Chlorpyrifos: common pesticide tied to brain damage in children

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Chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide, is strongly linked to brain damage in children. These and other health concerns have led several countries and some U.S. states to ban chlorpyrifos, but the chemical is still allowed on food crops in the U.S. after successful lobbying by its manufacturer.

Chlorpyrifos in food  

Chlorpyrifos insecticides were introduced by Dow Chemical in 1965 and have been used widely in agricultural settings. Commonly known as the active ingredient in the brand names Dursban and Lorsban, chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide, acaricide and miticide used primarily to control foliage and soil-borne insect pests on a variety of food and feed crops. Products come in liquid form as well as granules, powders, and water-soluble packets, and may be applied by either ground or aerial equipment.

Chlorpyrifos is used on a wide variety of crops including apples, oranges, strawberries, corn, wheat, citrus and other foods families and their children eat daily. USDA’s Pesticide Data Program found chlorpyrifos residue on citrus and melons even after being washed and peeled. By volume, chlorpyrifos is most used on corn and soybeans, with over a million pounds applied annually to each crop. The chemical is not allowed on organic crops.

Non-agricultural uses include golf courses, turf, green houses, and utilities.

Human health concerns

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents more than 66,000 pediatricians and pediatric surgeons, has warned that continued use of chlorpyrifos puts developing fetuses, infants, children and pregnant women at great risk.

Scientists have found that prenatal exposures to chlorpyrifos are associated with lower birth weight, reduced IQ, the loss of working memory, attention disorders, and delayed motor development. Key studies are listed below.

Chlorpyrifos is also linked to acute pesticide poisoning and can cause convulsions, respiratory paralysis, and sometimes, death.

FDA says food and drinking water exposures unsafe

Chlorpyrifos is so toxic that the European Food Safety Authority banned sales of the chemical as of January 2020, finding that there is no safe exposure level. Some U.S. states have also banned chlorpyrifos from farming use, including California and Hawaii.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reached agreement with Dow Chemical in 2000 to phase out all residential uses of chlorpyrifos because of scientific research showing the chemical is dangerous to the developing brains of babies and young children. It was banned from use around schools in 2012.

In October 2015, the EPA said it planned to revoke all food residue tolerances for chlorpyrifos, meaning it would no longer be legal to use it in agriculture. The agency said “expected residues of chlorpyrifos on food crops exceed the safety standard under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.” The move came in response to a petition for a ban from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network.

In November 2016, the EPA released a revised human health risk assessment for chlorpyrifos confirming it was unsafe to allow the chemical to continue in use in agriculture.  Among other things, the EPA said all food and drinking water exposures were unsafe, especially to children 1-2 years old. The EPA said the ban would take place in 2017.

Trump EPA delays ban

Following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the proposed chlorpyrifos ban was delayed. In March 2017, in one of his first formal actions as the nation’s top environmental official, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected the petition by environmental groups and said the ban on chlorpyrifos would not go forward.

The Associated Press reported in June 2017 that Pruitt had met with Dow CEO Andrew Liveris 20 days before halting the ban. Media also reported that Dow contributed $1 million to Trump’s inaugural activities.

In February of 2018, EPA reached a settlement requiring Syngenta to pay a $150,000 fine and train farmers in pesticide use after the company failed to warn workers to avoid fields where chlorpyrifos was recently sprayed and several workers who entered the fields were sickened and required medical care. The Obama EPA had initially proposed a fine nearly nine times larger.

In February 2020, after pressure from consumer, medical, scientific groups and in face of growing calls for bans around the world, Corteva AgriScience (formerly DowDuPont) said it would phase out production of chlorpyrifos, but the chemical remains legal for other companies to make and sell.

According to an analysis published in July 2020, U.S. regulators relied on falsified data provided by Dow Chemical to allow unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos into American homes for years. The analysis from University of Washington researchers said the inaccurate findings were the result of a chlorpyrifos dosing study done in the early 1970s for Dow.

In September 2020 the EPA issued its third risk assessment on chlorpyrifos, saying “despite several years of study, peer review, and public process, the science addressingneurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved,” and it still could be used in food production.

The decision came after multiple meetings between the EPA and Corteva.

Groups and states sue EPA

Following the Trump administration’s decision to delay any ban until at least 2022, Pesticide Action Network and Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit against the EPA in April 2017, seeking to force the government to follow through with the Obama administration’s recommendations to ban chlorpyrifos. In August 2018, a federal appeals court found that the EPA broke the law by continuing to allow use of chlorpyrifos, and ordered EPA to finalize its proposed ban within two months. After more delays, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced in July 2019 that EPA would not ban the chemical.

Several states have sued the EPA over its failure to ban chlorpyrifos, including California, New York, Massachusetts, Washington, Maryland, Vermont and Oregon. The states argue in court documents that chlorpyrifos should be banned in food production due to the dangers associated with it.

Earthjustice has also filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court seeking a nationwide ban on behalf of groups advocating for environmentalists, farmworkers and people with learning disabilities.

Medical and scientific studies

Developmental neurotoxicity

“The epidemiological studies reviewed herein have reported statistically significant correlations between prenatal exposures to CPF [chlorpyrifos] and postnatal neurological complications, particularly cognitive deficits that are also associated with disruption of the structural integrity of the brain…. Various preclinical research groups throughout the world have consistently demonstrated that CPF is a developmental neurotoxicant. The developmental CPF neurotoxicity, which is well supported by studies using different animal models, routes of exposure, vehicles, and testing methods, is generally characterized by cognitive deficits and disruption of the structural integrity of the brain.” Developmental neurotoxicity of the organophosphorus insecticide chlorpyrifos: from clinical findings to preclinical models and potential mechanisms. Journal of Neurochemistry, 2017.

“Since 2006, epidemiological studies have documented six additional developmental neurotoxicants—manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers.” Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity. Lancet Neurology, 2014.

Childrens’ IQ & cognitive development

Longitudinal birth cohort study of inner-city mothers and children found that “higher prenatal CPF [chlorpyrifos] exposure, as measured in umbilical cord blood plasma, was associated with decreases in cognitive functioning on two different WISC-IV indices, in a sample of urban minority children at 7 years of age…the Working Memory Index was the most strongly associated with CPF exposure in this population.” Seven-Year Neurodevelopmental Scores and Prenatal Exposure to Chlorpyrifos, a Common Agricultural Pesticide. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011.

Birth cohort study of predominantly Latino farmworker families in California associated a metabolite of organophosphate pesticides found in the urine in pregnant women with poorer scores in their children for memory, processing speed, verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning and IQ.  “Our findings suggest that prenatal exposure to OP [organophosphate] pesticides, as measured by urinary DAP [dialkyl phosphate] metabolites in women during pregnancy, is associated with poorer cognitive abilities in children at 7 years of age. Children in the highest quintile of maternal DAP concentrations had an average deficit of 7.0 IQ points compared with those in the lowest quintile. Associations were linear, and we observed no threshold.” Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticides and IQ in 7-Year-Old Children. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011.

Prospective cohort study of women and their children findings “suggest that prenatal exposure to organophosphates is negatively associated with cognitive development, particularly perceptual reasoning, with evidence of effects beginning at 12 months and continuing through early childhood.” Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphates, Paraoxonase 1, and Cognitive Development in Childhood. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011.

Prospective cohort study of an inner-city population found that children with high levels of exposure to chlorpyrifos “scored, on average, 6.5 points lower on the Bayley Psychomotor Development Index and 3.3 points lower on the Bayley Mental Development Index at 3 years of age compared with those with lower levels of exposure. Children exposed to higher, compared with lower, chlorpyrifos levels were also significantly more likely to experience Psychomotor Development Index and Mental Development Index delays, attention problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder problems, and pervasive developmental disorder problems at 3 years of age.” Impact of Prenatal Chlorpyrifos Exposure on Neurodevelopment in the First 3 Years of Life Among Inner-City Children. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 2006.

Longitudinal birth cohort study in an agricultural region of California extends “previous findings of associations between PON1 genotype and enzyme levels and certain domains of neurodevelopment through early school age, presenting new evidence that adverse associations between DAP [dialkyl phosphate]levels and IQ may be strongest in children of mothers with the lowest levels of PON1 enzyme.” Organophosphate pesticide exposure, PON1, and neurodevelopment in school-age children from the CHAMACOS study.  Environmental Research, 2014.

Autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders

Population based case-control study found that, “Prenatal or infant exposure to a priori selected pesticides—including glyphosate, chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and permethrin—were associated with increased odds of developing autism spectrum disorder.” Prenatal and infant exposure to ambient pesticides and autism spectrum disorder in children: population based case-control study. BMJ, 2019.

Population-based case-control study “observed positive associations between ASD [autism spectrum disorders] and prenatal residential proximity to organophosphate pesticides in the second (for chlorpyrifos) and third trimesters (organophosphates overall)”. Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Prenatal Residential Proximity to Agricultural Pesticides: The CHARGE Study. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2014.

See also: Tipping the Balance of Autism Risk: Potential Mechanisms Linking Pesticides and Autism. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2012.

Brain anomalies

“Our findings indicate that prenatal CPF [chlorpyrifos] exposure, at levels observed with routine (nonoccupational) use and below the threshold for any signs of acute exposure, has a measureable effect on brain structure in a sample of 40 children 5.9–11.2 y of age. We found significant abnormalities in morphological measures of the cerebral surface associated with higher prenatal CPF exposure….Regional enlargements of the cerebral surface predominated and were located in the superior temporal, posterior middle temporal, and inferior postcentral gyri bilaterally, and in the superior frontal gyrus, gyrus rectus, cuneus, and precuneus along the mesial wall of the right hemisphere”. Brain anomalies in children exposed prenatally to a common organophosphate pesticide.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012.

Fetal growth

This study “saw a highly significant inverse association between umbilical cord chlorpyrifos levels and both birth weight and birth length among infants in the current cohort born prior to U.S. EPA regulatory actions to phase out residential uses of the insecticide.” Biomarkers in assessing residential insecticide exposures during pregnancy and effects on fetal growth. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 2005.

Prospective, multiethnic cohort study found that “when the level of maternal PON1 activity was taken into account, maternal levels of chlorpyrifos above the limit of detection coupled with low maternal PON1 activity were associated with a significant but small reduction in head circumference. In addition, maternal PON1 levels alone, but not PON1 genetic polymorphisms, were associated with reduced head size. Because small head size has been found to be predictive of subsequent cognitive ability, these data suggest that chlorpyrifos may have a detrimental effect on fetal neurodevelopment among mothers who exhibit low PON1 activity.” In Utero Pesticide Exposure, Maternal Paraoxonase Activity, and Head Circumference.  Environmental Health Perspectives, 2003.

Prospective cohort study of minority mothers and their newborns “confirm our earlier findings of an inverse association between chlorpyrifos levels in umbilical cord plasma and birth weight and length…Further, a dose-response relationship was additionally seen in the present study. Specifically, the association between cord plasma chlorpyrifos and reduced birth weight and length was found principally among newborns with the highest 25% of exposure levels.” Prenatal Insecticide Exposures and Birth Weight and Length among an Urban Minority Cohort. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2004.

Lung Cancer  

In an evaluation of over 54,000 pesticide applicators in the Agricultural Health Study, scientists at the National Cancer Institute reported that the incidence of lung cancer was associated with chlorpyrifos exposure. “In this analysis of cancer incidence among chlorpyrifos-exposed licensed pesticide applicators in North Carolina and Iowa, we found a statistically significant trend of increasing risk of lung cancer, but not of any other cancer examined, with increasing chlorpyrifos exposure.” Cancer Incidence Among Pesticide Applicators Exposed to Chlorpyrifos in the Agricultural Health Study. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2004.

Parkinson’s Disease

Case-control study of people living in California’s Central Valley reported that ambient exposure to 36 commonly used organophosphate pesticides separately increased the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. The study “adds strong evidence” that organophosphate pesticides are “implicated” in the etiology of idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. The association between ambient exposure to organophosphates and Parkinson’s disease risk. Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 2014.

Birth outcomes

Multiethnic parent cohort of pregnant women and newborns found that chlorpyrifos “was associated with decreased birth weight and birth length overall (p = 0.01 and p = 0.003, respectively) and with lower birth weight among African Americans (p = 0.04) and reduced birth length in Dominicans (p < 0.001)”. Effects of Transplacental Exposure to Environmental Pollutants on Birth Outcomes in a Multiethnic Population. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2003.

Neuroendocrine disruption

“Through the analysis of complex sex-dimorphic behavioral patterns we show that neurotoxic and endocrine disrupting activities of CPF [chlorpyrifos] overlap. This widely diffused organophosphorus pesticide might thus be considered as a neuroendocrine disruptor possibly representing a risk factor for sex-biased neurodevelopmental disorders in children.” Sex dimorphic behaviors as markers of neuroendocrine disruption by environmental chemicals: The case of chlorpyrifos. NeuroToxicology, 2012.

Tremor

“The present findings show that children with high prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos were significantly more likely to show mild or mild to moderate tremor in one or both arms when assessed between the ages of 9 and 13.9 years of age….Taken together, growing evidence suggests that prenatal exposure to CPF [chlorpyrifos], at current standard usage levels, is associated with a range of persistent and inter-related developmental problems.” Prenatal exposure to the organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos and childhood tremor. NeuroToxicology, 2015.

Cost of chlorpyrifos

Cost estimates of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the European Union found that “Organophosphate exposures were associated with 13.0 million (sensitivity analysis, 4.24 million to 17.1 million) lost IQ points and 59 300 (sensitivity analysis, 16 500 to 84 400) cases of intellectual disability, at costs of €146 billion (sensitivity analysis, €46.8 billion to €194 billion).” Neurobehavioral Deficits, Diseases, and Associated Costs of Exposure to Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in the European Union. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2015.

Thyroid in mice

“The present study showed that exposure of CD1 mice, during critical windows of prenatal and postnatal development, at CPF [chlorpyrifos] dose levels below those inhibiting brain AchE, can induce alterations in thyroid.” Developmental Exposure to Chlorpyrifos Induces Alterations in Thyroid and Thyroid Hormone Levels Without Other Toxicity Signs in Cd1 Mice.  Toxicological Sciences, 2009.

Problems with industry studies

“In March 1972, Frederick Coulston and colleagues at the Albany Medical College reported results of an intentional chlorpyrifos dosing study to the study’s sponsor, Dow Chemical Company. Their report concluded that 0.03 mg/kg-day was the chronic no-observed-adverse-effect-level (NOAEL) for chlorpyrifos in humans. We demonstrate here that a proper analysis by the original statistical method should have found a lower NOAEL (0.014 mg/kg-day), and that use of statistical methods first available in 1982 would have shown that even the lowest dose in the study had a significant treatment effect. The original analysis, conducted by Dow-employed statisticians, did not undergo formal peer review; nevertheless, EPA cited the Coulston study as credible research and kept its reported NOAEL as a point of departure for risk assessments throughout much of the 1980′s and 1990′s. During that period, EPA allowed chlorpyrifos to be registered for multiple residential uses that were later cancelled to reduce potential health impacts to children and infants. Had appropriate analyses been employed in the evaluation of this study, it is likely that many of those registered uses of chlorpyrifos would not have been authorized by EPA. This work demonstrates that reliance by pesticide regulators on research results that have not been properly peer-reviewed may needlessly endanger the public.” Flawed analysis of an intentional human dosing study and its impact on chlorpyrifos risk assessments. Environment International, 2020.

“In our review of raw data on a prominent pesticide, chlorpyrifos, and a related compound, discrepancies were discovered between the actual observations and the conclusions drawn by the test laboratory in the report submitted for authorization of the pesticide.” Safety of Safety Evaluation of Pesticides: developmental neurotoxicity of chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-methyl. Environmental Health, 2018.

Other fact sheets

Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center: A controversial insecticide and its effect on brain development: Research and resources

Harvard University: The Most Widely Used Pesticide, One Year Later

Earthjustice: Chlorpyrifos: The toxic pesticide harming our children and environment

Sierra Club: Kids and Chlorpyrifos

Journalism and Opinion

Imaging by Bradley Peterson, via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; New York Times

Trump’s Legacy: Damaged Brains, by Nicholas Kristof, New York Times. “The pesticide, which belongs to a class of chemicals developed as a nerve gas made by Nazi Germany, is now found in food, air and drinking water. Human and animal studies show that it damages the brain and reduces I.Q.s while causing tremors among children.”

Protect Our Children’s Brains, by Sharon Lerner, New York Times. “The widespread use of chlorpyrifos does point to the fact that it’s not the kind of chemical that harms everyone who comes in contact with it — or causes them to drop dead on impact. Instead, the research shows increases in the risk of suffering from certain developmental problems that, while less dramatic, are also, alarmingly, enduring.”

Poison Fruit: Dow Chemical Wants Farmers to Keep Using a Pesticide Linked to Autism and ADHD, by Sharon Lerner, The Intercept. “Dow, the giant chemical company that patented chlorpyrifos and still makes most of the products containing it, has consistently disputed the mounting scientific evidence that its blockbuster chemical harms children. But the government report made it clear that the EPA now accepts the independent science showing that the pesticide used to grow so much of our food is unsafe.”

When enough data are not enough to enact policy: The failure to ban chlorpyrifos, by Leonardo Trasande, PLOS Biology. “Scientists have a responsibility to speak up when policymakers fail to accept scientific data. They need to emphatically declare the implications of policy failures, even if some of the scientific underpinnings remain uncertain.”

How Has This Pesticide Not Been Banned? by the editorial board of The New York Times. “The pesticide known as chlorpyrifos is both clearly dangerous and in very wide use. It is known to pass easily from mother to fetus and has been linked to a wide range of serious medical problems, including impaired development, Parkinson’s disease and some forms of cancer. That’s not entirely surprising. The chemical was originally developed by Nazis during World War II for use as a nerve gas. Here’s what is surprising: Tons of the pesticide are still being sprayed across millions of acres of United States farmland every year, nearly five years after the Environmental Protection Agency determined that it should be banned.”

This pesticide is closely related to nerve agents used in World War II. Trump’s EPA doesn’t care, by Joseph G. Allen, Washington Post. “What we know about chlorpyrifos is alarming. Perhaps the most well-known study is one done by researchers at Columbia University who performed brain imaging on young kids with high exposure to chlorpyrifos. The results are shocking and unambiguous. In the words of the researchers: “This study reports significant associations of prenatal exposure to a widely used environmental neurotoxicant, at standard use levels, with structural changes in the developing human brain.”

A Strong Case Against a Pesticide Does Not Faze E.P.A. Under Trump, by Roni Caryn Robin, New York Times. “An updated human health risk assessment compiled by the E.P.A. in November found that health problems were occurring at lower levels of exposure than had previously been believed harmful. Infants, children, young girls and women are exposed to dangerous levels of chlorpyrifos through diet alone, the agency said. Children are exposed to levels up to 140 times the safety limit.”

Babies Are Larger After Ban On 2 Pesticides, Study Finds, by Richard Pérez-Peña, New York Times. “Pregnant women in upper Manhattan who were heavily exposed to two common insecticides had smaller babies than their neighbors, but recent restrictions on the two substances quickly lowered exposure and increased babies’ size, according to a study being published today.”

Poisons Are Us, by Timothy Egan, New York Times. “When you bite into a piece of fruit, it should be a mindless pleasure. Sure, that steroidal-looking strawberry with a toothpaste-white interior doesn’t seem right to begin with. But you shouldn’t have to think about childhood brain development when layering it over your cereal. The Trump administration, in putting chemical industry toadies between our food and public safety, has forced a fresh appraisal of breakfast and other routines that are not supposed to be frightful.”

On your dinner plate and in your body: The most dangerous pesticide you’ve never heard of, by Staffan Dahllöf, Investigative Reporting Denmark. “The poisonous effect of chlorpyrifos on insects is not disputed. The unresolved question is to what extent the usage of chlorpyrifos is dangerous to all living organisms like fish in nearby waters or farm workers in the fields, or to anybody eating the treated products.”

Neurotoxins on your kid’s broccoli: that’s life under Trump, by Carey Gillam, The Guardian. “How much is your child’s health worth? The answer coming from the leadership of the US Environmental Protection Agency is: not that much… So here we are – with scientific concerns for the safety of our innocent and vulnerable children on one side and powerful, wealthy corporate players on the other. Our political and regulatory leaders have shown whose interests they value most.”

Common Insecticide May Harm Boys’ Brains More Than Girls, by Brett Israel, Environmental Health News. “In boys, exposure to chlorpyrifos in the womb was associated with lower scores on short-term memory tests compared with girls exposed to similar amounts.“

More science fact sheets on chemicals in our food 

Find more U.S. Right to Know fact sheets:

Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks

Glyphosate Fact Sheet: Cancer and Other Health Concerns

Dicamba Fact Sheet 

U.S. Right to Know is an investigative public health group working globally to expose corporate wrongdoing and government failures that threaten the integrity of our food system, our environment and our health.  You can donate here to our investigations and sign up for our weekly newsletter.  

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.

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Gates Foundation doubles down on misinformation campaign at Cornell as African leaders call for agroecology 

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded another $10 million last week to the controversial Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications campaign housed at Cornell that trains fellows in Africa and elsewhere to promote and defend genetically engineered foods, crops and agrichemicals. The new grant brings BMGF grants to the group to $22 million.

The PR investment comes at a time when the Gates Foundation is under fire for spending billions of dollars on agricultural development schemes in Africa that critics say are entrenching farming methods that benefit corporations over people. 

Faith leaders appeal to Gates Foundation 

On September 10, faith leaders in Africa posted an open letter to the Gates Foundation asking it to reassess its grant-making strategies for Africa. 

“While we are grateful to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its commitment to overcoming food insecurity, and acknowledging the humanitarian and infrastructural aid provided to the governments of our continent, we write out of grave concern that the Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis,” says the sign-on letter coordinated by the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI).  

The letter cites the Gates-led Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) for its “highly problematic” support of commercial seed systems controlled by large companies, its support of restructuring seed laws to protect certified seeds and criminalize non-certified seed, and its support of seed dealers who offer narrow advice about corporate products over much-needed public sector extension services. 

Uganda’s largest daily newspaper reported on AGRA’s failing project

“We appeal to the Gates Foundation and AGRA to stop promoting failed technologies and outdated extension methods and start listening to the farmers who are developing appropriate solutions for their contexts,” the faith leaders said.

Despite billions of dollars spent and 14 years of promises, AGRA has failed to achieve its goals of reducing poverty and raising incomes for small farmers, according to a July report False Promises. The research was conducted by a coalition of African and German groups and includes data from a recent white paper published by Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute. 

The Gates Foundation has not yet responded to requests for comment for this article but said in an earlier email, “We support organisations like AGRA because they partner with countries to help them implement the priorities and policies contained in their national agricultural development strategies.”

Disappearing promises of the green revolution 

Launched in 2006 by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, AGRA has long promised to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households in Africa by 2020. But the group quietly removed those goals from its website sometime in the past year. AGRA’s Chief of Staff Andrew Cox said via email that the group has not reduced his ambition but is refining its approaches and its thinking about metrics. He said AGRA will do a full evaluation on its results next year. 

AGRA declined to provide data or answer substantive questions from researchers of the False Promises report, its authors say. Representatives from BIBA Kenya, PELUM Zambia and HOMEF Nigeria sent a letter to Cox Sept. 7 asking for a response to their research findings. Cox responded Sept. 15 with what one researcher described as “basically three pages of PR.” (See full correspondence here including BIBA’s Oct. 7 response.)

“African farmers deserve a substantive response from AGRA,” said the letter to Cox from Anne Maina, Mutketoi Wamunyima and Ngimmo Bassay.  “So do AGRA’s public sector donors, who would seem to be getting a very poor return on their investments. African governments also need to provide a clear accounting for the impacts of their own budget outlays that support Green Revolution programs.”

African governments spend about $1 billion per year on subsidies to support commercial seeds and agrichemicals. Despite the large investments in agricultural productivity gains, hunger has increased thirty percent during the AGRA years, according to the False Promises report.

Gates Foundation investments have a significant influence on how food systems are shaped in Africa, according to a June report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES). The group reported that billions of dollars in Gates Foundation grants have incentivized industrial agriculture in Africa and held back investments in more sustainable, equitable food systems.  

“BMGF looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favours targeted, technological solutions,” IPES said.

Local producers and short food chains 

The Gates Foundation agricultural development approach of building markets for larger-scale, high-input commodity crops puts it at odds with emerging thinking about how to best deal with the volatile conditions caused by the twin crises of climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.

In September, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said it is essential to build more resilient local food systems as the pandemic “has put local food systems at risk of disruptions along the entire food chain.” The report documents pandemic-related challenges and lessons from a global survey conducted in April and May that drew 860 responses. 

“The clear message is that, in order to cope with shocks such as COVID-19, cities with suitable socio-economic and agroclimatic conditions should adopt policies and programmes to empower local producers to grow food, and promote short food chains to enable urban citizens to access food products,” the report concluded. “Cities have to diversify their food supplies and food sources, reinforcing local sources where possible, but without shutting off national and global supplies.”

As the pandemic threatens farming communities already struggling with climate change, Africa is at a crossroads, wrote Million Belay, coordinator of the African Food Sovereignty Alliance, and Timothy Wise, lead researcher of the Tufts analysis of AGRA, in a Sept. 23 op-ed. “Will its people and their governments continue trying to replicate industrial farming models promoted by developed countries? Or will they move boldly into the uncertain future, embracing ecological agriculture?”

Belay and Wise described some good news from recent research; “two of the three AGRA countries that have reduced both the number and share of undernourished people – Ethiopia and Mali – have done so in part due to policies that support ecological agriculture.”

The biggest success story, Mali, saw hunger drop from 14% to 5% since 2006. According to a case study in the False Promises report, “progress came not because of AGRA but because the government and farmers’ organizations actively resisted its implementation,” Belay and Wise wrote, pointing to land and seed laws that guarantee farmers’ rights to choose their crops and farming practices, and government programs that promote not just maize but a wide variety of food crops.

“It’s time for African governments to step back from the failing Green Revolution and chart a new food system that respects local cultures and communities by promoting low-cost, low-input ecological agriculture,” they wrote. 

Doubling down on PR campaign housed at Cornell 

Against this backdrop, the Gates Foundation is doubling down on its investment in the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS), a public relations campaign launched in 2014 with a Gates grant and promises to “depolarize the debate” around GMOs. With the new $10 million, CAS plans to widen its focus “to counter conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns that hinder progress in climate change, synthetic biology, agricultural innovations.” 

But the Cornell Alliance for Science has become a polarizing force and a source of misinformation as it trains fellows around the world to promote and lobby for genetically engineered crops in their home countries, many of them in Africa. 

Numerous academics, food groups and policy experts have called out the group’s inaccurate and misleading messaging. Community groups working to regulate pesticides and biosafety have accused CAS of using bully tactics in Hawaii and exploiting farmers in Africa in its aggressive promotional and lobby campaigns.  

A July 30 article by Mark Lynas, a Cornell visiting fellow who works for CAS, illuminates the controversy over the group’s messaging. Citing a recent meta-analysis on conservation agriculture, Lynas claimed,  “agro-ecology risks harming the poor and worsening gender equality in Africa.” His analysis was widely panned by experts in the field.

Marc Corbeels, the agronomist who authored the meta-analysis, said the article made “sweeping generalizations.” Other academics described Lynas’ article as “really flawed,” “deeply unserious,” “demagogic and non-scientific,” an erroneous conflation that jumps to “wild conclusions,” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be scientific.”

The article should be retracted, said Marci Branski, a former USDA climate change specialist and Marcus Taylor, a political ecologist at Queen’s University.

Debate over agroecology heats up

The controversy resurfaced this week over a webinar CAS is hosting Thursday Oct. 1 on the topic of agroecology. Citing concerns that the Cornell-based group is “not serious enough to engage in an open, unbiased” debate, two food-system experts withdrew from the webinar earlier this week.

The two scientists said they agreed to participate in the webinar after seeing each other’s names among the panelists; “that was enough for both of us to trust also the organization behind the event,” wrote Pablo Tittonell, PhD, Principal Research Scientist in Argentina’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONICET) and Sieglinde Snapp, PhD, Professor of Soils and Cropping Systems Ecology at Michigan State University, to panel moderator Joan Conrow, editor of CAS. 

“But reading some of the blogs and opinion pieces issued by the Alliance, the publications by other panelists, learning about the biased and uninformed claims against agroecology, the ideologically charged push for certain technologies, etc. we came to the conclusion that this venue is not serious enough to engage in an open, unbiased, constructive and, most importantly, well informed scientific debate,” Tittonell and Snapp wrote to Conrow.

“We therefore withdraw from this debate.” Conrow has not responded to requests for comment.

 The webinar will go forward with Nassib Mugwanya, a 2015 CAS global leadership fellow and doctoral student at North Carolina State University, who has also been accused of making unfair attacks on agroecology. In a 2019 article for the Breakthrough Institute, Mugwanya argued, “traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture.” 

The article reflects typical biotech industry messaging: presenting GMO crops as the “pro-science” position while painting “alternative forms of agricultural development as ‘anti-science,’ groundless and harmful,” according to an analysis by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice.

“Particularly notable in the article,” the group noted, “are strong usages of metaphors (e.g., agroecology likened to handcuffs), generalizations, omissions of information and a number of factual inaccuracies.”

With Tittonell and Snapp off the roster at Thursday’s webinar, Mugwanya will be joined by Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, who has ties to pesticide industry front groups, and Frédéric Baudron, senior scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a Gates Foundation-funded group. 

Asking for a ‘fair fight’

Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, sees the ramped up PR campaigns as “evidence of desperation” that they “just cannot get it right on the continent.” 

Her group has for years been documenting “the efforts 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.”

The Cornell Alliance for Science should be reigned in, Mayet said in an August webinar about the Gates Foundation’s influence in Africa, “because of the misinformation (and) the way that they are extremely disingenuous and untruthful.” She asked, “Why don’t you engage in a fair fight with us?”

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and reporter for U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on public health issues. She is author of the 2007 book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.” Follow her on Twitter @StacyMalkan 

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

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Despite its academic-sounding name and affiliation with an Ivy League institution, the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) is a public relations campaign funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that trains fellows around the world to promote and defend genetically engineered crops and agrichemicals in their home countries. Numerous academics, food policy experts, food and farming groups have called out the inaccurate messaging and deceptive tactics CAS associates have used to try to discredit concerns about and alternatives to industrial agriculture.

In September, CAS announced $10 million in new funding from the Gates Foundation, bringing total Gates funding to $22 million since 2014. The new funding comes as Gates Foundation is facing pushback from African farming, food and faith groups for spending billions of dollars on agricultural development schemes in Africa that evidence shows are failing to alleviate hunger or lift up small farmers, as they entrench farming methods that benefit corporations over people. 

This fact sheet documents many examples of misinformation from CAS and people affiliated with the group.  The examples described here provide evidence that CAS is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to advance the PR and political agenda of the world’s largest chemical and seed corporations.

Industry-aligned mission and messaging

CAS launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million Gates Foundation grant and promises to “depolarize” the debate around GMOs. The group says its mission is to “promote access” to GMO crops and foods by training “science allies” around the world to educate their communities about the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.

Pesticide industry group promotes CAS 

A key part of the CAS strategy is to recruit and train Global Leadership Fellows in communications and promotional tactics, focusing on regions where there is public opposition to the biotech industry, particularly African countries that have resisted GMO crops.

The CAS mission is strikingly similar to the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a pesticide-industry funded public relations initiative that has partnered with CAS. The industry group worked to build alliances across the food chain and train third-parties, particularly academics and farmers, to persuade the public to accept GMOs.

CAS messaging aligns closely with pesticide industry PR: a myopic focus on  touting the possible future benefits of genetically engineered foods while downplaying, ignoring or denying risks and problems. Like industry PR efforts, CAS also focuses heavily on attacking and trying to discredit critics of agrichemical products, including scientists and journalists who raise health or environmental concerns.

Widespread criticism

CAS and its writers have drawn criticism from academics, farmers, students, community groups and food sovereignty movements who say the group promotes inaccurate and misleading messaging and uses unethical tactics. See for example:

Examples of misleading messaging

Experts in genetic engineering, biology, agroecology and food policy have documented many examples of inaccurate claims made by Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell who has written dozens of articles defending agrichemical products in the name of CAS; see for example his many articles promoted by the Genetic Literacy Project, a PR group that works with Monsanto. Lynas’ 2018 book argues for African countries to accept GMOs, and devotes a chapter to defending Monsanto.

Inaccurate claims about GMOs

Numerous scientists have criticized Lynas for making false statements, “unscientific, illogical and absurd” arguments, promoting dogma over data and research on GMOs, rehashing industry talking points, and making inaccurate claims about pesticides that “display a deep scientific ignorance, or an active effort to manufacture doubt.”

“The laundry list of what Mark Lynas got wrong about both GMOs and science is extensive, and has been refuted point by point by some of the world’s leading agroecologists and biologists,” wrote Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First, in April 2013 (Lynas joined Cornell as a visiting fellow later that year).  

“disingenuous and untruthful”

Africa-based groups have critiqued Lynas at length. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a coalition of more than 40 food and farming groups across Africa, has described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.” Million Belay, director of AFSA, described Lynas as “a racist who is pushing a narrative that only industrial agriculture can save Africa.”

In a 2018 press release, the South Africa-based African Centre for Biodiversity described unethical tactics Lynas has used to promote the biotech lobby agenda in Tanzania. “There is an issue definitely about accountability and [need for] reigning the Cornell Alliance for Science in, because of the misinformation and the way that they are extremely disingenuous and untruthful,” Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, said in a July 2020 webinar.

For detailed critiques of Lynas’ work, see articles at the end of this post and our Mark Lynas fact sheet.

Attacking agroecology

A recent example of inaccurate messaging is a widely panned article on the CAS website by Lynas claiming, “agro-ecology risks harming the poor.” Academics described the article as a “demagogic and non-scientific interpretation of a scientific paper,” “deeply unserious,” “pure ideology” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be scientific,” a “really flawed analysis“ that makes “sweeping generalizations“ and “wild conclusions.” Some critics called for a retraction.

2019 article by CAS fellow Nassib Mugwanya provides another example of misleading content on the topic of agroecology. The article, “Why traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture,” reflects the typical messaging pattern in CAS materials: presenting GMO crops as the “pro-science” position while painting “alternative forms of agricultural development as ‘anti-science,’ groundless and harmful,” according to an analysis by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice.

“Particularly notable in the article are strong usages of metaphors (e.g., agroecology likened to handcuffs), generalizations, omissions of information and a number of factual inaccuracies,” the group said.

Using Monsanto playbook to defend pesticides

Another example of misleading industry-aligned CAS messaging can be found in the group’s defense of glyphosate-based Roundup. The herbicides are a key component of GMO crops with 90% of corn and soy grown in the United States genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup. In 2015, after the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel said glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, Monsanto organized allies to “orchestrate outcry” against the independent science panel to “protect the reputation” of Roundup, according to internal Monsanto documents.

Monsanto’s PR playbook: attacking cancer experts as ‘activists’

Mark Lynas used the CAS platform to amplify the Monsanto messaging, describing the 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 for glyphosate. Lynas used the same flawed arguments and industry sources as the American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto paid to help spin the cancer report.

While claiming to be on the side of science, Lynas ignored ample evidence from Monsanto documents, widely reported in the press, that Monsanto interfered with scientific research, manipulated regulatory agencies and used other heavy-handed tactics to manipulate the scientific process in order to protect Roundup. In 2018, a jury found the that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in covering up the cancer risk of Roundup.

Lobbying for pesticides and GMOs in Hawaii

Although its main geographical focus is Africa, CAS also aids pesticide industry efforts to defend pesticides and discredit public health advocates in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for GMO crops and also an area that reports high exposures to pesticides and concerns about pesticide-related health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma. These problems 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.

“launched vicious attacks”

As these efforts gained traction, CAS engaged in a “massive public relations disinformation campaign designed to silence community concerns” about the health risks of pesticides, according to Fern Anuenue Holland, a community organizer for Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. In the Cornell Daily Sun, Holland described how “paid Cornell Alliance for Science fellows — under the guise of scientific expertise — launched vicious attacks. They used social media and wrote dozens of blog posts condemning impacted community members and other leaders who had the courage to speak up.”

Holland said she and other members of her organization were subjected to “character assassinations, misrepresentations and attacks on personal and professional credibility” by CAS affiliates. “I have personally witnessed families and lifelong friendships torn apart,” she wrote.

Opposing the public’s right to know     

CAS Director 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 CAS and Evanega coordinating closely with the pesticide industry and its front groups on public relations initiatives. Examples include:

More examples of CAS partnerships with industry groups are described at the bottom of this fact sheet.  

Elevating front groups and unreliable messengers

In its efforts to promote GMOs as a “science-based” solution for agriculture, Cornell Alliance for Science has lent its platform to industry front groups and even a notorious climate science skeptic.

Trevor Butterworth and Sense About Science/STATS: CAS partners with Sense About Science/STATS to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” and gave a fellowship to the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending products important to the chemical, fracking, junk food and drug industries. Butterworth is founding director of Sense About Science USA, which he merged with his former platform, Statistical Assessment Service (STATS).

Journalists have described STATs and Butterworth as key players in chemical and pharmaceutical industry product defense campaigns (see Stat News, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Intercept and The Atlantic).  Monsanto documents identify Sense About Science among the “industry partner” it counted on to defend Roundup against cancer concerns.

Climate science skeptic Owen Paterson: In 2015, CAS hosted 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 claim that environmental groups raising concerns about GMOs “allow millions to die.” Pesticide industry groups used similar messaging 50 years ago to try to discredit Rachel Carson for raising concerns about DDT.

Lynas and Sense About Science: Lynas of CAS is also affiliated with Sense About Science as a longtime advisory board member. In 2015, Lynas partnered with climate science skeptic Owen Paterson Paterson also Sense About Science Director Tracey Brown to launch what he called the “ecomodernism movement,” a corporate-aligned, anti-regulation strain of “environmentalism.”

Hawaii Alliance for Science messengers

In 2016, CAS launched an affiliate group called the Hawaii Alliance for Science, which said its purpose was to “support evidence-based decision-making and agricultural innovation in the Islands.” Its messengers include:

Sarah Thompson, a former employee of Dow AgroSciences, coordinated the Hawaii Alliance for Science, which described itself as a “communications-based non-profit grassroots organization associated with the Cornell Alliance for Science.” (The website no longer appears active, but the group maintains a Facebook page.)

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 of CAS, 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, and journalists who write about pesticide concerns. Conrow has accused environmental groups of tax evasion and compared a food safety group to the KKK.

Conrow has not always disclosed her Cornell affiliation. Hawaii’s Civil Beat newspaper criticized Conrow for her lack of transparency and cited her in 2016 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 CAS Global Leadership Fellow 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.

Cornell Alliance for Science staffers, advisors

CAS describes itself as “an initiative based at Cornell University, a non-profit institution.” The group does not disclose its budget, expenditures or staff salaries, and Cornell University does not disclose any information about CAS in its tax filings.

The website lists 20 staff members, including Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, and Managing Editor 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 CAS advisory board includes academics who regularly assist the agrichemical industry with their PR efforts.

Gates Foundation: critiques of agricultural development strategies 

Since 2016, the Gates Foundation has spent over $4 billion on agricultural development strategies, much of that focused on Africa. The foundation’s agricultural development strategies were led by Rob Horsch (recently retired), a Monsanto veteran of 25 years. The strategies have drawn criticism for 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.

Critiques of the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural development and funding include:

More CAS-industry collaborations 

Dozens of emails obtained via FOIA by U.S. Right to Know, and now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show CAS coordinating closely with the agrichemical industry and its public relations groups to coordinate events and messaging:

More critiques of Mark Lynas 

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 September 2020 study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh reveals how the industry-funded ILSI helped Coca-Cola Company shape obesity policy in China. “Beneath ILSI’s public narrative of unbiased science and no policy advocacy lay a maze of hidden channels companies used to advance their interests. Working through those channels, Coca Cola influenced China’s science and policy making during every phase in the policy process, from framing the issues to drafting official policy,” the paper concludes.

  • 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.”

Key pesticide industry PR group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife

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The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a major public relations initiative launched two decades ago by leading agrichemical companies to persuade the public to accept GMOs and pesticides, has shut down. A spokesperson confirmed via email that CBI “dissolved at the end of 2019, and its assets, including the GMO Answers platform, were transferred to Belgian-based CropLife International.”

Previous disclosure from GMOAnswers.com

CBI is still promoting industry views and front groups via its Facebook page. Its flagship project GMO Answers, a marketing campaign that amplifies the voices of academics to promote GMOs and pesticides, now says its funding comes from CropLife, the international trade group for pesticide companies.

GMOAnswers.com website now explains, “As of 2020, GMO Answers is a program of CropLife International.” The website also notes the group’s history “as a campaign produced by The Council for Biotechnology Information, whose members included BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta.”

See our new fact sheet with more details on the activities of the Council for Biotechnology Information and GMO Answers

“Training third party spokespeople”

CBI spent over $28 million on its product defense efforts from 2014-2019, according to tax records. (Tax forms and more supporting documents are posted here.)

The tax forms highlight the crucial role “third party” allies – especially academics, dieticians and farmers – play in the product defense efforts of the world’s largest pesticide and seed companies. A line item in CBI’s 2015 tax form for $1.4 million spent in North America notes: “Canada focused on training third party spokespeople (farmers, academics, dieticians) to educate media and public about the benefits of ag biotech.” In Mexico, the tax form notes, CBI “hosted media training and conferences for students, farmers, and academics” and “partnered with grower groups, academia, and the food chain to enhance acceptance” of GMOs. CBI also “created policy briefs for regulators.”

CBI’s largest expense, over $14 million since 2013, was for Ketchum public relations firm to run GMO Answers, which promotes the voices and content of  “independent” experts, many of whom have ties to the pesticide industry. Although GMO Answers discloses its industry funding, its activities have been less than transparent.

Other groups funded by CBI included the Global Farmer’s Network and Academics Review, a nonprofit that organized a series of “boot camps” at top universities to train scientists and journalists to promote and lobby for GMOs and pesticides.

CBI also produced a children’s coloring and activity book promoting industry viewpoints on biotechnology. The link for the book, and also a WhyBiotech.com website created by CBI, now redirect to a trade group for manufacturers and distributors of hemp-derived cannabinoids.

Backstory: Shaping public opinion on GMOs

The backstory of CBI was described in 2001 by public relations industry analyst Paul Holmes, founder of PRovoke (formerly the Holmes Report): In 1999, seven leading pesticide/seed companies and their trade groups “came together as a coalition and developed an industry-led public information program” to “shape public opinion and public policy formation on food biotechnology.” CBI would “develop alliances across the entire food ‘chain’ … to focus on promoting the benefits of food biotechnology,” Holmes reported.

“The campaign would counter criticism that biotech foods were unsafe, by emphasizing the extensive testing of biotech foods,” and “would be structured so as to answer questions and concerns from the public and respond to misinformation and ‘scare-tactics’ by biotechnology opponents,” Holmes noted. He explained that the information would be made available to the public “not only by the biotechnology industry, but through a variety of academic, scientific, government and independent, third-party sources.”

The two-decade evolution of CBI also highlights the consolidation of power in the pesticide/GMO industry. Founding members of CBI were BASF, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, Zeneca Ag products, Aventis CropScience, the American Crop Protection Association (now CropLife) and BIO.

The seven companies have since merged into four: Aventis and Monsanto were absorbed by Bayer; Dow Chemical and DuPont became Dow/DuPont and spun off agricultural business operations to Corteva Agriscience; Novartis and Zenica (which later merged with Astra) came together under the banner of Syngenta (which later also acquired ChemChina); while BASF acquired significant assets from Bayer.

More information:

CBI fact sheet

GMO Answers fact sheet

Academics Review fact sheet

More fact sheets from U.S. Right to Know: Tracking the pesticide industry propaganda network

U.S. Right to Know is a non-profit investigative research group producing groundbreaking investigations to expose how powerful food and chemical industry interests impact the food we eat and feed our children. 

Council for Biotechnology Information, GMO Answers, CropLife: pesticide industry PR initiatives 

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The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) was a public relations campaign launched in April 2000 by seven leading chemical/seed companies and their trade groups to persuade the public to accept genetically engineered foods. The initiative was created in response to public concerns about the health and environmental risks of genetically engineered foods, and said its focus would be developing alliances across the food chain to promote GMO crops (“ag biotech”) as beneficial.

CBI closed shop in 2019 and shifted its assets — including the marketing campaign GMO Answers, run by Ketchum PR firm — over to CropLife International, the international trade group for pesticide companies.

See: Key pesticide industry propaganda group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife, USRTK (2020)

CBI tax form: focused on third parties

CBI spent over $28 million from 2014-2019, according to tax records (see 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) on projects promoting genetically engineered foods. As noted in its 2015 tax form, CBI had an explicit focus on developing and training third-party spokespeople – particularly academics, farmers and dieticians – to promote industry views about the benefits of GMOs.

Projects funded by CBI included GMO Answers (via Ketchum public relations firm); Academics Review, a group that claimed to be independent of industry; Biotech Literacy Project boot camps held at top universities (via Academics Review) and the Global Farmer Network.

GMO Answers/Ketchum

GMO Answers is a marketing website and public relations campaign that uses the voices of academics and others to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. CBI spent $14.4 million on Ketchum public relations firm between 2014-2019 to run the PR salvo, according to tax forms.

GMO Answers discloses its industry funding on its website and says it promotes the views of independent experts. However, examples have come to light that Ketchum PR scripted some of the GMO answers offered by “independent experts” (see coverage in New York Times and Forbes). GMO Answers also appears in Monsanto PR documents as partners in industry’s efforts to defend glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides from cancer concerns, and to try to discredit a public interest research investigation by U.S. Right to Know to uncover hidden ties between pesticide companies and academics who promote agrichemical products.

An an example of how GMO Answers builds influence with key reporters, see reporting in Huffington Post about how Ketchum cultivated ties with Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel. Haspel was an early promoter of GMO Answers, and later participated in CBI-funded Biotech Literacy Project messaging events. A source review of Haspel’s columns conducted by USRTK found several examples of undisclosed industry sources and misleading information in her articles about pesticides.

GMO Answers was recognized as a successful spin effort in 2014 when it was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.” In a video produced for the award, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs,” and noted they “closely monitor the conversation” on Twitter where they “successfully balanced 80% of interactions with detractors.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.

Related reporting:

Monsanto document released in 2019

When USRTK submitted FOIAs to investigate industry ties with academics, Monsanto fought back.

Academics Review

CBI provided $650,000 in funding to Academics Review, a nonprofit that claimed it received no corporate funding. The group was co-founded by Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed Academics Review was set up explicitly as a front group with the help of Monsanto executives and the company’s former director of communications Jay Byrne. The group discussed using Academics Review as a vehicle to discredit critics of GMOs and agrichemicals, finding corporate contributions and hiding Monsanto’s fingerprints.

Related reporting: Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food, by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (2017)

Biotech Literacy Project spin events

CBI spent over $300,000 on two “Biotech Literacy Project boot camps” held at the University of Florida in 2014 and the University of California, Davis in 2015, according to tax records. The money was routed through Academics Review, which co-organized the conferences with the Genetic Literacy Project, another group that helps Monsanto with PR projects while claiming to be independent.

The three-day boot camp events trained students, scientists and journalists in communication and lobbying techniques to  promote and defend GMOs and pesticides, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling in the U.S.

Related reporting:  Flacking for GMOs: How the biotech industry cultivates positive media – and discourages criticism, by Paul Thacker, The Progressive (2017)

Monsanto ‘partner’ groups defend Roundup 

Although GMO Answers, Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project all claimed to be independent of the influence of industry, all three groups appeared in a Monsanto PR documents as “industry partners” the company engaged in its efforts to defend glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides from cancer concerns.

Monsanto PR document discusses plans to defend Roundup from cancer concerns

Kids’ coloring book

CBI also produced a children’s coloring and activity book to promote GMOs. The link for the book, and also the WhyBiotech.com website created by CBI, now redirect to a trade group for manufacturers and distributors of hemp-derived cannabinoids.

Related U.S. Right to Know posts

GMO Answers is a crisis management PR tool for GMOs and pesticides (updated 2020)

Key pesticide industry propaganda group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife (2020)

Monsanto’s campaign against U.S. Right to Know (2019)

Monsanto relied on these ‘partners’ to attack top cancer scientists (2019)

Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group (2018)

Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project: PR Messengers for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry (2018)

How Tamar Haspel misleads readers of the Washington Post and source review of Haspel’s pesticide columns (2018)

Russia’s former PR firm Ketchum runs the chemical industry’s PR salvo on GMO (2015)

Mark Lynas’ inaccurate, deceptive promotions for the agrichemical agenda

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Mark Lynas is a former journalist turned promotional advocate for genetically engineered foods and pesticides who makes inaccurate claims about those products from his perch at the Gates Foundation-funded Cornell Alliance for Science. Housed at Cornell University since 2014, the Cornell Alliance for Science is a public relations campaign that trains spokespeople and creates networks of influence, particularly in African countries, to promote acceptance of GMOs and agrichemicals. 

Scientists, food experts say Lynas is wrong on science

Scientists and food policy experts have criticized Lynas for making inaccurate and unscientific statements in his efforts to promote agribusiness interests. As one example, academics panned a July 2020 article Lynas wrote for Cornell Alliance for Science claiming agroecology “risks harming the poor.” Critics described Lynas’ article as a “demagogic and non-scientific interpretation of a scientific paper” and a “really flawed analysis” that “erroneously conflates conservation ag with agroecology and then makes wild conclusions.”

The agronomist Marc Corbeels, whose paper Lynas purported to describe in the article, said Lynas made “sweeping generalizations.” Marcus Taylor, a political ecologist at Queen’s University, called for a retraction; “the right thing to do would be to withdraw your very flawed piece that confuses basic elements of agricultural strategies,” Taylor tweeted to Lynas. He described the article as “pure ideology” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be ‘scientific’.”  

More critiques from scientists and policy experts about Lynas’ work (emphases ours):

  • “I can unequivocally state that there is no scientific consensus about GMO safety and that most of (Lynas’) statements are false,” wrote David Schubert, PhD, Head, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory & Professor at The Salk Institute, in a letter to the San Diego Union Tribune.
  • “Here are some of the incorrect or misleading points that Lynas makes about the science or development of GE,” wrote Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, former senior scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists. “Instead of debating or discussing the actual science, Lynas casts aspersions and resorts to relying on authority rather than data or research.” 
  • Lynas’ claims about the certainty of GMO safety are “unscientific, illogical and absurd,” according to Belinda Martineau, PhD, a genetic engineer who helped develop the first GMO food (see letter to NYT and Biotech Salon).
  • In a review of Lynas’ book Seeds of Science, the anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone described the book as an “amateurish rehash of common industry talking points.” 
  • “The laundry list of what Mark Lynas got wrong about both GMOs and science is extensive, and has been refuted point by point by some of the world’s leading agroecologists and biologists,” wrote Eric Holt-Giménez, PhD, former director Food First, in the Huffington Post.
  • Mark Lynas has “made a career out of … demonization,wrote Timothy A. Wise, former director of research at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.
  • Lynas’ narrative is demonstrably false,” according to a 2018 press release from the African Centre for Biodiversity, a South-Africa based group. 
  • “Mark Lynas’ claims display deep scientific ignorance, or an active effort to manufacture doubt. You should ignore him,” tweeted Pete Myers, PhD, chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of EHN.org.

‘Manipulative, misleading and unethical’ tactics 

Africa-based groups say Lynas has repeatedly misrepresented facts to promote a political agenda. According to a December 2018 report by the African Center for Biodiversity, Lynas and the Cornell Alliance for Science used the images of African farmers without their knowledge and consent, exploiting the images in misleading ways to claim farmers need GMOs.

Lynas used this image of a Tanzanian farmer, Mrs. R, out of context and without her permission.

As one example, Lynas posted this image of a Tanzanian farmer, Mrs. R, without permission and out of context, suggesting she is a victim of “global injustice.” Mrs. R is in fact a successful farmer who champions agroecological practices and makes a good living, according to the ACBio report. She asked Lynas to remove her image, but it remains on his twitter feed. ACBio said in its report that Lynas’ tactics “crossed an ethical red line and must cease.”  

The food sovereignty group also said in a press release that Lynas has a “history of mischief-making in Tanzania” for the agricultural biotech industry lobby. “His visits to the country are well organized by the lobby, using platforms such as the regular meetings of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), where the media are in attendance to report on his talks. His attacks have principally been directed at the country’s biosafety regulations, particularly its precautionary approach and strict liability provisions.”

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty (AFSA), a coalition representing 35 farmer and consumer groups across Africa, has also accused Lynas of promoting “false promises, misrepresentation, and alternative facts.” In a 2018 article, they described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.”

Pesticide messaging based on industry talking points, not science

Another example of inaccurate reporting by Lynas is his 2017 article for the Cornell Alliance for Science attacking the World Health Organization’s cancer agency for reporting glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Lynas claimed the expert panel report was a “witch hunt” and an “obvious perversion of both science and natural justice,” orchestrated by people overcome with “hysteria and emotion.” He claimed glyphosate is the “most benign chemical in world farming.” 

A fact check by U.S. Right to Know found that Lynas made the same misleading and erroneous arguments and relied on the same two flawed sources as a blog posted a month earlier by the American Council on Science and Health, a group Monsanto was paying to help defend glyphosate and other agrichemical products. 

In pushing his case that “activist groups abused science and sidelined evidence-based policy in the glyphosate saga,” Lynas not only relied on industry arguments and sources, but also ignored substantial evidence, widely reported in the media, that Monsanto manipulated the science and regulatory reviews on glyphosate for decades using covert tactics including ghostwriting studies and articles, killing studies, pushing dubious science, attacking scientists and strong-arming regulatory agencies in order to protect its profits from glyphosate-based products. 

Promoted by, tied to pesticide industry propaganda network

Agrichemical companies and their public relations operatives frequently promote Mark Lynas and his work. See for example Monsanto’s website, many promotional tweets by pesticide industry trade groups, lobby groups, pro-industry academics and writers, and various Monsanto employees, and the dozens of Lynas’ articles promoted by Genetic Literacy Project, a propaganda group that partners with Monsanto.

Lynas and Cornell Alliance for Science also collaborate with other key players in the agrichemical industry’s lobbying and propaganda network.

Advises Monsanto partner group Sense About Science

A confidential Monsanto PR plan dated February 2015 suggested Sense About Science as a group that could help lead the industry’s response in the media to discredit the WHO cancer report about glyphosate. Lynas serves on the advisory council of Sense About Science. The Intercept has reported in 2016 that “Sense About Science does not always disclose when its sources on controversial matters are scientists with ties to the industries under examination,” and “is known to take positions that buck scientific consensus or dismiss emerging evidence of harm.” Sense About Science partners with the Cornell Alliance for Science to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” via the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who has been described by journalists as a “chemical industry public relations writer.” 

Related: Monsanto relied on these “partners” to attack top cancer scientists

Aligned with climate science skeptic to launch pro-fracking, pro-nuke, GMO “movement”

Lynas calls himself a co-founder of the “movement” of “ecomodernism,” a corporate-aligned strain of “environmentalism” that the British writer George Monbiot describes as “take no political action to protect the natural world.” The eco-modernists promote fracking, nuclear power and agrichemical products as ecological solutions. According to eco-modernist leaders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, energy technologies favored by the oil billionaire Koch brothers “are doing far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the ones favored by the climate-apocalyptic Left.” 

At a failed launch event for ecomodernism in September 2015, Lynas aligned himself with Owen Paterson, a prominent climate science denialist in the UK who slashed funding for efforts to prepare the country for global warming when he was the environment secretary. The same month, Paterson spoke at Cornell Alliance for Science, where he promoted GMOs in a hyperbolic speech filled with unsupportable claims, and accused environmentalists of allowing children to die in Africa. “Billion dollar green campaigns kill poor children,” touted a headline reporting on Paterson’s Cornell speech from the  American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto was paying to defend its products. 

Mark Lynas background

Lynas authored several books on climate change (one of which was recognized by the Royal Society) before he attracted worldwide attention with his “conversion” from an anti-GMO activist to a promoter of the technology with a widely-promoted 2013 speech at Oxford that critics have described as misleading. Later that year Lynas became a fellow at Cornell University Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and began working for the Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications campaign developed in 2014 to promote GMOs with funding from the Gates Foundation.

See: Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign?

Lynas identified himself as the “political director” for Cornell Alliance for Science in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. The Cornell Alliance for Science does not explain what its political agenda is, but the group’s messaging and goals closely track the agrichemical industry’s commercial agenda: to increase acceptance of genetically engineered crops and pesticides around the world, particularly in Africa.

Mysterious Lynas PR push, and leaked EuropaBio memo

The massive media coverage of Lynas’ pro-GMO conversion in 2013 raised suspicions that an industry PR campaign was helping to elevate him behind the scenes. A leaked 2011 memo from an industry PR firm – describing plans to recruit high profile “ambassadors” to lobby for GMO acceptance – heightened suspicions of industry backing because the document specifically named Lynas. He has said the group never approached him.

According to a Guardian report, EuropaBio, a trade group whose members include Monsanto and Bayer, planned to recruit PR ambassadors to help decision makers “rethink Europe’s position on GM crops.” The ambassadors would not be paid directly but would receive travel expenses and “dedicated communications support” from industry funding. The PR firm’s operative rep claimed to “have interest from” Lynas, among others, in the ambassador role. Lynas denied having any contact with them. “I have not been asked to be an ambassador, nor would I accept such a request if asked,” he told the Guardian.

Gates Foundation, GMOs & Monsanto

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the principal funder for the Cornell Alliance for Science with $12 million in grants, has been criticized for its agricultural development funding strategies that favor corporate agribusiness agendas. A 2014 analysis from the research group GRAIN found that the Gates Foundation spent most of its agricultural development funds “to feed the poor in Africa” — nearly $3 billion spent over a decade — to fund scientists and researchers in wealthy nations. The money also helps buy political influence across Africa, GRAIN reported. A 2016 report by the advocacy group Global Justice Now concluded that the Gates Foundation’s agricultural development strategies are “exacerbating global inequality and entrenching corporate power globally.”

The Gates Foundation massively expanded its funding for agricultural projects about a decade ago when Rob Horsch, Monsanto’s former head of international development joined the foundation’s agricultural development leadership team. Lynas’ new book “Seeds of Science” spends a chapter (“The True History of Monsanto”) trying to explain some of the corporation’s past sins and lauding Rob Horsch at length. It spends another chapter (“Africa: Let Them Eat Organic Baby Corn”) arguing that Africans need agrichemical industry products to feed themselves.

Criticisms of the Gates Foundation’s colonialist approach to Africa

  • Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why the GMO Promoters Get it So Wrong About Africa, statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, 5/7/2018
  • Are Gates and Rockefeller using their influence to set agenda in poor states?“Study identifies Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations among rich donors that are close to government and may be skewing priorities,” by John Vidal, The Guardian, 1/15/2016
  • Philanthropic Power and Development. Who shapes the agenda? by Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz, 2015 report (page 48).
  • Philanthrocapitalism: The Gates Foundation’s African programmes are not charity, by Philip L Bereano, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Third World Resurgence, 2017
  • How Bill Gates is Helping KFC Take Over Africa, by Alex Park, Mother Jones, 1/10/2014
  • Gates Foundation’s Seed Agenda in Africa ‘Another Form of Colonialism,’ Warns Protesters, by Lauren McCauley, Common Dreams, 3/23/2015
  • Gates Foundation is spearheading neoliberal plunder of African agriculture, by Colin Todhunter, The Ecologist, 1/21/2016
  • How does the Gates Foundation spend its money to feed the world?GRAIN report, 2014
  • Bill Gates is on a mission to sell GMOs to Africa, but he’s not telling the whole truth, by Stacy Malkan, Alternet, 3/24/2016

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 

A longer version of this article ran August 14, 2020 in The Ecologist

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 that 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. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines agroecology as “an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems.” 

Resources for more information: 

  • 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)