Cargill’s GMO Stevia Hoodwinks Consumers

Print Email Share Tweet

The international food conglomerate Cargill is ramping up commercial-scale production of its genetically engineered sweetener, EverSweet, in a new $50 million production facility that began operating this week in Blair, Nebraska. The plant will “be producing enough EverSweet to sweeten many millions of bottles/cans of soft drinks or servings of yogurt each month,” according to a Cargill spokesman. 

Cargill’s new GMO stevia plant

Cargill is marketing its new stevia substitute as “non-artificial.” What does that mean? Consumers who click on the link provided in the press release will not get a straight answer. The web page twists itself in knots trying to describe the new process, which involves genetically engineering yeast to convert sugar molecules into a substance that mimics the taste of stevia, as a “centuries old technique” — without once mentioning genetic engineering or the genetic modified organisms (GMOs) used to make the product. 

Cargill told the Star Tribune it does not market EverSweet as “natural” – so “non-artificial” it is.  The subterfuge doesn’t end there. 

Cargill, which former Congressman Henry Waxman’s environmental group named the “worst company in the world” in 2019 for (among other things) its “repeated insistence on standing in the way of global progress on sustainability,” markets EverSweet as “sustainably” produced. That claim, as we reported in 2017 Huffington Post article, was cooked up by PR strategists tasked with figuring out how to make vat-produced ingredients sound palatable to consumers who are demanding fresh, natural foods with clear, simple labels.

Corporations and investors with their sights set on moving stevia — and other high-value plant-based flavors and fragrances — off the farms and into the labs met in a 2014 strategy session to discuss how to sell this concept to consumers. PR strategists at the meeting recommended avoiding terms like “synthetic biology” and “genetic engineering” (too scary, too much backlash), and suggested going with more vague descriptions such as “fermentation derived” and “nature identical.”  They recommended focusing reporters on stories of hope and promise, and making food activi
sts “feel like we are we are all marching under the same banner” for food sustainability, transparency and food sovereignty.

Companies and consumers who truly do care about those concepts would do well to look behind the hype. In Cargill’s frame, Eversweet is “sustainable” because it moves production off the land. But it really doesn’t; the company’s new $50 million “fermentation facility,” situated in the heart of GMO Roundup Ready corn country, will depend on those pesticide-sprayed crops – or some other sugar source grown on the land – to feed the yeast in its vats to make EverSweet. Its press release uses the buzzwords of sustainability but provides no details to back up the claims. We reached out to the company to ask for more details; no response yet but we will add any comments we receive. 

Meanwhile, farmers in countries like Paraguay have been sustainably farming stevia for generations, and they make a good living cultivating the crop, reports the ETC Group. The World Economic Forum noted in a survey of leading global risks that “the invention of cheap, synthetic alternatives to high-value agricultural exports … could suddenly destabilize vulnerable economies by removing a source of income on which farmers rely.” Moreover, poor farmers have been actively encouraged to invest in stevia, because its cultivation can help preserve fragile and unique ecosystems. 

For consumers in the U.S., it is getting harder to avoid the new genetically engineered foods that are quietly making their way to grocery stores without clear labeling. Certified organic or non-GMO verified remain two standards committed to avoiding synthetic biology and genetically engineered ingredients.

As for Cargill, it is the largest privately held company in the U.S., bigger even than the notorious Koch Industries, and its  footprint extends around the world, notes former congressman Waxman, chairman of the Mighty Earth campaign, in their July report naming Cargill the Worst Company in the World. “We recognize this is an audacious claim. There are, alas, many companies that could vie for this dubious honor. But this report provides extensive and compelling evidence to back it up … In my 40-year long career in Congress, I took on a range of companies that engaged in abusive practices. I have seen firsthand the harmful impact of businesses that do not bring their ethics with them to work. But Cargill stands out.”

Further reading: 

Are you ready for the new wave of genetically engineered foods? by Stacy Malkan, CommonGround magazine (3.16.2018)

Meet the New Stevia! GMOs 2.0 Get Dressed for Success, by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (6.15.2017)

A Bad Bet on Synthetic Biology: Cargill’s Eversweet is competing with farmers and misleading consumers, ETC Group (11.11.2015)  

Biotech industry cooks up PR plans to get us to swallow synthetic biology food, by Dana Perls, Friends of the Earth (5.22.2014)

Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR Campaign for the Agrichemical Industry

Print Email Share Tweet

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. In December 2018, a group of African farmers accused Cornell Alliance for Science of using their images without authorization to make false and misleading claims, according to the African Centre for Biodiversity.

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

Cornell Alliance for Science used the same inaccurate messaging as Monsanto-funded groups to defend glyphosate in the wake of a World Health Organization cancer research agency report that glyphosate 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 “industry partners” to “orchestrate outcry” against the cancer panel. 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.

As an example of industry messaging, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a front group Monsanto paid to spin the cancer report, claimed the cancer report was a “scientific fraud” perpetrated by “activist scientists.”  Mark Lynas, a spokesperson for 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 article on the Cornell website appeared one month after, and used the same sources, as the article by the Monsanto-funded front group ACSH.

Mark Lynas used false talking points straight from Monsanto’s PR playbook to attack the WHO cancer scientists.

Lynas claimed to be on the side of science but ignored  evidence from the company’s own documents showing 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 40,000 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 pesticide industry and its PR allies on public relations initiatives.

As one example, a Monsanto document made public in 2019 describes the company’s deep fears about a public records investigation into its hidden collaborations with publicly funded academics. The PR document describes Monsanto’s plans  to try to discredit the investigation by U.S. Right to Know as an attack on “scientific freedom.” The Cornell Alliance for Science played a key role in advancing this industry messaging via a public petition opposing the public records investigation. The Alliance launched the petition with Biofortified, a PR group Monsanto has identified as a “partner” group.

The USRTK 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. The emails reveal 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,” but document show the pesticide industry paid for the trip and coordinated their meetings and messaging. Dr. Folta has misled the public about science and his ties to industry on many occasions; yet emails show that Dr. Evanega invited him to teach and speak at Cornell and promoted Folta as “an amazing champion for change” and “a model for scientists.”

Dr. Evanega was a Trustee in 2017 of the food and pesticide industry-funded International Food Information Council, a group that promotes and defends sugar, artificial sweeteners, food additives, pesticides and genetically engineered foods. Emails show how this group solicited payments from food and chemical companies to produce materials in defense of processed foods. For more examples of Cornell Alliance for Science partnerships with industry groups, see  footnotes.

Fellows, partners mislead the public about science 

The Cornell Alliance for Science partners with groups and people who mislead the public about science. 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 phthalatesBPAvinyl plastic, fracking, formaldehyde in baby soapssugary sodasartificial sweeteners and Oxycontin.

Cornell Alliance for Science Visiting Fellow Trevor Butterworth built his career defending the chemical, junk food and drug industries.

Butterworth has been a Visiting Fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science since 2016 and also teaches a statistics course at Cornell.

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.”

This post by a Monsanto-funded group shows how Cornell Alliance for Science spin echoes through industry’s messaging chamber.

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:

The Cornell Alliance for Science advisory board includes academics who assist the agrichemical industry with their PR efforts.

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 

[1] 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 cotton 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:

[2] 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.

[3] 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:

[4] Critiques and corrections of Mark Lynas include:

Gene Editing Mishaps Highlight Need for FDA Oversight

Print Email Share Tweet

A Midwestern company’s quest to genetically engineer the world’s first hornless dairy cows hit a snag this summer when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found extra genes in the cows that weren’t supposed to be there. The mistakes that FDA caught – but the company missed – highlight the importance of government oversight of gene-edited foods at a time when industry groups are pushing for deregulation.

Cows without horns: a job for gene editing?

Pork producers, for example, “say the federal government should ease regulations on the use of gene editing in livestock,” which they claim is slowing down research and development, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. The producers want oversight moved from the FDA to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which already allows gene-edited crops to be planted and sold with no regulatory oversight.

But the FDA plans to require pre-market safety assessments for gene-edited food animals, as they do for new animal drugs. The regulations will ensure that genetic changes are safe for animals and consumers, and help consumers get comfortable with the technology, an FDA spokeswoman told the Journal.

The FDA’s discovery of extra genes in the hornless cattle, and other recently reported mishaps involving new genetic engineering techniques, bolster the case for government scrutiny, and have industry groups scrambling to control the public relations fiasco.

The extra genes Recombinetics missed

Researchers at the Minnesota-based company Recombinetics, Inc., reported in a 2016 paper that they created the first polled (hornless) cows using a gene editing technique called TALENS to alter the gene sequence in the cows. The researchers reported finding no unintended impacts. They wrote, “our animals are free of off-target effects.”

But when FDA researchers reexamined the DNA this summer, using genome sequences that had been posted online by Recombinetics, they did find off-target effects. Two edited cows carried copies of the entire bacterial plasmid used in the editing process, including two antibiotic resistance genes in virtually every cell of their bodies. The genes don’t normally occur in cattle.

This “raises issues of biosafety given that there is a strong global push to limit the spread of genes conferring antibiotic resistance,” writes Jonathan Latham, PhD, in Independent Science News. It also raises questions about the lack of precision of gene editing techniques and gives weight to arguments for government oversight. Plans to breed the hornless cows in Brazil were scrapped after the off-target effects came to light, Wired reported, because regulators there could no longer consider the cows non-GMO.

The FDA researchers said their discovery “highlights a potential blind spot in standard genome editing screening methods,” and said they suspect integration errors are “underreported or overlooked” in genome editing experiments. They noted other examples of unexpected alterations – a 2017 mouse study that found complex deletions and insertions in an edited mouse genome, and a 2018 study that reported DNA damage in human cell lines.

So how did the Recombinetics researchers miss the unintended DNA integrations?

“we didn’t look”

“It was not something expected, and we didn’t look for it,” said Tad Sonstegard, CEO of Recombinetics’ agriculture subsidiary Acceligen, according to MIT Technology Review. A more complete check “should have been done,” he said. Wired magazine quoted Sonstegard explaining, “We weren’t looking for plasmid integrations. We should have.”

That should have been an obvious place to look, says Michael Hansen, PhD, Senior Scientist, Advocacy, of Consumers Reports. “Whether any DNA from the bacterial plasmid used in the gene editing process got picked up and transferred would be one of the first things you would look for if you were interested in finding off-target effects,” Hansen said.

In his view, the fact that Recombinetics missed the problem suggests that, “they didn’t do the necessary oversight. That’s why we need government oversight,” including requirements for pre-market safety assessments, he said.

Latham, a biologist and former genetic engineer, also points to recent findings from Japan that he believes may be more consequential than the FDA’s findings, and have greater implications for the regulatory landscape. In a 2019 study, Japanese researchers reported that edited mouse genomes had acquired DNA from the E. coli genome, as well as goat and bovine DNA. This stray DNA came from the gene editing reagents, the delivery method used to make the edits.

These findings “are very simple: cutting DNA inside cells, regardless of the precise type of gene editing, predisposes genomes to acquire unwanted DNA,” , Latham wrote in Independent Science News. He said the findings “imply, at the very least, the need for strong measures to prevent contamination by stray DNA, along with thorough scrutiny of gene-edited cells and gene-edited organisms. And, as the Recombinetics case suggests, these are needs that developers themselves may not meet.”

Next logical step

Recombinetics has “noisily objected” to FDA oversight all along and lobbied the Trump Administration to wrest oversight powers away from the food safety agency, according to MIT Technology Review. And when Recombinetics claimed in 2016 that its gene-edited hornless cows were “free of off-target effects,” that finding was immediately deployed as a lobby tool in the campaign against FDA scrutiny.

In a commentary that ran alongside the company’s study, five university researchers argued that pre-market safety assessments for gene-edited food animals are onerous and unnecessary. One of the authors, Alison Van Eenennaam PhD, an animal extension specialist at UC Davis and a leading advocate for deregulation, has described FDA’s plan to require pre-market safety assessments as “insane.”

“The effects of gene editing are largely identical to natural processes,” the researchers wrote in their commentary. Any “off-target effects can be minimized by careful design and extensive testing,” they said, noting that the researchers from Recombinetics “found none” in their gene-edited cattle.

They also claimed, inaccurately as it turned out, that the gene-edited cattle carried the same DNA “that has been consumed by humans for over 1,000 years.” The “next logical step,” they wrote, would be to spread the edited genome sequence “into global dairy populations.”

The disconnect between the rush to market genetically engineered foods, and the need for due diligence to understand off-target effects of gene manipulations and their possible impacts on health and the environment, has long been a sticky point in the GMO debate. For most GMO foods, the companies have been in charge of safety assessments all along, with little or no government oversight. But what incentive do companies have to look for problems?

Back in 1998, in an interview with Michael Pollan for the New York Times, Monsanto’s then director of communications was blunt in his assessment of where the industry’s interests lie: ”Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.”

Further reading

Gene editing needs to become more precise to live up to its promise — by David Edgell, The Conversation (10.7.19)

Gene-editing unintentionally adds bovine DNA, goat DNA, and bacterial DNA, mouse researchers find — by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent ScienceNews (9.23.19)

Gene-edited cattle have a major screwup in their DNA — by Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review (8.28.19)

FDA finds unexpected antibiotic resistance genes in ‘gene-edited’ dehorned cattle — by Jonathan Latham, PhD, and Allison Wilson, PhD, Independent Science News (8.12.19)

Off-target mutations not the only concern in gene-edited plants — GM Watch (7.10.19)

Why the “molecular scissors” metaphor for CRISPR is misleading — by Elinor Hortle, The Conversation (7.4.19)

CRISPR causes unexpected outcomes even at the intended site of genetic modification — GM Watch (4.16.19)

CRISPR spin-off causes unintended mutations in DNA — GM Watch (3.13.19)

CRISPR base editing, known for precision, hits a snag with off-target mutations — by Sharon Begley, STAT (2.28.19)

Big tongues and extra vertebrae: The unintended consequences of animal gene editing — By Preetika Rana and Lucy Craymer, Wall Street Journal (12.14.18)

Potential DNA damage from CRISPR has been ‘seriously underestimated,’ study finds — by Sharon Begley, STAT (7.16.18)

Turns out CRISPR editing can also vandalize genomes — MIT Technology Review (7.16.2018)

A serious new hurdle for CRISPR: Edited cells might cause cancer, two studies find — by Sharon Begley, STAT (6.11.18)

Farmland gene editors want cows without horns, pigs without tails, and business without regulations — by Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review (3.12.18)

Report: Gene-edited animals will intensify factory farming and the climate crisis, could harm human health — Friends of the Earth (9.17.19)

Are you ready for the new wave of genetically engineered foods? — by Stacy Malkan, USRTK (3.16.18)

International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a Food Industry Lobby Group

Print Email Share Tweet

The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a corporate-funded nonprofit organization based in Washington DC, with 17 affiliated chapters around the world. ILSI describes itself as a group that conducts “science for the public good” and “improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment.” However, investigations by academics, journalists and public interest researchers show that ILSI is a lobby group that protects the interests of the food industry, not public health.

Recent news:

  • September 2019: New York Times investigation by Andrew Jacobs reported that a trustee of the industry-funded nonprofit ILSI advised the Indian government against going ahead with warning labels on unhealthy foods. The Times described ILSI as a “shadowy industry group” and “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of.” 
  • The Times cited a June 2019 study in Globalization and Health co-authored by Gary Ruskin of U.S. Right to Know reporting that ILSI operates as a lobby arm for its food and pesticide industry funders.
  • October 2019: The New York Times revealed the undisclosed ILSI ties of Bradley C. Johnston, a co-author of five recent studies that claimed red and processed meat don’t pose significant health problems. Johnston used similar methods to claim sugar is not a problem in a study funded by the food industry via ILSI.
  • See also Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog: ILSI: true colors revealed

ILSI background and funding

ILSI was founded in 1978 by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola who worked for Coke from 1969-2001. Coca-Cola has kept close ties with ILSI. Michael Ernest Knowles, Coca-Cola’s VP of global scientific and regulatory affairs from 2008–2013, was president of ILSI from 2009-2011. In 2015, ILSI’s president was Rhona Applebaum, who retired from her job as Coca-Cola’s chief health and science officer (and from ILSI) in 2015 after the New York Times and Associated Press reported that Coke funded the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network to help shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks.  

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and reported in a 2016 study revealed that Coke proposed and financed the Global Energy Balance Network as a “weapon” in the “growing war between the pubic health community and private industry” over obesity and the obesity epidemic. 

ILSI is funded by its corporate members and company supporters, including leading food and chemical companies such as Coca-Cola, BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta, Mars, McDonalds, chemical industry trade groups, and many others. In its annual report, ILSI and its branches reported $17,481,251 in expenses for 2017 but did not disclose specific donor information. 

U.S. Right to Know obtained a document via a state freedom of information request showing corporate contributions to ILSI Global amounting to  $2.4 million in 2012. The largest donations were $500,000 from Monsanto and over $500,000 from the pesticide industry trade group, Crop Life International. ILSI’s draft 2013 IRS tax returns show $337,000 in donations from Coca-Cola and over $650,000 from six agrichemical companies, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi Bred and Syngenta. 

Emails show how ILSI seeks to influence policy to promote industry views 

A June 2019 paper in Globalization and Health provides several examples of how ILSI advances the interests of the food industry, especially by promoting industry-friendly science and arguments to policymakers. The study is based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records laws.  

The researchers concluded: “ILSI seeks to influence individuals, positions, and policy, both nationally and internationally, and its corporate members deploy it as a tool to promote their interests globally. Our analysis of ILSI serves as a caution to those involved in global health governance to be wary of putatively independent research groups, and to practice due diligence before relying upon their funded studies and/or engaging in relationship with such groups.”   

As one example, the paper quotes an email from Alex Malaspina, the former Coca-Cola executive who founded ILSI, lamenting the failure of ILSI Mexico to follow the industry position on soda taxes. Malaspina describes “the mess ILSI Mexico is in because they sponsored in September a sweeteners conference when the subject of soft drinks taxation was discussed. ILSI is now suspending ILSI Mexico, until they correct their ways. A real mess.” 

ILSI undermined obesity fight in China

In January 2019, two papers by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh revealed ILSI’s powerful influence on the Chinese government on issues related to obesity. The papers document how Coca-Cola and other corporations worked through the China branch of ILSI to influence decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Read the papers:

ILSI is so well-placed in China that it operates from inside the government’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.

Professor Geenhalgh’s papers document how Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants “helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related diseases” by operating through ILSI to cultivate key Chinese officials “in an effort to stave off the growing movement for food regulation and soda taxes that has been sweeping the west,” the New York Times reported.  

Additional academic research from U.S. Right to Know about ILSI 

The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has over 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI.  

ILSI sugar study “right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook”

Public health experts denounced an ILSI-funded sugar study published in a prominent medical journal in 2016 that was a “scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar,” reported Anahad O’Connor in The New York Times. The ILSI-funded study argued that warnings to cut sugar are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.  

The Times story quoted Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research, on the ILSI study: “This comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science,” Nestle said. “This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful.” 

Tobacco companies used ILSI to thwart tobacco policies 

A July 2000 report by an independent committee of the World Health Organization outlined a number of ways in which the tobacco industry attempted to undermine WHO tobacco control efforts, including using scientific groups to influence WHO’s decision-making and to manipulate scientific debate surrounding the health effects of tobacco. ILSI played a key role in these efforts, according to a case study on ILSI that accompanied the report. Findings indicate that ILSI was used by certain tobacco companies to thwart tobacco control policies. Senior office bearers in ILSI were directly involved in these actions,” according to the case study. See: 

The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has more than 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI

ILSI leaders played key role in defending glyphosate as chairs of JMPR panel 

In May 2016, ILSI came under scrutiny after revelations that the vice president of ILSI Europe, Professor Alan Boobis, was also chairman of a UN panel that found Monsanto’s chemical glyphosate was unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. The co-chair of the UN Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), Professor Angelo Moretto, was a board member of ILSI’s Health and Environment Services Institute. Neither of the JMPR chairs declared their ILSI leadership roles as conflicts of interest, despite the significant financial contributions ILSI has received from Monsanto and the pesticide industry trade group. See: 

ILSI’s cozy ties at U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  

In June 2016, U.S. Right to Know reported that Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of a CDC division charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, tried to help ILSI’s founder Alex Malaspina influence World Health Organization officials to back off policies to reduce sugar consumption. Bowman suggested people and groups for Malaspina to talk to, and solicited his comments on some CDC summaries of reports, the emails show. (Bowman stepped down after our first article was published reporting on these ties.)

This January 2019 study in the Milbank Quarterly describes key emails of Malaspina cozying up to Dr. Bowman. For more reporting on this topic, see: 

ILSI influence in India 

The New York Times reported on ILSI’s influence in India in its article titled, “A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World.”

ILSI has close ties to some Indian government officials and, as in China, the nonprofit has pushed similar messaging and policy proposals as Coca-Cola – downplaying the role of sugar and diet as a cause of obesity, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution, according to the India Resource Center. 

Members of ILSI India’s board of trustees include Coca-Cola India’s director of regulatory affairs and representatives from Nestlé and Ajinomoto, a food additive company, along with government officials who serve on scientific panels that are tasked with deciding about food safety issues.  

Longstanding concerns about ILSI 

ILSI insists it is not an industry lobby group, but concerns and complaints are longstanding about the group’s pro-industry stances and conflicts of interest among the organization’s leaders. See, for example:

Untangle food industry influences, Nature Medicine (2019)

Food agency denies conflict-of-interest claim. But accusations of industry ties may taint European body’s reputation, Nature (2010)

Big Food Vs. Tim Noakes: The Final Crusade, Keep Fitness Legal, by Russ Greene (1.5.17) 

Real Food on Trial, by Dr. Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros (Columbus Publishing 2019). The book describes “the unprecedented prosecution and persecution of Professor Tim Noakes, a distinguished scientist and medical doctor, in a multimillion rand case that stretched over more than four years. All for a single tweet giving his opinion on nutrition.”

10 Revelations from the U.S. Right to Know Investigations

Print Email Share Tweet

You can support the USRTK investigations by contributing to our fall fundraising drive.  

Internal Monsanto documents released in August provide a rare inside look at how pesticide and food companies try to discredit public interest groups and journalists who raise concerns about their products. The documents (posted here) show that Monsanto and its new owner, Bayer, were especially worried about U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), a nonprofit research group that began investigating the food industry in 2015. According to Monsanto’s response plan, “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry,” and “has the potential to be extremely damaging.” Read about it in The Guardian.

Four years ago, we began filing public records requests to try to understand how powerful food and chemical industry interests impact the food we eat and feed our children. We quickly turned up documents that became a front-page New York Times story, and contributed to news coverage around the world about the covert tactics these companies use influence science, policy and public opinion about our food. Here are some of our top findings so far.

1. Monsanto funds “independent” academics to promote and lobby for agrichemical products — and hides these collaborations from the public     

USRTK has documented numerous examples of how pesticide companies rely heavily on publicly funded academics to assist with their PR and lobbying. A September 2015 front-page New York Times article revealed that Monsanto enlisted academics, and paid them secretly, to oppose GMO labeling laws. An example later detailed by WBEZ described how a University of Illinois professor received $57,000 from Monsanto over two years to promote and lobby for GMOs, and his university received millions in undisclosed funds. The professor appeared frequently in the press as an “independent” expert. 

Documents reported in the Boston Globe, Bloomberg and Mother Jones describe how Monsanto assigned, scripted and promoted pro-GMO papers from professors at Harvard, Cornell and other universities, which were published with no mention of Monsanto’s role. At the University of Saskatchewan, Monsanto coached a professor and edited his academic articles, according to documents reported by the CBC.  At the request of the pesticide industry’s PR firm, a University of Florida professor produced a video that aimed to discredit a Canadian teenager who criticized GMOs, according to documents reported by Global News. 

2. The influential nonprofit ILSI is a lobby group for food and pesticide companies 

In September 2019, the New York Times reported on the “shadowy industry group” International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) that is shaping food policy around the world. The Times article cites a recent study co-authored by Gary Ruskin of USRTK reporting how ILSI operates as a lobby group that promotes the interest of its food and pesticide industry funders. See coverage of our study in the BMJ and The Guardian, and read more about the organization the Times described as “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of” in our ILSI fact sheet.

In 2017, Ruskin co-authored a journal article reporting on emails showing food industry leaders discussing how they “have to use external organizations” when dealing with controversies over the health risks of their products. The emails show senior leaders in the food industry advocating for a coordinated approach to influencing scientific evidence, expert opinion and regulators across the world. See Bloomberg coverage, “Emails show how the food industry uses ‘science’ to push soda.”

The USRTK investigation also spurred a 2016 story in The Guardian reporting that the leaders of a Joint FAO/WHO panel that cleared glyphosate of cancer concerns also held leadership positions at ILSI, which received large donations from the pesticide industry. 

3. Top CDC officials collaborated with Coca-Cola to shape the obesity debate, and advised Coca-Cola on how to stop WHO from cracking down on added sugars

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know led to another front-page New York Times story in 2017 reporting that the newly appointed director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Brenda Fitzgerald, saw Coca-Cola as an ally on obesity issues (Fitzgerald has since resigned). 

USRTK was also first to report in 2016 that another high-ranking CDC official had cozy ties to Coke, and tried to assist the company in steering the World Health Organization away from its efforts to discourage consumption of added sugars; see reporting by Carey Gillam, research director of U.S. Right to Know. Our work also contributed to a study in the Milbank Quarterly co-authored by Gary Ruskin detailing conversations between the CDC and Coca-Cola executives. Two articles in the BMJ based on USRTK documents, and articles in the Washington Post, Atlanta Journal Constitution, San Diego Union Tribune, Forbes, CNN, Politico and The Intercept provide more details about Coke’s influence at the U.S. public health agency that is supposed to help prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes and other diseases.   

4. The U.S. FDA found glyphosate residues in honey, infant cereals, and other common foods, and then stopped testing for the chemical   

FDA did not release the information, so USRTK did.

Carey Gillam broke news in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and USRTK about internal government documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests showing that the U.S. FDA conducted tests that found the weed-killer glyphosate in an array of commonly consumed foods including granola, crackers, infant cereal and in very high levels in honey.  The FDA did not release the information, so USRTK did. The government then suspended its testing program for glyphosate residues in food, Gillam reported.

FDA did resume testing and in late 2018 and issued a report that showed very limited testing and reported no worrisome levels of glyphosate. The report did not include any of the information USRTK turned up through FOIAs.

If you value this type of investigative reporting, please contribute to our fall fundraising drive.

5. Breaking news about the Monsanto Roundup cancer trials

U.S. Right to Know frequently breaks news about the Roundup cancer trials via Carey Gillam’s Roundup Trial Tracker, which provides a first look at discovery documents, interviews and news tips about the trials. More than 18,400 people have filed suit against the Monsanto Company (now owned by Bayer) alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks.

As part of the discovery process, Monsanto has turned over millions of pages of its internal records. USRTK is posting many of these documents and court records free of charge on our Monsanto Papers pages.

6. Pesticide companies secretly funded an academic group that attacked the organic industry 

A group calling itself Academics Review made headlines in 2014 with a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam. The group claimed it was run by independent academics, and accepted no corporate contributions; however, documents obtained by USRTK and reported in the Huffington Post revealed the group was set up with the help of Monsanto to be an industry-funded front group that could discredit critics of GMOs and pesticides.

Tax records show that Academics Review received most of its funding from the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a trade group funded by the world’s largest pesticide companies.

7. Universities hosted conferences funded by the pesticide industry to train scientists and journalists how to promote GMOs and pesticides 

Pesticide-industry funded “boot camps” held at the University of Florida and the University of California, Davis brought together scientists, journalists and industry PR allies to discuss how to “connect emotionally with skeptical parents” in their messaging to promote GMOs and pesticides, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. 

Two industry front groups, Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, organized the messaging-training events, and claimed the funding came from government, academic and industry sources; however, according to reporting in The Progressive, non-industry sources denied funding the events and the only traceable source of funds was the pesticide industry trade group CBI, which spent more than $300,000 on the two conferences. 

8. Coca-Cola secretly tried to influence medical and science journalists

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and reported in the BMJ show how Coca-Cola funded journalism conferences at a U.S. university in an attempt to create favorable press coverage of sugar-sweetened drinks. When challenged about funding of the series of conferences, the academics involved weren’t truthful about industry involvement. 

9. Coca Cola saw itself at “war” with the public health community over obesity 

Another journal article co-authored by USRTK’s Gary Ruskin in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health revealed how Coca-Cola saw itself at “war” with the “public health community.” The emails also reveal the company’s thoughts on how to deal with issues surrounding obesity and responsibility for this public health crisis; for more see Ruskin’s article in Environmental Health News and more journal articles co-authored by USRTK on our Academic Work page. 

10. Dozens of academics and other industry allies coordinate their messaging with agrichemical companies and their PR operatives

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know reveal never-before-reported facts about the front groups, academics, and other third party allies the pesticide and food companies rely on to promote their public relations and lobbying agendas. USRTK provides detailed fact sheets about more than two dozen leading third party allies who appear to be independent, but work closely with companies and their PR firms on coordinated pro-industry messages. See our fact sheet, Tracking the Agrichemical Industry Propaganda Network. 

Help us keep the USRTK investigations cooking! You can now contribute to our investigations through Go Fund MePatreon and PayPal. Please sign up for our newsletter to get regular updates about our findings and join us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for more discussion about our food system.

I’m a Journalist. Monsanto Built a Strategy to Destroy My Reputation

Print Email Share Tweet

This story originally ran in The Guardian on August 9, 2019

By Carey Gillam

As a journalist who has covered corporate America for more than 30 years, very little shocks me about the propaganda tactics companies often deploy. I know the pressure companies can and do bring to bear when trying to effect positive coverage and limit reporting they deem negative about their business practices and products.

But when I recently received close to 50 pages of internal Monsanto communications about the company’s plans to target me and my reputation, I was shocked.

I knew the company did not like the fact that in my 21 years of reporting on the agrochemical industry – mostly for Reuters – I wrote stories that quoted skeptics as well as fans of Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds. I knew the company didn’t like me reporting about growing unease in the scientific community regarding research that connected Monsanto herbicides to human and environmental health problems. And I knew the company did not welcome the 2017 release of my book, Whitewash – The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, which revealed the company’s actions to suppress and manipulate the science surrounding its herbicide business.

But I never dreamed I would warrant my own Monsanto action plan…

READ MORE:

Carey Gillam is research director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit research group that investigates the food industry. Gillam is former national correspondent for Reuters where she spent 17 years covering agribusiness, and she is a regular columnist at The Guardian.

Monsanto’s Campaign Against U.S. Right To Know: New Documents

Print Email Share Tweet

Internal documents released in August provide a rare look into the public relations machinery at Monsanto, and how the company tried to contain an investigation by U.S. Right to Know into its relationships with academics and other third parties who promote Monsanto products. USRTK, a small nonprofit research group focused on the food industry, has made numerous public records requests to taxpayer-funded universities and academics since 2015, leading to revelations about secretive industry collaborations.

The documents posted here show that Monsanto worried the “USRTK investigation will impact the entire industry” and had the “potential to be extremely damaging,” and so deployed 11 Monsanto employees, two PR firms, GMO Answers and other third-party allies to try to discredit the group. Monsanto also adopted a strategy to counter the reporting of Carey Gillam and her investigative book about the company’s herbicide business. Gillam is research director at USRTK.

“Monsanto had a ‘Carey Gillam Book’ spreadsheet, with more than 20 actions dedicated to opposing her book before its publication, including working to ‘Engage Pro-Science Third Parties’ in criticisms, and partnering with ‘SEO experts’ to spread its attacks,” reported Sam Levin in the Guardian. Monsanto also investigated singer Neil Young, the documents reveal.

Update: New documents posted August 18 reveal more details about Monsanto’s covert public relations operations, including how the company deployed allies to write letters and op-eds to criticize the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) over its classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen — materials that were intended to look like they originated outside Monsanto. Other documents discuss “media training” for farmers and others who could push Monsanto talking points as independent third parties, and communications showing FTI Consulting, which had Monsanto as a client, discussing with U.S. House of Representatives staff how to insert language into legislation that would cut funding to IARC. See coverage of the new documents in The Intercept, “Emails show Monsanto orchestrated GOP efforts to intimidate cancer researchers.

Monsanto’s plan to discredit USRTK: internal documents and key themes 

Monsanto was deeply worried about USRTK Co-director Gary Ruskin’s FOIA investigation, and had an elaborate plan to counteract it. 

Monsanto was concerned that the FOIAs would uncover its influence in the regulatory and policy process, payments to academics and their universities, and collaborations with academics in support of industry public relations goals. Monsanto wanted to protect its reputation and “freedom to operate,” and to “position” the investigation as “an attack on scientific integrity and academic freedom.”

  • “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry, and we will need to coordinate closely with BIO and CBI/GMOA throughout the planning process and on any eventual responses,” according to Monsanto’s “U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan” dated July 25, 2019. BIO is the biotech industry trade association and Council for Biotechnology Information/GMO Answers is a marketing program to promote GMOs run by Ketchum PR firm and funded by the largest agrichemical companies – BASF, Bayer (which now owns Monsanto), Corteva (a division of DowDuPont) and Syngenta.

The companies have pitched GMO Answers as a transparency initiative  to answer questions about GMOs with the voices of “independent experts,” however the documents described here, along with a previously released Monsanto PR plan, suggest that Monsanto relies on GMO Answers as a vehicle to push the company’s messaging.

From page 2, “Monsanto Company Confidential … U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan

  • “Any situation related to this issue has the potential to be extremely damaging, regardless of how benign the information may seem,” according to a GMO Answers Communications Plan in the document (page 23).

  • “*Worst case scenario*”: “Egregious email illustrates what would be the smoking gun of the industry (e.g. email shows expert/company covering up unflattering research or showing GMOs are dangerous/harmful)” (page 26)

  • The plan called for triggering “emergency calls” with the GMO Answers steering committee if the reach/escalation were serious enough. (page 23)
  • In some cases, Monsanto employees expected access to documents before U.S. Right to Know, even though USRTK requested the documents through state FOI. For UC Davis requests: “We will have a pre-release view of documents”. (page 3)
  • 11 Monsanto employees from 5 departments; two staffers from the trade group BIO and a staffer from GMO Answers/Ketchum were listed as “key contacts” in the plan (page 4). Two employees from FleishmanHillard were involved in assembling the plan (see agenda email).

Monsanto was also concerned about Carey Gillam’s book and tried to discredit it.

Several of the newly released documents relate to Monsanto’s efforts to counteract the reporting of Carey Gillam and her book that investigates the company’s herbicide business: “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science” (Island Press, 2017). Gillam is a former reporter for Reuters and current research director of U.S. Right to Know.

The documents include Monsanto’s  20-page “Issues Management / Communication Strategy” for Gillam’s book, with eight Monsanto staffers assigned to preparing for the October 2017 release of Gillam’s book. The strategy was to “minimize media coverage and publicity of this book this summer/fall by pointing to “truths” regarding farming …” 

An Excel spreadsheet titled “Project Spruce: Carey Gillam Book” describes 20 action items, with plans including paid placement for a post to appear on Google with a search for “Monsanto glyphosate Carey Gillam,” generating negative book reviews, and plans to “engage regulatory authorities” and “Pro-Science Third Parties,” including Sense About Science, Science Media Centre, the Global Farmer Network and the “Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research,” a project of the American Chemistry Council.

The documents reveal the existence of the Monsanto Corporate Engagement Fusion Center. 

Monsanto planned to “Work with the Fusion Center to monitor USRTK digital properties, the volume and sentiment related to USRTK/FOIA, as well as audience engagement.” (page 9) For more about corporate fusion centers, see:

Monsanto makes frequent references to working with third parties to counteract USRTK.

Others mentioned in the plans included:

Newly released documents list

Monsanto’s campaign to counteract the U.S. Right to Know public records investigation

Monsanto U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan 2019
July 25, 2019: Monsanto’s 31-page strategy plan to counteract the FOIA investigation. “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry…. Any situation related to this issue has the potential to be extremely damaging…”

Monsanto USRTK FOIA meeting agenda
May 15, 2016: Agenda for a meeting to discuss the USRTK FOIAs with eight Monsanto and two FTI Consulting employees.

Monsanto Comprehensive USRTK FOIA Preparedness and Reactive Plan 2016
May 15, 2016: Earlier draft of the Monsanto strategy to deal with the FOIAs (35 pages).

Monsanto response to FOIA article
February 1, 2016: Monsanto employees crafted a communications plan to provide a “10,000 foot view” of how Monsanto works with public sector scientists and/or provides funding to public sector programs – but not details about which universities they fund or how much. The plan responded to an article Carey Gillam wrote for USRTK, based on documents obtained by FOIA, reporting on undisclosed Monsanto funding to University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy.

Unfortunate language AgBioChatter Biofortified boys

  • September 2015: Discussion about “unfortunate” language used by an industry representative to communicate with academics and whether AgBioChatter, a list serve of academics and industry reps, was private or confidential. Karl Haro von Mogel of the GMO promotion group Biofortified advised AgBioChatter members to take “the Ruskin Cleanse” of their private emails to prevent damaging disclosures via FOIA.
  • Bruce Chassy shared with the AgBioChatter list his responses to a fact checker for Mother Jones (“I plan to respond without providing the requested information”) and his correspondence with Carey Gillam in response to her queries for Reuters about his industry ties.

Monsanto’s plans to discredit Carey Gillam’s Book

“Monsanto Company Confidential Issues Management / Communication Strategy” for Carey Gillam’s Book (October 2017)

“Project Spruce: Carey Gillam Book” Excel spreadsheet with 20 action items (September 11, 2017)

Monsanto and FTI Consulting employees discuss the Gillam action plan (September 11, 2017)

Monsanto video prep plans for Gillam book

Monsanto push back on Reuters editors
October 1, 2015: Email from Monsanto’s Sam Murphey: “We continue to push back on her editors very strongly every chance we get. And we all hope for the day she gets reassigned.”

Roundup “Reputation Management”

Reputation Management for Roundup 2014
February 2014: “L&G Reputation Management Sessions Summary, Lyon Feb. 2014” Power Point, with slides that describe what “we want to be known for / we want to avoid being linked with,” and what’s needed to win the argument about glyphosate safety.  “Question… are we just managing and delaying decline (like tobacco)?”

Roundup reputation management slide 2014:

Background on U.S. Right to Know investigations

U.S. Right to Know is a non-profit investigative research group focused on the food industry. Since 2015, we have obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of corporate and regulatory documents via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), U.S. state and international public records requests, and whistleblowers. These documents shine light on how food and agrichemical companies work behind the scenes with publicly funded academics and universities, front groups, regulatory agencies and other third party allies to promote their products and lobby for deregulation.

News coverage based on documents from USRTK Co-director Gary Ruskin’s investigation of the agrichemical industry:

    • New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, by Eric Lipton
    • Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Connection, by Laura Krantz
    • The Guardian: UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk, by Arthur Neslen
    • CBC: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties, by Jason Warick
    • CBC: U of S Defends Prof’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree, by Jason Warick
    • Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War, by Tom Philpott
    • Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby, by Allison Vuchnich
    • Le Monde: La discrète influence de Monsanto, by Stéphane Foucart.
    • The Progressive: Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media — and Discourages Criticism, by Paul Thacker
    • Freedom of the Press Foundation: How corporations suppress disclosure of public records about themselves, by Camille Fassett
    • WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding?, by Monica Eng
    • Saskatoon Star Phoenix: Group Questions U of S Prof’s Monsanto Link, by Jason Warick

For more information about the U.S. Right to Know documents, see our investigations page, examples of global news coverage and academic papers based on the documents. Many of the documents are posted in the free, searchable UCSF Industry Documents Library.

Donate to USRTK to help us expand our investigations and keep bringing you this crucial information about our food system. USRTK.org/donate

Tracking the Agrichemical Industry Propaganda Network

Print Email Share Tweet

Propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view

Just four corporations now control more than 60% of the global supply of seeds and pesticides. Public oversight of their activities is crucial for a safe and healthy food supply. Yet these companies – Monsanto/Bayer, DowDuPont, Syngenta and BASF – have documented histories of hiding the health risks and environmental harms of their products. Since their records do not inspire trust, these companies rely on third-party allies to promote and defend their products.

U.S. Right to Know has uncovered many documents that shine light on the hidden corporate connections of front groups, academics, journalists and regulators who work with the pesticide companies to promote GMOs and pesticides and discredit critics, including journalists, scientists and public health groups; the following fact sheets document our findings. 

Update: Newly released Monsanto documents reveal their full-court-press campaign to try to discredit our investigation and the work of our colleague, journalist and author Carey Gillam. “USRTK’s investigation has the potential to impact the entire industry,” according to Monsanto. See the documents here

Academics Review: the making of a Monsanto front group

AgBioChatter: where corporations and academics plotted strategy on GMOs and pesticides

Alison Van Eenennaam: key outside spokesperson and lobbyist for the agrichemical and GMO industries

American Council on Science and Health is a corporate front group

Bayer’s Shady PR Firms: FleishmanHillard and Ketchum PR

Biofortified aids chemical industry PR & lobbying efforts

Center for Food Integrity food and agrichemical industry PR partners

Cornell Alliance for Science is a public relations campaign at Cornell to promote GMOs

Drew Kershen: agrichemical industry front group ringleader

Food Evolution GMO Documentary is a misleading propaganda film, say many academics

Geoffrey Kabat: ties to tobacco and chemical industry groups

Glyphosate Spin Check: tracking claims about the most-widely used herbicide

GMO Answers is a crisis management PR tool for GMOs & pesticides

Hank Campbell’s maze of Monsanto-loving science blogs

Henry I. Miller dropped by Forbes for Monsanto ghostwriting scandal

Independent Women’s Forum: Koch-funded group defends pesticide, oil, tobacco industries

International Food Information Council (IFIC): how Big Food spins bad news

International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a food industry lobby group, documents show

Jay Byrne: meet the man behind the Monsanto PR machine

Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project: key messengers for Monsanto, Bayer and the chemical industry

Keith Kloor: how a science journalist worked with industry allies behind the scenes

Kevin Folta’s misleading and deceptive claims

Mark Lynas of Cornell Alliance for Science promotes the agrichemical industry’s commercial agenda

Monsanto named these “industry partners” in its PR plan to confront glyphosate cancer ruling (2015)

Nina Federoff mobilized the authority of American science to back Monsanto

Pamela Ronald’s ties to chemical industry front groups

SciBabe says eat your pesticides, but who is paying her?

Science Media Centre promotes corporate views of science

Sense About Science/STATS spin science for industry

Tamar Haspel misleads readers of the Washington Post in her food columns

Val Giddings: former BIO VP is a top operative for the agrichemical industry

More fact sheets about key front groups, trade groups and PR writers:

BIO: biotech industry trade group

Calorie Control Council

Center for Consumer Freedom

Crop Life International

International Life Sciences Institute

International Dairy Association

Julie Kelly

Kavin Senapathy/MAMMyths

Ketchum PR

U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance

Science fact sheets:

Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks

Aspartame Tied to Weight Gain, Increased Appetite, Obesity

Glyphosate: Health Concerns About Most Widely Used Pesticide

You can learn more about the findings of the U.S. Right to Know investigation here and see here for a list of global news coverage about our top findings. If you like our work, please consider donating here to keep the USRTK investigation cooking.

Top Findings of the U.S. Right To Know Investigations

Print Email Share Tweet

U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative group, has obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of documents revealing – for the first time – how food and pesticide corporations are working behind the scenes to undermine our nation’s scientific, academic, political and regulatory institutions. Many of these documents are now posted in the free, searchable industry document archives hosted by the University of California, San Francisco. See the USRTK Agrichemical Industry Collection and Food Industry Collection.

U.S. Right to Know provides documents free of charge to journalists, researchers, policymakers and the public around the world. Our work has contributed to two front-page New York Times investigations; six articles in the BMJ, one of the world’s leading medical journals, and many stories in other top news outlets and journals. Our own reporting has been published in the Guardian and Time magazine, among other outlets. See highlights below. For a fuller list of our investigative work and reporting about it, see our investigations page.

New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, by Eric Lipton

New York Times: New C.D.C. Chief Saw Coca-Cola as Ally in Obesity Fight, by Sheila Kaplan

New York Times: A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World, by Andrew Jacobs

New York Times: Scientists, Give Up Your Emails, by Paul Thacker

New York Times: Traces of Controversial Herbicide Are Found in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, by Stephanie Strom

Washington Post: Coca-Cola emails reveal how soda industry tries to influence health officials, by Paige Winfield Cunningham

BMJ: Coca-Cola and obesity: study shows efforts to influence US Centers for Disease Control, by Gareth Iocabucci

BMJ: International Life Sciences Institute is Advocate for Food and Drink Industry, Say Researchers

BMJ: Coca-Cola Contracts Could Allow it to “Quash” Unfavourable Research, by Elisabeth Mahase

BMJ: Coca-Cola’s Influence on Medical and Science Journalists, by Paul Thacker

BMJ: Conflicts of interest compromise US public health agency’s mission, say scientists, by Jeanne Lenzer

BMJ: US public health agency sued over failure to release emails from Coca-Cola, by Martha Rosenberg

TIME: FDA to Start Testing for Chemicals in Food, by Carey Gillam

TIME: I Won a Historic Lawsuit, But May Not Live to See the Money, by Carey Gillam

Island Press: Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, by Carey Gillam

Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Monsanto Connection in Paper Touting GMOs, by Laura Krantz

The Guardian: Revealed: how Monsanto’s ‘intelligence center’ targeted journalists and activists

The Guardian: Science Institute That Advised EU and UN ‘Actually Industry Lobby Group’, by Arthur Neslen

The Guardian: How Monsanto Manipulates Journalists and Academics, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: The EPA Is Meant to Protect Us.  The Monsanto Trials Suggest It Isn’t Doing That, by Nathan Donley and Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Who Is Paying for Monsanto’s Crimes?  We Are.  By Carey Gillam.

The Guardian: Weedkiller ‘Raises Risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma by 41%’, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: ‘The World Is Against Them’: New Era of Cancer Lawsuits Threaten Monsanto, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: One Man’s Suffering Exposed Monsanto’s Secrets to the World, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Landmark Lawsuit Claims Monsanto Hid Cancer Danger of Weedkiller for Decades, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Weedkiller Products More Toxic Than Their Active Ingredients, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Weedkiller Found in Granola and Crackers, Internal FDA Emails Show, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Monsanto says its pesticides are safe. Now, a court wants to see the proof, by Carey Gillam

The GuardianUN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk, by Arthur Neslen

The Guardian: Before you read another health study, check who’s funding the research, by Alison Moodie

Associated Press: Reports: Limit food industry sway on public health matters, by Candice Choi

Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: Science organisations and Coca-Cola’s ‘war’ with the public health community: insights from an internal industry document, by Pepita Barlow, Paulo Serôdio, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Milbank Quarterly: Public Meets Private: Conversations Between Coca-Cola and the CDC.  By Nason Maani Hessari, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Journal of Public Health Policy: “Always read the small print”: a case study of commercial research funding, disclosure and agreements with Coca-Cola, by Sarah Steele, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Journal of Public Health Policy: Roundup litigation discovery documents: implications for public health and journal ethics, by Sheldon Krimsky and Carey Gillam

Journal of Public Health Policy: Case-study of emails exchanged between Coca-Cola and the principal investigators of the ISCOLE, by David Stuckler, Gary Ruskin and Martin McKee

Globalization and Health: Are Industry-Funded Charities Promoting “Advocacy-Led Studies” or “Evidence-Based Science”? A Case Study of the International Life Sciences Institute.  By Sarah Steele, Gary Ruskin, Lejla Sarjevic, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Nature Biotechnology: Standing Up for Transparency, by Stacy Malkan

The Intercept: Trump’s New CDC Chief Championed Partnership with Coca-Cola to Solve Childhood Obesity, by Lee Fang

Los Angeles Times: In Science, Follow the Money If You Can, by Paul Thacker and Curt Furberg

San Francisco Chronicle: Major Brands Reverse Course on Genetically Modified Food Labels, by Tara Duggan

Undark: Corporate-Spun Science Should Not Be Guiding Policy, by Carey Gillam

WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding?, by Monica Eng

Democracy Now: Documents Reveal Monsanto Surveilled Journalists, Activists & Even Musician Neil Young

San Diego Union TribuneUCSD hires Coke-funded health researcher, by Morgan Cook

Bloomberg: Emails Show How Food Industry Uses ‘Science’ to Push Soda, by Deena Shanker

Bloomberg: How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs, by Jack Kaskey

CBC: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties, by Jason Warick

CBC: U of S Defends Prof’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree, by Jason Warick

ABC Australia: Leaked Email Exchange Reveals Food Industry Tactics, byLexi Metherell

ABC Australia: The Monsanto Papers broadcast

Le Monde: Comment Coca-Cola a bafoué ses promesses de transparence dans les contrats de recherche, by Stéphane Horel

Le Monde: Monsanto Papers series, by Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel

The Nation: Did Monsanto Ignore Evidence Linking its Weed Killer to Cancer? by Rene Ebersole

Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War, by Tom Philpott

Politico: Coca-Cola gained control over health research in return for funding, health journal says, by Jesse Chase-Lubitz

The Progressive: Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media — and Discourages Criticism, by Paul Thacker

Freedom of the Press Foundation: How corporations suppress disclosure of public records about themselves, by Camille Fassett

Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby, by Allison Vuchnich

Forbes: The Coca-Cola Network: Soda Giant Mines Connections with Officials and Scientists to Wield Influence, by Rob Waters

STAT: Study pulls back curtain on contracts between Coca-Cola and the researchers it funds, by Andrew Joseph

STAT: Disney, Fearing a Scandal, Tries to Press Journal to Withdraw Research Paper, by Sheila Kaplan

Environmental Health News: Coca cola war with public health science over obesity, by Gary Ruskin

Environmental Health News: Essay: Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science — and society, by Sheldon Krimsky

Salon: Two Congresswomen Want an Investigation into CDC’s Relationship with Coca-Cola, by Nicole Karlis

Critical Public Health: How food companies influence evidence and opinion – straight from the horse’s mouth, by Gary Sacks, Boyd Swinburn, Adrian Cameron and Gary Ruskin

TruthOut: Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists

Huffington Post: articles by Carey Gillam

Huffington Post: articles by Stacy Malkan

Philadelphia Inquirer: Coca-Cola’s research contracts allowed for quashing negative health findings, study finds, by Mari A. Shaefer

Common Ground magazine: Are you ready for the new wave of genetically engineered foods?, by Stacy Malkan

EcoWatch: articles by U.S. Right to Know

Ralph Nader: Monsanto and its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information

Gizmodo: Coca-Cola Can Terminate Health Research It Funds, Investigation Finds, by Ed Cara

Inverse: University Records Reveal Coca-Cola’s Immense Power Over Health Research, by Peter Hess

USRTK: Tracking the agrichemical industry propaganda network

To receive updates on the US Right to Know investigation, you can sign up for our newsletter. And please consider making a donation to keep our investigation cooking.

Nina Fedoroff: Mobilizing the authority of American science to back Monsanto

Print Email Share Tweet

Key points:

  • As a president and board chair of AAAS from 2011-2013, Dr. Fedoroff advanced agrichemical industry policy objectives. She now works for a lobbying firm.
  • Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show how public relations and lobbying efforts are coordinated behind the scenes among the agrichemical industry, front groups and academics who appear independent.
  • Dr. Fedoroff promotes organizations that mislead the public about science and their industry ties.

Nina Fedoroff, PhD, is one of the most influential scientists advocating for the proliferation and deregulation of genetically engineered foods. She is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011-2012) and former chair of the AAAS Board of Directors (2012-2013). She is a senior science advisor since 2015 at OFW Law, a lobbying firm whose clients have included Syngenta and the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group representing Bayer (which owns Monsanto), BASF, Corteva (a division of DowDuPont) and Syngenta.

From 2007-2010, Dr. Fedoroff served as science and technology advisor to the Secretary of State and the Administrator of USAID under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Prior to that, she was a board member of the Sigma-Aldrich Corporation, a multinational chemical and biotech firm; and an advisory board member of Evogene, a biotechnology company that partnered with DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto. 

In 2017, Dr. Fedoroff promoted the American Council on Science and Health “junk science” book alongside two scientists affiliated with groups that deny climate science and lobby for tobacco products.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “science czar,” Dr. Fedoroff served as diplomat for the “GMO all the way” thrust of U.S. foreign policy, Tom Philpott reported in Grist in 2008 and 2009. Pesticide Action Network of North America has described Dr. Fedoroff as “literally the U.S. ambassador” for genetic engineering. According to Greenpeace, Dr. Fedoroff has been “a fervent advocate for the global proliferation of GM (genetically modified) foods throughout her career.”

During her tenure as president and chairman of AAAS, the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society, Dr. Fedoroff leveraged those roles to provide political aid to the agrichemical industry: the AAAS Board of Directors under her chairmanship issued a politically timed statement to oppose GMO labeling in 2012; while president of the scientific organization in 2011, Dr. Fedoroff helped defeat a U.S. EPA proposal that would have required additional health and safety data for GMO crops, according to emails described below. See, Nina Fedoroff, AAAS and the agrichemical industry lobby. Dr. Fedoroff and AAAS have not responded to requests for response.

Affiliations with deceptive industry front groups and PR efforts

Dr. Fedoroff has promoted and helped to legitimize groups that claim to be independent voices for science but work behind the scenes with the agrichemical industry in ways that mislead the public − including two groups that helped Monsanto try to discredit the scientists who served on the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) expert panel that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is funded by chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, according to leaked internal documents that document how the group pitches its services to corporations for product-defense campaigns. Emails released via court proceedings show that Monsanto agreed to fund ACSH in 2015, and asked the group to write about the IARC cancer report on glyphosate; ACSH later claimed the cancer report was a “scientific fraud.”     

Dr. Fedoroff helped promote this group as a legitimate science source in a 2017 National Press Club event to launch the ACSH’s “Little Black Book of Junk Science.” Appearing alongside Dr. Fedoroff at the press event were two scientists affiliated with groups that deny climate science and lobby for tobacco products:

Genetic Literacy Project: Dr. Fedoroff is listed as a board member on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group that claims to be independent but partners with Monsanto on PR and lobbying projects, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. Documents released in court filings show that Monsanto listed this group among the “industry partners” it planned to engage in a strategy to “orchestrate outcry” against IARC’s glyphosate assessment in order to “protect the reputation and FTO of Roundup.” Genetic Literacy Project has since posted more than 200 articles critical of the cancer research agency, including numerous personal attacks on the scientists involved in the glyphosate report, accusing them of conspiracy, fraud, lying, corruption, secrecy, and being motivated by “profit and vanity.”

In an award-winning series in Le Monde about Monsanto’s “effort to destroy the UN cancer agency by any means possible,” journalists Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel described Genetic Literacy Project and ACSH as “well-known propaganda websites” and said GLP is “fed by PR people linked to the pesticides and biotechnology industries.” GLP was launched in 2011 by Jon Entine, who owns a public relations firm that had Monsanto as a client at that time.

Attacks on cancer researchers on the Genetic Literacy Project website that lists Dr. Fedoroff as a “board member”:

Academics Review: Dr. Fedoroff promoted Academics Review as a trustworthy science source in a 2012 article in Trends in Genetics and a 2016 interview with the Washington Examiner about poor science journalism. Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto to discredit critics of genetic engineering and pesticides, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden. The group, which claimed to be independent but was funded by agrichemical companies, attacked the organic industry as a “marketing scam.”

Biotech Literacy Boot Camp: Dr. Fedoroff was listed as a core faculty member of a Biotech Literacy Project “boot camp” held at UC Davis in 2015. The event was organized by two PR groups, Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, and secretly funded by agrichemical companies to “train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate,” reported Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Speakers included a familiar list of industry PR allies including Jay Byrne, Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy, David Tribe, Hank Campbell of ACSH and a keynote by the “Sci Babe.”

AgBioWorld: In her 2012 Trends and Genetics article, Dr. Fedoroff promoted the website AgBioWorld as “another invaluable resource” to learn about science. In a 2002 article in the Guardian, George Monbiot described how Monsanto’s PR team used the AgBioWorld website and fake social media accounts to discredit scientists and environmentalists who raised concerns about GM crops. Monbiot reported:  

“At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly [Monsanto’s] director of internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of them established by Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings). He told them to ‘think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed.’

While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow that he ‘spends his time and effort participating’ in web discussions about biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he ‘ensures his company gets proper play.’ AgBioWorld is the site on which [fake online personality Mary] Smetacek launched her campaign.”

Attack on Greenpeace: Dr. Fedoroff spoke at a 2016 press event for a group calling itself “Support Precision Agriculture,” which presented a letter signed by over 100 Nobel laureates criticizing Greenpeace for their opposition to GMOs. Agrichemical industry allies helped out with the campaign, including Monsanto’s former Communications Director Jay Byrne; former biotech trade group VP Val Giddings; and Matt Winkler, who funds the PR group Genetic Literacy Project and is listed as a board member along with Dr. Fedoroff on the group’s website. The .com version of the supposedly independent “Support Precision Agriculture” website redirected to the Genetic Literacy Project for years (it was delinked after we called attention to it in 2019). In emails from 2011, Byrne identified Greenpeace on a “targets” list he was developing for Monsanto with names of industry critics they could confront from behind the cover of an industry-funded academic group that appeared independent.

Friend of GMO Answers: Dr. Fedoroff is an independent expert for GMO Answers, a PR campaign developed by Ketchum public relations, which has a history of using deceptive tactics to influence the public. Although Ketchum claimed the GMO Answers campaign would “redefine transparency,” the group scripted answers for an “independent” expert and was listed among the “industry partners” in Monsanto’s PR plan to protect Roundup from cancer concerns. A “resources” section (page 4) pointed to GMO Answers and Monsanto links that communicate the company message that “Glyphosate is not carcinogenic.” In 2016, Dr. Fedoroff spoke on a panel sponsored by GMO Answers, Scientific American and the Cornell Alliance for Science about media coverage of science featuring industry-friendly journalists Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. See “Monsanto’s Media Machine Comes to Washington,” by Paul Thacker.

Opposed investigation to uncover industry-academic ties

In 2015, Dr. Fedoroff and two other former AAAS presidents, Peter Raven and Phillip Sharp, promoted their AAAS leadership roles, but failed to disclose any of their industry ties, in a Guardian op-ed opposing a public records investigation that sought to uncover undisclosed partnerships and financial arrangements between agrichemical companies, their PR groups and publicly funded professors. The investigation by U.S. Right to Know uncovered some of the key documents described in this fact sheet.

Although the Guardian later added a disclosure that Dr. Fedoroff works at the lobby firm OFW Law, it did not disclose that OFW Law’s client at the time was the agrichemical industry trade group, whose member companies were a focus of the public records investigation. The former AAAS presidents argued in their op-ed that the investigation to uncover undisclosed industry-academic conflicts of interest was “taking a page out of the Climategate playbook” and involved “science denialism,” the same claims made by industry PR groups described in this fact sheet.

Using the AAAS to advance agrichemical industry policy objectives

During her tenure as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) from 2011-2012 and as Chair of the Board of Directors from 2012-2013, Dr. Fedoroff worked with agrichemical industry allies to advance key policy objectives: keeping genetically engineered foods unlabeled and defeating a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would have required additional data on the health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops that are classified as pesticides.

AAAS helped persuade voters to oppose GMO labeling

In 2012, the AAAS Board of Directors under Dr. Fedoroff’s chairmanship took the unusual step of taking a position on a contentious political issue just two weeks before voters in California went to the polls to decide on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative to label GMOs. A review of the many political statements made by AAAS found no other examples of the organization attempting to influence voters ahead of a state election. (The AAAS and Dr. Fedoroff did not respond to requests for comment. Also disclosure: the USRTK co-directors worked on the pro-labeling campaign.)

The AAAS board’s statement opposing GMO labeling was controversial. It contained inaccuracies, according to longtime AAAS members, several of whom denounced the anti-labeling statement as a “paternalistic” attack on consumer rights that misled the public by omitting important scientific and regulatory context. An AAAS spokeswoman at the time, Ginger Pinholster, called the criticisms “unfair and without merit.” She told a reporter she was in the room when the board passed the statement: “We are not an advocacy group. We make our statements based on scientific evidence,” Pinholster said. “I can tell you that our statement is not the work of nor was it influenced by any outside organization.”

Some observers noted the similarities in language used by the AAAS and the industry-funded campaign to defeat Proposition 37. “Is a major science group stumping for Monsanto?” Michele Simon asked in Grist. Simon described the board’s statement as “non-scientific but very quote-worthy,” and noted that the accompanying AAAS press release contained “talking points” that matched No on 37 campaign literature.

“appearing to be less than transparent is a really bad idea for the scientific community”

In a 2013 letter to Science magazine, another group of 11 scientists raised concerns that the AAAS board’s statement on GMO foods “could backfire.” They wrote, “we are concerned that AAA’s position represents a poorly informed approach to communicating science …  appearing to be less than transparent is a really bad idea for the scientific community.” 

Dr. Fedoroff was an early supporter of the industry-backed No on 37 campaign, which listed her on its website in June 2012 as one of four scientists representing the “scientific and academic community” who opposed GMO labeling. The campaign later asked Dr. Fedoroff to help recruit more academics to their cause, which she did according to an October 1, 2012 email to Meghan Callahan of BCF Public Affairs, “I’ve forwarded your [request for academic supporters] to an international group of biotechnology supporting academics. I suspect you’ll be hearing from many corners of the world,” Dr. Fedoroff wrote.

Helped kill data requirements for pesticide-producing plants

In 2011 while serving as AAAS president, Dr. Fedoroff worked with agrichemical industry allies and an industry lobbyist to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from requiring companies to provide additional health and safety data for genetically engineered foods that are classified as pesticides, according to emails described below.

The EPA proposal stemmed from a 2009 EPA Scientific Advisory Panel discussion about ways to improve the agency’s ability to make regulatory decisions about plants that are genetically engineered to produce or contain pesticides, which EPA refers to as “plant-incorporated protectants” (PIPs). Panel members were asked to evaluate current and proposed EPA data requirements for PIPs in the following areas: 

  • data to assess potential similarities between PIPs and allergens, toxins, anti-nutrients and other hazardous proteins; 
  • testing for synergistic effects on health and non-target organisms, when two or more GMO traits are combined (stacked trait GMOs);
  • potential impacts on microbial populations in soil ecosystems; and 
  • data to better address the impacts of gene flow. 

According to notes from an October 2009 EPA meeting, the proposed rules would “mostly codify existing data requirements that are currently applied on a case-by-case basis,” and would encompass five categories of data and information: product characterization, human health, non-target effects, environmental fate and resistance management. EPA announced the proposed rules in the Federal Register in March 2011.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via public records requests show how industry allies mobilized to defeat the proposal.

The emails show conversations between Bruce Chassy, a University of Illinois professor at the time, Eric Sachs of Monsanto and other industry reps discussing activities and meetings that involved Dr. Fedoroff. Chassy described himself in the emails (page 66) as the liaison between industry and academics in the effort to oppose the EPA data requirements. Interspersed in his emails to Sachs were queries about whether Monsanto had sent a check to the University of Illinois Foundation in support of Chassy’s “biotechnology outreach and education activities.” (For more details about the undisclosed funds Chassy received from Monsanto for years as he promoted biotechnology, see reporting by Monica Eng in WBEZ and emails posted by the New York Times.)

On July 5, Dr. Chassy emailed Eric Sachs of Monsanto to report that Dr. Fedoroff had sent a letter to EPA over her signature co-signed by 60 members of the National Academy of Sciences. “Nina really picked up the ball and moved it down the field,” Chassy wrote. He described the EPA proposal as a “train wreck.”

The emails show that on August 19, industry trade group representatives were surprised and pleased (page 19) to see a New York Times op-ed from Dr. Fedoroff arguing against regulations for genetic engineering; “who got Nina’s op ed placed?” Adrienne Massey of BIO asked Dr. Chassy and two other industry allies, Henry Miller and Val Giddings. Chassy responded: 

Massey forwarded Dr. Chassy the letter BIO sent to the EPA “hoping to build on the academics’ letter and short-circuit any dismissive response of EPA to that letter.” Their efforts did not succeed as they hoped. On August 24, Dr. Chassy wrote to Eric Sachs (page 14) that Dr. Fedoroff “got a response from EPA that is an insult.” He described plans to ratchet up the pressure.

 

In September, Chassy organized a conference call with Fedoroff, Monsanto’s Eric Sachs, Adrienne Massey of BIO and their lobbyist Stanley Abramson, among others. According to Chassy’s notes from the call, “Finding a way to ensure that the EPA proposal never sees the light of day would be the best possible outcome we could hope for. Next best would be to make sure it is DOA, but if needs be we must be willing to continue the fight.” 

He also shared the problem that, “The EPA does not believe that the academic community can mount a sustained opposition to their proposed rule making; they believe that only a small handful are behind the petition and that most of the signatories are not committed to the issue.” The group decided they needed to “build a core of leading scientists who are in fact willing to speak out and devote time to this issue.” 

By October, the group was more hopeful. Chassy emailed Sachs to report on a “surprisingly productive” meeting he and Dr. Fedoroff attended with Steve Bradbury of EPA. The meeting had been set up by Massey and the lobbyist Abramson. The EPA proposal to require data for GMO PIPs never did see the light of day, according to Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union, who participated in the public meetings with the agency.

Full email chains, via the UCSF Industry Documents Library: 

Related reporting  

I Was Barred from a Nobel Laureate Press Conference by a PR Consultant with Monsanto Ties,” by Tim Schwab, Food & Water Watch (2016) 

The Puppetmasters of Academia,” by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent Science News (2015)

20 years later: the biotech brigade marches on,” Pesticide Action Network (2012) 

Engineering food for whom?” by Marcia Ishii-Eitemann, PhD, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America (2011) 

Sorry, NY Times: GMOs still won’t save the world,” by Anna Lappe, Grist (2011) 

In which I go toe to toe with H. Clinton’s science czar over GMOs,” by Tom Philpott, Grist (2009) 

Genetically Modified Diplomat: U.S. Foreign Policy GMO All the Way,” by Tom Philpott, Grist (2008)