Jay Byrne: Meet the Man Behind the Monsanto PR Machine

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Monsanto’s former Director of Corporate Communications Jay Byrne, president of the public relations firm v-Fluence, is a key player in the covert propaganda and lobbying campaigns of the world’s largest agrichemical companies. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive, reveal a range of deceptive tactics Byrne and other industry allies are using to promote and defend GMO foods and pesticides.

The examples here showcase some of the ways companies are moving their messaging into the public arena from behind the cover of neutral-sounding front groups, government helpers and academics who appear to be independent as they work with corporations or their PR consultants.

Clients are top agrichemical, agribusiness and drug companies and tradegroups

Byrne’s client list has included a range of the largest agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies and business groups, including the American Chemistry Council, Syngenta, AstraZeneca, Monsanto, Pfizer, the International Rice Research Institute, the American Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Rohm & Haas and the pesticide industry trade group CropLife.

Cooked up academic front group to attack Monsanto critics

A key strategy of the agrichemical industry, as the New York Times reported, is to deploy “white hat” professors to fight the industry’s PR and lobbying battles from behind the cover of the “gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”

In March 2010, Byrne and University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy discussed setting up a front group called “Academics Review” that could attract donations from corporations while appearing to be independent. Byrne compared the idea to the Center for Consumer Freedom (a front group run by infamous corporate propaganda front-man Rick Berman), which “has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept.” Byrne described an “‘opportunities’ list with targets” they could go after. Byrne wrote to Dr. Chassy:

All those groups, people and topic areas “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations,” Byrne wrote. He said he and Val Giddings, PhD, a former vice president for the biotech trade group BIO, could serve as “commercial vehicles” for the academics.

In November 2010, Byrne wrote to Chassy again, “It will be good to get the next phase of work on Academics Review going – we’ve got a relative slow first quarter coming up in 2011 if business remains the same.” Byrne offered to “schedule some pro bono search engine optimization time” for his team to counter a GMO critic’s online influence. Byrne concluded the email, “As always, would love to find the next topic (and sponsor) to broaden this while we are able.”

In 2014, Academics Review released a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam; in its own marketing materials for the report, Academics Review claimed to be independent and did not disclose its agrichemical industry funding.

For more information:

“US government-GLP-Byrne projects” to sway journalists

Byrne’s lobbying and PR operations for the GMO and pesticide industry intersect at many points with the work of Jon Entine, another key figure in agrichemical industry defense campaigns. Entine directs the Genetic Literacy Project, which he launched in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his PR firm. (Entine’s PR firm ESG MediaMetrics listed Monsanto as a client on its website in 2010, 2011, 2012 and up to January 2013, according to internet archives still available online.)

In December 2013, Entine wrote to Max T. Holtzman, who was then acting deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to propose collaborating on a series of what he described as “US government-GLP-Byrne projects” to promote GMOs. Entine wrote to Holtzman:

Entine’s proposed “US government-GLP-Byrne” projects included a “Boot Camp and Response Swat Team” to prepare third-party academics for “potential legislative engagement on [GMO] labeling and related issues,” a “journalism conclave” to bolster media coverage about food security challenges and “provide coaching to younger journalists,” a global media outreach campaign to promote acceptance of biotechnology, and “multi-media content and placements from credible sources” reinforcing key themes “with segments and footage made available on U.S. government websites, GLP and other platforms.”

Holtzman responded, “Thanks Jon. It was great meeting you as well. I think your outline below provides natural intersection points where usda/USG messaging and your efforts intersect well. I’d like to engage further and loop other folks here at usda not only from the technical/trade areas but from our communications shop as well.”

Taxpayer-funded, Monsanto-aligned videos to promote GMOs

A series of taxpayer-funded videos produced in 2012 to promote genetically engineered foods provide another example of how academics and universities push corporate-aligned messaging. Byrne’s PR firm v-Fluence helped create the videos that were “designed to appear a little low budget and amateurish,” according to an email from University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy.

Dr. Chassy wrote to Monsanto employees on April 27, 2012:

Monsanto’s Eric Sachs responded:

Sachs offered to assist with messaging of future videos by sharing the results of focus group tests Monsanto was conducting. Dr. Chassy invited Sachs to offer suggestions for future video topics and asked him to send along the Monsanto focus group results.

Training scientists and journalists to frame the debate about GMOs and pesticides

In 2014 and 2015, Byrne helped Jon Entine organize the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps funded by agrichemical companies and co-hosted by two industry front groups, Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project and Bruce Chassy’s Academics Review. Organizers misleadingly described the funding for the events as coming from a mix of academic, government and industry sources, but the only traceable source of funding was the agrichemical industry, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive. The purpose of the boot camps, Thacker reported, was “to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate.”

Byrne was on the organizing team, along with Cami Ryan (who now works for Monsanto) and Bruce Chassy (who was receiving funds from Monsanto that weren’t publicly disclosed), according to emails from Entine and Ryan.

For more information:

Bonus Eventus: the agrichemical industry’s social media echo chamber

A key service Byrne provides to agrichemical promotional efforts is his “Bonus Eventus community” that supplies academics and other industry allies with talking points and promotional opportunities. Internal documents (page 9) describe Bonus Eventus as “a private social networking portal that serves as a communication cooperative for agriculture-minded scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders.” Members receive Byrne’s newsletter, plus access to his reference library of agribusiness topics, “stakeholder database” of influential people in the GMO debate, and trainings and support for social media engagement.

Examples of the newsletter can be found in this cache of emails from Byrne to Peter Phillips, a University of Saskatchewan professor who has been criticized by colleagues for his close ties to Monsanto. In the Nov. 7, 2016 newsletter, Byrne urged Phillips and other recipients to share content about the “flaws and omissions” in a New York Times story that reported on the failure of GMO crops to increase yields and reduce pesticides, and the “mounting questions” facing an international group of cancer scientists who reported glyphosate is a probably human carcinogen (see our reporting about documents describing how Monsanto coordinated attacks on the cancer panel via their “industry partners”).

Byrne urged the Bonus Eventus community to share content on these themes from industry-connected writers, such as Julie Kelly, Dr. Henry Miller, Kavin Senapathy, The Sci Babe and Hank Campbell of the American Council on Science and Health, a group Monsanto was paying to help discredit the cancer scientists. In 2017, Forbes deleted dozens of articles by Dr. Miller – including several he co-authored with Kelly, Senapathy and Byrne – after the New York Times reported that Dr. Miller had published an article in Forbes under his own name that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Gatekeeper for attack on Greenpeace

When a group of Nobel laureates called on Greenpeace to stop opposing genetically engineered rice, it looked like an independent effort. But behind the curtain of impressive credentials were the helping hands of two key players in the agrichemical industry’s PR lobby: Jay Byrne and a board member of the Genetic Literacy Project. Byrne was posted at the door at a National Press Club event promoting a group called Support Precision Agriculture. The .com version of that website redirects to the Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that works with Monsanto on PR projects without disclosing those ties.

Sir Richard Roberts, a biochemist who said he organized the Nobel laureate letter, explained the backstory in an FAQ on the website. Dr. Roberts said the “campaign has been pretty inexpensive so far,” consisting mostly of his salary paid by his employer New England Biolabs, and out-of-pocket expenses paid by Matt Winkler. Winkler, chairman of the Winkler Foundation, is a funder and board member of Genetic Literacy Project. Dr. Roberts explained that Winkler “enlisted a friend, Val Giddings,” (the former biotech trade group VP) who “suggested Jay Byrne,” who offered pro bono logistical support for the press event.

Byrne and Giddings also helped orchestrate the industry-funded Academics Review; in those emails, Byrne named Greenpeace on the “targets” list he was compiling for Monsanto. Another of Byrne’s clients, the International Rice Research Institute, is the main industry group trying to commercialize GMO Golden Rice, the product at the center of the Greenpeace critique. Research by Glenn Davis Stone of Washington University in St. Louis has found that low yields and technical difficulties have held up Golden Rice, not opposition from environmental groups.

In his FAQ, Dr. Roberts dismissed Dr. Stone’s research as “not an accurate representation of the state of affairs,” and instead pointed to industry-connected sources who will be familiar to readers of Byrne’s Bonus Eventus newsletter: Julie Kelly, Henry Miller and Academics Review.

The press event took place at a critical moment for industry, and generated a helpful story in the Washington Post, a week before Congress voted to prohibit states from labeling GMOs.

The .com version of Support Precision Agriculture redirects to a Genetic Literacy Project post promoting GMOs. In his FAQ, Roberts said he has no relationship with GLP and claimed that “an unknown person” had purchased the similar domain in an “apparent attempt” to link it to GLP. He said this is an example that “the dirty tricks of the opposition are without limits.”

For more information:

Weaponizing the web with fake people and websites

Reporting for The Guardian in 2002, George Monbiot described a covert tactic that agrichemical corporations and their PR operatives have been using for decades to promote and defend their products: creating fake personalities and fake websites to silence critics and influence online search results.

Monbiot reported that “fake citizens” (people who did not actually exist) “had been bombarding internet listservers with messages denouncing the scientists and environmentalists who were critical of GM crops” – and the fake citizens had been traced back to Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings.

Monbiot described Jay Byrne’s connection to Bivings:

“think of the internet as a weapon on the table … somebody is going to get killed.”

“At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly [Monsanto’s] director of internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of them established by Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings). He told them to ‘think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed.’ While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow that he ‘spends his time and effort participating’ in web discussions about biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he ‘ensures his company gets proper play’. AgBioWorld is the site on which [fake citizen] Smetacek launched her campaign.”

For more information:

More from Jay Byrne

A 2013 Power Point presentation showcases the role Byrne plays for his clients in the agrichemical industry. Here he explains his theories about eco-advocates, ranks their influence online and urges companies to pool their resources to confront them, in order to avoid “regulatory and market constraints.”

The 2006 book “Let Them Eat Precaution,” published by the American Enterprise Institute and edited by agrichemical industry PR operative Jon Entine, contains a chapter by Byrne titled, “Deconstructing the Agricultural Biotechnology Protest Industry.”

Byrne is a member of “AgBioChatter,” a private email listserve that agrichemical industry senior staffers, consultants and academics used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show Byrne encouraging members of AgBioChatter to try to discredit people and groups that were critical of GMOs and pesticides. A 2015 Monsanto PR plan named AgBioChatter as one of the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage to help discredit cancer concerns about glyphosate.

For more information:

Tracking the Agrichemical Industry Propaganda Network

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

Just four corporations now control three quarters of the global supply of seeds and pesticides. Public oversight of their activities is crucial for a safe and healthy food supply. Yet all of these companies – Monsanto/Bayer, DowDuPont, Syngenta/ChemChina and BASF – have documented histories of hiding the health risks and environmental impacts of their products. Since their records do not inspire trust, they often make use of third-party allies who promote the industry’s commercial and political agenda to the public, media, regulators and policy makers, while appearing to be acting independently of industry.

The public has a right to know about groups and people who collaborate with agrichemical corporations to push industry messaging and policy agendas. U.S. Right to Know has uncovered many documents that reveal, for the first time, how companies are working behind the scenes with academics, journalists and independent-sounding groups, in ways that are not disclosed to the public, to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides and stave off regulations. The evidence is described in our fact sheets about key players in the agrichemical industry propaganda network:

Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group

AgBioChatter: Where Corporations, Academics Plotted Strategy on GMOs, Pesticides

Alison Van Eenennaam: Key Outside Spokesperson and Lobbyist for the Agrichemical and GMO Industries

American Council on Science and Health is a Corporate Front Group

Biofortified Aids Chemical Industry PR & Lobbying Efforts

Center for Food Integrity Partners with Monsanto

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

Drew Kershen: Agrichemical Industry Front Group Ringleader

Food Evolution GMO Documentary is a Propaganda Film

GMO Answers is a Crisis Management PR Tool for GMOs & Pesticides

Hank Campbell’s Maze of Monsanto-Loving Science Blogs

Henry I. Miller Dropped by Forbes for Monsanto Ghostwriting Scandal

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

International Food Information Council: How Big Food Spins Bad News

Jay Byrne: Meet the Man Behind the Monsanto PR Machine

Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project: Key Messengers for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry

Keith Kloor: The Agrichemical Industry’s Favorite Writer

Kevin Folta’s Misleading and Deceptive Claims

Mark Lynas Promotes the Agrichemical Industry’s Commercial Agenda

Monsanto named these “industry partners” in 2015 PR Plan to Confront Glyphosate Cancer Ruling

Pamela Ronald’s ties to chemical industry front groups

SciBabe Says Eat Your Pesticides. But Who is Paying Her?

Science Media Centre Promotes Corporate Views of Science

Sense About Science/STATS Spin Science for Industry

Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post

Val Giddings: Top Operative for the Agrichemical Industry

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

BIO: biotech industry trade group

Calorie Control Council

Center for Consumer Freedom

Crop Life International

International Life Sciences Institute

International Dairy Association

Julie Kelly

Kavin Senapathy/MAMMyths

Ketchum PR

International Farmers and Ranchers Alliance

Science fact sheets:

Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks

Aspartame Tied to Weight Gain, Increased Appetite, Obesity

Glyphosate: Health Concerns About Most Widely Used Pesticide

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

Glyphosate: Health Concerns About the Most Widely Used Pesticide

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

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

Most Widely Used Pesticide

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

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

Cancer Concerns

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

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

At the time of the IARC classification, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was conducting a registration review. The EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC) issued a report in September 2016 concluding that glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at doses relevant to human health. In publishing the CARC report, the EPA said that it was beginning work with the National Toxicology Program to investigate the mechanisms and toxic effects of glyphosate formulations.

The agency then convened a Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) in December 2016 to review the CARC report conclusion that glyphosate was not likely to be carcinogenic. The scientific advisory panel members were divided in their assessment of EPA’s work, with some finding the EPA erred in how it evaluated certain research. Additionally, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development determined that the agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs had not followed proper protocols in its evaluation of glyphosate. An ORD memo stated that the government scientists agreed in part with IARC and believed EPA was not properly following guidelines in coming to the conclusion that glyphosate was not likely to be carcinogenic. ORD said the evidence could be deemed to support a “likely” carcinogenic or “suggestive” evidence of carcinogenicity classification. Nevertheless the EPA issued a draft report on glyphosate in December 2017 continuing to hold that the chemical is not likely to be carcinogenic.

The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency have said glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. But a March 2017 report by environmental and consumer groups argued that regulators relied improperly on research that was directed and manipulated by the chemical industry.

The WHO/FAO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues determined that glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet, though the finding was tarnished by conflict of interest concerns after it was revealed that certain members of the group, including its chair, worked for the International Life Sciences Institute, a group funded in part by Monsanto and one of its lobbying organizations.

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

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

An analysis published January 14, 2019 in Environmental Sciences Europe argues that the U.S. EPA’s classification of glyphosate disregarded substantial scientific evidence of genotoxicity (the negative impact on a cell’s genetic material) associated with weed killing products such as Roundup. In an editorial, the journal editors described a robust peer review with 10 expert reviewers, and wrote, “We are convinced that the article provides new insights on why different conclusions regarding the carcinogenicity of glyphosate and (glyphosate-based herbicides) were reached by the US EPA and IARC.” See article by Carey Gillam, “New analysis raises questions about EPA’s classification on glyphosate weed killer.”

Cancer Lawsuits

More than 650 lawsuits against Monsanto Co. are part of multi district litigation (MDL) being overseen by Judge Vince Chhabria in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, filed by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks. An estimated 9,000 similar actions are pending in state courts. U.S. Right to Know is posting key documents from the litigation on our Monsanto Papers pages.

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

A study for the European Parliament published January 15, 2019 asserts that the EU approval of glyphosate was based on plagiarized text from Monsanto. The study found plagiarism in 50.1 percent of chapters dealing with the assessment of published studies on health risks related to glyphosate in Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, including whole paragraphs and entire pages of plagiarized text.

See also 2018 journal articles about scientific interference:

The first trial concluded in August 2018 with the jury ruling that Monsanto’s weed killer was a substantial contributing factor in causing DeWayne “Lee” Johnson’s cancer, and ordering Monsanto to pay $289.25 million in damages, including $250 million in punitive damages. The judge in the case reduced the punitive damages to $39 million, bringing the total award to $78 million. Monsanto declared it would appeal and Johnson has cross-appealed, seeking to reinstate the jury award. Follow updates in our Roundup Trial Tracker blog.

Endocrine Disruption and Other Health Concerns

Some research suggests that glyphosate may be an endocrine disruptor. It has also been linked to liver disease, birth defects and reproductive problems in laboratory animals; and may kill beneficial gut bacteria and damage the DNA in human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells. Many scientists have raised concerns about the health risks of glyphosate. See:

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

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

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

Desiccation

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

Glyphosate Found in Food: U.S. Drags Its Feet on Testing

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

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

Pesticides in Our Food: Where’s the Safety Data?

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

New Analysis Raises Questions About EPA’s Glyphosate Classification

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Researcher says the EPA has disregarded substantial evidence that the popular herbicide is linked to cancer

This article was originally published in Environmental Health News.

By Carey Gillam

A little more than a month ahead of a first-ever federal trial over the issue of whether or not Monsanto’s popular weed killers can cause cancer, a new analysis raises troubling questions about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) handling of pertinent science on glyphosate safety.

According to the report, which examines the opposing positions taken by the EPA and an international cancer research agency on glyphosate-based herbicides, the EPA has disregarded substantial scientific evidence of genotoxicity associated with weed killing products such as Roundup and other Monsanto brands. Genotoxicity refers to a substance’s destructive effect on a cell’s genetic material. Genotoxins can cause mutations in cells that can lead to cancer.

The EPA classifies glyphosate as not likely to be carcinogenic while the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization, classifies it as “probably carcinogenic.”

The paper was authored by Charles Benbrook, a former research professor who served at one time as executive director of the National Academy of Sciences board on agriculture, and was published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe on Monday. It is based on Benbrook’s review of EPA and IARC records regarding the types and numbers of glyphosate studies each organization evaluated.

“Clearly, compared to EPA’s genotoxicity review, the IARC review is grounded on more recent, more sensitive, and more sophisticated genotoxic studies, and more accurately reflects real-world exposures,” Benbrook told EHN.

Benbrook testified as an expert witness in the first lawsuit to go to trial against Monsanto over claims its glyphosate herbicides cause cancer. The plaintiff in that case, Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, won a unanimous jury award of $289 million last year that the judge in the case cut to $78 million. Thousands of additional cancer victims have sued Monsanto and the second trial begins Feb. 25 in federal court in San Francisco. Benbrook is also expected to testify for the plaintiff in that case.

Monsanto is seeking to exclude Benbrook’s testimony at trial, saying he has no expertise in any physical science or field of medicine and no training or degree in toxicology and has never worked at the EPA or other regulatory body.

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment. The agency has maintained, however, that its review of glyphosate has been robust and thorough. Glyphosate has low toxicity for humans, and glyphosate products can be safely used by following directions on labeled products, according to the EPA.

In the new analysis, Benbrook is critical of the EPA’s scrutiny of glyphosate herbicides, noting that little weight was given to research regarding the actual formulations sold into the marketplace and used by millions of people around the world. Instead, the EPA and other regulators have mostly pointed to dozens of studies paid for by Monsanto and other companies selling glyphosate herbicides that found no cancer concerns. The EPA has given little attention to several independent research projects that have indicated the formulations can be more toxic than glyphosate alone, according to Benbrook.

Indeed, the EPA only started working in 2016—some 42 years after the first glyphosate herbicides came to market – with the U.S. National Toxicology Program to evaluate the comparative toxicity of the formulations. Early results disclosed in 2018 supported concerns about enhanced toxicity in formulations.

Several scientists, including from within the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), and from a panel of scientific experts convened by the EPA, have cited deficiencies and problems with the EPA’s decision to classify glyphosate as not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. But Benbrook’s analysis is the first to look deeply at how and why the EPA and IARC drew such divergent conclusions.

Benbrook looked at the citations for genotoxicity tests discussed in the EPA and IARC reports, both those that were published in peer-reviewed journals and the unpublished ones that were presented to the EPA by Monsanto and other companies.

Some studies looked at glyphosate alone, and/or glyphosate-based herbicide formulations and some included findings about a substance called aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA), which is glyphosate’s primary metabolite.

Benbrook’s analysis found that within the body of available evidence, the EPA relied on 151 studies, 115 of which showed negative results, meaning no evidence of genotoxicity, and only 36 that had positive results. IARC cited 191 studies, only 45 of which showed negative results and 146 of which showed evidence of genotoxicity.

IARC said within these studies it found “strong evidence that exposure to glyphosate or glyphosate-based formulations is genotoxic…”

Benbrook’s analysis reports that over the last three years at least 27 additional studies have been published addressing possible mechanisms of genotoxic action for glyphosate and/or formulated glyphosate-based herbicides and all but one of the 27 studies reported one or more positive result. There were 18 positives arising from DNA damage, six associated with oxidative stress, and two with other genotoxicity mechanisms, his paper states.

According to Benbrook, the EPA’s failure to focus on formulated glyphosate-based herbicides is dangerous because these formulations “account for all commercial uses and human exposures (no herbicide products contain just glyphosate).”

More research is needed on real-world exposures, Benbrook concludes.

Update: See also the editorial by the editors of Environmental Sciences Europe about the implications of Benbrook’s analysis, “Some food for thought: a short comment on Charles Benbrook´s paper“.

Carey Gillam is a journalist and author, and a public interest researcher for US Right to Know, a not-for-profit food industry research group. Follow her on Twitter at @careygillam.

ILSI Wields Stealthy Influence for Food, Agrichemical Industries

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The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a corporate-funded nonprofit organization founded in 1978 by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola who worked for the company from 1969 until 2001. ILSI claims on its website to bring together scientists from industry, government and academia to “provide science that improves public health.” However, evidence suggests that ILSI Global and its branches operate as fronts to influence science and policies in ways that benefit corporate interests over public health.

ILSI is funded by the food and agrichemical industries, according to internal documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

U.S. Right to Know has also reported just how far the influence of ILSI and its top operatives extends. In 2016, Carey Gillam reported that ILSI’s founder, Alex Malaspina, was able to ask for and receive input and guidance from a top official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to address actions by the World Health Organization that were hurting the food and beverage industry.

The emails, obtained via state freedom of information requests, reveal that Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of a CDC division charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, tried to help Malaspina find inroads to influence WHO officials to back off anti-sugar talk. 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 articles were published reporting on these ties.)

Coca-Cola has kept close ties with ILSI ever since Malaspina founded the group. In 2015, ILSI’s president was Rhona Applebaum, Coke’s chief health and science officer. Applebaum retired from Coke in November 2015 after revelations that the company funded a group called the Global Energy Balance Network to spin the obesity story. Coca-Cola has gone to great lengths to try to shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks. For more on Coke’s obesity spin campaign, see articles from the New York Times and Associated Press.

ILSI soda controversy in China

Two papers published in January 2019 document how Coca-Cola and other corporations used ILSI to influence decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

On Jan. 9, 2019, The New York Times reported on the two new studies showing 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.”

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

ILSI glyphosate controversy

In May 2016, ILSI came under scrutiny after revelations that the chair of ILSI’s board of trustees, Alan Boobis, was at the same time the chairman of a UN panel that found Monsanto’s herbicide glyphosate unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet.

ILSI has received at least $500,000 in donations from Monsanto, in addition to significant contributions from other chemical industry sources. Monsanto draws roughly a third of its $15 billion annual revenues from its Roundup branded glyphosate-based herbicide products.

The story and corporate funding of ILSI was first reported by Carey Gillam for U.S. Right to Know. The Guardian, Die Zeit, ARD and Horticulture Week have also covered the conflict of interest involving ILSI and the glyphosate review by the UN’s Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues.

More on ILSI:

International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) 2012 major donor list

UCSD Hires Coke-Funded Researcher,” by Morgan Cook, San Diego Union-Tribune (9.29.2016)

What is Going on at the CDC? Health Agency Ethics Need Scrutiny,” by Carey Gillam, The Hill (8.27.2016)

More Coca-Cola Ties Seen Inside U.S. Centers for Disease Control,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (8.1.2016)

“CDC Official Exits Agency After Coca-Cola Connections Come to Light,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (12.6.2017)

Beverage Industry Finds Friend Inside U.S. Health Agency,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (6.28.2016)

Conflict of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review,” by Carey Gillam, U.S. Right to Know (5.12.2016)

UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk,” by Arthur Neslen, The Guardian (5.17.2016)

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

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Since 2015, U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer and public health watchdog group, has obtained thousands of pages of documents revealing – for the first time – how food and pesticide corporations are working behind the scenes to undermine our nation’s scientific, academic, political and regulatory institutions. Many of these documents are now posted in the free, searchable industry document archives hosted by the University of California, San Francisco. See the USRTK Agrichemical Industry Collectionand the USRTK Food Industry Collection.

U.S. Right to Know provides documents to researchers and media outlets around the world as a tool for transparency, to protect consumers and public health. For a fuller list of our investigative work and reporting about it, see our investigations page and contact us for more information.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Island Press: Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, by Carey Gillam and presentation to European Parliament Joint Committee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature Biotechnology: Standing Up for Transparency, by Stacy Malkan

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardian: Carey Gillam’s reporting about glyphosate

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

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

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

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

San Diego Union Tribune:UCSD hires Coke-funded health researcher,by Morgan Cook

Los Angeles Review of Books: Rounding up the Risks of Big Ag; review of Carey Gillam’s “Whitewash” by Elena Conis

Society of Environmental Journalists: First place Rachel Carson Book Award, Carey Gillam’s “Whitewash”

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

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

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

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

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

ABC Australia: The Monsanto Papers broadcast

Le Monde: Monsanto Papers series, by Stéphane Foucartand Stéphane Horel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huffington Post: articles by Carey Gillam

Huffington Post: articles by Stacy Malkan

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

EcoWatch: articles by U.S. Right to Know

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

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

USRTK: Tracking the agrichemical industry propaganda network

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Pamela Ronald’s Ties to Chemical Industry Front Groups

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Pamela Ronald, PhD, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis and author of the 2008 book “Tomorrow’s Table,” is a well-known advocate for genetically engineered foods. Less known is Dr. Ronald’s role helping lead organizations that portray themselves as acting independently of industry but in fact are collaborating with chemical corporations to promote GMOs and pesticides, in arrangements that are not transparent to the public.

Ties to key agrichemical industry front group

Tax forms filed with the IRS show that Dr. Ronald served on the board of directors of the Science Literacy Project in fiscal year 2015/2016. Science Literacy Project is the parent organization of Genetic Literacy Project (GLP), a group that works behind the scenes with Monsanto and other agrichemical companies on public relations projects without disclosing those collaborations. A 2017 Le Monde investigation describes GLP as a propaganda website and a key player in Monsanto’s PR efforts to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel in the wake of its report about glyphosate. A 2015 Monsanto PR document identified GLP as an industry partner in its plan to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report in order to “protect the reputation and FTO of Roundup.” GLP has since published dozens of articles attacking the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who “lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate.

The Science Literacy Project’s board members include key operatives of chemical industry public relations campaigns:

UPDATE: Dr. Ronald said (in December 2018) that she did not serve on the board of directors of the Science Literacy Project, despite IRS tax filings appearing on several public recordswebsites listing her as an SLP board member from June 2015 to June 2016. She said an amended IRS tax form has been filed to retroactively remove her from the SLP board of directors, although this amended form does not appear on IRS nonprofit tax records websites.

Founded, led UC Davis group that elevated industry PR efforts

Dr. Ronald was the founding director of the World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL), a group launched in 2014 at UC Davis to train faculty and students to promote genetically engineered foods, crops and pesticides. The group does not fully disclose its funding.

Documents show that Dr. Ronald gave Jon Entine and his industry front group Genetic Literacy Project a platform at UC Davis, appointing Entine as an unpaid Senior Fellow and as an instructor and mentor in a science communications graduate program. Entine’s body of work includes defending pesticides, industrial chemicals, plastics, fracking, and the oil industry, often with attacks on scientists, journalists and academics. (Entine is no longer a fellow at UC Davis. See also our letter to the World Food Center inquiring about funding for Entine and IFAL and their obscure explanation about where their funding comes from.)

In July 2014, Dr. Ronald indicated in an email to a colleague that Entine was an important collaborator who could give them good suggestions on who to contact to raise additional funds for the first IFAL event. In June 2015, IFAL co-hosted the “Biotech Literacy Project boot camp” with Genetic Literacy Project and the Monsanto-backed group Academics Review. Although organizers claimed the event was funded by academic, government and industry sources, the only traceable source of funding was the biotech industry, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Tax records show that Academics Review, which received its funding from the agrichemical industry trade group, spent $162,000 for the three-day conference at UC Davis.

The purpose of the boot camp, according to the agenda, was to train and support scientists, journalists and academic researchers to persuade the public and policy makers about the benefits of GMOs and pesticides. Speakers included Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications at Monsanto; Hank Campbell, leader of the Monsanto-funded group American Council on Science and Health; and academics with undisclosed industry ties such as University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy and University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta . Keynote speakers included Dr. Ronald and Yvette d’Entremont, also known as Sci Babe, a “science communicator” who defends pesticides and artificial sweeteners while taking money from companies that sell those products.

Cooking up a Chipotle boycott

Emails indicate that Dr. Ronald and Jon Entine collaborated on messaging to discredit critics of genetically engineered foods. In one case, Dr. Ronald proposed to organize a boycott against the Chipotle restaurant chain over its decision to offer and promote non-GMO foods.

In April 2015, Dr. Ronald emailed Entine and Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a former Monsanto employee and cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, to suggest they find a student to write about farmers using more toxic pesticides to grow non-GMO corn. “I suggest we publicize this fact (once we get the details) and then organize a chipotle boycott,” Dr. Ronald wrote. Entine directed an associate to write an article for Genetic Literacy Project on the theme that “pesticide use often soars” when farmers switch to a non-GMO model to supply restaurants like Chipotle. The article, co-authored by Entine and touting his UC Davis affiliation, fails to substantiate that claim with data.

Co-founded biotech spin group BioFortified

Dr. Ronald co-founded and served as board member (2012-2015) of Biology Fortified, Inc. (Biofortified), a group that promotes GMOs and has a partner activist group that organizes protests to confront Monsanto critics. Other leaders of Biofortified include founding board member David Tribe, a geneticist at University of Melbourne who co-founded Academics Review, a group that claimed to be independent while receiving industry funds. Former board member Kevin Folta (2015-2018), a plant scientist at the University of Florida, was the subject of a New York Times story reporting that he misled the public about undisclosed industry collaborations. Biofortified bloggers include Steve Savage, a former DuPont employee turned industry consultant; Joe Ballanger, a consultant for Monsanto; and Andrew Kniss, who has received money from Monsanto. Documents suggest that members of Biofortified coordinated with the pesticide industry on a lobbying campaign to oppose pesticide restrictions in Hawaii.

Played leading role in industry-funded propaganda movie

Dr. Ronald featured prominently in Food Evolution, a documentary film about genetically engineered foods funded by the trade group Institute for Food Technologists. Dozens of academics have called the film propaganda, and several people interviewed for the film described a deceptive filming process and said their views were taken out of context.

Advisor for Cornell-based GMO public relations campaign

Dr. Ronald is on the advisory board of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a PR campaign based at Cornell University that promotes the GMOs and pesticides using agrichemical industry messaging. Funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has opposed the use of Freedom of Information Act to investigate public institutions, misled the public with inaccurate information and elevated unreliable messengers; see documentation in our fact sheet.

Receives money from the agrichemical industry

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Ronald receives compensation from agrichemical companies to speak at events where she promotes GMOs to key audiences that companies seek to influence, such as dieticians. Emails from November 2012 provide an example of how Dr. Ronald works with companies.

Monsanto staffer Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, a dietician who formerly worked for the food-industry spin group IFIC, invited Ronald to speak at two conferences in 2013, Food 3000 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. Emails show that the two discussed fees and book purchases and agreed Dr. Ronald would speak at Food 3000, a conference organized by the PR firm Porter Novelli that Kapsak said would reach “90 high media impact food and nutrition professionals/influencers.” (Dr. Ronald invoiced $3,000 for the event). Kapsak asked to review Dr. Ronald’s slides and set up a call to discuss messaging. Also on the panel were moderator Mary Chin (a dietician who consults with Monsanto), and representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto, with Kapsak giving opening remarks. Kapsak later reported that the panel got rave reviews with participants saying they would share the idea that, “We have to have biotech to help feed the world.”

Other industry-funded speaking engagements for Dr. Ronald included a 2014 speech at Monsanto for $3,500 plus 100 copies of her book which she declined to tweet about; and a 2013 speaking engagement for which she invoiced Bayer AG for $10,000.

Retracted papers

Retraction Watch reported that, “2013 was a rough year for biologist Pamela Ronald. After discovering the protein that appears to trigger rice’s immune system to fend off a common bacterial disease – suggesting a new way to engineer disease-resistant crops – she and her team had to retract two papers in 2013 after they were unable to replicate their findings. The culprits: a mislabeled bacterial strain and a highly variable assay. However, the care and transparency she exhibited earned her a ‘doing the right thing’ nod from us at the time.”

See coverage:

What do you do about painful retractions? Q&A with Pamela Ronald and Benjamin Swessinger,” Retraction Watch (7.24.2015)

Can the scientific reputation of Pamala Ronald, the public face of GMOs, be salvaged?” by Jonathan Latham, Independent Science News (11.12.2013)

Pamela Ronald does the right thing again, retracting a Science paper,” Retraction Watch (10.10.2013)

Doing the right thing: Researchers retract quorum sensing paper after public process,” Retraction Watch (9.11.2013)

Hank Campbell’s Maze of Monsanto-Loving Science Blogs

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Update 12/6: As this article was about to publish, Hank Campbell was removed from the staff roster of the American Council on Science and Health, the organization he has led as president since July 2015. Acting president of ACSH is now longtime staff member Josh Bloom, PhD. Update 12/10: Campbell’s science blogs (Science 2.0, Science Codex, ScienceBlogs) no longer promote and cross-link to ACSH on the homepages. 

Hank Campbell was until this week president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a group that claims to be a “pro-science consumer advocacy organization,” but according to leaked internal documents and emails released via litigation, ACSH offers its advocacy not to consumers but to chemical, tobacco and pharmaceutical corporate interests (and others) that provide financial backing. For more about ACSH’s work as a corporate front group, see our fact sheet.

Campbell took over the leadership of ACSH in July 2015 from acting president Gil Ross, MD, a convicted felon who was jailed for Medicaid fraud. Tax records show that Dr. Ross was still on the ACSH payroll as of 2017 with $111,618 in compensation as “former senior director of medicine and public health,” while Campbell received $224,358. Campbell’s career history includes working in software development, writing a 2012 book about the “anti-science” left and running a series of questionable science websites, including one that posted anti-Semitic materials that Campbell tried to defend.

Campbell’s network of for-profit, non-profit science blogs

NYU Professor Charles Seife posted documents in November that shed light on Campbell’s network of science blogs that help promote the American Council on Science and Health. In a Twitter thread he called “Mapping a Monsanto-loving octopus,” Seife reported:

  • Campbell’s corporation ION Publications LLC (founded in 2008) owns several science blogging websites, including Science 2.0,Science Codex and others. According to its most recent tax records, ACSH paid ION $60,000 as a “website development service that promotes ACSH.org and increases traffic to the website.”
  • In 2018, Campbell converted Science 2.0 into a nonprofit and then acquired ScienceBlogs.com. The nonprofit’s officers are Campbell and David Zaruk, a former chemical industry lobbyist who once worked for the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. The science blogging websites under these umbrellas cross-promote each other and the ACSH.org website.

Seife summed up his Twitter thread: “this is how a once-admired science blogging site, @scienceblogs, was acquired by a complex and, IMO, shady network of for-profits and non-profits helping Monsanto.”

Helping Monsanto

According to documents released via litigation, Monsanto paid the American Council on Science and Health in 2015 to defend glyphosate and help discredit the scientists of the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel for their report raising cancer concerns about the herbicide.

The documents indicate that Monsanto executives were uncomfortable about working with ACSH but did so anyway because “we don’t have a lot of supporters and can’t afford to lose the few we have,” Daniel Goldstein, Monsanto’s senior science lead, wrote in an email to colleagues. Goldstein provided links to two books, a pamphlet, a pesticide review and 53 articles on the ACSH.org website that he described as “EXTREMELY USEFUL” (emphasis Goldstein’s).

Anti-Semitic material on Science 2.0

Some former writers for ScienceBlogs.com refused to grant rights for their work to remain on the site due to its association with Campbell and Science 2.0, and other observers called on writers to do the same. At issue was Science 2.0’s publishing of anti-Semitic material, which Campbell tried to explain and defend.

In response to the criticism, Campbell removed some posts by the physicist Sascha Vongehr, including one titled, “One Thing Hitler Did Wrong.” The removal notice describes Vongehr’s work as “satire” that came off as offensive due to the “the author’s imperfect grasp of the English language.” Science 2.0 continues to display dozens of articles by Vongehr, including some that contain various anti-Semitic sentiments, such as a post in which Vongehr describes himself as “a Germanic racist” and another titled “Advanced Racism For Dr Duke And Prof Slattery: Why Hate Jews?”

Related:
Science 2.0 refuses to remove Nazi eugenics blog posts, by Keira Havens, Medium (7.9.2018)

Using USA Today as an outlet

In February 2017, two dozen health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote to the editors of USA Today with concerns that the paper regularly publishes science columns authored by ACSH staff, including Campbell, without disclosing ACSH’s funding from multiple corporate interests. ACSH Vice President of Scientific Affairs Alex Berezow, who co-authored Campbell’s 2012 book, remains on the USA Today Board of Contributors buthis biothere does not disclose his leadership staff position at ACSH.

Related:

I Won a Historic Lawsuit But May Not Live to Get the Money

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This article was originally published in Time Magazine.

By Carey Gillam

Dewayne Anthony Lee Johnson has always just gone by Lee. He lived a modest life for 42 years, and was devastated when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2014. Now 46, as he struggles with his advancing illness, Johnson has found sudden celebrity with a historic victory over one of the world’s most powerful and controversial corporations – Monsanto Co.

Johnson sued Monsanto alleging that he developed a deadly form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma after being drenched with the company’s herbicides, which he sprayed as part of his job as school groundskeeper. In Aug. 2018, a jury in San Francisco unanimously found that Monsanto had failed to warn of the carcinogenic dangers of its popular Roundup herbicide and related products, which Johnson sprayed regularly. Thousands of other cancer victims are also suing Monsanto and awaiting their own day in court, but Johnson was the first to take the company to trial. The jury awarded Johnson a jaw-dropping $289 million, which a judge slashed to $78 million on Oct. 22. Evidence revealed in the trial included internal Monsanto records that included discussions of “ghostwriting” scientific papers that asserted the safety of its products and plans to discredit an international agency that declared the main ingredient in Roundup, a chemical called glyphosate, to be a probable human carcinogen.

Monsanto, now a unit of Bayer AG, maintains that its products do not cause cancer. On Nov. 20, the company further appealed, seeking to overturn even Johnson’s reduced award and the trial court judge’s refusal to grant Monsanto’s request for a new trial. But the initial verdict already put Johnson’s life on a very different trajectory, bringing him international attention and heartbreak. He spoke with TIME about the aftermath of his case.

Before I got sick life was pretty good. I had a good job. We were renting this nice house; we found it through some friends. It was almost in foreclosure so we were able to rent it for a good price. Three bedrooms and a nice big backyard. I didn’t have a car so my wife Araceli would drop me off at work or I would ride my bike to the bus stop and take the bus to work. My job title at the school district was integrated pest manager, IPM. I did everything – caught skunks, mice, and raccoons, patched holes in walls, worked on irrigation issues. And I sprayed the pesticides, the “juice.” I had to be at work by sun up to make sure we had time to spray before the kids got to school. One of the guys I worked with didn’t want to wear protective gear but I told him he had to. You got to be careful with this stuff. On a typical day I would fill up my little container with raw pesticide liquid and then put that in the back of my truck and then mix a load before I would leave the yard. I’d mix it all in a tank and take that on the back of my truck and then head out to start spraying. I did not like using the chemicals but I loved that job. I would have been making $80,000 a year now if I was still there.

That day of the accident, the day the sprayer broke and I got drenched in the juice, I didn’t think that much about it. I washed up in the sink as best I could and changed my clothes. Later I went home and took a good long shower but I didn’t think, “Oh my god, I’m going to die from this stuff.” Then I got a little rash. Then it got worse and worse and worse. At one point I had lesions on my face, on my lips, all over my arms and legs.

When I first saw a doctor he was totally confused and didn’t know what was happening on my skin. He sent me to see a dermatologist who did a biopsy of a lesion on my knee. They sent me to UCSF (University of California San Francisco) and then to Stanford. A bunch of doctors came and checked me out. Then one day I got a call. They told me it was urgent, I had to come in to discuss my test results. When the doctor said I had cancer, my wife was sitting there with me. She started crying. I didn’t take it in right away. I don’t think I have still taken it in.

People want to say it’s Johnson v. Monsanto. They want me to talk about the company. I don’t want to do that. I don’t even want to say the company name. I just say ‘the big company.’ I don’t want to be slanderous. I’ve seen reports that I want an apology but that’s not true. I’m not a person who would think an apology would make me feel better – it certainly would not heal my cancer. This isn’t about me and that big company. It is important for people to know this stuff, to know about what they’re being exposed to. If people have the information they can make choices, they can be informed and protect themselves. I’m just a regular guy from a small town called Vallejo in the California Bay Area who happened to seek the truth about my failing health and found answers.

It’s not to say that I didn’t get mad. Plenty of things upset me as the evidence came out in court. I had called the big company early on when I was sick trying to get some answers and at the time the woman I talked to on the phone was real nice. But you see in the emails that came out that there was really no concern for me. They never called me back, that made me mad. I think not getting a call back is what made me pursue legal action. And then when I was in court and heard about the ghostwriting of the science and you see in the emails that everybody is just on a script; they program everybody to stick to the script about safety even if the science says different. [Editor’s Note: Internal Monsanto emails presented at trial showed that Johnson called the company in November 2014 reporting his concerns that his cancer was triggered by being “soaked to the skin” in a Monsanto herbicide during a work accident. “He’s looking for answers,” a Monsanto product support specialist wrote to Monsanto Dan Goldstein, the company’s medical sciences and outreach executive. Goldstein replied that the “story is not making any sense to me at all,” and said he would call Johnson back. But Johnson said he never received a call and Goldstein testified he could not remember whether or not he called Johnson.]

It seemed like the whole world was watching when the judge read that verdict, line by line, and then they announced a quarter billion dollar settlement, $289 million dollars. I think I immediately was paranoid; I literally asked the young bailiff if he could roll out of court with me because I knew the attention this would get and I’ve never really been a fan of attention or fanfare. And now it seems like that’s taken over my life. I get requests for media interviews from all over the world, and people ask me to come to their events and speak, and I’ve had people telling me they want to buy my “life rights” to try to get movie deals. I’ve had strangers try to suddenly become my best friend on Facebook, and then there was this kind of voo-doo priestess who somehow got my number, calling and calling and texting nonstop, promising she could heal me. When I shunned her, she said I would remember her on my death bed, wishing I had let her help me. It’s crazy. My kids are handling it well but they don’t dig the attention — we’re a small family and we’ve just been trying to deal with becoming nationally known.

Sometimes it really gets overwhelming with so many calls and requests for interviews or speaking events. At the same time, though, I see myself now as a major contributor for a conversation that’s been brewing for years, but since the verdict the conversation is a lot louder. I try to give each request my attention but just can’t due to my health and trying to help take care of my kids. But I am trying to make this a priority. I want to see all these schools stop using glyphosate, first California, then the rest of the country. That is my small mission. And as overwhelming as it is, I do feel a lot of support and positive energy from many people who’ve reached out to me. I have felt the love and support of people all across the world and that gives me a whole new sense of drive and responsibility. Some people send small gifts, trinkets. They write to me about their own cancers. One woman wrote about her husband and how he had died. I would say I’ve received thousands of letters. It helps.

A lot of people ask me what I want to do with my life now. I don’t think I’m superman. I go through those little moments when my head is down and my elbows are on my knees and asking myself what am I going to do? But if I can get healthy, not give in to what my doctors say is a terminal situation, if I can get treatments and get closer to a cure then I see myself doing good things. I would love to start a foundation. And I want to do more with my music and art. I paint with oil or acrylic and I do some charcoal drawings. I also like to write; I’ve self-published two books – “My Opinion” and “The Perfect Front.”

Some people think I’m a rich man, they speak to me as if I’ve been paid already, which is far from reality. The truth is the appeals could go on well past my life expectancy. We can’t really celebrate or make plans or go on vacation because we don’t have that money. I get a social security check now every month. It doesn’t even cover the cost of the rent. People are trying to help me out, but I’m basically broke. It’s exciting sometimes to think that we may get millions of dollars, but right now we know we’re not. We’re living the ghost money life.

I’m not even sure I would know how to be a rich man. I would like to buy a house, something close to my kids’ schools, something to give them security. But there are only so many things you can buy. I don’t think there is very much you can or should do with millions of dollars other than try to help people. As for the judge cutting the $289 million down to $78 million, I never thought of that $289 million as anything that would go in my pockets. I knew there would be legal limits striking it and so I never really thought of it as mine. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the jury award in my lifetime. Hopefully my boys will though.

Mostly what I want is for my sons, all three of them, to feel like they have a solid security blanket and to know that they are taken care of. I want to show them the good path and give them the quality of life that allows them to get educated, to understand life and culture and people. I hope that one day they will look back and say, “My dad made history and stood up for himself and for us.”

My chemo has stopped because I am supposed to have more surgery for this thing they biopsied on my arm. Apparently, it’s some new melanoma. And I’ve got this pain that I call “hot spots” on my foot and my arm, burning my wrist. Sometimes I call them “burners.” But it is what it is. I used to be all shiny and a handsome guy – now I’m all messed up. I feel like if you’re sick, you shouldn’t hide it though. Share it with the world and maybe you can help someone.

So much is going on, but the most important thing to me is my boys. I’m so proud of my boys. I hate to think about dying. Even when I feel like I’m dying, I just make myself move past it. I feel like you can’t give in to it, the diagnosis, the disease, because then you really are dead. I don’t mess around with the death cloud, the dark thoughts, the fears. I’m planning for a good life.

Val Giddings: Top Operative for the Agrichemical Industry

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Val Giddings, PhD, is a key player in agrichemical industry efforts to oppose transparency and safety regulations for genetically engineered foods and pesticides. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library indicate that Dr. Giddings helped set up a corporate front group and played a key behind-the-scenes role in other activities to push the deregulatory agenda of the world’s largest agrichemical companies.

Dr. Giddings is a former vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade group for agrichemical and biotechnology companies. He now runs the consulting firm PrometheusAB, and is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

ITIF is a think tank funded by the pharmaceutical, wireless, telecom, film and biotech industries, best known for opposing “net neutrality” and promoting the agenda of the tech industry. The group moved into biotechnology in 2011 with Dr. Giddings. Members of Congress who serve as “honorary co-chairs” of ITIF, including U.S. Reps Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Chris Coons (D-DE), appear to be endorsing and assisting the tobacco tactics that Dr. Giddings has used to advance agrichemical industry interests.

Cooked up academic front group to discredit Monsanto critics

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Giddings played a central role in setting up Academics Review as a front group that falsely claimed to be independent while taking agrichemical industry funds and trying to keep corporate fingerprints hidden.

Other key planners were Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications at Monsanto; Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Eric Sachs, PhD, director of regulatory policy and scientific affairs at  Monsanto.

Academics Review falsely claims on its website that it does not accept corporate money or solicit donations for specific activities; but according to tax forms, most of the funding for Academics Review came from the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group funded and run by the world’s largest chemical companies: BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta/ChemChina.

Timeline of key events for Academics Review:

March 11, 2010: Byrne and Dr. Chassy discussed setting up Academics Review as a front group to target critics of GMOs and pesticides with help from Dr. Giddings.  Byrne said he and Dr. Giddings could serve as “commercial vehicles” to connect corporate entities to the project “in a manner which helps ensure the credibility and independence (and thus value) of the primary contributors/ owners…” Byrne noted he was developing for Monsanto a list of agrichemical industry critics to target:

March 24, 2010:  Dr. Chassy launched the Academics Review website along with David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, with both men listed as cofounders.

November 23, 2010: Dr. Giddings and Dr. Chassy discussed which companies and industry groups might “pony up” for Academics Review to refute a paper that criticized genetically engineered soy.

  • “I bet we could generate some respectable support for it,” Dr. Giddings wrote to Dr. Chassy.
  • Chassy responded in part, “I bet our friends at Monsanto would be willing to write the rebuttal and pay us to post it.”
  • Giddings wrote, “I think the soybean guys might be willing to pony up a chunk to underwrite a rebuttal … If we do this right we can leverage the AcaRev Brand here a bit.”

A week later, Dr. Chassy asked Eric Sachs if Monsanto planned to refute the soy paper, and told Sachs: “The US Soybean Board is going to entertain a proposal from me and Graham Brookes to respond to the piece.” (Academics Review posted a response from Chassy and Brookes in 2012 with no disclosure about funders.)

November 30, 2010: In the email exchange with Dr. Chassy, Eric Sachs of Monsanto said he could help motivate the pesticide and GMO industry trade groups to support Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote.

August 2011: Dr. Giddings submitted a proposal to the agrichemical industry-funded trade group CBI for the  project: “what we do over the next year is directly a function of the support we can raise,” he wrote to CBI Managing Director Ariel Gruswich, in an email copied to Drs. Chassy and Tribe. Gruswich urged the men to join a phone call with her group: “I really believe that hearing directly from you all will increase the likelihood of support among the companies,” she wrote. Tax records show the corporate-funded CBI gave Academics Review $650,000 from 2014 to 2016 for “scientific outreach.”

April 2014: Academics Review published a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam, and claimed to be an independent group with no conflicts of interest. See: “Monsanto fingerprints found all over attack on organic food,” by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post

Industry-funded “boot camps” trained scientists, journalists how to spin GMOs and pesticides  

Over $300,000 of the chemical industry funds Dr. Giddings helped raise for Academics Review went to pay for two conferences called the “Biotech Literacy Project” boot camps, held at the University of Florida in 2014 and UC Davis in 2015, according to tax records. The boot camps – organized by Academics Review and another industry front group,  Genetic Literacy Project – trained journalists and scientists how to reframe the debate about GMOs and pesticides.

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

Deregulating GMOs: “blow the whole damn thing up”

In emails dated February 2015, Dr. Giddings discussed with several academics a plan to write five journal papers arguing for the need to deregulate the biotech industry. Dr. Giddings wrote that the papers should capture, “what I call Henry’s ‘Blow the whole damn thing up’ argument, which is a case I do think should be made.”  University of Arizona law professor Gary Marchant, who initiated the email exchange, explained, “paper 1 is intended to be the blow the whole damn thing up topic.”

Alan McHughen, a public sector educator at UC Riverside and “ambassador expert” for the agrichemical industry-funded marketing campaign GMO Answers, offered to write paper 1. Henry Miller, MD, said he could help but had too much on his plate to be primary author. (A month later, Miller posted an article in Forbes that the New York Times later revealed had been ghostwritten by Monsanto.)

Others copied on the email about the journal papers were Drew Kershen of the University of Oklahoma College of Law; Guy Cardineau, Yvonne Stevens and Lauren Burkhart of Arizona State University; Steven Strauss of Oregon State University; Kevin Folta of University of Florida; Shane Morris of Natural Resources Canada; Alison Van Eenennaam of UC Davis; Joanna Sax of the California Western School of Law; and Thomas Reddick of the Global Environmental Ethics Council.

Coordinated scientist sign-on letter against Seralini study

In September 2012, Dr. Giddings coordinated a scientist sign-on letter urging Wallace Hayes, editor-in-chief of Food and Chemical Toxicology, to reconsider a September 2012 paper by the French researcher Gilles-Éric Séralini that reported tumors in rats fed a diet of Roundup-tolerant GM corn. The paper was retracted a year later and later republished in another journal.

To help coordinate the sign on letter, Dr. Giddings used AgBioChatter – a private liserver that pro-industry academics, senior agrichemical industry staffers and their PR operatives used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. One professor who signed the letter, Chris Leaver, noted that he had “been doing behind the scenes briefing via Sense About Science” about the Séralini study. Sense About Science has a long history of spinning science for the benefit of corporate interests.

Signers of the letter to Food and Chemical Toxicology were Robert Wager, Alda Lerayer, Nina Fedoroff, Giddings, Steve Strauss, Chris Leaver, Shanthu Shantharam, Ingo Potrykus, Marc Fellous, Moises Burachik, Klaus-Dieter Jany, Anthony Trewavas, C Kameswara Rao, C.S. Prakash, Henry Miller, Kent Bradford, Selim Cetiner, Alan McHughen, Luis De Stefano-Beltrán, Bruce Chassy, Salbah Al-Momin, Martina Newell-McGloughlin, Klaus Ammann, Ronald Herring, Lucia de Souza.

Related: “Unearthed emails: Monsanto connected to campaign to retract GMO paper,” Retraction Watch

Suggested attractive “mommy farmers” should pitch GMOs

In conversations with a Monsanto lobbyist about how to defeat GMO labeling campaigns in Colorado and Oregon in 2014, Dr. Giddings suggested that good-looking “mommy farmers” would be the best messengers to allay concerns about genetically engineered foods. “What the situation requires is a suite of TV spots featuring attractive young women, preferably mommy farmers, explaining why biotech derived foods are the safest & greenest in the history of ag and worthy of support,” Dr. Giddings wrote to Lisa Drake, Monsanto’s lead for government affairs.

In a September 2015 front-page New York Times story, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton described the emails:

“In this extended email exchange, some of the scientists and academicswho have been recruited to help Monsanto push its cause question whether they are the best messengers. Two suggest that Monsanto run more television ads featuring farmers instead. The Monsanto lobbyist replies that polling shows that the public believes scientists. In fact, the company has already run TV ads featuring female farmers.”

See: “Food industry enlisted academics in GMO labeling war, emails show,” by Eric Lipton, New York Times.