Despite its academic-sounding name and affiliation with an Ivy League Institution, the Cornell Alliance for Science is a public relations campaign to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. With $12 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science claims to be working to “restore the importance of scientific evidence in decision-making,” however, the examples in this fact sheet show that the group:
- Misleads the public with inaccurate information about science;
- Elevates unreliable messengers who make false and unscientific claims; and,
- Partners with front groups that have worked with the tobacco industry or chemical industries to manufacture doubt about science that raises health concerns.
The evidence suggests the Cornell Alliance for Science is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to promote the talking points and political agenda of the world’s largest agrichemical corporations.
The Gates Foundation helped launch the Cornell Alliance for Science in 2014 as an effort to “depolarize the charged debate” around genetically modified foods (GMOs). The Gates Foundation Deputy Director Rob Horsch, who worked for Monsanto Company for 25 years, leads the foundation’s agricultural research and development strategies, which have drawn criticism for relentlessly promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa.1
Industry-aligned mission and activities
The mission of Cornell Alliance for Science – to build a global movement of “agricultural champions” to “advocate for access” to genetically engineered crops – is strikingly similar to the mission of the main trade group that promotes the interests of the world’s largest agricultural chemical companies. The Council for Biotechnology Information, which is funded by BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta, describes its agenda to “promote acceptance” of agricultural biotechnology by getting “external voices” to “understand and accept the positive role” of genetic engineering.
The main activity of the Cornell Alliance for Science appears to be training and supporting its Global Leadership Fellows – many of whom are journalists or marketing specialists2 – to conduct public relations and political advocacy that aligns with the agrichemical industry’s agenda. Geographical areas of focus have included African countries, where Alliance members urged countries to accept GMO crops and pesticides; and the Hawaiian Islands, where Alliance members opposed community efforts to regulate pesticides.
Defending pesticides with Monsanto talking points
The messaging of Cornell Alliance for Science is strikingly aligned with the agrichemical industry. One clear example is how the Cornell group echoed industry efforts to discredit the scientists of the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency in the wake of their 2015 finding that glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup weed killer, is a probable human carcinogen.
Monsanto’s messaging to combat the market effects of the cancer ruling is revealed in this February 2015 public relations document, which described plans to mobilize “partners” across the food industry to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report in order to “protect the reputation” of Roundup and ward off regulatory actions. Direct sales of glyphosate-based products such as Roundup account for about one third of Monsanto’s profits, and the herbicide is a key component of GMO foods with 90% of corn and soy grown in the United States genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup products.
The precise product-defense messaging can be seen in materials from groups Monsanto identified as “industry partners” in its plan. For example, the Genetic Literacy Project, one of the industry partner groups, and the American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto paid to spin the cancer report, claimed the report was a “scientific fraud” perpetrated by activists, and attacked the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who ‘lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate.
The Cornell Alliance for Science leveled similar attacks against the scientists, portraying their cancer report as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “anti-Monsanto activists” who “abused science” and committed “an obvious perversion of both science and natural justice” by reporting a cancer risk. The Cornell Alliance for Science article written by Mark Lynas described glyphosate as “the most benign chemical in world farming.”
Lynas, a writer who works with Cornell Alliance for Science, claimed to be on the side of science and yet ignored evidence that Monsanto interfered with scientific research, manipulated regulatory agencies and used other “strong arm” tactics to interfere with the scientific process in order to protect its pesticide.
In August 2018, in the first case to go to trial of more than 8,000 lawsuits pending against Monsanto (now merged with Bayer), a jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in compensatory and punitive damages to a school groundskeeper who was diagnosed with terminal cancer after using glyphosate-based Roundup products. The jury found that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in covering up the cancer risk of Roundup.
Partners with industry, opposes transparency
The director of Cornell Alliance for Science, Sarah Evanega, PhD, has said her group is independent of industry: “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate or promote industry-owned products. As our website clearly and fully discloses, we receive no resources from industry.” However, dozens of emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show that Dr. Evanega and the Cornell Alliance for Science coordinate closely with the agrichemical industry and their PR allies on key public relations initiatives; see some examples in the footnotes.3
The Cornell Alliance for Science led opposition to transparency efforts to uncover how the agrichemical companies work with academics in covert ways to influence policy and public perception. As one of their first campaigns, the Cornell group teamed up with the industry partner group Biofortified to launch a petition opposing the use of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to investigate corporate-academic ties. The U.S. Right to Know FOIA investigation has revealed many examples of how academics assist industry with PR and lobbying campaigns in ways that are hidden from the public and policy makers.
As one example, the emails show that the pesticide industry recruited members of Biofortified to lobby against pesticide regulations in Hawaii. One member of the group, University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, claimed they were “independent expert scientists” traveling to Hawaii “simply to share science,” even though the pesticide industry was coordinating their meetings and messaging behind the scenes. Dr. Folta has misled the public about science and his ties to industry on many occasions; yet the emails show that Dr. Evanega invited him to teach and speak at Cornell and suggested him for speaking roles, describing him as “an amazing champion for change” and “a model for scientists.”
Fellows, partners mislead the public about science
The Cornell Alliance for Science also employs people who mislead the public and partners with groups that manufacture doubt about science that raises health concerns about food and chemical industry products. The partnerships described below suggest that the purpose of the Cornell Alliance for Science is not to promote science but rather to promote the agrichemical industry’s political agenda of deregulation.
Mark Lynas: The most visible face of the Cornell Alliance for Science, the British writer Mark Lynas has written dozens of articles defending agrichemical industry products in the name of the Cornell Alliance for Science and recently published a book promoting GMOs and arguing for African countries to accept them.
Experts in genetic engineering, biology, agroecology and food policy have criticized Lynas for making false claims, inaccurate statements, “unscientific, illogical and absurd” arguments, “relying on authority rather than data or research,” and making a career out of demonizing and insulting critics of the agrichemical industry.4 A 2018 statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.”
Lynas has been a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University’s Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences since 2013. According to his website, he advises the Cornell Alliance for Science on their work in developing countries and teaches courses at Cornell. In 2015, Lynas described himself as the “political director” of Cornell Alliance for Science. He also serves on the advisory council of Sense About Science, a Monsanto partner group.
Read more about Mark Lynas and his background here.
Trevor Butterworth and Sense About Science/STATS: The Cornell Alliance for Science partners with Sense About Science USA to offer “statistical consultation for journalists,” and gives a platform to the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending products important to the chemical, junk food and drug industries, including phthalates, BPA, vinyl plastic, fracking, formaldehyde in baby soaps, sugary sodas, artificial sweeteners and Oxycontin.
Journalists have described Butterworth’s former employer STATS, which he merged with Sense About Science USA in 2014, as a “disinformation campaign” that plays a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation” and uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk. Both Sense About Science and STATS were founded by men who worked with the tobacco industry in the 1990s to downplay the risks of cigarettes.
Monsanto’s PR plan named Sense About Science as an industry partner, and suggested the group could “lead industry response” in the media. Read more about Butterworth, Sense About Science and STATS here.
Climate science skeptic Owen Paterson: In 2015, Cornell Alliance for Science hosted a visit by Owen Paterson, a British Conservative Party politician and well-known climate science skeptic who slashed funding for global warming mitigation efforts during his stint as UK Environment Minister. Paterson used the Cornell stage to promote GMOs with unscientific, inaccurate arguments and claims that environmental groups “allow millions to die.”
The Monsanto-funded front group American Council on Science and Health promoted Paterson’s Cornell speech with an article by Gil Ross, a doctor who spent time in jail for Medicaid fraud, claiming that “billion dollar green campaigns kill poor children.”
A week after his Cornell talk, Paterson partnered with Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science and Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science in the UK, to launch the “ecomodernism movement,” a corporate-aligned, anti-regulation strain of “environmentalism” that Lynas said he co-founded. British writer George Monbiot describes ecomodernism as “take no action to protect the natural world.”
Opposes community efforts to regulate pesticides in Hawaii
Another example of how the Cornell Alliance for Science deploys fellows and staff members to assist with agrichemical industry lobbying efforts is the group’s campaign to defend pesticides and discredit public health advocates in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for genetically engineered crops, and also ground zero for high exposures to pesticides and concerns about pesticide-related health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma.
These concerns led residents to organize a years-long fight to pass stronger regulations to reduce pesticide exposures and improve disclosure of the chemicals used on agricultural fields. The Cornell Alliance for Science vigorously opposed those efforts, with staff members, fellows and associates writing many articles that tried to discredit elected officials and community groups in Hawaii working for reforms. Messengers of those pro-industry efforts include:
Sarah Thompson, a former employee of Dow AgroSciences, coordinates the Hawaii Alliance for Science, a “communications-based non-profit grassroots organization associated with the Cornell Alliance for Science.” The group launched in 2016, has 10 team members listed on its website, and says its purpose is to “ensure that Science can thrive in Hawaii.” Social media posts from the Hawaii Alliance for Science and its coordinator Thompson have described critics of the agrichemical industry as arrogant and ignorant people, celebrated corn and soy mono-crops and defended neonicotinoid pesticides which many studies and scientists say are harming bees.
Joan Conrow, Managing Editor and Visiting Fellow of Cornell Alliance for Science, and team member of Hawaii Alliance for Science, writes articles on her personal website, her “Kauai Eclectic” blog and for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project trying to discredit health professionals, community groups and politicians in Hawaii who advocate for stronger pesticide protections. Conrow has accused environmental groups of tax evasion, ripped apart media reports about pesticide-related health concerns and compared a food safety group to the KKK.
Conrow has not always disclosed her Cornell affiliation. In August 2016, Hawaii’s Civil Beat newspaper criticized Conrow for her lack of transparency and cited her as an example of why the paper was changing its commenting policies. Conrow “often argued the pro-GMO perspective without explicitly mentioning her occupation as a GMO sympathist,” wrote journalism professor Brett Oppegaard. “Conrow also has lost her journalistic independence (and credibility) to report fairly about GMO issues, because of the tone of her work on these issues.”
Joni Kamiya, a 2015 Global Leadership Fellow with Cornell Alliance for Science and also on the team of Hawaii Alliance for Science, argues against pesticide regulations on her website Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter, in the media and also for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project. She is an “ambassador expert” for the agrichemical industry-funded marketing website GMO Answers.
Like Conrow, Kamiya claims pesticide exposures in Hawaii aren’t a problem, and tries to discredit elected officials and “environmental extremists” who want to regulate pesticides. She promotes chemical industry front groups and industry consultants as “fearless sources” she loves on her website, and even includes the Center for Consumer Freedom, the front group started by Rick Berman, the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda” who was once profiled on 60 Minutes as “Dr. Evil” for his work as the “arch enemy” of regulations to protect health and the environment.
Cornell Alliance for Science staffers, advisors
The Cornell Alliance for Science describes itself as “an initiative based at Cornell University, a non-profit institution.” The Alliance does not disclose its budget, expenditures or staff salaries, and Cornell University does not disclose any information about the Cornell Alliance for Science in its tax filings.
The website lists 20 staff members, including the Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, and Managing Editor and Visiting Fellow Joan Conrow (it does not list Mark Lynas or other fellows who may also receive compensation). Other notable staff members listed on the website include:
- Gregory Jaffe is the third staff member on the Cornell Alliance for Science staff roster, with a title of Associate Director of Legal Affairs. Jaffe also works for Center for Science in the Public Interest as the Director of Biotechnology (where he draws a $143,000 salary plus benefits). CSPI opposes GMO labeling and Jaffe argues that “Americans should embrace” the current crop of genetically engineered foods.
- Jayson Merkley, one of 10 members of the Cornell Alliance for Science training team, worked as a social media consultant for March Against Myths Against Modification, a project of the industry partner group Biofortified. In 2016, after attending a Cornell Alliance for Science grassroots organizing training, Merkley helped stage a protest to confront Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva. Although he claimed the protesters were standing up for “science activism,” Merkley’s Cornell article about the protest made inaccurate claims and left out important data.
The Cornell Alliance for Science advisory board includes academics who assist the agrichemical industry with their PR efforts.
- Pamela Ronald: A geneticist at UC Davis, Ronald is a prominent champion of genetically engineered foods. She served on the boards of directors of two Monsanto partner groups, Biofortified (which Ronald co-founded) and the Science Literacy Project, the parent organization of the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project. Ronald has also solicited industry payments for speaking engagements; see $10,000 invoice to Bayer and $3,000 invoice to Monsanto.
- Alison Van Eenennaam: A cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, Van Eenennaam argues for deregulating genetically engineered animals she is developing. She is key outside spokesperson the agrichemical industry relies on in its PR and lobbying campaigns to oppose regulations and transparency.
- Anthony Shelton: Cornell Professor Tony Shelton was one of several professors recruited by Monsanto to write pro-GMO papers that were published by the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project with no disclosure about the corporation’s behind-the-scenes role.
More critiques of the Cornell Alliance for Science
- “6 ways this Ivy League university is acting like a PR firm for junk food, GMOs and pesticides,” by Sophia Johnson, Salon
- “The Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR front for the agrichemical industry.”
- “Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign?” by Stacy Malkan, The Ecologist
- This group “is promoting GMOs using dishonest messaging and PR tactics developed by agrichemical corporations with a long history of misleading the public about science.”
- “New York Farmers call on Cornell to evict the Cornell Alliance for Science,” press release from 67 organic farmers
- “Careful examination of the Alliance for Science website reveals not a single critical assessment of genetic engineering, none of the reasonable questions that ecological precaution suggest, and no significant evaluation or critique of the way that increased use of genetically engineered seed, Round-Up Ready corn and soy in particular, has enabled the consolidation of power over the world’s food supply by fewer and fewer chemo-biotech corporations.”
- “One student’s experience of pro-GMO propaganda at Cornell,” by Robert Schooler, Independent Science News
- “The GMO Debate course, which ran in the fall of 2015, was a blatant display of unscientific propaganda in an academic setting.”
- “The Puppetmasters of Academia,” by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent Science News
- “The Alliance for Science is a PR project and international training center for academics and others who want to work with the biotech industry to promote GMOs.”
- “The War on Genetically Modified Food Critics,” by Timothy Wise, director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University
- “What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign (to) … paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages.”
Footnotes with additional information
 The Gates Foundation has been criticized for spending the bulk of its agricultural development grants in wealthy countries on strategies that entrench corporate power. Numerous groups across Africa have reported concerns about the disappearance of traditional and organic food crops, the higher expenses of GMO seeds and agricultural chemicals, doubts about whether genetic engineering can deliver on promises and the limitations of GMO crops to deal with the complex realities of farming in Africa. In Burkina Faso, farmers abandoned an experiment with Monsanto’s bug-resistant corn after it became clear the genetically engineered corn could not deliver the same high quality as the traditional homegrown variety. In South Africa, where more than 85% of corn and soy are genetically engineered to survive glyphosate-based Roundup weed killer, farmers are using more chemicals and doctors are raising concerns about growing rates of cancer.
Critiques of the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural development and funding include:
- “Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why the GMO Promoters Get it So Wrong About Africa,” statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (2018)
- “How does the Gates Foundation feed the world?” funding analysis by GRAIN report (2014)
- “Bill Gates spends bulk of agricultural grants in rich countries,” by John Vidal, the Guardian (2014)
- “Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?” Global Justice Now report (1.2014)
- “Does the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation help big corporations more than poor people?” by Oscar Rickett, Vice (2016)
- “Bill Gates is on a mission to sell GMOs to Africa, but he’s not telling the whole truth,” by Stacy Malkan, Alternet (2016)
- “Philanthropic Power and Development. Who shapes the agenda?” by Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz, report page 48 (2015)
- “Philanthrocapitalism: The Gates Foundation’s African programmes are not charity,” by Philip L Bereano, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Third World Resurgence (2017)
- “Gates Foundation’s Seed Agenda in Africa ‘Another Form of Colonialism,’ Warns Protesters,” by Lauren McCauley, Common Dreams (2015)
- “How Bill Gates is Helping KFC Take Over Africa,”by Alex Park,Mother Jones (2014)
 More than half the 2018 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows – 15 out of 27 – are identified in their bios as journalists or specialists in communication or marketing. Government administrators, biotechnology students and agribusiness representatives are also among the 2018 fellows chosen from seven countries: Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. According to the Cornell University press release, the fellows will attend a 12-week intensive training program to learn “strategic planning, grassroots organizing, the science of crop biotechnology and effective communications” to help them advocate for access to biotechnology in their home countries.
 Dozens of emails obtained via FOIA by U.S. Right to Know, and now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show Dr. Evanega and the Cornell Alliance for Science coordinating closely with the agrichemical industry and their academic allies to coordinate events and messaging:
- Evanega worked with Monsanto’s Cami Ryan to organize a series of workshops in 2017 to promote genetically engineered foods.
- In response to a request from a DuPont Pioneer executive, Dr. Evanega recruited University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta to speak to the University-Industry Consortium, a group that says it addressed critical issues in the agricultural marketplace in order to maintain “a competitive advantage” for its corporate and academic members.
- Dr. Evanega invited Alliance advisory board member Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis who is developing genetically engineered animals and argues for deregulating them, to speak at the DuPont Pioneer-funded Cornell Breeding Symposium. Dr. Evanega also asked Dr. Van Eenennaam to submit comments on a government proposal to regulate GMOs, and the two discussed developing feminist materials to help promote GMOs.
- Dr. Evanega served on the working group of the UC Davis Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL), alongside Monsanto staffers and two groups identified in emails to be agrichemical industry front groups, Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review. IFAL and the front groups co-hosted an industry-funded “boot camp” to train scientists and students to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides.
 Critiques and corrections of Mark Lynas include:
- “Mark Lynas Promotes the Agrichemical Industry Commercial Agenda,” U.S. Right to Know fact sheet (2018)
- “Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why the GMO Promoters Get it So Wrong About Africa,” statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (2018)
- “The Science is Still Out on GMO Safety,” by David Schubert, PhD, Head, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory & Professor at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego Union Tribune letter (2018)
- “Science, Dogma and Mark Lynas,” by Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, former senior scientist, Union of Concern Scientists(2013)
- “The Absurdity of Claiming All GMOs are Safe,”by geneticist Belinda Martineau, PhDBiotech Salon and Letter to NYT(2015)
- “Misleading Claims Made By and About Mark Lynas,” GM Watch
- “Of Myths and Men: Mark Lynas and the Intoxicating Power of Technocracy,” by Eric Holt-Giménez, PhD, Director Food First/Institute of Food Policy and Development,Huffington Post(2013)
- “Professor John Vandermeer challenges environmentalist Mark Lynas on GMOs,” Food First (2014)
- “Scientist: Genetic Engineering is Based on Dramatically Incomplete Knowledge,” Q&A with John Vendermeer (2013)
- “22 Pieces Of Junk Science From The Lynas Manifesto,” by Brian John, PhD, Permaculture Research Institute (2013)
- “A Rebuttal to Mark Lynas’ GMO Reversal,” by Jason Mark, Earth Island Journal (2013)
The Independent Women’s Forum defends toxic chemicals in food and consumer products, denies climate science and argues against laws that would curb the power of corporations. IWF got its start in 1991 as an effort to defend now Supreme Court Justice (and former Monsanto attorney) Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. The is also defending Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the face of sexual assault allegations, and has described Kavanaugh as a “champion of women.”
See: “Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh
Funded largely by right-wing foundations that push climate science denial, the Independent Women’s Forum says it works for policies that “enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities.” In practice, the group advocates for deregulating toxic products and work to deflect the blame for health and environmental harms away from polluting corporations and toward personal responsibility. In 2017, IWF lobbied FDA to approve e-cigarettes, arguing that women need them for biological reasons. IWF has also partnered with Monsanto, attacked the organic industry and claimed that public health information can harm the public.
Funding by right wing billionaires and corporations
Most of the known donors of the Independent Women’s Forum are men, as Lisa Graves wrote for the Center for Media and Democracy in 2016. IWF has received over $15 million in donations since 1998, largely from right-wing foundations that promote deregulation and corporate free reign, according to data collected by Greenpeace USA. IWF’s leading contributors, with more than $5 million in donations, are Donors Trust and Donors Capital Funds, the secretive funds, known as the “dark money ATM of the conservative movement,” connected with Charles and David Koch. These funds channel money from anonymous donors, including corporations, to third-party groups that lobby for corporate interests.
IWF’s top funder: dark money from undisclosed donors
Koch family foundations directly contributed more than $844,115 and other top funders include the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Randolph Foundation (an offshoot of the Richardson Foundation), and Searle Freedom Trust — all of these are leading funders of groups that push climate-science denial, and they also fund chemical industry front groups that deny science about the harm of pesticides, push GMOs and flak for Monsanto and the agrichemical industry.
ExxonMobil and Philip Morris are also among IWF’s funders, according to documents from the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Library. Phillip Morris named IWF in a list of “potential third party references” and “those who respect our views.” In their book “Merchants of Doubt” Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway described IWF as one of the “seemingly grass-roots organizations” funded by the Phillip Morris Corporation that focus on “individual liberties” and “regulatory issues.”
Rush Limbaugh has donated at least a quarter of a million dollars to IWF, according to this report in The Nation: “Guess Which Women’s Group Rush Limbaugh has Donated Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to? Hint: it’s the one that defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade.”
Chair of the Board of Directors of IWF, Heather R. Higgins, is also the CEO of the Independent Women’s Voice, the lobby arm of IWF. Higgins held senior positions in numerous right-wing foundations, including the Randolph Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Philanthropy Roundtable.
Kellyanne Conway, White House advisor and former Trump campaign manager, is an IWF board member. Directors Emeritae include Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney and Kimberly O. Dennis, president of the board of directors of Donors Trust and president and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust.
Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, a former Koch Industries lobbyist, left Koch Industries to become president of IWF in 2001 and she later served as Vice Chairman of IWF’s Board of Directors. She has a long history of promoting dirty energy and pushing for deregulation of polluting industries.
IWF’s agenda closely follows the lobbying and messaging agenda of tobacco, oil and chemical industry interests. Following are some examples:
Argues ‘Phillips Morris PR’
“Clearly, the FDA doesn’t intend to punish women, simply for their gender. Yet, that’s precisely what’s going to happen if women are limited to smoking cessation products that biologically cannot provide them with the help they need to quit traditional cigarettes,” IWF wrote.
In response to the IWF letter, Stanton Glantz, PhD, Professor of Medicine at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said: “This is standard Philip Morris PR. There is no independent confirmation that IQOS are safer than cigarettes or that they help people quit smoking.”
Denies climate science
The Independent Women’s Forum is a “Koch Industries Climate Denial Group” that “has spread misinformation on climate science and touts the work of climate deniers,” according to Greenpeace.
Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker: “The (Koch) brothers have given money to more obscure groups, too, such as the Independent Women’s Forum, which opposes the presentation of global warming as a scientific fact in American public schools. Until 2008, the group was run by Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries. Mary Beth Jarvis, a vice-president of a Koch subsidiary, is on the group’s board.”
Opposes teaching climate science in schools
A Denver Post story reported in 2010, IWF “thinks global warming is ‘junk science’ and that teaching it is unnecessarily scaring schoolchildren.” Through a campaign called “Balanced Education for Everyone,” IWF opposed climate science education in schools, which the group described as “alarmist global warming indoctrination.”
IWF President Carrie Lucas writes about the “growing skepticism about climate change” and argues “the public could pay dearly for the hysteria.”
Promotes toxic chemicals / Partners with Monsanto
IWF is a leading messenger for promoting toxic chemicals as nothing to worry about, opposing public health protections and trying to build trust for corporations like Monsanto. According to IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project, sharing information about hazardous chemicals in consumer products leads to “wasted tax dollars, higher costs and inferior goods for consumers, fewer jobs … and a needlessly worried, less free American populace.”
In February 2017, Monsanto partnered with IWF on an event titled “Food and Fear: How to Find Facts in Today’s Culture of Alarmism,” and an IWF podcast that month discussed “How Monsanto is Vilified by Activists.”
IWF pushes the talking points of Monsanto and the agrichemical industry: promoting GMOs and pesticides, attacking the organic industry and opposing transparency in food labels. Examples include:
- Vermont’s GMO labeling law is stupid. (The Spectator)
- Sinister GMO labeling will cause grocery costs to skyrocket. (IWF)
- Anti-GMO hype is the real threat to the well being of families. (National Review)
- General Mills caved in to the “food police” by removing GMOs (USA Today)
- Chipotle is stuffing their non-GMO burritos with nonsense. (IWF)
- Reasonable moms need to push back on the mom shaming and guilt tripping organic food narrative. (IWF podcast)
- GMO critics are cruel, vain, elite and seek to deny those in need. (New York Post)
- Educates celebrity moms about GMOs with Monsanto’s talking points (IWF)
Champions corporate-friendly “food freedom”
IWF attacks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as “government nannies,” for example describing the agency as “food Marxists” and “completely out of control” for issuing voluntary guidance to food manufacturers to cut sodium levels.
In 2012, IWF launched a “Women for Food Freedom” project to “push back on the nanny state and encourage personal responsibility” for food choices. The agenda included opposing “food regulations, soda and snack food taxes, junk science and food and home-product scares, misinformation about obesity and hunger, and other federal food programs, including school lunches.”
On obesity, IWF tries to shift attention away from corporate accountability and toward personal choices. In this interview with Thom Hartmann, Julie Gunlock of IWF’s Culture of Alarmism Project argues that corporations are not to blame for America’s obesity problem but rather “people are making bad choices and I think parents are completely checking out.” The solution, she said, is for parents to cook more, especially poor parents since they have a worse problem with obesity.
Attacks moms for trying to reduce pesticide exposures
IWF pushes industry messaging, using covert tactics, in attempt to ostracize moms who are concerned about pesticides; a prime example is this 2014 New York Post article, “Tyranny of the Organic Mommy Mafia” by Naomi Schafer Riley.
Under the guise of complaining about “mom shaming,” Riley – who is an IWF fellow but did not disclose that to readers – attempts to shame and blame moms who choose organic food.
Riley’s article relied on information from industry front groups that she falsely presented as independent sources:
- Riley described Academics Review – a front group funded by the agrichemical industry and started with the help of Monsanto to attack the organic industry and critics of GMOs – as “a nonprofit group of independent scientists.”
- Riley used the Alliance for Food and Farming, a food industry front group, to counter “the most common mommy worry — pesticides” with the message that pesticides are nothing to worry about.
- A key source, Julie Gunlock, was identified as an author but not as an employee of IWF and Riley’s colleague.
Partners with chemical industry front groups
IWF partners with other corporate front groups such as the American Council on Science and Health, a leading defender of toxic chemicals with deep ties to Monsanto and Syngenta. ACSH is funded by chemical, pharmaceutical, tobacco and other industry groups.
- In a February 2017 IWF podcast, ACSH and IWF “debunked Rachel Carson’s alarmism on toxic chemicals”
- ACSH was “fully behind” IWF’s “culture of alarmism letter” opposing efforts to remove hazardous chemicals from consumer products.
- IWF events attacking moms who are concerned about toxic chemicals, such as this “hazmat parenting” event, featured ACSH representative Josh Bloom and chemical industry public relations writer Trevor Butterworth.
As many journalists and articles have pointed out, IWF also partners with many other Koch-funded activist groups that deny climate science and push the deregulatory agenda of corporations.
For further reading:
The Intercept, “Koch Brothers Operatives Fill Top White House Positions,” by Lee Fang (4/4/2017)
The Nation, “Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh (8/18/2016)
Center for Media and Democracy, “Most Known Donors of the Independent Women’s Forum are Men,” by Lisa Graves (8/24/2016)
Center for Media and Democracy, “Confirmation: the Not-so-Independent Women’s Forum was Born in Defense of Clarence Thomas and the Far Right,” by Lisa Graves and Calvin Sloan (4/21/2016)
Slate, “Confirmation Bias: How ‘Women for Judge Thomas’ turned into a conservative powerhouse,” by Barbara Spindel (4/7/2016)
Truthout, “Independent Women’s Forum Uses Misleading Branding to Push Right Wing Agenda,” by Lisa Graves, Calvin Sloan and Kim Haddow (8/19/2016)
Inside Philanthropy, “The Money Behind the Conservative Women’s Groups Still Fighting the Culture War,” by Philip Rojc (9/13/2016)
The Nation, “Guess Which Women’s Group Rush Limbaugh has Donated Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to? Hint: it’s the one that defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade,” by Eli Clifton (6/12/2014)
The New Yorker, “The Koch Brothers Covert Operations,” by Jane Mayer (8/30/2010)
Oxford University Press, “Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics,” by Ronnee Schreiber (2008)
Inside Philanthropy, “Look Who’s Funding This Top Conservative Women’s Group,” by Joan Shipps (11/26/2014)
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “Conservative Women are Right for Media Mainstream; Media Have Finally Found Some Women to Love,” by Laura Flanders (3/1/1996)
Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a cooperative extension specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California, Davis, is a leading promoter of genetically engineered animals, crops and the pesticides that accompany them, and an advocate for deregulation.
Dr. Van Eenennaam is a former Monsanto employee who opposes requiring safety studies for genetically engineered animals and holds several patents involving genetic engineering. Her lab experiments include using CRISPR, a genetic engineering technique, to eliminate the horns of dairy cows and breed “all-male terminator cattle” to father only male offspring — a project she calls “Boys Only.” A proposal by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require safety and efficacy studies for genetically engineered animals is “insane,” according to Dr. Van Eenennaam.
Although often presented in the media as an independent scientist, Dr. Van Eenennaam coordinates with agrichemical companies and their PR firms on messaging, lobbying and PR activities, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library. Examples of collaborations include:
Monsanto edited her remarks for the Intelligence Squared debate
Emails show that Lee Quarles, Monsanto’s global communication lead, and Tony Zagora, senior vice president and partner of the FleishmanHillard PR firm, edited Dr. Van Eenennaam’s remarks for a December 2014 Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate where she argued for public acceptance of genetically engineered foods alongside Robb Fraley of Monsanto.
Quarles also connected Dr. Van Eenennaam with higher ups at Monsanto and FleishmanHillard to discuss the core positions she and Fraley should align on, and he arranged for Zagora and the PR agency to provide her with guidance on “approach, tone, delivery and personal presentation. This will help you better understand what are the key things our team should consider as we work to win over the people in the room, as well as all of those consumers in the NPR rebroadcast of the event.”
Some of Monsanto’s edits to Professor Van Eenennaam’s remarks are shown in track changes:
Former Monsanto Communications Director Jay Byrne and industry PR firm Ketchum provided coaching for media interviews
In 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam assisted the industry-funded No on Proposition 37 campaign in California to oppose GMO labeling. Emails show that the “No on 37” campaign staff arranged for Dr. Van Eenennaam to appear on the Dr. Oz Show to speak against labeling, and also arranged for her to receive media and messaging training from Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former head of corporate communications. (Emails also revealed that Jay Byrne worked with Monsanto to set up a front group to attack GMO critics and the organic industry while “keeping Monsanto in the background“.)
In 2014, the agrichemical industry’s lead public relations firm, Ketchum, pitched Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source and helped her prepare for a radio interview to debunk a study that linked genetically engineered animal feed to stomach inflammation. Ketchum provided Dr. Van Eenennaam with talking points from industry allies describing the stomach study as “junk science.”
Appeared at Hill briefing organized by climate science skeptic group
In September 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam appeared at a Competitive Enterprise Institute congressional briefing to argue for the deregulation of genetically engineered animals. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is an industry-funded group that promotes climate science skepticism and opposes regulations for the chemical industry. In 2013, donors to the Competitive Enterprises Institute annual fundraiser included Monsanto, Syngenta, FMC Corporation, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Google, as well as oil and tobacco companies and foundations related to Koch Industries. In 2016, CEI’s Director of Energy and Environment Myron Ebell, a prominent climate science skeptic who has said the case for global warming is “silly,” was chosen by the Trump Administration’s to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Coordinated lobbying efforts; defends pesticides
Dr. Van Eenennaam has coordinated lobbying to deregulate genetically engineered crops and animals, and keep them unlabeled. In 2012, she wrote a letter to the Obama Administration on behalf of the American Society of Animal Science public policy committee arguing for approval of the Aqua Bounty genetically engineered salmon without rigorous safety testing or labeling. In 2015, she recruited professors to support deregulating the Simplot Innate 2.0 genetically engineered potato. “Simplot is looking for some comments on their deregulation … the antis are trying to get the comment period extended as usual,” she wrote to the professors.
Dr. Van Eenennaam also defends glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide and a probable human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency. For a post on her website, she used pesticide industry sources and infographics to speculate about the market consequences of banning glyphosate, and characterized people raising concerns as the “worried wealthy.” The Monsanto (now Bayer) website promotes Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source to discredit a study that linked glyphosate to liver disease at low doses.
Some of Alison Van Eenennaam’s other industry collaborations
- Serves as an “independent expert” for GMO Answers, the agrichemical industry-funded PR and marketing website run by Ketchum, the public relations firm that pushed Russia’s interests in the United States for nine years through 2015, and also represented Russia’s state-run gas giant Gazprom. Emails from the late 1990s indicate that Ketchum was also involved in espionage against nonprofit groups that were raising concerns about GMOs.
- Played a leading role in the controversial documentary Food Evolution, a promotional film for GMOs funded by the trade group Institute for Food Technologists. Many academics have called the film propaganda and several people interviewed for the film have said their views were taken out of context, and described a deceptive filming process. Dr. Van Eenennaam has been a key promoter of the film.
- Serves on the advisory board of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a Gates Foundation-funded PR campaign that promotes the agrichemical industry’s commercial and lobbying agenda.
- Is a member of “AgBioChatter,”a private email listserve that pro-industry academics, senior staff of agrichemical companies and public relations consultants have used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities.
See Carey Gillam’s recent reporting in the Guardian
U.S. Right to Know is pleased to announce that Carey Gillam’s new book Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science (Island Press) has received the prestigious Rachel Carson Book Award for unveiling decades of corporate secrets and deceptive tactics by powerful pesticide companies, and how the corporate pursuit of profits has taken priority over protection of the public.
The Society of Environmental Journalists announced the award today along with all the first place winners of the SEJ 17th annual awards for reporting on the environment.
Gillam’s book offers pivotal insights into Capitol Hill’s current efforts to strip U.S. funding from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, as well as the first-ever trial over claims that Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide can cause cancer. Whitewash is so explosive that Monsanto has filed a motion with the court to keep it from being introduced as evidence.
Carey is an award-winning investigative journalist who spent 17 years at Reuters before becoming Research Director for the non-profit U.S. Right to Know consumer group in 2016.
Gillam, who lives in the farm state of Kansas, spent most of her career with the Reuters international news agency (1998-late 2015) before becoming Research Director for the non-profit U.S Right to Know consumer group in 2016.
Gillam is also a devoted mom of three and a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for foster children. She says her love and concern for children is a powerful driving force for her writing and research into the health and environmental impacts of food production in America. She spends a good deal of time pursuing Freedom of Information requests with U.S. regulators and has successfully sued the EPA to access thousands of documents that inform her work.
Gillam says: “The data, the internal corporate documents and regulatory documents I’ve obtained over the last 20 years of researching these matters, my talks with farmers, scientists, regulators, etc., all make it clear that we have created a profound problem for ourselves – a pesticide-dependent food system that is putting our future generations in danger. We have lost a much-needed sense of caution, and we’re allowing this corporate pursuit of profits to take priority over protection of the public.”
U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that works to advance transparency and accountability in the nation’s food system. For more information about U.S. Right to Know, please see usrtk.org.
– 30 –
Tamar Haspel is a freelance journalist who has been writing monthly food columns for the Washington Post since October 2013. Haspel’s columns frequently promote and defend agrichemical industry products, while she also receives payments to speak at industry-aligned events, and sometimes from industry groups – a practice known as “buckraking” that raises questions about objectivity.
A review of Haspel’s Washington Post columns turns up further concerns: in multiple instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry connections of her sources, relied on industry-slanted studies, cherry-picked facts to back up industry positions or cited industry propaganda uncritically. See source review and other examples described below. Haspel has not yet responded to inquiries for this article.
Buckraking on the food beat: a conflict of interest?
In a 2015 online chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” She discloses her speaking engagements on her personal website, but does not disclose which companies or trade groups fund her or what amounts they give.
When asked how much money she has taken from the agrichemical industry and its front groups, Haspel tweeted, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!”
According to the Washington Post Standards and Ethics, reporters cannot accept gifts, free trips, preferential treatment or free admissions from news sources, and “should make every effort to remain in the audience, to stay off the stage, to report the news, not to make the news.” These rules do not apply to freelancers however, and the paper leaves it up to editors to decide.
Haspel describes her criteria for accepting paid speaking engagements on her personal website: “First is that the event has to be consistent with my public mission, which is to have more constructive debates about food issues. Second is that, if for-profit companies are involved in the event (as they sometimes are), they can’t be the only voice … The key, for me, is that for-profit interests are counterbalanced by academic, scientific, NGO, activist, and/or governmental participants.” Not all events on her roster fit that criteria (see “biotech literacy” industry-spin events described below). Haspel’s editor Joe Yonan has said he is comfortable with Haspel’s approach to paid speaking engagements and finds it a “reasonable balance.”
More comments from Haspel and Yonan are reported here, “Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a Conflict of Interest?” by Stacy Malkan (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 2015). See also, “A short report on three journalists mentioned in our FOIA requests,” by Gary Ruskin (U.S. Right to Know, 2015). For perspectives from journalists and editors on buckraking, see Ken Silverstein’s reporting (Harper’s, 2008).
Taking up the GMO beat
Haspel began writing about genetically engineered foods in March 2013 in the Huffington Post (“Go Frankenfish! Why We Need GM Salmon”). Her writings about other food-related topics began appearing in the Washington Post and HuffPo in 2011 and elsewhere since the mid 1990s. Haspel’s final series of articles for Huffington Post continued on the topic of agrichemical industry products, with blogs debunking studies about possible risks of glyphosate and GMO animal feed, an argument against GMO labeling campaigns and a puff piece about the agrichemical industry’s marketing website, GMO Answers.
GMOAnswers.org was part of a multi-million-dollar public relations initiative the agrichemical industry announced in the spring of 2013 to combat consumer concerns about genetically engineered foods in the wake of campaigns to label GMOs.
WaPo Unearthed column: digging for industry perspectives
Haspel launched her monthly “Unearthed” food column in the Washington Post in October 2013 (“Genetically modified foods: What is and isn’t true”) with a promise to “dig deep to try and figure out what’s true and what isn’t in the debate about our food supply.” She advised readers to figure out “whom you can trust” in the GMO debate and identified several groups that did not pass her impartiality test (the Union of Concerned Scientists among them).
Haspel’s November 2013 column (“GMO common ground: Where supporters and opponents agree”) provided a broad range of perspectives from public interest as well as industry sources; however, in subsequent columns, Haspel seldom quotes public interest groups and devotes far less space to public health experts and data sources than she does to industry-connected sources or experts in risk analysis or “risk perception” who tend to downplay public health and safety concerns, and echo industry views. In several instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry ties to sources.
Industry-sourced ‘food movement’ column
An example that illustrates some of these problems is Haspel’s January 2016 column (“The surprising truth about the food movement”), in which she argues that people who care about genetic engineering or other aspects of food production – the “food movement” – are a marginal part of the population. She included no interviews with consumer, health, environmental or justice groups that consider themselves part of the food movement.
Haspel sourced the column with two industry-funded spin groups, the International Food Information Council and Ketchum, the public relations firm that runs GMO Answers. While she described Ketchum as a PR firm that “works extensively with the food industry,” Haspel did not disclose that Ketchum was hired by the agrichemical industry to change consumer views of GMO foods (nor did she mention Ketchum’s scandalous history of flacking for Russia and conducting espionage against environmental groups).
A third source for her column was a two-year old phone survey conducted by William Hallman, a public perception analyst from Rutgers who reported that most people don’t care about GMO labeling. (A year earlier, Hallman and Haspel discussed consumer perspectives about GMOs on a government-sponsored panel they shared with Eric Sachs of Monsanto.)
Collaborations with industry spin groups
Tamar Haspel’s affinity for and collaborations with key players in the agrichemical industry’s public relations efforts raise further concerns about her objectivity.
A promotional quote from Haspel appears on the homepage of STATS/Sense About Science, describing STATS as “invaluable” to her reporting. Other journalists have described STATS as a product-defense “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk and plays a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation.” A 2016 story in The Intercept described the tobacco ties of STATS and Sense About Science (which merged in 2014 under the direction of Trevor Butterworth) and the role they play in pushing industry views about science.
A 2015 public relations strategy document named Sense About Science among the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage in its campaign to “orchestrate outcry” against the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency to discredit a report about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.
Agrichemical industry spin events
In June 2014, Haspel was a “faculty” member (alongside several industry representatives) at a messaging training event called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp that was funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two industry front groups that Monsanto also identified as “industry partners” in its 2015 PR plan.
Genetic Literacy Project is a former program of STATS, and Academics Review was set up with the help of Monsanto to discredit industry critics while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden, according to emails obtained through public records requests.
The boot camp Haspel attended was aimed at “reframing the food safety and GMO debate,” according to the agenda. Paul Thacker reported about the event in The Progressive, “Industry has also secretly funded a series of conferences to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate … In emails, organizers referred to these conferences as biotech literacy bootcamps, and journalists are described as ‘partners.'”
Academics familiar with corporate spin tactics reviewed the boot camp documents at Thacker’s request. “These are distressing materials,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University. “It is clearly intended to persuade people that GMO crops are beneficial, needed, and not sufficiently risky to justify labeling.” Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said, “If journalists attend conferences that they are paid to attend, they need to be deeply suspicious from the get-go.”
Cami Ryan, a boot camp staffer who later went on to work for Monsanto, noted in the conference evaluation that participants wanted, “More Haspel-ish, Ropeik-ish sessions.” (David Ropeik is a risk perception consultant whom Haspel quoted in a 2015 Washington Post column that questioned concerns about glyphosate and herbicide-resistant GMO crops.)
2015 biotech literacy day
In May 2015, Haspel presented at a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” at the University of Florida organized by Kevin Folta, a professor tied in with agrichemical industry public relations and lobbying efforts. Folta had included Haspel in a proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem” resulting from activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” Page 4 of the proposal described an event to feature UF professors “and several others brought in from the outside including industry representatives, journalist experts in science communication (e.g. Tamar Haskel [sic], Amy Harmon), and experts in public risk perception and psychology (e.g. Dan Kahan).”
Monsanto funded Folta’s proposal, calling it “a great 3rd-party approach to developing the kind of advocacy we’re looking to develop.” (The money was donated to a food pantry in August 2015 after the funding became public.)
In April 2015, Folta wrote to Haspel with details about the messaging training event, “We’ll cover the costs and an honorarium, whatever that takes. The audience will be scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”
Haspel responded, “I am definitely in,” and she relayed an anecdote from another recent “science communication” panel that had changed somebody’s view about Monsanto. “It is possible to make headway, but I’m convinced it’s by person-to-person interactions,” Haspel wrote to Folta.
The archived agenda for the Florida communication day listed the speakers as Haspel, Folta, three other UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe and representatives from Biofortified and Center for Food Integrity (two more groups Monsanto referred to as industry partners in its PR strategy to defend glyphosate). In another email to Folta, Haspel enthused about meeting Crowe, “Very much looking forward to this. (I’ve wanted to meet Vance Crowe – very glad he’ll be there.)”
Ethics and disclosure
In September 2015, The New York Times featured Folta in a front-page story by Eric Lipton about how industry groups relied on academics to fight the GMO labeling war. Lipton reported on Folta’s fundraising appeal to Monsanto, and that Folta had been publicly claiming he had no associations with Monsanto.
Haspel wrote to Folta a few months later, “I am very sorry for what you’ve gone through, and it’s distressing when mean-spirited, partisan attacks overshadow the real issues — both on the science and on the transparency, both of which are so important.” Haspel mentioned she was working with the National Press Foundation to develop better conflict of interest standards for freelance journalists.
Haspel was a 2015 fellow for the National Press Foundation (a group partly funded by corporations, including Bayer and DuPont). In an article she wrote for NPF about ethics for freelancers, Haspel discussed the importance of disclosure and described her criteria for speaking at events only if non-industry funders and diverse views are involved — criteria not met by either of the biotech literacy events. The disclosure page on her website does not accurately disclose the conveners and funders of the 2014 biotech literacy boot camp. Haspel has not responded to questions about the biotech literacy events.
Misleading reporting on pesticides
A source review of three of Tamar Haspel’s Washington Post columns on the topic of pesticides turned up examples of undisclosed industry-connected sources, data omissions and out of context reporting that served to bolster industry messaging that pesticides are not a concern and organic is not much of a benefit. The review covers these three columns (referred to below by the year in which they were published).
- “Is organic better for your health? A look at milk, meat, eggs, produce and fish” (April 7, 2014)
- “It’s the chemical Monsanto depends on. How dangerous is it?” (October 2015)
- “The truth about organic produce and pesticides” (May 21, 2018)
Failed to disclose industry connections to sources
In her 2018 column, Haspel gave readers “an idea of the magnitude of risk” from cumulative pesticide exposures by citing a study that equated the risk of consuming pesticides from food to drinking one glass of wine every three months. Haspel did not disclose that four of five authors of that study were employed by Bayer Crop Sciences, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers. The study had originally reported the risk as equal to drinking one glass of wine every seven years; a group of scientists pointed out the problem, along with undisclosed author conflicts and other flaws in this letter to the journal that described the study as “overly simplistic and seriously misleading.” (Haspel linked to both the original study and the corrected version but did not disclose the error to readers.)
To dismiss concerns about the synergistic effects of exposure to multiple pesticides, Haspel cited another study from the only non-Bayer affiliated author of the flawed pesticide-and-wine comparison study, and “a 2008 report” that “made the same assessment.” That report was co-authored by Alan Boobis and Angelo Moretto, two scientists who were caught in a “conflict of interest row,” as the Guardian reported in 2016, because they held leadership positions in a group that received substantial donations from the pesticide industry at the same time as they chaired a UN panel that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk.
Haspel also failed to disclose an industry connection to a data source in her 2014 column that reported disagreement about whether pesticide residues in food pose a health risk. Here she introduced doubt about the health risks of organophosphates, a class of pesticides linked to neurological damage in children, with a review that found “the epidemiological studies did not strongly implicate any particular pesticide as being causally related to adverse neurological developmental outcomes in infants and children.” The lead author of that review was Carol Burns, a scientist at Dow Chemical Company, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of organophosphates — but Haspel did not inform readers of the corporate connection.
Misled with out-of-context reporting
In her 2014 column, Haspel used a 2012 paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics out of context to reinforce her argument that eating organic might not offer health benefits, but she did not inform readers of the full scope of the study or its conclusions. The AAP paper chronicled a wide range of scientific evidence suggesting harm to children from both acute and chronic exposures to various pesticides, and concluded, “Children’s exposures to pesticides should be limited as much as possible.” The report cited evidence of a “drastic immediate decrease in urinary excretion of pesticide metabolites” in children eating an organic diet. AAP also issued policy recommendations to reduce children’s exposure to pesticides.
Haspel left out all that context and reported only that the AAP report, “noted the correlation between organophosphate exposure and neurological issues that had been found in some studies but concluded that it was still ‘unclear’ that reducing exposure by eating organic would be ‘clinically relevant.'”
In her 2018 column, Haspel misleadingly reported that the pesticide chlorpyrifos “has been the subject a battle between environmental groups, which want it banned, and the EPA, which doesn’t” — but she did not inform readers that the EPA had recommended banning chlorpyrifos due to mounting evidence that prenatal exposure could have lasting effects on children’s brains. The agency reversed course only after the Trump EPA interfered. Haspel sourced her misleading “environmental groups vs EPA” sentence with a link to a New York Times documents page that provided little context about the EPA decision, rather than linking to the NYT story that explained the political context of corporate influence.
Relied on industry go-to sources and sources who agree
In her 2018 column, Haspel set up her argument that pesticide exposures in food are not much of a concern with a dubious reporting tactic she has used on other occasions: citing agreement among many sources she knows. In this case, Haspel reported that pesticide levels in food “are very low” and “you shouldn’t be concerned about them,” according to “the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (along with many toxicologists I’ve spoken with over the years).”
Although she reported that, “Not everyone has faith in those assessments,” Haspel cited no disagreeing sources and ignored entirely the American Academy of Pediatrics report that recommended reducing children’s exposures to pesticides, which she cited out of context in her 2014 column.
In her 2015 column about glyphosate, Haspel again quoted like-minded sources, reporting that every scientist she spoke with “noted that until recent questions arose, glyphosate had been noted for its safety.” She quoted Keith Solomon, a toxicologist that Monsanto was promoting as a source on glyphosate, and David Ropeik, the risk perception consultant who presented with Haspel at the industry-funded messaging training boot camp in 2014.
In her 2014 column, Haspel’s source vouching for the safety of pesticide residues in food based on EPA risk assessments was Carl Winter, a toxicologist at the University of California at Davis. Winter was then a member of the science advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group that works with Monsanto. A few months earlier, ACSH had bragged in a blog post about other “organic doesn’t equal better” news coverage quoting “ACSH advisor Dr. Carl Winter.” Monsanto was also promoting Winter’s work in talking points at that time, according to documents obtained via public records requests (see science analysis circulated to academic allies by Eric Sachs).
Missed relevant data
Relevant data Haspel missed in her reporting about the risks or pesticides and the benefits of organic included statements by prominent health groups and recent science:
- January 2018 study by Harvard researchers published in in JAMA Internal Medicine reporting that women who regularly consumed pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF, while women who ate organic food had better outcomes;
- January 2018 commentary in JAMA by pediatrician Phillip Landrigan urging physicians to encourage their patients to eat organic;
- February 2017 report prepared for the European Parliament outlining the health benefits of eating organic food and practicing organic agriculture;
- 2016 European Parliament Science and Technology Option Assessment recommended reducing dietary intake of pesticides, especially for women and children;
- 2012 President’s Cancer Panel report recommends reducing children’s exposure to cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures;
- 2012 paper and policy recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending reducing children’s exposure to pesticides as much as possible;
- 2009 statement by the American Public Health Association, “Opposition to the use of hormone growth promoters in beef and dairy cattle production”;
- 2002 review by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Review reporting that growth-promoting hormones in beef production pose a health risk to consumers.
More perspectives on Haspel’s reporting
- “The food movement is small? Not from where we sit, it isn’t,” by Chellie Pingree and Anna Lappé, Washington Post (2.4.2016)
- “Washington Post food columnist goes to bat for Monsanto — again,” by Stacy Malkan, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (2.4.2016)
- Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a Conflict of Interest?” by Stacy Malkan, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (10.28.2015)
- “Response to ‘Is Organic Better for Your Health?'” The Organic Center (4.8.2014)
- “The Assault on Organic: Ignoring science to make the case for chemical farming,” by Kari Hamerschlag and Stacy Malkan, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (7.2014)
Kevin Folta, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Horticulture Sciences Department at University of Florida, has provided inaccurate information and engaged in misleading activities in his efforts to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides.
His recent lawsuit against The New York Times is the latest in a long line of examples of Dr. Folta’s misleading and deceptive communications.
Dr. Folta sues NY Times and Pulitzer Prize winner for reporting his ties to Monsanto
On Sept. 1, 2017, Dr. Folta filed a lawsuit against The New York Times and Eric Lipton, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, claiming they defamed him with a 2015 front-page article that described how Monsanto enlisted academics to oppose the labeling of genetically engineered foods.
Amended complaint (10/5/2017)
NYT motion to dismiss (10/19/2017)
Federal judge denied Dr. Folta’s motions to compel discovery, calling some of the requests “downright silly” and “laughable” (5/11/2018)
NYT and Eric Lipton motion for final summary judgment (7/25/18)
Dr. Folta’s amended opposition to motion for summary judgment (8/16/18)
Dr. Folta’s lawsuit claims the defendants “misrepresented him as a covertly paid operative of one of the largest and most controversial companies in America, Monsanto,” and that they did so in order to “to further their own ‘anti GMO’ agenda.” According to Dr. Folta’s lawsuit, Lipton “has almost singlehandedly silenced the scientific community from teaching scientists how to communicate.”
The lawsuit claims that Dr. Folta “never received” an “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto and that he “never received any form of grant, and never received support for him to ‘travel around the country and defend genetically modified foods.’” However, documents show that Monsanto provided Dr. Folta with, in their words, “an unrestricted grant in the amount of $25,000 which may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects.”
Emails indicate that Monsanto donated the money in response to a 9-page proposal from Dr. Folta, in which he asked Monsanto for $25,000 to fund his “three tiered solution” to the “biotech communications problem.” Proposed activities included traveling each month to a major domestic university to promote GMOs. The money was donated to a food bank after the documents became public.
Dr. Folta’s lawsuit also claims (point 67), “Dr. Folta does not discuss industry products of any sort, he teaches broadly about technology.” Yet he has vouched for the supposed safety of Monsanto’s RoundUp, going so far as to drink the product “to demonstrate harmlessness.” He has also said he “will do it again.”
In a Sept. 29, 2015 email, Janine Sikes, University of Florida Assistant Vice President of Public Affairs, wrote to a colleague about Lipton’s NYT story: “for the record I thought the story was fair.”
Quotes from NYT and Eric Lipton’s response to Folta’s lawsuit, from July 2018 motion for final summary judgement:
Mr. Lipton relied on Plaintiff’s own email communications, which were provided to him by UF in response to a public records request. While it may be that Plaintiff, a self-described “public” scientist, would rather not have his associations with industry giants like Monsanto examined, accurate reporting on the records documenting those associations cannot form the basis for a defamation lawsuit. (Page 1)
Among other things, (Folta’s) UF records documented: (1) Plaintiff’s actions in securing a $25,000 “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto—that Plaintiff told Monsanto would not have to be publicly disclosed—to fund talks about GMO science, including the discussion of industry products; (2) Plaintiff’s testifying before governmental bodies in favor of pro-GMO policies; (3) Plaintiff’s interactions with industry, including numerous email communications with industry representatives providing his thoughts about lobbying strategy and describing his efforts to communicate GMO science to the public; (4) his posts for GMOAnswers, an industry-sponsored website; and (5) travel expenses paid by industry, including expenses related to his trip to Monsanto headquarters. (Page 7)
Dr. Folta has repeatedly claimed no association with Monsanto despite his close collaboration with Monsanto
Dr. Folta stated numerous times that he had no connection to Monsanto. Yet emails reported by The New York Times established that he was in frequent contact with Monsanto and their public relations allies to collaborate on activities to promote genetically engineered foods.
The emails indicate that Monsanto and allies set up media opportunities and lobbying activities for Dr. Folta and worked with him on messaging. In August 2014, Monsanto informed Dr. Folta that he would receive $25,000 to further his promotional activities. The email exchanges suggest a close collaboration:
- In July 2014, a Monsanto executive praised Dr. Folta’s grant proposal and asked four other Monsanto executives to provide feedback to improve it. He wrote, “This is a great 3rd-party approach to developing the advocacy that we’re looking to develop.”
- In August 2014, Dr. Folta responded to the acceptance letter for his grant, “I’m grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment.”
- In October 2014, Dr. Folta wrote to a Monsanto executive, “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.”
Just weeks after the grant details were worked out, Dr. Folta asserted that he had “no formal connection to Monsanto.” He later said he received “no research or personal funding” from “Big Ag,” had “no financial ties to any of the Big Ag companies that make transgenic crops, including Monsanto,” and had “nothing to do with MON.”
9/18 Update: Dr. Folta contracted with the law firm Clifford Chance representing Bayer AG to serve an a consultant in an arbitration hearing at a rate of $600 per hour for up to 120 hours. Those documents were made public by Biofortified, Inc., a GMO promotion group that said it severed ties with Dr. Folta over his failure to fully disclose the potential conflict of interest.
11/17 Update: Dr. Folta received and disclosed receiving research funding from Bayer AG (which is in the process of acquiring Monsanto). According to a document obtained by US Right to Know via FOIA, Bayer sent an award letter to Dr. Folta on May 23, 2017 for a grant for 50,000 Euros (approximately $58,000), for his proposal on “New Herbicide Chemistries Discovered in Functional Randomness.”
Dr. Folta proposed hiding Monsanto money from public scrutiny
“My funding is all transparent,” Dr. Folta wrote in his blog, but his proposal to Monsanto to fund his GMO promotional activities concluded with a paragraph advising Monsanto how to donate the money to avoid public disclosure:
“If funded directly to the program as a SHARE contribution (essentially unrestricted funds) it is not subject to IDC and is not in a ‘conflict-of-interest’ account. In other words, SHARE contributions are not publicly noted. This eliminates the potential concern of the funding organization influencing the message.”
Monsanto sent the $25,000 donation as an unrestricted grant for Dr. Folta.
Dr. Folta allowed an industry PR firm to ghostwrite for him, then denied it
An August 2015 story in Inside Higher Ed described allegations that the agrichemical industry’s PR firm, Ketchum, had provided Dr. Folta with “canned answers to questions about GMOs” for the agrichemical industry’s public relations website, GMO Answers.
Dr. Folta denied using the ghostwritten text, according to the story:
“Regarding the canned answers, he said he was ‘pissed off’ when he received them and never used them.”
Dr. Folta later admitted using the ghostwritten text. The New York Times reported in September 2015:
“But Ketchum did more than provide questions (for GMO Answers). On several occasions, it also gave Dr. Folta draft answers, which he then used nearly verbatim, a step that he now says was a mistake.”
In an October 2015 BuzzFeed story, Dr. Folta justified his decision to use Ketchum’s ghostwritten text:
“They gave me extremely good answers that were spot on,” Folta told me. “I’m inundated with work. Maybe it was lazy, but I don’t know that it was lazy. When someone says, ‘We’ve thought about this and here’s what we have’ — there are people who work in academia who have speechwriters who take the words of other people and present them as their own. That’s OK.”
Dr. Folta posted false information about agrichemical industry funding to the University of Florida
In October 2014, Dr. Folta posted inaccurate information about his own university’s funding on GMO Answers. When asked, “How much have the biotech companies donated to the Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida?” Dr. Folta responded:
“There are zero ‘donations.’ At least during the last five years (all I checked), there are not even any grants or research agreements between the Horticultural Sciences Department at U.F. and any company selling biotech seeds …
During the last five years, at the whole university, there were a total of $21,000 in Monsanto grants to one faculty member in the panhandle who studies weeds. That’s it for the whole university. Our records are all public, so anyone could have found this information.”
In fact, biotech companies donated more than $12 million to the University of Florida in fiscal year 2013/2014 alone, according to University of Florida Foundation documents posted by NYT. Monsanto was listed as a “Gold” donor that year, meaning the company had donated at least $1 million. Syngenta was a “Diamond” donor with “Cumulative Giving of $10 Million+” while BASF donated at least $1 million and Pioneer Hi-Bred gave at least $100,000.
University of Florida has a ‘stance’ on GMOs that is ‘harmonious’ with Monsanto, and Dr. Folta is in charge of promoting it
Leaders at the University of Florida believe it is the university’s role to educate the masses about GMOs and they share a “stance” with Monsanto, according to an email obtained by the US Right to Know investigation.
David Clark, professor of horticultural biotechnology & genetics and director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Plant Innovation Program (UF/IFAS), wrote to Monsanto executive Robb Fraley on July 21, 2014:
“I thought your talk was excellent and very timely for our community, and it is harmonious with the stance we are taking on GMOs at the University of Florida. Also, thank you for taking a few minutes to chat with me afterward about how we should be educating the 80% of the consumer population who know very little about the technology.
After returning to Gainesville, I communicated with Drs. Kevin Folta and Jack Payne about our discussion. Kevin is our lead spokesperson at UF on the GMO topic and he has taken on the charge of doing just what we discussed – educating the masses. Jack is our Senior VP for IFAS, and just last week he released a video showing just where UF/IFAS stands on the GMO issue: http://www.floridatrend.com/article/17361/jack-payne-of-uf-on-gmos-and-climate-change Both of them are extremely passionate about this issue, and together they are ramping up their efforts to spread the good word.”
In the video, Dr. Payne claims, “there is no science that agrees with these folks that are afraid of GMOs.” In fact, many scientists and studies have raised concerns about GMOs.
Dr. Folta partnered with dishonest industry front groups groups on “Biotech Literacy” GMO spin events
A June 2014 conference to promote GMOs called the “Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp” was billed as a partnership between University of Florida, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two front groups that work with Monsanto to promote agrichemical industry products and attack industry critics. Those two groups told scientists and journalists — inaccurately — that the events were funded by a combination of government, academia and industry.
In 2015, journalist Brooke Borel reported in Popular Science:
“The conference in question was called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp. I was invited to attend and to speak on some panels, although it wasn’t initially clear what that would involve. I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).”
In a 2016 email to scientists, Bruce Chassy of Academics Review claimed industry was “indirectly a sponsor” of the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps:
“The 3-day bootcamp is relatively expensive since we pay everyone’s travel and lodging as well as honoraria. Participants received $250 and presenters as much as $2,500 (journalists aren’t inexpensive) … I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money, so industry is indirectly a sponsor. We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.”
However, those government and academic sources denied giving any funds to the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Thacker wrote, “the only traceable money source is the biotech industry.”
Both Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project have a history of misleading the public about their funding and activities to defend the agrichemical industry.
- Academics Review has claimed many times to be an independent group, yet emails obtained by US Right to Know revealed that Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, while “keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
- The “financial transparency” note on the Genetic Literacy Project website is inaccurate, changes often and has at times contradicted itself. GLP director Jon Entine has many close ties to Monsanto.
Dr. Folta also organized what he called a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” to promote GMOs at the University of Florida in 2015. Speakers included UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe, representatives of two agrichemical industry-aligned spin groups (the Center for Food Integrity and Biofortified), and Tamar Haspel, a food columnist for the Washington Post.
Dr. Folta described his plans in the proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem” resulting from activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” In emails he sent to Haspel, Dr. Folta said the audience of the “biotechnology literacy” event would be “scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”
Dr. Folta described the food movement as a “terrorist faction”
Dr. Folta wrote the forward for a 2015 book called “Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House.” The forward describes the food movement as a terrorist faction, which Folta names “Al Quesadilla”:
“Al Quesadilla is a moniker ascribed to a modern day elite and well financed terrorist faction sworn to use fear to force political change around food. Al Quesadilla has a central mission – to impose their beliefs about food and food production on the broader society. Their beliefs are religious in nature. They are deeply heartfelt and internalized. Their beliefs are grounded in a misinterpretation of nature, a mistrust of corporate culture and a skepticism of modern science …
Al Quesadilla is an agile and sneaky terrorist group. Like all terrorists, they achieve their objectives through the implementation of fear and coercion. They plan careful strikes on vulnerable targets – American consumers…”
The book, published by Senapath Press, was authored by Mark Alsip, a blogger for Bad Science Debunked, Marc Draco, a “veteran member” of the Banned by Food Babe Facebook page, and Kavin Senapathy, a Forbes contributor who had several of her articles deleted by Forbes.
The book promotes GMOs, claims MSG and aspartame are “harmless” and purports to describe “the facts behind those pesticide scares.”
Dr. Folta promotes pesticide propaganda
Dr. Folta dismisses concerns about pesticide exposure with propaganda claims, not science. For example, he made and failed to correct his guest on many dubious statements about the safety of pesticides in this 2015 podcast interview with Yvette d’Entremont, the “SciBabe.” Folta claimed:
- If someone is concerned about pesticide exposures, “ask them if they have symptoms of pesticide poisoning. Unless they have symptoms of pesticide poisoning, there’s probably nothing to worry about.”
- “Your risk from any kind of, especially, pesticide exposure from consumption is probably somewhere between 10,000 and a million times lower than a car accident.”
Dr. Folta’s deceptive communication tactics
Another example of misleading communication associated with Dr. Folta is documented in a 2015 BuzzFeed story by Brooke Borel. The story recounts Borel’s discovery that Dr. Folta used a false identity to interview scientists and even himself on a podcast called the “The Vern Blazek Science Power Hour.”
For further reading:
New York Times, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton (9/6/2015)
Emails posted by The New York Times
The Progressive, “Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media,” by Paul Thacker (7/21/2017)
Huffington Post, “Keith Kloor’s Enduring Love Affair with GMOs,” by Paul Thacker (7/19/2017)
Global News, “Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby,” by Allison Vuchnich (12/22/2015)
Nature Biotechnology, “Standing up for Transparency,” by Stacy Malkan (1/2016)
Mother Jones, “These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO War,” by Tom Philpott (10/2/2015)
BuzzFeed, “Seed Money: Confessions of a GMO Defender,” by Brooke Borel (10/19/2015)
USRTK Short Report, “Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding from Monsanto”
Independent Science News, “The Puppetmasters of Academia (or What the NYT Left Out),” by Jonathan Latham (9/8/2015)
USRTK letter to Dr. Folta about our FOIA requests