The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) was a public relations campaign launched in April 2000 by seven leading chemical/seed companies and their trade groups to persuade the public to accept genetically engineered foods. The initiative was created in response to public concerns about the health and environmental risks of genetically engineered foods, and said its focus would be developing alliances across the food chain to promote GMO crops (“ag biotech”) as beneficial.
CBI closed shop in 2019 and shifted its assets — including the marketing campaign GMO Answers, run by Ketchum PR firm — over to CropLife International, the international trade group for pesticide companies.
CBI spent over $28 million from 2014-2019, according to tax records (see 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) on projects promoting genetically engineered foods. As noted in its 2015 tax form, CBI had an explicit focus on developing and training third-party spokespeople – particularly academics, farmers and dieticians – to promote industry views about the benefits of GMOs.
Projects funded by CBI included GMO Answers (via Ketchum public relations firm); Academics Review, a group that claimed to be independent of industry; Biotech Literacy Project boot camps held at top universities (via Academics Review) and the Global Farmer Network.
GMO Answers is a marketing website and public relations campaign that uses the voices of academics and others to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. CBI spent $14.4 million on Ketchum public relations firm between 2014-2019 to run the PR salvo, according to tax forms.
GMO Answers discloses its industry funding on its website and says it promotes the views of independent experts. However, examples have come to light that Ketchum PR scripted some of the GMO answers offered by “independent experts” (see coverage in New York Times and Forbes). GMO Answers also appears in Monsanto PR documents as partners in industry’s efforts to defend glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides from cancer concerns, and to try to discredit a public interest research investigation by U.S. Right to Know to uncover hidden ties between pesticide companies and academics who promote agrichemical products.
An an example of how GMO Answers builds influence with key reporters, see reporting in Huffington Post about how Ketchum cultivated ties with Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel. Haspel was an early promoter of GMO Answers, and later participated in CBI-funded Biotech Literacy Project messaging events. A source review of Haspel’s columns conducted by USRTK found several examples of undisclosed industry sources and misleading information in her articles about pesticides.
GMO Answers was recognized as a successful spin effort in 2014 when it was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.” In a video produced for the award, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs,” and noted they “closely monitor the conversation” on Twitter where they “successfully balanced 80% of interactions with detractors.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.
- Food industry enlisted academics in GMO labeling war, emails show, by Eric Lipton, New York Times (2015)
- Scientific American science panel may get lost in translation, Friends of the Earth (2017)
- An inside look at how Monsanto, a PR firm and a reporter give readers a warped view of science, by Paul Thacker, Huffington Post (2019)
Monsanto document released in 2019
CBI provided $650,000 in funding to Academics Review, a nonprofit that claimed it received no corporate funding. The group was co-founded by Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne.
Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed Academics Review was set up explicitly as a front group with the help of Monsanto executives and the company’s former director of communications Jay Byrne. The group discussed using Academics Review as a vehicle to discredit critics of GMOs and agrichemicals, finding corporate contributions and hiding Monsanto’s fingerprints.
Related reporting: Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food, by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (2017)
Biotech Literacy Project spin events
CBI spent over $300,000 on two “Biotech Literacy Project boot camps” held at the University of Florida in 2014 and the University of California, Davis in 2015, according to tax records. The money was routed through Academics Review, which co-organized the conferences with the Genetic Literacy Project, another group that helps Monsanto with PR projects while claiming to be independent.
The three-day boot camp events trained students, scientists and journalists in communication and lobbying techniques to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling in the U.S.
Related reporting: Flacking for GMOs: How the biotech industry cultivates positive media – and discourages criticism, by Paul Thacker, The Progressive (2017)
Monsanto ‘partner’ groups defend Roundup
Although GMO Answers, Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project all claimed to be independent of the influence of industry, all three groups appeared in a Monsanto PR documents as “industry partners” the company engaged in its efforts to defend glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides from cancer concerns.
Kids’ coloring book
CBI also produced a children’s coloring and activity book to promote GMOs. The link for the book, and also the WhyBiotech.com website created by CBI, now redirect to a trade group for manufacturers and distributors of hemp-derived cannabinoids.