Academics Review: The making of a Monsanto front group to attack the organic industry

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Academics Review, a nonprofit organization launched in 2012, claimed to be an independent group, but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it was a front group, set up with the help of Monsanto executives and public relations operatives, to attack the organic industry and critics of GMOs while appearing to be independent.

Related reporting:

Hidden industry funding of Academics Review

The Academics Review website  describes its founders as “two independent professors”: Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia. As of May 2018, the website claimed, “Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.”

However, tax records revealed the true story: the primary funder of Academics Review was the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade association funded and run by the largest pesticide companies: BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont (now Corteva), Monsanto and Syngenta.

According to CBI tax records, the industry group gave Academics Review a total of $650,000 in 2014 and  2015-2016. Tax records for report expenses of$791,064 from 2013-2016 (see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). The tax records indicate the money was spent on organizing conferences and promoting GMOs and pesticides.

Dr. Chassy was also for years receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto via his university, according to internal documents. See Monica Eng’s 2016 report for WBEZ, Why didn’t a University of Illinois professor have to disclose his GMO funding?

Emails reveal secret origin of academic front group

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state Freedom of Information requests revealed the inner workings of how Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, its PR allies and industry funders. Key facts and emails:

  • According to March 11, 2010 emails, Academics Review was established with the help of Monsanto executives along with Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former director of corporate communications; and Val Giddings, a former Vice President of the biotech industry trade association BIO. The emails reveal they established Academics Review as a platform to attack critics of the pesticide/seed industry, while maintaining a veneer of independence.
  • Eric Sachs, a senior public relations executive at Monsanto, said he would help find industry funding for Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote to Chassy on November 30, 2010.
  • Byrne compared the concept as similar to – but better than – the “Center for Consumer Freedom,” a front group set up by Rick Berman, a lobbyist who has been called “Dr.Evil ” and the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda ” for his work to promote tobacco and oil industry interests under the cover of neutral-sounding groups. Berman’s “’Center for Consumer Freedom’ ( has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept,” Byrne wrote to Professor Chassy on March 11, 2010.
  • Byrne said he was developing an “opportunities list with targets” for Monsanto comprised of “individuals organizations, content items and topic areas” critical of ag-biotech that “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations.”

Dr. Chassy indicated he was especially keen to go after the organic industry. “I would love to find a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles,” he wrote. A few years later, Academics Review attacked the organic industry with a report it falsely claimed was the work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.

Monsanto’s ‘industry partner’

Academics Review was an “industry partner” that could help defend glyphosate, according to a confidential Monsanto PR document. The document describes Monsanto’s plans to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to defend the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. On March 20, 2015, IARC announced it had classified glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The Monsanto PR document lists four tiers of industry partners it planned to engage in its public relations efforts to discredit the cancer panel’s report. Academics Review appears as a Tier 2 “industry partner,” along with Genetic Literacy Project, Sense About Science, and Biofortified (these groups also had hidden industry ties, and claimed to be independent). The “AgBioChatter academics” also appear in Tier 2; this refers to the AgBioChatter listserve that looped together pesticide industry executives, front group leaders and industry-friendly professors to discuss messaging and lobbying needs for GMOs and pesticides.

Academics Review came to Monsanto’s aid with an article dated March 25, 2015, claiming the IARC expert report on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate “fails on multiple fronts.” The article, like many others attacking IARC, relied on industry sources, including the pesticide industry-funded GMO Answers run by Ketchum PR firm; the American Council on Science and Health, a group Monsanto was paying to defend glyphosate; and a Forbes article by Henry I. Miller that was later revealed to have been ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Bruce Chassy’s ties to industry and its front groups

Professor Bruce Chassy, co-founder of Academics Review and president of the nonprofit’s board, was frequently cited in the media as an independent expert on GMOs, while he was also receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto. Chassy received $57,000 in undisclosed funds over a two-year period from Monsanto to travel, write and speak about GMOs, according to documents reported by Monica Eng. Eng reports that Monsanto also sent at least $5.1 million through the University of Illinois Foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015.

Chassy was also on the “Board of Science and Policy Advisors” of the American Council on Science and Health, a front group funded by Monsanto and other companies whose products the group defends. Chassy is also an “independent expert ” for GMO Answers, a marketing website for GMOs and pesticides funded by the agrichemical industry.

Articles about Bruce Chassy’s industry ties:

  • New York Times, Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, by Eric Lipton (9/5/2015)
  • New York Times email archive, A University of Illinois Professor Joins the Fight, (9/5/2015)
  • WBEZ, Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding, by Monica Eng (3/15/2016)
  • US Right to Know, Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign, by Carey Gillam (1/29/2016)

David Tribe / Academics Review / Biofortified

David Tribe is co-founder of Academics Review, vice president of the Academics Review Board of Directors, and a reviewer on the 2014 Academics Review report attacking the organic industry. Tribe is also a founding member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified Inc., or Biofortified, a nonprofit group that aids the agrichemical industry with lobbying and public relations.

Pesticide industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps

The Biotech Literacy Project boot camps were a series of conferences funded by a pesticide industry trade group and organized by Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project, another front group that partners with Monsanto on public relations projects (the group has recently disclosed funding by Bayer).

The boot camps held at the University of Florida and University of California, Davis, trained scientists and journalists how to promote GMOs and pesticides, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling and prop up flagging support for agrichemical industry products.

Boot camp organizers falsely claimed to journalists and scientists that funding for the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps came from government and academic sources, as well as industry sources, but the only traceable source of funds came from agrichemical companies, Paul Thacker reported in The Progressive. Government and academic sources said they provided no funding for the events.

False information given to journalists and scientists

Journalist Brook Borel, a participant in a Biotech Literacy Boot Camp, describes: “I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).” (Popular Science)

In an email to scientists, Academics Review founder and boot camp organizer Bruce Chassy, wrote: “I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money so industry is indirectly a sponsor. We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.”

However, tax records told a different story: The Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group funded by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont and Monsanto Company, spent over $300,000 on two boot camps held at UC Davis and University of Florida, the tax records show. (2014, 2015-2016).

Speakers at the 2015 Biotech Literacy Project boot camp included biotech industry executives and public relations operatives, including Monsanto’s former head of communications Jay Byrne (who helped set up Academics Review as a front group to attack industry critics), Hank Campbell of the front group American Council on Science and Health, and Yvette d’Entremont the “SciBabe”; along with industry-connected academics Kevin Folta of the University of Florida, Pamela Ronald and  Alison Van Eenennaam of UC Davis; and journalists including Keith Kloor and Brooke Borel.

More information:

For more information about the findings of U.S. Right to Know, see our Merchants of Poison report.

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