Evidence missing in Covid origin investigation: WHO ‘open’ to probe, EcoHealth president on board

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Emily Kopp, investigative reporter at U.S. Right to Know, weighs in on the World Health Organization’s changed position on the lab leak origin theory of COVID-19. See the Hill TV Live interview June 14, 2022.

June 14, 2022.

Hill TV Live interview: Fauci, top virologists privately considered lab leak theory then turned on it, new docs show

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Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know suggest that top virologists may have privately discussed all theories of the pandemic origin in the days after they began outlining an article that dismissed the lab leak theory, reports Hill TV Live.

See the interview with Emily Kopp, investigative reporter for U.S. Right to Know, and Ryan Grim, DC bureau chief at The Intercept. The discussion is based on Kopp’s June 2 report for U.S. Right to Know, FOIA reveals another secret call on COVID’s origin. The details are redacted.

You can follow Kopp’s reporting on our biohazards blog and sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly email updates from the Right to Know investigations.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. We are working globally to expose corporate wrongdoing and government failures that threaten the integrity of our health, our environment and our food system.

Food industry lobby group ILSI rebrands (again) to duck critical news coverage

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One of the world’s most powerful food industry lobby groups is rebranding itself to better serve its food industry funders. This comes after years of academic articles – some of them based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know – and adverse coverage in major news outlets made it harder for the group to do stealth lobbying and public relations work for food companies. 

The International Life Sciences Institute, founded in 1978 by a Coca-Cola executive, is changing its name. It will now call itself just by its acronym, ILSI. The global federation of groups also unveiled a new logo and updated website on May 23, and announced a renewed focus on “scientific integrity.” 

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “ILSI has always claimed to be independently science-based, but if there were ever any doubts, we now know beyond question that ILSI is a classic food industry front-group.” 

“Many investigators have exposed ILSI’s behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts against public health measures that might reduce food product sales,” she said. 

See the evidence, ILSI is a food industry lobby group.

‘Shadowy lobby group’

In an FAQ posted on their website, ILSI claims it “does not lobby or express explicitly positions on legislation” and that its mandatory policy “expressly forbids lobby activities of any kind.” But, as the New York Times reported in 2019, ILSI is a “shadowy lobby group” that “shapes food policies around the world,” often in favor of its corporate funders. The Times also described ILSI as “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of.” 

In China, for example, obesity rates have nearly doubled in the past two decades as junk food has become widely available. Rather than rein in the junk food companies, China’s policies focus on a theme Coca-Cola has long pushed: encouraging people to exercise more. And ILSI was the “main organization” shaping China’s policy, according to research by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist who specializes in China. 

“the most important science making entity for the processed food industry”

“Coke succeeded in redirecting China’s obesity science and policy to emphasize physical activity,” Greenhalgh reported in a 2021 paper. Working through ILSI, a supposedly neutral group, “Coca-Cola influenced China’s science making and policy making during every phase in the policy process, from framing the issues to drafting official policy.” 

As Greenhalgh explained to the Corporate Crime Reporter, ILSI brings together academic, industry and government scientists who say they “provide science that improves human health and safeguards the environment. That’s the public promise of ILSI. But beneath that promise there is a very complicated operation that in effect allows ILSI to be the most important science making entity for the processed food industry.” 

ILSI documents expose lobbying tactics

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know, described in a series of academic papers co-authored by USRTK’s Gary Ruskin, offer further evidence that ILSI influences research and policy for its food industry funders, promotes advocacy-led studies, and deploys other stealth tactics to shape scientific evidence and public opinion about issues important to junk food and soda companies. 

The documents also reveal that “scientific integrity” – the theme of ILSI’s new branding – is an area in which ILSI’s anti-public-health work has been most recently successful, according to a paper published last year. That is also a theme that is directly important to Coca-Cola.

Despite the rebranding, ILSI remains a food industry front-group that is designed to promote the interests of the food industry,” said Gary Sacks, an associate professor and fellow at the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University, whose research focuses on policies for preventing obesity.

And despite ILSI’s claim to have a new focus on ‘integrity,’ ILSI cannot escape the inherent conflict of interest at the heart of their operating model. In particular, the objectives of companies that seek to profit from the sale of unhealthy foods are inherently at odds with public health objectives,” he said. 

Read the academic papers about ILSI co-authored by USRTK.

Pattern of rebranding 

In the view of Mélissa Mialon, an influential food industry scholar and research assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin, the ILSI rebrand is an attempt “to restore their reputation and move away from that criticism they’re facing in recent years.” But even scarier, she said, “is that they’re also creating new organizations like the IAFNS, where it will be even more complicated to trace the links with corporations – even if these are entirely founded by Big Food etc.” 

Announced in 2021, the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS) was formerly known as ILSI North America (ILSI NA). That group describes itself as “a non-profit organization that catalyzes science for the benefit of public health.”

In 2020, the ILSI Research Foundation (ILSI RF) renamed itself the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute, which describes itself as a ”non-profit organization that advances and disseminates science to enable safe and sustainable agri-food systems.” That rebrand took place shortly after the consumer watchdog group Corporate Accountability released a report describing how the world’s most powerful food and beverage companies use ILSI to “cripple progress on nutrition policy across the globe.”  

The rebranding of ILSI global, and its claims to stand for scientific integrity, “mean nothing unless ILSI walks its talk,” said Professor Nestle. “I will be watching what ILSI does with great interest and, alas, a great deal of skepticism.”

Formerly known as ILSI North America, IAFNS says in its FAQ that it left ILSI “to create a brand that better communicates the work we do and our focus on public health and evidence-based science.”

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

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

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

Another problem is that food companies specifically and disproportionately target communities of color with their marketing for junk food products. In this post we are tracking news coverage and studies about racial disparities in junk food advertising.

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

TV Advertising, Corporate Power, and Latino Health Disparities, American Journal of Preventative Medicine (June 2022)

  • “Overall greater health-adverse and fewer health-beneficial advertisements are broadcasted on Spanish-language than on English-language TV. Unchecked corporate marketing strategies may serve as a commercial determinant of health disparities for Latino populations by Spanish-language TV.”

Is obesity a manifestation of systemic racism? A ten-point strategy for study and intervention, by D.G. Aaron and F.C. Stanford, Journal of Internal Medicine perspectives (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News coverage and perspectives

Junk Food Ads Are Still Targeting Kids of Color: For Black and Latino communities that already have higher rates of diabetes and obesity, fast-food advertising adds another layer to intergenerational health inequities, by Elena Gooray, Vice News (9.16.21)

Racism and obesity are inextricably linked, says a Harvard doctor – and here’s how she thinks that can change, by Arianna MacNeill, Boston.com (4.12.21)

What does junk food have to do with COVID-19 deaths? by Carey Gillam, Environmental Health News (4.28.20).

Junk food ads disproportionately target black and Hispanic kids: report, by Lisa Rapaport, Reuters (1.17.19)

Black and Hispanic youth are targeted with junk food ads, research shows, by Jessica Ravitz, CNN (1.15.19)

People of color have the highest obesity rates in the US. Food marketing is part of the problem: Interview with Aarti Ivanic by Nadra Little, Vox (9.28.18)

Study: Black children are exposed to junk-food ads way more than white kids are, by Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post (12.15.16)

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

Fast-Food Chains Disproportionately Target Black Children, by Olga Khazan, The Atlantic (11.13.14)

Fast food marketing for children disproportionately affects certain communities, Arizona State University (10.14)

Fast Food Restaurants Are Targeting Black Kids with Their Advertising, by Laura Rotham, Vice (11.17.14) 

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

Center for Food Integrity: PR for processed foods, pesticides and GMOs

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The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), formerly the Grow America Project, is an industry-funded 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that conducts research, lobbying and public relations campaigns to “earn consumer trust” for processed food and agrichemical companies, including DowDuPont, Monsanto, Cargill, Costco, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Hershey, Kroger and trade associations for meat, dairy and soybeans.

In the five-year period from 2012-2016, CFI spent over $23 million on various marketing and messaging programs to promote industry messaging to build trust in GMO foods, pesticides, food additives and antibiotics in meat. CFI’s 501(c)(3) arm, the Foundation for Food Integrity, funds research to inform messaging attempts to build consumer trust, with a spending budget of $823,167 from 2012-2016. Sponsors in 2012 included Monsanto, CropLife America and the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

PR for the industrial food chain 

Board members for the Center for Food Integrity hail from the largest chemical, processed food and drug companies; the board includes executives from Cargill, Corteva Agrisciences (formerly DowDuPont), Chik-fil-A, Merck, McDonald’s, and trade associations for the soy, dairy and sugar industries. The president and founder of CFI, Charlie Arnot, also runs Look East (formerly CMA), a PR company for the food and agrichemical industries that offers services in branding and reputation management.

Terry Fleck, the executive director of CFI for 16 years since its inception, was also executive vice president at Look East. He retired in 2022. In April 2022, CFI appointed a new executive director, Mickie French, a former PR consultant for Coca-Cola,  Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Mars, Nestle, and former executive at Tate & Lyle and FleishmanHillard PR firm. 

“Industry partner” in Monsanto’s attack on IARC cancer panel

An internal Monsanto document identifies the Center for Food Integrity as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, 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.

The Monsanto plan lists four tiers of industry partners to engage in its public relations efforts. CFI is listed as a Tier 3 “industry partner” along with two other food-industry funded groups, the International Food Information Council and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

According to the document, these groups were part of a “Stakeholder Engagement team” that could alert food companies to Monsanto’s “inoculation strategy” to provide education about glyphosate levels and to describe Monsanto’s preferred studies as “science-based studies versus [the] agenda-driven hypothesis” of the independent cancer research panel.

Look East partnership with Monsanto and Genetic Literacy Project

The Center for Food Integrity partners with Look East, the PR firm founded by its president Charlie Arnot, for project management services, according to tax forms.

Arnot’s PR firm also works with Monsanto, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. In 2014, Monsanto tapped CMA to “merchandize” and promote a series of pro-GMO policy briefs that a Monsanto executive assigned to professors and arranged to publish on the Genetic Literacy Project website — with no disclosure of Monsanto’s behind-the-scenes role, as the Boston Globe reported.

The Genetic Literacy Project, another industry partner group named in Monsanto’s PR plan to discredit IARC, also receives funding from the Center for Food Integrity, according to the GLP’s most recent and often incorrect “transparency page.”

The Genetic LIteracy Project also played a key role in fomenting personal attacks against the scientists who raised cancer concerns about glyphosate.

Long standing front group 

In a 2013 report, the nonprofit Center for Food Safety describes the Center for Food Integrity as a longstanding food and chemical industry front group. “Front groups often have deceptive-sounding names and attempt to create a positive public impression that hides their funders’ economic motives,” states the report by Michele Simon. “Also, most front groups engage mainly in public relations campaigns as opposed to lobbying.” CFI, Simon writes, operates “through various forms of information control and public relations, including conducting consumer surveys, promoting the results and hosting events” that seek to build consumer trust in the industrial processed food chain.

For more information about processed food and chemical industry front groups, see our post Tracking the Pesticide Industry Propaganda Network 

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

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Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a Professor of Cooperative Extension in Animal Biotechnology and Genomics at University of California, Davis, is a leading promoter of genetically engineered animals, crops and the pesticides that accompany them, and an advocate for deregulation.

Dr. Van Eenennaam argues GE animals should not be subject to pre-market safety reviews or labels.

Dr. Van Eenennaam is a former Monsanto employee who opposes requiring safety studies for genetically engineered animals and holds several patents involving genetic engineering. Her lab experiments include using CRISPR, a genetic engineering technique, to eliminate the horns of dairy cows and breed “all-male terminator cattle” to father only male offspring — a project she calls “Boys Only.” A proposal by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require safety and efficacy studies for genetically engineered animals is “insane,” according to Dr. Van Eenennaam.

See also: Wall Street Journal (12.14.18),  Big Tongues and Extra Vertebrae: The Unintended Consequences of Animal Gene Editing 

Although often presented in the media as an independent scientist, Dr. Van Eenennaam coordinates with agrichemical companies and their PR firms on messaging, lobbying and PR activities, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library.

She is also a member of the board of directors of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a corporate funded front group that engages in product defense efforts for the largest food and chemical companies. For more information about IFIC see:

  • March 2022 study in Globalization and Health, “Confronting potential food industry ‘front groups’: case study of the international food information Council’s nutrition communications using the UCSF food industry documents archives,” describes how food and chemical industry players view IFIC and the IFIC Foundation as “being central to promoting industry-favourable content in defence of products facing potentially negative press, such as aspartame…”
  • U.S. Right to Know fact sheet: “IFIC: How Big Food Spins Bad News”

More examples of Van Eenennaam’s collaborations with the agrichemical industry include:

Monsanto edited her remarks for the Intelligence Squared debate 

Emails show that Lee Quarles, Monsanto’s global communication lead, and Tony Zagora, senior vice president and partner of the FleishmanHillard PR firm, edited Dr. Van Eenennaam’s remarks for a December 2014 Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate where she argued for public acceptance of genetically engineered foods alongside Robb Fraley of Monsanto.

Quarles also connected Dr. Van Eenennaam with higher ups at Monsanto and FleishmanHillard to discuss the core positions she and Fraley should align on, and he arranged for Zagora and the PR agency to provide her with guidance on “approach, tone, delivery and personal presentation. This will help you better understand what are the key things our team should consider as we work to win over the people in the room, as well as all of those consumers in the NPR rebroadcast of the event.”

Some of Monsanto’s edits to Professor Van Eenennaam’s remarks are shown in track changes:

 

Source documents linked here

Former Monsanto Communications Director Jay Byrne and industry PR firm Ketchum provided coaching for media interviews 

In 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam assisted the industry-funded No on Proposition 37 campaign in California to oppose GMO labeling. Emails show that the “No on 37” campaign staff arranged for Dr. Van Eenennaam to appear on the Dr. Oz Show to speak against labeling, and also arranged for her to receive media and messaging training from Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former head of corporate communications. (Emails also revealed that Jay Byrne worked with Monsanto to set up a front group to attack GMO critics and the organic industry while “keeping Monsanto in the background“.)

In 2014, the agrichemical industry’s lead public relations firm, Ketchum, pitched Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source and helped her prepare for a radio interview to debunk a study that linked genetically engineered animal feed to stomach inflammation. Ketchum provided Dr. Van Eenennaam with talking points from industry allies describing the stomach study as “junk science.”

Appeared at Hill briefing organized by climate science skeptic group 

In September 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam appeared at a Competitive Enterprise Institute congressional briefing to argue for the deregulation of genetically engineered animals. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is an industry-funded group that promotes climate science skepticism and opposes regulations for the chemical industry. In 2013, donors to the Competitive Enterprises Institute annual fundraiser included Monsanto, Syngenta, FMC Corporation, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Google, as well as oil and tobacco companies and foundations related to Koch Industries. In 2016, CEI’s Director of Energy and Environment Myron Ebell, a prominent climate science skeptic who has said the case for global warming is “silly,” was chosen by the Trump Administration’s to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Coordinated lobbying efforts; defends pesticides 

Dr. Van Eenennaam has coordinated lobbying to deregulate genetically engineered crops and animals, and keep them unlabeled. In 2012, she wrote a letter to the Obama Administration on behalf of the American Society of Animal Science public policy committee arguing for approval of the Aqua Bounty genetically engineered salmon without rigorous safety testing or labeling. In 2015, she recruited professors to support deregulating the Simplot Innate 2.0 genetically engineered potato. “Simplot is looking for some comments on their deregulation … the antis are trying to get the comment period extended as usual,” she wrote to the professors.

Dr. Van Eenennaam also defends glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide and a probable human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency. For a post on her website, she used pesticide industry sources and infographics to speculate about the market consequences of banning glyphosate, and characterized people raising concerns as the “worried wealthy.” The Monsanto (now Bayer) website promotes Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source to discredit a study that linked glyphosate to liver disease at low doses.

Some of Alison Van Eenennaam’s other industry collaborations 

  • Is a member of “AgBioChatter,” a private email listserve that pro-industry academics, senior staff of agrichemical companies and public relations consultants have used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities.

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.

2022 study: IFIC pushes food industry product defense

A new study co-authored by U.S. Right to Know in the journal Globalization and Health shows that food and chemical industry players view IFIC and the IFIC Foundation as “being central to promoting industry-favourable content in defence of products facing potentially negative press, such as aspartame…” 

The study quotes Alex Malaspina, a former Coca-Cola executive and founder of ILSI, explaining the close relationship between the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) and IFIC: “… IFIC is kind of a sister entity to ILSI. ILSI generates the scientific facts and IFIC communicates them to the media and public…” See also our fact sheet on ILSI, a food industry lobby group.

Based on documents in the USCF chemical industry archive, the study provides evidence that is “more than sufficient to negate IFIC’s portrayal that it is a neutral organization,” the authors wrote. “We argue that IFIC and its Foundation’s communications should be viewed as conducting marketing and public relations for the food industry.”

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 and board members

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.

The IFIC board of directors includes executives from PepsiCo, General Mills and other food companies. Also on the board is Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a Professor of Cooperative Extension in Animal Biotechnology and Genomics at University of California, Davis, who is a leading promoter of genetically engineered animals, crops and the pesticides that accompany them, and an advocate for deregulation. See our fact sheet on Dr. Van Eenennaam for more examples of food pesticide industry spin.

Promotes GMOs to schoolchildren

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

Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks

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Long History of Concerns
Key Scientific Studies on Aspartame
Industry PR Efforts
Scientific References

Key Facts About Diet Soda Chemical 

What is Aspartame?

  • Aspartame is the world’s most widely used artificial sweetener. It is also marketed as NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin and AminoSweet.
  • Aspartame is present in more than 6,000 products, including Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, Kool Aid, Crystal Light, Tango and other artificially sweetened drinks; sugar-free Jell-O products; Trident, Dentyne and most other brands of sugar-free gum; sugar-free hard candies; low- or no-sugar sweet condiments such as ketchups and dressings; children’s medicines, vitamins and cough drops.
  • Aspartame is a synthetic chemical composed of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, with a methyl ester. When consumed, the methyl ester breaks down into methanol, which may be converted into formaldehyde.

Decades of Studies Raise Concerns about Aspartame

Since aspartame was first approved in 1974, both FDA scientists and independent scientists have raised concerns about possible health effects and shortcomings in the science submitted to the FDA by the manufacturer, G.D. Searle. (Monsanto bought Searle in 1984).

In 1987, UPI published a series of investigative articles by Gregory Gordon reporting on these concerns, including early studies linking aspartame to health problems, the poor quality of industry-funded research that led to its approval, and the revolving-door relationships between FDA officials and the food industry. Gordon’s series is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to understand the history of aspartame/NutraSweet:

Flaws in EFSA assessment

In a July 2019 paper in the Archives of Public Health, researchers at the University of Sussex provided a detailed analysis of the EFSA’s 2013 safety assessment of aspartame and found that the panel discounted as unreliable every one of 73 studies that indicated harm, and used far more lax criteria to accept as reliable 84% of studies that found no evidence of harm. “Given the shortcomings of EFSA’s risk assessment of aspartame, and the shortcomings of all previous official toxicological risk assessments of aspartame, it would be premature to conclude that it is acceptably safe,” the study concluded.

See EFSA’s response and a follow up by researchers Erik Paul Millstone and Elizabeth Dawson in the Archives of Public Health, Why did EFSA to reduce its ADI for aspartame or recommend its use should no longer be permitted? News coverage:

  • “World’s most popular artificial sweetener must be banned, say experts. Two food safety experts have called for the widely used artificial sweetener, aspartame, to be banned in the UK and questions why it was deemed acceptable in the first place,” New Food Magazine (11.11.2020) 
  • “‘Sales of aspartame should be suspended’: EFSA accused of bias in safety assessment,” by Katy Askew, Food Navigator (7.27.2019)

Health effects and key studies  

While many studies, some of them industry sponsored, have reported no problems with aspartame, dozens of independent studies conducted over decades have linked aspartame to a long list of health problems, including:

Cancer

A large 2022 cohort study in PLOS Medicine, involving 102,865 French adults, found that artificial sweeteners — especially aspartame and acesulfame-K — were associated with increased cancer risk. Higher risks were observed for breast cancer and obesity-related cancers. “These findings provide important and novel insights for the ongoing re-evaluation of food additive sweeteners by the European Food Safety Authority and other health agencies globally,” the researchers wrote.

  • “Study suggests association between consuming artificial sweeteners and increased cancer risk,” Science Daily (3.24.2022)

Three lifespan studies conducted by the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center of the Ramazzini Institute, provide consistent evidence of carcinogenicity in rodents exposed to the substance.

  • Aspartame “is a multipotential carcinogenic agent, even at a daily dose of … much less than the current acceptable daily intake,” according to a 2006 lifespan rat study in Environmental Health Perspectives.
  • A follow-up study in 2007 found significant dose-related increases in malignant tumors in some of the rats. “The results … confirm and reinforce the first experimental demonstration of [aspartame’s] multipotential carcinogenicity at a dose level close to the acceptable daily intake for humans … when life-span exposure begins during fetal life, its carcinogenic effects are increased,” the researchers wrote in Environmental Health Perspectives.
  • The results of a 2010 lifespan study “confirm that [aspartame] is a carcinogenic agent in multiple sites in rodents, and that this effect is induced in two species, rats (males and females) and mice (males),” the researchers reported in American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

A 2021 review of the Ramazzini Institute data validated the conclusions of the original RI studies. See, “Aspartame and cancer — new evidence of causation,” Environmental Health. The findings, “confirm that aspartame is a chemical carcinogen in rodents. They confirm the very worrisome finding that prenatal exposure to aspartame increases cancer risk in rodent offspring.”

Harvard researchers in 2012 reported a positive association between aspartame intake and increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma in men, and for leukemia in men and women. The findings “preserve the possibility of a detrimental effect … on select cancers” but “do not permit the ruling out of chance as an explanation,” the researchers wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In a 2014 commentary in American Journal of Industrial Medicine, the Maltoni Center researchers wrote that the studies submitted by G. D. Searle for market approval “do not provide adequate scientific support for [aspartame’s] safety. In contrast, recent results of life-span carcinogenicity bioassays on rats and mice published in peer-reviewed journals, and a prospective epidemiological study, provide consistent evidence of [aspartame’s] carcinogenic potential. On the basis of the evidence of the potential carcinogenic effects … a re-evaluation of the current position of international regulatory agencies must be considered an urgent matter of public health.”

Brain Tumors

In 1996, researchers reported in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology on epidemiological evidence connecting the introduction of aspartame to an increase in an aggressive type of malignant brain tumors. “Compared to other environmental factors putatively linked to brain tumors, the artificial sweetener aspartame is a promising candidate to explain the recent increase in incidence and degree of malignancy of brain tumors … We conclude that there is need for reassessing the carcinogenic potential of aspartame.”

  • Neuroscientist Dr. John Olney, lead author of the study, told 60 minutes in 1996: “there has been a striking increase in the incidence of malignant brain tumors (in the three to five years following the approval of aspartame) … there is enough basis to suspect aspartame that it needs to be reassessed. FDA needs to reassess it, and this time around, FDA should do it right.”

Early studies on aspartame in the 1970s found evidence of brain tumors in laboratory animals, but those studies were not followed up.

Cardiovascular Disease 

A 2017 meta-analysis of research on artificial sweeteners, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found no clear evidence of weight loss benefits for artificial sweeteners in randomized clinical trials, and reported that cohort studies associate artificial sweeteners with “increases in weight and waist circumference, and higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events.” See also:

  • “Artificial sweeteners don’t help with weight loss and may lead to gained pounds,” by Catherine Caruso, STAT (7.17.2017)
  • “Why one cardiologist has drunk his last diet soda,” by Harlan Krumholz, Wall Street Journal (9.14.2017)
  • “This cardiologist wants his family to cut back on diet soda. Should yours, too?” by David Becker, M.D., Philly Inquirer (9.12.2017)

 A 2016 paper in Physiology & Behavior reported, “there is a striking congruence between results from animal research and a number of large-scale, long-term observational studies in humans, in finding significantly increased weight gain, adiposity, incidence of obesity, cardiometabolic risk, and even total mortality among individuals with chronic, daily exposure to low-calorie sweeteners – and these results are troubling.”

Women who consumed more than two diet drinks per day “had a higher risk of [cardiovascular disease] events … [cardiovascular disease] mortality … and overall mortality,” according to a 2014 study from the Women’s Health Initiative published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Stroke, Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

People drinking diet soda daily were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia as those who consumed it weekly or less. This included a higher risk of ischemic stroke, where blood vessels in the brain become obstructed, and Alzheimer’s disease dementia, the most common form of dementia, reported a 2017 study in Stroke.

In the body, the methyl ester in aspartame metabolizes into methanol and then it may be converted to formaldehyde, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. A two-part study published in 2014 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease linked chronic methanol exposure to memory loss and Alzheimer’s Disease symptoms in mice and monkeys.

  • “[M]ethanol-fed mice presented with partial AD-like symptoms … These findings add to a growing body of evidence that links formaldehyde to [Alzheimer’s disease] pathology.” (Part 1)
  • “[M]ethanol feeding caused long-lasting and persistent pathological changes that were related to [Alzheimer’s disease] … these findings support a growing body of evidence that links methanol and its metabolite formaldehyde to [Alzheimer’s disease] pathology.” (Part 2)

Seizures

“Aspartame appears to exacerbate the amount of EEG spike wave in children with absence seizures. Further studies are needed to establish if this effect occurs at lower doses and in other seizure types,” according to a 1992 study in Neurology.

Aspartame “has seizure-promoting activity in animal models that are widely used to identify compounds affecting … seizure incidence,” according to a 1987 study in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Very high aspartame doses “might also affect the likelihood of seizures in symptomless but susceptible people,” according to a 1985 study in The Lancet. The study describes three previously healthy adults who had grand mal seizures during periods when they were consuming high doses of aspartame.

Neurotoxicity, Brain Damage and Mood Disorders

Aspartame has been linked to behavioral and cognitive problems including learning problems, headache, seizure, migraines, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, wrote the researchers of a 2017 study in Nutritional Neuroscience. “Aspartame consumption needs to be approached with caution due to the possible effects on neurobehavioral health.”

“Oral aspartame significantly altered behavior, anti-oxidant status and morphology of the hippocampus in mice; also, it may probably trigger hippocampal adult neurogenesis,” reported a 2016 study in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

“Previously, it has been reported that consumption of aspartame could cause neurological and behavioural disturbances in sensitive individuals. Headaches, insomnia and seizures are also some of the neurological effects that have been encountered,” according to a 2008 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “[W]e propose that excessive aspartame ingestion might be involved in the pathogenesis of certain mental disorders … and also in compromised learning and emotional functioning.” 

“(N)eurological symptoms, including learning and memory processes, may be related to the high or toxic concentrations of the sweetener [aspartame] metabolites,” states a 2006 study in Pharmacological Research.

Aspartame “could impair memory retention and damage hypothalamic neurons in adult mice,” according to a 2000 mice study published in Toxicology Letters.

“(I)ndividuals with mood disorders are particularly sensitive to this artificial sweetener and its use in this population should be discouraged,” according to a 1993 study in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry.

High doses of aspartame “can generate major neurochemical changes in rats,” reported a 1984 study in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Experiments indicated brain damage in infant mice following oral intake of aspartate, and showing that “aspartate [is] toxic to the infant mouse at relatively low levels of oral intake,” reported a 1970 study in Nature.

Headaches and Migraines

“Aspartame, a popular dietetic sweetener, may provoke headache in some susceptible individuals. Herein, we describe three cases of young women with migraine who reported their headaches could be provoked by chewing sugarless gum containing aspartame,” according to a 1997 paper in Headache Journal.

A crossover trial comparing aspartame and a placebo published in 1994 in Neurology, “provides evidence that, among individuals with self-reported headaches after ingestion of aspartame, a subset of this group report more headaches when tested under controlled conditions. It appears that some people are particularly susceptible to headaches caused by aspartame and may want to limit their consumption.”

A survey of 171 patients at the Montefiore Medical Center Headache Unit found that patients with migraine “reported aspartame as a precipitant three times more often than those having other types of headache … We conclude aspartame may be an important dietary trigger of headache in some people,” 1989 study in Headache Journal.

A crossover trial comparing aspartame and a placebo on the frequency and intensity of migraines “indicated that the ingestion of aspartame by migraineurs caused a significant increase in headache frequency for some subjects,” reported a 1988 study in Headache Journal.

Kidney Function Decline

Consumption of more than two servings a day of artificially sweetened soda “is associated with a 2-fold increased odds for kidney function decline in women,” according to a 2011 study in the Clinical Journal of American Society of Nephrology.

Weight Gain, Increased Appetite and Obesity Related Problems

Several studies link aspartame to weight gain, increased appetite, diabetes, metabolic derangement and obesity-related diseases. See our fact sheet: Diet Soda Chemical Tied to Weight Gain.

This science linking aspartame to weight gain and obesity-related diseases raises questions about the legality of marketing aspartame-containing products as “diet” or weight loss aids. In 2015, USRTK petitioned the Federal Trade Commission and FDA to investigate the marketing and advertising practices of “diet” products that contain a chemical linked to weight gain. See related news coverage, response from FTC, and response from FDA.

Diabetes and Metabolic Derangement

Aspartame breaks down in part into phenylalanine, which interferes with the action of an enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP) previously shown to prevent metabolic syndrome (a group of symptoms associated with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease) according to a 2017 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. In this study, mice receiving aspartame in their drinking water gained more weight and developed other symptoms of metabolic syndrome than animals fed similar diets lacking aspartame. The study concludes, “IAP’s protective effects in regard to the metabolic syndrome may be inhibited by phenylalanine, a metabolite of aspartame, perhaps explaining the lack of expected weight loss and metabolic improvements associated with diet drinks.”

People who regularly consume artificial sweeteners are at increased risk of “excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” according to a 2013 Purdue review over 40 years published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.

In a study that followed 66,118 women over 14 years, both sugar-sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages were associated with risk of Type 2 diabetes. “Strong positive trends in T2D risk were also observed across quartiles of consumption for both types of beverage … No association was observed for 100% fruit juice consumption,” reported the 2013 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Intestinal Dysbiosis, Metabolic Derangement and Obesity

A 2022 study in Frontiers in Nutrition found that maternal consumption of aspartame and stevia influences the gut microbiota of offspring. “Consumption of low-dose aspartame and stevia showed limited influence on the overall structure of cecal microbiota in dams but significantly altered cecal microbiota of their 3-week old offspring.”

Artificial sweeteners can induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota, according to a 2014 study in Nature. The researchers wrote, “our results link NAS [non-caloric artificial sweetener] consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities, thereby calling for a reassessment of massive NAS usage … Our findings suggest that NAS may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic [obesity] that they themselves were intended to fight.”

A 2016 study in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism reported, “Aspartame intake significantly influenced the association between body mass index (BMI) and glucose tolerance… consumption of aspartame is associated with greater obesity-related impairments in glucose tolerance.”

According to a 2014 rat study in PLOS ONE, “aspartame elevated fasting glucose levels and an insulin tolerance test showed aspartame to impair insulin-stimulated glucose disposal … Fecal analysis of gut bacterial composition showed aspartame to increase total bacteria…”

 Pregnancy Abnormalities: Pre Term Birth 

According to a 2010 cohort study of 59,334 Danish pregnant women published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “There was an association between intake of artificially sweetened carbonated and noncarbonated soft drinks and an increased risk of preterm delivery.” The study concluded, “Daily intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks may increase the risk of preterm delivery.”

  • See also: “Downing Diet Soda Tied to Premature Birth,” by Anne Harding, Reuters (7.23.2010)

Overweight Babies

Artificially sweetened beverage consumption during pregnancy is linked to higher body mass index for babies, according to a 2016 study in JAMA Pediatrics. “To our knowledge, we provide the first human evidence that maternal consumption of artificial sweeteners during pregnancy may influence infant BMI,” the researchers wrote.

Early Menarche

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study followed 1988 girls for 10 years to examine prospective associations between consumption of caffeinated and noncaffeinated sugar- and artificially sweetened soft drinks and early menarche. “Consumption of caffeinated and artificially sweetened soft drinks was positively associated with risk of early menarche in a US cohort of African American and Caucasian girls,” concluded the study published in 2015 in Journal of American Clinical Nutrition.

Sperm Damage

“A significant decrease in sperm function of aspartame treated animals was observed when compared with the control and MTX control,” according to a 2017 study in the International Journal of Impotence Research. “… These findings demonstrate that aspartame metabolites could be a contributing factor for development of oxidative stress in the epididymal sperm.”

Liver Damage and Glutathione Depletion

A mouse study published in 2017 in Redox Biology reported, “Chronic administration of aspartame … caused liver injury as well as marked decreased hepatic levels of reduced glutathione, oxidized glutathione, γ-glutamylcysteine, and most metabolites of the trans-sulphuration pathway…”

A rat study published in 2017 in Nutrition Research found that, “Subchronic intake of soft drink or aspartame substantially induced hyperglycemia and hypertriacylglycerolemia… Several cytoarchitecture alterations were detected in the liver, including degeneration, infiltration, necrosis, and fibrosis, predominantly with aspartame. These data suggest that long-term intake of soft drink or aspartame-induced hepatic damage may be mediated by the induction of hyperglycemia, lipid accumulation, and oxidative stress with the involvement of adipocytokines.”

Caution for Vulnerable Populations

A 2016 literature review on artificial sweeteners in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology reported, “there is inconclusive evidence to support most of their uses and some recent studies even hint that these earlier established benefits … might not be true.” Susceptible populations such as pregnant and lactating women, children, diabetics, migraine, and epilepsy patients “should use these products with utmost caution.”

Industry PR Efforts and Front Groups 

From the start, G.D. Searle (later Monsanto and the NutraSweet Company) deployed aggressive PR tactics to market aspartame as a safe product. In October 1987, Gregory Gordon reported in UPI:

“The NutraSweet Co. also has paid up to $3 million a year for a 100-person public relations effort by the Chicago offices of Burson Marsteller, a former employee of the New York PR firm said. The employee said Burson Marsteller has hired numerous scientists and physicians, often at $1,000 a day, to defend the sweetener in media interviews and other public forums. Burson Marsteller declines to discuss such matters.”

Recent reporting based on internal industry documents reveals how beverage companies such as Coca-Cola also pay third party messengers, including doctors and scientists, to promote their products and shift the blame when science ties their products to serious health problems.

See reporting by Anahad O’Connor in the New York Times, Candice Choi in the Associated Press, and findings from the USRTK investigation about sugar industry propaganda and lobbying campaigns.

News articles about soda industry PR campaigns:

Overview news stories about aspartame:

USRTK Fact Sheets

Reports on Front Groups and PR Campaigns

Scientific References

Charlotte Debras, et al. “Artificial sweeteners and cancer risk: Results from the NutriNet-Santé population-based cohort study.” PLOS Medicine. Published: March 24, 2022 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003950

Soffritti M, Belpoggi F, Degli Esposti D, Lambertini L, Tibaldi E, Rigano A. “First experimental demonstration of the multipotential carcinogenic effects of aspartame administered in the feed to Sprague-Dawley rats.” Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Mar;114(3):379-85. PMID: 16507461. (article)

Soffritti M, Belpoggi F, Tibaldi E, Esposti DD, Lauriola M. “Life-span exposure to low doses of aspartame beginning during prenatal life increases cancer effects in rats.” Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Sep;115(9):1293-7. PMID: 17805418. (article)

Soffritti M et al. “Aspartame administered in feed, beginning prenatally through life span, induces cancers of the liver and lung in male Swiss mice.” Am J Ind Med. 2010 Dec; 53(12):1197-206. PMID: 20886530. (abstract / article)

Schernhammer ES, Bertrand KA, Birmann BM, Sampson L, Willett WC, Feskanich D., “Consumption of artificial sweetener– and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1419-28. PMID: 23097267. (abstract / article)

Soffritti M1, Padovani M, Tibaldi E, Falcioni L, Manservisi F, Belpoggi F., “The carcinogenic effects of aspartame: The urgent need for regulatory re-evaluation.” Am J Ind Med. 2014 Apr;57(4):383-97. doi: 10.1002/ajim.22296. Epub 2014 Jan 16. (abstract / article)

Olney JW, Farber NB, Spitznagel E, Robins LN. “Increasing brain tumor rates: is there a link to aspartame?” J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 1996 Nov;55(11):1115-23. PMID: 8939194. (abstract)

Azad, Meghan B., et al. “Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies.” CMAJ July 17, 2017 vol. 189 no. 28 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.161390 (abstract / article)

Fowler SP. Low-calorie sweetener use and energy balance: Results from experimental studies in animals, and large-scale prospective studies in humans. Physiol Behav. 2016 Oct 1;164(Pt B):517-23. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.04.047. Epub 2016 Apr 26. (abstract)

Vyas A et al. “Diet Drink Consumption And The Risk of Cardiovascular Events: A Report from The Women’s Health Initiative.” J Gen Intern Med. 2015 Apr;30(4):462-8. doi: 10.1007/s11606-014-3098-0. Epub 2014 Dec 17. (abstract / article)

Matthew P. Pase, PhD; Jayandra J. Himali, PhD; Alexa S. Beiser, PhD; Hugo J. Aparicio, MD; Claudia L. Satizabal, PhD; Ramachandran S. Vasan, MD; Sudha Seshadri, MD; Paul F. Jacques, DSc. “Sugar and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia. A Prospective Cohort Study.” Stroke. 2017 April; STROKEAHA.116.016027 (abstract / article)

Yang M et al. “Alzheimer’s Disease and Methanol Toxicity (Part 1): Chronic Methanol Feeding Led to Memory Impairments and Tau Hyperphosphorylation in Mice.” J Alzheimers Dis. 2014 Apr 30. (abstract)

Yang M et al. “Alzheimer’s Disease and Methanol Toxicity (Part 2): Lessons from Four Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta) Chronically Fed Methanol.” J Alzheimers Dis. 2014 Apr 30. (abstract)

Camfield PR, Camfield CS, Dooley JM, Gordon K, Jollymore S, Weaver DF. “Aspartame exacerbates EEG spike-wave discharge in children with generalized absence epilepsy: a double-blind controlled study.” Neurology. 1992 May;42(5):1000-3. PMID: 1579221. (abstract)

Maher TJ, Wurtman RJ. “Possible neurologic effects of aspartame, a widely used food additive.” Environ Health Perspect. 1987 Nov; 75:53-7. PMID: 3319565. (abstract / article)

Wurtman RJ. “Aspartame: possible effect on seizure susceptibility.” Lancet. 1985 Nov 9;2(8463):1060. PMID: 2865529. (abstract)

Choudhary AK, Lee YY. “Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the connection?” Nutr Neurosci, 2017 Feb 15:1-11. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1288340. (abstract)

Onaolapo AY, Onaolapo OJ, Nwoha PU. “Aspartame and the hippocampus: Revealing a bi-directional, dose/time-dependent behavioural and morphological shift in mice.” Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2017 Mar;139:76-88. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2016.12.021. Epub 2016 Dec 31. (abstract)

Humphries P, Pretorius E, Naudé H. “Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain.” Eur J Clin Nutr. 2008 Apr;62(4):451-62. (abstract / article)

Tsakiris S, Giannoulia-Karantana A, Simintzi I, Schulpis KH. “The effect of aspartame metabolites on human erythrocyte membrane acetylcholinesterase activity.” Pharmacol Res. 2006 Jan;53(1):1-5. PMID: 16129618. (abstract)

Park CH et al. “Glutamate and aspartate impair memory retention and damage hypothalamic neurons in adult mice.” Toxicol Lett. 2000 May 19;115(2):117-25. PMID: 10802387. (abstract)

Walton RG, Hudak R, Green-Waite R. “Adverse reactions to aspartame: double-blind challenge in patients from a vulnerable population.” J. Biol Psychiatry. 1993 Jul 1-15;34(1-2):13-7. PMID: 8373935. (abstract / article)

Yokogoshi H, Roberts CH, Caballero B, Wurtman RJ. “Effects of aspartame and glucose administration on brain and plasma levels of large neutral amino acids and brain 5-hydroxyindoles.” Am J Clin Nutr. 1984 Jul;40(1):1-7. PMID: 6204522. (abstract)

Olney JW, Ho OL. “Brain Damage in Infant Mice Following Oral Intake of Glutamate, Aspartate or Cysteine.” Nature. 1970 Aug 8;227(5258):609-11. PMID: 5464249. (abstract)Blumenthal HJ, Vance DA. “Chewing gum headaches.” Headache. 1997 Nov-Dec; 37(10):665-6. PMID: 9439090. (abstract/article)

Van den Eeden SK, Koepsell TD, Longstreth WT Jr, van Belle G, Daling JR, McKnight B. “Aspartame ingestion and headaches: a randomized crossover trial.” Neurology. 1994 Oct;44(10):1787-93. PMID: 7936222. (abstract)

Lipton RB, Newman LC, Cohen JS, Solomon S. “Aspartame as a dietary trigger of headache.” Headache. 1989 Feb;29(2):90-2. PMID: 2708042. (abstract)

Koehler SM, Glaros A. “The effect of aspartame on migraine headache.” Headache. 1988 Feb;28(1):10-4. PMID: 3277925. (abstract)

Julie Lin and Gary C. Curhan. “Associations of Sugar and Artificially Sweetened Soda with Albuminuria and Kidney Function Decline in Women.” Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2011 Jan; 6(1): 160–166. (abstract / article)

Gul SS, Hamilton AR, Munoz AR, Phupitakphol T, Liu W, Hyoju SK, Economopoulos KP, Morrison S, Hu D, Zhang W, Gharedaghi MH, Huo H, Hamarneh SR, Hodin RA. “Inhibition of the gut enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase may explain how aspartame promotes glucose intolerance and obesity in mice.” Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2017 Jan;42(1):77-83. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2016-0346. Epub 2016 Nov 18. (abstract / article)

Susan E. Swithers, “Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements.” Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Sep; 24(9): 431–441. (article)

Guy Fagherazzi, A Vilier, D Saes Sartorelli, M Lajous, B Balkau, F Clavel-Chapelon. “Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale–European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2013, Jan 30; doi: 10.3945/ ajcn.112.050997 ajcn.050997. (abstract/article)

Weilan Wang et al., “A Metagenomics Investigation of Intergenerational Effects of Non-nutritive Sweeteners on Gut Microbiome.” Front. Nutr., 14 January 2022 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2021.795848

Suez J et al. “Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota.” Nature. 2014 Oct 9;514(7521). PMID: 25231862. (abstract / article)

Kuk JL, Brown RE. “Aspartame intake is associated with greater glucose intolerance in individuals with obesity.” Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 Jul;41(7):795-8. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2015-0675. Epub 2016 May 24. (abstract)

Palmnäs MSA, Cowan TE, Bomhof MR, Su J, Reimer RA, Vogel HJ, et al. (2014) Low-Dose Aspartame Consumption Differentially Affects Gut Microbiota-Host Metabolic Interactions in the Diet-Induced Obese Rat. PLoS ONE 9(10): e109841. (article)

Halldorsson TI, Strøm M, Petersen SB, Olsen SF. “Intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks and risk of preterm delivery: a prospective cohort study in 59,334 Danish pregnant women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Sep;92(3):626-33. PMID: 20592133. (abstract / article)

Meghan B. Azad, PhD; Atul K. Sharma, MSc, MD; Russell J. de Souza, RD, ScD; et al. “Association Between Artificially Sweetened Beverage Consumption During Pregnancy and Infant Body Mass Index.” JAMA Pediatr. 2016;170(7):662-670. (abstract)

Mueller NT, Jacobs DR Jr, MacLehose RF, Demerath EW, Kelly SP, Dreyfus JG, Pereira MA. “Consumption of caffeinated and artificially sweetened soft drinks is associated with risk of early menarche.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Sep;102(3):648-54. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.100958. Epub 2015 Jul 15. (abstract)

Ashok I, Poornima PS, Wankhar D, Ravindran R, Sheeladevi R. “Oxidative stress evoked damages on rat sperm and attenuated antioxidant status on consumption of aspartame.” Int J Impot Res. 2017 Apr 27. doi: 10.1038/ijir.2017.17. (abstract / article)

Finamor I, Pérez S, Bressan CA, Brenner CE, Rius-Pérez S, Brittes PC, Cheiran G, Rocha MI, da Veiga M, Sastre J, Pavanato MA., “Chronic aspartame intake causes changes in the trans-sulphuration pathway, glutathione depletion and liver damage in mice.” Redox Biol. 2017 Apr;11:701-707. doi: 10.1016/j.redox.2017.01.019. Epub 2017 Feb 1. (abstract/article)

Lebda MA, Tohamy HG, El-Sayed YS. “Long-term soft drink and aspartame intake induces hepatic damage via dysregulation of adipocytokines and alteration of the lipid profile and antioxidant status.” Nutr Res. 2017 Apr 19. pii: S0271-5317(17)30096-9. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2017.04.002. [Epub ahead of print] (abstract)

Sharma A, Amarnath S, Thulasimani M, Ramaswamy S. “Artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute: Are they really safe?” Indian J Pharmacol 2016;48:237-40 (article)

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

  • March 2022 study in Cambridge University Press found that 95% of the U.S. 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee had conflicting interests with the food, and/or pharmaceutical industries. Particular actors, including Kellogg, Abbott, Kraft, Mead Johnson, General Mills, Dannon, and the ILSI had connections with multiple members. “Trustworthy dietary guidelines result from a transparent, objective, and science-based, process,” the researchers wrote. The “significant and widespread” COI on the committee “prevent the DGA from achieving the recommended standard for transparency without mechanisms in place to make this information publicly available.”

  • February 2022 study in Globalization and Health co-authored by U.S. Right to Know shows that food and chemical industry players view the International Food Information Council (IFIC) as “being central to promoting industry-favorable content in defense of products facing potentially negative press, such as aspartame…” The study describes IFIC as “a sister entity to ILSI. ILSI generates the scientific facts and IFIC communicates them to the media and public. See also, IFIC: How Big Food Spins Bad News.

  • April 2021 study in Globalization and Health documents how ILSI plays a key role in helping the food industry shape scientific principles by promoting the acceptance of public-private partnerships and permissiveness about conflicts of interest. 

  • Coca-Cola has severed its longtime ties with ILSI. The move is “a blow to the powerful food organization known for its pro-sugar research and policies,” Bloomberg reported in January 2021.  
  • ILSI helped Coca-Cola Company shape obesity policy in China, according to a September 2020 study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh. “Beneath ILSI’s public narrative of unbiased science and no policy advocacy lay a maze of hidden channels companies used to advance their interests. Working through those channels, Coca Cola influenced China’s science and policy making during every phase in the policy process, from framing the issues to drafting official policy,” the paper concludes.

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

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

  • New York Times investigation by Andrew Jacobs reveals that a trustee of the industry-funded nonprofit ILSI advised the Indian government against going ahead with warning labels on unhealthy foods. The Times described ILSI as a “shadowy industry group” and “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of.” (9.16.19) The Times cited a June 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.

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

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

ILSI ties to Coca-Cola 

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

Corporate funding 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ILSI undermined obesity fight in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobacco companies used ILSI to thwart policy 

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

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

ILSI leaders helped defend glyphosate as chairs of key panel 

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

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

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

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

ILSI influence on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

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

ILSI influence in India 

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

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

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

Longstanding concerns about ILSI 

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

Untangle food industry influences, Nature Medicine (2019)

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

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

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

Gates Foundation agriculture project in Africa flunks review

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The first major evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s controversial efforts to expand capital-intensive, high-input agriculture in Africa found that the 15-year-effort has failed to achieve its goals of improving food security.

The Gates-led Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) aimed to transform agriculture in Africa by increasing incomes and food security for millions of smallholder farmers. But an independent evaluation by the consulting firm Mathematica provides no evidence of progress toward these goals.

The evaluation posted Feb. 28 was funded by the Gates Foundation on behalf of AGRA’s lead donors, including the Rockefeller Foundation and government agencies in the U.S., U.K. and Germany. It is the only macro-level performance review of AGRA released to the public since the effort launched in 2006. 

Still, the review of AGRA’s core strategy, the Partnership Inclusive Agricultural Transformation in Africa (PIATA), is far from comprehensive, covering just five years, leaving out many of AGRA’s target countries, and offering few details on key metrics, including specifics on yields and incomes. Although AGRA operates in 11 countries, the analysis reports only on select countries for each outcome it measured.

Among the details that were reported: Yields for maize (the most heavily subsidized crop) increased in just three countries, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria, but not in Tanzania, Burkina Faso or Kenya, as a result of PIATA. Only one country (Burkina Faso) shows evidence of increased farmer incomes related to PIATA. Few details are provided about the size or scope of these impacts.

The “mixed results” for farmer outcomes, the report notes, “likely reflect remaining farmer constraints in access to affordable inputs and output markets, as well as low per-farmer investment levels. These findings suggest that AGRA did not meet its headline goal of increased incomes and food security for 9 million smallholders, despite reaching over 10 million smallholders.” 

“an expected outcome”

In a formal published response, AGRA said that finding is “an expected outcome and a true reflection of the realities that farmers, AGRA, and other institutions that support farmers today live with daily.”

The admission is a major departure from AGRA’s earlier rhetoric; the group has raised over $1 billion – two-thirds of that from the Gates Foundation – on promises it would “double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020.” 

Those goals were quietly removed from the AGRA website in June 2020 after an independent assessment by Tufts University found little evidence of progress. AGRA’s new headline goals make no mention of specific improvements, promising simply to “improve” incomes and food security for African farmers. But even that outcome is not supported by the evidence provided in the Mathematica evaluation. 

Where’s the data for AGRA? 

Evaluators also noted many deficiencies in AGRA’s reporting and monitoring data, which they characterized as “not suited for rigorous impact analysis.” The lack of robust data is surprising for a program heralded by the Gates Foundation, which calls for “data driven” and “evidence based” philanthropy. 

Bill Gates famously bet, for example, that big data could “save American schools.” But a seven-year, over $500 million educational-reform effort designed and funded in part by the Gates Foundation, “did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation,” particularly for low-income and minority students, and “failed to produce the desired dramatic improvement in outcomes across all years,” according to a 2016 evaluation by the nonprofit policy think tank RAND. 

The Gates Foundation’s efforts to fix U.S. education and African agriculture share some similarities: audacious promises to transform systems, followed by heaps of tax-exempt charity money and direct taxpayer spending, ending with disappointing results.

But for AGRA, the Gates Foundation has kept its evaluation data mostly out of the public eye until now. The foundation has ignored multiple requests from U.S. Right to Know to release a 2016 evaluation of AGRA conducted by consulting firm DAI Associates. AGRA also would not release the document, claiming that only the Gates Foundation could authorize its release. U.S. Right to Know was unable to obtain the evaluation via public records requests, even though the U.S. Agency for International Development is a donor to AGRA. 

In the wake of these public records requests, AGRA did release what is described as a “mid-term evaluation” of PIATA’s strategy process. Dated January 2020 (and posted to the AGRA website in December), the report focuses on AGRA’s internal processes, with few details about its performance. Like the Mathematica evaluation, it includes multiple references to AGRA’s poor monitoring processes and evaluation data. 

It also includes a summary of the unreleased DAI evaluation and the results do not appear favorable: the summary notes a “lack of clarity surrounding AGRA’s core value proposition and business model” due to many factors that were “aggravated by fatigue among staff caused by too frequent, top-down strategy refreshes.” It also calls out “ambiguity over AGRA’s identity, including its perception as an African institution.”

AGRA is now in a regrouping phase. Its most recent five-year strategy plan ended in 2021. The group has not yet publicly released its new strategy plans but expects to do so later this year, according to an AGRA spokesperson. He said AGRA is now in consultation with countries and partners to develop a five year strategic plan for 2023-2027.  

Backing up AGRA’s critics 

Based in Kenya and registered as a tax-exempt nonprofit in the US, AGRA encourages African countries to pass business-friendly policies and scale up markets for patented seeds, fossil-fuel based fertilizers and other industrial inputs they say are necessary to boost food production. 

“In Kenya, the cost of synthetic fertilizers has almost doubled.”

To that end AGRA has spent close to $1 billion on efforts to improve market conditions for Africa’s farmers, while African governments spent billions more subsidizing the purchase of expensive “green revolution” technologies, including chemical fertilizer and commercial seeds that are supposed to boost yields.  

These strategies continue to impoverish smallholder farmers,” said Anne Maina, national coordinator of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA), in response to the evaluation. “It is time to stop promoting green revolution technologies that do not improve our soils … In Kenya, the cost of synthetic fertilizers has almost doubled,” Maina said. That problem may get worse due to rising input costs. 

“The time is now to increase funding to support the promotion of biofertilizers and biopesticides that not only build our soils but are safe and affordable for current and future generations,” Maina said.

BIBA co-authored a 2020 report that critiques AGRA’s programs as “false promises” that are not helping African farmers. AGRA described that report as a  “flawed analysis” but did not provide data to refute the critiques. AGRA also did not provide a detailed response to follow-up questions from African groups and requests for more data.

The new Mathematica evaluation does not provide that data either, said Timothy Wise, senior advisor to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. In an analysis posted last week, Wise said the new evaluation supports his 2020 Tufts paper that found slow yield growth and no evidence of increased farmer incomes in AGRA’s target countries, while hunger increased 31%. “AGRA’s donors should reconsider their support for such an unsuccessful and unaccountable initiative,” Wise wrote. “They should shift their funding to agroecology and other low-cost, low-input systems” which “have shown far better results.” 

Million Belay, coordinator of the broad-based Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), said the Mathematica evaluation “largely confirms AFSA’s concerns about AGRA.” The alliance of African groups wrote to the Gates Foundation and other AGRA donors last June asking them to stop funding AGRA and shift their political and financial support to more sustainable and equitable agroecological approaches.

Also last June, 500 faith leaders led by the Southern African Faith Communities and Environment Institute (SAFECEI) signed an open letter expressing “grave concern that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.”

The Gates Foundation has not met with the groups, nor has it provided any public response to these concerns. Nevertheless, the foundation’s disclosures show that it donated another $40 million to AGRA in December 2021. The foundation did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

AGRA President Agnes Kalibata defended AGRA’s approach in an article in the East African, and she noted progress the group has made. Criticisms that AGRA promotes a broken green revolution industrial model, Kalibata said, are “based on an inadequate appreciation of our model. AGRA’s model is based on an approach that African farmers can change their lives with improved food security and incomes if they had better access to finance, inputs, knowledge, and markets.”

German government considers pulling funding over pesticide use 

At least one of AGRA’s major donors has considered quitting its partnership with AGRA over concerns that an AGRA-connected project in Ghana allows farmers to use pesticides that are banned in the European Union for health concerns. 

In February, Der Spiegel reported that German Development Minister Svenja Schulze is considering exiting the government’s partnership with AGRA over concerns about the use of hazardous pesticides — specifically propanil-based pesticides and permethrin that are used in the Ghana project. Germany has so far contributed 25 million Euros to AGRA, the paper reported. 

Schulze, a member of the Social Democratic Party, was appointed German Development Minister in December 2021. Her predecessor had defended the use of the controversial pesticides in Africa, according to Der Spiegel. Schulze told the news outlet that she will review Germany’s partnership with AGRA and also work with the Ministry of Agriculture to prepare an export ban on pesticides banned in the EU. “The goal,” she said, “must be a socio-ecological transformation of agriculture.” 

Civil society organizations in Germany and Africa said the German government “is violating its own compulsory pesticide-use standards in development projects in Ghana” by allowing propanil-based pesticides and permethrin, which are banned for use on food crops in Europe. Both pesticides are toxic on contact and require strict safety protocols and conditions that “are not even remotely being met” in the AGRA projects in Ghana, according to Jan Urhan, program director for Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, a left-wing political foundation in Germany.

In Urhan’s view, the poor results of the independent AGRA evaluation, along with the German government’s public pronouncements of concern, “are the beginning of the end of AGRA.” He called the Mathematica evaluation “a damning verdict” and said it “confirms the studies done by civil society in the past years: AGRA has failed.” He said donor governments and African countries involved “must now withdraw from AGRA.”

In an email to U.S. Right to Know, an AGRA spokesperson responded to the concerns raised in the Der Spiegel article: “AGRA works under government national priorities and regulations – in this case under the Government of Ghana. Only pesticides approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in Ghana are allowed for use by our project partners. It is worth noting that AGRA does not buy, distribute or promote Permethrin or Propanil.” He also referenced AGRA’s Environmental and Social Management System that all AGRA grantees comply with. 

“AGRA greatly values the partnership with the Government of Germany as we work with the Government of Ghana, who we both support in this programme,” the spokesperson said. 

USAID remains steadfast in its support 

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will continue to support AGRA in spite of the critical evaluation, according to a spokesperson there. “USAID reviewed the findings and recommendations and is satisfied with the independence and rigor of the [Mathematica] evaluation. We appreciate AGRA’s response to the report conclusions and concur with their proposed next steps to improve performance outcomes,” the spokesperson said.

“USAID remains steadfast in its commitment to people across the African continent and around the world to address the root causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Through the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative, USAID supports partners – AGRA – to increase incomes and boost nutrition for smallholder farmers, their families, and communities in the areas where we work.”

U.S. taxpayers contributed at least $90 million to AGRA between 2006 and 2020. USAID did not respond to multiple requests for information about whether the U.S. agency has provided or committed more funds to AGRA since 2020.  

AGRA’s success with lobbying and corporate partnerships 

The Mathematica evaluation was more positive about some aspects of AGRA’s work, praising its successes lobbying African governments for an “improved policy environment for private sector investment in agriculture,” as well as its progress building partnerships with the corporate sector. 

It notes, for example, that over 700 village based advisors “are using digital platforms to register farmers and broadcast information on weather, seeds, and fertilizer to over 30,000 farmers through AGRA’s partnership with Microsoft.” However, the report notes that these programs may not be sustainable as there is no clear path to scalability or profitability, and that African governments are unlikely to take on the costs. 

On the policy front, the evaluation noted AGRA’s participation in 72 agricultural policy reforms across 11 target African countries in the areas of seed, fertilizer and market access. Among its biggest successes was “increasing supply of certified seed through direct support to seed companies” and market linkages, most notably in Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria, according to the report. 

Laws that protect intellectual property rights for “certified” seeds, while creating penalties for open-source seed sharing – often referred to as “plant protection” or “seed harmonization laws” – are among the most controversial policies AGRA promotes. An AGRA spokesperson said, “AGRA supports efforts to harmonize seed laws /regulations to maximize choice and opportunity for farmers we support, as well as the small and medium-size enterprises that support them.”

However, seed privatization is a major concern among African groups that have critiqued AGRA. “Protecting corporate entities’ certified varieties while criminalizing trade of non-certified seed is particularly problematic for small-scale farmers in Africa, where 80 percent of non-certified seed and food come from millions of smallholder farmers who recycle, and exchange seeds each year,” wrote Africa-based faith leaders Gabriel Manyangadze and Francesca de Gasparis in Business Daily last year. 

“Not only does the corporatization of seed undermine existing indigenous knowledge systems regarding seed diversity and multi-cropping,” they wrote, “but more insidiously, it centralizes control of production systems, disempowering and reducing the resilience of small-scale farmers who rely on informal trade, historical and cultural knowledge in addition to their unique understanding of their ecological landscapes.”

Stopping seed privatization laws is a major focus of food sovereignty groups in Africa and around the world. Last week, the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice declared the Law for Protection of Plant Varieties unconstitutional. The legislation, which made it illegal to save, give away or exchange seeds, was dubbed by critics “The Monsanto Law.” 

Million Belay of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa described in an op ed for Al Jazeera why many food producers in Africa oppose AGRA’s push to expand the use of expensive inputs. “The strategy has indebted our farmers, ruined our environment, harmed our health and undermined our seeds and culture,” Belay wrote. “We object to the flurry of initiatives to amend our seed laws, biosafety standards, and institutionalize fertilizer rules and regulations that seek to entrench Africa’s over reliance on corporate agriculture.”

Following the Mathematica evaluation, African civil society and faith leaders said they will continue to press governments and private philanthropies to hear their concerns and stop supporting AGRA.

Stacy Malkan is managing editor of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health.