Key pesticide industry PR group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife

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The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a major public relations initiative launched two decades ago by leading agrichemical companies to persuade the public to accept GMOs and pesticides, has shut down. A spokesperson confirmed via email that CBI “dissolved at the end of 2019, and its assets, including the GMO Answers platform, were transferred to Belgian-based CropLife International.”

Previous disclosure from GMOAnswers.com

CBI is still promoting industry views and front groups via its Facebook page. Its flagship project GMO Answers, a marketing campaign that amplifies the voices of academics to promote GMOs and pesticides, now says its funding comes from CropLife, the international trade group for pesticide companies.

GMOAnswers.com website now explains, “As of 2020, GMO Answers is a program of CropLife International.” The website also notes the group’s history “as a campaign produced by The Council for Biotechnology Information, whose members included BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta.”

See our new fact sheet with more details on the activities of the Council for Biotechnology Information and GMO Answers

“Training third party spokespeople”

CBI spent over $28 million on its product defense efforts from 2014-2019, according to tax records. (Tax forms and more supporting documents are posted here.)

The tax forms highlight the crucial role “third party” allies – especially academics, dieticians and farmers – play in the product defense efforts of the world’s largest pesticide and seed companies. A line item in CBI’s 2015 tax form for $1.4 million spent in North America notes: “Canada focused on training third party spokespeople (farmers, academics, dieticians) to educate media and public about the benefits of ag biotech.” In Mexico, the tax form notes, CBI “hosted media training and conferences for students, farmers, and academics” and “partnered with grower groups, academia, and the food chain to enhance acceptance” of GMOs. CBI also “created policy briefs for regulators.”

CBI’s largest expense, over $14 million since 2013, was for Ketchum public relations firm to run GMO Answers, which promotes the voices and content of  “independent” experts, many of whom have ties to the pesticide industry. Although GMO Answers discloses its industry funding, its activities have been less than transparent.

Other groups funded by CBI included the Global Farmer’s Network and Academics Review, a nonprofit that organized a series of “boot camps” at top universities to train scientists and journalists to promote and lobby for GMOs and pesticides.

CBI also produced a children’s coloring and activity book promoting industry viewpoints on biotechnology. The link for the book, and also a WhyBiotech.com website created by CBI, now redirect to a trade group for manufacturers and distributors of hemp-derived cannabinoids.

Backstory: Shaping public opinion on GMOs

The backstory of CBI was described in 2001 by public relations industry analyst Paul Holmes, founder of PRovoke (formerly the Holmes Report): In 1999, seven leading pesticide/seed companies and their trade groups “came together as a coalition and developed an industry-led public information program” to “shape public opinion and public policy formation on food biotechnology.” CBI would “develop alliances across the entire food ‘chain’ … to focus on promoting the benefits of food biotechnology,” Holmes reported.

“The campaign would counter criticism that biotech foods were unsafe, by emphasizing the extensive testing of biotech foods,” and “would be structured so as to answer questions and concerns from the public and respond to misinformation and ‘scare-tactics’ by biotechnology opponents,” Holmes noted. He explained that the information would be made available to the public “not only by the biotechnology industry, but through a variety of academic, scientific, government and independent, third-party sources.”

The two-decade evolution of CBI also highlights the consolidation of power in the pesticide/GMO industry. Founding members of CBI were BASF, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, Zeneca Ag products, Aventis CropScience, the American Crop Protection Association (now CropLife) and BIO.

The seven companies have since merged into four: Aventis and Monsanto were absorbed by Bayer; Dow Chemical and DuPont became Dow/DuPont and spun off agricultural business operations to Corteva Agriscience; Novartis and Zenica (which later merged with Astra) came together under the banner of Syngenta (which later also acquired ChemChina); while BASF acquired significant assets from Bayer.

More information:

CBI fact sheet

GMO Answers fact sheet

Academics Review fact sheet

More fact sheets from U.S. Right to Know: Tracking the pesticide industry propaganda network

U.S. Right to Know is a non-profit investigative research group producing groundbreaking investigations to expose how powerful food and chemical industry interests impact the food we eat and feed our children. 

Council for Biotechnology Information, GMO Answers, CropLife: pesticide industry PR initiatives 

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The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) was a public relations campaign launched in April 2000 by seven leading chemical/seed companies and their trade groups to persuade the public to accept genetically engineered foods. The initiative was created in response to public concerns about the health and environmental risks of genetically engineered foods, and said its focus would be developing alliances across the food chain to promote GMO crops (“ag biotech”) as beneficial.

CBI closed shop in 2019 and shifted its assets — including the marketing campaign GMO Answers, run by Ketchum PR firm — over to CropLife International, the international trade group for pesticide companies.

See: Key pesticide industry propaganda group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife, USRTK (2020)

CBI tax form: focused on third parties

CBI spent over $28 million from 2014-2019, according to tax records (see 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) on projects promoting genetically engineered foods. As noted in its 2015 tax form, CBI had an explicit focus on developing and training third-party spokespeople – particularly academics, farmers and dieticians – to promote industry views about the benefits of GMOs.

Projects funded by CBI included GMO Answers (via Ketchum public relations firm); Academics Review, a group that claimed to be independent of industry; Biotech Literacy Project boot camps held at top universities (via Academics Review) and the Global Farmer Network.

GMO Answers/Ketchum

GMO Answers is a marketing website and public relations campaign that uses the voices of academics and others to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. CBI spent $14.4 million on Ketchum public relations firm between 2014-2019 to run the PR salvo, according to tax forms.

GMO Answers discloses its industry funding on its website and says it promotes the views of independent experts. However, examples have come to light that Ketchum PR scripted some of the GMO answers offered by “independent experts” (see coverage in New York Times and Forbes). GMO Answers also appears in Monsanto PR documents as partners in industry’s efforts to defend glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides from cancer concerns, and to try to discredit a public interest research investigation by U.S. Right to Know to uncover hidden ties between pesticide companies and academics who promote agrichemical products.

An an example of how GMO Answers builds influence with key reporters, see reporting in Huffington Post about how Ketchum cultivated ties with Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel. Haspel was an early promoter of GMO Answers, and later participated in CBI-funded Biotech Literacy Project messaging events. A source review of Haspel’s columns conducted by USRTK found several examples of undisclosed industry sources and misleading information in her articles about pesticides.

GMO Answers was recognized as a successful spin effort in 2014 when it was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.” In a video produced for the award, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs,” and noted they “closely monitor the conversation” on Twitter where they “successfully balanced 80% of interactions with detractors.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.

Related reporting:

Monsanto document released in 2019

When USRTK submitted FOIAs to investigate industry ties with academics, Monsanto fought back.

Academics Review

CBI provided $650,000 in funding to Academics Review, a nonprofit that claimed it received no corporate funding. The group was co-founded by Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed Academics Review was set up explicitly as a front group with the help of Monsanto executives and the company’s former director of communications Jay Byrne. The group discussed using Academics Review as a vehicle to discredit critics of GMOs and agrichemicals, finding corporate contributions and hiding Monsanto’s fingerprints.

Related reporting: Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food, by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (2017)

Biotech Literacy Project spin events

CBI spent over $300,000 on two “Biotech Literacy Project boot camps” held at the University of Florida in 2014 and the University of California, Davis in 2015, according to tax records. The money was routed through Academics Review, which co-organized the conferences with the Genetic Literacy Project, another group that helps Monsanto with PR projects while claiming to be independent.

The three-day boot camp events trained students, scientists and journalists in communication and lobbying techniques to  promote and defend GMOs and pesticides, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling in the U.S.

Related reporting:  Flacking for GMOs: How the biotech industry cultivates positive media – and discourages criticism, by Paul Thacker, The Progressive (2017)

Monsanto ‘partner’ groups defend Roundup 

Although GMO Answers, Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project all claimed to be independent of the influence of industry, all three groups appeared in a Monsanto PR documents as “industry partners” the company engaged in its efforts to defend glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides from cancer concerns.

Monsanto PR document discusses plans to defend Roundup from cancer concerns

Kids’ coloring book

CBI also produced a children’s coloring and activity book to promote GMOs. The link for the book, and also the WhyBiotech.com website created by CBI, now redirect to a trade group for manufacturers and distributors of hemp-derived cannabinoids.

Related U.S. Right to Know posts

GMO Answers is a crisis management PR tool for GMOs and pesticides (updated 2020)

Key pesticide industry propaganda group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife (2020)

Monsanto’s campaign against U.S. Right to Know (2019)

Monsanto relied on these ‘partners’ to attack top cancer scientists (2019)

Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group (2018)

Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project: PR Messengers for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry (2018)

How Tamar Haspel misleads readers of the Washington Post and source review of Haspel’s pesticide columns (2018)

Russia’s former PR firm Ketchum runs the chemical industry’s PR salvo on GMO (2015)