This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.
By Stacy Malkan
When a reputable-sounding nonprofit organization released a report attacking the organic food industry in April 2014, the group went to great lengths to tout its independence.
The 30-page report by Academics Review, described as “a non-profit led by independent academic experts in agriculture and food sciences,” found that consumers were being duped into spending more money for organic food because of deceptive marketing practices by the organic industry.
Trade press headlines blared: “Organics exposed!” (Brownfield News) and “Organic Industry Booming by Deceiving Consumers” (Food Safety Tech News), touting the findings by supposedly independent experts.
The findings were “endorsed by an international panel of independent agricultural science, food science, economic and legal experts from respected international institutions,” according to the group’s press release.
In case the point about independence wasn’t clear, the press release ends on this note: “Academics Review has no conflicts-of-interest associated with this publication, and all associated costs for which were paid for using our general funds without any specific donor’ influence or direction.”
What was not mentioned in the report, the news release or on the website: Executives for Monsanto Co., the world’s leading purveyor of agrichemicals and genetically engineered seeds, along with key Monsanto allies, engaged in fund raising for Academics Review, collaborated on strategy and even discussed plans to hide industry funding, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Monsanto’s motives in attacking the organic industry are obvious: Monsanto’s seeds and chemicals are banned from use in organic farming, and a large part of Monsanto’s messaging is that its products are superior to organics as tools to boost global food production.
Academics Carry Monsanto’s Message
Academics Review was co-founded by “two independent professors … on opposite ends of the planet,” Bruce Chassy, Ph.D., professor emeritus at University of Illinois, and David Tribe, Ph.D., senior lecturer at University of Melbourne. They claim the group “only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources.”
Yet two email exchanges in 2010 reveal plans to find corporate funding for Academics Review while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden.
In a March 11, 2010 email exchange with Chassy, Jay Byrne, former head of communications at Monsanto who now runs a PR and market research firm, offered to act as a “commercial vehicle” to help find corporate funding for Academics Review.
Chassy discussed his interest in attacking the organic industry in the emails. “I would love to have a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles…” he wrote, “I sure don’t have the money.”
“Well, I suggest we work on the money (for all of us) first and quickly! I’ve proposed to Val [Giddings, former vice president of BIO, the biotech industry trade association] that he and I meet while I’m in DC next week so we can (not via e-mail) get a clear picture of options for taking the Academic Review project and other opportunities forward. The “Center for Consumer Freedom” (ActivistCash.com) has cashed in on this to the extreme.”
The Center for Consumer Freedom is directed 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 the tobacco industry and other corporate interests under the cover of neutral-sounding groups.
“I think we have a much better concept,” Byrne told Chassy.
Byrne shared an “opportunities” list of targets comprised of people, groups and content critical of GMOs and Monsanto: Vandana Shiva, Andrew Kimbrell, Ronnie Cummins, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food,” the movies “Food, Inc” and “The World According to Monsanto,” and “topic cross-over on all the risk areas of ag-biotech (out crossing/ contamination, bees, butterflies, human safety, etc…).”
“All of these individuals, organizations, content items and topic areas mean money for a range of well heeled corporations, Byrne wrote, adding:
All of these individuals, organizations, content items and topic areas mean money for a range of well heeled corporations.
“I believe Val and I can identify and serve as the appropriate (non-academic) commercial vehicles by which we can connect these entities with the project in a manner which helps to ensure the credibility and independence (and thus value) of the primary contributors/owners… I believe our kitchen cabinet here can serve as gatekeepers (in some cases toll takers) for effective, credible responses, inoculation and proactive activities using this project platform…”
“Sounds good to me,” Chassy replied. “I’m sure that you will let me know what you discuss.”
In an email exchange with Chassy dated November 30, 2010, Eric Sachs, a senior public relations operative for Monsanto, discussed finding corporate support for Academics Review while “keeping Monsanto in the background.”
Sachs wrote to Chassy:
“You and I need to talk more about the “academics review” site and concept. I believe that there is a path to a process that would better respond to scientific concerns and allegations. I shared with Val yesterday. From my perspective the problem is one of expert engagement and that could be solved by paying experts to provide responses. You and I have discussed this in the past. Val explained that step one is establishing 501(c)3 not-for-profit status to facilitate fund raising. That makes sense but there is more. I discussed with Jerry Steiner today (Monsanto Executive Team) and can help motivate CLI/BIO/CBI and other organizations to support. The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.
CLI/BIO/CBI refers to three industry trade groups — Crop Life International, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and the Council for Biotechnology Information — that represent agrichemical corporations.
Chassy responded to Sachs, “Yes we should talk about Academics Review. I think we are on the same page.”
When asked directly about funding, Chassy replied via email: “Academics Review does not solicit or accept funds from any source for specific research or any other activities associated with any products, services or industry. Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.”
He said that Academics Review incorporated and reported no income in 2012 and he provided the IRS form 990s for 2013 and 2014 (now also posted on the website). Those documents report $419,830 in revenues but include no information about contributors. Chassy did not respond to requests to provide that information.
Press Covers “Independent” Attack on Organic
Academics Review released its organic marketing study in April 2014 to a robust round of trade press coverage describing the findings of “independent researchers”:
• “The Organic Food Industry Has Been Engaged in ‘Multi-Decade Public Disinformation Campaign’ claims report” (Food Navigator)
• “Report: Organic Industry Achieved 25 Years of Fast Growth Through Fear and Deception” (Food Safety News)
• “A Scathing Indictment of Organic Food Marketing” (Hoard’s Dairyman)
• “Using Fear as a Sales Tactic” (Food Business News)
In the New York Post, Naomi Schaffer Riley built a case against “tyranny of the organic mommy mafia” who are duped by disingenuous marketing tactics of the organic industry. Her sources included the Academics Review report and Julie Gunlock, author of a book about the “culture of alarmism.”
Riley didn’t mention that Gunlock, and also Riley herself, are both senior fellows at the Independent Women’s Forum, a group heavily funded by Donors Trust, which has bankrolled corporate attacks on unions, public schools and climate scientists.
In the Des Moines Register, John R. Block, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture who now works for a law firm that lobbies for agribusiness interests, reported on the “blockbuster report” by Academics Review and its findings that the organic industry’s secret to success is “black marketing.”
The corporate front group American Council on Science and Health, which receives funding from the agrichemical industry and where Chassy serves as a scientific advisor, pushed the “black marketing” theme in articles by ACSH president Hank Campbell and Henry I. Miller, MD, a Hoover Institute fellow who served as the spokesmodel in commercials for the effort to kill GMO labeling in California, for which Monsanto was the lead funder.
Miller, who has a long history of making inaccurate scientific claims in support of corporate interests, also used the Academics Review report as a source for organic attacks in Newsweek and the National Review, and claimed in the Wall Street Journal that organic farming is not sustainable.
Similar anti-organic themes run through other agrichemical industry PR channels.
GMO Answers, a marketing website funded by the Big Six agrichemical companies (and where Chassy and Tribe serve as “independent experts”), promotes the ideas that organics are no healthier, no better for the environment and just a marketing program — although, ironically, the PR firm that runs GMO Answers has launched a specialty group in San Francisco to try to cash in on the organic market.
Money Flow Goes Public; Academics Review Goes Silent
In March 2016, Monica Eng reported for WBEZ on documents showing that Monsanto paid Professor Bruce Chassy more than $57,000 over a 23-month period to travel, write and speak about GMOs — money that was not disclosed to the public.
According to Eng’s investigation, the money was part of at least $5.1 million in undisclosed money Monsanto sent through the University of Illinois Foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015.
“Chassy did not disclose his financial relationship with Monsanto on state or university forms aimed at detecting potential conflicts of interest,” Eng reported.
“Documents further show that Chassy and the university directed Monsanto to deposit the payments through the University of Illinois Foundation, a body whose records are shielded from public scrutiny. The foundation also has the ability to take in private money and disburse it to an individual as a ‘university payment’ — exempt from disclosure.”
In January 2016, Carey Gillam, research director of U.S. Right to Know, reported on emails showing that hundreds of thousands of dollars had flowed from Monsanto to the University of Illinois “as Chassy collaborated on multiple projects with Monsanto to counter public concerns about genetically modified crops (GMOs) – all while representing himself as an independent academic for a public institution.”
“What you find when reading through the email chains is an arrangement that allowed industry players to cloak pro-GMO messaging within a veil of independent expertise, and little, if any, public disclosure of the behind-the-scenes connections,” Gillam wrote.
The last post on the Academics Review site, dated Sept. 2, 2015, is a blog by Chassy explaining that some of his emails would be made public due to the FOIA requests of U.S. Right to Know, which he characterized as an assault on his 40 years of public science, research and teaching.
Financial support from the private sector for public sector research and outreach is “appropriate, commonplace and needed to further the public interest,” Chassy wrote. “Such support should be, and in all my experiences has been, transparent and done under the strict ethical guidelines of the public institutions that are benefiting from private sector or individual financial contributions.”
Three days later, some of Chassy’s emails were first made public in a front-page New York Times article by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eric Lipton. Lipton reported that Monsanto gave Chassy a grant for an undisclosed sum in 2011 for “biotechnology outreach and education activities.”
Chassy told Lipton that the money he received from Monsanto “helped to elevate his voice through travel, a website he created and other means.”
Still Getting Press as an Independent Source
Despite the revelations in the emails and the disclosure of Chassy’s financial ties to Monsanto, the Academics Review website and its report attacking the organic industry are still posted online with all the descriptions claiming independence.
And Chassy still enjoys press coverage as an “independent” expert on GMOs. In May 2016, two separate Associated Press stories quoted Chassy on that topic. Neither story mentioned Chassy’s now-public financial ties to Monsanto.
Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. She is author of the award-winning book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry” (New Society 2007).