Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR campaign for the pesticide industry (and finally dropped name ‘Cornell’)

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Update: The Cornell Alliance for Science has dropped the “Cornell” from its name and it is no longer hosted on the Cornell.edu website. The website for the “Alliance for Science” is now here. The change was made in November 2022.

The formerly named Cornell Alliance for Science (now just the “Alliance for Science”)is a public relations campaign funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that works to promote and increase acceptance for genetically engineered foods around the world, especially in Africa. Many countries there have resisted or outlawed GMO crops due to concerns over health and environmental risks, patenting issues and the possibility of increased corporate control over food systems.

The Alliance is now based at the Boyce Thompson Institute, an independent nonprofit research institute that is affiliated with Cornell University. This fact sheet documents inaccuracies, deceptive tactics and corporate partnerships of the Allince and its fellows. The examples described here provide evidence that the Alliance used Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to promote false and misleading messaging and to advance the PR and political agendas of the world’s largest chemical and seed corporations.

Industry-aligned mission and messaging

Cornell Alliance for Science launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million Gates Foundation grant and promises to “depolarize” the debate around GMOs. The Alliance has since raised $22 million from the Gates Foundation for its mission to “promote access” to GMO crops and foods by training “science allies” around the world to promote these products in their communities. The group expanded its mission in 2020“to counter conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns that hinder progress in climate change, synthetic biology, agricultural innovations.”

A key part of the Alliance strategy is to recruit and train Global Leadership Fellows in communications and promotional tactics, focusing on regions where there is public opposition to the biotech industry, particularly African countries that have resisted GMO crops. The Alliance mission is strikingly similar to the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a pesticide-industry funded group that partnered with the Alliance and was formed to build alliances across the food chain and train third-parties to persuade the public to accept GMOs.

The messaging of the Alliance also aligns closely with pesticide industry talking points: a myopic focus on touting possible future benefits of GMOs while downplaying, ignoring or denying risks and problems. Like industry PR efforts, Alliance members have attacked and tried to discredit critics of pesticide industry products, including scientists who raise health or environmental concerns about pesticides.

Widespread criticism

The Alliance for Science and its writers have drawn criticism from academics, farmers, students, community groups and food sovereignty movements who say the group promotes inaccurate and misleading messaging and uses unethical tactics. See for example:

Related reporting from U.S. Right to Know:

Examples of misleading messaging

Experts in genetic engineering, biology, agroecology and food policy have documented many examples of inaccurate claims made by Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell who has written dozens of articles defending agrichemical products in the name of CAS; see for example his many articles promoted by the Genetic Literacy Project, a PR group that works with Monsanto. Lynas’ 2018 book argues for African countries to accept GMOs, and devotesa chapter to defending Monsanto.

Inaccurate claims about GMOs

Numerous scientists have criticized Lynas formaking false statements, “unscientific, illogical and absurd” arguments, promoting dogma over data and research on GMOs, rehashing industry talking points, and making inaccurate claims about pesticides that “display a deep scientific ignorance, or an active effort to manufacture doubt.”

“The laundry list of what Mark Lynas got wrong about both GMOs and science is extensive, and has been refuted point by point by some of the world’s leading agroecologists and biologists,” wrote Eric Holt-Giménez, executivedirector of Food First, in April 2013 (Lynas joined Cornell as a visiting fellow later that year).

“disingenuous and untruthful”

Africa-based groups have critiqued Lynas at length. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a coalition of more than 40 food and farming groups across Africa, has described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.” Million Belay, director of AFSA, said Lynas is “a racist who is pushing a narrative that only industrial agriculture can save Africa.”

In a 2018 press release, the South Africa-based African Centre for Biodiversity described unethical tactics Lynas has used to promote the biotech lobby agenda in Tanzania. “There is an issue definitely about accountability and [need for] reigning the Cornell Alliance for Science in, because of the misinformation and the way that they are extremely disingenuous and untruthful,” Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, said in a July 2020 webinar.

Attacking agroecology

One example of inaccurate messaging is a widely panned article on the Alliance website by Lynas claiming, “agro-ecology risks harming the poor.” Academics described the article as a “demagogic and non-scientific interpretation of a scientific paper,” “deeply unserious,” “pure ideology” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be scientific,” a “really flawed analysis“ that makes “sweeping generalizations“ and “wild conclusions.” Some criticscalled for a retraction.

A 2019 article by Alliance fellow Nassib Mugwanya provides another example of misleading content on the topic of agroecology: “Why traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture” reflects the typical misleading messaging pattern in Alliance materials: presenting GMO crops as the “pro-science” position while painting “alternative forms of agricultural development as ‘anti-science,’ groundless and harmful,” according to an analysis by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice.

“Particularly notable in the article are strong usages of metaphors (e.g., agroecology likened to handcuffs), generalizations, omissions of information and a number of factual inaccuracies,” the group said.

Using Monsanto playbook to defend pesticides

Another example of misleading industry-aligned Alliance messaging can be found in the group’s defense of glyphosate-based Roundup. The herbicides are a key component of GMO crops with 90% of corn and soy grown in the United States genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup. In 2015, after the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel said glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, Monsanto organized allies to “orchestrate outcry” against the independent science panel to “protect the reputation” of Roundup, according to internal Monsanto documents.

Mark Lynas used theCornell platform to amplify the Monsanto messaging, describing the cancer report as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “anti-Monsanto activists” who “abused science” and committed “an obvious perversion of both science and natural justice” by reporting a cancer risk for glyphosate. Lynas used the same flawed arguments and industry sources as the American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto paid to help spin the cancer report.

While claiming to be on the side of science, Lynas ignored ample evidence from Monsanto documents, widely reported in the press, that Monsanto interfered with scientific research, manipulated regulatory agencies and used other heavy-handed tactics to manipulate the scientific process in order to protect Roundup.In 2018, a jury found the that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in covering up the cancer risk of Roundup.

Elevating front groups, unreliable messengers

In its efforts to promote GMOs as a “science-based” solution for agriculture, Cornell Alliance for Science has lent its platform to industry front groups and even a notorious climate science skeptic.

Lobbying for pesticides and GMOs

Although its main geographical focus is Africa, the Alliance also aids pesticide industry efforts to defend pesticides and discredit public health advocates in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for GMO crops and also an area that reports high exposures to pesticides and concerns about pesticide-related health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma.These problems led residents to organize a years-long fight to pass stronger regulations to reduce pesticide exposures and improve disclosure of the chemicals used on agricultural fields.

“launched vicious attacks”

As these efforts gained traction, CAS engaged in a “massive public relations disinformation campaign designed to silence community concerns” about the health risks of pesticides, according toFern Anuenue Holland, a community organizer for Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. In the Cornell Daily Sun,Holland described how”paid Cornell Alliance for Science fellows — under the guise of scientific expertise — launched vicious attacks. They used social media and wrote dozens of blog posts condemning impacted community members and other leaders who had the courage to speak up.”

Holland said she and other members of her organization were subjected to “character assassinations, misrepresentations and attacks on personal and professional credibility” by CAS affiliates. “I have personally witnessed families and lifelong friendships torn apart,” she wrote.

Opposing the public’s right to know

Alliance Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, has said her group is independent of industry: “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate or promote industry-owned products. As our website clearly and fully discloses, we receive no resources from industry.”However, dozens of emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show the Alliance and Evanega coordinating closely with the pesticide industry and its front groups on public relations initiatives. Examples include:

  • The Alliance played an important role in trying to discredit a public records investigation by U.S. Right to Know to obtain information about the pesticide industry’s partnerships with academics. According to Monsanto documents released in 2019, Monsanto was deeply worried that our investigation would “impact the entire industry.” The document describes plans to try to discredit the investigation as an attack on “scientific freedom,” the same messaging the Alliance used in a in a public petition attacking the investigation.
  • The Monsanto PR document suggests having Monsanto executive “Robb (Fraley) engage Horsch” for help with discrediting the FOIA investigation, referring to Rob Horsch, a longtime Monsanto veteran hired by the Gates Foundation in 2006 to lead the foundation’s agricultural development team.

More examples of how the Alliance partners with industry groups are described at the bottom of this fact sheet. Evanega left the Alliance in January of 2022 to work for a food and tech start up.

Defending the agrichemical industry in Hawaii

In 2016, the Alliance launched an affiliate group called the Hawaii Alliance for Science, which said its purpose was to “support evidence-based decision-making and agricultural innovation in the Islands.” Its messengers include:

Staffers, advisors

The Alliance for years described itself as “an initiative based at Cornell University, a non-profit institution.” The group does not disclose its budget, expenditures or staff salaries, and Cornell University does not disclose any information about the Alliance in its tax filings. (Sometime in 2022, the Alliance disassociated from the Cornell website and now it can be found here: https://allianceforscience.org.

Back row: Mike Naig (Iowa Secretary of Agriculture); Ryan Locke (FMC Corporation), Kent Schescke (CAST). Front row: Tricia Beal (Farm Journal Foundation), Sarah Evanega (director of Cornell Alliance for Science), Jay Vroom (retired President and CEO of CropLife America pesticide trade group).

The website listed20 staff membersas of September 2022, including the following notable staffers (the staff roster does not list Mark Lynas or other fellows who may also receive compensation):

The Alliance advisory board includes academics who regularly assist the agrichemical industry with PR.

Gates Foundation critiques

Since 2016, the Gates Foundation has spent over $6 billion on agricultural development strategies, much of that focused on Africa. The foundation’s agricultural development strategies were led byRob Horsch (now retired), a Monsanto veteran of 25 years. The strategieshave drawn criticism for promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered cropsacross Africa.

Critiques of the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural development and funding include:

MoreAlliance for Science-industry collaborations

Dozens of emails obtained via FOIA by U.S. Right to Know, and now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show the Alliance coordinating closely with the agrichemical industry and its public relations groups to coordinate events and messaging:

More critiques of Mark Lynas

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