Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project: Messengers for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry

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Jon Entine is executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project and principal of the public relations firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients included Monsanto.  Entine portrays himself as an objective authority on science, but evidence shows that he is a longtime PR operative with deep ties to the chemical industry and undisclosed industry funding.  He plays a central role in the agrichemical industry’s efforts to promote GMOs and pesticides, and attack critics.

A 2015 Monsanto PR document named the Genetic Literacy Project as an “industry partner” that could help “orchestrate outcry” against the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel for their finding that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is probably carcinogenic to humans.

Genetic Literacy Project origins: Jon Entine’s PR firm and a nonprofit with tobacco ties

Jon Entine is founder and principal of ESG MediaMetrics, a public relations firm that promised to “address an unfilled frustration voiced by corporations…” Entine’s clients as of 2012 included Monsanto, the Vinyl Institute and Merisant, a Monsanto spin-off that manufactures artificial sweeteners. In 2011, ESG MediaMetrics registered the web domain for GeneticLiteracyProject.org.

Entine was also at that time employed by Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a nonprofit group that journalists have described as “disinformation campaign” “known for its defense of the chemical industry.” According to an archived version of the STATS website,  Genetic Literacy Project was developed as a “cross disciplinary program with STATS.” Tax filings show that the Science Literacy Project, the parent organization of the Genetic Literacy Project, inherited the STATS tax ID number.

An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that STATS was a “major player in the public relations campaign to discredit concerns about bisphenol A” and that its parent organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, “was paid in the 1990s by Philip Morris, the tobacco company, to pick apart stories critical of smoking.” Entine was a director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs through June 2015, according to tax forms.

Monsanto was a client of Entine’s PR firm, ESG MediaMetrics, which set up the domain registration for Genetic Literacy Project.

Partners with Monsanto to Spin GMOs and Pesticides

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and from litigation against Monsanto show that Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project are central players in the agrichemical industry’s propaganda campaigns.

  • Genetic Literacy Project is a key messenger in Monsanto’s PR campaign to “protect the reputation” of Roundup from cancer concerns by attacking the scientists of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). More than 200 articles on GLP’s website defend glyphosate and attempt to discredit the cancer scientists, claiming they are “anti-chemical enviros” who “lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate.
  • A June 2017 prize-winning Le Monde investigation into Monsanto’s “effort to destroy the United Nations’ cancer agency by any means possible” describes the Genetic Literacy Project and the American Council on Science and Health as “well-known propaganda websites” and key players in Monsanto’s communication networks.
  • Plaintiffs’ attorneys suing Monsanto over glyphosate cancer concerns stated in a May 2017 filing that: “Monsanto quietly funnels money to ‘think tanks’ such as the ‘Genetic Literacy Project’ and the ‘American Council on Science and Health,’ organizations intended to shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers.”
  • In 2015, Genetic Literacy Project published a series of pro-GMO papers written by professors that were assigned and promoted by Monsanto, with no disclosure of the corporation’s role. The Boston Globe reported that Monsanto suggested the topic and headline for a Harvard professor’s paper, “then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet as part of Monsanto’s strategy to win over the public and lawmakers.”  In a September 2014 email, Monsanto executive Eric Sachs wrote to a professor with “proposed edits on your brief,” and identified Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project as the “the primary outlet” for publishing the papers and “building a merchandising plan” with the public relations firm CMA (now Look East).
  • Look East, the PR firm that promoted the Monsanto-assigned professor papers, is directed by Charlie Arnot, who also runs the Center for Food Integrity, a food industry front group that receives funding from Monsanto. Center for Food Integrity gives funding to the Genetic Literacy Project.
  • In 2014 and 2015, Genetic Literacy Project partnered with Academics Review, a front group started with the help of Monsanto to attack critics of the agrichemical industry, to organize the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps. Paul Thacker described the events in The Progressive: “Industry has also secretly funded a series of conferences to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate.”
  • Entine is involved with several other groups identified as “industry partners” in Monsanto’s 2015 PR plan to defend Roundup, including Academics Review, Center for Food IntegrityBiofortified, the AgBioChatter listserve, Sense About Science USA (now merged with STATS), and the agrichemical industry-funded PR website GMO Answers.

Ties to Syngenta / American Council on Science and Health

Syngenta was funding ACSH when it published Entine’s book defending Syngenta’s pesticide.

Jon Entine has partnered for years with the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group that Monsanto paid to help spin the WHO/IARC cancer report on glyphosate. Syngenta was also funding ACSH at the time that ACSH published Entine’s 2011 book, “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.” The book defends atrazine, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta.

In a 2012 article about Entine for Mother Jones, Tom Philpott described the circumstances leading up to the publication of the book. The article is based on internal documents, obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, that described Syngenta’s PR campaign to get third-party allies to defend atrazine, and ACSH’s attempts to raise more money from Syngenta specifically to defend atrazine.

In a 2009 email, ACSH staff asked Syngenta for an additional $100,000, “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years,” to produce a paper and “consumer-friendly booklet” about atrazine. In 2011, ACSH announced Entine’s book as a “companion friendly, abbreviated position paper” written in response to the “growing level of chemophobia the irrational fear of chemicals among the American public.”

Entine told Philpott he had “no idea” Syngenta was funding ACSH.

Attacks on Scientists and Journalists   

A key theme in Entine’s work is attacking scientists and journalists who report critically about the chemical industry, the oil industry or the health problems associated with their toxic products and practices. Some examples:

  • In a 2014 New Yorker article based on internal Syngenta documents, Rachel Aviv reported that Syngenta’s public relations team had plotted to destroy the reputation of UC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes in attempt to discredit his research connecting the herbicide atrazine to birth defects in frogs. In a lengthy Forbes article, Entine attacked Aviv’s story as a “botch puff piece” and claimed Hayes is “almost completely discredited.” Entine’s primary source was a “summary analysis” by University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, the founder of the Monsanto front group Academics Review.
  • In 2017, Entine attacked Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt, as “a populist Luddite, the intellectual Rottweiler of in-your-face, environmentalism, unduly wary of modern technology.”
  • In 2016, Entine attacked Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll and journalist Susanne Rust for their series reporting that Exxon knew for years that climate change was real but hid the science to keep revenues flowing.
  • In a follow-up attack in 2017 (since removed from the Huffington Post website), Entine accused Rust of having a “journalistic history” that raises “ethical and science questions.” He cited as evidence Rust’s award-winning investigative series on BPA that was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize — but didn’t disclose that the series outed his former employer STATS as a “major player in the public relations effort to discredit concerns about BPA.”

Reporting by Rust and Meg Kissinger in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and by Liza Gross in The Intercept in 2016, describes how Entine’s former employers, STATS and Center for Media and Public Affairs, pioneered their methods of attacking journalists and media while working for Phillip Morris to defend cigarettes in the 1990s.

The Murky Funding Trail to Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project

Entine’s funding history is complex and opaque, but tax documents and his own disclosures reveal a pattern of funding from anonymous sources and right-wing foundations that push deregulation and climate science denial, as well as undisclosed funding from the biotechnology industry.

Inaccurate, ever-changing “transparency” note 

The “financial transparency” note on the Genetic Literacy Project website is inaccurate, changes often and at times contradicts itself. For 2017 and 2018,  the Genetic Literacy Project claimed it received funding from a handful of foundations including the Templeton and Searle foundations, which are two of the leading funders of climate science denial efforts. GLP also notes funding from the Center for Food Integrity, a food-industry front group that receives money from Monsanto and also partners with Monsanto and Genetic Literacy Project to promote agrichemical industry PR.

In September 2016, the “disclosure” note said GLP received no funding from corporations, but noted a $27,500 “pass through” from “Academics Review Charitable Association,” which appears not to exist. That group is apparently AcademicsReview.org, a front group funded by the agrichemical industry. The “pass through” was for the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp, an event funded by the agrichemical industry.

In March 2016, GLP made no financial disclosures and Entine tried to distance GLP from his former employer STATS, claiming that STATS provided accounting services only to GLP from 2011-2014 and that the groups weren’t involved with each other’s activities. But in 2012, GLP said it was “developed as a cross disciplinary program with STATS.”

Center for Media and Public Affairs/George Mason University

For the fiscal year 2014/2015, according to tax records, Entine received $173,100 for his work as “director” at Center for Media and Public Affairs, a group based at George Mason University and founded by GMU Professor Robert Lichter. CMPA was paid by Phillip Morris in the 1990s to deflect concerns about tobacco, according to documents in the UCSF Tobacco Industry Library.

CMPA does not disclose its funders but has received funding from George Mason University Foundation, the leading recipient of donations affiliated with Charles Koch and Koch Industries. GMUF also received $5.3 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund between 2011-13, according to the Guardian. These funds channel money from anonymous donors including corporations to campaigns and academics who push industry interests, as Greenpeace demonstrated in an undercover investigation.

STATS Payments and Loans 

CMPA’s sister group, also founded by Lichter and based at GMU, was Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a nonprofit group that played a key role in chemical industry PR efforts to defend toxic products, according to reporting in The Intercept, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Atlantic and Consumer Reports.

According to IRS forms:

  • STATS paid Entine $140,600 in 2012/2013 and $152,500 in 2013/2014 as a “research consultant”
  • STATS listed Entine as Director in 2014/2015 and his compensation as $173,100. The Center for Media and Public Affairs also listed Entine as Director that year with compensation in the same amount. Tax records for both groups also listed  President Trevor Butterworth for $95,512 and Director Tracey Brown with no compensation. Tracey Brown is the director of Sense About Science, a group that also spins science to defend chemical industry interests; Butterworth became founding director of Sense About Science USA in 2014/2015 and merged STATS into that group).
  • Science Literacy Project took over the tax ID of STATS in 2015/2016 and listed Entine as Executive Director with compensation of $188,800. Science Literacy Project paid Entine $177,504 in 2016/2017
  • ESG MediaMetrics, Entine’s PR firm, reported $176,420 in income in 2018

CMPA has also loaned money to STATS, which “due to inadequate funding” has “not been reimbursed.” George Mason University Foundation, which does not disclose its funding, gave CMPA grants in those years. Tax records show:

Biotechnology industry funding to train scientists and journalists

In 2014 and 2015, the Council for Biotechnology Information, which is funded by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont and Monsanto Company, spent over $300,000 on two events organized by Genetic Literacy Project and the front group Academics Review to “train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate,” according to tax records and rep0rting in The Progressive. The events, called the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps, were held at the University of Florida in 2014 and UC Davis in 2015. The agendas describe the events as “communication skills training” for scientists and journalists to help reframe the food safety and GMO debate, and promised to provide scientists with the “tools and support resources necessary to effectively engage the media and appear as experts in legislative and local government hearings, and other policy making and related outreach opportunities.”

Faculty at the first first boot camp included representatives from the agrichemical industry, food industry front groups and trade groups, and pro-GMO academics including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, both of whom have accepted undisclosed funding from Monsanto and promote the GMOs and pesticides that Monsanto sales rely upon. Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel, who also accepts money from agribusiness interests, was the journalist on faculty.

Climate science denier funders 

Major financial supporters of Entine’s former employer STATS and his current group Genetic Literacy Project include right-wing foundations – primarily Scaife Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust and Templeton Foundation – that are leading funders of climate science denial, according to a 2013 Drexel University study. See USRTK investigation: Climate Science Denial Network Funds Toxic Chemical Propaganda.

Chemical Industry Defense Guy

For many years, Entine has been a prominent defender of chemical industry interests, following the industry playbook: he defends the chemicals as safe; argues against regulation; and attacks science, scientists journalists and others raising concerns.

Defending Neonicotinoids

Growing scientific evidence suggests that neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of pesticides, are a key factor in bee die-offs. The European Union has restricted neonics due to concerns about impact on bees.

Entine:

  • Accused European politicians of trying to kill bees by restricting neonics (Forbes).

Defending Phthalates

In August of 2012, Entine defended vinyl plastic backpacks that were found to be exposing children to phthalates.

  • Entine criticized an NBC reporter for “shoddy journalism” for raising questions about the safety of phthalates (Forbes).

Defending Fracking

Entine defends hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the pumping of high-pressure chemical-laced water into the ground to crack shale and extract natural gas. As in his many other messaging campaigns, Entine blasts science and scientists who raise concerns, framing them as “activists,” while making sweeping and indefensible statements about “scrupulous” science conducted over many years that defend its safety.

For example, Entine claimed: “From a scientific perspective, no reason exists to even suspect unknown health or environmental issues will turn up” from fracking (New York Post).

Entine also:

  • Accused New York Times reporters of misleading children about the potential environmental dangers of fracking (Forbes).
  • Attacked two Cornell University scientists for their study suggesting that fracking operations leak methane (Forbes).
  • Attacked the Park Foundation, claiming that it has “almost single-handedly derailed shale-gas development in methane-rich New York State, and put its imprint on public opinion and policy decisions around the country.” (Philanthropy Roundtable)

Defending BPA

Entine writes in defense of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), despite a large body of scientific evidence raising concerns about its endocrine disrupting potential and other health problems associated with it. Canada declared the chemical to be toxic in 2010, and the EU banned BPA in baby bottles in 2011.

Entine:

  • Attacked “a small but determined group of university researchers, activist NGOs and journalists” raising concerns about BPA (Forbes).
  • Tells women who can’t get pregnant not to blame it on plastics (Forbes).
  • Challenged scientists linking BPA to heart disease (Forbes).

Defending Nuclear Power

Entine:

  • Criticized Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes for pointing out the economic and environmental risks of nuclear power (Huffington Post).
  • Claims that nuclear power plants are environmentally benign and that “Nothing as bad as Chernobyl is likely to occur in the West” (Jon Entine).
  • Argued that Germany is “taking a gamble” by transitioning away from nuclear power (Ethical Corporation)

Fellowships

Entine was an unpaid fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University (GMU) from 2011-2014. Entine is also a former senior fellow at the UC Davis World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, which does not disclose its donors, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a DC think tank funded in part by corporate and dark money contributions.

See also, Greenpeace Polluter Watch page on Jon Entine and “the hidden story of the Genetic Literacy Project.”

How Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post

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Tamar Haspel is a freelance journalist who has been writing monthly food columns for the Washington Post since October 2013. Haspel’s columns frequently promote and defend agrichemical industry products, while she also receives payments to speak at industry-aligned events, and sometimes from industry groups – a practice known as “buckraking” that raises questions about objectivity.

A review of Haspel’s Washington Post columns turns up further concerns: in multiple instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry connections of her sources, relied on industry-slanted studies, cherry-picked facts to back up industry positions or cited industry propaganda uncritically. See source review and other examples described below. Haspel has not yet responded to inquiries for this article.

Buckraking on the food beat: a conflict of interest?

In a 2015 online chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” She discloses her speaking engagements on her personal website, but does not disclose which companies or trade groups fund her or what amounts they give.

When asked how much money she has taken from the agrichemical industry and its front groups, Haspel tweeted, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!”

According to the Washington Post Standards and Ethics, reporters cannot accept gifts, free trips, preferential treatment or free admissions from news sources, and “should make every effort to remain in the audience, to stay off the stage, to report the news, not to make the news.” These rules do not apply to freelancers however, and the paper leaves it up to editors to decide.

Haspel describes her criteria for accepting paid speaking engagements on her personal website: that the events are constructive debates about food issues involving more voices than for-profit companies. Not all events on her roster appear to fit that criteria (see the “biotech literacy” industry-funded message training events described below). Haspel’s editor Joe Yonan has said he is comfortable with Haspel’s approach to paid speaking engagements and finds it a “reasonable balance.” 

More comments from Haspel and Yonan are reported here, “Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a Conflict of Interest?” by Stacy Malkan (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 2015). See also, “A short report on three journalists mentioned in our FOIA requests,” by Gary Ruskin (U.S. Right to Know, 2015). For perspectives from journalists and editors on buckraking, see Ken Silverstein’s reporting (Harper’s, 2008).

Taking up the GMO beat

Haspel began writing about genetically engineered foods in March 2013 in the Huffington Post (“Go Frankenfish! Why We Need GM Salmon”). Her writings about other food-related topics began appearing in the Washington Post and HuffPo in 2011 and elsewhere since the mid 1990s. Haspel’s final series of articles for Huffington Post continued on the topic of agrichemical industry products, with blogs debunking studies about possible risks of glyphosate and GMO animal feed, an argument against GMO labeling campaigns and a puff piece about the agrichemical industry’s marketing website, GMO Answers.

GMOAnswers.org was part of a multi-million-dollar public relations initiative the agrichemical industry announced in the spring of 2013 to combat consumer concerns about genetically engineered foods in the wake of campaigns to label GMOs.

HuffPo July 2013: An example of how Haspel has promoted industry sources uncritically. More examples below. 

WaPo Unearthed column: digging for industry perspectives

Haspel launched her monthly “Unearthed” food column in the Washington Post in October 2013  (“Genetically modified foods: What is and isn’t true”) with a promise to “dig deep to try and figure out what’s true and what isn’t in the debate about our food supply.” She advised readers to figure out “whom you can trust” in the GMO debate and identified several groups that did not pass her impartiality test (the Union of Concerned Scientists among them).

Haspel’s November 2013 column (“GMO common ground: Where supporters and opponents agree”) provided a broad range of perspectives from public interest as well as industry sources; however, in subsequent columns, Haspel seldom quotes public interest groups and devotes far less space to public health experts and data sources than she does to industry-connected sources or experts in risk analysis or “risk perception” who tend to downplay public health and safety concerns, and echo industry views. In several instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry ties to sources.

Industry-sourced ‘food movement’ column

An example that illustrates some of these problems is Haspel’s January 2016 column (“The surprising truth about the food movement”), in which she argues that people who care about genetic engineering or other aspects of food production – the “food movement” – are a marginal part of the population. She included no interviews with consumer, health, environmental or justice groups that consider themselves part of the food movement.

Haspel sourced the column with two industry-funded spin groups, the International Food Information Council and Ketchum, the public relations firm that runs GMO Answers. While she described Ketchum as a PR firm that “works extensively with the food industry,” Haspel did not disclose that Ketchum was hired by the agrichemical industry to change consumer views of GMO foods (nor did she mention Ketchum’s scandalous history of flacking for Russia and conducting espionage against environmental groups).

A third source for her column was a two-year old phone survey conducted by William Hallman, a public perception analyst from Rutgers who reported that most people don’t care about GMO labeling. (A year earlier, Hallman and Haspel discussed consumer perspectives about GMOs on a government-sponsored panel they shared with Eric Sachs of Monsanto.)

Collaborations with industry spin groups

Tamar Haspel’s affinity for and collaborations with key players in the agrichemical industry’s public relations efforts raise further concerns about her objectivity.

A promotional quote from Haspel appears on the homepage of STATS/Sense About Science, describing STATS as “invaluable” to her reporting. Other journalists have described STATS as a product-defense “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk and plays a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation.” A 2016 story in The Intercept described the tobacco ties of STATS and Sense About Science (which merged in 2014 under the direction of Trevor Butterworth) and the role they play in pushing industry views about science.

A 2015 public relations strategy document named Sense About Science among the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage in its campaign to “orchestrate outcry” against the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency to discredit a report about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.

Agrichemical industry spin events

In June 2014, Haspel was a “faculty” member (alongside several industry representatives) at a messaging training event called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp that was funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two industry front groups that Monsanto also identified as “industry partners” in its 2015 PR plan.

Genetic Literacy Project is a former program of STATS, and Academics Review was set up with the help of Monsanto to discredit industry critics while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden, according to emails obtained through public records requests.

The boot camp Haspel attended was aimed at “reframing the food safety and GMO debate,” according to the agenda. Paul Thacker reported about the event in The Progressive, “Industry has also secretly funded a series of conferences to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate …  In emails, organizers referred to these conferences as biotech literacy bootcamps, and journalists are described as ‘partners.'”

Academics familiar with corporate spin tactics reviewed the boot camp documents at Thacker’s request. “These are distressing materials,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University. “It is clearly intended to persuade people that GMO crops are beneficial, needed, and not sufficiently risky to justify labeling.” Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said, “If journalists attend conferences that they are paid to attend, they need to be deeply suspicious from the get-go.”

Cami Ryan, a boot camp staffer who later went on to work for Monsanto, noted in the conference evaluation that participants wanted, “More Haspel-ish, Ropeik-ish sessions.” (David Ropeik is a risk perception consultant whom Haspel quoted in a 2015 Washington Post column that questioned concerns about glyphosate and herbicide-resistant GMO crops.)

2015 biotech literacy day 

In May 2015, Haspel presented at a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” at the University of Florida organized by Kevin Folta, a professor tied in with agrichemical industry public relations and lobbying efforts. Folta had included Haspel in a proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem” resulting from activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” Page 4 of the proposal described an event to feature UF professors “and several others brought in from the outside including industry representatives, journalist experts in science communication (e.g. Tamar Haskel [sic], Amy Harmon), and experts in public risk perception and psychology (e.g. Dan Kahan).”

Monsanto funded Folta’s proposal, calling it “a great 3rd-party approach to developing the kind of advocacy we’re looking to develop.” (The money was donated to a food pantry in August 2015 after the funding became public.)

In April 2015, Folta wrote to Haspel with details about the messaging training event, “We’ll cover the costs and an honorarium, whatever that takes. The audience will be scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”

Haspel responded, “I am definitely in,” and she relayed an anecdote from another recent “science communication” panel that had changed somebody’s view about Monsanto. “It is possible to make headway, but I’m convinced it’s by person-to-person interactions,” Haspel wrote to Folta.

The archived agenda for the Florida communication day listed the speakers as Haspel, Folta, three other UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe and representatives from Biofortified and Center for Food Integrity (two more groups Monsanto referred to as industry partners in its PR strategy to defend glyphosate). In another email to Folta, Haspel enthused about meeting Crowe, “Very much looking forward to this. (I’ve wanted to meet Vance Crowe – very glad he’ll be there.)”

Ethics and disclosure

In September 2015, The New York Times featured Folta in a front-page story by Eric Lipton about how industry groups relied on academics to fight the GMO labeling war. Lipton reported on Folta’s fundraising appeal to Monsanto, and that Folta had been publicly claiming he had no associations with Monsanto.

Haspel wrote to Folta a few months later, “I am very sorry for what you’ve gone through, and it’s distressing when mean-spirited, partisan attacks overshadow the real issues — both on the science and on the transparency, both of which are so important.” Haspel mentioned she was working with the National Press Foundation to develop better conflict of interest standards for freelance journalists.

Haspel was a 2015 fellow for the National Press Foundation (a group partly funded by corporations, including Bayer and DuPont). In an article she wrote for NPF about ethics for freelancers, Haspel discussed the importance of disclosure and described her criteria for speaking at events only if non-industry funders and diverse views are involved — criteria not met by either of the biotech literacy events. The disclosure page on her website does not accurately disclose the conveners and funders of the 2014 biotech literacy boot camp. Haspel has not responded to questions about the biotech literacy events.

Misleading reporting on pesticides

A source review of three of Tamar Haspel’s Washington Post columns on the topic of pesticides turned up examples of undisclosed industry-connected sources, data omissions and out of context reporting that served to bolster industry messaging that pesticides are not a concern and organic is not much of a benefit. The review covers these three columns (referred to below by the year in which they were published).

  • “Is organic better for your health? A look at milk, meat, eggs, produce and fish” (April 7, 2014)
  • “It’s the chemical Monsanto depends on. How dangerous is it?” (October 2015)
  • “The truth about organic produce and pesticides” (May 21, 2018)

Failed to disclose industry connections to sources

In her 2018 column, Haspel gave readers “an idea of the magnitude of risk” from cumulative pesticide exposures by citing a study that equated the risk of consuming pesticides from food to drinking one glass of wine every three months. Haspel did not disclose that four of five authors of that study were employed by Bayer Crop Sciences, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers. The study had originally reported the risk as equal to drinking one glass of wine every seven years; a group of scientists pointed out the problem, along with undisclosed author conflicts and other flaws in this letter to the journal that described the study as “overly simplistic and seriously misleading.” (Haspel linked to both the original study and the corrected version but did not disclose the error to readers.)

To dismiss concerns about the synergistic effects of exposure to multiple pesticides, Haspel cited another study from the only non-Bayer affiliated author of the flawed pesticide-and-wine comparison study, and “a 2008 report” that “made the same assessment.” That report was co-authored by Alan Boobis and Angelo Moretto, two scientists who were caught in a “conflict of interest row,” as the Guardian reported in 2016, because they held leadership positions in a group that received substantial donations from the pesticide industry at the same time as they chaired a UN panel that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk.

Haspel also failed to disclose an industry connection to a data source in her 2014 column that reported disagreement about whether pesticide residues in food pose a health risk. Here she introduced doubt about the health risks of organophosphates, a class of pesticides linked to neurological damage in children, with a review that found “the epidemiological studies did not strongly implicate any particular pesticide as being causally related to adverse neurological developmental outcomes in infants and children.” The lead author of that review was Carol Burns, a scientist at Dow Chemical Company, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of organophosphates — but Haspel did not inform readers of the corporate connection.

Misled with out-of-context reporting

In her 2014 column, Haspel used a 2012 paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics out of context to reinforce her argument that eating organic might not offer health benefits, but she did not inform readers of the full scope of the study or its conclusions. The AAP paper chronicled a wide range of scientific evidence suggesting harm to children from both acute and chronic exposures to various pesticides, and concluded, “Children’s exposures to pesticides should be limited as much as possible.” The report cited evidence of a “drastic immediate decrease in urinary excretion of pesticide metabolites” in children eating an organic diet. AAP also issued policy recommendations to reduce children’s exposure to pesticides.

Haspel left out all that context and reported only that the AAP report, “noted the correlation between organophosphate exposure and neurological issues that had been found in some studies but concluded that it was still ‘unclear’ that reducing exposure by eating organic would be ‘clinically relevant.'”

In her 2018 column, Haspel misleadingly reported that the pesticide chlorpyrifos “has been the subject a battle between environmental groups, which want it banned, and the EPA, which doesn’t” — but she did not inform readers that the EPA had recommended banning chlorpyrifos due to mounting evidence that prenatal exposure could have lasting effects on children’s brains. The agency reversed course only after the Trump EPA interfered. Haspel sourced her misleading “environmental groups vs EPA” sentence with a link to a New York Times documents page that provided little context about the EPA decision, rather than linking to the NYT story that explained the political context of corporate influence.

Relied on industry go-to sources and sources who agree

In her 2018 column, Haspel set up her argument that pesticide exposures in food are not much of a concern with a dubious reporting tactic she has used on other occasions: citing agreement among many sources she knows. In this case, Haspel reported that pesticide levels in food “are very low” and “you shouldn’t be concerned about them,” according to “the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (along with many toxicologists I’ve spoken with over the years).”

Although she reported that, “Not everyone has faith in those assessments,” Haspel cited no disagreeing sources and ignored entirely the American Academy of Pediatrics report that recommended reducing children’s exposures to pesticides, which she cited out of context in her 2014 column.

In her 2015 column about glyphosate, Haspel again quoted like-minded sources, reporting that every scientist she spoke with “noted that until recent questions arose, glyphosate had been noted for its safety.” She quoted Keith Solomon, a toxicologist that Monsanto was promoting as a source on glyphosate, and David Ropeik, the risk perception consultant who presented with Haspel at the industry-funded messaging training boot camp in 2014.

In her 2014 column, Haspel’s source vouching for the safety of pesticide residues in food based on EPA risk assessments was Carl Winter, a toxicologist at the University of California at Davis. Winter was then a member of the science advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group that works with Monsanto. A few months earlier, ACSH had bragged in a blog post about other “organic doesn’t equal better” news coverage quoting “ACSH advisor Dr. Carl Winter.” Monsanto was also promoting Winter’s work in talking points at that time, according to documents obtained via public records requests (see science analysis circulated to academic allies by Eric Sachs).

Missed relevant data 

Relevant data Haspel missed in her reporting about the risks or pesticides and the benefits of organic included statements by prominent health groups and recent science:

  • January 2018 study by Harvard researchers published in in JAMA Internal Medicine reporting that women who regularly consumed pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF, while women who ate organic food had better outcomes;
  • January 2018 commentary in JAMA by pediatrician Phillip Landrigan urging physicians to encourage their patients to eat organic;
  • February 2017 report prepared for the European Parliament outlining the health benefits of eating organic food and practicing organic agriculture;
  • 2016 European Parliament Science and Technology Option Assessment recommended reducing dietary intake of pesticides, especially for women and children;
  • 2012 President’s Cancer Panel report recommends reducing children’s exposure to cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures;
  • 2012 paper and policy recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending reducing children’s exposure to pesticides as much as possible;
  • 2009 statement by the American Public Health Association, “Opposition to the use of hormone growth promoters in beef and dairy cattle production”;
  • 2002 review by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Review reporting that growth-promoting hormones in beef production pose a health risk to consumers.

More perspectives on Haspel’s reporting

A Short Report on Journalists Mentioned in our FOIA Requests

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Also see: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a conflict of interest?  
Washington Post Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto 

On September 23rd, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel admitted to receiving “plenty” of money from pro-agrichemical industry sources.

Following her admission, I thought it might be useful to report on journalists – including Haspel — mentioned in the documents we have received from state public records requests.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation of the food and agrichemical industries, their PR firms and front groups, and the professors who speak for them.

So far, three reporters come up in interesting ways: Amy Harmon, Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. These reporters appear in the context of Jon Entine, who is perhaps the leading PR operative working to promote the views of the agrichemical industry, and its pesticides and GMOs.

Entine is founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, which, along with the PR firm Ketchum’s GMO Answers, are the agrichemical industry’s two most visible front groups. Entine is also founder and president of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included the agrichemical giant Monsanto.

Amy Harmon

Amy Harmon is a reporter for the New York Times.  She was part of a Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and in 2008 she won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.

On September 23, 2013 at 7:44pm, Jon Entine emailed Renee Kester: “FYI, I think I’ve talked Amy Harmon into doing a Hawaii Hawaii [sic] story. . .  and I gave her your and Kirby’s email information, so she may call at some point if she indeed pursues this.” Kirby Kester is president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, an agrichemical industry front group.

On January 4, 2014, the New York Times published a front-page article by Amy Harmon, titled “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.” The story is datelined from Kona, Hawaii.

In 2014, Harmon won second place for the Society of Environmental Journalists “Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market” for “The Facts About GMOs,” a series that included the article “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.”

On September 30th, Harmon is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote GMOs. The group is running a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Slate and other outlets.  Kloor has written many pro-GMO articles that have been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

Kloor is mentioned in two places in the FOIA documents.

In one email, Jon Entine refers to Keith Kloor as a “very good friend of mine”.

In another email, on October 18, 2014, Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University, emails Adrianne Massey of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), along with several others, to forward an alert from Lorraine Thelian, vice chairman of the PR firm Ketchum that “the hacker community Anonymous is planning a series of attacks on biotechnology and food industry websites…Trade association and corporate websites of CBI [Council for Biotechnology Information] members are being targeted in this planned attack.”  Dr. Prakash writes, “Adrianne I have copied Kevin Folta, Karl von Mogel, David Tribe and Keith Kloor here as well.”

Dr. Prakash cc’d the email to Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy (agrichemical industry advocate) Val Giddings (former VP of BIO), Henry Miller (agrichemical industry advocate), Drew Kershen (agrichemical industry advocate), Klaus Ammann, Piet van der Meer, Martina Newell-McGloughlin (agrichemical industry advocate), Karl Haro von Mogel (member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified, a pro-GMO website), Kevin Folta (agrichemical industry advocate), Keith Kloor and David Tribe (agrichemical industry advocate).

Keith Kloor was the only journalist who received this email.

The email implies that Kloor works closely with the agrichemical industry’s prominent advocates.

Kloor has written three articles that were critical of U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests, in Science Insider, Discover and Nature.

On March 23rd, 2015, Kloor gave a talk for the Cornell Alliance for Science, which is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Tamar Haspel

Tamar Haspel is a columnist at the Washington Post.  She has written many columns for the Post defending or praising GMOs that have later been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

In 2015, Haspel won the James Beard Foundation Award for her Post columns.

In June 2014, Haspel spoke to a pro-industry conference about “How can scientists best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public?”  The conference was coordinated by Jon Entine and Cami Ryan, who is currently social sciences lead for Monsanto.  The conference was led by two agrichemical industry front groups, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, along with the University of Florida, which receives major funding from agrichemical companies, as noted in a September 6 article in the New York Times.

Haspel also moderated a panel organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which “provides long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina through support of biotechnology research, business, education and strategic policy statewide.”

In a September 23 chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Ms. Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” Later that day, I asked Ms. Haspel on Twitter how much money she had received from the agrichemical industry and its front groups.  She replied, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!

Is it appropriate for a Washington Post columnist to write glowing columns about GMOs while appearing at such pro-industry conferences?  Is it a conflict of interest for Haspel to accept money from agrichemical company interests that she covers as part of her beat as a Post food columnist?  How much money has Haspel received from agrichemical industry interests?

Some journalists have criticized journalists for “buckraking” on speakers’ circuits. For example, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said, “I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.”

Haspel wrote in the Washington Post that she will only speak at events where “if for-profit companies are involved in the event (which they often are), they can’t be the only voice.  So, I will speak at a conference co-sponsored by, say, Monsanto and the USDA and NC State University, but not an event sponsored by Monsanto alone.”  However, at the June 2014, conference at which Haspel spoke, no consumer advocates were slated to speak, only pro-industry advocates.

On October 16, Haspel is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO group that is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Haspel has been critical of the U.S. Right to Know FOIA requests.  On August 17, on Twitter, she wrote: “The money/time/brainpower wasted on @garyruskin’s mean-spirited, self-interested attack on @kevinfolta! Can we move on to something useful?” Others did not agree with her news judgment.  On September 6th, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton wrote an article largely based on our FOIA requests – especially of University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta – which ran on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. The article revealed how Folta, who repeatedly denied ties to Monsanto, in fact had received an undisclosed $25,000 grant, as well as writing assignments from the company, and worked closely with it and its PR firm Ketchum, which ghostwrote text for him and organized media and lobbying meetings for him.

U.S. Right to Know is a consumer advocacy group.  We try to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know.  We believe it is useful for the public to see how the food and agrichemical companies do their public relations work.  That is one way we can help consumers to assess the claims and information they receive from the companies involved in our food production, their PR firms and operatives, and the journalists who work with them.