Gates Foundation’s ‘Failing’ Green Revolution in Africa: New Report 

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New research from the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute finds the billion-dollar Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa is not living up to its promises 

By Stacy Malkan

Massive investments spent promoting and subsidizing commercial seeds and agrichemicals across Africa have failed to fulfill their purpose of alleviating hunger and lifting small-scale farmers out of poverty, according to a new white paper published by the Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute. A report based largely on the research, “False Promises,” was published July 10 by African and German nonprofits that are calling for a shift in support to agroecological farming practices. 

The research led by Timothy A. Wise examines the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an international nonprofit launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations in 2006 with promises to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households while cutting food insecurity in half in 20 African countries by 2020. 

In pursuit of that vision, AGRA has collected nearly $1 billion in donations and disbursed $524 million, primarily in 13 African countries, on programs promoting the use of commercial seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This “Green Revolution” technology package is further supported by subsidies; Wise reports that African national governments have spent roughly $1 billion per year in the target countries subsidizing the purchase of seeds and agrichemicals.

Despite the public support, AGRA has provided no comprehensive evaluation or reporting on its impacts. The Tufts researchers relied on national-level data for agricultural productivity, poverty, hunger and malnutrition to assess progress.

“We find little evidence of widespread progress on any of AGRA’s goals, which is striking given the high levels of government subsidies for technology adoption,” the researchers report. The paper documents slow productivity growth, no significant increases in food security or small-farmer incomes in the target countries, and worsening hunger. 

“It’s a failing model, failing results; it’s time to change course.”

“The evidence suggests that AGRA is failing on its own terms,” the paper concludes. In an interview, Wise summed up his findings about the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa: “It’s a failing model, failing results; it’s time to change course.” 

AGRA said it is “very disappointed” in the research. “Over the last 14 years, AGRA has achieved its successes, but has also learned a lot,” the group said in a statement. AGRA said the Tufts paper failed to meet “basic academic and professional standards of peer review and asking the subject to comment on the ‘findings,’” and accused Wise of having “a history of writing unfounded allegations and uncorroborated reports about AGRA and its work.” In an email, Andrew Cox, Chief of Staff and Strategy at AGRA, further criticized the research approach as “not professional and ethical,” and said they “prefer to have transparency and engagement with reporters and others directly around the issues.” He said AGRA “will do a full evaluation against its targets and results” at the end of 2021.

Wise, whose 2019 book “Eating Tomorrow” was critical of aid approaches that push high-cost industrial models for agricultural development in Africa, said he reached out to AGRA several times beginning in January with questions for his research. “If AGRA or the Gates Foundation has data that contradicts these findings, they should make them available,” Wise said.

Among the key findings he reported:   

  • The number of hungry people in AGRA’s 13 focus countries has jumped 30 percent during AGRA’s well-funded Green Revolution.
  • Productivity increased just 29% over 12 years for maize, the most subsidized and supported crop – far short of the goal of a 100% increase. 
  • Many climate-resilient, nutritious crops have been displaced by the expansion in supported crops such as maize. 
  • Even where maize production has increased, incomes and food security have scarcely improved for AGRA’s supposed beneficiaries: small-scale farming households.
  • Despite the Gates Foundation’s promise to help millions of smallholder farmers, many of them women, there is no evidence AGRA is reaching a significant number of smallholder farmers. While some medium-sized farms may see productivity improvements, “those are overwhelmingly farmers – mostly men – with access to land, resources, and markets.”

Wise points to Rwanda as an example of what he described as “AGRA’s failings.” Widely considered an AGRA success story, Rwanda has seen maize yields grow by 66%. However, the data indicates weak overall productivity improvements across staple crops as farmers abandoned more nutritious local crops to grow maize. Meanwhile the number of undernourished has increased 13% in the AGRA years. Rwanda’s former Agriculture Minister, Agnes Kalibata, now heads AGRA and was recently named to lead a planned U.N. World Food Summit in 2021.

“The results of the study are devastating for AGRA and the prophets of the Green Revolution,” said Jan Urhahn, agricultural expert at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, which funded the research.

In its report, the group and its nonprofit partners in Africa and Germany called on donor governments “to provide no further political and financial support for AGRA and switch their funding from AGRA to programs that help small-scale food producers, particularly women and youth, and develop climate-resilient ecologically sustainable farming practices such as agroecology.” 

High public cost, low transparency 

So who pays for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa? Of the nearly $1 billion donated to the organization to date, the Gates Foundation has contributed roughly two-thirds ($661 million through 2018), with much of the rest supplied by taxpayers in the U.S., UK and elsewhere. The U.S. government has donated $90 million to AGRA since 2006, according to Cox. 

As evidence of progress and transparency, AGRA points to its annual reports that provide data on short-term objectives, albeit vague the 2019 report for example highlights “4.7 million smallholder farmers reached through various interventions” and “800 million of private capital facilitated.” The report includes some details about progress toward AGRA’s areas of strategic focus: passing policies to facilitate business, trying to scale technologies and engaging partners. The report notes various corporate partnerships and efforts to privatize markets.

Integration and scale: Transforming the livelihoods and lives of smallholder farmers in Africa

For the Tufts analysis, Wise said he contacted AGRA repeatedly for cooperation with requests for their monitoring and evaluation data. The organization said it would provide the information but ceased responding to requests. 

In its rebuttal, AGRA described itself as “an African Institution that is open to critique and happy to share information with researchers and media,” and indicated it has shifted thinking on some of its original metrics. “The task of catalyzing transformation is difficult,” the statements notes, “and needs exceptional commitment, structural change and investment. AGRA will continue to refine its approach based on the needs of our partner farmers, SMEs [small and mid-size enterprises] and the priorities of governments.”

Cox further elaborated in his email: “AGRA has a basket of indicators to track results across farmers, systems, and governments,” he said. “AGRA has been able to demonstrate that on a household by household basis, incomes do sharply increase when farmers are given access to modern seeds and inputs, supported by village level extension.” However, he said, a number of other factors affect incomes that are beyond AGRA’s influence and AGRA’s thinking on farmer incomes has “moved to being more context specific and related to what we can influence directly.” 

The Gates Foundation responded to the Tufts paper with a statement from its media team, “We support organizations like AGRA because they partner with countries to help them implement the priorities and policies contained in their national agricultural development strategies. We also support AGRA’s efforts to monitor progress continually and collect data to inform what’s working and what’s not working. We encourage you to look to AGRA’s newly released annual report for the latest data on its goals and impact. “

Africa-based groups: solutions lie with African people 

The lack of progress toward improved conditions on poverty and hunger is no surprise to Africa-based farming and food sovereignty groups who have opposed the “neocolonial logic” of the Gates Foundation’s Green Revolution from the start. 

“For years we have documented the efforts by the likes of AGRA to spread the Green Revolution in Africa, and the dead-ends it will lead to: declining soil health, loss of agricultural biodiversity, loss of farmer sovereignty, and locking of African farmers into a system that is not designed for their benefit, but for the profits of mostly Northern multinational corporations,” said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity. The South Africa-based research and advocacy organization has published more than two-dozen papers since 2007 warning about the risks and problems of the AGRA model. 

“Africans don’t need unaccountable American and European agro-chemical and seed companies to develop them,” Mayet said. “We need global trade, financial and debt justice to re-cast Africa’s position in the global economy and that gives us the space to democratically build our future.”

In the context of the COVID crisis especially, she said, “this new report strengthens the argument that Africa is better off without AGRA and its neocolonial logic, and that solutions lie with people on the continent and the world that are building systems grounded in justice, and human and ecological wellbeing.”

Million Belay, who coordinates the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a coalition of 30 Africa-based food and farming groups, equated the current market-driven agricultural development model to a “knee on the neck of Africa.” 

In a powerful essay in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the global uprising for racial justice, Belay discussed a false narrative about African food systems that is seeded by “a cohort of actors including philanthrocapitalists, Aid Agencies, governments, academic institutions and embassies … (who) talk about transforming African agriculture but what they are doing is creating a market for themselves cleverly couched in a nice sounding language.”   

“We are told that our seeds are old and have little capacity to give us food and they have to be hybridized and genetically modified to be of use; we are told that what we need is more calories and we need to focus on seeds of few crops; we are told that we are not using our land effectively and it should be given to those who can do a better job of it; we are told that our knowledge about farming is backward and we need to modernize with knowledge from the West … we are told, we need business to invest billions of dollars, and without these saviors from the North, we cannot feed ourselves. Our world is defined simply by producing more, not in having healthy, nutritious and culturally appropriate food, produced without harming the environment,” he wrote.

“It is the same knee that justified colonialism on Africa. I think the only way to remove this knee and breathe is to recognize the knee, understand its ways of working and organize to defend ourselves,” Belay wrote. His group advocates for agroecology, which is now widely promoted among AFSA’s 30 member organizations. AFSA documents a number of case studies showing “how agroecology benefits Africa in terms of food security, nutrition, poverty reduction, climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity conservation, cultural sensitivity, democracy, and value for money.”

AGRA’s shifting promises

A year ago, the bold promises of AGRA – to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households in Africa by 2020 – appeared prominently on organization’s grants web page. The goals have since disappeared from the page. When asked about this, Cox clarified, “We have not reduced our ambition, but have learned that other more targeted indicators are appropriate.”

He said AGRA recently updated its website and “didn’t have the resources to get it done in the way that we wanted” but will be updating it again soon. The group also appears to be ramping up its PR efforts. A request for proposal for a three-year communications consultancy, posted in June, describes ambitions to “increase AGRA’s positive media coverage by about 35-50% above the 2017 coverage” (a trends report notes AGRA receives 80 media mentions a month with an uptick in September 2016 to 800 articles).

The scope of work noted in the RFP includes “at least 10 high quality editorials” placed in “influential traditional and emerging global and regional outlets like the New York Times, Ventures Africa, The Africa Report, CNBC-Africa, Al Jazeera, etc.,” and securing “25–30 prime time one-on-one interviews for AGRA experts in major global media.”

A year ago, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa touted its ambitious goals on its grants page (highlight added). By July 2020 that language no longer appeared on the page.

Changing course 

The Tufts report notes a growing body of research that shows the limits of the input-intensive Green Revolution model of agricultural development and the viability of agroecological approaches that work with nature. References include: 

  • The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2019 documented the many ways industrialized agriculture contributes to climate change, calling for profound changes to both mitigate and help farmers adapt to climate disruptions.
  • May 2020 paper, “Connecting the dots to enable agroecology transformations,” in Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, states: “Agroecology is coming into its own as an alternative paradigm to corporate-led industrial food systems. Evidence of the advantages, benefits, impacts, and multiple functions of agroecology abounds. For many the evidence is clear: agroecology, together with ‘food sovereignty’, offer a pathway for more just and sustainable food systems and communities.” See also Agroecology Now Special Issue of Agroecology Transformations.
  • July 2019 expert report on agroecology from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is clear in its call for a break with the Green Revolution model. “Food systems are at a crossroads. Profound transformation is needed,” it says. The report stresses the importance of ecological agriculture, which supports “diversified and resilient production systems, including mixed livestock, fish, cropping and agroforestry, that preserve and enhance biodiversity, as well as the natural resource base.”
  • October 2018 report from International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), “Breaking Away from Industrial Food Systems: Seven Case Studies of Agroecological Transition”
  • February 2018 paper in Food Policy, “Review: Taking stock of Africa’s second-generation agricultural input subsidy programs,” surveyed results from seven countries with input-subsidy programs and found little evidence of sustained—or sustainable—success. “The empirical record is increasingly clear that improved seed and fertilizer are not sufficient to achieve profitable, productive, and sustainable farming systems in most parts of Africa,” the authors concluded.
  • June 2016 report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), founded by former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter, summarizes the limits of the input-intensive Green Revolution model of agricultural development, and the viability of alternative approaches. “A new agroecological paradigm is required, rooted in fundamentally different relationships between agriculture and the environment, and between food systems and society. The seven case studies in this report provide concrete examples of how, in spite of the many barriers to change, people around the world have been able to fundamentally rethink and redesign food systems around agroecological principles.”
  • The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) has documented the effectiveness of agroecology, now widely promoted among its member organizations. See AFSA’s case studies
  • February 2006 University of Essex study surveyed nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects across more than 50 poor countries and documented an average 79% increase in productivity with decreasing costs and rising incomes. 

More information

For more details on the latest research conducted by Timothy A. Wise

Related reporting by U.S. Right to Know

 

Junk Food Makers Target Blacks, Latinos and Communities of Color, Increasing Risks From COVID

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In the United States, the novel coronavirus appears to be infecting, hospitalizing and killing black people and Latinos at alarmingly high rates, with data from several states illustrating this pattern. Health disparities in nutrition and obesity, often deriving from structural racism, correlate closely with the alarming racial and ethnic disparities related to Covid-19. See, “Covid-19 and Disparities in Nutrition and Obesity” in the New England Journal of Medicine (July 15, 2020) .

Structural inequalities across U.S. society contribute to this problem, including unequal access to fresh healthy foods, unequal access to health care, socioeconomic factors and excess exposure to toxic chemicals and unhealthy air, to name a few. For more information about structural inequities in our food system, see resources from Duke University’s World Food Policy Center and the Food First Institute for Development and Food Policy.

Another problem is that food companies specifically and disproportionately target communities of color with their marketing for junk food products. In this post we are tracking news coverage and studies about racial disparities in junk food advertising. For recent articles on the connections between food-related diseases and Covid-19, impacts on farmworkers and food workers, and other vital food system issues related to the pandemic, see our Coronavirus Food News Tracker. See also our reporting in Environmental Health News, What does junk food have to do with COVID-19 deaths? by Carey Gillam (4.28.20).

Data on the disproportionate targeting of junk food advertising and marketing to communities of color

Increasing disparities in unhealthy food advertising targeted to Hispanic and Black youth, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity; Council on Black Health (January 2019)

Television food advertising viewed by preschoolers, children and adolescents: contributors to differences in exposure for black and white youth in the United States, Rudd Center of Food Policy and Obesity (May 2016)

Food advertising targeted to Hispanic and Black youth: Contributing to health disparities, Rudd Center for Food Policy, AACORN, Salud America! (August 2015)

Limit junk-food ads that contribute to childhood obesity, Statement by the American Medical Association (2018)

Health equity & junk food marketing: talking about targeting kids of color, Berkeley Media Studies Group (2017)

Television food advertising viewed by preschoolers, children and adolescents: contributors to differences in exposure for black and white youth in the United States, Pediatric Obesity (2016)

To Choose (Not) to Eat Healthy: Social Norms, Self‐affirmation, and Food Choice, by Aarti Ivanic, Psychology and Marketing (July 2016)

Disparities in Obesity-Related Outdoor Advertising by Neighborhood Income and Race, Journal of Urban Health (2015)

Child-Directed Marketing Inside and on the Exterior of Fast Food Restaurants, American Journal of Preventive Medicine (2014)

Racial/Ethnic and Income Disparities in Child and Adolescent Exposure to Food and Beverage Television Ads across U.S. Media Markets, Health Place (2014)

Impact of Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption on Black Americans’ Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation(2011)

The Context for Choice: Health Implications of Targeted Food and Beverage Marketing to African Americans, American Journal of Public Health (2008)

Fast Food: Oppression through Poor NutritionCalifornia Law Review (2007)

The Health Impact of Targeted Marketing: An Interview with Sonya Grier, Corporations and Health Watch (2010)

Related 

Targeted Marketing Of Junk Food To Ethnic Minority Youth: Fighting Back With Legal Advocacy And Community Engagement, ChangeLab Solutions (2012)

Exposé on how McDonald’s and Burger King targeted African Americans in the 1970s, by Lenika Cruz, The Atlantic (6.7.15)

Coronavirus Food News Tracker: Best articles on the pandemic and our food system

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Covid-19 is exposing serious problems with our food system. In this post, U.S. Right to Know is tracking important food news news related to the coronavirus pandemic. To receive weekly updates and breaking news from the USRTK investigations, please sign up for our newsletter.

Topics (drop links)
Most Recent Articles 
Obesity and Coronavirus
Eating Ultra-processed Food Increases Likelihood of Dying from Coronavirus
Inequalities In Our Food System
Risks Facing Farmworkers and Food Workers
Food Supply and Security  
Toxic Chemicals and Coronavirus
Role of Factory Farming and Agriculture in Pandemics Like Covid-19
Food System Analysis 
Food Safety
Junk Food Resurgence 

Most recent articles

Obesity and Coronavirus

Eating Ultra-processed Food Increases Likelihood of Dying from Coronavirus

Inequalities In Our Food System 

Risks Facing Farmworkers and Food Workers

Food Supply and Security  

Toxic Chemicals and Coronavirus

Role of Factory Farming and Agriculture in Pandemics Like Covid-19

Food System Analysis

Food Safety

Junk Food Resurgence

Please send us stories you think are important to include. You can email them to stacy@usrtk.org.
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Glyphosate Fact Sheet: Cancer and Other Health Concerns

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Glyphosate, a synthetic herbicide patented in 1974 by the Monsanto Company and now manufactured and sold by many companies in hundreds of products, has been associated with cancer and other health concerns. Glyphosate is best known as the active ingredient in Roundup-branded herbicides, and the herbicide used with “Roundup Ready” genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Herbicide tolerance is the most prevalent GMO trait engineered into food crops, with some 90% of corn and 94% of soybeans in the U.S. engineered to tolerate herbicides, according to USDA data. A 2017 study found that Americans’ exposure to glyphosate increased approximately 500 percent since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced in the U.S in 1996. Here are some key facts about glyphosate:

Most Widely Used Pesticide

According to a February 2016 study, glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide: “In the U.S., no pesticide has come remotely close to such intensive and widespread use.” Findings include:

  • Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate since its introduction in 1974.
  • Worldwide 9.4 million tons of the chemical has been sprayed on fields – enough to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world.
  • Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced.

Statements from scientists and health care providers 

  • Statement by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) Reproductive and Environmental Health Committee: “We recommend that glyphosate exposure to populations should end with a full global phase out.” (7.2019) 
  • Essay in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: “Is it time to reassess safety standards for glyphosate based herbicides?” (6.2017)
  • Consensus statement in Environmental Health Journal: “Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: a consensus statement” (2.2016)
  • A public comment submitted to the EPA in October 2019 stated that several research papers support a cancer connection to glyphosate and it should be banned. The comment was originally submitted under the name of Patrick Breysse, who is the director of the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But after USRTK inquired about the comment to the EPA, Breysse’s name was deleted and the comment was attributed to “anonymous.”  This is the comment:  “Numerous studies have linked its use to an increase in lymphomas, and it’s time we stopped letting the chemical industry manipulate research to serve its own interest. U.S. citizens need to trust the Environmental Protection Agency to operate in our best interest, which means weighing evidence from neutral scientific sources not vested in the outcome.”  Breysse was the ATSDR official who was pressured by EPA officials in 2015 to put a halt to a review of glyphosate toxicity. See background story and internal EPA emails here.  

Cancer Concerns

The scientific literature and regulatory conclusions regarding glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides show a mix of findings, making the safety of the herbicide a hotly debated subject. 

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” after reviewing years of published and peer-reviewed scientific studies. The team of international scientists found there was a particular association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

U.S. agencies: At the time of the IARC classification, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was conducting a registration review. The EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC) issued a report in September 2016 concluding that glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at doses relevant to human health. In December 2016, the EPA convened a Scientific Advisory Panel to review the report; members were divided in their assessment of EPA’s work, with some finding the EPA erred in how it evaluated certain research. Additionally, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development determined that EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs had not followed proper protocols in its evaluation of glyphosate, and said the evidence could be deemed to support a “likely” carcinogenic or “suggestive” evidence of carcinogenicity classification. Nevertheless the EPA issued a draft report on glyphosate in December 2017 continuing to hold that the chemical is not likely to be carcinogenic. In April 2019, the EPA reaffirmed its position that glyphosate poses no risk to public health. But earlier that same month, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reported that there are links between glyphosate and cancer. According to the draft report from ATSDR, “numerous studies reported risk ratios greater than one for associations between glyphosate exposure and risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or multiple myeloma.” 

The EPA issued an Interim Registration Review Decision in January 2020 with updated information about its position on glyphosate. 

European Union: The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency have said glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. A March 2017 report by environmental and consumer groups argued that regulators relied improperly on research that was directed and manipulated by the chemical industry. A 2019 study found that Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment report on glyphosate, which found no cancer risk, included sections of text that had been plagiarized from Monsanto studies.  In February 2020, reports surfaced that 24 scientific studies submitted to the German regulators to prove the safety of glyphosate came from a large German laboratory that has been accused of fraud and other wrongdoing.

WHO/FAO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues determined in 2016 that glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet, but this finding was tarnished by conflict of interest concerns after it came to light that the chair and co-chair of the group also held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute, a group funded in part by Monsanto and one of its lobbying organizations.

California OEHHA: On March 28, 2017, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment confirmed it would add glyphosate to California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. Monsanto sued to block the action but the case was dismissed. In a separate case, the court found that California could not require cancer warnings for products containing glyphosate. On June 12, 2018, a U.S. District Court denied the California Attorney General’s request for the court to reconsider the decision. The court found that California could only require commercial speech that disclosed “purely factual and uncontroversial information,” and the science surrounding glyphosate carcinogenicity was not proven.

Agricultural Health Study: A long-running U.S. government-backed prospective cohort study of farm families in Iowa and North Carolina has not found any connections between glyphosate use and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but the researchers reported that “among applicators in the highest exposure quartile, there was an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) compared with never users…” The most recent published update to the study was made public in late 2017.

Recent studies linking glyphosate to cancer and other health concerns 

Cancer

Fertility and reproductive concerns 

Liver disease 

  • A 2017 study associated chronic, very low-level glyphosate exposures to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in rats. According to the researchers, the results “imply that chronic consumption of extremely low levels of a GBH formulation (Roundup), at admissible glyphosate-equivalent concentrations, are associated with marked alterations of the liver proteome and metabolome,” the biomarkers for NAFLD.

Microbiome disruption 

  • A 2018 rat study conducted by the Ramazzini Institute reported that low-dose exposures to Roundup at levels considered safe significantly altered the gut microbiota in some of the rat pups.
  • Another 2018 study reported that higher levels of glyphosate administered to mice disrupted the gut microbiota and caused anxiety and depression-like behaviors.

Harmful impacts bees and monarch butterflies.

Cancer lawsuits

More than 42,000 people have filed suit against Monsanto Company (now Bayer) alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), and that Monsanto covered up the risks. As part of the discovery process, Monsanto has had to turn over millions of pages of internal records. We are posting these Monsanto Papers as they become available. For news and tips about the ongoing legislation, see Carey Gillam’s Roundup Trial Tracker. The first three trials ended in large awards to plaintiffs for liability and damages, with juries ruling that Monsanto’s weed killer was a substantial contributing factor in causing them to develop NHL. Bayer is appealing the rulings. 

Monsanto influence in research: In March 2017, the federal court judge unsealed some internal Monsanto documents that raised new questions about Monsanto’s influence on the EPA process and about the research regulators rely on. The documents suggest that Monsanto’s long-standing claims about the safety of glyphosate and Roundup do not necessarily rely on sound science as the company asserts, but on efforts to manipulate the science

More information about scientific interference:

Sri Lankan scientists awarded AAAS freedom award for kidney disease research

The AAAS has awarded two Sri Lankan scientists, Drs. Channa Jayasumana and Sarath Gunatilake, the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for their work to “investigate a possible connection between glyphosate and chronic kidney disease under challenging circumstances.” The scientists have reported that glyphosate plays a key role in transporting heavy metals to the kidneys of those drinking contaminated water, leading to high rates of chronic kidney disease in farming communities. See papers in  SpringerPlus (2015), BMC Nephrology (2015), Environmental Health (2015), International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2014). The AAAS award had been suspended amidst a fierce opposition campaign by pesticide industry allies to undermine the work of the scientists. After a review, the AAAS reinstated the award

Desiccation: another source of dietary exposures 

Some farmers use glyphosate on non-GMO crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and lentils to dry down the crop ahead of harvest in order to accelerate the harvest. This practice, known as desiccation, may be a significant source of dietary exposure to glyphosate.

Glyphosate in food: U.S. drags its feet on testing

The USDA quietly dropped a plan to start testing food for residues of glyphosate in 2017. Internal agency documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show the agency had planned to start testing over 300 samples of corn syrup for glyphosate in April 2017. But the agency killed the project before it started. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began a limited testing program in 2016, but the effort was fraught with controversy and internal difficulties and the program was suspended in September 2016. Both agencies have programs that annually test foods for pesticide residues but both have routinely skipped testing for glyphosate.

Before the suspension, one FDA chemist found alarming levels of glyphosate in many samples of U.S. honey, levels that were technically illegal because there have been no allowable levels established for honey by the EPA. Here is a recap of news about glyphosate found in food:

Pesticides in our food: Where’s the safety data?

USDA data from 2016 shows detectable pesticide levels in 85% of more than 10,000 foods sampled, everything from mushrooms to grapes to green beans. The government says there are little to no health risks, but some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. See “Chemicals on our food: When “safe” may not really be safe: Scientific scrutiny of pesticide residue in food grows; regulatory protections questioned,” by Carey Gillam (11/2018).

Corporate influence at the University of Saskatchewan: Professor Peter Phillips and his secret “right to know symposium”

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Tens of thousands of pages of internal documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via public records requests reveal the close – and often secret – ties between Monsanto, its PR groups, and a group of professors who promote GMOs and pesticides. In one example, the investigation turned up details about Monsanto’s work with Peter W. B. Phillips, Distinguished Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.

The revelations included evidence that Monsanto employees assigned and edited a paper Phillips wrote, and participated in a closed-to-the-public “symposium” Phillips organized at the U of S to discuss transparency challenges around industry partnerships. The events raised concerns about industry influence at the publicly funded university, and prompted some fellow faculty members and others to launch a legal challenge to try to obtain the “right to know symposium” transcript.

This fact sheet provides background on these events, and documents from the legal challenge and public records investigation. The U of S has said it reviewed Phillips’ work in the context of the university’s research ethics policies. As a result, Phillips was “absolved of any wrongdoing,” according to CBC News.

News coverage

Monsanto collaborations lacked transparency  

Documents obtained via public records requests uncovered emails describing some of Phillips’ work with Monsanto. Following is an overview of findings and activities related to the documents.

In 2014, Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs recruited Phillips and six other professors to write policy briefs about GMOs. The emails show that Monsanto employees suggested titles and outlines for the papers, edited Phillips’ work, engaged a PR firm, and arranged to have the papers published and promoted via the Genetic Literacy Project website, which made no mention of Monsanto’s role. Phillips told the CBC he has never taken payment from Monsanto and stands behind any writing with his name on it.

In 2015, Phillips invited Monsanto employees, key industry PR allies, select faculty and university employees to a “Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know” at the U of S to discuss freedom of information laws and the implications for industry-academic partnerships. The invitation list was drawn up in consultation with Cami Ryan of Monsanto. The event was closed to the public and the university has refused to release details about it.

In 2017, a group calling itself the Academic Integrity Legal Group, comprising faculty members and others affiliated with U of S, tried to obtain the transcript but said they were “stymied by the university.”  Heavy redactions, with about 85% of the transcript blacked out, “indicate an intentional cover-up,” the group wrote in a public petition that gathered more than 1,800 signatures.

Portion of redacted transcript from the “Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know”

The case of the redacted transcript was reviewed by Ron Kruzeniski, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Saskatchewan. In a June 2018 report, Kruzeniski said the university did not appropriately apply the public records law and he recommended the release of a larger portion of the transcript. The university declined to provide it, prompting a legal challenge from D’Arcy Hande, a retired archivist at U of S, on behalf of the Academic Integrity group. The legal challenge, which U.S. Right to Know helped to fund, was unsuccessful, with the court ruling that “there was a ground rule for the symposium which established an environment of confidentiality.”

Hande said in an interview that the symposium appeared to be a frank discussion about how to control the narrative, rather than respond to concerns, about pesticide industry collaborations with the university. Because U of S is publicly funded, he believes the public has a right to know what was discussed.

“It’s like an old boys club.”

The court ruling is concerning, Hande said, because of its emphasis on the use of the Chatham House Rule (an informal agreement used to aid free discussions of sensitive topics) as a reason the information should remain private. “The fact that the judge thought it was appropriate for a public university to come together with industry representatives on the public dime to talk freely without transparency requirements under the Chatham House Rule, it’s shocking actually,” Hande said. “It’s like an old boys club.” 

Documents 

Redacted transcript of the U of S “Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know” 

Review Report 298-2017 Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner Saskatchewan

Public petition from Academic Integrity Legal Group

Court of Queen’s Bench Judgment, Hande vs U of S

Emails relating to symposium

Inviting industry PR partners to U of S (October 2015). Phillips described his intent to organize the symposium around the visit of Jon Entine (Genetic Literacy Project) and University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta (two key defenders of GMOs and pesticides who have worked closely with industry groups while claiming to be independent). Phillips wrote to Entine and Folta: “When I heard both of you would be in town, it seemed a perfect opportunity to convene a small research symposium to discuss the RTK [right to know] movement and its potential effect on industry-academic partnerships.”

Background, agenda, attendees (November 2015). Phillips emailed Entine, Folta, two Monsanto employees and others describing the need to gather to discuss increased scrutiny of industry-academic partnerships. The names of most of the non-U of S invitees and attendees are blacked out.

Monsanto suggests invitees (November 2015). Monsanto’s Cami Ryan made suggestions for the invite list.

Emails relating to Monsanto/Genetic Literacy Project papers 

Monsanto assigned papers (August 2013). Monsanto’s Eric Sachs wrote to a group of professors including Phillips, “I have started an important project to produce a series of short policy briefs on important topics in the agricultural biotechnology arena … the topics were selected because of their influence on public policy, GM crop regulation and consumer acceptance.” He asked Phillips to write about how “over burdensome regulation” of GMOs “stifles the innovation … important for helping support global food security.”

Monsanto’s urgent request to move forward (September 9, 2014). Sachs emailed Phillips to urge him to review proposed edits to his paper. The “project is on a stronger path now,” Sachs wrote. He explained the strategy “to connect the author’s ‘perspectives’ from this series of briefs to the controversy about GM crops and food that we believe will be triggered in the coming weeks by the new NRC Panel report on GM crops. Next week is the first of two public hearings at the US NAS [National Academy of Sciences] in Washington and a virtual who’s who of the GM crop critics will be testifying.” Sachs noted that Genetic Literacy Project “is now the primary outlet” for the papers and was “building a merchandizing plan” with the help of a PR firm.

Monsanto suggested edits (September 18, 2014). Phillips discussed his progress incorporating edits and changes from Monsanto’s Cami Ryan into his policy brief.

PR firm assigned schedules (August 2013). Beth Ann Mumford of CMA Consulting, a PR firm working with Monsanto, discussed schedules and deadlines with the professors. (CMA, which has since been renamed Look East, is owned by Charlie Arnot, CEO of the food industry-funded spin group Center for Food Integrity.)

No disclosure of Monsanto’s role (December 11, 2014). Phillips paper, titled “Economic Consequences of Regulations of GM Crops” is published by Genetic Literacy Project with no disclosure of Monsanto’s role.

Corporate funding

Although Phillips has said he receives no direct funding from corporations, his research appears to receive some corporate support. The Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), a research institute funded by the Government of Saskatchewan, the University of Saskatchewan and Nutrien, a fertilizer company, lists Phillips among its affiliated researchers. According to Phillips faculty page, his most recent research funding involves partnerships with Stuart Smyth, an associate professor at U of S who holds the Industry Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation. That position is funded by Bayer CropScience Canada, CropLife Canada, Monsanto Canada, the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission and Syngenta Canada.

Phillips’ funding notes two partnerships with Smyth: $675,000 for a “GIFSCSIP Strategic Partnership” and “renewed funding for Maintenance Project for social sciences as part of the Designing Crops for Global Food Security, $37.5 million” from Canada First Research Excellence Fund Program (with a budget of $1.31 million). The latter is a publicly funded project run through the GIFS, the public-private partnership involving U of S, local government and the fertilizer company Nutrien (formerly Potash Corp), which advertises its products as necessary for food security.

Related information  

Quotes  

“Our university should not function as a shilling station for corporate interests and as an almost contemptuous antagonist of the provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner … whose recommendations it contested so arrogantly in court.”

Len Findlay, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, U of S (LTE, The Sheaf)

The court’s judgment “strengthens the protection of academic freedom and privacy. Academic freedom enables members of our university to pursue research and ideas — even those that are controversial or unpopular — without fear of interference.”

Karen Chad, the U of S vice-president of research (The Sheaf)

“I think most academic ethicists would be queasy about [Phillips’] tight relationship with Monsanto.”

Saskatoon consultant Steven Lewis, co-author of a widely-cited
Canadian Medical Association Journal article about
university-industry relationships (CBC)

“I’m horrified because [corporate influence at public universities] does seem to be getting worse. There is a real problem here.”

U of S education professor Howard Woodhouse,
author of Selling Out: Academic Freedom and the Corporate Market (CBC)

“We encourage our faculty to translate their knowledge into policy arenas. That’s exactly what Prof. Phillips has done.”

Jeremy Rayner, former director, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (CBC)

Tracking the Pesticide Industry Propaganda Network

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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

Peter Phillips and his secret “right to know” symposium at the University of Saskatchewan

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

Stuart Smyth’s agrichemical industry ties and funding 

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

Center for Consumer Freedom

Crop Life International

International Life Sciences Institute

Julie Kelly

Kavin Senapathy/MAMMyths

Ketchum PR

U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance

Science fact sheets:

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.

Stuart Smyth’s agrichemical industry ties and funding

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Stuart Smyth, PhD, promotes and defends genetically engineered foods and pesticides as an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2014, he has held the Industry Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation.

Industry funding

Funders (described as “investing partners”) of Smyth’s research chair position include Bayer CropScience Canada, CropLife Canada, Monsanto Canada, the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission (SaskCanola) and Syngenta Canada. According to the U of S website, “The objective of this Chair is to address the problems regarding the use of regulations as international trade barriers that have the very real probability of negatively impacting food security by restricting developing country farmers from accessing the full variety of tools possible. The research undertaken in the Chair will provide the industry with research from a neutral perspective, but one that will hold industry interests as a priority.” Funding companies hold a seat on a “Stakeholder Advisory Committee” established “to provide a two-way flow of information, insights and feedback between the chairholder and the investing partners.”

Public-private research

Dr. Smyth’s research focuses on “sustainability, agriculture, innovation and food.” In 2015, he was part of a large group of scientists at U of S who received $37 million from the Canada First Research Fund, a federal grant program, targeted toward designing crops to “improve global food security.” The research teams operate under the leadership of the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), a public-private partnership involving the University of Saskatchewan, the Government of Saskatchewan and Nutrien, one of the largest producers of fertilizer products. Under the slogan “feeding the future,” Nutrien markets its chemical products as critical for food security.

Annual contribution from Monsanto

In a May 13, 2016 email, Monsanto Canada’s Public and Industry Affairs Director asked Dr. Smyth to send an invoice for “this year’s contribution” for “program support.”

Industry collaborations

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show how Dr. Smyth has collaborated on messaging with agrichemical companies and industry allies.

Discrediting IARC: In a May 2016 email, Dr. Smyth notified Monsanto employees that he had filed an information request with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to obtain a presentation given by Chris Portier, a scientist in the IARC working group that found glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen. Internal documents and industry communications show that Monsanto’s key strategy to defend glyphosate was to foment attacks against IARC, and specifically Dr. Portier.

In the email to Monsanto, Dr. Smyth said he expected the information he was trying to obtain could provide “clear grounds for a conflict of interest and lack of transparency.” He linked to a blog by the “Risk Monger” (David Zaruk, a former pesticide industry lobbyist) alleging misconduct at IARC and demanding retraction of its glyphosate report. On Twitter, Dr. Smyth called for federal governments to stop funding the WHO’s cancer research agency.

Offering slides to Monsanto for editing: In a November 2016 email, Dr. Smyth asked Monsanto employees if they had suggestions for improvements on his draft slides for a presentation to the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture meeting. IICA is a partnership of Microsoft, Bayer, Corteva Agrisciences (DowDuPont) and the Costa Rica Ministry of Science to promote technology as the solution for agricultural development in rural areas.

BASF/CropLife project offer: In February 2016 emails, BASF’s Business Director of Crop Protection reached out to Dr. Smyth to discuss a “small project we are working on within CropLife Canada that I would like to explore with you.” Dr. Smyth agreed to set up a meeting and noted he was “in Berlin to speak at a food safety conference about the dangers of eating organic food and how the organic industry needs to be honest with consumers about how organic food is produced.”

Promoting GMOs to food buyers: In August 2016, Monsanto’s Cami Ryan notified Dr. Smyth that she suggested him for a speaking slot at a conference to discuss the implications of removing or using less GMOs to a crowd of food producers, major food buyers and investment bankers.

Opting out of biosafety: In a July 2016 email exchange with a writer from the American Council on Science and Health (an industry-funded front group), Dr. Smyth discussed a presentation he had given on global food security “saying that Canada and the US need to help countries opt out of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and that we need to fence Europe out of global ag commodity trade.”

Undeclared conflicts

Dr. Smyth and the University of Saskatchewan disclose on the website that Dr. Smyth’s chair position receives agrichemical industry funding, but Dr. Smyth does not always disclose his industry funding in his academic papers and public communications.

From a 2020 paper he co-authored about biotechnology regulations: “We wish to confirm that there are no known conflicts of interest associated with this publication”

Another 2020 paper he co-authored about food safety and risk assessment: “The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.”

In a 2019 paper titled, “The human health benefits from GM crops,” Dr. Smyth wrote, “I declare no conflict of interest.”

A 2018 paper in New Phytologist Trust declared that “No potential conflicts of interest were disclosed.”

A 2018 paper in Frontiers in Plant Science states, “The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.”

Media outlets have not always disclosed Dr. Smyth’s industry funding. In March 2019, soon after a federal jury awarded $80 million to a cancer victim exposed to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide, Dr. Smyth argued in Newsweek that glyphosate should not be restricted. Newsweek failed to disclose the industry connections of Smyth and his co-author, Henry I. Miller, but later acknowledged that their “ties to the agrochemical industry and Monsanto should have been disclosed.”

Industry messaging

Dr. Smyth produces a steady stream of blogs, media appearances and social media posts promoting and defending agrichemical products and arguing against regulations.  On his SaiFood blog, Dr. Smyth touts the theoretical benefits of GMO crops and promotes glyphosate as necessary and safe, sometimes using student surveys as the frame for promoting industry views.

The blog is the main communication vehicle Dr. Smyth established for his industry research chair position, according to a thank you note he sent to Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer in November 2016, notifying them that his blog had been voted one of the top 50 ag blogs in North America. “Without your support for this research, none of this would have been possible,” Dr. Smyth wrote.

On Twitter, Dr. Smyth promotes industry PR writers and industry front groups such as the Genetic Literacy Project and American Council on Science and Health and regularly attacks environmental NGOs and the organic industry. He has claimed, for example, that the “environmental toxicity of organic chemicals is far higher than industrial ones,” and that, “Organic food can’t be trusted anywhere, it is the food most likely to kill those who eat it.”

More information on corporate public relations

For more information on how agrichemical companies are funding various programs in Canada to promote public acceptance of genetically engineered seeds and agrichemicals, see this post by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network on Corporate Public Relations.

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

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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:

  • A May 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition adds more evidence that ILSI is a food industry front group. Based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records requests, the study uncovered “a pattern of activity in which ILSI sought to exploit the credibility of scientists and academics to bolster industry positions and promote industry-devised content in its meetings, journal, and other activities.” See coverage in The BMJ, Food and drink industry sought to influence scientists and academics, emails show  (5.22.20)

  • An April 2020 report from the nonprofit Corporate Accountability report examines how food and beverage corporations have leveraged ILSI to infiltrate the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and cripple progress on nutrition policy around the globe. See coverage in The BMJ, Food and soft drink industry has too much influence over US dietary guidelines, report says (4.24.20) 

  • New York Times investigation by Andrew Jacobs reveals 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.” (9.16.19)

  • The Times cited a 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 (June 2019)

  • The New York Times revealed the undisclosed ILSI ties of Bradley C. Johnston, a co-author of five recent studies claiming red and processed meat don’t pose significant health problems. Johnston used similar methods in an ILSI-funded study to claim sugar is not a problem. (10.4.19)

  • Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog, ILSI: true colors revealed (10.3.19)

ILSI ties to Coca-Cola 

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.  

Corporate funding 

ILSI is funded by its corporate members and company supporters, including leading food and chemical companies. ILSI acknowledges receiving funding from industry but does not publicly disclose who donates or how much they contribute. Our research reveals:

  • Corporate contributions to ILSI Global amounting to $2.4 million in 2012. This included $528,500 from CropLife International, a $500,000 contribution from Monsanto and $163,500 from Coca-Cola.
  • A draft 2013 ILSI tax return shows ILSI received $337,000 from Coca-Cola and more than $100,000 each from Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrisciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer CropScience and BASF.
  • A draft 2016 ILSI North America tax return shows a $317,827 contribution from PepsiCo, contributions greater than $200,000 from Mars, Coca-Cola, and Mondelez, and contributions greater than $100,000 from General Mills, Nestle, Kellogg, Hershey, Kraft, Dr. Pepper, Snapple Group, Starbucks Coffee, Cargill, Uniliver and Campbell Soup.  

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

A May 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition adds evidence that ILSI is a food industry front group. The study, based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records requests, reveals how ILSI promotes the interests of the food and agrichemical industries, including ILSI’s role in defending controversial food ingredients and suppressing views that are unfavorable to industry; that corporations such as Coca-Cola can earmark contributions to ILSI for specific programs; and, how ILSI uses academics for their authority but allows industry hidden influence in their publications.

The study also reveals new details about which companies fund ILSI and its branches, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions documented from leading junk food, soda and chemical companies.

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.”   

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 policy 

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 helped defend glyphosate as chairs of key 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 on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

report by the nonprofit group Corporate Accountability documents how ILSI has major influence on U.S. dietary guidelines via its infiltration of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.  The report examines the pervasive political interference of food and beverage transnationals like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, and how these corporations have leveraged the International Life Sciences Institute to cripple progress on nutrition policy across the globe.

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.”

Questions for the Bayer Shareholder Meeting: by Carey Gillam

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Earlier this year, our colleague Carey Gillam was offered a speaking slot by a Bayer shareholders’ group at the company’s annual meeting in Bonn, Germany. Due to Covid-19, the in-person meeting has been canceled and the Bayer shareholders convened in a virtual meeting on April 28 at 10:00 Central European Summer Time (CEST). In lieu of attending the event, of Ms. Gillam was invited to submit a video and written comments, which we have posted here.

For more reporting on the Bayer shareholder meeting and updates on litigation involving the company, see Gillam’s Monsanto Roundup and Dicamba Trial Tracker.

Questions for Bayer
Submitted by Carey Gillam
April 28, 2020

Hello, My name is Carey Gillam, I am a journalist and author who has spent 22 years researching and writing about the agriculture industry and the business practices and products of Monsanto, which Bayer bought in June of 2018.

I wrote a book about the company and the rise of its Roundup herbicide business built around the chemical glyphosate, and I have catalogued and reported on the internal Monsanto documents that show Monsanto spent decades hiding information about the health risks of its products from consumers and regulators. 

The internal documents also show that my journalism work threatened Monsanto so much that it implemented a plan to try to discredit and silence me. Other internal Monsanto documents show the company similarly worked for years to discredit scientists and many other people who sought to share information about the risks of Roundup.  Some of this harassment continued after Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018. 

Truthful information clearly has been a threat to Monsanto and to Bayer. 

It is time for that to change. As Bayer moves ahead with its ongoing business activities in the current year, Bayer must assure consumers and investors that it will not allow Monsanto’s deceptive practices to continue. 

  • Will Bayer pledge to stop directly and indirectly engaging in harassment of reporters and scientists starting immediately? 
  • Will Bayer pledge to stop funding and collaborating with front groups that have a history of harassing journalists and scientists with false propaganda? These groups include the American Council on Science and Health and Genetic Literacy Project.

There is substantial evidence that in addition to the health risks posed by Roundup, the wide-spread use of glyphosate-based herbicides over the top of genetically engineered crops has done significant damage to soil quality, pollinators, and the health of the environment generally. This overuse has also made glyphosate a significantly less effective herbicide.  

  • Will Bayer pledge that any new herbicides brought to market are done so with full transparency and truthfulness about the risks to human and environmental health?  

The story of Monsanto’s misdeeds is known around the world. Bayer can and must act to change that storyline and end the deceptive and damaging conduct Monsanto engaged in for decades. 

And most importantly, as the world faces a growing population it also faces growing threats in the form of disease, climate change, and water, air and food sources contaminated with toxins. 

Bayer has an opportunity now to use its wealth and scientific expertise to protect and advance public and environmental health, not add to the damage for the mere pursuit of profit.  

I urge Bayer to seize the opportunity.  

Thank you.
Carey Gillam
Journalist, author and public interest researcher 

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

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Internal Monsanto documents released in 2019 provide a rare look inside pesticide and food companies that try to discredit public interest groups and journalists. The documents (posted here) show that Monsanto and its new owner, Bayer, were especially worried about U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit research group that began investigating the food industry in 2015. According to one Monsanto document, “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry” and “has the potential to be extremely damaging.” See coverage in the Guardian, “Revealed: how Monsanto’s ‘intelligence center’ targeted journalists and activists.”

Since our launch in 2015, U.S. Right to Know has obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of internal corporate and regulatory documents that reveal how food and pesticide corporations work behind the scenes to manipulate science, academia and policy to increase their profits at the expense of public health and the environment. Our work has contributed to three New York Times investigations, eight academic papers about corporate influence over our food system, and worldwide news coverage documenting how a handful of junk food and pesticide companies use a variety of unethical and unfair tactics to prop up an unhealthy, unsustainable food system. Here are some of our top findings so far.

1. Monsanto funded “independent” academics to promote and lobby for pesticide products

U.S. Right to Know 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. WBEZ later reported on one example; how a University of Illinois professor received tens of thousands of dollars from Monsanto to promote and lobby for GMOs and pesticides, and his university received millions; none of those funds were disclosed to the public.  

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 — papers 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. 

See our Pesticide Industry Propaganda Tracker for fact sheets based on documents from our investigation. Many USRTK documents are also posted in the USCF Food and Chemical Industry Libraries.

2. The nonprofit science group 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 2019 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. Breaking news about the Monsanto Roundup and Dicamba trials 

U.S. Right to Know frequently breaks news about the Roundup cancer trials via Carey Gillam’s Roundup and Dicamba Trial Tracker, which provides a first look at discovery documents, interviews and news tips about the trials. More than 42,000 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.

Dozens of farmers around the United States are also now suing the former Monsanto Co. and conglomerate BASF in an effort to hold the companies accountable for millions of acres of crop damage the farmers claim is due to widespread illegal use of the weed killing chemical dicamba. In 2020, we also began posting the Dicamba Papers: Key documents and analysis from the trials.

4. 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.   

5. 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.

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. 

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