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.
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:
- Experts in agroecology withdraw from Cornell Alliance for Science Agroecology Webinar, citing bias, Community Alliance for Global Justice(9.30.20)
- Messengers of Gates’ Agenda: A Case Study of the Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows Program, AGRA Watch (8.7.20)
- Students Should Continue to Question the Ethics of the Cornell Alliance for Science, by Fern Anuenue, Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, Cornell Daily Sun (11.19.19)
- Seeds Of Neo-Colonialism: Why The GMO Promoters Get It So Wrong About Africa, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (2018)
- Mark Lynas slammed for exploiting African farmers’ images to promote GMOs, African Centre for Biodiversity (2018)
- Mark Lynas’ unauthorized use of farmer’s images in misleading and unethical tactics to promote GM crops in Tanzania, report by Eugenio Tisselli, PhD, and Angelika Hilbeck, PhD. (2018)
- 6 ways this Ivy League university is acting like a PR firm for junk food, GMOs and pesticides, by Sophia Johnson, Salon (2017)
- New York Farmers Call for Cornell to Evict the ‘Alliance for Science,’ Bioscience Resource Project (2016)
- The GMO Debate: One Student’s Experience of Pro-GMO Propaganda at Cornell University, by Robert Schooler, Independent Science News (2016)
- Why is CornellUniversity hosting a GMO propaganda campaign? by Stacy Malkan, The Ecologist (2016)
- Gates Foundation Backed Pro-GMO Cornell Alliance for Science On the Attack, Corporate Crime Reporter (2015)
- The War on Genetically Modified Food Critics, by Timothy Wise, Food Tank (2015)
Related reporting from U.S. Right to Know:
- Critiques of Gates Foundation agricultural interventions in Africa (fact sheet)
- Mark Lynas’ inaccurate, deceptive promotions for the agrichemical agenda (fact sheet)
- Gates Foundation doubles down on misinformation campaign at Cornell as African leaders call for agroecology, by Stacy Malkan (9.30.20)
- Series of articles about Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation’s impact on food systems in Africa, by Stacy Malkan
- Gates-funded Cornell Group Misfires in Protest of Vandana Shiva (2016)
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.
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.
- Trevor Butterworth and Sense About Science/STATS: The Alliance partnered with Sense About Science/STATS to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” and gave a fellowship to the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending products important to the chemical, fracking, junk food and drug industries. Butterworth is founding director of Sense About Science USA, which he merged with his former platform, Statistical Assessment Service (STATS). Journalists have described STATs and Butterworth as key players in chemical and pharmaceutical industry product defense campaigns (see Stat News, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,The Intercept and The Atlantic). Monsanto documents identify Sense About Science among the “industry partner” it counted on to defend Roundup against cancer concerns.
- Climate science skeptic Owen Paterson:The Alliance hosted Owen Paterson, a British Conservative Party politician and well-known climate science skeptic who slashed funding for global warming mitigation efforts during his stint as UK Environment Minister, to give a talk about GMOs in 2015. Paterson used the Cornell stage to claim that environmental groups raising concerns about GMOs “allow millions to die” — the same message Monsanto and other pesticide companies used 50 years ago to try to discredit Rachel Carson for raising concerns about DDT.
- Mark Lynas, visiting fellow at Cornell: A former journalist turned promotional advocate for GMOs, Lynas has written and travelled extensively for the Alliance to promote GMOs. Scientists, researchers, and food sovereignty groups have written detailed critiques of inaccuracies, false messaging, and misleading tactics Lynas has used in his GMO promotions (see our Mark Lynas fact sheet). Lynas is also affiliated with Sense About Science as a longtime advisory board member. Lynas partnered with climate science skeptic Owen Paterson and Sense About Science Director Tracey Brown on 2015 to launch what he called the “ecomodernism movement,” a corporate-aligned, anti-regulation strain of “environmentalism.”
- Jay Byrne, former Monsanto communications director, describes Cornell Alliance for Science as an organization he has worked with since 2014 on his LinkedIn page. As USRTK has reported, Byrne played a key role in pesticide industry messaging and especially industry attempts to discredit and attack critics, including scientists who raised concerns about pesticide products.
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.
- The Alliance partnered on the anti-transparency petition with Biofortified, a group that lobbied against pesticide regulations in Hawaii at the behest of a pesticide industry trade group, while claiming to be independent.
- Alliance Director and Founder Sarah Evanega was a Trustee in 2017 of the International Food Information Council, a food and chemicalindustry-funded PR group that defends sugar, food additives, GMOs and pesticides.
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:
- Sarah Thompson, a former employee of Dow AgroSciences, coordinated the Hawaii Alliance for Science, which described itself as a “communications-based non-profit grassroots organization associated with the Cornell Alliance for Science.” (The website no longer appears active, but the group maintains a Facebook page.) Social media posts from the Hawaii Alliance for Science and its coordinator Thompson have described critics of the agrichemical industry as arrogant and ignorant people, celebrated corn and soy mono-crops and defended neonicotinoid pesticides which many studies andscientists say are harming bees.
- Joan Conrow, Managing Editor of the Alliance, writes articles on her personal website, her “Kauai Eclectic” blog and for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project trying to discredit health professionals, community groups and politicians in Hawaii who advocate for stronger pesticide protections, and journalists who write about pesticide concerns. Conrow has accused environmental groups of tax evasionand compared a food safety group to the KKK. Conrow has not always disclosed her Cornell affiliation. Hawaii’s Civil Beat newspaper criticized Conrow for her lack of transparency and cited her in 2016 as an example of why the paper was changing its commenting policies. Conrow “often argued the pro-GMO perspective without explicitly mentioning her occupation as a GMO sympathist,” wrote journalism professorBrett Oppegaard. “Conrow also has lost her journalistic independence (and credibility) to report fairly about GMO issues, because of the tone of her work on these issues.”
- Joni Kamiya, a 2015 AllianceGlobal Leadership Fellow argues against pesticide regulations on her website Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter, in the media and also for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project. She is an “ambassador expert” for the agrichemical industry-funded marketing website GMO Answers. Like Conrow, Kamiya claims pesticide exposures in Hawaii aren’t a problem, and tries to discredit elected officials and“environmental extremists” who want to regulate pesticides.
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.
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):
- Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, has worked closely with the agrichemical industry and its public relations groups to coordinate events and messaging, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, and now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library.
- Gregory Jaffe, Associate Director of Legal Affairs, is also the Director of Biotechnology for Center for Science in the Public Interest where he draws a $143,000 salary plus benefits. CSPI opposes GMO labeling and Jaffe argues that “Americans should embrace” the current crop of genetically engineered foods.
- Jayson Merkley, one of 10 members of the training team, worked as a social media consultant for March Against Myths Against Modification, a project of the industry partner group Biofortified. For an example of misleading messaging involving Merkley, see 2016 post, Gates-funded Cornell group misfires in protest against Vandana Shiva.
The Alliance advisory board includes academics who regularly assist the agrichemical industry with PR.
- Pamela Ronald,a geneticist at UC Davis, has ties to chemical industry PR efforts that claim to be independent; she co-founded and served on the board of Biofortified, and set up the industry-tied Genetic Literacy Project and its founder Jon Entine with a platform at UC Davis. Ronald receives industry payments for speaking engagements; see $10,000 invoice to Bayer and $3,000 invoice to Monsanto.
- Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, argues for deregulating genetically engineered animals she is developing. She is a key outside spokesperson who worked with agrichemical companies on various PR efforts to oppose regulations and transparency.
- Cornell Professor Tony Shelton was one of several professors recruited by Monsanto to write pro-GMO papers that were published by the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project with no disclosure about Monsanto’s role. Shelton created a controversy when he asked his students to taste a pesticide, ostensibly as a stunt to promote GMOs.
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:
- Critiques of Gates Foundation’s agricultural interventions in Africa:U.S. Right to Know fact sheet, frequently updated
- Failing Africa’s Farmers:An Impact Assessment of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, by Timothy Wise, Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute (2020)
- False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, by Rosa Luxtemburg Stiftung et. al. (2020)
- ‘Replacing hunger with malnutrition’: Former UN official calls out African Green Revolution,by Timothy A. Wise, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (2020)
- Gates Foundation’s ‘failing green revolution in Africa,’ by Stacy Malkan,The Ecologist (2020)
- Has Africa’s green revolution failed? Deutsche Welle (2020)
- US groups invest billions in industrial ag in Africa. Experts say it’s not ending hunger or helping farmers,by Lisa Held, Civil Eats (2020)
- Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why the GMO Promoters Get it So Wrong About Africa,statement by theAlliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (2018)
- The Gates Foundation’s Ceres 2030 Plan Pushes Agenda of Agribusiness, by Jonathan Latham, Independent Science News (2018)
- Gates Foundation Hired PR Firm to Manipulate UN Over Gene Drives, by Jonathan Latham, Independent Science News (2017)
- Philanthrocapitalism: The Gates Foundation’s African programmes are not charity, by Philip L Bereano, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington,Third World Resurgence (2017)
- Does the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation help big corporations more than poor people?by Oscar Rickett, Vice (2016)
- Bill Gates is on a mission to sell GMOs to Africa, but he’s not telling the whole truth,by Stacy Malkan, Alternet (2016)
- Philanthropic Power and Development. Who shapes the agenda?by Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz, Global Policy Forum (2015)
- Gates Foundation’s Seed Agenda in Africa ‘Another Form of Colonialism,’ Warns Protesters, by Lauren McCauley, Common Dreams (2015)
- How does the Gates Foundation feed the world? funding analysis by GRAIN report (2014)
- Bill Gates spends bulk of agricultural grants in rich countries, by John Vidal, the Guardian (2014)
- Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good? Global Justice Now report (2014)
- How Bill Gates is Helping KFC Take Over Africa,by Alex Park, Mother Jones (2014)
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:
- Alliance Director Sarah Evanega worked with Monsanto’s Cami Ryan to organize a series of workshops in 2017 to promote genetically engineered foods.
- Responding to a request from a DuPont Pioneer executive, Evanega recruited University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta to speak to the University-Industry Consortium, a group that works to maintain “a competitive advantage” for its corporate and academic members. Although Folta hasmisled the public about his ties to industry, Evanega has promoted him as “an amazing champion for change” and “a model for scientists.”
- Evanega invited Alliance advisory board member Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, to speak at the DuPont Pioneer-funded Cornell Breeding Symposium. The emails show Evanega asking Van Eenennaam to submit comments on a government proposal to regulate GMOs, and discussing how to develop feminist materials to promote GMOs.
- Evanega served on the working group of the UC Davis Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL), alongside Monsanto staffers and two industry front groups,Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review. The groups co-hosted an industry-funded “boot camp” to train scientists and students to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides.
More critiques of Mark Lynas
- Mark Lynas’ inaccurate, deceptive promotions for the agrichemical agenda — USRTK fact sheet (updated regularly)
- Mark Lynas slammed for exploiting African farmers’ images to promote GMOs, African Centre for Biodiversity (2018)
- Seeds Of Neo-Colonialism – Why The GMO Promoters Get It So Wrong About Africa — Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (2018)
- The Science is Still Out on GMO Safety, by David Schubert, PhD, Head, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory & Professor at TheSalkInstitute for Biological Studies, San Diego Union Tribuneletter (2018)
- The Absurdity of Claiming All GMOs are Safe,by geneticist Belinda Martineau, PhD Biotech Salon andLetter to NYT(2015)
- The War on Genetically Modified Food Critics, by Timothy A. Wise, Food Tank
- Professor John Vandermeer challenges environmentalist Mark Lynas on GMOs, Food First (2014)
- Science, Dogma and Mark Lynas,by Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, Union of Concerned Scientists (2013)
- Misleading Claims Made By and About Mark Lynas, GM Watch (2013)
- Of Myths and Men: Mark Lynas and the Intoxicating Power of Technocracy, by Eric Holt-Giménez, PhD, Director Food First/Institute of Food Policy and Development, Huffington Post (2013)
- Scientist: Genetic Engineering is Based on Dramatically Incomplete Knowledge, Q&A with John Vendermeer (2013)
- 22 Pieces Of Junk Science From The Lynas Manifesto, by Brian John, PhD, Permaculture Research Institute (2013)
- A Rebuttal to Mark Lynas’ GMO Reversal, by Jason Mark, Earth Island Journal (2013)