Jon Entine: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger

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Jon Entine is highly active in current chemical industry policy debates. He portrays himself as a science journalist, an objective authority on issues important to the chemical industry. But the evidence shows that he is actually a longtime public relations operative with deep ties to the chemical industry. His work features the defense of GMOs, pesticides, industrial chemicals, fracking and nuclear power.

Ties to Monsanto

Entine founded ESG MediaMetrics, a “sustainability” communications firm whose clients included Monsanto and the Vinyl Institute.

Entine is executive director of Genetic Literacy Project (GLP), which promotes GMOs and pesticides. It states that it is “funded by grants from non-partisan foundations” but does not disclose which ones, nor whether it receives funding from corporations, trade associations or other agrichemical industry interests.

In 2014, Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project partnered with a Monsanto-backed group, Academics Review, to sponsor the Biotechnology Literacy Project “boot camp” to teach scientists how to “best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public.”

Faculty at the first boot camp included representatives from GMO manufacturers, food industry front groups and trade groups, and pro-GMO academics including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, both of whom have accepted undisclosed funding from Monsanto and promote the GMOs and pesticides that Monsanto sales rely upon.

The boot camp’s agenda notes that “independent scientists, who the public holds in great esteem, can play a unique role in reframing the food safety and GMO debate” and that the camp will provide scientists with the “tools and support resources necessary to effectively engage the media and appear as experts in legislative and local government hearings, and other policy making and related outreach opportunities.”

Entine conducted a similar boot camp to reframe the GMO debate for journalists and scientists in 2015.

Ties to Syngenta

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group funded in part by the agrichemical company Syngenta, published Entine’s 2011 book, “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.” The book defends atrazine, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta.

A 2012 Mother Jones article about Entine describes the circumstances leading up to the publication of the book. The article, by Tom Philpott, is based in part on internal company documents, obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, describing Syngenta’s PR efforts to get third-party allies to spin media coverage of atrazine.

In one email from 2009, ACSH staff asked Syngenta for an additional $100,000 – “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years” – to produce an atrazine-friendly paper and “consumer-friendly booklet” to help educate media and scientists.

From a 2011 ACSH press release announcing Entine’s book:

“The American Council on Science and Health is pleased to announce a new book and companion friendly, abbreviated position paper … authored by Jon Entine, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and highly regarded science journalist … ACSH compiled this resource book and position to educate legislators, industry, media, consumers and parents on the actual risks of chemical exposure and use in everyday products.”

Entine denied any relationship with Syngenta and told Philpott he had “no idea” Syngenta was funding ACSH.

Attacks on Syngenta Critics  

In a 2014 New Yorker article, based on internal Syngenta documents, Rachel Aviv revealed how Syngenta’s public relations team plotted to “discredit” UC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes, whose research suggests that the herbicide atrazine is associated with birth defects. In emails, Syngenta employees discussed a psychological profile of Hayes and searched for ways to “exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.”

A month later, Entine wrote an attack piece in Forbes describing Aviv’s story as a “botch puff piece” and calling Hayes “almost completely discredited.” Entine’s primary source was a “summary analysis” by University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, posted on Academics Review, which claims to be an independent website started by independent scientists.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know reveal that Monsanto and a former Monsanto public relations executive helped Chassy to establish Academics Review as a website and platform to criticize individuals, organizations and others who raise questions about GMOs or pesticides.

A year before the New Yorker story, Entine used his Forbes platform to attack Hayes and defend Syngenta. Entine described “competing narratives” about why Hayes lost funding to continue researching atrazine. Entine’s narrative casts Hayes as the “activist scientist with a long history of discredited studies” against “one of the most scrutinized chemicals in history” that was unjustly banned in Europe. Hayes is, in fact, a full professor in the integrative biology department of UC Berkeley, one of the most prestigious public universities in the world.

The Murky Funding Trail to Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project

According to an email he sent to Philpott in 2012, Entine derives the bulk of his income from the Genetic Literacy Project:

“To hear Entine tell it, his defenses of atrazine and other pesticides are entirely pro bono and driven by his own initiative. He told me he gets “almost all” of his income from the Genetic Literacy Project, which, he added, is funded by what he called the Templeton and Searle foundations. The project is housed at the Statistical Assessment Service program at George Mason University, where Entine is a fellow. Though Entine would not specify which Searle trust funded the GLP, the Searle Freedom Trust’s 2010 tax form lists a $154,000 grant to STATS for a “Gene Policy and Science Literacy Project,” which sounds an awful lot like Entine’s.”

The Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, disclosed in its IRS annual form 990s that it paid Entine for his work as a “research consultant” $140,600 in 2012, and $152,500 in 2013.

STATS is “funded by a grant from the Searle Freedom Trust and a donation from the American Statistical Association,” according to its website.  STATS declares on its IRS form 990 that it is a sister organization of the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is not transparent about its funding. According to its most recent (2012) IRS Form 990, CMPA gave a $203,611 loan to STATS, which “due to inadequate funding” has “not been reimbursed.”

In a 2009 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article about chemical industry lobbying Suzanne Rust and Meg Kissinger described STATS:

“STATS claims to be independent and nonpartisan. But a review of its financial reports shows it is a branch of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. That group was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco.”

The Center for Media and Public Affairs also receives grants from the George Mason University Foundation. For example, the GMU Foundation disclosed in its IRS form 990s that it gave to CMPA a $75,670 grant in 2013, and a $220,900 grant in 2012.

Charles Koch is a major funder of various GMU projects, according to a recent Greenpeace analysis of IRS filings from Koch’s nonprofit foundations. Koch spent $109.7 million on 361 campuses from 2005-2014. The GMU Foundation was the top recipient with $45.5 million, followed by two other GMU programs.

According to PR Watch, despite repeated attempts by students to obtain information about the grants, George Mason University refuses to comply because it has housed the grants under the private GMU Foundation instead of the university itself to prevent disclosures about their source.

According to the Guardian, from 2011-13, the GMU Foundation received $5.3 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund – two groups that Mother Jones called the “dark-money ATM of the conservative movement.”

Entine is a senior research fellow at GMU’s Center for Health & Risk Communication, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a DC think tank funded in part by corporate and dark money contributions.

Entine is a senior fellow at the UC Davis World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL). Donations to the World Food Center are not publicly disclosed.  The World Food Center’s founding director is Roger Beachy, who was also founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO, which has close ties to Monsanto, and offices across the street from Monsanto.

Public Relations for the Agrichemical Industry

Entine is a central figure in agrichemical industry public relations efforts. The Genetic Literacy Project cross-promotes many industry-affiliated pro-GMO messengers and regularly attacks organizations and people who raise concerns about the health and environmental risks of GMOs and pesticides.

In 2014, GLP published a series of pro-GMO papers that were assigned to professors by a Monsanto executive.  The Monsanto connection was not disclosed in the papers but was revealed in emails obtained via state Freedom of Information Act request by U.S. Right to Know.

In one case, reported in the Boston Globe, the Monsanto executive suggested to Harvard Professor Calestous Juma that he write a paper about how GMOs are needed to feed Africa:

“Monsanto not only suggested the topic to professor Calestous Juma. It went so far as to provide a summary of what the paper could say and a suggested headline. The company then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet as part of Monsanto’s strategy to win over the public and lawmakers, according to e-mails obtained through a public records request.”

GLP published Professor Juma’s paper along with five other pro-GMO papers written by professors and assigned by Monsanto.

Entine told a Bloomberg reporter that he worked with the professors to edit their papers. “I had total control over the final product,” Entine said.

Entine was also linked to three pro-GMO journalists – Keith Kloor, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel and New York Times reporter Amy Harmon — whose names turned up in FOIA documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

Chemical Industry Defense Guy

Entine has been a prominent defender of chemical industry interests, following the industry playbook: he defends the chemicals as safe; argues against regulation; and attacks science, scientists and others raising concerns.

Defending Neonicotinoids

Growing scientific evidence suggests that neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of pesticides, are a key factor in bee die-offs. The European Union has restricted neonics due to concerns about impact on bees.

Entine:

  • Accused European politicians of trying to kill bees by restricting neonics (Forbes).

Defending Phthalates

In August of 2012, Entine defended vinyl plastic backpacks that were found to be exposing children to phthalates.

  • Entine criticized an NBC reporter for “shoddy journalism” for raising questions about the safety of phthalates (Forbes).

Defending Fracking

Entine defends hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the pumping of high-pressure chemical-laced water into the ground to crack shale and extract natural gas. As in his many other messaging campaigns, Entine blasts science and scientists who raise concerns, framing them as “activists,” while making sweeping and indefensible statements about “scrupulous” science conducted over many years that defend its safety.

For example, Entine claimed: “From a scientific perspective, no reason exists to even suspect unknown health or environmental issues will turn up” from fracking (New York Post).

Entine also:

  • Accused New York Times reporters of misleading children about the potential environmental dangers of fracking (Forbes).
  • Attacked two Cornell University scientists for their study suggesting that fracking operations leak methane (Forbes).
  • Attacked the Park Foundation, claiming that it has “almost single-handedly derailed shale-gas development in methane-rich New York State, and put its imprint on public opinion and policy decisions around the country.” (Philanthropy Roundtable)

Defending BPA

Entine writes in defense of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), despite a large body of scientific evidence raising concerns about its endocrine disrupting potential and other health problems associated with it. Canada declared the chemical to be toxic in 2010, and the European Union banned BPA in baby bottles in 2011.

Entine:

  • Attacked “a small but determined group of university researchers, activist NGOs and journalists” raising concerns about BPA (Forbes).
  • Tells women who can’t get pregnant not to blame it on plastics (Forbes).
  • Challenged scientists linking BPA to heart disease (Forbes).

Defending Nuclear Power

Entine:

  • Criticized Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes for pointing out the economic and environmental risks of nuclear power (Huffington Post).
  • Claims that nuclear power plants are environmentally benign and that “Nothing as bad as Chernobyl is likely to occur in the West” (Jon Entine).
  • Argued that Germany is “taking a gamble” by transitioning away from nuclear power (Ethical Corporation).