Pamela Ronald, PhD, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis and author of the 2008 book “Tomorrow’s Table,” is a well-known advocate for genetically engineered foods. Less known is Dr. Ronald’s role helping lead organizations that portray themselves as acting independently of industry but in fact are collaborating with chemical corporations to promote GMOs and pesticides, in arrangements that are not transparent to the public.
Ties to key agrichemical industry front group
Tax forms filed with the IRS show that Dr. Ronald served on the board of directors of the Science Literacy Project in fiscal year 2015/2016. Science Literacy Project is the parent organization of Genetic Literacy Project (GLP), a group that works behind the scenes with Monsanto and other agrichemical companies on public relations projects without disclosing those collaborations. A 2017 Le Monde investigation describes GLP as a propaganda website and a key player in Monsanto’s PR efforts to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel in the wake of its report about glyphosate. A 2015 Monsanto PR document identified GLP as an industry partner in its plan to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report in order to “protect the reputation and FTO of Roundup.” GLP has since published dozens of articles attacking the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who “lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate.
The Science Literacy Project’s board members include key operatives of chemical industry public relations campaigns:
- Jon Entine, executive director of Genetic Literacy Project, also owns a PR firm that had Monsanto as a client when it registered the domain for geneticliteracyproject.org in 2011. GLP began as a program of STATS, a nonprofit journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that seeds doubt about science and is “known for its defense of the chemical industry.”
- Former law professor Drew Kershen also served on the board of Academics Review, a group that claimed to be independent while receiving funds from agrichemical companies.
- Epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat, PhD, is a Scientific Advisor to the American Council on Science and Health, a front group that receives funding from Monsanto for its efforts to defend pesticides.
UPDATE: Dr. Ronald said (in December 2018) that she did not serve on the board of directors of the Science Literacy Project, despite IRS tax filings appearing on several public recordswebsites listing her as an SLP board member from June 2015 to June 2016. She said an amended IRS tax form has been filed to retroactively remove her from the SLP board of directors, although this amended form does not appear on IRS nonprofit tax records websites.
Founded, led UC Davis group that elevated industry PR efforts
Dr. Ronald was the founding director of the World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL), a group launched in 2014 at UC Davis to train faculty and students to promote genetically engineered foods, crops and pesticides. The group does not fully disclose its funding.
Documents show that Dr. Ronald gave Jon Entine and his industry front group Genetic Literacy Project a platform at UC Davis, appointing Entine as an unpaid Senior Fellow and as an instructor and mentor in a science communications graduate program. Entine’s body of work includes defending pesticides, industrial chemicals, plastics, fracking, and the oil industry, often with attacks on scientists, journalists and academics. (Entine is no longer a fellow at UC Davis. See also our letter to the World Food Center inquiring about funding for Entine and IFAL and their obscure explanation about where their funding comes from.)
In July 2014, Dr. Ronald indicated in an email to a colleague that Entine was an important collaborator who could give them good suggestions on who to contact to raise additional funds for the first IFAL event. In June 2015, IFAL co-hosted the “Biotech Literacy Project boot camp” with Genetic Literacy Project and the Monsanto-backed group Academics Review. Although organizers claimed the event was funded by academic, government and industry sources, the only traceable source of funding was the biotech industry, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Tax records show that Academics Review, which received its funding from the agrichemical industry trade group, spent $162,000 for the three-day conference at UC Davis.
The purpose of the boot camp, according to the agenda, was to train and support scientists, journalists and academic researchers to persuade the public and policy makers about the benefits of GMOs and pesticides. Speakers included Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications at Monsanto; Hank Campbell, leader of the Monsanto-funded group American Council on Science and Health; and academics with undisclosed industry ties such as University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy and University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta . Keynote speakers included Dr. Ronald and Yvette d’Entremont, also known as Sci Babe, a “science communicator” who defends pesticides and artificial sweeteners while taking money from companies that sell those products.
Cooking up a Chipotle boycott
Emails indicate that Dr. Ronald and Jon Entine collaborated on messaging to discredit critics of genetically engineered foods. In one case, Dr. Ronald proposed to organize a boycott against the Chipotle restaurant chain over its decision to offer and promote non-GMO foods.
In April 2015, Dr. Ronald emailed Entine and Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a former Monsanto employee and cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, to suggest they find a student to write about farmers using more toxic pesticides to grow non-GMO corn. “I suggest we publicize this fact (once we get the details) and then organize a chipotle boycott,” Dr. Ronald wrote. Entine directed an associate to write an article for Genetic Literacy Project on the theme that “pesticide use often soars” when farmers switch to a non-GMO model to supply restaurants like Chipotle. The article, co-authored by Entine and touting his UC Davis affiliation, fails to substantiate that claim with data.
Co-founded biotech spin group BioFortified
Dr. Ronald co-founded and served as board member (2012-2015) of Biology Fortified, Inc. (Biofortified), a group that promotes GMOs and has a partner activist group that organizes protests to confront Monsanto critics. Other leaders of Biofortified include founding board member David Tribe, a geneticist at University of Melbourne who co-founded Academics Review, a group that claimed to be independent while receiving industry funds. Former board member Kevin Folta (2015-2018), a plant scientist at the University of Florida, was the subject of a New York Times story reporting that he misled the public about undisclosed industry collaborations. Biofortified bloggers include Steve Savage, a former DuPont employee turned industry consultant; Joe Ballanger, a consultant for Monsanto; and Andrew Kniss, who has received money from Monsanto. Documents suggest that members of Biofortified coordinated with the pesticide industry on a lobbying campaign to oppose pesticide restrictions in Hawaii.
Played leading role in industry-funded propaganda movie
Dr. Ronald featured prominently in Food Evolution, a documentary film about genetically engineered foods funded by the trade group Institute for Food Technologists. Dozens of academics have called the film propaganda, and several people interviewed for the film described a deceptive filming process and said their views were taken out of context.
Advisor for Cornell-based GMO public relations campaign
Dr. Ronald is on the advisory board of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a PR campaign based at Cornell University that promotes the GMOs and pesticides using agrichemical industry messaging. Funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has opposed the use of Freedom of Information Act to investigate public institutions, misled the public with inaccurate information and elevated unreliable messengers; see documentation in our fact sheet.
Receives money from the agrichemical industry
Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Ronald receives compensation from agrichemical companies to speak at events where she promotes GMOs to key audiences that companies seek to influence, such as dieticians. Emails from November 2012 provide an example of how Dr. Ronald works with companies.
Monsanto staffer Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, a dietician who formerly worked for the food-industry spin group IFIC, invited Ronald to speak at two conferences in 2013, Food 3000 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. Emails show that the two discussed fees and book purchases and agreed Dr. Ronald would speak at Food 3000, a conference organized by the PR firm Porter Novelli that Kapsak said would reach “90 high media impact food and nutrition professionals/influencers.” (Dr. Ronald invoiced $3,000 for the event). Kapsak asked to review Dr. Ronald’s slides and set up a call to discuss messaging. Also on the panel were moderator Mary Chin (a dietician who consults with Monsanto), and representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto, with Kapsak giving opening remarks. Kapsak later reported that the panel got rave reviews with participants saying they would share the idea that, “We have to have biotech to help feed the world.”
Other industry-funded speaking engagements for Dr. Ronald included a 2014 speech at Monsanto for $3,500 plus 100 copies of her book which she declined to tweet about; and a 2013 speaking engagement for which she invoiced Bayer AG for $10,000.
Retraction Watch reported that, “2013 was a rough year for biologist Pamela Ronald. After discovering the protein that appears to trigger rice’s immune system to fend off a common bacterial disease – suggesting a new way to engineer disease-resistant crops – she and her team had to retract two papers in 2013 after they were unable to replicate their findings. The culprits: a mislabeled bacterial strain and a highly variable assay. However, the care and transparency she exhibited earned her a ‘doing the right thing’ nod from us at the time.”
“What do you do about painful retractions? Q&A with Pamela Ronald and Benjamin Swessinger,” Retraction Watch (7.24.2015)
“Can the scientific reputation of Pamala Ronald, the public face of GMOs, be salvaged?” by Jonathan Latham, Independent Science News (11.12.2013)
“Pamela Ronald does the right thing again, retracting a Science paper,” Retraction Watch (10.10.2013)
“Doing the right thing: Researchers retract quorum sensing paper after public process,” Retraction Watch (9.11.2013)