The Misleading and Deceitful Ways of Dr. Kevin Folta

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Kevin Folta, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Horticulture Sciences Department at University of Florida, has provided inaccurate information and engaged in misleading activities in his efforts to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides.

His recent lawsuit against The New York Times is the latest in a long line of examples of Dr. Folta’s misleading and deceptive communications.

Dr. Folta sues NY Times and Pulitzer Prize winner for reporting his ties to Monsanto

On Sept. 1, 2017, Dr. Folta filed a lawsuit against The New York Times and Eric Lipton, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, claiming they defamed him with a 2015 front-page article that described how Monsanto enlisted academics to oppose the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Lawsuit documents:
Amended complaint (10/5/2017)
NYT motion to dismiss (10/19/2017)
Federal judge denied Dr. Folta’s motions to compel discovery, calling some of the requests “downright silly” and “laughable” (5/11/2018)
NYT and Eric Lipton motion for final summary judgment (7/25/18)
Dr. Folta’s amended opposition to motion for summary judgment (8/16/18)

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit claims the defendants “misrepresented him as a covertly paid operative of one of the largest and most controversial companies in America, Monsanto,” and that they did so in order to “to further their own ‘anti GMO’ agenda.” According to Dr. Folta’s lawsuit, Lipton “has almost singlehandedly silenced the scientific community from teaching scientists how to communicate.”

The lawsuit claims that Dr. Folta “never received” an “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto and that he “never received any form of grant, and never received support for him to ‘travel around the country and defend genetically modified foods.’” However, documents show that Monsanto provided Dr. Folta with, in their words, “an unrestricted grant in the amount of $25,000 which may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects.”

Emails indicate that Monsanto donated the money in response to a 9-page proposal from Dr. Folta, in which he asked Monsanto for $25,000 to fund his “three tiered solution” to the “biotech communications problem.” Proposed activities included traveling each month to a major domestic university to promote GMOs. The money was donated to a food bank after the documents became public.

Example of Folta discussing/defending an industry product (Monsanto’s Roundup)

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit also claims (point 67), “Dr. Folta does not discuss industry products of any sort, he teaches broadly about technology.” Yet he has vouched for the supposed safety of Monsanto’s RoundUp, going so far as to drink the product “to demonstrate harmlessness.” He has also said he “will do it again.”

In a Sept. 29, 2015 email, Janine Sikes, University of Florida Assistant Vice President of Public Affairs, wrote to a colleague about Lipton’s NYT story: “for the record I thought the story was fair.”

Quotes from NYT and Eric Lipton’s response to Folta’s lawsuit, from July 2018 motion for final summary judgement:

Mr. Lipton relied on Plaintiff’s own email communications, which were provided to him by UF in response to a public records request. While it may be that Plaintiff, a self-described “public” scientist, would rather not have his associations with industry giants like Monsanto examined, accurate reporting on the records documenting those associations cannot form the basis for a defamation lawsuit. (Page 1)

Among other things, (Folta’s) UF records documented: (1) Plaintiff’s actions in securing a $25,000 “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto—that Plaintiff told Monsanto would not have to be publicly disclosed—to fund talks about GMO science, including the discussion of industry products; (2) Plaintiff’s testifying before governmental bodies in favor of pro-GMO policies; (3) Plaintiff’s interactions with industry, including numerous email communications with industry representatives providing his thoughts about lobbying strategy and describing his efforts to communicate GMO science to the public; (4) his posts for GMOAnswers, an industry-sponsored website; and (5) travel expenses paid by industry, including expenses related to his trip to Monsanto headquarters. (Page 7)

Dr. Folta has repeatedly claimed no association with Monsanto despite his close collaboration with Monsanto  

Dr. Folta stated numerous times that he had no connection to Monsanto. Yet emails reported by The New York Times established that he was in frequent contact with Monsanto and their public relations allies to collaborate on activities to promote genetically engineered foods.

The emails indicate that Monsanto and allies set up media opportunities and lobbying activities for Dr. Folta and worked with him on messaging. In August 2014, Monsanto informed Dr. Folta that he would receive $25,000 to further his promotional activities. The email exchanges suggest a close collaboration:

  • In July 2014, a Monsanto executive praised Dr. Folta’s grant proposal and asked four other Monsanto executives to provide feedback to improve it. He wrote, “This is a great 3rd-party approach to developing the advocacy that we’re looking to develop.”
  • In August 2014, Dr. Folta responded to the acceptance letter for his grant, “I’m grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment.”
  • In October 2014, Dr. Folta wrote to a Monsanto executive, “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.”

Just weeks after the grant details were worked out, Dr. Folta asserted that he had “no formal connection to Monsanto.” He later said he received “no research or personal funding” from “Big Ag,” had “no financial ties to any of the Big Ag companies that make transgenic crops, including Monsanto,” and had “nothing to do with MON.”

Bayer Funding

9/18 Update: Dr. Folta contracted with the law firm Clifford Chance representing Bayer AG to serve an a consultant in an arbitration hearing at a rate of $600 per hour for up to 120 hours. Those documents were made public by Biofortified, Inc., a GMO promotion group that said it severed ties with Dr. Folta over his failure to fully disclose the potential conflict of interest.

11/17 Update: Dr. Folta received and disclosed receiving research funding from Bayer AG (which is in the process of acquiring Monsanto). According to a document obtained by US Right to Know via FOIA, Bayer sent an award letter to Dr. Folta on May 23, 2017 for a grant for 50,000 Euros (approximately $58,000), for his proposal on “New Herbicide Chemistries Discovered in Functional Randomness.”

Dr. Folta proposed hiding Monsanto money from public scrutiny

“My funding is all transparent,” Dr. Folta wrote in his blog, but his proposal to Monsanto to fund his GMO promotional activities concluded with a paragraph advising Monsanto how to donate the money to avoid public disclosure:

“If funded directly to the program as a SHARE contribution (essentially unrestricted funds) it is not subject to IDC and is not in a ‘conflict-of-interest’ account. In other words, SHARE contributions are not publicly noted. This eliminates the potential concern of the funding organization influencing the message.”

Monsanto sent the $25,000 donation as an unrestricted grant for Dr. Folta.

Dr. Folta allowed an industry PR firm to ghostwrite for him, then denied it

An August 2015 story in Inside Higher Ed described allegations that the agrichemical industry’s PR firm, Ketchum, had provided Dr. Folta with “canned answers to questions about GMOs” for the agrichemical industry’s public relations website, GMO Answers.

Dr. Folta denied using the ghostwritten text, according to the story:

“Regarding the canned answers, he said he was ‘pissed off’ when he received them and never used them.”

Dr. Folta later admitted using the ghostwritten text. The New York Times reported in September 2015:

“But Ketchum did more than provide questions (for GMO Answers). On several occasions, it also gave Dr. Folta draft answers, which he then used nearly verbatim, a step that he now says was a mistake.”

In an October 2015 BuzzFeed story, Dr. Folta justified his decision to use Ketchum’s ghostwritten text:

“They gave me extremely good answers that were spot on,” Folta told me. “I’m inundated with work. Maybe it was lazy, but I don’t know that it was lazy. When someone says, ‘We’ve thought about this and here’s what we have’ — there are people who work in academia who have speechwriters who take the words of other people and present them as their own. That’s OK.”

Dr. Folta posted false information about agrichemical industry funding to the University of Florida

In October 2014, Dr. Folta posted inaccurate information about his own university’s funding on GMO Answers. When asked, “How much have the biotech companies donated to the Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida?” Dr. Folta responded:

“There are zero ‘donations.’ At least during the last five years (all I checked), there are not even any grants or research agreements between the Horticultural Sciences Department at U.F. and any company selling biotech seeds …

During the last five years, at the whole university, there were a total of $21,000 in Monsanto grants to one faculty member in the panhandle who studies weeds. That’s it for the whole university. Our records are all public, so anyone could have found this information.”

In fact, biotech companies donated more than $12 million to the University of Florida in fiscal year 2013/2014 alone, according to University of Florida Foundation documents posted by NYT. Monsanto was listed as a “Gold” donor that year, meaning the company had donated at least $1 million. Syngenta was a “Diamond” donor with “Cumulative Giving of $10 Million+” while BASF donated at least $1 million and Pioneer Hi-Bred gave at least $100,000.

University of Florida has a ‘stance’ on GMOs that is ‘harmonious’ with Monsanto, and Dr. Folta is in charge of promoting it  

Leaders at the University of Florida believe it is the university’s role to educate the masses about GMOs and they share a “stance” with Monsanto, according to an email obtained by the US Right to Know investigation.

David Clark, professor of horticultural biotechnology & genetics and director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Plant Innovation Program (UF/IFAS), wrote to Monsanto executive Robb Fraley on July 21, 2014:

“I thought your talk was excellent and very timely for our community, and it is harmonious with the stance we are taking on GMOs at the University of Florida. Also, thank you for taking a few minutes to chat with me afterward about how we should be educating the 80% of the consumer population who know very little about the technology.

After returning to Gainesville, I communicated with Drs. Kevin Folta and Jack Payne about our discussion. Kevin is our lead spokesperson at UF on the GMO topic and he has taken on the charge of doing just what we discussed – educating the masses. Jack is our Senior VP for IFAS, and just last week he released a video showing just where UF/IFAS stands on the GMO issue: http://www.floridatrend.com/article/17361/jack-payne-of-uf-on-gmos-and-climate-change Both of them are extremely passionate about this issue, and together they are ramping up their efforts to spread the good word.”

In the video, Dr. Payne claims, “there is no science that agrees with these folks that are afraid of GMOs.” In fact, many scientists and studies have raised concerns about GMOs.

Dr. Folta partnered with dishonest industry front groups groups on “Biotech Literacy” GMO spin events  

A June 2014 conference to promote GMOs called the “Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp” was billed as a partnership between University of Florida, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two front groups that work with Monsanto to promote agrichemical industry products and attack industry critics. Those two groups told scientists and journalists — inaccurately — that the events were funded by a combination of government, academia and industry.

In 2015, journalist Brooke Borel reported in Popular Science:

“The conference in question was called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp. I was invited to attend and to speak on some panels, although it wasn’t initially clear what that would involve. I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).”

In a 2016 email to scientists, Bruce Chassy of Academics Review claimed industry was “indirectly a sponsor” of the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps:

“The 3-day bootcamp is relatively expensive since we pay everyone’s travel and lodging as well as honoraria. Participants received $250 and presenters as much as $2,500 (journalists aren’t inexpensive) … I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money, so industry is indirectly a sponsor. We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.”

However, those government and academic sources denied giving any funds to the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Thacker wrote, “the only traceable money source is the biotech industry.”

Both Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project have a history of misleading the public about their funding and activities to defend the agrichemical industry.

  • Academics Review has claimed many times to be an independent group, yet emails obtained by US Right to Know revealed that Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, while “keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
  • The “financial transparency” note on the Genetic Literacy Project website is inaccurate, changes often and has at times contradicted itself. GLP director Jon Entine has many close ties to Monsanto.

Dr. Folta also organized what he called a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” to promote GMOs at the University of Florida in 2015. Speakers included UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe, representatives of two agrichemical industry-aligned spin groups (the Center for Food Integrity and Biofortified), and Tamar Haspel, a food columnist for the Washington Post.

Dr. Folta described his plans in the 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.” In emails he sent to Haspel, Dr. Folta said the audience of the “biotechnology literacy” event would be “scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”

Dr. Folta described the food movement as a “terrorist faction”

Dr. Folta wrote the forward for a 2015 book called “Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House.” The forward describes the food movement as a terrorist faction, which Folta names “Al Quesadilla”:

“Al Quesadilla is a moniker ascribed to a modern day elite and well financed terrorist faction sworn to use fear to force political change around food. Al Quesadilla has a central mission – to impose their beliefs about food and food production on the broader society. Their beliefs are religious in nature. They are deeply heartfelt and internalized. Their beliefs are grounded in a misinterpretation of nature, a mistrust of corporate culture and a skepticism of modern science …

Al Quesadilla is an agile and sneaky terrorist group. Like all terrorists, they achieve their objectives through the implementation of fear and coercion. They plan careful strikes on vulnerable targets – American consumers…”

The book, published by Senapath Press, was authored by Mark Alsip, a blogger for Bad Science Debunked, Marc Draco, a “veteran member” of the Banned by Food Babe Facebook page, and Kavin Senapathy, a Forbes contributor who had several of her articles deleted by Forbes.

The book promotes GMOs, claims MSG and aspartame are “harmless” and purports to describe “the facts behind those pesticide scares.”

Dr. Folta promotes pesticide propaganda

Dr. Folta dismisses concerns about pesticide exposure with propaganda claims, not science. For example, he made and failed to correct his guest on many dubious statements about the safety of pesticides in this 2015 podcast interview with Yvette d’Entremont, the “SciBabe.” Folta claimed:

  • If someone is concerned about pesticide exposures, “ask them if they have symptoms of pesticide poisoning. Unless they have symptoms of pesticide poisoning, there’s probably nothing to worry about.”
  • “Your risk from any kind of, especially, pesticide exposure from consumption is probably somewhere between 10,000 and a million times lower than a car accident.”

Dr. Folta’s deceptive communication tactics

Another example of misleading communication associated with Dr. Folta is documented in a 2015 BuzzFeed story by Brooke Borel. The story recounts Borel’s discovery that Dr. Folta used a false identity to interview scientists and even himself on a podcast called the “The Vern Blazek Science Power Hour.”

For further reading:

New York Times, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton (9/6/2015)

Emails posted by The New York Times

The Progressive, “Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media,” by Paul Thacker (7/21/2017)

Huffington Post, “Keith Kloor’s Enduring Love Affair with GMOs,” by Paul Thacker (7/19/2017)

Global News, “Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby,” by Allison Vuchnich (12/22/2015)

Nature Biotechnology, “Standing up for Transparency,” by Stacy Malkan (1/2016)

Mother Jones, “These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO War,” by Tom Philpott (10/2/2015)

BuzzFeed, “Seed Money: Confessions of a GMO Defender,” by Brooke Borel (10/19/2015)

USRTK Short Report, “Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding from Monsanto”

Independent Science News, “The Puppetmasters of Academia (or What the NYT Left Out),” by Jonathan Latham (9/8/2015)

USRTK letter to Dr. Folta about our FOIA requests

First Monsanto Roundup Cancer Trial Underway

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Related coverage:

  • Landmark Lawsuit Claims Monsanto Hid Cancer Danger of Weedkiller for Decades, by Carey Gillam in The Guardian
  • First Monsanto Roundup Cancer Trial Jury Selection, Carey Gillam’s blog

By Carey Gillam

Let the battle begin. Opening statements are slated for Monday in the landmark legal case that for the first time puts Monsanto and its Roundup herbicide on trial over allegations that the company’s widely used weed killer can cause cancer.

Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a San Francisco-area school groundskeeper who used a form of Roundup regularly at his job, will face off against the global seed and chemical giant in a trial expected to extend into August. Johnson hopes to persuade a jury that Monsanto, which last month became a subsidiary of Bayer AG, is to blame for the non-Hodgkin lymphoma that doctors have said leaves him only weeks or months left to live.

Hints of the courtroom drama to come unfolded over the last week of June as jury selection dragged on for days, with Monsanto claiming widespread bias among prospective jurors. A number of the members of the jury pool, Monsanto’s attorney said, revealed in jury questionnaires that they view Monsanto as “evil.” Some even said they believe the company has “killed people,” a Monsanto attorney lawyer told San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos.

Monsanto’s attorneys cited similar issues in seeking to quell media coverage of the trial, telling the judge that she should not allow news cameras to televise the events because the publicity would “create a significant safety risk” for Monsanto’s employees and attorneys who have been targeted with “multiple threats and disturbing communications,” related to the litigation. Monsanto said employees have received threatening phone calls as well as ominous postcards sent to their homes. One postcard displayed a skull and crossbones along with a photo of the recipient, Monsanto said in a court filing.

Judge Bolanos ruled that some parts of the trial will be allowed to be broadcast, including opening statements, closing arguments and the announcement of a verdict. The trial is expected to be closely followed by people around the world; the French news outlet Agence France Presse is among the contingent of media who sought permission to cover the case.

Heated debates over the safety of Roundup and the active ingredient glyphosate have spanned the globe for years. Concerns mounted after internal Monsanto documents came to light through court-ordered discovery, showing conversations among Monsanto employees about “ghost” writing certain scientific papers to help influence regulatory and public opinion about Monsanto products.

Many of those internal corporate records are expected to be a key part of Johnson’s case. Johnson’s attorneys say they have evidence that Monsanto has long known that glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup are carcinogenic and have hidden that information from consumers and regulators. They allege Monsanto has manipulated the scientific record and regulatory assessments of glyphosate in order to protect corporate glyphosate-related revenues. Monsanto knew of the dangers and “made conscious decisions not to redesign, warn or inform the unsuspecting public,” the Johnson lawsuit claims.

If they can convince a jury of the allegations, the lawyers say they plan to ask for potentially “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Johnson’s lawsuit against Monsanto makes him one of roughly 4,000 plaintiffs who sued the company after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. The IARC classification was based on a review of more than a decade of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies analyzing glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides. Johnson’s case is the first to go to trial. Another is scheduled for trial in October in St. Louis, Missouri.

Monsanto argues there is no justification for any of the claims, and asserts it has decades of regulatory findings of safety and hundreds of research studies to back its defense. “Glyphosate is the most tested herbicide in history,” Monsanto stated in its trial brief.

The company says it plans to introduce expert testimony demonstrating that the science is firmly on its side—”the entire body of epidemiology literature shows no causal association” between its glyphosate-based herbicides and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the company states. As well, the animal testing database “is most consistent with glyphosate not being a human carcinogen,” according to Monsanto.

The company’s attorneys also plan to show that Johnson’s exposure was minimal, and notably, that development of his type of cancer—a disease called mycosis fungoides that causes lesions on the skin—takes many years to form and could not have developed in the short period between Johnson’s exposure and his diagnosis.

Monsanto’s attorneys argue in court filings that Johnson’s claims are so weak the judge should instruct the jury to provide a directed verdict in Monsanto’s favor.

But Johnson’s attorneys plan to tell jury members that Johnson began to experience a skin rash not long after being accidentally doused in a Monsanto glyphosate-based herbicide called Ranger Pro. He saw the rash—which turned to lesions and then invaded lymph nodes—worsen after he would use the chemical, which was frequently as he treated school grounds. Johnson’s attorneys plan to tell jurors that Johnson was so worried that the herbicide was to blame that he called Monsanto’s offices as well as a poison hotline number listed on the herbicide label. Monsanto employees recorded his outreach and his concerns, internal Monsanto documents show. But even after the IARC classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, Monsanto did not inform him of any risk, according to evidence to be presented at the trial.

As part of their case, Johnson’s attorneys intend to present video depositions of 10 former or current Monsanto employees, and of former Environmental Protection Agency official Jess Rowland, whose relationship with Monsanto has sparked allegations of collusion and an inquiry from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General. They also will call to the stand Johnson himself, his wife, his doctors, and several scientists as expert witnesses.

The Monsanto witness list includes 11 expert witnesses who will testify both about the necessity of herbicides, including glyphosate-based herbicides; certain scientific literature; the plaintiff’s type of cancer and potential causes; and other evidence that Monsanto says discredits Johnson’s claims.

Johnson’s attorneys will start the opening statements on Monday, and have projected that initial explanation of their case to the jury will take roughly 1-1/2 hours. Monsanto’s attorneys have told the court they expect their opening statements to take roughly 1-1/4 hours.

This story originally appeared in EcoWatch.

Monsanto Relied on These “Partners” to Attack Top Cancer Scientists

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This fact sheet describes the contents of Monsanto’s confidential public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, the international group of experts on the IARC panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

The Monsanto plan names more than a dozen “industry partner” groups that company executives planned to “inform / inoculate / engage” in their efforts to protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent the “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies.” Partners included academics as well as chemical and food industry front groups, trade groups and lobby groups — follow the links below to fact sheets that provide more information about the partner groups.

Together these fact sheets provide a sense of the depth and breadth of the corporate attack on the IARC cancer experts in defense of Monsanto’s top-selling herbicide.

Monsanto’s objectives for dealing with the IARC carcinogenicity rating for glyphosate (page 5).

Background

A key document released in 2017 in legal proceedings against Monsanto describes the corporation’s “preparedness and engagement plan” for the IARC cancer classification for glyphosate, the world’s most widely used agrichemical. The internal Monsanto document — dated Feb. 23, 2015 — assigns more than 20 Monsanto staffers to objectives including “neutralize impact of decision,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “lead voice in ‘who is IARC’ plus 2B outrage.” On March 20, 2015, IARC announced its decision to classify glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

For more background, see: “How Monsanto Manufactured Outrage at Chemical Cancer Classification it Expected,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (9/19/2017)

Monsanto’s Tier 1-4 “Industry Partners”

Page 5 of the Monsanto document identifies four tiers of “industry partners” that Monsanto executives planned to engage in its IARC preparedness plan. These groups together have a broad reach and influence in pushing a narrative about cancer risk that protects corporate profits.

Tier 1 industry partners are agrichemical industry-funded lobby and PR groups.

Tier 2 industry partners are front groups that are often cited as independent sources, but work with the chemical industry behind the scenes on public relations and lobbying campaigns.

Tier 3 industry partners are food-industry funded nonprofit and trade groups. These groups were tapped to, “Alert food companies via Stakeholder Engagement team (IFIC, GMA, CFI) for ‘inoculation strategy’ to provide early education on glyphosate residue levels, describe science-based studies versus agenda-driven hypotheses” of the independent cancer panel.

Tier 4 industry partners are “key grower’s associations.” These are the various trade groups representing corn, soy and other industrial growers and food manufacturers.

Plan suggests Sense About Science to “lead industry response”

The “post-IARC” section details Monsanto’s plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.” The plan suggests the front group Sense About Science (in brackets with a question mark) as the group that “leads industry response and provides platform for IARC observers and industry spokesperson.”

Sense About Science describes itself as a public charity that “promotes public understanding of science,” but that occurs in ways that “tip the scales toward industry,” as The Intercept reported in 2016. The group was founded in London in 2001 by Dick Taverne, an English politician with ties to the tobacco industry and other industries Sense About Science defends.

For more information:

The sister group of Sense About Science, the Science Media Centre, is a nonprofit public relations group in London that receives industry funding and has sparked controversy for pushing corporate science. The Science Media Centre has close ties to Kate Kelland, a Reuters’ reporter who has written inaccurate articles about IARC that have been heavily promoted by the “industry partner” groups named in Monsanto’s PR plan, and used as the basis for political attacks against IARC.

For more information:

  • IARC responds, “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article” (3/1/18)
  • USRTK, “Reuters’ Kate Kelland IARC Story Promotes False Narrative,” by Carey Gillam (7/24/2017)
  • Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency,” by Stacy Malkan (7/24/2017)
  • USRTK, “Reuters’ Kate Kelland Again Promotes False Narrative About IARC and Glyphosate Cancer Concerns” (10/20/2017)

“Engage Henry Miller”

Page 2 of the Monsanto PR document identifies the first external deliverable for planning and preparation: “Engage Henry Miller” to “inoculate / establish public perspective on IARC and reviews.”

“I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.”

Henry I. Miller, MD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, has a long documented history of working with corporations to defend hazardous products. The Monsanto plan identifies the “MON owner” of the task as Eric Sachs, Monsanto’s science, technology and outreach lead.

Documents later reported by The New York Times reveal that Sachs emailed Miller a week before the IARC glyphosate report to ask if Miller was interested in writing about the “controversial decision.” Miller responded, “I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.” On March 23, Miller posted an article on Forbes that “largely mirrored” the draft provided by Monsanto, according to the Times. Forbes severed its relationship with Miller in the wake of the ghostwriting scandal and deleted his articles from the site.

Follow the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between food industry groups and academics on our investigations page. U.S. Right to Know documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.

Biofortified Aids Chemical Industry PR & Lobbying Efforts

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Biology Fortified Inc., known as “Biofortified,” is a nonprofit organization that works closely with the agrichemical industry and its collaborators on public relations and lobbying campaigns to defend genetically engineered foods and pesticides, and attack industry critics.

Board members and bloggers are key agrichemical industry allies

Current and former board members and blog authors listed on Biofortified’s “meet our experts” page have close ties to the agrichemical industry and industry front group efforts.

Following are examples of industry-aligned lobbying and public relations efforts involving Biofortified and its leaders.

“Biofortified boys” lobby squad defends pesticides

In 2013, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA) — a trade group representing Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta — organized a lobbying trip to Kauai for industry allies to oppose a community ordinance that would have improved public disclosure of pesticide use and required pesticide buffer zones around schools, hospitals and other public areas.

According to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, the HCIA executive director referred to four supporters who were invited on the lobby trip as the “Biofortified boys.” They were:

  • Karl Haro von Mogel, Biofortified science director
  • Steve Savage, Biofortified blog author and agrichemical industry consultant
  • Kevin Folta, Biofortified board member and professor at University of Florida
  • Jon Entine, director of Genetic Literacy Project, a Monsanto partner group

Emails show that Renee Kester, lead organizer of the HCIA lobby project, emailed the four men on July 11, 2013 (page 10) to thank them “for all of the support you have given us over here in Hawaii with regard to our recent legislative battles” and to set up a call to discuss their availability to attend an upcoming legislative hearing.

Alicia Muluafiti, executive director of HCIA, then emailed the group (page 9): “I just want everyone to know that we ARE moving forward on this! So I defer to Renee as the lead but we will need to craft out short term (leading up to July 31 hearing) and longer term strategy (post July 31) using the Biofortified boys (do you mind if I call you that? I think I’m the oldest of the bunch) :0) So please know that you are part of our overall public education strategy and specifically – how do we use your valuable time wisely while you are here (besides hitting the beaches!) I’d love to hear your thoughts. Aloha!”

More information:

  • New York Times, “A Florida Professor Works with the Biotech Industry: A Trip to Hawaii to Testify, Paid by Industry” (page 23) (9/5/2015)
  • GM Watch, “How the ‘Biofortified Boys’ defended the pesticide industry’s secrets in Hawaii” (9/27/2015)

Biofortified listed as “industry partner” in Monsanto PR doc  

This internal Monsanto document identifies Biofortified as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, an IARC expert panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

The Monsanto PR document identified four tiers of industry partners the corporation planned to engage in its “preparedness plan” for the IARC cancer report. Biofortified is listed in “Tier 2,” along with Academics Review, AgBioChatter academics, Genetic Literacy Project and Sense About Science. These groups are are often cited as independent sources, but as the Monsanto plan and other examples indicate, they work behind the scenes with the agrichemical industry to protect corporate interests.

Opposed transparency and state FOIA requests

Biofortified co-sponsored, along with the Cornell Alliance for Science, a March 2015 petition opposing the use of state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to investigate links between publicly funded academics and the agrichemical industry.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state FOIA requests have since revealed numerous examples of academics working in covert ways with agrichemical companies and their PR firms to aid industry’s lobbying and messaging agenda — for example, the documents describing the origins of the front group Academics Review, and those that discussed the “Biofortified boys” lobby trip to Hawaii. Many of the emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know are now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library, USRTK Agrichemical Collection. The documents have generated worldwide media coverage about transparency in the food industry and the health and environmental risks of pesticides and GMOs.

Biofortified’s industry-aligned attacks on critics

A stuffy doll representing GMO corn named Frank N. Foode is the mascot of Biofortified.

Biofortified board member David Tribe co-founded Academics Review, a front group set up with the help of Monsanto to attack industry critics, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. In one email, Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto, discussed a target list of industry critics he was developing for Monsanto.

March Against Myths about Modification (MAMyths), a project of Biofortified, also targeted some of the groups and individuals named on Byrne’s target list – for example, the group participated in a protest against Vandana Shiva and reportedly led a failed attempt to derail an event featuring Vani Hari, the “Food Babe,” sponsored by the Center for Food Safety.

MAMyths co-founder Kavin Senapathy had several articles deleted by Forbes after the New York Times revealed that her co-author, Henry Miller, published a column in Forbes that was ghostwritten by Monsanto. Miller was also identified as a partner in Monsanto’s public relations plan to attack the IARC cancer panel.

Senapathy is co-author of a 2015 book about Hari, “The Fear Babe,” which features a forward written by former Biofortified board member Kevin Folta, in which he describes the food movement as a “well financed terrorist faction.”

Senapathy and Haro von Mogel also appear in the GMO propaganda film Food Evolution.

Related projects

GENERA Database is a list of studies to “show people how much research has been conducted on genetically engineered crops,” according to the FAQ on the Biofortified website. The list was first started by David Tribe, who also co-founded the Monsanto front group Academics Review. Early promotion for GENERA misleadingly claimed to show “more than 600 peer-reviewed reports in the scientific literature which document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds.” Many of those studies did not address safety issues. The inaccurate promotional language was later removed, along with about a third of the studies.

Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group

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Academics Review, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization launched in 2012, claims to be an independent group but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it is a front group set up with the help of Monsanto and its public relations team to attack agrichemical industry critics while appearing to be independent.

Related: Genetic Literacy Project, Monsanto partner groups, Biotech Literacy Project boot camps
Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food,” by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (2016)

Covert industry funding 

The Academics Review website describes its founders as “two independent professors,” Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia. As of May 2018, the website claims, “Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.”

However, tax records show that the primary funder of Academics Review has been the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade association that is funded and run by the largest agrichemical companies: BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta.

According to CBI tax records, the industry-funded group gave Academics Review a total of $650,000 in 2014 and 2015-2016. Tax records for AcademicsReview.org report expenses of $791,064 from 2013-2016 (see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). The money was spent on organizing conferences and promoting GMOs and pesticides, according to the tax records.

Emails reveal secret origin of academic front group

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state Freedom of Information requests revealed the inner workings of how Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, its PR allies and industry funders.  Key facts and emails:

  • Eric Sachs, a senior public relations executive at Monsanto, said he would help find industry funding for Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote to Chassy on November 30, 2010.
  • Academics Review was conceived as a front group that could attack critics of the agrichemical industry. According to a March 11, 2010 email chain, the group was established with the help of Monsanto executives along with Jay Byrne, former director of corporate communications at Monsanto who now runs a PR shop called v-Fluence Interactive; and Val Giddings, former VP of the biotech industry trade association BIO.
  • Byrne compared the concept as similar to – but better than – a front group set up by Rick Berman, a lobbyist known as  “Dr. Evil” and the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda” for his work to promote tobacco and oil industry interests under the cover of neutral-sounding groups. Berman’s “’Center for Consumer Freedom’ (ActivistCash.com) has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept,” Byrne wrote to Chassy on March 11, 2010.
  • Byrne said he was developing an “opportunities list with targets” for Monsanto comprised of “individuals organizations, content items and topic areas” critical of ag-biotech that “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations.”
  • Chassy indicated he was especially keen to go after the organic industry. “I would love to find a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles,” he wrote on March 11, 2010. In 2014, Academics Review attacked the organic industry with a report it falsely claimed was the work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.

Monsanto plan names Academics Review as “industry partner” 

Academics Review is an “industry partner”according to a confidential Monsanto PR document that describes the corporation’s plans to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to defend the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. On March 20, 2015, IARC announced it had classified glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The Monsanto PR document lists four tiers of industry partners to engage in its public relations efforts to discredit the cancer panel’s report. Academics Review was listed as a Tier 2 “industry partner” along with Genetic Literacy Project, Sense About Science, Biofortified, and the AgBioChatter academics list serve.

An Academics Review article dated March 25, 2015 claimed the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts.” The article linked to the industry-funded GMO Answers, the front group American Council on Science and Health and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Bruce Chassy’s ties to industry and its front groups

Professor Bruce Chassy, co-founder of Academics Review and president of the board, has been frequently cited in the media as an independent expert on GMOs, while he was also receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto.

Chassy had received $57,000 in undisclosed funds over a two-year period from Monsanto to travel, write and speak about GMOs, according to WBEZ. The story reported that Monsanto also sent at least $5.1 million through the University of Illinois Foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015.

Chassy is on the “Board of Science and Policy Advisors” of the American Council on Science and Health, an industry funded front group that works with Monsanto. Chassy is also an “independent expert” for GMO Answers, a marketing website for GMOs and pesticides funded by the agrichemical industry.

Articles about Bruce Chassy’s industry ties:

  • New York Times, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton (9/5/2015)
  • New York Times email archive, “A University of Illinois Professor Joins the Fight,” (9/5/2015)
  • WBEZ, “Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding,” by Monica Eng (3/15/2016)
  • US Right to Know, “Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign,” by Carey Gillam (1/29/2016)

David Tribe / Academics Review / Biofortified

David Tribe is co-founder of Academics Review, vice president of the Academics Review Board of Directors, and a reviewer on the 2014 Academics Review report attacking the organic industry. Tribe is also a member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified Inc., or Biofortified, a nonprofit group that aids the agrichemical industry with lobbying and public relations.

Industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps: training scientists and journalists to promote GMOs 

The Biotech Literacy Project boot camps were a series of conferences funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project, another group that partners with Monsanto on public relations projects. The boot camps trained scientists and journalists how to present GMOs and pesticides in a more positive light, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling and prop up flagging support for agrichemical industry products.

Boot camp organizers made false claims to journalists and scientists about the source of funds for the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps; they claimed funding came from a mix of government, academic and industry sources, but the only traceable funders were the agrichemical corporations.

“I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).” (Journalist Brooke Borel, Popular Science)

“I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money so industry is indirectly a sponsor. We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.” (boot camp organizer Bruce Chassy email to scientists)

The USDA and other government and academic sources named by organizers denied funding the events, according Paul Thacker’s reporting in The Progressive, and the only traceable source of funds was the BIO trade group offshoot, the Council for Biotechnology Information, which is funded by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont and Monsanto Company. That group spent over $300,000 on the two boot camps held at UC Davis and University of Florida, according to tax records and Thacker’s reporting.

Speakers at the 2015 Biotech Literacy Project boot camp (according to the wrap-up report) included industry executives and public relations operatives, including Monsanto’s former head of communications Jay Byrne (who helped set up Academics Review as a front group to attack industry critics), Hank Campbell of the front group American Council on Science and Health, and Yvette d’Entremont the “SciBabe.”

More information:

For more information about the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between industry groups and academics on food issues, see our investigations page. U.S. Right to Know documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.

IFIC: How Big Food Spins Bad News

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Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and other sources shine light on the inner workings of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a trade group funded by large food and agrichemical companies, and its nonprofit “public education arm” the IFIC Foundation. The IFIC groups conduct research and training programs, produce marketing materials and coordinate other industry groups to communicate industry spin about food safety and nutrition. Messaging includes promoting and defending sugar, artificial sweeteners, food additives, pesticides and genetically engineered foods.

Spinning pesticide cancer report for Monsanto 

As one example of how IFIC partners with corporations to promote agrichemical products and deflect cancer concerns, this internal Monsanto document identifies IFIC as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research team, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, IARC judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

Monsanto listed IFIC as a Tier 3 “industry partner” along with two other food-industry funded groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Center for Food Integrity.

How IFIC tries to communicate its message to women.

The document identifies IFIC, GMA and the Center for Food Integrity as part of a “Stakeholder Engagement team” that could alert the food companies to Monsanto’s “inoculation strategy” for the glyphosate cancer report.

Blogs later posted on the IFIC website illustrate the group’s patronizing “don’t worry, trust us” messaging to women.  Entries include, “8 crazy ways they’re trying to scare you about fruits and vegetables,” “Cutting through the clutter on glyphosate,” and “Before we freak out, let’s ask the experts … the real experts.”

Corporate funders  

IFIC spent $23,659,976 in the five-year period from 2012-2016, while the IFIC Foundation spent $5,639,289 from 2011-2015, according to tax forms filed with the IRS. Corporations and industry groups that support IFIC, according to public disclosures, include the American Beverage Association, American Meat Science Association, Archer Daniels Midland Company, Bayer CropScience, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Dannon, DowDuPont, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Mars, Nestle, Perdue Farms and PepsiCo.

Draft tax records for the IFIC Foundation, obtained via state records requests, list the corporations that funded the group in 2011, 2013 or both: Grocery Manufacturers Association, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Hershey, Mars, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever. The US Department of Agriculture gave IFIC Foundation $177,480 of taxpayer money in 2013 to produce a “communicator’s guide” for promoting genetically engineered foods.

IFIC also solicits money from corporations for specific product-defense campaigns. This April 28, 2014 email from an IFIC executive to a long list of corporate board members asks for $10,000 contributions to update the “Understanding our Food” initiative to improve consumer views of processed foods. The email notes lists the previous financial supporters: Bayer, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Mars, McDonalds, Monsanto, Nestle, PepsiCo and DuPont.

Promotes GMOs to school children  

IFIC coordinates 130 groups via the Alliance to Feed the Future on messaging efforts to “improve understanding” about genetically engineered foods. Members include the American Council on Science and Health, the Calorie Control Council, the Center for Food Integrity and The Nature Conservancy.

The Alliance to Feed the Future also provides free educational curricula to teach students to promote genetically engineered foods, including “The Science of Feeding the World” for K-8 teachers and “Bringing Biotechnology to Life” for grades 7-10.

The inner workings of IFIC’s PR services 

A series of documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know provide a sense of how IFIC operates behind the scenes to spin bad news and defend the products of its corporate sponsors.

Connects reporters to industry-funded scientists  

  • May 5, 2014 email from Matt Raymond, senior director of communications, alerted IFIC leadership and “media dialogue group” to “high profile stories in which IFIC is currently involved” to help spin negative news coverage. He noted they had connected a New York Times reporter with “Dr. John Sievenpiper, our noted expert in the field of sugars.” Sievenpiper “is among a small group of Canadian academic scientists who have received hundreds of thousands in funding from soft-drink makers, packaged-food trade associations and the sugar industry, turning out studies and opinion articles that often coincide with those businesses’ interests,” according to the National Post.
  • Emails from 2010 and 2012 suggest that IFIC relies on a small group of industry-connected scientists to confront studies that raise concerns about GMOs. In both emails, Bruce Chassy pushes the view that there is no difference between conventional bred and genetically engineered crops.

DuPont exec suggests stealth strategy to confront Consumer Reports

  • In a February 3, 2013 email, IFIC staff alerted its “media relations group” that Consumer Reports had reported about safety and environmental concerns of GMOs. Doyle Karr, DuPont director of biotechnology policy and vice president of the board of Center for Food Integrity, forwarded the email to a scientist with a query for response ideas, and suggested confronting Consumer Reports with this stealth tactic: “Maybe create a letter to the editor signed by 1,000 scientists who have no affiliation with the biotech seed companies stating that they take issue with (Consumer Reports’) statements on the safety and environmental impact. ??”

Other PR services IFIC provides to industry

  • Disseminates misleading industry talking points: April 25, 2012 mail to the 130 members of the Alliance to Feed the Future “on behalf of Alliance member Grocery Manufacturers Association” claimed the California ballot initiative to label genetically engineered foods “would effectively ban the sale of tens of thousands of grocery products in California unless they contain special labels.”
  • Confronts troublesome books: February 20, 2013 describes IFIC’s strategy to spin two books critical of the food industry, “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss, and “Pandora’s Lunchbox” by Melanie Warner. Plans included writing book reviews, disseminating talking points and exploring additional options to enhance engagement in the digital media.
  • Research and surveys to support industry positions; one example is a 2012 survey that found 76% of consumers “can’t think of anything additional they would like to see on the label” that was used by industry groups to oppose GMO labeling.
  • “Don’t worry, trust us” marketing brochures, such as this one explaining that artificial sweeteners and food dyes are nothing to worry about.

Drew Kershen: Agrichemical Industry Front Group Ringleader

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Drew Kershen, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, is a close ally of the agrichemical industry. He argues for deregulation of genetically engineered plants and animals and against transparency. Kershen has played a key role in agrichemical industry-funded promotional efforts and front groups that lobby for industry interests. Kershen does not disclose funding sources.

Agrichemical industry ties and front group leadership

Genetic Literacy Project / Science Literacy Project

Kershen is a board member of Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that partners with Monsanto to do public relations for genetically engineered foods and pesticides, and does not accurately disclose its funding. Documents reveal that the Genetic Literacy Project:

Kershen is also a board member of the Science Literacy Project, the 501(c)(3) parent organization of the Genetic Literacy Project. Both are directed by Jon Entine, a longtime PR ally of the chemical industry.

According to 2015 tax records, Jon Entine and the Science Literacy Project assumed control of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a group formerly affiliated with the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) and the Genetic Literacy Project. Operations for STATS were folded into Sense About Science USA, which shares the same address of record with Science Literacy Project.

The founders of STATS, CMPA and Sense About Science did public relations work for the tobacco industry and these groups are not independent arbiters of science, according to a 2016 investigation in The Intercept.

For more information, see USRTK fact sheets on Jon Entine and Genetic Literacy Project and Sense About Science/STATS.

Secretary of Academics Review Front Group

Kershen was the secretary of the board of directors of Academics Review, according to its 2016 tax records. Academics Review claimed to be an independent group, but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it was a front group set up with the help of Monsanto to attack critics of the agrichemical industry while appearing to be independent.

Kershen was a reviewer for a 2014 report by Academics Review that tried to discredit the organic industry; the press release for the report claimed that it was work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.

Tax records show that the primary funder of Academics Review was the Council for Biotechnology Information, a nonprofit organization funded and run by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. CBI gave a total of $600,000 to Academics Review in 2014 and 2015-2016.

Why Forbes Deleted Some Drew Kershen Articles

Kershen co-authored several articles that were deleted by Forbes and Project Syndicate after his co-author, Henry Miller, was caught using a column ghostwritten by Monsanto as his own work in Forbes. The New York Times revealed the ghostwriting scandal in 2017.

Kershen and Miller also co-wrote articles for Slate, National Review, the Hoover Institution and the American Council on Science and Health (an industry-funded front group) arguing against labeling and regulating genetically engineered foods, attacking industry critics, and claiming “the world’s poor are suffering and dying unnecessarily” due to the “gratuitous regulation demanded by activists.”

GMO Answers

Kershen is an “ambassador expert” for GMO Answers, a marketing and PR website for genetically engineered foods that is funded by the big agrichemical companies via the Council for Biotechnology Information, and run by the public relations firm Ketchum.

Intervened in Transparency Lawsuit to Suppress Public Disclosure

Several documents reported in this fact sheet, which exposed undisclosed ties between corporations and front groups, were first obtained via Freedom of Information requests by U.S. Right to Know. Kershen has intervened in lawsuits to try to stop further disclosure, as the Freedom of the Press Foundation reported in February 2018.

For more information about food industry front groups, see the USRTK investigations page.

Are You Ready for the New Wave of Genetically Engineered Foods?

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A version of this article was first published in Common Ground Magazine March 2018 (PDF version).

By Stacy Malkan

Everyone loves a feel-good story about the future. You’ve probably heard this one: high-tech foods enhanced by science will feed the 9 billion people expected on the planet by 2050. Food made in labs and crops and animals genetically engineered to grow faster and better will make it possible to feed the crowded world, according to stories that spin through our institutions of media and education.

“6th grade students brainstorming big biotech ideas to #Feedthe9″ touted a recent tweet tagged to the chemical industry’s promotional website GMOAnswers. Student ideas included “breed carrots to have more vitamins” and “corn that will grow in harsh winter conditions.”

It all sounds so promising until you look at the realities behind the rhetoric.

For starters, in a country that leads the world in growing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), millions go hungry. Reducing food waste, addressing inequality and shifting to agroecological farming methods, not GMOs, are the keys to world food security, according to experts at the United Nations. Most genetically engineered foods on the market today have no consumer benefits whatsoever; they are engineered to survive pesticides, and have greatly accelerated the use of pesticides such as glyphosate, dicamba and soon 2,4D, creating what environmental groups call a dangerous pesticide treadmill.

Despite decades of hype about higher nutrients or heartier GMO crops, those benefits have failed to materialize. Vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, for example – “the rice that could save a million kids a year,” reported Time magazine 17 years ago – is not on the market despite millions spent on development. “If golden rice is such a panacea, why does it flourish only in headlines, far from the farm fields where it’s intended to grow?” asked Tom Philpott in Mother Jones article titled, WTF Happened to Golden Rice?

“The short answer is that the plant breeders have yet to concoct varieties of it that work as well in the field as existing rice strains…When you tweak one thing in a genome, such as giving rice the ability to generate beta-carotene, you risk changing other things, like its speed of growth.”

Nature is complex, in other words, and genetic engineering can produce unexpected results.

Consider the case of the Impossible Burger.

The plant-based burger that “bleeds” is made possible by genetically engineering yeast to resemble leghemoglobin, a substance found in soybean plant roots. The GMO soy leghemoglobin (SLH) breaks down into a protein called “heme,” which gives the burger meat-like qualities — its blood-red color and sizzle on the grill — without the environmental and ethical impacts of meat production. But the GMO SLH also breaks down into 46 other proteins that have never been in the human diet and could pose safety risks.

As The New York Times reported, the burger’s secret sauce “highlights the challenges of food tech.” The story was based on documents obtained by ETC Group and Friends of the Earth under a Freedom of Information Act request – documents the company probably hoped would never see the light of day. When Impossible Foods asked the Food and Drug Administration to confirm its GMO ingredient was “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), the Times reported, the agency instead “expressed concern that it has never been consumed by humans and may be an allergen.”

FDA officials wrote in notes describing a 2015 call with the company, “FDA stated that the current arguments at hand, individually and collectively, were not enough to establish the safety of SLH for consumption.” But, as the Times story explained, the FDA did not say the GMO leghemoglobin was unsafe, and the company did not need the approval of FDA to sell its burger anyway.

The arguments presented did not establish safety – FDA

So Impossible Burger is on the market with the company’s assurances of safety and most consumers are in the dark about what’s in it. While the GMO process is explained on the website it is not marketed that way at the point of sale. On a recent visit to a Bay Area restaurant that sells the Impossible Burger, a customer asked if the burger was genetically modified. He was inaccurately told, “no.”

Lack of government oversight, unknown health risks and consumers left in the dark – these are recurring themes in the unfolding narrative about the Wild West of genetic engineering experimentation that is galloping toward a store near you.

A GMO By Any Other Name …

Synthetic biology, CRISPR, gene editing, gene silencing: these terms describe the new forms of genetically engineered crops, animals and ingredients that companies are rushing to get onto the market.

The old method of genetic engineering, called transgenics, involves transferring genes from one species to another. With the new genetic engineering methods – what some environmental groups call GMOs 2.0 – companies are tampering with nature in new and possibly riskier ways. They can delete genes, turn genes on or off, or create whole new DNA sequences on a computer. All these new techniques are GMOs in the way consumers and the U.S. Patent Office consider them – DNA is altered in labs in ways that can’t occur in nature, and used to make products that can be patented. There are a few basic types of GMOs 2.0.

Synthetic biology GMOs involve changing or creating DNA to artificially synthesize compounds rather than extract them from natural sources. Examples include genetically engineering yeast or algae to create flavors such as vanillin, stevia and citrus; or fragrances like patchouli, rose oil and clearwood – all of which may already be in products.

Some companies are touting lab-grown ingredients as a solution for sustainability. But the devil is in the details that companies are reticent to disclose. What are the feedstocks? Some synthetic biology products depend on sugar from chemical-intensive monocultures or other polluting feedstocks such as fracked gas. There are also concerns that engineered algae could escape into the environment and become living pollution.

And what is the impact on farmers who depend on sustainably grown crops? Farmers around the world are worried that lab-grown substitutes, falsely marketed as “natural,” could put them out of business. For generations, farmers in Mexico, Madagascar, Africa and Paraguay have cultivated natural and organic vanilla, shea butter or stevia. In Haiti, the farming of vetiver grass for use in high-end perfumes supports up to 60,000 small growers, helping to bolster an economy ravaged by earthquake and storms.

Does it make sense to move these economic engines to South San Francisco and feed factory-farmed sugar to yeast in order to make cheaper fragrances and flavors? Who will benefit, and who will lose out, in the high-tech crop revolution?

Genetically engineered fish and animals: dehorned cattle, naturally castrated pigs, and chicken eggs engineered to contain a pharmaceutical agent are all in the genetic experimentation pipeline. An all-male “terminator cattle” project – with the code name “Boys Only” – aims to create a bull that will father only male offspring, thereby “skewing the odds toward maleness and making the (meat) industry more efficient,” reported MIT Technology Review.

What could go wrong?

The geneticist working on the terminator cattle, Alison Van Eenennaam of the  University of California, Davis, is lobbying FDA to reconsider its 2017 decision to treat CRISPR-edited animals as if they were new drugs, thereby requiring safety studies; she told the MIT Review that would “put a huge regulatory block on using this gene-editing technique on animals.” But shouldn’t there be requirements for studying the health, safety and environmental impacts of genetically engineered foods, and a framework for considering the moral, ethical and social justice implications? Companies are pushing hard for no requirements; in January, President Trump talked about biotechnology for the first time during his presidency and made a vague declaration about “streamlining regulations.”

The only GMO animal on the market so far is the AquaAdvantage salmon engineered with the genes of an eel to grow faster. The fish is already being sold in Canada, but the company won’t say where, and US sales are held up due to “labeling complications.” The urge for secrecy makes sense from a sales perspective: 75% of respondents in a 2013 New York Times poll said they would not eat GMO fish, and about two-thirds said they would not eat meat that had been genetically modified.

Gene silencing techniques such as RNA interference (RNAi) can turn genes off to create particular traits. The non-browning Arctic Apple was engineered with RNAi to turn down the expression of genes that cause apples to become brown and mushy. As the company explains on its website, “when the apple is bitten, sliced, or otherwise bruised … no yucky brown apple left behind.”

Are consumers actually asking for this trait? Ready or not here it comes. The first GMO Arctic Apple, a Golden Delicious, began heading for test markets in the Midwest last month. Nobody is saying exactly where the apples are landing, but they won’t be labeled GMO. Look out for the “Arctic Apples” brand if you want to know if you’re eating a genetically engineered apple.

“I am confident we’ll see more gene-edited crops falling outside of regulatory authority.” 

Gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, TALEN or zinc finger nucleases are used to cut DNA in order to make genetic changes or insert genetic material. These methods are faster and touted as more precise than the old transgenic methods. But the lack of government oversight raises concerns. “There can still be off-target and unintended effects,” explains Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist of Consumers Union. “When you alter the genetics of living things they don’t always behave as you expect. This is why it’s crucial to thoroughly study health and environmental impacts, but these studies aren’t required.”

A non-browning CRISPR mushroom escaped US regulation, as Nature reported in 2016. A new CRISPR canola oil, engineered to tolerate herbicides, is in stores now and may even be called “non-GMO,” according to Bloomberg, since the US Department of Agriculture has “taken a pass” on regulating CRISPR crops. The story noted that Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical have “stepped through the regulatory void” and struck licensing deals to use the gene-editing technology.

And that raises another red flag with the narrative that new GMOs will provide consumer benefits that the old transgenic methods didn’t. “Just because the techniques are different doesn’t mean the traits will be,” Dr. Hansen pointed out. “The old method of genetic engineering was used mostly to make plants resist herbicides and increase sales of herbicides. The new gene editing techniques will probably be used in much the same way, but there are some new twists.”

Corporate Greed Versus Consumer Needs

The Atlantic’s “transforming food” summit was sponsored by DowDuPont. See our reporting on that story.

The world’s largest agrichemical companies own the majority of seeds and pesticides, and they are consolidating power in the hands of just three multinational corporations. Bayer and Monsanto are closing in on a merger, and the mergers of ChemChina/Syngenta and DowDuPont are complete. DowDuPont just announced its agribusiness unit will operate under the new name Corteva Agriscience, a combination of words meaning “heart” and “nature.”

No matter what re-branding tricks they try, these corporations have a nature we already know: all of them have long histories of ignoring the warnings of science, covering up the health risks of dangerous products and leaving behind toxic messes – Bhopal, dioxin, PCBs, napalm, Agent Orange, teflon, chlorpyrifos, atrazine, dicamba, to name just a few scandals.

The future-focus narrative obscures that sordid past and the present reality of how these companies are actually using genetic engineering technologies today, mostly as a tool for crops to survive chemical sprays. To understand how this scheme is playing out on the ground in leading GMO-growing pesticide-using areas, read the reports about birth defects in Hawaii, cancer clusters in Argentina, contaminated waterways in Iowa and damaged cropland across the Midwest.

The future of food under the control of big agribusiness and chemical corporations is not hard to guess – more of what they are already trying to sell us: GMO crops that drive up chemical sales and food animals engineered to grow faster and fit better in factory farm conditions, with pharmaceuticals to help. It’s a great vision for the future of corporate profits and concentration of wealth and power, but not so great for farmers, public health, the environment or consumers who are demanding a different food future.

Growing numbers of consumers want real, natural food and products. They want to know what’s in their food, how it was produced and where it came from. For those who want to be in the know about what they are eating, there is still a surefire way to avoid old and new GMOs: buy organic. The Non-GMO Project verified certification also ensures products are not genetically engineered or made with synthetic biology.

It will be important for the natural foods industry to hold the line on the integrity of these certifications against the wild stampede of new GMOs.

Stacy Malkan is the co-director of US Right to Know and author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

GMO Answers is a Crisis Management PR Tool for GMOs & Pesticides

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Update May 2018: Tax records show that the Council for Biotechnology Information, a chemical industry trade group, paid Ketchum public relations firm more than $11 million from 2013-2016 to to run GMO Answers. See also this related post, “Monsanto Relied on These Partners to Attack Top Cancer Scientists” (5/31/18).

ketchum gmo answers

By Stacy Malkan

GMO Answers is billed as a forum where consumers can get straight answers from independent experts about genetically engineered foods, and some journalists take it seriously as an unbiased source. But the website is a straight-up industry marketing tool to spin GMOs in a positive light.

Evidence that GMO Answers is a crisis-management propaganda tool that lacks credibility:

1) GMO Answers was created as a vehicle to sway public opinion in favor of GMOs. Soon after Monsanto and its allies beat back the 2012 ballot initiative to label GMOs in California, Monsanto announced plans to launch a new public relations campaign to reshape the reputation of GMOs. They hired the public relations firm FleishmanHillard (owned by Omnicom) for a seven-figure campaign.

As part of the effort, the PR firm Ketchum (also owned by Omnicom) was hired by the Council for Biotechnology Information – funded by Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta – to create GMOAnswers.com. The site promised to clear up confusion and dispel mistrust about GMOs using the unedited voices of so-called “independent experts.”

But how independent are those experts?

The website hews to carefully crafted talking points that tell a positive story about GMOs while downplaying or ignoring the health and environmental risks. For example, when asked if GMOs are driving up the use of pesticides, the site offers a convoluted no, despite peer-reviewed data showing that, yes, in fact, they are.

“Roundup Ready” GMO crops have increased use of glyphosate, a probable human carcinogen, by hundreds of millions of pounds. A new GMO/pesticide scheme involving dicamba has led to the destruction of soybean crops across the U.S., and the FDA is bracing this year for triple the use of 2,4-D, an older toxic herbicide, due to new GMO crops that are engineered to resist it. All of this is nothing to worry about, according to GMO Answers.

Questions about safety are answered with false statements such as “every leading health organization in the world stands behind the safety of GMOs.” We found no mention of the statement signed by 300 scientists, physicians and academics who say there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety,” and we received no answers to questions we posted about the statement.

Examples have since come to light that Ketchum PR scripted some of the GMO answers that were signed by “independent experts.”

2) As further evidence the site is a spin vehicle: In 2014, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.”

3) And the PR firm that created GMO Answers boasted about its influence on journalists. In a video posted to the CLIO website, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.

Why reporters would trust a marketing vehicle designed by Ketchum as a reliable source is difficult to understand. Ketchum, which until 2016 was the PR firm for Russia, has been implicated in espionage efforts against nonprofits concerned about GMOs. Not exactly a history that lends itself to dispelling mistrust.

Given that GMO Answers is a marketing tool created and funded by companies that sell GMOs, we think it’s fair game to ask: Are the “independent experts” who lend credibility to the website – several of whom work for public universities and are paid by taxpayers – truly independent and working in the public interest? Or are they working in league with corporations and public relations firms to help sell the public a spin story?

In search of these answers, U.S. Right to Know submitted Freedom of Information Act requests seeking the correspondence of publicly funded professors who write for GMOAnswers.com or worked on other GMO promotion efforts. The FOIA’s are narrow requests that cover no personal or academic information, but rather seek to understand the connections between the professors, the agrichemical companies that sell GMOs, their trade associations and the PR and lobbying firms that have been hired to promote GMOs and fight labeling so we’re kept in the dark about what we’re eating.

Follow the results of the U.S. Right to Know investigation here.

CropLife International — key facts

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Summary

CropLife International (CLI) is a trade association founded in 2001 representing the manufacturers of the world’s largest manufacturers of genetically engineered seeds and pesticides. Members include BASF, Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta, Corteva (formerly DowDuPont), Sumitomo Chemical and FMC.

The trade group also has 15 member associations: AfricaBio; AgroBio Brazil; AgroBio Mexico; ArgenBio; Biotechnology Innovation Organization, Food & Ag; CBI Japan; CIB Brazil; CropLife Africa Middle East; CropLife America; CropLife Asia, CropLife Canada; CropLife Latin America; European Crop Protection Association (ECPA); EuropaBio; and Japan Crop Protection Association.

Related USRTK posts:
May 31, 2018, “Monsanto Relied on These Partners to Attack Top Cancer Scientists

CLI Members