Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign

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By Carey Gillam

Former University of Illinois food science professor Bruce Chassy is known for his academic gravitas. Now retired nearly four years, Chassy still writes and speaks often about food safety issues, identifying himself with the full weight of the decades of experience earned at the public university and as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health. Chassy tells audiences that before he retired in 2012, he worked “full time” doing research and teaching.

What Chassy doesn’t talk much about is the other work he did while at the University of Illinois – promoting the interests of Monsanto Co., which has been trying to overcome mounting public concerns about the genetically engineered crops and chemicals the company sells. He also doesn’t talk much about the hundreds of thousands of dollars Monsanto donated to the university as Chassy was helping promote GMOs, or Monsanto’s secretive role in helping Chassy set up a nonprofit group and website to criticize individuals and organizations who raise questions about GMOs.

But emails released through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Chassy was an active member of a group of U.S. academics who have been quietly collaborating with Monsanto on strategies aimed at not just promoting biotech crop products, but also rolling back regulation of these products and fending off industry critics. The emails show money flowing into the university from Monsanto as Chassy collaborated on multiple projects with Monsanto to counter public concerns about genetically modified crops (GMOs) – all while representing himself as an independent academic for a public institution.

A New York Times article by Eric Lipton published last September laid bare the campaign crafted by Monsanto and other industry players to use the credibility of prominent academics to push the industry’s political agenda. That Times article focused primarily on University of Florida academic Kevin Folta, chairman of the university’s Horticultural Sciences Department, and Folta’s work on behalf of Monsanto.  But an examination of recently released email exchanges between Monsanto and Chassy show new depths to the industry efforts.

The collaborations come at a critical juncture in the United States regarding GMO public policy. Mandatory GMO labeling is set to take effect in Vermont on July 1; Congress is wrestling over a federal labeling law for GMOs; and several other states are seeking their own answers to rising consumer demand for transparency about this topic.

Many consumer and environmental groups want to see more restrictions and regulation on GMO crops and the glyphosate herbicide many know as Roundup, which is used on GMOs. But the companies that market the crops and chemicals argue their products are safe and there should be less regulation, not more. Monsanto’s roughly $15 billion in annual revenue comes almost exclusively from GMO crop technology and related chemicals.

Amid the furor, the revelations about corporate collaboration with public university scientists to promote GMOs have sparked a new debate about a lack of transparency in the relationships between academics and industry.

Chassy has said he did nothing unethical or improper in his work supporting Monsanto and the biotech crop industry. “As a public-sector research scientist, it was expected… that I collaborate with and solicit the engagement of those working in my field of expertise,” Chassy has stated.

Still, what you find when reading through the email chains is an arrangement that allowed industry players to cloak pro-GMO messaging within a veil of independent expertise, and little, if any, public disclosure of the behind-the-scenes connections.

CRITICAL COLLABORATIONS

  • In a November 2010 email, Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs tells Chassy that Monsanto has just sent a “gift of $10,000” to the university “so the funds should be there.”  He then tells Chassy he is working on a plan for Monsanto and others in the agribusiness industry to support an “academics review” website that Chassy can use to counter concerns and allegations raised by critics of GMOs.  “From my perspective the problem is one of expert engagement and that could be solved by paying experts to provide responses,” Sachs wrote. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
  • In a separate 2010 exchange, Jay Byrne, president of the v-Fluence public relations firm and former head of corporate communications for Monsanto, tells Chassy he is trying to move the Academics Review project forward. He suggests “we work on the money (for all of us).” Byrne says that he has a list of GMO critics for Academics Review to target. He tells Chassy that the topic areas “mean money for a range of well-heeled corporations.”
  • In one email exchange from September 2011, Chassy suggests how the biotech crop industry might “spin” a government study that found significant levels of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, in air and water samples.
  • In emails from 2012, Chassy and Monsanto’s Sachs and Monsanto’s John Swarthout, who leads the company’s “scientific outreach and issues management,” discuss an upcoming presentation Chassy is preparing to make in China. They discuss Monsanto’s review of, and changes to, the presentation.  Monsanto’s Sachs instructs Swarthout to send slide decks to Chassy as material for his presentation.
  • In April 2012, Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond asks in an email if short videos can be created about the “safety of GM crops.” Chassy says that he is applying for funding from the State Department and “also seeking other sources of support” and can use university equipment to make the videos. Chassy asks Monsanto’s Hammond for a list of videos that “you think would be helpful.” Chassy tells Hammond that Byrne’s group V-fluence has helped create and edit the video scenarios.

EMAILS ABOUT MONEY 

The emails also discuss money.

  • In an October 2010 email, Chassy tells colleagues at the university that Monsanto has told him it is going to make a “substantial contribution” to his biotech account at the university.
  • In an October 2011 exchange, Chassy asked Sachs about a contribution for the university foundation biotech fund. The Monsanto executive responded that he would “make a gift to the foundation right away” if it had not already been made. Chassy instructs Monsanto to mail the check to the head of the university’s department of food science and to enclose a letter saying the check is “an unrestricted grant… in support of the biotechnology outreach and education activities of Professor Bruce M. Chassy.”
  • Also in May 2012, Monsanto made a $250,000 grant to the university to help set up an agricultural communications endowed chair. That donation was just a drop in the bucket of the donations from Monsanto – at least $1.9 million in the last five years, according to the university, – for agriculture-related projects.

CONTINUED CLOSE TIES

The close ties between Monsanto and Chassy continued past Chassy’s retirement in June 2012 from the university. Through 2013 and 2014 Chassy frequently appeared as an “independent expert” on the GMO Answers website, a pro-GMO site funded by Monsanto and other agribusiness giants. In that role, he answered questions and concerns about GMOs.

Chassy also has continued to operate Academics Review, publishing critical articles about individuals and organizations, including the World Health Organization’s cancer experts, that report information unfavorable for the GMO crop industry.  (I was the subject of at least two such attacks in 2014. Chassy objected to my presentation of both sides of the GMO safety debate in one Reuters article and objected to a second Reuters article that detailed the findings of a USDA report that found both benefits but also concerns associated with GMOs.)

When asked about its interactions with Chassy, Monsanto has said that there is nothing improper with its “engagements” with “public sector experts,” and that such collaborations help educate the public on important topics.  The university also has said it sees nothing wrong with the relations. A university spokeswoman said Chassy has “strong scientific credibility.”  She also said that Monsanto has given the university at least $1.9 million in the last five years.

But others familiar with the issues say the lack of transparency is a problem.

“These revelations regarding the connections are very important,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “The basic disclosure that some academics and other ‘neutral’ commentators in the public sphere are actually paid operatives/working directly with the chemical industry rightly alarms the public, as they are being misled.”

Revelations similar to these involving University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta’s connections to Monsanto did spark a public backlash after emails showed Folta received an unrestricted $25,000 grant and told Monsanto he would “write whatever you like.”  Folta said in a Jan. 18 blog that he no longer works with Monsanto because of the heated backlash.

Both Chassy and Folta have repeatedly written or been quoted in news articles that failed to disclose their connections to Monsanto and the GMO industry. In a recent example, Chassy has co-authored a series of articles that argue GMO labeling is a “disaster in waiting,” again with no disclosure of his collaboration with GMO developer Monsanto. His co-author is Jon Entine, founder of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included Monsanto, a connection Entine does not include in the article.

The revelations in the emails about Chassy, Folta and other assorted academics, leave many questions about who to trust, and how to trust, information critical to understanding our evolving food system. With food labeling issues at the forefront of debate, it’s time for more transparency.

Carey Gillam has worked as a journalist, researcher and writer specializing in the food and agriculture industry for nearly 20 years and has been recognized as one of the top food and agriculture journalists in the United States, winning several awards for her coverage of the industry. She recently left a career as senior correspondent for the Reuters international news service to become  Research Director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit public interest group that works to inform the public about the U.S.  food industry and its often-hidden role in public policy. 

USDA Shirking Obligation to Give Consumers Clarity Over Herbicide Residues on Food

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When microbiologist Bruce Hemming was hired two years ago to test breast milk samples for residues of the key ingredient in the popular weed-killer Roundup, Hemming at first scoffed at the possibility. Hemming, the founder of St. Louis-based Microbe Inotech Laboratories, knew that the herbicidal ingredient called glyphosate was not supposed to accumulate in the human body. Hemming, who previously worked as a scientist for Roundup maker Monsanto Co., now operates a commercial testing facility located just a few miles from Monsanto’s headquarters.

But Hemming said his lab’s testing did find residues of glyphosate in the samples of breast milk he received from a small group of mothers who were worried that traces of the world’s most popular herbicide might be invading their bodies. Food companies, consumer groups, academics and others have also solicited testing for glyphosate residues, fueled by fears that prevalent use of the pesticide on genetically engineered food crops may be contributing to health problems as people eat foods containing glyphosate residues.

Those fears have been growing, stoked by some scientific studies that have shown health concerns tied to glyphosate, as well as data from the U.S. Department of Interior finding glyphosate in water and air samples. The concern surged last year after the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit said it had found enough scientific evidence to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Consumers groups have been calling on the U.S. government to test foods for glyphosate residues on behalf of the public, to try to determine what levels may be found and if those levels are dangerous. But so far those requests have fallen on deaf ears.

It would seem that would be an easy request to meet. After all, since 1991, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has conducted a “Pesticide Data Program” (PDP) that annually collects pesticide residue data for hundreds of pesticides. The testing looks for residues on a range of food products, including infant formula and other baby foods, and also looks for residues in drinking water. The purpose of the program is to “assure consumers that the food they feed their families is safe,” according to the USDA.

But while the USDA looks for residues of other herbicides, as well as fungicides and insecticides, the agency routinely does not test for glyphosate. It did one “special project” in  2011, testing 300 soybean samples for glyphosate, and found that 271 of the samples had residues. (The agency said all fell within the range deemed safe by the EPA.)  The agency has said testing for glyphosate is “not a high priority.”

In the latest annual PDP report — issued Jan. 11 — once again, glyphosate data is absent. Testing was done to look for residues of more than 400 different herbicides, insecticides and other pesticides on food products. But no tests reported for glyphosate.

The USDA says it is too expensive to test for glyphosate residues; much costlier than tests for the other 400+ pesticides that are part of the analysis, the agency says. The agency also echoes the position held by Monsanto that glyphosate is safe enough that trace amounts in food are nothing to worry about. (This begs the question: But how do we know there are only trace amounts, without the testing?) And all that World Health Organization talk of cancer connections to glyphosate? Monsanto hired its own experts who concluded that finding was wrong.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which sets the tolerance levels allowed for glyphosate and other pesticides has said glyphosate is safe at certain defined tolerance levels, and has actually raised those tolerance levels in recent years. At the same time, the EPA has been conducting a multi-year re-evaluation of glyphosate, its usage and impacts. The agency was due to release a risk assessment last year. In fact, EPA’s chief pesticide regulator Jim Jones said in May that assessment was nearly completed then and should be released by July 2015. But this week an EPA spokeswoman said the report would likely be made public “sometime later this year.”

The government pegged glyphosate use in the United States at nearly 300 million pounds for 2013, the most recent year the estimate is available. That was up from less than 20 million pounds in 1992. The rise in usage parallels the rise of crops genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant, meaning farmers can spray the herbicide directly on their fields and kill weeds but not their crops. Many key food crops are sprayed directly with glyphosate, including corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and even in some cases, wheat, though wheat has not been genetically engineered as glyphosate-tolerant.

“It is a scandal that USDA tests for hundreds of pesticide residues but not glyphosate, which is among the most widely used chemicals on our food crops,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer group. “Consumers want to know how much glyphosate is in our food.  Why won’t the USDA tell us? “

In a statement that accompanied the annual pesticide residue report, the EPA’s Jones lauded the data as an “important part of… our work to evaluate pesticide exposure from residues in food,” and said that “EPA is committed to a rigorous, science-based, and transparent regulatory program for pesticides that continues to protect people’s health and the environment.”

But given the health concerns raised by the World Health Organization and the rising use of this pesticide, consumers deserve better. It seems reasonable for the USDA to respect consumer concerns and make glyphosate residue testing a priority.

Carey Gillam is Research Director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and promotes transparency regarding the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. She has worked as a journalist, researcher and writer specializing in the food and agriculture for more than 20 years.

USDA Avoids Analyzing Glyphosate Residues on Food for Annual Report

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Monday, January 11, 2016
For More Information Contact: Carey Gillam, Research Director (913) 526-6190, carey@usrtk.org

USDA Avoids Analyzing Glyphosate Residues on Food for Annual Report

Consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture today for issuing an annual pesticide residue report that avoided any evaluation of residues from glyphosate, a top-selling herbicide important to corporate agricultural companies, but one that has been linked to cancer.

The USDA’s annual pesticide data program summary includes information that the USDA states is to “assure consumers that the food they feed their families is safe.” The program annually tests a wide variety of domestic and imported foods to gather data to determine if pesticide exposure through food is within government-set safety standards. The USDA program typically tests for several hundred different pesticides each year, and the government says it specifically looks at foods most likely to be consumed by children and infants.

But despite consumer demands for the inclusion of glyphosate, the USDA data continues to exclude testing for that pesticide. Only once in the history of the 24-year program has the agency conducted tests for glyphosate residues. Those tests, in 2011, were limited to 300 soybean samples and found that 271 of the samples had glyphosate residues.

Glyphosate-based herbicides are the most widely used weed-killing pesticides in the world, and use of glyphosate has skyrocketed in the United States since the introduction 20 years ago of crops genetically engineered to tolerate treatments of glyphosate. Monsanto Co. is one of the chief purveyors of the herbicide through its glyphosate-based Roundup brand. Many key food crops are sprayed directly with glyphosate, including corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and even in some cases, wheat, though wheat has not been genetically engineered as glyphosate-tolerant.

Consumer fears about glyphosate residues on food have mounted as studies have found glyphosate in air, and water samples, and after cancer scientists working for a unit of the World Health Organization determined there was sufficient evidence to classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

“It is a scandal that USDA tests for hundreds of pesticide residues but not glyphosate, which is among the most widely used chemicals on our food crops,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “Consumers want to know how much glyphosate is in our food.  Why won’t the USDA tell us? This looks like yet another giant favor from our federal government to Monsanto. It’s past time for Congress to investigate why the Obama administration is bestowing these sweetheart favors to Monsanto and the agrichemical industry.”

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

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Fearful Food Industry Jeopardizing Public’s Right to Information

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I just don’t get it.

Over the more than 20 years I have worked as a business journalist, I’ve always been motivated by a simple premise: Knowledge is power, and that power belongs with the public. The spread of information that people can use to make decisions – what to buy, what to eat, where to invest, etc. – helps support and promote the principles of freedom and democracy, I believe.

That’s why the fear and loathing emanating from the food industry over the public’s right to information about the food they consume is so hard for me to grasp.

As we kick off 2016 the leaders of many of the nation’s largest and most powerful food companies are doubling down on their commitment to block mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered crops, and they are seeking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s help to do so. The issue has become urgent for the industry as what would be the nation’s first mandatory labeling measure is set to go into effect July 1 in Vermont. The industry has thus far failed to convince a federal court to block the law’s implementation, though the fight could go to trial this spring.

Citizens in many other states continue to try to pass similar mandatory labeling measures. A GMO label would allow a consumer to know at a glance information that many consider important. Given that knowledge, some people might shy away from GMO-labeled foods; others may not care. Some may seek out GMO-labeled foods if they feel they provide special value or are helping “feed the world,” as GMO seed developers such as Monsanto Co. claim.  But the public’s right to that knowledge – to that decision-making ability – terrifies many in an industry that generates sales of roughly $2.1 trillion annually. The fear is so strong that they have enlisted teams of legal and public relations professionals to help try to convince regulators and federal lawmakers to override Vermont’s law and prohibit any future laws like it.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose members include PepsiCo., Kellogg Co. and hundreds of other large food companies, leads the charge against GMO labeling, saying it would be too costly to implement and is unnecessary because GMOs are proven safe. The organization says it is “hopeful that compromise will establish a uniform national standard for foods made with genetically engineered crops.” The group recently put forth a proposed initiative that would add barcodes to products that consumers could scan with their smartphones to access information. But whether or not the presence of GMO ingredients would ever be required to be included in that information is unclear.

Those fighting for mandatory labeling include members of the organic and natural foods industry, but also consumer groups, environmentalists and lots of regular moms and dads who want to know what they are feeding their children. Many of these labeling supporters cite pesticide residues on GMO foods as a concern, and contradictory science on the safety of GMOs. Some opponents say they don’t want to buy products that they feel contribute to corporate control of the world’s food supply. A barcode won’t cut it, many of the leading GMO labeling proponents say.  They point to a national survey conducted in November by the Mellman Group that concluded 88 percent of people want a printed GMO label rather than having to use a smartphone app to scan a bar code.

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack looks set to sit down with representatives from both sides of the issue in January to try to forge a compromise if one can be found. Both sides say they are willing to meet in the middle. Millions of dollars have been spent lobbying for and against labeling and fighting the issue out in the courts, and both sides are weary of the war. Details of the discussions to be held are being kept confidential, according to some participants, to give the process the greatest chance of success.

As the discussions loom, we should not lose sight of the fact that this issue – and many others – come down to the power of information, and the critical nature of who controls that information.  Those companies developing and profiting from GMOs have the information they need to patent their creations and track where and how they are used. Farmers planting GMOs are provided a range of information about the seeds, their limitations and their benefits, and can easily choose non-GMO seeds because varieties are labeled and tracked. Systems are in place to allow food manufacturers to know whether or not they are purchasing ingredients made from GMO crops. It seems consumers are the only ones left out of the information pipeline.

Indeed, some advocating against GMO labeling argue that consumers aren’t smart enough to understand or use GMO labeling information effectively. They argue that consumers are being conned into fearing GMOs. In a Dec. 27 blog posting opposing GMO labeling, GMO supporters Jon Entine and retired University of Illinois professor Bruce Chassy wrote of consumers “who can’t define what a GMO is” and said that pro-labeling efforts are driven by “small groups of well-financed professional activists.” Chassy and Entine argue that these “activists” use “misinformation and fear-mongering to whip up support for their agenda.”

Such pro-GMO advocates may hope consumers also are not well informed about their connections to the corporate food industry. Chassy doesn’t mention in that blog, for instance, that for years while working as a professor of food safety at the University of Illinois, he collaborated quietly with Monsanto executives on multiple projects aimed at countering concerns about health and environmental impacts of GMOs. Monsanto has acknowledged that it provided several unrestricted grants to the biotechnology outreach program that Chassy helped lead, but said there was nothing improper about the relationship.

That is information some might want to know. But it only became public after the non-profit group U.S. Right to Know obtained emails between Chassy and several other university professors and Monsanto, and shared them with media outlets.

Another batch of emails recently disclosed shows discussions between Kevin Folta, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, and a public relations agency about how to counter a Canadian teenager who developed a website questioning the safety of genetically modified foods. Folta also received grant money from Monsanto.

I don’t know about you, but this is all information I think is important. Knowing what goes on behind the scenes helps me make decisions about who I trust and what I believe about the food I buy for myself and my family. As a journalist I’ve been fortunate enough to get behind those scenes a time or two myself: I’ve toured Monsanto’s laboratories, visited Dow AgroSciences’ test plots; and spent more time than I can calculate with farmers in their fields. I’ve also spent countless hours with scientists on both sides of this debate; waded through stacks of legal and regulatory documents; and sat down with government regulators to talk over the myriad issues.

The knowledge I have gained leaves me straddling the fence a bit. I see benefits to GMOs, and I see risks. And I know with certainty that I want more information, not less.

Whatever one’s views are about GMOs, or other aspects of the food industry, the right to information is essential, and not one to be abridged.

Carey Gillam has been recognized as one of the top food and agriculture journalists in the United States, winning several awards for her coverage of the industry, and appearing as an expert commentator on radio and television broadcasts. After a 17-year career at Reuters, one of the world’s largest news organizations, Gillam joined U.S. Right to Know as Research Director on Jan. 4.