Genetic Literacy Project: PR Front for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry

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Genetic Literacy Project is an influential front group that partners with Bayer and other chemical companies to promote GMO foods and pesticides and argue for deregulation. Bayer paid the Genetic Literacy Project $100,000 from July 2020 to June 2021 for its work “to prevent legislative overreach in genetic engineering,” according to the group’s IRS form 990. Donor’s Trust, the secretive funding vehicle that funds attacks on climate science, is also a donor.

Prior to 2020, the Genetic Literacy Project claimed not to accept corporate funding, despite emails and internal corporate documents showing how the group assisted pesticide companies with their product defense efforts. We discuss the evidence here, and describe howGLPplays a leading role in efforts to attack and discredit scientists and journalists who raise concerns about chemical industry products.

Origins as Monsanto’s PR firm

Jon Entine, founder and director of Genetic Literacy Project, is also the founder and principal of ESG MediaMetrics, a public relations firm that had Monsanto as a client in 2011 when the firm registered the GeneticLiteracyProject.orgdomain.

Entine was also employed at that time by Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a nonprofit group that journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that downplays health harms of toxic products. GLP was developed as a “cross disciplinary program with STATS,” according to web archives. In 2015, GLP moved under the umbrella of a new group, the Science Literacy Project, which inherited STATS tax ID.

STATS was a “major player in the public relations campaign to discredit concerns about bisphenol A,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Its parent organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), was paid by tobacco giant Phillip Morris in the 1990s “to pick apart stories critical of smoking.” Entine was a director of the CMPA in 2014/2015, according to tax forms.

What is the evidence GLP secretly partnered with Monsanto?

The Genetic Literacy Project claims to stand for “fact-based science” even as it frequently attacks scientists and journalists who report on the health harms of toxic chemicals. Although the group claimed for years to be independent of industry, documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and via litigation establish that Monsanto partnered with Entine and GLP on PR projects to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides. These collaborations were not disclosed.

A 2015 Monsanto PR plan names Genetic Literacy Project among the“industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage in its efforts to “orchestrate outcry” about the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a scientific group that found glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen. Monsanto’s goal, according to the PR plan: “protect the reputation” of Roundup. In March 2013, emails establish that  Monsanto Regulatory Affairs Lead Eric Sachs invited Entine to attend a briefing with company executives about the forthcoming IARC report; Entine agreed to participate and asked Sachs in return whether Monsanto was interested in “expanding/follow up” on Genetic Literacy Project’s “GMO science” website content. He emphasized that GLP’s reach was growing, with website traffic having “expanded dramatically” in the past year. Following that email exchange, GLP posted over 200 articles about IARC, several of them attacking the scientists as frauds and liars who are driven by profit and vanity.

An award-winning Le Monde investigation about the “Monsanto Papers” described Genetic Literacy Project as a “well-known propaganda website” that is “fed by PR people linked to the pesticides and biotechnology industries.” Le Monde reported that GLP played a key role in Monsanto’s efforts “to destroy the United Nations cancer agency by any means possible.”

In a 2017 court filing, plaintiffs’ attorneys suing Monsanto over glyphosate cancer concerns described Genetic Literacy Project and the American Council on Science and Health as “organizations intended to shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers.”

In 2014 and 2015, Genetic Literacy Project partnered with Academics Review, a group that documents reveal was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto to defend against industry critics. Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review jointly organized the pesticide industry-funded “Biotech Literacy Project boot camps” that provided “communications skills training” to journalists and scientists to help them promote and lobby for GMOs and pesticides.

Examples of scientists attacks: 

Pro-GMO papers by professors

In 2014 and 2015, Genetic Literacy Project partnered with Monsanto and their PR firm to publish and promote a series of pro-GMO papers written by professors, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. Monsanto assigned and edited the papers, and set Genetic Literacy Project up to publish them. The corporation’s role was not disclosed.

The emails reveal that Monsanto executives chose Genetic Literacy Project as the “the primary outlet” to publish the professors’ papers, and to build a “merchandising plan” with the PR firm CMA to promote the papers. CMA, now rebranded to Look East, is directed by Charlie Arnot, who also runs the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit that has received funding from Monsanto, and also donated to Genetic Literacy Project.

Who paid for Entine’s book about atrazine?

Syngenta was funding Entine’s book publisher.

Jon Entine is closely tied in with the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group that received funding from Monsanto and other corporations but did not disclose it.

In 2011, ACSH published Entine’s book “Scared to Death,” which defends atrazine, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta. Reporting by Tom Philpott and the Center for Media and Democracy establishes that Syngenta was funding ACSH at the time. Syngenta was seeking third-party allies to help the company defend atrazine.

Emails show that ACSH staff asked Syngenta in 2009 for a $100,000 grant, “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years,” to produce a paper and “consumer-friendly booklet” about atrazine. In 2011, ACSH announced Entine’s new book along with a “companion friendly, abbreviated position paper,” both defending atrazine. Entine told Philpott he had “no idea” Syngenta was funding ACSH.

How does Entine attack scientists and journalists?

A key theme in Entine’s work is attacking scientists and journalists who report critically about the chemical industry, the oil industry or health problems associated with them. Some examples:

  • In Forbes, Entine attackedNew Yorker reporter Rachel Aviv in an attempt to discredit Aviv’s reporting on internal Syngenta documentsthat reveal how the chemical company tried to destroy the reputation of UC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes. Research by Hayes ties the herbicide atrazine to birth defects in frogs. Entine’s chief source for his attack article was Bruce Chassy, a professor who was receiving money from Monsanto and helped start a Monsanto front group to attack industry critics.
  • In the Huffington Post, Entine attacked Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt and an expert on corporate disinformation campaigns. Entine described Oreskes as an “intellectual Rottweiler of in-your-face, environmentalism, unduly wary of modern technology.”
  • In the New York Post, Entine accused Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll and journalist Susanne Rust of “smearing Exxon” for reporting that Exxon knew for years that climate change was real but hid the science to keep revenues flowing.
  • In a follow-up attack (since removed from the Huffington Post website), Entine accused Rust of ethics violations for her reporting in an award-winning series on BPA that was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize. Entine did not disclose that her reporting identified his former employer STATS as a major player in industry’s PR efforts.

What is the funding history of GLP and Entine?

Entine’s funding history is complex and opaque, but tax documents and his own disclosures reveal a pattern of funding from anonymous sources and right-wing foundations that push deregulation and climate science denial, as well as undisclosed funding from the pesticide industry.

Inaccurate, ever-changing “transparency” note

The “financial transparency” note on the Genetic Literacy Project website is inaccurate, changes often and at times contradicts itself.

As of 2020 the group openly accepts corporate contributions. Funders in 2020 include Bayer, an agrichemical company whose products GLP promotes, and Donor’s Trust, the secretive funding vehicle that has been described as the “dark money ATM” of the right and is known for funding climate science denial and white supremacist groups.

Prior to 2020, GLP claimed it accepted no corporate funding. However, documents show the group partnered with Monsanto on promotional projects and the group’s own disclosures suggest corporate funding.

In September 2016, GLP’s “disclosure” note claimed to accept no corporate funding, but noted a $27,500 “pass through” from “Academics Review Charitable Association,” which appears not to exist. That group is apparently AcademicsReview.org, a front group that received its funding from a pesticide industry-funded trade group although it also claimed to accept no corporate funding. In 2014 and 2015, Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review jointly organized the industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project boot camps to promote GMOs and pesticides at top universities.

In 2017 and 2018, Genetic Literacy Project claimed funding from a handful of foundations including the Templeton and Searle foundations. These groups are leading funders of climate science denial efforts. GLP also noted funding from the Center for Food Integrity, a food-industry front group that was receiving money from Monsanto and also partnering with Monsanto and Genetic Literacy Project on PR projects.

In March 2016, GLP made no financial disclosures and Entine tried to distance GLP from his former employer STATS, claiming that STATS provided accounting services only and that the groups weren’t involved with each other’s activities—a claim GLP still makes. But in 2012, GLP said it was “developed as a cross disciplinary program with STATS.”

Ties to climate science deniers

Major financial supporters of Entine’s former employer STATS and his current group Genetic Literacy Project include right-wing foundations – primarily Scaife Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust and Templeton Foundation – that are leading funders of climate science denial, according to a 2013 Drexel University study.

Although the Genetic Literacy Project claims to stand up for science, the group publishes articles from writers who dismiss climate science. For example, climate science skeptic Paul Dreissen, a senior policy advisor for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), writes frequent articles for GLP denying harm from pesticides.

Center for Media and Public Affairs/George Mason University

For the fiscal year 2014/2015, according to tax records, Entine received $173,100 for his work as “director” at Center for Media and Public Affairs, a group based at George Mason University and founded by GMU Professor Robert Lichter. CMPA was paid by Phillip Morris in the 1990s to deflect concerns about tobacco, according to documents in the UCSF Tobacco Industry Library.

CMPA does not disclose its funders but has received funding from George Mason University Foundation, the leading recipient of donations affiliated with Charles Koch and Koch Industries. GMUF also received $5.3 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund between 2011-13, according to the Guardian. These funds channel money from anonymous donors including corporations to campaigns and academics who push industry interests, as Greenpeace demonstrated in an undercover investigation. Donors Trust is also a donor of Genetic Literacy Project, according to 2020 tax records.

STATS payments and loans

CMPA’s sister group, also founded by Lichter and based at GMU, was Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a nonprofit group that played a key role in chemical industry PR efforts to defend toxic products, according to reporting in The Intercept, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Atlantic and Consumer Reports.

According to IRS forms:

  • STATS paid Entine $140,600 in 2012/2013 and $152,500 in 2013/2014 as a “research consultant”
  • STATS and Center for Media and Public Affairs both listed Entine as Director in2014/2015 with compensation of $173,100. Tax records for both groups also listed President Trevor Butterworth for $95,512 and Director Tracey Brown with no compensation. Tracey Brown is director of Sense About Science, a group that also spins science to defend chemical industry interests; Butterworth founded Sense About Science USA in 2014 and merged STATS into that group.
  • Science Literacy Project took over the tax ID of STATS in 2015 and listed Entine as Executive Director with compensation of $188,800.
  • In 2018, ESG MediaMetrics, Entine’s PR firm, reported $176,420 in income.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs has also loaned money to STATS, which “due to inadequate funding” has “not been reimbursed.” George Mason University Foundation, which does not disclose its funding, gave CMPA grants in those years. Tax records show:

What was the Biotech Literacy Project boot camp?

In 2014 and 2015, pesticide corporations spent over $300,000 on two events organized by Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review to “train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate,” according to tax records and reporting in The Progressive. These “Biotech Literacy Project boot camps,” were held at the University of Florida in 2014 and UC Davis in 2015. The organizers falsely claimed the events were jointly funded by universities, government and industry, but the only traceable source of funding was the pesticide industry.

The boot camps provided “communication skills training” for scientists and journalists to help reframe the food safety and GMO debate, and offered “tools and support resources” to help trainees “effectively engage the media and appear as experts in legislative and local government hearings, and other policy making and related outreach opportunities.”

Boot camp faculty included representatives from the pesticide industry, food industry front groups and trade groups, and pro-GMO academics including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, both of whom have accepted undisclosed funding from Monsanto to promote the GMOs and pesticides that Monsanto sales rely upon. Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel, who also accepts money from agribusiness groups, was a faculty member at the first boot camp.

Which toxic products does Entine defend?

GLP Director Jon Entine is a former journalist who portrays himself as an objective authority on science, however, the evidence described in this fact sheet establishes that he is a longtime PR operative with deep ties to the chemical industry and undisclosed industry funding. For many years, Entine has been a prolific defender of polluting industries, writing long emotional articles based on industry arguments: that toxic chemicals and processes are safe and do not need to be regulated, and attacking scientists and journalists who raise concerns about these industries.

Defending neonicotinoids

Growing scientific evidence suggests that neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of pesticides, are a key factor in bee die-offs. The European Union has restricted neonics due to concerns about impact on bees. A February 2020 article in The Intercept by Lee Fang reported on the “sophisticated information war” pesticide companies are waging to keep the chemicals on the market in the U.S. Entine has been a key pro-industry messenger; he has arguedthat neonics are not key driver of bee deaths (American Enterprise Institute), that “The bee apocalypse was never real,” (American Council on Science and Health) and that neonics may actually help bee health (American Enterprise Institute and Forbes). Entine also attacked a Harvard professor’s study on bee Colony Collapse Disorder (American Enterprise Institute) and accused European politicians of trying to kill bees by restricting neonics (Forbes).

Defending phthalates

Phthalates are a class of chemicals long linked to hormone disruption, reproductive harm, fertility problems and links to childhood obesity, asthma, neurological problems and cardiovascular issues. The U.S. government began restricting the chemicals in children’s toys in 2013 due to health concerns.Entine has defended children’s products containing the chemicals.“Few chemicals on the market today have undergone as much scientific scrutiny as phthalate esters,” Entine wrote (Forbes) — but he did not mention the significant body of scientific evidence compiled over two decades that links phthalate exposures to abnormal reproductive development in baby boys. His messaging included attacks on reporters; Entine accused an NBCreporter of “shoddy journalism” for raising questions about safety (Forbes). And Entine’s PR firm, ESG MediaMetrics, worked for the Vinyl Institute,the trade association for vinyl plastic, which is a key source of exposure to phthalates. Entine did not disclose the industry connection in his Forbes articles.

Defending fracking

Entine defends hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the pumping of high-pressure chemical-laced water into the ground to crack shale and extract natural gas. As in his many other messaging campaigns, Entine blasts science and scientists who raise concerns, framing them as “activists,” while making sweeping and indefensible statements about “scrupulous” science conducted over many years that defend its safety.For example, Entine claimed: “From a scientific perspective, no reason exists to even suspect unknown health or environmental issues will turn up” from fracking (New York Post).

Again, attacks were a key part of the messaging. Entine accused New York Times reporters of misleading children about the potential environmental dangers of fracking (Forbes), attacked two Cornell University scientists for their study suggesting that fracking operations leak methane (Forbes), and attacked the Park Foundation, claiming that it has “almost single-handedly derailed shale-gas development in methane-rich New York State, and put its imprint on public opinion and policy decisions around the country.” (Philanthropy Roundtable)

Defending BPA

Entine writes in defense of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), despite a large body of scientific evidence raising concerns about its endocrine disrupting potential and other health problems associated with it. Canada declared the chemical to be toxic in 2010, and the EU banned BPA in baby bottles in 2011.

Entine attacked university researchers, NGOs and journalists raising concerns about BPA (Forbes), suggested thatwomen who can’t get pregnant should not to blame it on plastics (Forbes), and challenged scientists who linked BPA to heart disease (Forbes).

Defending Nuclear Power

Entine also defends the nuclear power industry; he has claimed thatnuclear power plants are environmentally benign and that “nothing as bad as Chernobyl is likely to occur in the West.” He accused Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes of science “denialism,” for, among other things, pointing out the economic and environmental risks of nuclear power.

Who partners with Genetic Literacy Project?

We have compiled a series of fact sheets on front groups and other third party allies the pesticide industry relies on to promote and defend its products. Several of these industry allies are also tied to Jon Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project.

Entine’s fellowships

Entine was an unpaid fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University (GMU) from 2011-2014.Entine is also a former senior fellow at the UC Davis World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, which does not disclose its donors. He is a former visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a DC think tank funded in part by corporate and dark money contributions.

See also:

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