misguided, is at least sincere, so people listen. In fact, more often than not, Doyle says these locals are puppets for moneyed national movements waging war behind the scenes at the grassroots level.

For perspective, he points to the Summit on Sustainable Hog Farming held in North Carolina last winter. Following that meeting, Doyle quotes Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as saying: “We are going to put an end to this industry. We're starting with the hogs, then we are going after the other ones (beef and poultry).” Kennedy is founder and president of a group called the Water Keepers Alliance (WKA).

Among other things, Doyle explains that summit outlined a strategy for activists to sue large animal feeding operations in at least five states on the grounds these operations collude to deny citizens clean water. Their rhetoric also pits small operations against large ones, and corporations against sole proprietors. Among WKA's prosecutors are those who successfully sued the tobacco and asbestos industries.

Since then, GCN has tracked WKA involvement to local fights about the expansion of livestock feeding operations. Bottom line: Producers are forced to wage a legal war against national powers, not some local individual with a bone to pick.

“That's one of the issues,” says Trent Loos, a livestock producer from Norris, SD. He organized a meeting of Midwest livestock producers to hear firsthand from Doyle what they're up against.

“You can spend $10 million building a business,” Loos says, “then you have to spend another $1 million to defend it.”

And Doyle points out that these organizations, which exist to change public sentiment, are proliferating. There were 6,000 of these non-government organizations in 1990 compared to 27,000 in 1999.

Their funding is proliferating as well. Between 1992 and 1998 alone, funding for three of the most vociferous groups more than doubled to $62.7 million (see Table 1).

Radicals As Bedfellows

The salt in the wound is the fact that some of the organizations involved are those agricultural producers would least suspect.

As an example, mention Farm Aid to most producers, and they probably have a soft spot for its founder, singer Willie Nelson. But, public record tax documents gathered by GCN reveal that Farm Aid has contributed to The Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry (ARSI). ARSI is part of an anti-hog media campaign that includes well-known radical stalwarts like the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and the Environmental Information Center (EIC).

Incidentally, Doyle says NRDC and the Sierra Club are both clients of a Washington, D.C.-based outfit called Fenton Communications, led by David Fenton. Besides founding the EIC, Fenton orchestrated the Alar apple scare in 1989 launched by NRDC, Doyle says. He later bragged that the effort made him about $700,000.

“Groups like these are in business. This is how they make a living,” says Doyle.

While volunteer members may believe in the organization's agenda, he says, “the leaders of these organizations know exactly what it's about, making money and accomplishing extreme political agendas.”

Then, there's a group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). Despite the fuzzy feel of its moniker, Doyle explains, “In a public plea for the U.S. government to sue U.S. meat industry retailers, Neal Barnard, PCRM president, said, ‘While many legislators are rightly concerned about lives and money lost to tobacco companies, they're ignoring the devastating effects of meat consumption… Meat consumption is just as dangerous to public health as tobacco use. It's time we looked at holding the meat producers and fast-food outlets legally accountable.’”

Again, through public record tax documents, GCN discovered that the PCRM received a grant of $432,524 in 1999, all of the charitable contributions made by the Foundation to Support Animal Protection (FSAP) that year. The president of FSAP at the time was Barnard. The vice president was Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA. Newkirk signed the FSAP tax form, which listed its address as the same one used by PETA.

Carrying this a step further, GCN has tracked contributions from such groups as PETA to more radical individuals. These are people known to commit arson, destroy property and commit other general mayhem in the name of animal rights.

Call it a legal shell game, immoral skullduggery or just a cosmic coincidence, but Doyle says this type of common funding is typical. Trace the funding of groups like these, and you'll discover some well-known consumer brand names. GCN will unveil a list at www.activistcash.com in January.

Battling The Invisible Goliath

“You can't acquiesce and roll over thinking these groups are going to go away. They aren't. They have a multi-decade agenda, and they're making progress every year,” says Doyle.

That's one reason GCN took root a couple of years ago. Rather than fight unfounded, sensational claims levied at a particular food or beverage product, its members seek to ensure consumer choice by demanding activist groups substantiate their claims. Through efforts like tracking non-profit tax returns and sharing information with the world via their Web site at www.nannyculture.com, GCN has already made some groups uncomfortable enough to pull in their horns.

Tim Gannon, founder and executive vice president of Outback Steak House, which serves about 2 million meals a week, explains his firm's GCN membership this way: “It's real simple. We want to be actively engaged in the debate. We don't want a one-sided extremist group controlling the debate.”

After all, every time an activist group entices the public to buy into its fiction, consumers lose one more choice, and the cost of business increases. Gannon uses iced tea as an example.

Just a few moons ago, fresh-brewed iced tea was the standard at most restaurants, including fast-food outlets. Now, lots of them have gone to serving that manufactured-tasting, pre-brewed tea. Why? Gannon says an activist group concocted some research indicating that the equipment associated with brewing tea might serve up more bacteria than pre-mixed stuff.

Rather than fight the pseudo-science, Gannon says “A lot of companies switched to non-brewed tea with all of these preservatives and chemicals. It cost them millions of dollars to switch, plus they wind up with a product I don't think tastes as good. Consumers are the ultimate loser.” You can still get the real thing at Outback.

“Although these activist groups are small, from a media standpoint they are effective,” says Gannon. “And it's difficult for a red meat company (as an example) to say these groups are wrong in the claims they are making about red meat. It's easier for Guest Choice to say it because they represent all of these food and beverage industries.”

Indeed. Doyle explains, “Our mission is to shoot an arrow into the messenger of these bombastic claims and the credibility of the organizations behind them… All we're doing is protecting the freedom of choice. We can attack the messenger where trade associations have to defend their product.”

Doyle emphasizes an industry offense is essential because activist groups don't have to be accurate in what they say to be effective. Perception is king.

“The whole fight is about public opinion, and we are losing that fight,” says Doyle. “Being preemptive is the key because once an issue gets into the newspaper you're fighting a different fight. Once an issue gets to the regulatory level, it's all over.”

Destruction Standards

Doyle points out the structure of many activist groups is eerily similar to the terrorist organizations Americans have been forced to learn about in the aftermath of September's attacks.

  • Many of them exist as loose-knit cell groups beneath a broad umbrella organization.

  • There are few identifiable leaders.

  • They embrace the Internet for instant, cheap, anonymous communication.

  • They're funded by philanthropic. organizations, some who know what they're funding and some who don't.

  • They believe in terrorism and misinformation as effective tools.

Next, Doyle says the model employed by many activist groups is a straightforward lesson in how to erode a market:

  1. De-normalize the product, making the consumer feel uncomfortable consuming it because of health or other concerns;

  2. Demonize the product by making the consumer feel that when they consume it they are not only hurting themselves but others;

  3. De-legitimatize the product by leading consumers to ask for more government regulation and control of the product;

  4. Destroy the product by making it too expensive, too perverse or just too difficult to consume.

“Their goal is to frighten and shame consumers into their choices, then restrict production of products they're after through taxation and regulation,” explains Doyle. “Some people say that could never happen. Just 20 years ago how many people thought it would be illegal to light a cigarette in so many places, or that the Environmental Protection Agency would come out, as it did recently, and recommend parents not smoke around their children because they might be hurting their child's health?”

Consequently, producers have more at stake in these battles than consumers. As Gannon says, “We could switch our menu if we lost red meat, though it would be difficult. But, what would producers do?”

Home-Grown Defense

At least some are looking to turn the tables by using some of the activists' own strategy.

“We in the livestock industry are under attack, and we need to know how to move forward,” says Loos. He explains he organized the meeting between producers and Doyle because he wanted to see if they would share his reaction to information described in this article, information Loos had already learned from Doyle. They did.

Within weeks, Loos signed on as GCN coordinator of livestock and agricultural activities, and some producers signed on as members. The aim is to educate producers how to educate the public about the facts of their businesses on a local level.

Rather than leave this to existing trade groups, Loos explains, “We need an organization that is removed from the political arena and the issues that constantly divide commodity organizations. We need an organization that represents all commodities and defends all agricultural products so that it has more credibility than a trade organization that can only defend the product it represents.”

This initial meeting also gave GCN an opportunity to get closer to producers.

“I was shocked by how many of the producers sitting around the table had already been touched personally just by the Water Keepers issue that we're working on,” says Doyle.

In the meantime, there's no question GCN's efforts are making a positive impact for producers.

“The biggest thing we (GCN) have accomplished so far is drawing media inquiry to the bombastic claims made by these groups,” says Doyle. This media inquiry has caused some groups to alter their focus or their involvement with some of the organizations, he says.

Doyle believes they're beginning to impact the money flowing into these organizations. By tracking tax records and sharing the information with the public, Doyle explains, “At the very least, we'll see a restriction of contributions to these organizations because we're shining a very bright light on who's giving what to whom.”

Plus, GCN believes the facts will help challenge the non-profit structure of some of the groups, forcing them to play the game differently.

However, to win the battle, Doyle says producers must also play the game differently.

“You can't just call someone and rant. Producers must educate themselves on the issues and communicate with one another to share accurate information and validate it with an organization like Guest Choice. You can win the battle at the local level with accurate information,” he says.

After all, Doyle explains, “Local and county officials are not fools, and they do not like to be made fools of. These issues turn into a whole new ball game when local officials realize someone has presented them with an issue described as local that is really national in nature and is funded by national groups.”

Again, that's one reason tracking the money trail has been so effective.

“You shine the light on these groups, and they're like fungus; they'll dry up and blow away,’ says Doyle. “But you have to start with the light of information.”