It’s billed as a forum where consumers can get straight answers from independent experts about genetically engineered foods, and some journalists take it seriously as an unbiased source, but the GMO Answers website is a straight-up marketing tool to spin GMOs in a positive light. As evidence:
1) GMO Answers was created as a vehicle to sway public opinion in favor of GMOs. Soon after Monsanto and its allies beat back the 2012 ballot initiative to label GMOs in California, Monsanto announced plans to launch a new public relations campaign to reshape the reputation of GMOs. They hired the public relations firm FleishmanHillard (owned by Omnicom) for an at-least million-dollar campaign.
As part of the effort, the PR firm Ketchum (also owned by Omnicom) was hired by the Council for Biotechnology Information – funded by Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta – to create GMOAnswers.com. The site promised to clear up confusion and dispel mistrust about GMOs using the unedited voices of so-called “independent experts.”
But how independent are those experts?
The website hews to carefully crafted talking points that tell a positive story about GMOs while downplaying or ignoring the health and environmental risks – for example, when asked if GMOs are increasing pesticides, the site offers a convoluted no, despite peer-reviewed data showing that, yes, in fact, they are. (“Roundup Ready” GMO crops have driven up the use of glyphosate – which was just listed by the World Health Organization as a probable human carcinogen – by hundreds of millions of pounds.)
Questions about safety are answered with unsupported statements such as “every leading health organization in the world stands behind the safety of GMOs.” But we found no mention of the peer-reviewed statement signed by 300 scientists, physicians and academics who say there is “No Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety.” Questions about the statement have gone unanswered.
2) As further evidence the site is a spin vehicle, GMO Answers was recognized for excellence in public relations. In 2014, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a prestigious CLIO advertising award for “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.”
3) And the PR firm that created GMO Answers boasted about its influence on journalists. In a video posted to the CLIO website, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.
Why reporters would trust a marketing vehicle designed by Ketchum as a reliable source is difficult to understand. Ketchum, which until recently was the PR firm for Russia, has been implicated in espionage efforts against nonprofits concerned about GMOs. Not exactly a history that lends itself to dispelling mistrust.
Given that GMO Answers is a marketing tool created and funded by companies that sell GMOs, we think it’s fair game to ask: Are the “independent experts” who lend credibility to the website – several of whom work for public universities and are paid by taxpayers – truly independent and working in the public interest? Or are they working in league with corporations and public relations firms to help sell the public a spin story?
In search of these answers, U.S. Right to Know submitted Freedom of Information Act requests seeking the correspondence of publicly funded professors who write for GMOAnswers.com or worked on other GMO promotion efforts. The FOIA’s are narrow requests that cover no personal or academic information, but rather seek to understand the connections between the professors, the agrichemical companies that sell GMOs, their trade associations and the PR and lobbying firms that have been hired to promote GMOs and fight labeling so we’re kept in the dark about what we’re eating.