Independent Women’s Forum: Koch-Funded Group Defends Pesticide, Oil, Tobacco Industries

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The Independent Women’s Forum is a nonprofit organization that partners with Monsanto, defends toxic chemicals in food and consumer products, and argues against laws that would curb the power of corporations. Funded largely by right-wing foundations that push climate science denial, IWF began in 1991 as an effort to defend now Supreme Court Justice (and former Monsanto attorney) Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. In 2018, the group also defended Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the face of sexual assault allegations, and described Kavanaugh as a “champion of women.

See: “Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh, The Nation 

With a budget of roughly $2 million a year, the Independent Women ‘s Forum now says it works for policies that “enhance freedom.” Its programs include lobbying and advocating for the deregulation of toxic products, and deflecting blame for health and environmental harms away from polluting corporations and toward personal responsibility. In 2017, the group’s annual gala in Washington DC, which celebrated IWF board member Kellyanne Conway as a champion of women, was sponsored by chemical and tobacco companies.

Read more about the gala and its sponsors in HuffPost, “The Politics of Infertility and Cancer,” by Stacy Malkan. 

Funding by right wing billionaires and corporations

Most of the known donors of the Independent Women’s Forum are men, as Lisa Graves reported for the Center for Media and Democracy. IWF has received over $15 million from right-wing foundations that promote deregulation and corporate free rein, according to data collected by Greenpeace USA. IWF’s leading contributors, with more than $5 million in donations, are Donors Trust and Donors Capital Funds, the secretive “dark money” funds connected with oil moguls Charles and David Koch. These funds channel money from anonymous donors, including corporations, to third-party groups that lobby for corporate interests.

IWF’s top funder: dark money from undisclosed donors

Koch family foundations have directly contributed more than $844,115 and other top funders include the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Randolph Foundation (an offshoot of the Richardson Foundation), and Searle Freedom Trust — all leading funders of climate-science denial efforts and campaigns to defend pesticides and keep them unregulated. 

ExxonMobil and Philip Morris have also funded IWF, and the tobacco firm named IWF in a list of “potential third party references” and “those who respect our views.” Rush Limbaugh donated at least a quarter of a million dollars to IWF, which “defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade,” according to an article by Eli Clifton in The Nation.

IWF leaders

Heather Richardson Higgins, Chair of the IWF Board and CEO of the Independent Women’s Voice, the lobby arm of IWF, has held senior positions in numerous right-wing foundations, including the Randolph Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Kellyanne Conway, White House advisor and former Trump campaign manager, is an IWF board member. Directors Emeritae include Lynne V.Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney and Kimberly O.Dennis, president of the board of directors of Donors Trust and president and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust.

Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, a former Koch Industries lobbyist, left Koch Industries to become president of IWF in 2001 and she later served as Vice Chairman of IWF’s Board of Directors. She has a long history of promoting dirty energy and pushing for deregulation of polluting industries.

IWF’s agenda closely follows the lobbying and messaging agenda of tobacco, oil and chemical industry interests. Following are some examples:

Denies climate science

A 2019 tweet and article from the Independent Women’s Forum praises President Trump’s “pragmatism” in not acting to curb climate change. 

Greenpeace describes IWF as a “Koch Industries Climate Denial Group” that “has spread misinformation on climate science and touts the work of climate deniers.” 

Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker in 2010: “The (Koch) brothers have given money to more obscure groups, too, such as the Independent Women’s Forum, which opposes the presentation of global warming as a scientific fact in American public schools. Until 2008, the group was run by Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries. Mary Beth Jarvis, a vice-president of a Koch subsidiary, is on the group’s board.”

Opposes teaching climate science in schools

The Denver Post reported in 2010 that IWF “thinks global warming is ‘junk science’ and that teaching it is unnecessarily scaring schoolchildren.” Through a campaign called “Balanced Education for Everyone,” IWF opposed climate science education in schools, which the group described as “alarmist global warming indoctrination.”

IWF President Carrie Lucas writes about the “growing skepticism about climate change” and argues “the public could pay dearly for the hysteria.”

Partners with Monsanto

In an April 21, 2016 proposal to Monsanto, IWF asked Monsanto to contribute $43,300 for “Super Women of Science” events designed to undercut political support for Proposition 65, a California law that prohibits companies from discharging hazardous chemicals in waterways and requires them to notify consumers about toxic chemical exposures. The proposed events were part of IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project that was created “to debunk media hype about the risks Americans face from the products we use, the foods we eat and the environment surrounding our families.” 

In February 2017, Monsanto partnered with IWF on an event titled “Food and Fear: How to Find Facts in Today’s Culture of Alarmism,” and an IWF podcast that month discussed “How Monsanto is Vilified by Activists.”

IWF pushes the talking points of Monsanto and the chemical industry: promoting GMOs and pesticides, attacking the organic industry and moms who choose organic food, and opposing transparency in food labels. Examples include:

  • Vermont’s GMO labeling law is stupid. (The Spectator)
  • Sinister GMO labeling will cause grocery costs to skyrocket. (IWF)
  • Anti-GMO hype is the real threat to the well being of families. (National Review)
  • Reasonable moms need to push back on the mom shaming and guilt tripping organic food narrative. (IWF podcast)
  • GMO critics are cruel, vain, elite and seek to deny those in need. (New York Post)

The “Culture of Alarmism” project, since renamed the “Project for Progress and Innovation,” is run by Julie Gunlock, who writes frequent blogs arguing against public health protections and defending corporations. She has described “FDA’s refusal to promote e-cigarettes” as “a public health crisis.” 

Argues ‘Philips Morris PR’

In August 2017, IWF lobbied FDA to approve Philip Morris’ IQOS e-cigarettes, arguing that women need the products for various biological reasons to help them quit smoking regular cigarettes.

“Clearly, the FDA doesn’t intend to punish women, simply for their gender. Yet, that’s precisely what’s going to happen if women are limited to smoking cessation products that biologically cannot provide them with the help they need to quit traditional cigarettes,” IWF wrote.

In response to the IWF letter, Stanton Glantz, PhD, Professor of Medicine at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said: “This is standard Philip Morris PR. There is no independent confirmation that IQOS are safer than cigarettes or that they help people quit smoking.”

Champions corporate-friendly “food freedom”

IWF attacks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as “government nannies,” for example describing the agency as “food Marxists” and “completely out of control” for issuing voluntary guidance to food manufacturers to cut sodium levels.

A June 2017 IWF event tried to stoke fears about public health guidance

In 2012, IWF launched a “Women for Food Freedom” project to “push back on the nanny state and encourage personal responsibility” for food choices. The agenda included opposing “food regulations, soda and snack food taxes, junk science and food and home-product scares, misinformation about obesity and hunger, and other federal food programs, including school lunches.”

On obesity, IWF tries to shift attention away from corporate accountability and toward personal choices. In this interview with Thom Hartmann, IWF’s Julie Gunlock argues that corporations are not to blame for America’s obesity problem but rather “people are making bad choices and I think parents are completely checking out.” The solution, she said, is for parents to cook more, especially poor parents since they have a worse problem with obesity.

Attacks moms for trying to reduce pesticide exposures

IWF pushes industry messaging, using covert tactics, in attempt to ostracize moms who are concerned about pesticides; a prime example is this 2014 New York Post article, “Tyranny of the Organic Mommy Mafia” by Naomi Schafer Riley. Under the guise of complaining about “mom shaming,” Riley – who is an IWF fellow but did not disclose that to readers – attempts to shame and blame moms who choose organic food. Riley’s article was sourced entirely by industry front groups and sources that she falsely presented as independent, including Academics Review, a Monsanto front group; the Alliance for Food and Farming and Julie Gunlock of the IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism Project,” who was also not identified in the article as an employee of IWF. For more on this topic, see the “Assault on Organic: Ignoring science to make the case for chemical farming” (FAIR, 2014).

Partners with chemical industry front groups

IWF partners with other corporate front groups such as the American Council on Science and Health, a leading defender of toxic chemicals that has been funded by Monsanto and Syngenta, as well as other chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco corporations and industry groups.

  • In a February 2017 IWF podcast, ACSH and IWF “debunked Rachel Carson’s alarmism on toxic chemicals”
  • ACSH was “fully behind” IWF’s “culture of alarmism letter” opposing efforts to remove hazardous chemicals from consumer products.
  • IWF events attacking moms who are concerned about toxic chemicals, such as this “hazmat parenting” event, featured ACSH’s Josh Bloom and chemical industry public relations writer Trevor Butterworth.

For further reading:

The Intercept,”Koch Brothers Operatives Fill Top White House Positions,” by Lee Fang (4/4/2017)

The Nation,“Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh (8/18/2016)

Center for Media and Democracy, “Most Known Donors of the Independent Women’s Forum are Men,” by Lisa Graves (8/24/2016)

Center for Media and Democracy, “Confirmation: the Not-so-Independent Women’s Forum was Born in Defense of Clarence Thomas and the Far Right,” by Lisa Graves and Calvin Sloan (4/21/2016)

Slate,“Confirmation Bias: How ‘Women for Judge Thomas’ turned into a conservative powerhouse,” by Barbara Spindel (4/7/2016)

Truthout, “Independent Women’s Forum Uses Misleading Branding to Push Right Wing Agenda,” by Lisa Graves, Calvin Sloan and Kim Haddow (8/19/2016)

Inside Philanthropy,“The Money Behind the Conservative Women’s Groups Still Fighting the Culture War,”by Philip Rojc (9/13/2016)

The Nation,”Guess Which Women’s Group Rush Limbaugh has Donated Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to? Hint: it’s the one that defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade,” by Eli Clifton (6/12/2014)

The New Yorker,”The Koch Brothers Covert Operations,” by Jane Mayer (8/30/2010)

Oxford University Press, “Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics,” by Ronnee Schreiber (2008)

Inside Philanthropy,”Look Who’s Funding This Top Conservative Women’s Group,” by Joan Shipps  (11/26/2014)

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “Conservative Women are Right for Media Mainstream; Media Have Finally Found Some Women to Love,” by Laura Flanders (3/1/1996)

originally posted October 6, 2018 and updated in February 2020

Glyphosate Fact Sheet: Cancer and Other Health Concerns

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

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

Most Widely Used Pesticide

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

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

Statements from scientists and health care providers 

Cancer concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent studies report cancer links and concerns about validity of EPA classification: 

Cancer lawsuits

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

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

More information about scientific interference:

Endocrine disruption and other health concerns

Some research suggests that glyphosate may be an endocrine disruptor. It has also been linked to liver disease, birth defects and reproductive problems in laboratory animals; and may kill beneficial gut bacteria and damage the DNA in human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells. A 2019 study in a Nature journal reported increases in obesity, reproductive and kidney diseases, and other problems in the second- and third-generation offspring of rats exposed to glyphosate. See the study and Washington State University press release.

Recent studies have shown adverse biological effects from low-dose exposures to glyphosate at levels to which people are routinely exposed.

  • A 2017 study associated chronic, very low-level glyphosate exposures to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in rats. According to the researchers, the results “imply that chronic consumption of extremely low levels of a GBH formulation (Roundup), at admissible glyphosate-equivalent concentrations, are associated with marked alterations of the liver proteome and metabolome,” the biomarkers for NAFLD.
  • A birth cohort study in Indiana published in 2017 – the first study of glyphosate exposure in US pregnant women using urine specimens as a direct measure of exposure – found detectable levels of glyphosate in more than 90% of the pregnant women tested and found the levels were significantly correlated with shortened pregnancy lengths.
  • A 2018 ecological and population study conducted in Argentina found high concentrations of glyphosate in the soil and dust in agricultural areas that also reported higher rates of spontaneous abortion and congenital abnormalities in children, suggesting a link between environmental exposure to glyphosate and reproductive problems. No other relevant sources of pollution were identified.
  • A 2018 rat study conducted by the Ramazzini Institute reported that low-dose exposures to Roundup at levels considered safe significantly altered the gut microbiota in some of the rat pups. Another 2018 study reported that higher levels of glyphosate administered to mice disrupted the gut microbiota and caused anxiety and depression-like behaviors.
  • A 2018 rat study by Argentinian researchers linked low-level perinatal glyphosate exposures to impaired female reproductive performance and congenital anomalies in the next generation of offspring.

Glyphosate has also been linked by recent studies to harmful impacts on bees and monarch butterflies.

Sri Lankan scientists awarded AAAS freedom award for kidney disease research

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

Desiccation: another source of dietary exposures 

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

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

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

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

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

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

IFIC: How Big Food Spins Bad News

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Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and other sources shine light on the inner workings of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a trade group funded by large food and agrichemical companies, and its nonprofit “public education arm” the IFIC Foundation. The IFIC groups conduct research and training programs, produce marketing materials and coordinate other industry groups to communicate industry spin about food safety and nutrition. Messaging includes promoting and defending sugar, processed foods, artificial sweeteners, food additives, pesticides and genetically engineered foods.

Spinning pesticide cancer report for Monsanto 

As one example of how IFIC partners with corporations to promote agrichemical products and deflect cancer concerns, this internal Monsanto document identifies IFIC as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research team, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to “protect the reputation” of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, IARC judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

Monsanto listed IFIC as a Tier 3 “industry partner” along with two other food-industry funded groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Center for Food Integrity.

How IFIC tries to communicate its message to women.

The groups were identified as part of a “Stakeholder Engagement team” that could alert the food companies to Monsanto’s “inoculation strategy” for the glyphosate cancer report.

Blogs later posted on the IFIC website illustrate the group’s patronizing “don’t worry, trust us” messaging to women.  Entries include, “8 crazy ways they’re trying to scare you about fruits and vegetables,” “Cutting through the clutter on glyphosate,” and “Before we freak out, let’s ask the experts … the real experts.”

Corporate funders  

IFIC spent over $22 million in the five-year period from 2013-2017, while the IFIC Foundation spent over $5 million in those five years, according to tax forms filed with the IRS. Corporations and industry groups that support IFIC, according to public disclosures, include the American Beverage Association, American Meat Science Association, Archer Daniels Midland Company, Bayer CropScience, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Dannon, DowDuPont, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Mars, Nestle, Perdue Farms and PepsiCo.

Draft tax records for the IFIC Foundation, obtained via state records requests, list the corporations that funded the group in 2011, 2013 or both: Grocery Manufacturers Association, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Hershey, Mars, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever. The US Department of Agriculture gave IFIC Foundation $177,480 of taxpayer money in 2013 to produce a “communicator’s guide” for promoting genetically engineered foods.

IFIC also solicits money from corporations for specific product-defense campaigns. This April 28, 2014 email from an IFIC executive to a long list of corporate board members asks for $10,000 contributions to update the “Understanding our Food” initiative to improve consumer views of processed foods. The email notes previous financial supporters: Bayer, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Mars, McDonalds, Monsanto, Nestle, PepsiCo and DuPont.

Promotes GMOs to school children  

IFIC coordinated 130 groups via the Alliance to Feed the Future on messaging efforts to “improve understanding” about genetically engineered foods. Members include the American Council on Science and Health, the Calorie Control Council, the Center for Food Integrity and The Nature Conservancy.

The Alliance to Feed the Future provided free educational curricula to teach students to promote genetically engineered foods, including “The Science of Feeding the World” for K-8 teachers and “Bringing Biotechnology to Life” for grades 7-10.

The inner workings of IFIC’s PR services 

A series of documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know provide a sense of how IFIC operates behind the scenes to spin bad news and defend the products of its corporate sponsors.

Connects reporters to industry-funded scientists  

  • May 5, 2014 email from Matt Raymond, senior director of communications, alerted IFIC leadership and “media dialogue group” to “high profile stories in which IFIC is currently involved” to help spin negative news coverage, including responding to the movie Fed Up. He noted they had connected a New York Times reporter with “Dr. John Sievenpiper, our noted expert in the field of sugars.” Sievenpiper “is among a small group of Canadian academic scientists who have received hundreds of thousands in funding from soft-drink makers, packaged-food trade associations and the sugar industry, turning out studies and opinion articles that often coincide with those businesses’ interests,” according to the National Post.
  • Emails from 2010 and 2012 suggest that IFIC relies on a small group of industry-connected scientists to confront studies that raise concerns about GMOs. In both emails, Bruce Chassy, a University of Illinois professor who received undisclosed funds from Monsanto to promote and defend GMOs, advises IFIC on how to respond to studies raising concerns about GMOs.

DuPont executive suggests stealth strategy to confront Consumer Reports

  • In a February 3, 2013 email, IFIC staff alerted its “media relations group” that Consumer Reports reported concerns about the safety and environmental impact of GMOs. Doyle Karr, DuPont’s director of biotechnology policy and vice president of the board of Center for Food Integrity, forwarded the email to a scientist with a query for response ideas, and suggested confronting Consumer Reports with this stealth tactic: “Maybe create a letter to the editor signed by 1,000 scientists who have no affiliation with the biotech seed companies stating that they take issue with (Consumer Reports’) statements on the safety and environmental impact. ??”

Other PR services IFIC provides to industry

  • Disseminates misleading industry talking points: April 25, 2012 mail to the 130 members of the Alliance to Feed the Future “on behalf of Alliance member Grocery Manufacturers Association” claimed that the California ballot initiative to label genetically engineered foods “would effectively ban the sale of tens of thousands of grocery products in California unless they contain special labels.”
  • Confronts books critical of processed foods: February 20, 2013 email describes IFIC’s strategy to spin two books critical of the food industry, “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss, and “Pandora’s Lunchbox” by Melanie Warner. Plans included writing book reviews, disseminating talking points and “exploring additional options to enhance engagement in the digital media measured by the extent of coverage.” In a February 22, 2013 email, an IFIC executive reached out to three academics — Roger Clemens of the University of Southern California, Mario Ferruzzi of Purdue University and Joanne Slavin of University of Minnesota — to ask them to be available for media interviews about the books. The email provided the academics with summaries of the two books and IFIC’s talking points defending processed foods. “We will appreciate you sharing any specific talking points about specific science issues that are raised in the books,” states the email from Marianne Smith Edge, IFIC’s senior vice president of nutrition and food safety.
  • Research and surveys to support industry positions; one example is a 2012 survey that found 76% of consumers “can’t think of anything additional they would like to see on the label” that was used by industry groups to oppose GMO labeling.
  • “Don’t worry, trust us” marketing brochures, such as this one explaining that food additives and colors are nothing to worry about. The chemicals and dyes “have played an important role in reducing serious nutritional deficiencies among consumers,” according to the IFIC Foundation brochure that was “prepared under a partnering agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration.”

originally posted May 31, 2018 and updated in February 2020

What would you say to Bayer at its annual shareholder meeting?

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UPDATE: Thanks to all who contributed to our travel fund to send our colleague Carey Gillam to Bonn, Germany, to attend the Bayer shareholder meeting April 28. We reached our fundraising goal in five days with more than two-dozen donors including a generous contribution of frequent flier miles. Stay tuned for Carey’s reporting from Bonn.

Our colleague Carey Gillam, research director of U.S. Right to Know, has been offered a speaking slot by a Bayer shareholder’s group at the company’s upcoming annual meeting in Bonn, Germany. The April 28 meeting is expected to be widely covered by global media and will be watched closely by investors, policy makers and other corporate leaders.

Can you help us get Carey to Bonn? U.S. Right to Know is making a special funding request to cover transportation and lodging for this unexpected trip that we don’t have in our budget. If you can contribute, any amount helps. You can make a tax-deductible donation here: https://usrtk.org/donate

And please send us your thoughts on what we should tell Bayer! You can email Carey directly at carey@usrtk.org or post comments on Facebook here.

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Follow Carey’s reporting on the Roundup litigation in the Monsanto Roundup Trial Tracker

Gift Ideas: Best 2019 Books and Movies About Our Food System 

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If you like to give friends and family the gift of knowledge about our food, we’re here with recommendations for 2019 books and movies that illuminate the issues close to our hearts. At U.S. Right to Know, we believe that transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – is crucial to building a healthier food system for our children, our families and our world. Kudos to the journalists and filmmakers who are exposing how powerful food and chemical industry interests impact our health and the environment. 

Here are our recommendations for best-of-the-year food books and movies. You can also receive a signed copy of the award-winning 2017 book by our colleague, Carey Gillam, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, for a monthly sustainer donation to U.S. Right to Know through Patreon, or you can donate directly to USRTK here.  

Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food
By Timothy A. Wise, The New Press

“likely to kick up a storm in agriculture and development circles”

Scholar Timothy A. Wise,  shows the world already has the tools to feed itself, without expanding industrial agriculture or adopting genetically modified seeds. Reporting from Africa, Mexico, India, and the United States, Wise details how agribusiness and its philanthropic promoters have hijacked food policies to feed corporate interests, and argues that policies promoted by the Gates Foundation-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) are failing to deliver productivity and income improvements for small-scale farmers in Africa. Wise also takes readers to remote villages to see how farmers are rebuilding soils with ecologically sound practices without chemicals or imported hybrid or genetically engineered seeds.  

“Hundreds of billions of dollars spent on fertilizer and hybrid seed subsidies by Kenya and other African countries over the past few years have gone down the drain, a new book argues,” writes Julius Segei in Kenya’s largest independent newspaper, the The Daily Nation. “The scholar’s verdict that there is little evidence of any green revolution coming to Africa more than 10 years after AGRA is likely to kick up a storm in agriculture and development circles.”

The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception
By David Michaels, Oxford University Press (available January 2020)

David Michaels’ new book offers an insider’s look at how corporations manufacture doubt in science: bogus studies, congressional testimonies, think-tank policy documents, and more. He provides new details of high-profile cases involving car manufacturing, professional sports, the food we eat and the air we breathe. Michaels, the former Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama, writes that the anti-science policies of the Trump Administration are not new, but rather the outcome of decades-long campaigns by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to stop regulation of deadly products. “This book is written to get you angry enough to want to learn how to defend yourselves, your communities, and our vulnerable planet,” writes consumer advocate Ralph Nader. “Let it grip you toward detection and defiance.” 

Dark Waters, feature film in theaters now, starring Mark Ruffalo, (link to trailer)

Dark Waters was adapted from this 2016 New York Times article by Nathaniel Rich

A tenacious attorney, Rob Billott, uncovers a dark secret that connects a growing number of unexplained deaths to one of the world’s largest corporations. As the film shows, DuPont was aware of the dangers of its Teflon ingredients for many years. While trying to expose the truth, Bilot soon finds himself risking his future, his family and his own life.

In these kinds of movies, “you know going in that you’re going to see a story about how bad things are thanks to corporate influence over government as well as the economy,” writes movie critic Roger Ebert, “but the extent of the corruption is still shocking, highlighting the implicit question: why fight, if the bad guys have already won? The answer, of course, is that you should fight because it’s the right thing to do.” Dark Waters is “an effective outrage machine,” writes Michael O’Sullivan in Washington Post, but the movie “doesn’t aspire to be something it’s not. Like Bilott himself, it gets the job done, not by showboating, but by laying out the facts.” 

Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World
By Bettina Elias Siegel, Oxford University Press

Bettina Elias Siegel, a leading voice on children’s food, critically examines how America’s food culture exploits children and misleads parents. Siegel exposes predatory food-industry techniques for marketing directly to children and convincing parents that highly-processed products are “healthy.” She provides extensive coverage of America’s school-food program — including why, even after Obama-era reforms, school meals are still so often dominated by processed foods, many of them bearing popular junk-food trademarks. “This is a gorgeously written, heartfelt, and deeply compelling manifesto arguing why and how we must do better at feeding our kids more healthfully at home, in schools, and on the soccer field,” writes Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It should inspire all of us to get busy and start advocating for better kid-food policies — right now.”

Modified: A food lover’s journey into GMOs
By Aube Giroux, feature length documentary now available for purchase or rent online

In this beautiful, moving, award-winning documentary, filmmaker Aube Giroux and her mother embark on a personal investigative journey to find out why GMOs are not labeled on food products in the United States and Canada, despite being labeled in 64 countries around the world. Interweaving the personal and the political, the film is anchored around the filmmaker’s relationship to her mom, a gardener and food activist who battled cancer during the film’s production. Fueled by their shared love of food, the mother-daughter team discovers the extent to which the agribusiness industry controls our food policies, and makes a strong case for a more transparent and sustainable food system. The winner of four Audience Favorite Awards and the 2019 James Beard Foundation Broadcast Media Award for best documentary, Modified is “beautiful beyond words … compelling and compassionate,” writes the journalist Joan Baxter.

Et le monde devint silencieux: Comment l’agrochimie a détruit les insectes
And The World Became Silent: How Agrochemistry Destroyed Insects
by Stéphane Foucart, Editions du Seuil (in French)

Investigative journalist Stéphane Foucart details how the agrichemical industry orchestrated “the greatest ecological disaster of the early twenty-first century” – the collapse of insect populations. Although pesticide companies claim the disappearance of insects is a mystery due to multiple factors, Foucart reports that the dominant cause is the massive use of neonicotinoid pesticides, and shows how it was made possible by an industry that faked public debate by manipulating science, regulation and expertise. The book shows how the industry exploited science to the point of “making us forget that insecticides … kill insects,” writes Annabelle Martella in La Croix (review in French).

Foucart won the 2018 European Press Prize for investigative reporting, along with Stéphane Horel, for their Monsanto Papers (translated into English here) articles about how Monsanto manipulated science, influenced the regulatory process and orchestrated stealth PR campaigns to defend its Roundup herbicides. 

Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry
By Julie Guthman, University of California Press

Julie Guthman tells the story of how strawberries – the sixth highest-grossing crop in California which produces 88 percent of the nation’s favorite berry – came to rely on highly toxic soil fumigants, and how that reliance reverberated throughout the rest of the fruit’s production system. The particular conditions of plants, soils, chemicals, climate, and laboring bodies that once made strawberry production so lucrative in the Golden State have now changed and become a set of related threats that jeopardize the future of the industry. “The strawberry industry’s predicament is just one example of how our strategy of dominating ecological systems and focusing on increased output at all cost is short-sighted, with diminishing returns,” writes Emily Monosson in a Science magazine review. “Recent efforts to work with, rather than against, natural systems suggest a path forward.”

GMOs Decoded: A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods
By Sheldon Krimsky, MIT Press

Tufts Professor Sheldon Krimsky examines health and safety concerns, environmental issues, implications for world hunger, and lack of scientific consensus on GMOs (genetically modified organisms). He explores the viewpoints of a range of GMO skeptics, from public advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations to scientists with differing views on risk and environmental impact. Publishers Weekly calls Krimsky’s book a “fair-minded, informative primer” that “lays out opposing ‘claims and counterclaims,’ demystifies the science, and shows where there is consensus, honest disagreement, or unresolved uncertainty.” NYU Professor Marion Nestle describes the book as “a gift to anyone confused” about GMOs.

And two more excellent food books from 2018

Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Food Supply
By Mark Schapiro, Skyhorse Publishing

Journalist Mark Schapiro reports on the high-stakes battle underway for control of the world’s seeds, as climate volatility threatens the security of our food supply. Schapiro investigates what it means that more than half the world’s commercial seeds are owned by three multinational chemical companies, and brings to light what the corporate stranglehold is doing to our daily diet – from the explosion of genetically modified foods, to the rapid disappearance of plant varieties, to the elimination of independent farmers who have long been the bedrock of our food supply. The book also documents colorful and surprising stories from the global movement that is defying these companies, and offering alternatives capable of surviving the accelerating climatic changes. “Seeds of Resistance is a wake-up call,” writes Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse and the Edible Schoolyard. “With vivid and memorable stories, Mark Schapiro tells us how seeds are at the frontlines of our epic battle for healthy food.”

Formerly Known as Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture
By Kristin Lawless, St. Martin’s Press

If you think buying organic from Whole Foods is protecting you, you’re wrong. Our food—even what we’re told is good for us—has changed for the worse in the past 100 years, its nutritional content deteriorating due to industrial farming and its composition altered due to the addition of thousands of chemicals from pesticides to packaging. We simply no longer know what we’re eating. In Formerly Known as Food, Kristin Lawless argues that, because of the degradation of our diet, our bodies are literally changing from the inside out. The billion-dollar food industry is reshaping our food preferences, altering our brains, changing the composition of our microbiota, and even affecting the expression of our genes.

“In this revelatory survey of the dangers of the industrial food system, Lawless offers crucial tools for navigating it safely,” writes the author Naomi Klein. “The best ones have nothing to do with shopping advice: she asks us to think holistically about food, why it can’t be separated from other struggles for justice, and what it means to demand transformative change.”  

Cargill’s GMO Stevia Hoodwinks Consumers

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

Cargill’s new GMO stevia plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading: 

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

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

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

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

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

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Related reporting by U.S. Right to Know:

Despite its academic-sounding name and affiliation with an Ivy League Institution, the Cornell Alliance for Science is a public relations campaign to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. With $12 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science claims to be working to “restore the importance of scientific evidence in decision-making,” however, the examples in this fact sheet show that the group:

  • Misleads the public with inaccurate information about science;
  • Elevates unreliable messengers who make false and unscientific claims; and,
  • Partners with front groups that have worked with the tobacco industry or chemical industries to manufacture doubt about science that raises health concerns.

The evidence suggests the Cornell Alliance for Science is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to promote the talking points and political agenda of the world’s largest agrichemical corporations.

The Gates Foundation helped launch the Cornell Alliance for Science in 2014 as an effort to “depolarize the charged debate” around genetically modified foods (GMOs). The Gates Foundation Deputy Director Rob Horsch, who worked for Monsanto Company for 25 years, leads the foundation’s agricultural research and development strategies, which have drawn criticism for relentlessly promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa. In December 2018, a group of African farmers accused Cornell Alliance for Science of using their images without authorization to make false and misleading claims, according to the African Centre for Biodiversity.

Related reporting by U.S. Right to Know:

Industry-aligned mission and activities

The mission of Cornell Alliance for Science – to build a global movement of “agricultural champions” to “advocate for access” to genetically engineered crops – is strikingly similar to the mission of the main trade group that promotes the interests of the world’s largest agricultural chemical companies. The Council for Biotechnology Information, which is funded by BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta, describes its agenda to “promote acceptance” of agricultural biotechnology by getting “external voices” to “understand and accept the positive role” of genetic engineering.

The main activity of the Cornell Alliance for Science appears to be training and supporting its Global Leadership Fellows – many of whom are journalists or marketing specialists2 – to conduct public relations and political advocacy that aligns with the agrichemical industry’s agenda. Geographical areas of focus have included African countries, where Alliance members urged countries to accept GMO crops and pesticides; and the Hawaiian Islands, where Alliance members opposed community efforts to regulate pesticides.

Defending pesticides with Monsanto talking points

Cornell Alliance for Science used the same inaccurate messaging as Monsanto-funded groups to defend glyphosate in the wake of a World Health Organization cancer research agency report that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Monsanto’s messaging to combat the market effects of the cancer ruling is revealed in this February 2015 public relations document, which described plans to mobilize “industry partners” to “orchestrate outcry” against the cancer panel. Direct sales of glyphosate-based products such as Roundup account for about one third of Monsanto’s profits, and the herbicide is a key component of GMO foods with 90% of corn and soy grown in the United States genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup products.

As an example of industry messaging, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a front group Monsanto paid to spin the cancer report, claimed the cancer report was a “scientific fraud” perpetrated by “activist scientists.”  Mark Lynas, a spokesperson for the Cornell Alliance for Science, leveled similar attacks against the scientists, portraying their cancer report as a  “witch hunt” orchestrated by “anti-Monsanto activists” who “abused science” and committed “an obvious perversion of both science and natural justice” by reporting a cancer risk. The article on the Cornell website appeared one month after, and used the same sources, as the article by the Monsanto-funded front group ACSH.

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

Lynas claimed to be on the side of science but ignored  evidence from the company’s own documents showing that Monsanto interfered with scientific research, manipulated regulatory agencies and used other “strong arm” tactics to interfere with the scientific process in order to protect its pesticide.

In August 2018, in the first case to go to trial of more than 40,000 lawsuits pending against Monsanto (now merged with Bayer), a jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in compensatory and punitive damages to a school groundskeeper who was diagnosed with terminal cancer after using glyphosate-based Roundup products. The jury found that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in covering up the cancer risk of Roundup.

Partners with industry, opposes transparency 

The director of Cornell Alliance for Science, Sarah Evanega, PhD, has said her group is independent of industry: “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate or promote industry-owned products. As our website clearly and fully discloses, we receive no resources from industry.” However, dozens of emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show that Dr. Evanega and the Cornell Alliance for Science coordinate closely with the pesticide industry and its PR allies on public relations initiatives.

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

The USRTK investigation has revealed many examples of how academics assist industry with PR and lobbying campaigns in ways that are hidden from the public and policy makers. The emails reveal that the pesticide industry recruited members of Biofortified to lobby against pesticide regulations in Hawaii. One member of the group, University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, claimed they were “independent expert scientists” traveling to Hawaii “simply to share science,” but document show the pesticide industry paid for the trip and coordinated their meetings and messaging. Dr. Folta has misled the public about science and his ties to industry on many occasions; yet emails show that Dr. Evanega invited him to teach and speak at Cornell and promoted Folta as “an amazing champion for change” and “a model for scientists.”

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

Fellows, partners mislead the public about science 

The Cornell Alliance for Science partners with groups and people who mislead the public about science. The partnerships described below suggest that the purpose of the Cornell Alliance for Science is not to promote science but rather to promote the agrichemical industry’s political agenda of deregulation.

Mark Lynas: The most visible face of the Cornell Alliance for Science, the British writer Mark Lynas has written dozens of articles defending agrichemical industry products in the name of the Cornell Alliance for Science and recently published a book promoting GMOs and arguing for African countries to accept them.

Experts in genetic engineering, biology, agroecology and food policy have criticized Lynas for making false claims, inaccurate statements, “unscientific, illogical and absurd” arguments, “relying on authority rather than data or research,” and making a career out of demonizing and insulting critics of the agrichemical industry.4 A 2018 statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.”

Lynas has been a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University’s Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences since 2013. According to his website, he advises the Cornell Alliance for Science on their work in developing countries and teaches courses at Cornell. In 2015, Lynas described himself as the “political director” of Cornell Alliance for Science. He also serves on the advisory council of Sense About Science, a Monsanto partner group.

Read more about Mark Lynas and his background here.

Trevor Butterworth and Sense About Science/STATS: The Cornell Alliance for Science partners with Sense About Science USA to offer “statistical consultation for journalists,” and gives a platform to the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending products important to the chemical, junk food and drug industries, including phthalatesBPAvinyl plastic, fracking, formaldehyde in baby soapssugary sodasartificial sweeteners and Oxycontin.

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

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

Journalists have described Butterworth’s former employer STATS, which he merged with Sense About Science USA in 2014, as a “disinformation campaign” that plays a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation” and uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk. Both Sense About Science and STATS were founded by men who worked with the tobacco industry in the 1990s to downplay the risks of cigarettes.

Monsanto’s PR plan named Sense About Science as an industry partner, and suggested the group could “lead industry response” in the media. Read more about Butterworth, Sense About Science and STATS here.

Climate science skeptic Owen Paterson: In 2015, Cornell Alliance for Science hosted a visit by Owen Paterson, a British Conservative Party politician and well-known climate science skeptic who slashed funding for global warming mitigation efforts during his stint as UK Environment Minister. Paterson used the Cornell stage to promote GMOs with unscientific, inaccurate arguments and claims that environmental groups “allow millions to die.”

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

The Monsanto-funded front group American Council on Science and Health promoted Paterson’s Cornell speech with an article by Gil Ross, a doctor who spent time in jail for Medicaid fraud, claiming that “billion dollar green campaigns kill poor children.”

A week after his Cornell talk, Paterson partnered with Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science and Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science in the UK, to launch the “ecomodernism movement,” a corporate-aligned, anti-regulation strain of “environmentalism” that Lynas said he co-founded. British writer George Monbiot describes ecomodernism as “take no action to protect the natural world.”

Opposes community efforts to regulate pesticides in Hawaii

Another example of how the Cornell Alliance for Science deploys fellows and staff members to assist with agrichemical industry lobbying efforts is the group’s campaign to defend pesticides and discredit public health advocates in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for genetically engineered crops, and also ground zero for high exposures to pesticides and concerns about pesticide-related health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma.

These concerns led residents to organize a years-long fight to pass stronger regulations to reduce pesticide exposures and improve disclosure of the chemicals used on agricultural fields. The Cornell Alliance for Science vigorously opposed those efforts, with staff members, fellows and associates writing many articles that tried to discredit elected officials and community groups in Hawaii working for reforms. Messengers of those pro-industry efforts include:

Sarah Thompson, a former employee of Dow AgroSciences, coordinates the Hawaii Alliance for Science, a “communications-based non-profit grassroots organization associated with the Cornell Alliance for Science.” The group launched in 2016, has 10 team members listed on its website, and says its purpose is to “ensure that Science can thrive in Hawaii.” Social media posts from the Hawaii Alliance for Science and its coordinator Thompson have described critics of the agrichemical industry as arrogant and ignorant people, celebrated corn and soy mono-crops and defended neonicotinoid pesticides which many studies and scientists say are harming bees.

Joan Conrow, Managing Editor and Visiting Fellow of Cornell Alliance for Science, and team member of Hawaii Alliance for Science, writes articles on her personal website, her “Kauai Eclectic” blog and for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project trying to discredit health professionals, community groups and politicians in Hawaii who advocate for stronger pesticide protections. Conrow has accused environmental groups of tax evasion, ripped apart media reports about pesticide-related health concerns and compared a food safety group to the KKK.

Conrow has not always disclosed her Cornell affiliation. In August 2016, Hawaii’s Civil Beat newspaper criticized Conrow for her lack of transparency and cited her as an example of why the paper was changing its commenting policies. Conrow “often argued the pro-GMO perspective without explicitly mentioning her occupation as a GMO sympathist,” wrote journalism professor Brett Oppegaard. “Conrow also has lost her journalistic independence (and credibility) to report fairly about GMO issues, because of the tone of her work on these issues.”

Joni Kamiya, a 2015 Global Leadership Fellow with Cornell Alliance for Science and also on the team of Hawaii Alliance for Science, argues against pesticide regulations on her website Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter, in the media and also for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project. She is an “ambassador expert” for the agrichemical industry-funded marketing website GMO Answers.

Like Conrow, Kamiya claims pesticide exposures in Hawaii aren’t a problem, and tries to discredit elected officials and “environmental extremists” who want to regulate pesticides. She promotes chemical industry front groups and industry consultants as “fearless sources” she loves on her website, and even includes the Center for Consumer Freedom, the front group started by Rick Berman, the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda” who was once profiled on 60 Minutes as “Dr. Evil” for his work as the “arch enemy” of regulations to protect health and the environment.

Cornell Alliance for Science staffers, advisors

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

The website lists 20 staff members, including the Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, and Managing Editor and Visiting Fellow Joan Conrow (it does not list Mark Lynas or other fellows who may also receive compensation). Other notable staff members listed on the website include:

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

More critiques of the Cornell Alliance for Science

  • 6 ways this Ivy League university is acting like a PR firm for junk food, GMOs and pesticides,” by Sophia Johnson, Salon
    • “The Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR front for the agrichemical industry.”
  • Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign?” by Stacy Malkan, The Ecologist
    • This group “is promoting GMOs using dishonest messaging and PR tactics developed by agrichemical corporations with a long history of misleading the public about science.”
  • New York Farmers call on Cornell to evict the Cornell Alliance for Science,” press release from 67 organic farmers
    • “Careful examination of the Alliance for Science website reveals not a single critical assessment of genetic engineering, none of the reasonable questions that ecological precaution suggest, and no significant evaluation or critique of the way that increased use of genetically engineered seed, Round-Up Ready corn and soy in particular, has enabled the consolidation of power over the world’s food supply by fewer and fewer chemo-biotech corporations.”
  • One student’s experience of pro-GMO propaganda at Cornell,” by Robert Schooler, Independent Science News
    • “The GMO Debate course, which ran in the fall of 2015, was a blatant display of unscientific propaganda in an academic setting.”
  • The Puppetmasters of Academia,” by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent Science News
    • “The Alliance for Science is a PR project and international training center for academics and others who want to work with the biotech industry to promote GMOs.”
  • The War on Genetically Modified Food Critics,” by Timothy Wise, director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University
    • “What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign (to) … paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages.”

Footnotes with additional information 

[1] The Gates Foundation has been criticized for spending the bulk of its agricultural development grants in wealthy countries on strategies that entrench corporate power. Numerous groups across Africa have reported concerns about the disappearance of traditional and organic food crops, the higher expenses of GMO seeds and agricultural chemicals, doubts about whether genetic engineering can deliver on promises and the limitations of GMO crops to deal with the complex realities of farming in Africa. In Burkina Faso, farmers abandoned an experiment with Monsanto’s bug-resistant cotton after it became clear the genetically engineered corn could not deliver the same high quality as the traditional homegrown variety. In South Africa, where more than 85% of corn and soy are genetically engineered to survive glyphosate-based Roundup weed killer, farmers are using more chemicals and doctors are raising concerns about growing rates of cancer.

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

[2] More than half the 2018 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows – 15 out of 27 – are identified in their bios as journalists or specialists in communication or marketing. Government administrators, biotechnology students and agribusiness representatives are also among the 2018 fellows chosen from seven countries: Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. According to the Cornell University press release, the fellows will attend a 12-week intensive training program to learn “strategic planning, grassroots organizing, the science of crop biotechnology and effective communications” to help them advocate for access to biotechnology in their home countries.

[3] Dozens of emails obtained via FOIA by U.S. Right to Know, and now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show Dr. Evanega and the Cornell Alliance for Science coordinating closely with the agrichemical industry and their academic allies to coordinate events and messaging:

[4] Critiques and corrections of Mark Lynas include:

Gene Editing Mishaps Highlight Need for FDA Oversight

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

Cows without horns: a job for gene editing?

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

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

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

The extra genes Recombinetics missed

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

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

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

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

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

“we didn’t look”

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

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

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

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

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

Next logical step

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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:

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

ILSI background and funding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ILSI undermined obesity fight in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobacco companies used ILSI to thwart tobacco policies 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ILSI influence in India 

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

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

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

Longstanding concerns about ILSI 

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

Untangle food industry influences, Nature Medicine (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FDA did not release the information, so USRTK did.

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

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

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

5. Breaking news about the Monsanto Roundup cancer trials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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