USRTK wins award for FOI work

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The Northern California Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists honored U.S. Right to Know today with the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards in the nonprofit organization category. Congratulations to all the James Madison FOI award winners!

The awards recognize the “people and organizations of Northern California who have made significant contributions to advancing freedom of information and expression in the spirit of James Madison, the creative force behind the First Amendment.” The awards are presented each year on Madison’s birthday, March 16, Freedom of Information Day, during National Sunshine Week. 

SPJ notes that U.S. Right to Know “filed public records requests with universities and government agencies to shed light on the influence of chemical company Monsanto in the regulatory and policy process around the country’s food system,” and that we “unearthed documents showing that Monsanto employees recruited public university professors to write policy briefs about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to support the company’s public relations goals.”

Monsanto, concerned that our FOIA requests would uncover its influence in academic circles, “created a public relations campaign to discredit U.S. Right to Know,” the SPJ wrote. But we “exposed those efforts, too.”

You can read more here about Monsanto’s campaign against USRTK for exposing its public relations work with academics.

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Dedicated to Tim Crews  

photo courtesy of Associated Press

This year’s James Madison FOI awards, the 36th annual from the Northern Chapter of the SPJ, are dedicated to Tim Crews, “the legendary editor and self-proclaimed ‘cranky country publisher’ of the Sacramento Valley Mirror,” SPJ said.

“Sporting his trademark suspenders and vigorous white beard, Crews constantly fired off public records requests to dig into the government of Willows, a town of 6,000 in the Central Valley. Crews’ mantra for the paper: ‘If we don’t report it, who will?’”

Crews was jailed for five days in 2000 for refusing to divulge anonymous sources, and he successfully overcame a shield law violation when the district attorney unlawfully subpoenaed his notes. He won a First Amendment victory in 2013, when the state Court of Appeal found he didn’t need to pay the legal fees of the school board he had sued for withholding records.

As Crews told the Poynter Institute, “If someone is messing with you, you have to fight back. It’s just the American way.” Crews died last November at age 77.

Monsanto’s Campaign Against U.S. Right To Know: Read the Documents

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Update 3.16.21: The Northern California Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists honored U.S. Right to Know with the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards for our work submitting public records requests to unearth documents showing how Monsanto recruited public university professors to support its PR goals. Concerned that our research would uncover its influence in academic circles, Monsanto “created a public relations campaign to discredit U.S. Right to Know,” the SPJ noted, but we “exposed those efforts, too.” Here are the details.

Internal documents released in August 2019 provide a rare look into the public relations machinery at Monsanto, and how the company tried to contain an investigation by U.S. Right to Know into its relationships with academics and top universities. USRTK, an investigative research group, has made numerous public records requests to taxpayer-funded universities and academics since 2015, leading to revelations about secretive industry collaborations.

The Monsanto documents are posted here and you can read more about the findings of the USRTK investigations here

The documents reveal that Monsanto worried, “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry” and has the “potential to be extremely damaging.” So they deployed 11 Monsanto employees, two PR firms, GMO Answers and involved the world’s top pesticide company in plans to discredit the small nonprofit.

Monsanto also adopted a strategy to counter the reporting of Carey Gillam and her investigative book about the company’s herbicide business. Gillam is research director at USRTK. Monsanto had a ‘Carey Gillam Book’ spreadsheet, with more than 20 actions dedicated to opposing her book before its publication. The company even investigated the singer Neil Young. See coverage:

Monsanto’s plan to discredit USRTK: internal documents, key themes 

Monsanto was deeply worried about USRTK executive director Gary Ruskin’s FOIA investigation, and had an elaborate plan to counteract it. 

Monsanto was concerned that the FOIAs would uncover its influence in the regulatory and policy process, payments to academics and their universities, and collaborations with academics in support of industry public relations goals. Monsanto wanted to protect its reputation and “freedom to operate,” and to “position” the investigation as “an attack on scientific integrity and academic freedom.”

  • “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry, and we will need to coordinate closely with BIO and CBI/GMOA throughout the planning process and on any eventual responses,” according to Monsanto’s “U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan” dated July 25, 2019. BIO is the biotech industry trade association and Council for Biotechnology Information/GMO Answers is a marketing program to promote GMOs run by Ketchum PR firm and funded by the largest agrichemical companies – BASF, Bayer (which now owns Monsanto), Corteva (a division of DowDuPont) and Syngenta.

The companies have pitched GMO Answers as a transparency initiative  to answer questions about GMOs with the voices of “independent experts,” however the documents described here, along with a previously released Monsanto PR plan, suggest that Monsanto relies on GMO Answers as a vehicle to push the company’s messaging.

From page 2, “Monsanto Company Confidential … U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan

  • “Any situation related to this issue has the potential to be extremely damaging, regardless of how benign the information may seem,” according to a GMO Answers Communications Plan in the document (page 23).

  • “*Worst case scenario*”: “Egregious email illustrates what would be the smoking gun of the industry (e.g. email shows expert/company covering up unflattering research or showing GMOs are dangerous/harmful)” (page 26)

  • The plan called for triggering “emergency calls” with the GMO Answers steering committee if the reach/escalation were serious enough. (page 23)
  • In some cases, Monsanto employees expected access to documents before U.S. Right to Know, even though USRTK requested the documents through state FOI. For UC Davis requests: “We will have a pre-release view of documents”. (page 3)
  • 11 Monsanto employees from 5 departments; two staffers from the trade group BIO and a staffer from GMO Answers/Ketchum were listed as “key contacts” in the plan (page 4). Two employees from FleishmanHillard were involved in assembling the plan (see agenda email).

Monsanto was also concerned about Carey Gillam’s book and tried to discredit it.

Several of the newly released documents relate to Monsanto’s efforts to counteract the reporting of Carey Gillam and her book that investigates the company’s herbicide business: “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science” (Island Press, 2017). Gillam is a former reporter for Reuters and current research director of U.S. Right to Know.

The documents include Monsanto’s  20-page “Issues Management / Communication Strategy” for Gillam’s book, with eight Monsanto staffers assigned to preparing for the October 2017 release of Gillam’s book. The strategy was to “minimize media coverage and publicity of this book this summer/fall by pointing to “truths” regarding farming …” 

An Excel spreadsheet titled “Project Spruce: Carey Gillam Book” describes 20 action items, with plans including paid placement for a post to appear on Google with a search for “Monsanto glyphosate Carey Gillam,” generating negative book reviews, and plans to “engage regulatory authorities” and “Pro-Science Third Parties,” including Sense About Science, Science Media Centre, the Global Farmer Network and the “Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research,” a project of the American Chemistry Council.

The documents reveal the existence of the Monsanto Corporate Engagement Fusion Center. 

Monsanto planned to “Work with the Fusion Center to monitor USRTK digital properties, the volume and sentiment related to USRTK/FOIA, as well as audience engagement.” (page 9) For more about corporate fusion centers, see:

Monsanto makes frequent references to working with third parties to counteract USRTK

Others mentioned in the plans included:

Newly released documents list

Monsanto’s campaign to counteract the U.S. Right to Know public records investigation

Monsanto U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan 2019
July 25, 2019: Monsanto’s 31-page strategy plan to counteract the FOIA investigation. “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry…. Any situation related to this issue has the potential to be extremely damaging…”

Monsanto USRTK FOIA meeting agenda
May 15, 2016: Agenda for a meeting to discuss the USRTK FOIAs with eight Monsanto and two FTI Consulting employees.

Monsanto Comprehensive USRTK FOIA Preparedness and Reactive Plan 2016
May 15, 2016: Earlier draft of the Monsanto strategy to deal with the FOIAs (35 pages).

Monsanto response to FOIA article
February 1, 2016: Monsanto employees crafted a communications plan to provide a “10,000 foot view” of how Monsanto works with public sector scientists and/or provides funding to public sector programs – but not details about which universities they fund or how much. The plan responded to an article Carey Gillam wrote for USRTK, based on documents obtained by FOIA, reporting on undisclosed Monsanto funding to University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy.

Unfortunate language AgBioChatter Biofortified boys

  • September 2015: Discussion about “unfortunate” language used by an industry representative to communicate with academics and whether AgBioChatter, a list serve of academics and industry reps, was private or confidential. Karl Haro von Mogel of the GMO promotion group Biofortified advised AgBioChatter members to take “the Ruskin Cleanse” of their private emails to prevent damaging disclosures via FOIA.
  • Bruce Chassy shared with the AgBioChatter list his responses to a fact checker for Mother Jones (“I plan to respond without providing the requested information”) and his correspondence with Carey Gillam in response to her queries for Reuters about his industry ties.

Monsanto’s plans to discredit Carey Gillam’s Book

“Monsanto Company Confidential Issues Management / Communication Strategy” for Carey Gillam’s Book (October 2017)

“Project Spruce: Carey Gillam Book” Excel spreadsheet with 20 action items (September 11, 2017)

Monsanto and FTI Consulting employees discuss the Gillam action plan (September 11, 2017)

Monsanto video prep plans for Gillam book

Monsanto push back on Reuters editors
October 1, 2015: Email from Monsanto’s Sam Murphey: “We continue to push back on her editors very strongly every chance we get. And we all hope for the day she gets reassigned.”

Roundup “Reputation Management”

Reputation Management for Roundup 2014
February 2014: “L&G Reputation Management Sessions Summary, Lyon Feb. 2014” Power Point, with slides that describe what “we want to be known for / we want to avoid being linked with,” and what’s needed to win the argument about glyphosate safety.  “Question… are we just managing and delaying decline (like tobacco)?”

Roundup reputation management slide 2014:

Background on U.S. Right to Know investigations

U.S. Right to Know is a non-profit investigative research group focused on the food industry. Since 2015, we have obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of corporate and regulatory documents via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), U.S. state and international public records requests, and whistleblowers. These documents shine light on how food and agrichemical companies work behind the scenes with publicly funded academics and universities, front groups, regulatory agencies and other third party allies to promote their products and lobby for deregulation.

News coverage based on documents from USRTK Co-director Gary Ruskin’s investigation of the agrichemical industry:

    • New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, by Eric Lipton
    • Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Connection, by Laura Krantz
    • The Guardian: UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk, by Arthur Neslen
    • CBC: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties, by Jason Warick
    • CBC: U of S Defends Prof’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree, by Jason Warick
    • Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War, by Tom Philpott
    • Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby, by Allison Vuchnich
    • Le Monde: La discrète influence de Monsanto, by Stéphane Foucart.
    • The Progressive: Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media — and Discourages Criticism, by Paul Thacker
    • Freedom of the Press Foundation: How corporations suppress disclosure of public records about themselves, by Camille Fassett
    • WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding?, by Monica Eng
    • Saskatoon Star Phoenix: Group Questions U of S Prof’s Monsanto Link, by Jason Warick

For more information about the U.S. Right to Know documents, see our investigations page, examples of global news coverage and academic papers based on the documents. Many of the documents are posted in the free, searchable UCSF Industry Documents Library.

Donate to USRTK to help us expand our investigations and keep bringing you this crucial information about our food system. USRTK.org/donate

The next neocolonial gold rush? African food systems are the ‘new oil,’ UN documents say

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Planning documents for the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit shed new light on the agenda behind the controversial food summit that hundreds of farmers’ and human rights groups are boycotting.

These groups say agribusiness interests and elite foundations have commandeered the UN negotiations to advance an economic agenda that would exploit food systems, especially in Africa. 

The documents, including a background paper prepared for summit dialogues and a draft policy brief, bring into focus “plans for the massive industrialization of Africa’s food systems,” said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACBio), who provided the documents to U.S. Right to Know.

The dialogues “are deaf and blind to the converging systemic crises we face today, and the drastic urgent re-think it demands,” ACBio said in a statement.

‘Radical shift’ required

The background paper provides details about the plans underway. The UN Economic Commission for Africa, African Union Commission, UN Food and Agriculture Organization and partner groups prepared the document for a March 2021 regional dialogue on African food systems. The document notes it was issued “without formal editing and in English only owing to late submission.”

A “radical transformation shift is required,” the paper said, to move Africa “from current doldrums of significant importation of food from outside Africa.”  The paper recounts the dire and worsening situation in Africa where 256 million people are suffering from hunger, and more than half the population in parts of Eastern Africa are food insecure. The Covid 19 pandemic is exacerbating inequity and exposing the vulnerability of Africa’s food system, it notes.

These dynamics are creating an imperative for African governments to create an “enabling environment through improved policies and investments in agricultural public goods, scale up digital solutions for agriculture, and develop innovative financing schemes through public-private partnerships,” the paper said.  

“It is also time to put the investments where they are most needed; for example, African governments channeling millions of dollars in public support to climate-smart agriculture investments … and, strengthening use of big data to drive smarter farm-level decisions on water management, fertilizer use, deploying drought-resistant crop varieties and accessing markets.” 

This agenda aligns with the plans of the agrichemical industry, the Gates Foundation and its main agricultural program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which 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. These groups say new technologies under development and “sustainable intensification” of industrial agriculture are the path forward.  

The plans proposed in the documents are a “predictable recycling” of the “same false solutions … with the same narrow benefits accruing to a limited number of actors,” ACB said in its statement. 

“The aims are not about transforming global relations with the well being of Africans and our ecological systems at the centre, but rather to entrench Africa firmly into global relations and developmental norms defined through colonialism and neoliberal globalisation.”

Agribusiness is the ‘New Oil’

Parts of the UN background paper read like a sales pitch for investors and agrichemical industry products, but without providing full disclosure of the problems these products sometimes cause. 

“Economies that in the last four decades prospered in Africa have done so through the exploitation of mineral wealth, especially oil and gas locally dubbed as ‘black gold,’” the paper explains. “Now, the continent is in motion with [a] rapidly fast transforming agricultural and agribusiness sector that is rapidly causing excitement as well as [a] central focus for investors and investment prioritization to shift to the ‘new oil’ set to drive the continent and offer the US$1 trillion by 2030.” 

A section titled “the promise of digital and biotechnologies and the transformation of food systems,” discusses “the significant potential for capturing large economic, social and environmental payoffs from the use of biotechnology products … In West Africa, for instance, farmers can benefit significantly from the adoption of Bt cotton.” 

The paper does not reference the failed Bt cotton experiment in Burkina Faso, the first country in Africa to adopt a large-scale genetically engineered crop for small farmers. Monsanto’s Bt cotton resisted insects and provided good yields, but could not deliver the same high quality as the native variety, and the country abandoned the GM crop.  

The Burkina Faso story illustrates a “little-known quandary faced by genetic engineering,” Reuters reported. “For Burkina Faso’s cotton growers, GM ended up as a trade-off between quantity and quality. For Monsanto, whose $13.5 billion in revenues in 2016 were more than Burkina Faso’s GDP, it proved uneconomical to tailor the product closely to a market niche.”

review of 20 years of data on Bt cotton in India published last year found the cotton was a poor indicator of yield trends and although it initially reduced the need for pesticides, “farmers now spend more on pesticides today than before the introduction of Bt.”

‘One Africa voice’ leaves out African food movement

“Rebuilding the food systems of the world will … be conditional on wide scale deployment of relevant technologies and innovations,” according to a draft policy brief created for the summit. The document describes two webinars and an online discussion that aim to forge “One Africa Voice” toward the food summit for “key game changes needed to strengthen African agricultural research and development.”   

The process was convened independently of the summit by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the National Agricultural Research Systems and other research and policy groups. African food movements have not been involved in the dialogue, Mayet said. 

Keys to transforming the food system, according to the policy brief, include generating “effective demand for science, technology and innovation” from smallholder farmers, and encouraging African governments to invest more resources into agricultural research “and its products i.e. technologies and innovations.” 

The document notes “a need to devote more attention to the collection of data and development of capacities for analysis showing the return” on agricultural research for development and to “equitable policy formulation and implementation, ie, policies for enforcing property rights, including intellectual property rights, rewarding farmers for ecosystem services, ensuring safe and healthy diets at affordable prices.”

The dialogue “seems to represent another legitimating space for elite-consensus building which will then be presented at the UN Food Systems Summit as the ‘voice of Africa’ … However, such a voice will be far from that of the ordinary African working person,” ACBio said.  “Instead, it reflects the priorities of development experts aligned to the modernist, technology-driven visions of change and transformation, biotechnology companies, agribusiness, and the neoliberal, global development agenda.”

“Africa must question the meanings of productivity, and the social relations in which smallholder farmers could genuinely achieve greater productivity in relation to economic wellbeing and social and ecological justice.”

‘Coercive’ restructure of research centers

The policy battles converging at the 2021 Food Systems Summit threaten “to force-feed the failed industrial food system to the public sector and world agriculture, binding governments to a corporate agenda that marginalizes farmers, civil society, social movements and agroecology,” according to a February 2020 report from the ETC Group that described the dynamics in play around the summit. 

One key battle concerns the future of CGIAR, a consortium of 15 agricultural research centers with over 10,000 scientists and technicians on its payroll and nearly 800,000 crop varieties in its 11 gene banks. A Gates Foundation representative and former leader of the Syngenta Foundation are heading up a proposed restructuring plan to consolidate the network into “One CGIAR” with a single board with new agenda-setting powers.

The proposed restructuring, according to a July letter from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, would “reduce the autonomy of regional research agendas and reinforce the grip of the most powerful donors – many of whom are reluctant to diverge from the Green Revolution pathway.” 

The process, IPES said, “appears to have been driven forward in a coercive manner, with little buy-in from the supposed beneficiaries in the global South, with insufficient diversity among the inner circle of reformers, and without due consideration of the urgently-needed paradigm shift in food systems.”

Many experts are saying a paradigm shift is necessary away from industrial agriculture and toward diversified, agroecological approaches that can address the problems and limitations of the current industrial model, including inequalities, increased poverty, malnutrition and ecosystem degradation. 

In 2019, a high level panel of experts on food security and nutrition for the UN recommends transitioning to diversified food systems, addressing power inequalities in food systems, and investing in research systems that support agroecology as the way forward. 

Documents 

Regional Dialogue: African Food Systems Seventh Session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development 4 March 2021, Brazzaville, Congo Background Paper, ECA, AUC, FAO, AUDA-NEPAD, WEP, UNICEF, IFAD, AfDB, Akademiya2063, RUFORUM (2021)  

Regional Dialogue: African Food Systems (agenda item 9), Thursday March 4, UN Economic and Social Council

Policy Brief, Strengthening African Agricultural Research and Development Towards an Improved Africa Food System, “One Africa Voice” towards the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, FARA, Sub Regional Research Organizations, NARS, AFAAS, AGRA, FANRPAN

ACB Reaction to the Regional Dialogue on African Food Systems, which took place at the Seventh Session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development, 4 March 2021

The Monsanto Papers – Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice

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USRTK Research Director Carey Gillam’s new book is out now and garnering glowing reviews. Here is a brief description of the book from publisher Island Press:

Lee Johnson was a man with simple dreams. All he wanted was a steady job and a nice home for his wife and children, something better than the hard life he knew growing up. He never imagined that he would become the face of a David-and-Goliath showdown against one of the world’s most powerful corporate giants. But a workplace accident left Lee doused in a toxic chemical and facing a deadly cancer that turned his life upside down. In 2018, the world watched as Lee was thrust to the forefront of one the most dramatic legal battles in recent history.

The Monsanto Papers is the inside story of Lee Johnson’s landmark lawsuit against Monsanto. For Lee, the case was a race against the clock, with doctors predicting he wouldn’t survive long enough to take the witness stand. For the eclectic band of young, ambitious lawyers representing him, it was a matter of professional pride and personal risk, with millions of their own dollars and hard-earned reputations on the line.

With a gripping narrative force, The Monsanto Papers takes readers behind the scenes of a grueling legal battle, pulling back the curtain on the frailties of the American court system and the lengths to which lawyers will go to fight corporate wrongdoing and find justice for consumers.

See more about the book here. Buy the book at AmazonBarnes & Noble, publisher Island Press or independent book sellers.

Reviews

“A powerful story, well told, and a remarkable work of investigative journalism. Carey Gillam has written a compelling book from beginning to end, about one of the most important legal battles of our time.”  — Lukas Reiter, TV executive producer and writer for “The Blacklist,” “The Practice,” and “Boston Legal”

“The Monsanto Papers blends science and human tragedy with courtroom drama in the style of John Grisham. It is a story of corporate malfeasance on a grand scale – a chilling revelation of the chemical industry’s greed, arrogance, and reckless disregard for human life and the health of our planet. It is a must read.”  — Philip J. Landrigan, MD, Director, Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good, Boston College

“Veteran investigative journalist Carey Gillam tells Johnson’s story in her latest book, “The Monsanto Papers,” a fast-paced, engaging account of how Monsanto and Bayer’s fortunes changed dramatically in such a short span of time. Despite the subject matter — complicated science and legal proceedings — “The Monsanto Papers” is a gripping read that provides an easy-to-follow explanation of how this litigation unfolded, how the jurors reached their verdict and why Bayer appears to be, in effect, throwing up a white flag now.”  — St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The author builds a convincing case that Monsanto was more interested in protecting the reputation of its cash cow than heeding scientific evidence of its dangerous properties. Gillam is especially good at rendering the complex dynamics of the legal personalities, which adds a further humanizing dimension to Johnson’s story…An authoritative takedown of a corporation that evidently cares little for public health.”  ― Kirkus

“Gillam narrates an of-the-moment reckoning with a major corporation whose products have been marketed as safe since the 1970s. As an examination of both corporate malfeasance and legal maneuvering in torts cases, Gillam’s book personifies the need for consumer protections and safety.”  ― Booklist

“A great read, a page turner. I was totally engrossed by the deception, distortions, and lack of decency of the company.”  — Linda S. Birnbaum, Former Director, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, and Scholar in Residence, Duke University

“A powerful book that sheds light on Monsanto and others who have been untouchable for so long!”
— John Boyd Jr., Founder and President, National Black Farmers Association

About the Author

Investigative journalist Carey Gillam has spent more than 30 years reporting on corporate America, including 17 years working for Reuters international news agency. Her 2017 book about pesticide dangers, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, won the 2018 Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has become a part of the curriculum in several university environmental health programs. Gillam is currently Research Director for the non-profit consumer group U.S. Right to Know and writes as a contributor for The Guardian.

Why we’re tracking Bill Gates’ plans to remake our food systems

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In a series of posts, U.S. Right to Know examines Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation’s plans to remake our food system. Why are we focusing on Bill Gates? Gates has an extraordinary amount of power over our food systems and he is using it. Gates is one of the world’s leading investors in biotechnology companies that patent food. He is the largest owner of farmland in the United States. His $50 billion tax-exempt private foundation exerts major influence over political negotiations and research agendas that guide how food systems develop in the Global South, and what food we all grow and eat.

Controversial agriculture agenda in Africa

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent over $5 billion on its efforts to transform food systems in Africa, with investments that are “intended to help millions of small farmers lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.” A growing chorus of critics say the foundation’s agricultural development strategies — based on the “green revolution” model of industrial expansion — are outdated, harmful and impeding the transformative changes necessary to feed the world and fix the climate.

The battle has been brewing for more than a decade as food sovereignty movements in Africa have resisted the push for chemical-intensive agriculture, patented seeds and monocrops. A better model, the food movements say, can be found in agroecological projects that are increasing productivity with lower costs and higher incomes for farmers, while also building climate resiliency. In 2019, a high level UN panel of experts on food security and nutrition called for a paradigm shift away from industrial agriculture and toward agroecological solutions they say can provide more abundant and nutritious foods, protect biodiversity and address the structural inequalities at the heart of the hunger crises.

Related: 

UN Food Systems Summit showdown

The debate is now headed for a showdown at the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. Rather than following the advice of their own expert panel, the UN has allowed what critics describe as an agribusiness takeover of the food summit, led by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations and the World Economic Forum (WEF). These groups want to ramp up industrial agricultural development models that critics say are harming the climate and failing to feed the hungry

Hundreds of civil society groups are denouncing the Summit and its leadership by Agnes Kailibata, president of the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for relations with the UN Committee on World Food Security — a group representing 550 civil society organizations with more than 300 million members — said in March it would boycott the summit and set up a parallel meeting.

Three UN Special Rapporteurs on the right to food are also speaking out about the summit’s deep deficiencies. In an open letter to Kalibata in January, the current Special Rapporteur Michael Fakhri described how the summit is heavily skewed in favor of financiers and market-based solutions that cannot meet today’s food system challenges. Fakhri’s report on the Summit provides many details on the structural problems and concerns at the center of the summit debate. The stakes are high with billions of dollars in investments and government policies that will determine how food systems develop in the years ahead to deal with the multiple converging crises of hunger, climate change and pandemic conditions.

“There will be no real solutions if we focus on science and technology, profits and markets, without also addressing fundamental questions of equality, accountability, and governance,” Fakhri said.

Excerpt from letter from 176 organizations from 83 countries asking UN Secretary General António Guterres to revoke the Special Envoy appointment of Agnes Kalibata, president of AGRA:

Statements opposing the corporate agenda of the UNFSS

Articles

  • Farmers and rights groups boycott food summit over big business links, The Guardian (3.4.21)
  • UN Food Systems Summit: How Not to Respond to the Urgency of Reform, by Michael Fakri, Hilal Elver, Olivier De Schutter, IPS News (3.22.21)
  • Faiths institute asks Gates Foundation to change tactics in Africa, Catholic News Service (2.22.21)
  • We Should All Be Worried About The United Nations Food Systems Summit, by A Growing Culture, Medium (5.1.21)
  • The world needs a food movement based on agroecology and equity (commentary), by Pat Mooney, Mongabay (4.21.21)
  • UN Rapporteur to Agnes Kalibata: Food Systems Summit needs human rights at its core, by Lise Colyer, Quota (1.14.21)

Hear Professor Michael Fakhri explain what’s at stake at the UN World Food Summit and why food systems are a major problem and also key solution for climate change.

Related USRTK posts:

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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 food system, our environment and our health.

Bill Gates’ plans to remake food systems will harm the climate

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By Stacy Malkan

In his new book on how to avoid a climate disaster, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates discusses his plans to model African food systems upon India’s “green revolution,” in which a plant scientist increased crop yields and saved a billion lives, according to Gates. The obstacle to implementing a similar overhaul in Africa, he asserts, is that most farmers in poor countries don’t have the financial means to buy fertilizers.  

“If we can help poor farmers raise their crop yields, they’ll earn more money and have more to eat, and millions of people in some of the world’s poorest countries will be able to get more food and the nutrients they need,” Gates concludes. He doesn’t consider many obvious aspects of the hunger crisis, just as he skips crucial elements of the climate debate, as Bill McKibben points out in the New York Times review of Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. 

Gates fails to mention, for example, that hunger is largely due to poverty and inequality, not scarcity. And he seems unaware that the decades-long “green revolution” push for industrial agriculture in India has left a harsh legacy of harm for both the ecosystem and smallholder farmers, who have been protesting in the streets since last year.   

“Farmer protests in India are writing the Green Revolution’s obituary,” Aniket Aga wrote in Scientific American last month. Decades into the green revolution strategy, “it is evident that new problems of industrial agriculture have added to the old problems of hunger and malnutrition,” Aga writes. “No amount of tinkering on the marketing end will fix a fundamentally warped and unsustainable production model.”

This model — which moves farmers toward ever-larger and less-diverse farming operations that rely on pesticides and climate-harming chemical fertilizers — is one the Gates Foundation has been promoting in Africa for 15 years, over the opposition of African food movements who say the foundation is pushing the priorities of multinational agribusiness corporations to the detriment of their communities.  

Hundreds of civil society groups are protesting the Gates Foundation’s agricultural strategies and its influence over the upcoming UN World Food Summit. Insiders say this leadership is threatening to derail meaningful efforts to transform the food system, at a crucial moment when much of sub-Saharan Africa is reeling from multiple shocks and a growing hunger crisis due to pandemic and climate change conditions. 

All this has gone unnoticed by major media outlets that are rolling out the red carpet for Gates’ book. Here are some of the reasons the critics say Gates Foundation’s agricultural development program is bad for the climate. The foundation has not responded to multiple requests for comment. 

Related post: Why we’re tracking Bill Gates’ plans to remake the food system 

Ramping up greenhouse gas emissions

Gates is not shy about his passion for synthetic fertilizer, as he explains in this blog about his visit to the Yara fertilizer distribution plant in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The new plant is the largest of its kind in East Africa. Fertilizer is a “magical invention that can help lift millions of people out of poverty,” Gates writes. “Watching workers fill bags with the tiny white pellets containing nitrogen, phosphorous, and other plant nutrients was a powerful reminder of how every ounce of fertilizer has the potential to transform lives in Africa.”

Corp Watch describes Yara as “the fertilizer giant causing climate catastrophe.” Yara is Europe’s biggest industrial buyer of natural gas, actively lobbies for fracking, and is a top producer of synthetic fertilizers that scientists say are responsible for worrying increases in emissions of nitrous oxide. The greenhouse gas that is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. According to a recent Nature paper, nitrous oxide emissions driven largely by agriculture are rising in an increasing feedback loop that is putting us on a worst-case trajectory for climate change.

Gates acknowledges that synthetic fertilizers harm the climate. As a solution, Gates hopes for technological inventions on the horizon, including an experimental project to genetically engineer microbes to fix nitrogen to soil. “If these approaches work,” Gates writes, “they’ll dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer and all the emissions it’s responsible for.” 

In the meantime, the key focus of Gates’ green revolution efforts for Africa is expanding the use of synthetic fertilizer with the aim of boosting yields, even though there isn’t any evidence to show that 14 years of these efforts have helped small farmers or the poor, or produced significant yield gains.

Expanding climate-harming monocultures 

The Gates Foundation has spent over $5 billion since 2006 to “help drive agricultural transformation” in Africa. The bulk of the funding goes to technical research and efforts to transition African farmers to industrial agricultural methods and increase their access to commercial seeds, fertilizer and other inputs. Proponents say these efforts give farmers the choices they need to boost production and lift themselves out of poverty. Critics argue that Gates’ “green revolution” strategies are harming Africa by making ecosystems more fragile, putting farmers into debt, and diverting public resources away from deeper systemic changes needed to confront the climate and hunger crises. 

“The Gates Foundation promotes a model of industrial monoculture farming and food processing that is not sustaining our people,” a group of faith leaders from Africa wrote in a letter to the foundation, raising concerns that the foundation’s “support for the expansion of intensive industrial agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.” 

The foundation, they noted, “encourages African farmers to adopt a high input–high output approach that is based on a business model developed in a Western setting” and “puts pressure on farmers to grow just one or a few crops based on commercial high-yielding or genetically modified (GM) seeds.”

Gates’ flagship agricultural program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), steers farmers toward maize and other staple crops with the aim of boosting yields. According to AGRA’s operational plan for Uganda (emphasis theirs):

  • Agricultural transformation is defined as a process by which farmers shift from highly diversified, subsistence-oriented production towards more specialized production oriented towards the market or other systems of exchange, involving a greater reliance on input and output delivery systems and increased integration of agriculture with other sectors of the domestic and international economies.

AGRA’s primary focus is programs to increase farmers’ access to commercial seeds and fertilizers to grow maize and a few other crops. This “green revolution” technology package is further supported by $1 billion a year in subsidies from African governments, according to research published last year by the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute and report by African and German groups

The researchers found no sign of a productivity boom; the data show modest yield gains of 18% for staple crops in AGRA’s target countries, while incomes stagnated and food security worsened, with the number of hungry and undernourished people up 30%. AGRA disputed the research but has not provided detailed reporting of its results over 15 years. An AGRA spokesperson told us a report will be forthcoming in April.

The independent researchers also reported a decline in traditional crops, such as millet, which is climate-resilient and also an important source of micronutrients for millions of people.

The AGRA model imposed on previously relatively diverse Rwanda farming almost certainly undermined its more nutritious and sustainable traditional agricultural cropping patterns,” Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former UN assistant secretary-general for economic development, wrote in an article describing the research.  The AGRA package, he notes, was “imposed with a heavy hand” in Rwanda, with “the government reportedly banning cultivation of some other staple crops in some areas.”  

Diverting resources from agroecology 

“If global food systems are to become sustainable, input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots must become obsolete,” the African faith leaders wrote in their appeal to the Gates Foundation.

Indeed, many experts say a paradigm shift is necessary, away from uniform, monoculture cropping systems toward diversified, agroecological approaches that can address the problems and limitations of industrial agriculture including inequalities, increased poverty, malnutrition and ecosystem degradation.

The 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns against the damaging effects of monocropping, and highlights the importance of agroecology, which the panel said could improve the “sustainability and resilience of agricultural systems by buffering climate extremes, reducing degradation of soils, and reversing unsustainable use of resources; and consequently increase yield without damaging biodiversity.”

Rupa Marya, MD, associate professor of medicine at UCSF, discusses agroecology at the 2021 EcoFarm conference

A UN Food and Agriculture Organization expert panel report on agroecology clearly calls for a shift away from the “green revolution” industrial agriculture model and toward agroecological practices that have been shown to increase the diversity of food crops, reduce costs and build climate resilience. 

But programs to scale up agroecology are starving for funding  as billions in aid and subsidies go to prop up industrial agriculture models. Key barriers holding back investments in agroecology include donor preferences for profitability, scalability and short-term results, according to a 2020 report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

As many as 85% of Gates Foundation funded agricultural development research projects for Africa in recent years were limited to “supporting industrial agriculture and/or increasing its efficiency via targeted approaches such as improved pesticide practices, livestock vaccines or reductions in post-harvest losses,” the report said. Only 3% of the projects included elements of agroecological redesign.

The researchers note, “agroecology does not not fit within existing investment modalities. Like many philanthropic givers, the BMGF [Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favours targeted, technological solutions.” 

These preferences weigh heavy in decisions about how research develops for global food systems. The largest recipient of Gates Foundation’s agricultural funding is CGIAR, a consortium of 15 research centers employing thousands of scientists and managing 11 of the world’s most important gene banks. The centers historically focused on developing a narrow set of crops that could be mass produced with the help of chemical inputs. 

In recent years, some CGIAR centers have taken steps toward systemic and rights-based approaches, but a proposed restructuring plan to create “One CGIAR” with a single board and new agenda-setting powers is raising concerns. According to IPES food, the restructuring proposal threatens to “reduce the autonomy of regional research agendas and reinforce the grip of the most powerful donors,” such as the Gates Foundation, who are “reluctant to diverge from the Green Revolution pathway.”

The restructuring process led by a Gates Foundation representative and former leader of the Syngenta Foundation, “appears to have been driven forward in a coercive manner,” IPES said, “with little buy-in from the supposed beneficiaries in the global South, with insufficient diversity among the inner circle of reformers, and without due consideration of the urgently-needed paradigm shift in food systems.”

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation has kicked in another $310 million to CGIAR to “help 300 million smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.” 

Inventing new uses for GMO pesticide crops

The takeaway message of Gates new book is that technological breakthroughs can feed the world and fix the climate, if only we can invest enough resources toward these innovations. The world’s largest pesticide/seed companies are promoting the same theme, rebranding themselves from climate deniers to problem solvers: advances in digital farming, precision agriculture and genetic engineering will reduce the ecological footprint of agriculture and “empower 100 million smallholder farmers” to adapt to climate change, “all by the year 2030,” according to Bayer CropScience.

The Gates Foundation and the chemical industry are “selling the past as innovation in Africa,” argues Timothy Wise, a research fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, in a new paper for Tufts GDAE. “The real innovation,” Wise said, “is happening in farmers’ fields as they work with scientists to increase the production of a diversity of food crops, reduce costs, and build climate resilience by adopting agroecological practices.” 

As a harbinger of tech breakthroughs to come, Gates points in his book to the Impossible Burger. In a chapter entitled “How We Grow Things,” Gates describes his satisfaction with the bleeding veggie burger (in which he is a major investor) and his hopes that plant-based burgers and cell-based meats will be major solutions for climate change. 

He’s right, of course, that shifting away from factory-farmed meat is important for the climate. But is the Impossible Burger a sustainable solution, or just a marketable way to turn industrially produced crops into patented food productsAs Anna Lappe explains, Impossible Foods “is going all in on GMO soy,” not only as the burger’s core ingredient but also as the theme of the company’s sustainability branding.  

For 30 years, the chemical industry promised GMO crops would boost yields, reduce pesticides and feed the world sustainably, but it hasn’t turned out that way. As Danny Hakim reported in the New York Times, GMO crops did not produce better yields. The GMO crops also drove up the use of herbicides, especially glyphosate, which is linked to cancer among other health and environmental problems. As weeds became resistant, the industry developed seeds with new chemical tolerances. Bayer, for example, is forging ahead with GMO crops engineered to survive five herbicides.

Mexico recently announced plans to ban GMO corn imports, declaring the crops “undesirable” and “unnecessary.”

In South Africa, one of the few African countries to allow commercial cultivation of GMO crops, more than 85% of maize and soy is now engineered, and most is sprayed with glyphosate. Farmers, civil society groups, political leaders and doctors are raising concerns about rising cancer rates. And food insecurity is rising, too.  South Africa’s experience with GMOs has been “23 years of failures, biodiversity loss and escalating hunger,” according to the African Centre for Biodiversity.

The green revolution for Africa, says the group’s founder Mariam Mayet, is a “dead-end” leading to “declining soil health, loss of agricultural biodiversity, loss of farmer sovereignty, and locking of African farmers into a system that is not designed for their benefit, but for the profits of mostly Northern multinational corporations.” 

“It is vital that now, at this pivotal moment in history,” says the African Centre for Biodiversity, “that we shift the trajectory, phasing out industrial agriculture and transition towards a just and ecologically sound agricultural and food system.”  

Stacy Malkan is managing editor and co-founder of U.S. Right to Know, an investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. Sign up for the Right to Know newsletter for regular updates.

Related: Read about Cargill’s $50 million production facility to genetically engineer stevia, a high-value and sustainably grown crop that many farmers in the Global South depend on.

Bayer’s Shady PR Firms: FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, FTI Consulting

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Originally posted May 2019; updated November 2020

In this post, U.S. Right to Know is tracking public deception scandals involving PR firms that agrichemical giants Bayer AG and Monsanto have relied on for their product defense campaigns: FTI consulting, Ketchum PR and FleishmanHillard. These firms have long histories of using deceptive tactics to promote the political agendas of their clients, including pesticide, tobacco and oil industry defense campaigns.

Recent scandals

NYT exposes FTI Consulting firm’s shady tactics for the oil industry: In a Nov. 11, 2020 New York Times article, Hiroko Tabuchi reveals how FTI Consulting “helped design, staff and run organizations and websites funded by energy companies that can appear to represent grassroots support for fossil-fuel initiatives.” Based on her interviews with a dozen former FTI staffers and hundreds of internal documents, Tabuchi reports on how FTI monitored environmental activists, ran astroturf political campaigns, staffed two news and information sites and wrote pro-industry articles on fracking, climate lawsuits and other hot-button issues with direction from Exxon Mobile.

Monsanto and its PR firms orchestrated GOP effort to intimidate cancer researchers: Lee Fang reported for The Intercept in 2019 on documents suggesting that Monsanto antagonized regulators and applied pressure to shape research of the world’s leading herbicide, glyphosate. The story reports on deceptive PR tactics, including how FTI Consulting drafted a letter about glyphosate science signed by a senior GOP congressman.

Monsanto documents reveal tactics to discredit public interest investigation: Internal Monsanto documents released via litigation in August 2019 revealed a range of tactics the company and its PR firms used to target journalists and other influencers who raised concerns about pesticides and GMOs, and tried to counter an investigation into their activities by U.S. Right to Know.

See USRTK’s fact sheets, based on documents obtained from our investigation, reporting on third-parties engaged in pesticide industry defense: Tracking the Pesticide Industry Propaganda Network.

In May 2019, we reported on several scandals involving Bayer’s PR firms:

‘Monsanto File’ scandal

Journalists at Le Monde reported May 9 that they obtained a “Monsanto File” created by the public relations firm FleishmanHillard listing a “multitude of information” about 200 journalists, politicians, scientists and others deemed likely to influence the debate on glyphosate in France. Le Monde filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office alleging that the document involved illegal collection and processing of personal data, spurring the prosecutor’s office to open a criminal probe. “This is a very important discovery because it shows there are objective strategies to silence strong voices. I can see they were trying to isolate me,” France’s former Environment Minister Segolene Royal, who is on the list, told France 24 TV.

“This is a very important discovery because it shows there are objective strategies to silence strong voices.”

Francois Veillerette, an environmentalist also on the list, told France 24 that it contained personal contact details, opinions and level of engagement in relation to Monsanto. “This is a major shock in France,” he said. “We don’t think this is normal.” Bayer has since admitted that FleishmanHillard drew up “‘watch lists’ of pro- or anti-pesticides figures” in seven countries across Europe, the AFP reported. The lists contained information about journalists, politicians and other interest groups. The AFP said it filed a complaint with a French regulatory agency because some of its journalists were on the list that surfaced in France.

Bayer apologized and said it suspended its relationship with the firms involved, including FleishmanHillard and Publicis Consultants, pending an investigation. “Our highest priority is to create transparency,” Bayer said. “We do not tolerate unethical behavior in our company.” (The firms were later cleared of wrongdoing by the law firm hired by Bayer.)

Further reading:

Posing as a reporter at Monsanto cancer trial

Adding to Bayer’s PR troubles, AFP reported on May 18 that an employee of another “crisis management” PR firm that works with Bayer and Monsanto — FTI Consulting — was caught posing as a freelance journalist at a federal trial in San Francisco that ended with an $80 million judgment against Bayer over glyphosate cancer concerns.

The FTI Consulting employee Sylvie Barak was seen chatted up reporters about story ideas at the trial. She claimed to work for the BBC and did not disclose that she actually worked for a PR firm.

Further reading:

Ketchum and FleishmanHillard run GMO PR salvo

In 2013, the agrichemical industry tapped FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, both owned by Omnicom, to head up a PR offensive to rehabilitate the image of its embattled GMO and pesticide products. Monsanto selected FleishmanHillard to “reshape” its reputation amid “fierce opposition” to genetically modified foods, according to the Holmes Report. Around the same time, FleishmanHillard also became the PR agency of record for Bayer, and the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) — a trade group funded by Bayer (Monsanto), Corteva (DowDuPont), Syngenta and BASF — hired Ketchum public relations firm to launch a marketing campaign called GMO Answers.

Spin tactics employed by these firms included “wooing mommy bloggers” and using the voices of supposedly “independent” experts to “clear up confusion and mistrust” about GMOs. However, evidence surfaced that the PR firms edited and scripted some of the “independent” experts. For example, documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Ketchum scripted posts for GMO Answers that were signed by a University of Florida professor who claimed to be independent as he worked behind the scenes with Monsanto on PR projects. A senior vice president at FleishmanHillard edited the speech of a UC Davis professor and coached her how to “win over people in the room” at an IQ2 debate to convince the public to accept GMOs. Ketchum also gave the professor talking points for a radio interview about a scientific study.

Academics were important messengers for industry lobbying efforts to oppose GMO labeling, reported the New York Times in 2015. “Professors/researchers/scientists have a big white hat in this debate and support in their states, from politicians to producers,” Bill Mashek, a vice president at Ketchum, wrote to the University of Florida professor. “Keep it up!”  The industry trade group CBI has spent over $11 million on Ketchum’s GMO Answers since 2013, according to tax records.

GMO Answers ‘crisis management’ success

As one sign of its success as a PR spin tool, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in 2014 in the category of “Crisis Management & Issue Management.” In this video for CLIO, Ketchum bragged about how it nearly doubled positive media attention of GMOs and “balanced 80% of interactions”  on Twitter. Many of those online interactions are from accounts that appear independent and do not disclose their connection to industry’s PR campaign.

Although the Ketchum video claimed GMO Answers would “redefine transparency” with information from experts with “nothing filtered or censored, and no voices silenced,” a Monsanto PR plan suggests the company counted on GMO Answers to help spin its products in a positive light. The document from 2015 listed GMO Answers among the “industry partners” that could help protect Roundup from cancer concerns; in a “resources” section on page 4, the plan listed links to GMO Answers alongside Monsanto documents that could communicate the company message that “Glyphosate is not carcinogenic.”

This Ketchum video was posted to the CLIO website and removed after we called attention to it.

Further reading:

Histories of deception: FleishmanHillard, Ketchum

Why any company would put FleishmanHillard or Ketchum, both owned by the PR conglomerate Omnicom, in front of efforts to inspire trust is difficult to understand. Both companies have long histories of documented deception. For example:

Until 2016, Ketchum was the PR firm for Russia and Vladimir Putin. According to documents obtained by ProPublica, Ketchum was caught placing pro-Putin op-eds under the names of “seemingly independent professionals” in various news outlets. In 2015, the embattled Honduran government hired Ketchum to try to rehabilitate its reputation after a multi-million dollar corruption scandal.

Documents leaked to Mother Jones indicate that Ketchum worked with a private security firm that “spied on Greenpeace and other environmental organizations from the late 1990s through at least 2000, pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings.” FleishmanHillard was also caught using unethical espionage tactics against public health and tobacco control advocates on behalf of the tobacco company R. J. Reynolds, according to a study by Ruth Malone in the American Journal of Public Health. The PR firm even secretly audiotaped tobacco control meetings and conferences.

FleishmanHillard was the public relations firm for The Tobacco Institute, the cigarette industry’s main lobbying organization, for seven years. In a 1996 Washington Post article, Morton Mintz recounted the story of how FleishmanHillard and the Tobacco Institute converted the Healthy Buildings Institute into a front group for the tobacco industry in its effort to spin away public concern about the dangers of second-hand smoke. Ketchum also did work for the tobacco industry.

Both firms have at times worked on both sides of an issue. FleishmanHillard has been hired for anti-smoking campaigns. In 2017, Ketchum launched a spin-off firm called Cultivate to cash in on the growing organic food market, even though Ketchum’s GMO Answers has disparaged organic food, claiming that consumers pay a “hefty premium” for food that is no better than conventionally-grown food.

Further reading:

FTI Consulting: climate deception, tobacco ties

FTI Consulting, the “crisis management” PR firm that works with Bayer and whose employee was caught impersonating a journalist at the recent Roundup cancer trial in San Francisco, shares several similarities with FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, including its use of covert tactics, lack of transparency and history of working with the tobacco industry.

The firm is known as a key player in ExxonMobil’s efforts to evade responsibility for climate change. As Elana Schor and Andrew Restuccia reported in Politico in 2016:

“Aside from [Exxon] itself, the most vocal resistance to the greens has come from FTI Consulting, a firm filled with former Republican aides that has helped unify the GOP in defense of fossil fuels. Under the banner of Energy in Depth, a project it runs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, FTI has peppered reporters with emails that suggest “collusion” between green activists and state AGs, and has raised questions over InsideClimate’s Rockefeller grants.”

FTI Consulting employees have been caught impersonating journalists before. Karen Savage reported in January 2019 in Climate Liability News, “Two public relations strategists representing Exxon recently posed as journalists in an attempt to interview an attorney representing Colorado communities that are suing Exxon for climate change-related damages. The strategists—Michael Sandoval and Matt Dempsey—are employed by FTI Consulting, a firm long linked with the oil and gas industry.” According to Climate Liability News, the two men were listed as writers for Western Wire, a website run by oil interests and staffed with strategists from FTI Consulting, which also provides staff to Energy In Depth, a pro-fossil fuel “research, education and public outreach campaign.”

Energy In Depth presented itself as a “mom and pop shop” representing small energy providers but was created by major oil and gas companies to lobby for deregulation, DeSmog blog reported in 2011. The Greenpeace group uncovered a 2009 industry memo describing Energy In Depth as a “new industry-wide campaign… to combat new environmental regulations, especially with regard to hydraulic fracturing” that “would not be possible without the early financial commitments” of major oil and gas interests including BP, Halliburton, Chevron, Shell, XTO Energy (now owned by ExxonMobil).

Another feature in common with all these firms is their tobacco industry ties. FTI Consulting has “a long history of working with the tobacco industry,” according to Tobacco Tactics.org. A search of the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents library brings up over 2,400 documents relating to FTI Consulting.

Further reading:

More reporting on Bayer’s PR scandals

Coverage in French

Coverage in English

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

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Related reporting: Gates Foundation’s failing green revolution in Africa (7.29.20)

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

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

Faith leaders appeal to Gates Foundation 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappearing promises of the green revolution 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local producers and short food chains 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubling down on PR campaign housed at Cornell 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debate over agroecology heats up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asking for a ‘fair fight’

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

Her group has for years been documenting “the efforts to spread the Green Revolution in Africa, and the dead-ends it will lead to: declining soil health, loss of agricultural biodiversity, loss of farmer sovereignty, and locking of African farmers into a system that is not designed for their benefit, but for the profits of mostly Northern multinational corporations.”

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

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

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

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The Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) is a public relations campaign funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that works to increase acceptance of genetically engineered foods around the world. Its primary focus is to train fellows in many countries, especially in Africa, to promote and defend genetically engineered crops and agrichemicals in their home countries.

The group is based at the Boyce Thompson Institute, an independent nonprofit research institute that is affiliated with Cornell University. This fact sheet documents inaccuracies, deceptive tactics and corporate partnerships of CAS and its fellows. The examples described here provide evidence that CAS is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to promote false and misleading messaging and to advance the PR and political agendas of the world’s largest chemical and seed corporations.

Industry-aligned mission and messaging

CAS launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million Gates Foundation grant and promises to “depolarize” the debate around GMOs. The group says its mission is to “promote access” to GMO crops and foods by training “science allies” around the world to educate their communities about the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. A key part of the CAS strategy is to recruit and train Global Leadership Fellows in communications and promotional tactics, focusing on regions where there is public opposition to the biotech industry, particularly African countries that have resisted GMO crops.

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

The messaging of CAS also aligns closely with pesticide industry messaging: a myopic focus on touting possible future benefits of GMOs while downplaying, ignoring or denying risks and problems. Like industry PR efforts, CAS members have attacked and tried to discredit critics of pesticide industry products, including scientists who raise health or environmental concerns.

Widespread criticism

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

Related reporting from U.S. Right to Know:

Examples of misleading messaging

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

Inaccurate claims about GMOs

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

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

“disingenuous and untruthful”

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

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

Attacking agroecology

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

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

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

Using Monsanto playbook to defend pesticides

Attacking cancer experts as ‘activists’

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

Mark Lynas used the CAS platform to amplify the Monsanto messaging, describing the cancer report as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “anti-Monsanto activists” who “abused science” and committed “an obvious perversion of both science and natural justice” by reporting a cancer risk for glyphosate. Lynas used the same flawed arguments and industry sources as the American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto paid to help spin the cancer report.

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

Elevating front groups, unreliable messengers

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

Lobbying for pesticides and GMOs

Although its main geographical focus is Africa, CAS also aids pesticide industry efforts to defend pesticides and discredit public health advocates in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for GMO crops and also an area that reports high exposures to pesticides and concerns about pesticide-related health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma. These problems led residents to organize a years-long fight to pass stronger regulations to reduce pesticide exposures and improve disclosure of the chemicals used on agricultural fields.

“launched vicious attacks”

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

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

Opposing the public’s right to know     

CAS Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, has said her group is independent of industry: “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate or promote industry-owned products. As our website clearly and fully discloses, we receive no resources from industry.” However, dozens of emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show CAS and Evanega coordinating closely with the pesticide industry and its front groups on public relations initiatives. Examples include:

  • CAS played a key role in trying to discredit a public records investigation by U.S. Right to Know to obtain information about the pesticide industry’s partnerships with academics. According to Monsanto documents released in 2019, Monsanto was deeply worried about the USRTK investigation and planned to try to discredit it as an attack on “scientific freedom” — the same messaging CAS used in a in a public petition opposing the investigation.
  • The Monsanto PR document suggests having Monsanto executive “Robb (Fraley) engage Horsch” for help with discrediting the FOIA investigation — referring to Rob Horsch, a longtime Monsanto veteran hired by the Gates Foundation in 2006 to lead the foundation’s agricultural development team.

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

Defending the agrichemical industry in Hawaii

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

Staffers, advisors

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

Back row: Mike Naig (Iowa Secretary of Agriculture); Ryan Locke (FMC Corporation), Kent Schescke (CAST). Front row: Tricia Beal (Farm Journal Foundation), Sarah Evanega (director of Cornell Alliance for Science), Jay Vroom (retired President and CEO of CropLife America pesticide trade group).

The website lists 20 staff members, including the following notable staffers (the staff roster does not list Mark Lynas or other fellows who may also receive compensation):

The CAS advisory board includes academics who regularly assist the agrichemical industry with their PR efforts.

Gates Foundation critiques  

Since 2016, the Gates Foundation has spent over $4 billion on agricultural development strategies, much of that focused on Africa. The foundation’s agricultural development strategies were led by Rob Horsch (recently retired), a Monsanto veteran of 25 years. The strategies have drawn criticism for promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa.

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

More CAS-industry collaborations 

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

More critiques of Mark Lynas 

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

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

Previous disclosure from GMOAnswers.com

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

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

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

“Training third party spokespeople”

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

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

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

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

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

Backstory: Shaping public opinion on GMOs

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

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

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

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

More information

CBI fact sheet

GMO Answers fact sheet

Academics Review fact sheet

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

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