Pursuing Truth and Transparency in America's Food System

The agrichemical companies have employed repugnant PR tactics

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 7, “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” by Gary Ruskin, co-director of the public watchdog group US Right to Know.

Syngenta investigates and attacks its critics

Syngenta is one of the world’s largest agrichemical companies. Among other things, it is notable for its aggressive attacks against its critics.

Writing in the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv recounted the story of Syngenta’s unusually forceful attacks against Tyrone Hayes, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Hayes had published studies showing that Syngenta’s widely-used herbicide atrazine is an endocrine disruptor in frogs. In response, Syngenta launched a multi-pronged effort to, in the words of Syngenta communications manager Sherry Ford, “discredit Hayes.” Among other tactics Syngenta deployed against Hayes, Aviv reports that

In 2005, Ford made a long list of methods for discrediting him: “have his work audited by 3rd party,” “ask journals to retract,” “set trap to entice him to sue,” “investigate funding,” “investigate wife.” The initials of different employees were written in the margins beside entries, presumably because they had been assigned to look into the task.[1]

In its efforts to defend atrazine, Syngenta also investigated the investigative reporter Danielle Ivory, who now writes for the New York Times. According to Beau Hodai and Lisa Graves, when Ivory was asking questions about atrazine, “Bret Jacobson, the founder and president of Maverick Strategies and Communications, a public relations/consulting firm specializing in ‘opposition research,’ submitted a dossier on Ivory to the firm ‘Quinn Thomas Public Affairs.’”[2]

Brainwashing children

In 2012, the Council for Biotechnology Information, a public relations front group for the big agrichemical companies, released the Biotechnology Basics Activity Book, which delivers pro-industry propaganda to children. The workbook is filled with false and deeply questionable statements about genetically engineered crops, such as “biotechnology is helping to improve the health of the Earth and the people who call it home.” Children are encouraged to do the workbook exercises, because, “As you work through the puzzles in this book, you will learn more about biotechnology and all of the wonderful ways it can help people live better lives in a healthier world.”[3]

Attacking and intimidating scientists

The agrichemical industry and its PR minions have a history of harsh and career-threatening attacks against their scientific critics,[4] including Tyrone Hayes,[5] Ignacio Chapela,[6] Arpad Pusztai,[7] Gilles-Eric Séralini,[8] Manuela Malatesta,[9] and Emma Rosi-Marshall.[10]

How do these attacks affect what is known about the agrichemical industry and its genetically engineered crops? No one really knows. But given this history, any scientist who publishes findings that are contrary to the interests of the agrichemical industry can reasonably expect a sharp attack, or perhaps even a career-ending one. Of course there are scientists who are courageous enough to publish despite such prospects. But surely worries about how the industry might respond, and its effects on career prospects, has a deterrent effect on scientists’ initiation and publication of research that is adverse to the agrichemical industry.

Footnotes

[1] Rachel Aviv, “A Valuable Reputation.” New Yorker, February 10, 2014. See also Clare Howard, “Syngenta’s Campaign to Protect Atrazine, Discredit Critics.” Environmental Health News, June 17, 2013.

[2] Beau Hodai and Lisa Graves, “Syngenta PR’s Weed-Killer Spin Machine: Investigating the Press and Shaping the “News” about Atrazine.” PR Watch, February 7, 2012. Memorandum from Bret Jacobson, Maverick Strategies to Quinn Thomas Public Affairs, “RE: Quick Backgrounder on Danielle Ivory.” March 4, 2010.

[3] Council for Biotechnology Information, “Biotechnology Basics Activity Book.” See also Ronnie Cummins, “Outrageous Lies Monsanto and Friends Are Trying to Pass off to Kids as Science.” Alternet, March 20, 2012.

[4] Emily Waltz, “GM Crops: Battlefield.” Nature, September 2, 2009. 461, 27-32. doi:10.1038/461027a. John Fagan, Michael Antoniou and Claire Robinson, “GMO Myths and Truths.” pp. 93-99.

[5] Rachel Aviv, “A Valuable Reputation.” New Yorker, February 10, 2014. Clare Howard, “Syngenta’s Campaign to Protect Atrazine, Discredit Critics.” Environmental Health News, June 17, 2013. “Silencing the Scientist: Tyrone Hayes on Being Targeted by Herbicide Firm Syngenta.” Democracy Now, February 21, 2014.

[6] George Monbiot, “The Fake Persuaders.” Guardian, May 14, 2002. Andy Rowell, “Immoral Maize.” GMWatch.

[7] Andrew Rowell, “The Sinister Sacking of the World’s Leading GM Expert and the Trail That Leads to Tony Blair and the White House.” Daily Mail, July 7, 2003, “Why I Cannot Remain Silent: Interview with Dr. Arpad Pusztai.” GM-Free, August/September, 1999. Marion Nestle, Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 186-9. Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of the World’s Food Supply. (New York: New Press, 2010), pp. 178-187.

[8] Adriane Fugh-Berman and Thomas G. Sherman, “Rounding Up Scientific Journals.” Bioethics Forum, January 10, 2014. “Controversial Seralini Study Linking GM to Cancer in Rats Is Republished.” Guardian, June 24, 2014. Barbara Casassus, “Paper Claiming GM Link with Tumours Republished.” Nature, June 24, 2014. doi:10.1038/nature.2014.15463.

[9] See interview with Manuela Malatesta in Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of the World’s Food Supply. (New York: New Press, 2010), pp. 176-177.

[10] Emily Waltz, “GM Crops: Battlefield.” Nature, September 2, 2009. 461, 27-32. doi:10.1038/461027a.