Gates-funded ‘Alliance for Science’ accused of peddling misinformation

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The Alliance for Science is a public relations campaign that trains spokespeople and creates networks of influence, particularly in African countries, to persuade the public and policymakers to accept GMOs and pesticides. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the effort in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant and has since donated $22 million to the effort.

Originally called the “Cornell Alliance for Science,” the group dropped Cornell from its name in November 2022 and moved off the website. The “Alliance for Science” is now based at the Boyce Thompson Institute, an independent nonprofit research institute on the Cornell campus.

This fact sheet documents evidence that the Alliance used Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to promote false and misleading messaging about GMOs and pesticides, and to advance the PR and political agendas of the world’s largest chemical and seed corporations.

Scientists say Alliance for Science shares misinformation

The Cornell Alliance for Science launched in 2014 with a Gates Foundation grant and a promise to “depolarize” the debate around GMOs. Its key focus is training spokespeople and creating networks of influence, particularly in African countries, to persuade policymakers and the public to accept GMOs and pesticides. In 2020, the Alliance for Science expanded its mission with a fresh $10-million Gates Foundation grant “to counter conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns that hinder progress in climate change, synthetic biology, agricultural innovations.”

However, the Alliance for Science is itself a purveyor of misinformation, according to scientists, food policy experts and others who have critiqued the the group and its fellow, Mark Lynas, at length.

In a 2023 peer-reviewed critique, molecular geneticist Michael Antoniou et al. analyzed a Lynas co-authored paper that attempts to equate critics of agricultural GMOs and people who make false claims about climate change, COVID-19, and vaccines. Antoniou and co-authors found: “Lynas et al.’s publication suffers from critical flaws, such as an absence of scientific evidence to support the arguments presented; omission of relevant evidence on health and the environment; a reliance on spurious analogies; and a failure to distinguish ‘misinformation’ … In sum, it is evident that Lynas et al. resort to inaccurate and potentially libellous accusations, spurious analogies, selective and uncritical reporting, and misrepresentations of the state of the science on GM foods and crops and their associated pesticides, in an apparent attempt to promote and defend these products.”

African groups have also documented false statements and misleading tactics the Alliance for Science has used in its efforts to promote GMOs in Africa.

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:

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 GMOs and pesticides for the Alliance for Science; see for example his many articles promoted by the Genetic Literacy Project, a PR group that worked with Monsanto and now receives funds from Bayer. Lynas’ 2018 book argues for African countries to accept GMOs, and devotes a 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 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 that claims “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 critics called for a retraction.

A 2019 article by Alliance fellow Nassib Mugwanya provides another example of misleading content on agroecology. The article claims “traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture.” According to an analysis by the Community Alliance for Global Justice, the article 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.”

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

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 the Cornell 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

Former 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.

“launched vicious attacks” against community members in Hawaii

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.

As these efforts gained traction, the Alliance engaged in a “massive public relations disinformation campaign designed to silence community concerns” about the health risks of pesticides, according to Fern 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.

Opposed the public’s right to know

The Alliance played a leading 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 Monsanto’s plans to frame the public records investigation as an attack on “scientific freedom.” The Alliance used this same messaging in its public petition attacking the investigation.

The Monsanto PR document also directly mentions reaching out to a leader at the Gates Foundation, which funds the Alliance for Science, for help. The document suggests that Monsanto executive Robb Fraley should “engage Horsch” for help with discrediting the public records investigation. The refers to Rob Horsch, a longtime Monsanto veteran who went to the Gates Foundation in 2006 to lead its agricultural development team. From a Monsanto PR document:

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.

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 included:

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. In 2022, the group dropped “Cornell” from its name and moved its website.

The website listed 20 staff members as 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 by Rob Horsch (now retired), a Monsanto veteran of 25 years. The strategies have drawn criticism for promoting GMOs and pesticides in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa.

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

More Alliance 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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