How the Pesticide Industry Tried to Stop a Bill to Protect Bees in Maryland

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Days after Maryland state legislators introduced a bill aimed at protecting pollinators by restricting the use of neonicotinoid insecticides in residential areas, a group of representatives of Bayer, Syngenta, CropLife America, Maryland Farm Bureau, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture planned and executed a counter-offensive. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show the strategies they used over the next two and a half years.

The emails are a rare window into the pesticide industry’s playbook for trying to keep a group of controversial pesticides on the American market. The industry group touted pesticide industry efforts to protect pollinators, collaborated closely with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, and tried to recruit a bee expert to testify on their behalf, among other efforts to defeat the bills.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are the most widely used insecticides in the world. They are toxic to bees and other pollinators. The European Union has banned several neonics for outdoor use out of concern for pollinators. Over the winter of 2014 to 2015 when Maryland delegates drafted the first bill banning neonics, the state’s beekeepers lost 45 percent of their honey bee colonies. Globally, wild and domestic pollinator species are in decline. There is a growing body of evidence linking neonics to pollinator declines.

Although the Maryland Department of Agriculture has never attributed a bee kill to neonics, neonics have caused mass bee deaths in other places. Studies have demonstrated that neonics at levels found in the environment can impair bee brain cells, which makes them worse at navigating, foraging, and flying.

The Maryland Pollinator Protection Act was signed into law in May 2016, after a stronger bill died in committee in 2015. A 2014 version limited neonic purchases to certified pesticide applicators, but was withdrawn by its sponsor.

Although the 2015 and 2016 bills required labeling all neonic-treated seeds or plants sold in the state, and limited the sale of neonic insecticides to certified applicators (with exceptions for farmers and veterinarians), the 2016 bill passed only after legislators removed the labeling requirement, exempted pet treatments, lice and bedbug treatments, and indoor pest control products, and exempted people working under the supervision of certified pesticide applicators and farmers.

The law effectively banned neonic insecticide use except for certified pesticide applicators, farmers, and veterinarians, effective January 1, 2018. It imposed a $250 fine for first-time violations.

Delegate Anne Healey and five cosponsors introduced the original bill, HB 1285, to the Maryland state house on Feb. 7, 2014. Five days later, on February 12, Lynne Hoot, who was then a lobbyist for CropLife America and the executive director of Maryland Grain Producers and Maryland Agricultural Associates, a consulting firm that lobbied and provided public relations for agricultural associations, emailed a small group detailing “what I think we need to kill HB 1285.”

Recipients included staff from neonic producers Bayer and Syngenta, lobbyists for CropLife America and the Maryland Farm Bureau, and staff from Maryland Department of Agriculture. Hoot, who said she was prompted to do so by Bayer’s Director of State Affairs Allen Ayers, offered to coordinate the “circulation of supporting documentation” to oppose the bill.

The industry group outlines their key strategies

Hoot asked the group how similar bills in other states fared and what information was used to defeat them. She also suggested the group cite research that implicated non-pesticide causes of U.S. pollinator decline, and frame the issue as one for the Environmental Protection Agency, not individual states, to decide.

“Anything we can showcase that EPA is on top of this will help us,” she wrote, before assigning “action items” to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, CropLife America and others. Hoot also noted that some people in the nursery industry said they supported the bill, because it might bring them new business. “I did ask if they were OK with the precedent of the state legislature managing their business one product at a time, hopefully they will reconsider,” she wrote.

There are few windows into the pesticide industry’s strategies to counter pollinator concerns, but many of the Maryland industry group’s tactics are reflected in an internal 2017 CropLife America memo published in The Intercept’s 2020 article The Pesticide Industry’s Playbook for Poisoning the Earth. These strategies include building strong relationships with regulatory agencies, positioning the pesticide industry as a defender of bee health, and emphasizing non-pesticide factors like disease and varroa mites as the most significant causes of pollinator decline.

Excerpt from Hoot’s “action items” in her February 2014 email. This point, which references the Maryland Green Industries Council (MAGIC) lobbying organization and the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts (MASCD), discusses finding the best people to talk to legislators about the bill, and to “show we care” about pollinator habitat

In the next two years, the industry group’s mailing list swelled to include 32 representatives from pest and landscaping companies, nurseries, and farms, plus chemical giants Dow, Monsanto, DuPont, and GrowMark. Some were registered lobbyists, and several on the email list represented companies that manufactured neonics. Maryland Agricultural Associates’ lobbyist Lindsay Dodd took over group facilitation from Hoot. (Dodd changed her last name to Thompson after the summer of 2015.)

Dodd organized conference calls to strategize about who should testify to the state’s General Assembly, what talking points to use, and what delegates to lobby at key points in the bills’ progression, according to the emails.

Industry groups sought “industry friendly” message from U. Maryland bee researcher

On February 10, 2015, a CropLife America representative said he asked Bayer staff to recommend “any local bee expert that may be available to testify and be able to deliver an industry friendly message.” They suggested recently retired University of Maryland entomologist and bee expert Galen Dively.

Although a Bayer representative told the group Dively was “willing and available to help out” later that day, Dively never testified, he confirmed to U.S. Right to Know.

“As I recall, the opportunity to testify did not come up,” Dively said. “They probably sensed that I was not that negative on removing neonics from the homeowner uses. I would have been supportive of keeping neonic labeled uses for ag crops but that was not the main focus of this act.”

Industry’s talking points

On February 24, 2015, Dodd circulated some revised talking points for the upcoming house hearing. These points discussed the costs the state and its nursery industry would incur from labeling individual plants, determining whether plants from out-of-state were treated with neonics, testing plant material for neonics to enforce the law, and reduced sales due to a “warning label” on a product.

Dodd sent out another round of testimony coaching on March 7, 2015.

“Each speaker will likely only have 2-3 minutes and we have a lot to cover. After feedback from the Senate hearing, I think we really need to hammer home the science and be more assertive in refuting the proponents claims,” Dodd wrote.

In the email, Dodd outlined the “main ideas” for the industry group to present:

“-The label language is completely false according to peer reviewed science.

-Neonicotinoids are safe when used according to the labeled directions. These labels are legally binding and EPA has already updated them to further protect pollinators.

-No peer reviewed, un-debunked, scientific study using realistic environmental doses has demonstrated lethal or sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators.”

Anti-neonic advocates refuted these points in their testimony.

“Major knowledge gaps remain regarding the fate of neonics in the environment and their toxicity to non-target organisms,” University of Maryland Professor Carys Mitchelmore testified in support of the bill in 2015. “However, in the data that does exist, it is clear that the current use of neonicotinoids are likely to be impacting a broad range of non-target taxa, including pollinators and soil and aquatic invertebrates and hence threatens a range of ecosystem services.”

Anti-neonic advocates also cited the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Task Force on Systemic Pesticides’ 2015 publication, which reviewed more than 1,121 peer-reviewed studies and called for immediate restrictions on neonics. They also cited Maryland’s own Department of Legislative Services 2015 report on the issue, which said “evidence shows that the application of pesticides, particularly insecticides, kills or weakens thousands of honey bee colonies in the United States each year.”

Industry group assigns speakers to deliver talking points during testimony

In the March emails, Dodd included 18 “key points” to make in testimony, including: “Neonicotinoids have never been determined to be the cause of a bee death reported to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.”

The industry group tried to discredit scientific studies that concluded neonics endanger pollinators, and promoted others that found no sublethal effects. Other talking points touted EPA and Congressional Research Service publications that emphasized non-pesticide causes of pollinator decline. One said, “talk about the positive things that industry is doing to understand and enhance pollinator health and habitat.”

By March 9, 2015, the group had assigned speakers to deliver the eighteen “key points” during the house hearing. For example, Mark Schlosberg of the Maryland Association of Green Industries (MAGI) was assigned to deliver this: “Neonicotinoids are selective insecticides that do not target beneficial insects such as bees and earth worms.” Bayer scientists Iain Kelly and Becky Langer-Curry, meanwhile, were assigned to say that “many neonicotinoid products actually help to enhance the health of bees by protecting their habitat and forage,” and speak on “the general chemistry of neonicotinoids, their life-cycle and persistence. Why we started using neonics compared to other classes (without throwing currently registered products under the bus).”

The talking points that Bayer Scientists Iain Kelly and Becky Langer-Curry were assigned to deliver at the hearing included testifying that neonics were better for pollinators than alternative pesticides, and “actually help to enhance the health of bees

Maryland Department of Agriculture backs industry arguments

Maryland Department of Agriculture staff were copied on the industry group’s strategy emails. They periodically provided other industry members with information helpful to the industry group’s testimony.

The MDA testified in person and in writing against various versions of the Pollinator Protection Act, citing a lack of department resources. For example, in their February 17, 2015 testimony, the MDA estimated they would need $1 million per year to enforce the bill’s neonic-treated plant labeling provision, which the bill did not provide.

The MDA also echoed reasons that were also on the industry group’s list of talking points, including that the bill was unlikely to help pollinators, and it was the wrong avenue for making change.

“To date, MDA has not documented any cases of neonicotinoid insecticides negatively impacting honeybees in Maryland,” they wrote.

The state already inspected honey bee hives, and were making efforts to improve hive health through different avenues, they testified.

“It is our position that EPA has always taken the lead on pesticide registration and labeling issues,” the MDA wrote. “MDA also feels that these restrictions would create confusion in the distribution chain and market place.”

In June 2014, Dodd asked MDA staff if she could fill a vacancy on Maryland’s Pesticide Advisory Committee, which advises the state’s Secretary of Agriculture on pesticide issues. That October, MDA staff endorsed Dodd and won her appointment.

Environmentalists say MDA is too friendly with the pesticide industry

Environmentalists say the emails show clear regulatory capture. “The emails validate what we have seen in so many other instances, where it appears the MD Dept of Agriculture is the mouthpiece for the agro-chemical industry. Remember, this bill had nothing to do with agriculture—it applied to consumer products only. So why was MDA a key opponent in this?” Maryland Pesticide Education Network (MPEN) Coordinator Bonnie Raindrop wrote.

“What is notable is that a lobbyist for the industry [Dodd] was the one leading the charge, actually preparing the strategy against the bill, and telling MDA what to say! This underscores the inappropriateness of allowing MDA to regulate thousands of highly toxic pesticides,” Raindrop wrote.

“MDA has no expertise concerning the public health or environmental impacts of these toxics. Their focus is advancing industrial agriculture. These emails underscore that MDA is a highly industry-captured agency.”

“…it appears the MD Dept of Agriculture is the mouthpiece for the agro-chemical industry.” – MPEN Coordinator Bonnie Raindrop

Raindrop and MPEN founder Ruth Berlin advocated for the various Pollinator Protection Act bills. They alerted key legislators to Maryland’s heavy pollinator losses and their related concerns about neonicotinoids, provided data, and lobbied for the bills.

The bill’s success in 2016 wasn’t the end of MPEN’s activity, either. Although the law took effect at the start of 2018, beekeeper allies reported that neonic products were still for sale to the general public in home and garden stores, Raindrop said. When MPEN volunteers checked, staff in about one in every three affected stores said they hadn’t even heard about the law change.

“Then we became aware that MDA was misinterpreting language in the law, which was intended to allow over 100 Restricted Use Product (RUP) retailers to sell neonic pesticides to certified applicators, to allow these RUP retailers to also sell banned consumer products to the public,” Raindrop wrote. “So in 2021, we provided issue education to support passage of a bill that closed this loophole.”

They succeeded in changing the law in 2021.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture did not respond to requests for comment.

The MDA’s actions were not illegal, but conflicted with some of the department’s duties

It is generally not illegal for state departments to work with advocates, including paid lobbyists, to support or oppose legislation, government watchdog group Campaign Legal Center’s Kedric Payne said.

However, the MDA did not clearly disclose it was collaborating with the pesticide industry on its testimony, making it all the more influential, State Senator Clarence Lam (D-Howard and Baltimore counties) said. Lam sponsored the 2016 version of the Pollinator Protection Act.

“I think it carries more weight,” he said, when a state department testifies, compared to an advocacy organization. “We actually, as a legislature, prefer that departments weigh in on bills… because at the end of the day, they’re the ones implementing it,” he said.

However, the MDA testified during a time when it was unusual for state departments to do so, and their strong opposition could have led some legislators to believe that the MDA was providing good information, Lam said, “but it was very clearly slanted and skewed.”

“Most legislators don’t have a background in science. They rely on other information to make decisions,” Lam said.

That can come from other legislators, state department representatives, or outside lobbying organizations like the Farm Bureau.

“The challenge for a lot of my colleagues is that they may not fully recognize or grasp… the more reliable sources of information,” he said. “It is not hard to mislead, whether intentionally or unintentionally, fellow legislators, with information that may be skewed.”

“[The MDA was] not only clearly opposed, but they were working behind the scenes to undermine it,” Lam said.

The MDA met with legislators and fellow opponents, and “put out information that is marginally accurate but carries the weight of the department,” he said.

A misleading poll the MDA presented to the senate during SB 198 testimony in 2016 indicated that most pollinator stakeholders weren’t overly concerned about pesticides – even though only 23 percent of those polled represented beekeepers or conservation organizations.

Lam said he thought the bill would have worked better if it had been enforced by the Maryland Department of the Environment, rather than the Department of Agriculture.

“I am not a big fan of departments and agencies functioning as both the regulator and the advocate or cheerleader for an industry or sector” Lam said, due to the inherent conflicts of interest and the confusion it creates about a department’s role.

“In this instance they were very clearly a cheerleader for the farming industry and much less in their regulator role,” he said.

Other state efforts to enact neonic laws are ongoing

As of May 2020, the Maryland Pollinator Protection Act was one of six neonic-related state laws in the nation. Twenty-eight more were pending at that time, according to a table included in a joint letter that nine state Attorneys General sent to EPA in response to EPA’s neonic registration reviews.

Environmental lobbyist Chris Cowen has helped promote bills to regulate neonics in Minnesota, and said industry tactics are similar across the states.

“Bayer, Syngenta, all the big chemical companies along with the Farm Bureau, along with the big commodity organizations, along with ethanol, they’re all together. They’re all together and they support each other,” he said.

It’s common for those companies and organizations to work together with a state department of agriculture, he said.

“What these big companies are really good at doing are working behind the scenes.,” Cowen said.

One thing that keeps Cowen motivated is that the general public and a good number of legislators support environmental legislation, he said.

“I’ve done a lot of door-knocking and talked to a lot of people, and the average person understands the importance. Clean water [and] healthy soil are what you need to have happy pollinators, and nobody is against that,” he said.

Although Raindrop acknowledged it would have been better for pollinators if the neonic-treated plant labeling portion of the Maryland bill had also passed, she praised the bill that did pass as a “groundbreaking win” that would reduce neonic levels in residential landscapes and set a precedent for other states to pass similar legislation.

“Federally and at the state and local levels, we see this incredibly well-financed industry spending a lot of money to defeat any and all pesticide protections. That requires continual efforts to move protections forward, sometimes incrementally,” she wrote.

“In the arena of pesticides, we are dealing with agencies at the federal and state levels that are industry-captured. And the pesticide industry spends millions to defeat all efforts to put common sense laws in place to protect public health and the environment.  It’s a David vs. Goliath battle. But if the Davids are nimble, smart, and work together, sometimes us Davids win,” Raindrop wrote.

Abbe Hamilton is an investigative reporter covering neonicotinoid science and policy for U.S. Right to Know.

Documents referenced in this post include:

Maryland’s Pollinator Protection Act of 2016

Maryland’s 2015 and 2014 bills seeking to restrict neonics, which died before a vote

An email thread from February 12-13, 2014 among Maryland agricultural lobbyists, agrichemical company reps, agricultural trade organizations, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

An email thread from March 7-10, 2015 among Maryland agricultural lobbyists, agrichemical company reps, agricultural and landscaping trade organizations, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

A February 10, 2015 email from CropLife America’s Jeff Case about recruiting a local bee expert.

A February 10, 2015 email in which Bayer’s Allen Ayers says he’s secured a local bee expert.

A February 24, 2015 email from Lindsay Dodd promoting talking points related to the cost of implementing the neonic plant labeling portion of the bill.

University of Maryland Professor Carys Mitchelmore’s 2015 testimony for the Pollinator Protection Act

An email from Carol Holko to Lynne Hoot on February 13, 2014 discussing legal precedents to the neonic bill.

An email from Carol Holko to Lindsay Dodd on February 12, 2015 discussing the MDA’s interpretation of the neonic bill language.

The MDA’s testimony against the bill from February 17, 2015.

An email thread from June to October 2014 which resulted in Dodd’s appointment to the Maryland Pesticide Advisory Committee.

A screenshot of a poll the MDA presented during state senate testimony in 2016 from a recent Managed Pollinator Protection Plan (MP3) conference they held.

A screenshot of the poll responders, as presented by the MDA during state testimony in 2016.

A letter nine state Attorneys General sent to the EPA in May 2020 to comment on the EPA’s ongoing neonic reregistration process.

Glyphosate: Cancer and Other Health Concerns

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Glyphosate, a synthetic herbicide patented in 1974 by the Monsanto Company and now manufactured and sold by many companies in hundreds of products, has been associated with cancer and other health concerns. Glyphosate is best known as the active ingredient in Roundup-branded herbicides, and the herbicide used with “Roundup Ready” genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Herbicide tolerance is the most prevalent GMO trait engineered into food crops, with some 90% of corn and 94% of soybeans in the U.S. engineered to tolerate herbicides, according to USDA data. A 2017 study found that Americans’ exposure to glyphosate increased approximately 500 percent since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced in the U.S in 1996. 

Why is Bayer taking glyphosate off the U.S. consumer market?

In July 2021, Monsanto owner Bayer AG said it would remove glyphosate-based herbicides from the U.S. consumer market by 2023 due to litigation. More than 100,000 people are suing Bayer alleging they developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma from exposure to the company’s glyphosate herbicides, such as Roundup. For more information about the lawsuits and documents released via discovery, see our Monsanto Papers page

How much glyphosate is used around the world? 

According to a February 2016 study, glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide: “In the U.S., no pesticide has come remotely close to such intensive and widespread use.” Findings include:

  • Americans applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate (or 1.6 billion kilograms) from its introduction in 1974 to 2014. 
  • Worldwide 9.5 million tons (or 8.6 billion kilograms) of the chemical has been sprayed on fields – enough to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world.
  • Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced. 

In the U.S., approximately 281 million pounds of glyphosate were applied to 298 million acres annually, on average, from 2012 to 2016, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Most glyphosate was applied to soybean (117.4 million pounds applied annually), corn (94.9 million pounds annually), and cotton (20 million pounds annually). Many citrus fruits, including grapefruit, oranges and lemons, and field crops such as soybeans, corn and cotton have  high percentages of their acres treated with glyphosate.

Approximately 24 million pounds of glyphosate are applied to non-agricultural sites annually, according to EPA.  The majority of non-agricultural use is in the homeowner market. About 5 million pounds is applied annually for residential use.

What do scientists and health care providers say about glyphosate? 

Many scientists, health care professionals and public interest groups have raised concern about the health impacts of glyphosate. Here are some key statements: 

Monsanto owner Bayer AG maintains that glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides are safe when used as directed and do not cause cancer.  “Glyphosate is one of the most studied herbicides in the world – and, like all crop protection products, it is subject to rigorous testing and oversight by regulatory authorities,” Bayer states on its website. “There is an extensive body of research on glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides…  that confirm that glyphosate and our glyphosate-based formulated products can be used safely and do not cause cancer.”  

How much glyphosate is in our bodies? 

More than 80% of urine samples drawn from children and adults in a U.S. health study contained glyphosate, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Out of 2,310 urine samples taken from Americans intended to be representative of the population, CDC found that 1,885 contained detectable levels of glyphosate. Scientists described this finding as “disturbing” and “concerning.”

A 2017 study in JAMA found that Americans’ exposure to glyphosate increased approximately 500 percent since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced in the U.S in 1996. 

While it is clear that most Americans are being exposed to glyphosate, the literature on glyphosate exposure levels, especially in children, remains limited, according to a 2020 paper in Environmental Health.  “Without more data collected in a standardized way, parsing out the potential relationship between glyphosate exposure and disease will not be possible,” the researchers concluded.

Why are corporate studies a problem? 

Regulators in Europe and the United States, Canada and elsewhere have repeatedly affirmed the corporate assertions of glyphosate safety. In making determinations about safety, these regulators have relied in part on tests that are conducted by or for the companies that have not been published or peer reviewed.  

The corporate studies have long been kept secret, even by regulators. But in Europe, litigation by a group of European Parliament lawmakers led to the release of dozens of such studies. More than 50 of those corporate studies were analyzed in 2021 by two independent scientists – Armen Nersesyan and Siegfried Knasmueller, both from the Institute of Cancer Research, Department of Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna.

The goal of the analysis was to determine if the industry studies examined comply with current international guidelines for chemical testing. 

The resulting analysis was released July 2, 2021 and concluded that the bulk of the industry studies were outdated and did not meet current guidelines. An array of shortcomings and flaws were found in the studies, rendering most of them unreliable, according to the analysis.

In fact, of the 53 studies submitted to regulators by the companies, only two were acceptable under current internationally recognized scientific standards, said Knasmueller. See more details here. 

What do scientific and regulatory agencies say about glyphosate and cancer?

The scientific literature and regulatory conclusions regarding cancer links to glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides show a mix of findings, making the safety of the herbicide a hotly debated subject. 

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” after reviewing years of published and peer-reviewed scientific studies. The team of international scientists found there was a particular association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

U.S. agencies: At the time of the IARC classification, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was conducting a registration review. The EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC) issued a report in September 2016 concluding that glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at doses relevant to human health. In December 2016, the EPA convened a Scientific Advisory Panel to review the report; members were divided in their assessment of EPA’s work, with some finding the EPA erred in how it evaluated certain research. Additionally, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development determined that EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs had not followed proper protocols in its evaluation of glyphosate, and said the evidence could be deemed to support a “likely” carcinogenic or “suggestive” evidence of carcinogenicity classification. Nevertheless the EPA issued a draft report on glyphosate in December 2017 continuing to hold that the chemical is not likely to be carcinogenic. In April 2019, the EPA reaffirmed its position that glyphosate poses no risk to public health. But earlier that same month, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reported that there are links between glyphosate and cancer. According to the draft report from ATSDR, “numerous studies reported risk ratios greater than one for associations between glyphosate exposure and risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or multiple myeloma.” The report was finalized in August 2020. 

The EPA issued an Interim Registration Review Decision in January 2020 with updated information about its position on glyphosate, continuing to hold the position that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer. In June 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected EPA’s decision that glyphosate likely poses no “unreasonable risk” to the environment and human health. EPA withdrew its interim decision in September 2022 and the agency will start over in its review. 

European Union: The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency have said glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. A March 2017 report by environmental and consumer groups argued that regulators relied improperly on research that was directed and manipulated by the chemical industry. A 2019 study found that Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment report on glyphosate, which found no cancer risk, included sections of text that had been plagiarized from Monsanto studies.  In February 2020, reports surfaced that 24 scientific studies submitted to the German regulators to prove the safety of glyphosate came from a large German laboratory that has been accused of fraud and other wrongdoing.

In June 2021, the European Union’s (EU) Assessment Group on Glyphosate (AGG) issued an 11,000-page draft report concluding that glyphosate is safe when used as directed and does not cause cancer. The finding is based in part on a dossier of roughly 1,500 studies submitted to European regulators by the “Glyphosate Renewal Group (GRG),” a collection of companies that includes Monsanto owner Bayer AG. The companies are seeking the renewal of the EU authorization of glyphosate. Current authorization in Europe expires in December 2022. The companies say they also gave regulators a “literature review” of around 12,000 published scientific articles on glyphosate.

WHO/FAO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues determined in 2016 that glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet, but this finding was tarnished by conflict of interest concerns after it came to light that the chair and co-chair of the group also held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute, a group funded in part by Monsanto and one of its lobbying organizations.

California OEHHA: On March 28, 2017, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment confirmed it would add glyphosate to California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. Monsanto sued to block the action but the case was dismissed. In a separate case, the court found that California could not require cancer warnings for products containing glyphosate. On June 12, 2018, a U.S. District Court denied the California Attorney General’s request for the court to reconsider the decision. The court found that California could only require commercial speech that disclosed “purely factual and uncontroversial information,” and the science surrounding glyphosate carcinogenicity was not proven.

Agricultural Health Study: A long-running U.S. government-backed prospective cohort study of farm families in Iowa and North Carolina has not found any connections between glyphosate use and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but the researchers reported that “among applicators in the highest exposure quartile, there was an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) compared with never users…” The most recent published update to the study was made public in late 2017.

What health problems are linked to glyphosate exposure? 

Cancer

Endocrine disruption, fertility and reproductive concerns 

Kidney disease 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded two Sri Lankan scientists, Drs. Channa Jayasumana and Sarath Gunatilake, the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for their work to “investigate a possible connection between glyphosate and chronic kidney disease under challenging circumstances.” The scientists reported that glyphosate plays a key role in transporting heavy metals to the kidneys of those drinking contaminated water, leading to high rates of chronic kidney disease in farming communities.  

The AAAS award to the scientists had been suspended amidst a fierce opposition campaign by pesticide industry allies to undermine the work of the scientists. After a review, the AAAS reinstated the award.

Liver disease 

  • A 2017 study associated chronic, very low-level glyphosate exposures to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in rats. According to the researchers, the results “imply that chronic consumption of extremely low levels of a GBH formulation (Roundup), at admissible glyphosate-equivalent concentrations, are associated with marked alterations of the liver proteome and metabolome,” the biomarkers for NAFLD.

Microbiome disruption

  • November 2020 paper in the Journal of Hazardous Materials reports that approximately 54 percent of species in the core of the human gut microbiome are “potentially sensitive” to glyphosate. With a “large proportion” of bacteria in the gut microbiome susceptible to glyphosate, the intake of glyphosate “may severely affect the composition of the human gut microbiome,” the authors said in their paper. 
  • A 2020 literature review of glyphosate’s effects on the gut microbiome concludes that, “glyphosate residues on food could cause dysbiosis, given that opportunistic pathogens are more resistant to glyphosate compared to commensal bacteria.” The paper continues, “Glyphosate may be a critical environmental trigger in the etiology of several disease states associated with dysbiosis, including celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Glyphosate exposure may also have consequences for mental health, including anxiety and depression, through alterations in the gut microbiome.”
  • A 2018 rat study conducted by the Ramazzini Institute reported that low-dose exposures to Roundup at levels considered safe significantly altered the gut microbiota in some of the rat pups.
  • Another 2018 study reported that higher levels of glyphosate administered to mice disrupted the gut microbiota and caused anxiety and depression-like behaviors.

Neurotoxicity

  • A large nationwide study published in the journal NeuroToxicology (December 2021) reports that “several neurotoxic pesticide exposures estimated using residential location were associated with statistically significant increased risk of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). These include the herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate, and the insecticides carbaryl and chlorpyrifos.” ALS is a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. 

What are the environmental impacts of glyphosate?

Harm to bees and monarch butterflies

Why are people suing Bayer over glyphosate?

More than 100,000 people have filed suit against Monsanto Company (now Bayer) alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), and that Monsanto covered up the risks. As part of the discovery process, Monsanto has had to turn over millions of pages of internal records. We are posting these Monsanto Papers as they become available. The first three trials ended in large awards to plaintiffs for liability and damages, with juries ruling that Monsanto’s weed killer was a substantial contributing factor in causing them to develop NHL. Bayer is appealing the rulings. The U.S. Supreme Court has so far upheld the rulings against Bayer. 

Monsanto influence in research

In March 2017, the federal court judge unsealed some internal Monsanto documents that raised new questions about Monsanto’s influence on the EPA process and about the research regulators rely on. The documents suggest that Monsanto’s long-standing claims about the safety of glyphosate and Roundup do not necessarily rely on sound science as the company asserts, but on efforts to manipulate the science

More information about scientific interference

Why is desiccation of wheat and other crops a problem?

Some farmers use glyphosate on non-GMO crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and lentils to dry down the crop ahead of harvest in order to accelerate the harvest. This practice, known as desiccation, may be a significant source of dietary exposure to glyphosate.

How much glyphosate is in our food? 

Despite having annual pesticide residue testing programs for more than 30 years, the USDA U.S. FDA mostly skipped testing food for glyphosate until after criticism from the Government Accountability Office in 2014. The USDA said it would start testing but then dropped the plan in 2017. Internal government documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show USDA had planned to start testing over 300 samples of corn syrup for glyphosate in April 2017; but the agency killed the project before it started. FDA began a limited testing program in 2016, but the effort was fraught with controversy and internal difficulties and the program was suspended in September 2016. The FDA did later resume limited testing. 

One FDA chemist found alarming levels of glyphosate in many samples of U.S. honey, levels that were technically illegal because there have been no allowable levels established for honey by the EPA. Here is a recap of news about glyphosate found in food:

What mixtures of glyphosate and other pesticides are in our food? 

USDA data from 2016 shows detectable pesticide levels in 85% of more than 10,000 foods sampled, everything from mushrooms to grapes to green beans. The government says there are little to no health risks, but some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. See “Chemicals on our food: When “safe” may not really be safe: Scientific scrutiny of pesticide residue in food grows; regulatory protections questioned.”

In 2020, a group of FDA scientists published a research paper  examining pesticide residue data collected from 2009-2017. The scientists said this: “In this study, results for over 56,000 human food samples collected and analyzed under the FDA pesticide residue monitoring program between fiscal years (FY) 2009 to 2017 were reviewed to identify trends not apparent in annual reports. The overwhelming majority of these samples, 98.0% of domestic and 90.9% of import human foods, were compliant with federal standards. Although herbicides may be more widely used, the 10 most frequently detected residues were insecticides and fungicides. On a yearly basis, the violation rate for imported samples is 3-5 times higher than the rate for domestic samples. The import violation rate increased over time, as did the number of residues detected. Targeted sampling of foods with higher commodity-specific violation rates appears to be a major contributor to the increased violation rate. Mismatches between US tolerances and international MRLs can lead to violations; this was especially marked for rice. Overall, the majority of violations are due to residues of pesticides not authorized for use in the US (lack of tolerances). While DDT continues to persist in the environment and was found in 2.2% of domestic samples and 0.6% of imported samples, 42.3% of DDT-positive samples were below the limit of quantitation. The trends and analyses identified in this paper may help FDA plan future sampling and continue to protect the food supply.”

Monsanto owner Bayer AG maintains that residues of glyphosate in food are not harmful at levels approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.  A 2021 paper written by longtime Bayer (former Monsanto) scientist John Vicini and published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety states that  “dietary exposures to glyphosate are within established safe limits.” 

For a complete history of the use of glyphosate, including regulatory action and inaction, scientific controversies, human and environmental impact data, read Whitewash – The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, winner of the 2018 Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

This fact sheet was updated July 13, 2022 by USRTK staff

Research contract gave Bayer control of neonics study methods, but university researchers claim full credit

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A research contract gave multinational pesticide manufacturers ample influence over pesticide research conducted at a state university.

Experts in research ethics found fault with the influence the contract gave the funders, and linked the situation to broader transparency failures in corporate-funded research.

Resulting scientific studies only acknowledged the funds the pesticide manufacturers contributed to the project, despite the contract granting them influence over the study methods. University researchers say this is because the pesticide manufacturers’ involvement was less than what was outlined in the contract.

In 2017, Bayer and Syngenta, two companies that manufacture neonicotinoid insecticides, gave $301,671 to Iowa State University (ISU) researchers for a project titled “Estimating the exposure to neonicotinoid residues in pollinator-attractive habitat adjacent to corn and soybean fields.”

Start of the 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are one of the most commonly used insecticides in the world, and are toxic to bees and other pollinators. They are systemic insecticides, which means a plant can absorb and distribute them throughout all its parts.

When the ISU researchers proposed this research, they cited existing evidence that neonics from crop fields wind up in nearby flowers, whether they are weeds or intentionally-planted pollinator refuges.

Excerpt from the problem statement of the 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU.

The research contract sought to answer whether the neonic levels in pollinator plantings, or “prairie strips”, next to crop fields were high enough to hurt pollinators. One impetus for the study was to determine whether those plantings could harm bees and butterflies by luring them to pesticide-contaminated food. Another was to assess whether it was necessary to maintain a 125-foot pesticide-free buffer around monarch butterfly breeding habitat, according to the contract.

The contract was prepared after the funders and ISU faculty discussed their shared study interests during the 2016 International Congress of Entomology, ISU News Service Director Angie Hunt said. Hunt said she was speaking on behalf of Matthew O’Neal, Joel Coats, and Steve Bradbury, all ISU faculty listed as study personnel funded by the contract.

“Those conversations led to Iowa State’s development of a research proposal to measure exposure in prairie strips, as the strips provided a location where neonics and bees would likely be found,” Hunt said. Bayer and Syngenta didn’t write the contract’s statement of work, she said:

“Iowa State University researchers drafted the statement of work; it was not a collaborative effort [with the funders].”

What the research contract allows Bayer to do

The contract let Bayer advise on the study’s methods and for its employee to assist on the “design, conduct, and interpretation of the study.”

“Specific methods from Bayer will be utilized to extract samples of pollen, nectar, leaves, water, and soil from the field sites,” the contract stated. “Samples will be stored before extraction and after extraction according to best practices provided by Bayer CropScience.”

“Extraction Procedures” section of 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU.

The methods also said that “ISU and Bayer will work together” prior to analyzing neonicotinoid residues on any samples “to select standards and receive training for the Toxicology graduate student regarding analytical methods.”

The contract empowered Bayer scientist Dan Schmehl to assist with the “design, conduct, and interpretation of the study.” Bayer employee Michael McCarville was slated to “interface with growers participating in the study.”

The contract also said that Bayer may sample farmer participant seeds, provide transit stability samples to ensure the stability of relevant analytes and metabolites in pollen and nectar samples, and train two “team members” at their North American headquarters.

Furthermore, the contract required ISU to give Bayer and Syngenta 30 days to review and comment on all prospective publications or presentations to determine if they contained any confidential information.

“If Bayer and Syngenta raise no objection within the notification period above,” then ISU could proceed, according to the contract. It also required ISU to obtain the funders’ permission before accepting federal funding or otherwise involving a federal agency in the project.

Experts flag Bayer’s control over the research 

“This isn’t really an independent university study,” -Lisa Bero

Experts say the contract gave Bayer a level of control over the research that they expected to be disclosed in the final publication. “What’s interesting here to me is, this isn’t really an independent university study because we’ve got two Bayer employees who are actually on the project. So, this is really just a joint company project that involves some university researchers,” Lisa Bero said of the contract. Bero is a professor of medicine and public health, and a chief scientist for the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at University of Colorado.

Paul Thacker, an investigative journalist specializing in research conflicts of interest, agreed. He noted the contract puts Bayer in charge of setting the standards and methods, as well as the null values for the sampling.

“[The contract] makes these guys look like they’re a lab for hire… Bayer could have hired a contract research lab to do this exact kind of research, but then it would’ve been a Bayer study. But they didn’t want it to be a Bayer study,” he said.

Although it’s common for funders to have the right to review manuscripts prior to publication, Thacker said he interprets the contract to mean that the funders could also stop publication, quoting this provision: “If Bayer and Syngenta raise no objection within the notification period above, then University has the right to proceed with public disclosure.”

“That was very worrisome,” Thacker said. He also took issue with the clause concerning federal funding. “What if [ISU] found a problem and wanted to notify the EPA? … They can’t. It’s just weird.”

Bayer’s level of influence, as outlined in the contract, ought to justify authorship or acknowledgements in resulting publications, experts said.

“Given that Bayer scientist Dan Schmehl was listed as assisting with the ‘design, conduct, and interpretation of the study’ in the contract, I think that should have been declared in the published paper. He should probably have been listed as an author for that reason, even if he did not write any of the sentences in the final paper,” Erik Millstone said. Millstone, a professor emeritus at the University of Sussex, researches the causes and consequences of scientific and technological change in the food and agricultural sectors and has studied corporate influence on science and policy.

Bero agreed.

“They have very significant roles in the project,” she said of Bayer’s Schmehl and McCarville.

McCarville’s stated role, although smaller, is significant, she said.

“If this is analogous to a clinical trial, he’s kind of like the person enrolling patients in the trial,” Bero said. “Maybe he wouldn’t appear as an author, but he would certainly be acknowledged, as he interfaces with the growers.”

Studies referred to Bayer and Syngenta only as funders

So far, the ISU team has produced two scientific publications related to the contract. Both say the work was funded by a grant from Bayer and Syngenta.

The 2020 paper in Molecules, a MDPI publication, describes a method the ISU researchers used to analyze pollen and leaf tissue samples for neonics. The paper explicitly says, “The authors declare no conflict of interest. The funders had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results.”

The Conflict of Interest statement on the ISU team’s 2020 paper

It mentions that Bayer provided the analytical chemical standards for the analysis.

The 2022 paper, in Agriculture, Ecosystems, and the Environment, an Elsevier publication, describes the levels of various neonics they found in cropland-adjacent soil and leaf tissue, including milkweed, and determines that the levels were not high enough to hurt monarch butterfly larvae. It says the authors have “no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.”

The Funding, Conflict of Interest, and Acknowledgements sections of the ISU team’s 2022 paper.

Neither publication names Schmehl, McCarville, or any other contributions Bayer made besides funding and the analytical standards.

ISU describes Bayer’s contributions to the study

According to ISU, Bayer’s methodological and logistical contributions were less than what’s described in the contract, and that’s why neither publication mentions Bayer in any context other than funding and providing analytical samples.

“The grant lists a limited range of methodological options that could be used if considered necessary. Bayer’s contributions were limited to technical advice to ensure methods were within industry standards,” Hunt said.

What parts of the contract that cited Bayer’s involvement were utilized?

“While the Iowa State University team was informed of Bayer’s analytical chemistry and sampling techniques, the analytical method published by Hall et al. 2020 was developed solely by Hall and others at Iowa State. Sample collection and storage followed generally accepted practices,” Hunt said. “Dan Schmehl provided training on how to extract pollen and nectar from individual bees.”

Hunt said ISU was not aware of Michael McCarville interacting with any growers, despite his mention in the contract.

Bayer also provided analytical standard samples for ISU’s chemical analysis, she confirmed. But Bayer did not conduct their own analyses of farmer participants’ treated seeds, nor did ISU use the transit stability samples that Bayer provided for them, Hunt said. ISU researchers did visit Bayer’s headquarters in 2017 to present their study proposal and tour Bayer’s bee research facility, she said.

ISU said Schmehl provided training to extract pollen and nectar from bees, and advised on industry standards expected by the EPA. But U.S. Right to Know obtained an email thread from April 2018 in which O’Neal asked Schmehl whether they should include a certain site in the second year of their study, since it was using chlorantraniliprole, a non-neonic seed treatment.

Schmehl responded: “You are correct that we will not use chlorantraniliprole since this is not within scope for the methods developed to screen for the neonics.”

Schmehl then asked for the scope of the second year’s project scope and budget so Bayer could work on extending the funding agreement for another year.

“As soon as sites and scope are confirmed, I want to get our team in contact with your contract department so that we can extend our agreement from last year to a second year and get this project officially funded for you. What is the latest on corn planting? Are the sites proposed for the continuation of our study prepared for our use?” Schmehl asked the researchers.

“The email you referenced was a conversation about the scope of future work, not a request for technical contribution to the research,” Hunt said when asked why the researchers sought Schmehl’s advice on sampling sites, and what other matters he advised on.

Bayer spokesperson Kyel Richard did not respond when asked to name Schmehl’s and Bayer’s specific contributions to the methodology.

“University researchers play an invaluable role in ensuring growers can use agriculture technologies safely, sustainably, and effectively. We have a long history of working alongside and supporting university researchers – this kind of university/company collaboration is very common and important across science-based industries,” he said in a statement.

“We stand behind our work with university researchers, and as a science-based company we are committed to transparency and independence of science.

“Depending on the research project, companies can contribute to the work of university researchers in a variety of ways, including by providing resources (e.g., funding, products, equipment) or with more involved support (e.g., making nonbinding proposals for study design, data collection, data analysis). Importantly, the researchers remain in control of the project at all times, including any results. According to good scientific publication practice, it is important to us that researchers properly acknowledge our contributions in scientific publications just as they appropriately acknowledge the contributions of every other participant.”

Richard referred to Bayer’s statements on transparency. Under “Transparency for our Scientific Collaborations,” the company says they “publicly disclose new contract-based scientific collaborations with universities, public research institutions and individuals in Germany via the Bayer Science Collaboration Explorer (BSCE).”

That database “has successfully piloted in Germany, and we will include data on scientific collaborations in the United States in the near future,” Richard said.

However, there have been cases when the chemical industry has obscured the full extent of its role in scientific studies. For example, internal Monsanto documents released during litigation over the human health impacts of the glyphosate-based herbicide called Roundup, showed the company engaged in ghostwriting, or secretly authoring journal articles that were supposedly authored by academic researchers. Bayer acquired Monsanto in 2018.

Did Bayer’s role in methodology merit disclosure?

There is a discrepancy between what Bayer was contractually bound to provide, and the acknowledgement of their role in the published studies, Thacker said. “Either [ISU] violated the contract or they violated the acknowledgements. Those two things don’t match,” he said.

“No one who would pick up the studies would have any clue of Bayer’s legally acknowledged involvement.”

The contract itself, Thacker said, is a legally binding document, quoting: “University will conduct the testing in strict compliance with the Project and agrees not to deviate from the Project unless agreed by all parties. University will strictly conform to all regulations which may apply to its activities in the framework of the Project.” If ISU didn’t plan to follow the contract’s work designations, Thacker said, “why put it in there?”

MDPI conflict of interest guidelines state that authors must disclose “any personal circumstances or interest that may be perceived as influencing the representation or interpretation of reported research results,” and “Any role of the funding sponsors in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results must be declared in this section.”

MDPI’s authorship guidelines state that authorship should be granted to someone who substantially contributes to the study concept or design, or data collection, analysis or interpretation, drafts or revises the publication, approves the final version of the publication, and accepts accountability for all aspects of the work. “Those who contributed to the work but do not qualify for authorship should be listed in the acknowledgments.”

Elsevier’s guidelines require a statement on the role of the publication’s sponsors in study design, data collection, analysis, or interpretation, report writing, and decision to submit the article for publication. “If the funding source(s) had no such involvement, it is recommended to state this.”

Editors for Molecules and Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment, as well as the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) did not return requests for comment about their conflict of interest standards.

“ISU seems to be indicating… that Bayer had a much lesser role than indicated in the contract,” Bero said. She said that it could be hard for an editor of a publication to determine whether ISU’s disclosure was adequate based on the available information.

“It is very difficult to know what the truth is,” she said.

No disclosure of concurrent grants from the same companies

Aside from the question of disclosing Bayer’s methodological contributions, the ISU researchers apparently did not disclose the other funding they were receiving concurrently from Bayer and Syngenta.

Elsevier recommends that authors declare any financial interests or relationships within the last three years related to the subject matter but not directly to the manuscript.

According to O’Neal’s CV, he received a separate $8,000 grant from Syngenta in 2019. O’Neal was also part of a Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) grant (2018-2021) that received matching funds from agrichemical companies, including Bayer and Syngenta. Although outside of the Elsevier publication’s three-year window, O’Neal and two colleagues also received a $539,913 grant from Monsanto between 2015 and 2018.

According to Bradbury’s CV, he was a part of the same 2018-2021 FFAR grant with matching agrichemical industry funds as O’Neal. He received $45,000 from Bayer, Syngenta, and Dupont between 2017 and 2018 to fund an IPM conference, and accepted $98,850 from Monsanto from 2018-2021 for a monarch butterfly study.

Dr. Coats has not publicly updated his CV since 2014, but Bradbury’s CV lists him on the $98,950 Monsanto grant from 2018-2021.

The grants that fell within the three year window of publication should have been disclosed, Bero said.

Millstone said the authors may have provided “all the information that was formally required by that journal, but not all the information that could be relevant, and maybe not all the information that Elsevier asserts authors should declare.”

“If they had agreed and signed other contracts, that should have been disclosed under Elsevier’s rules,” he added.

ISU said that “the authors provided the appropriate disclosures applicable to the research” when asked why they didn’t disclose Bayer’s “technical advice” contributions, or whether they notified the publishers of the other grants they received from the funders within the three-year window.

Other conflicts of interest

The potential benefits of this research to Bayer and Syngenta are visible to Thacker.

“It’s Bayer. Their job is to sell pesticides, it’s not to save butterflies,” he said.

The research questions could be interpreted as motivated by a concern for potential litigation or regulation, he said.

“Is [the research out of] concern that you’re harming butterflies, or is it concern that you’re going to get an expanded buffer or pesticide ban,” he said.

Pesticide-free buffers mean less land available for pesticide application, he noted.

Dr. Millstone said he’s observed a pattern in his work, in which industry-sponsored studies “purporting to put some industrial product or process in the clear are cunningly contrived to produce as favorable results as possible while also cunningly concealing the fact that it’s so contrived.”

“You decide what answers you want and you contrive a methodology to give you the answer you want, then you report your methodology as if that is the only sensical thing to do in the first place,” he said.

When asked whether Bayer’s role in the study constituted a conflict of interest, Hunt said that all ISU participants in the study complied with the university’s conflict of interest and commitment policy.

Further grants

Bayer awarded the ISU researchers $96,302 in April 2018, a year after the first grant was signed, to continue the sample collection and chemical analysis started in 2017. The 2018 grant had all the same stipulations involving Bayer as the 2017 grant, except it no longer referred to Bayer’s transit stability samples, or funding for training opportunities at Bayer headquarters.

In 2019, the team received a third yearlong grant of $90,000 from Syngenta and BASF to focus further on pollen and nectar collection. The 2019 grant does not mention any methodological contributions from the funders.

A future manuscript from the ISU team will analyze “pollen and nectar collected by bees (A. mellifera and Bombus spp.) within these prairie strips” for neonics, according to the group’s 2022 Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment paper.

This work’s relation to broader patterns of corporate-funded research

“Why on earth did the companies bother to go to the university academics and ask them to do the work rather than simply doing it themselves?” Millstone asked. “They’ve got the technological capability, in fact, in some respects they’ve got more technology and resources than the academics have.”

“I think the companies Bayer and Syngenta were funding this to try to give an illusion of independence and objectivity to the study.” – Erik Millstone

“I think the companies Bayer and Syngenta were funding this to try to give an illusion of independence and objectivity to the study,” Millstone said.

What does it mean for academic literature when corporate influence or conflicts of interest are not adequately disclosed?

“Corporate sponsors want to guide the selection of questions that researchers study, and then they try to influence which data are collected, how those data are interpreted, and which conclusions are reached,” Millstone said.

“Having invested in generating reassuring narratives about their products, those studies are fed into policy-making institutions, like the FDA and EPA,” he said, while corporations are also influencing those agencies’ scientists, as well as the policymakers regulating their products.

“The net result is a regime in which the protection of public and environmental health is compromised and undermined to benefit corporate and commercial interests.”

U.S. Right to Know obtained the documents for this report through an Iowa Open Records Law request to Iowa State University.

Abbe Hamilton is an investigative reporter covering neonicotinoid science and policy for U.S. Right to Know.

Documents referenced in this piece include:

The 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU

ISU’s 2020 paper in Molecules

ISU’s 2022 Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment paper

Matching funds documents from a Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research grant to researchers including O’Neal and Bradbury that ran 2018-2021

A 2018 email thread between Bayer’s Dan Schmehl and Matt O’Neal

Bayer pressured researchers over neonic study results, but researchers pushed back

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Agrichemical giant Bayer helped fund a study by university academics, then pressured them to omit photos that implicated a defective insecticide-treated seed product as a threat to bees, according to communications obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

Several seed and insecticide companies, including Bayer, paid Ohio State University researchers to determine how much their insecticide-coated seed products affected bees during corn planting season in 2014 and 2015. After the researchers presented their preliminary results to “stakeholders,” which included funders, a Bayer official asked that their final report exclude photos of insecticide-coated corn seeds in which the product appeared defective. He also urged the researchers to qualify statements in the final report that discussed threats to bee health in ways that benefited Bayer’s corporate interests.

One of the seeds Johnson and Watters photographed after they observed insecticidal coatings flaking off in the field in 2015.

Although the photos and all the researchers’ conclusions ultimately made it to the final publication, internal emails show the seed and chemical industry funders intensely scrutinizing the researchers’ findings during pre-publication presentations. The study’s funding contract allowed funders to review and comment on findings prior to publication, and required pre-approval for any press releases or sharing of results.

This situation serves as an example of how agrichemical companies attempted to influence scientific research at a public university. Emails show how an industry funder tried to control and spin researchers’ results. Internal communications and research contracts are elements of sponsored research that are typically hidden from the public, but in this case, they provide insight into corporate sponsors’ involvement in the research process.

Concerns about bee deaths 

The main funders of this research were chemical companies that manufacture neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely-used insecticide. Neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, are often  delivered to crops via a colorful coating on the seed. Neonics are systemic, which means the seed grows into a plant containing the insecticide throughout, so it kills any bug that bites it. Since they are insecticides, neonics are also toxic to bees and other beneficial pollinator insects.

The companies manufacturing neonics have been trying to shape the narrative about bees and insecticides for more than a decade, as concerns have grown about harm to bees.

In 2008, there was a major honey bee die-off in Germany that researchers traced back to the planting of neonic-coated seeds. The coatings were flaking off the seeds as tractors drove around in the fields towing corn planters, which are mechanical devices that plant corn seeds one at a time into the ground. The mechanical planting process churned up clouds of neonic-imbued dust that killed bees. Bayer said it was a bad batch of seed, and they released a paper the following year announcing they would retrain seed manufacturers, improve the coating ingredients, and develop dust-cutting modifications for planters. But a 2012 Purdue University paper listed neonic-contaminated dust from corn planters as a route of neonic exposure for bees. Canada was able to link bee deaths to corn and soybean planting events in 2012 and 2013.

The next year, the nonprofit Pollinator Partnership formed the Crop Dust Research Consortium (CDRC), which funded research to determine the best practices for minimizing honey bee exposure to seed dust. Its funders included companies such as Bayer, Syngenta, and BASF, all of which manufacture insecticidal seed coatings; trade groups with direct financial interests in neonic-coated seeds; and beekeeping and agricultural interest groups.

The CDRC said that its goal across all research objectives was to “produce peer-reviewed published papers to advance the understanding of the issue through open and transparent oversight.” Its material explicitly said the research was not intended as an endorsement of seed treatment, neonics, or any other specific practice. One of its objectives was to test a new lubricant Bayer developed that was intended to contain the coatings better than existing lubricants.

In 2014, the CDRC granted $157,224 to Dr. Reed Johnson and agronomist Harold Watters of Ohio State University. The researchers were to characterize bee visits to flowers around cornfields during spring planting to figure out how to reduce pesticide exposure during those visits, and to test how well various seed lubricants reduced dust. In 2015, CDRC granted the lab an additional $145,000 to continue the research.  In addition, the researchers were to investigate the long-term health consequences of bee colonies exposed to insecticide-contaminated dust from corn planters, and the efficacy of the CDRC’s recommendations in preventing bee exposure to planter dust. Researchers in Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, and Ontario also received funding.

Johnson and Watters determined there was very little difference in the amount of neonic dust generated by different kinds of corn planters, and that Bayer’s new lubricant didn’t outperform the other lubricants. This conclusion was published in the CDRC final report in 2017. Johnson and Watters also documented higher neonic levels in bee-collected pollen, and an uptick in bee deaths during corn planting season. However, they didn’t find evidence that the contaminated pollen killed the bees (bees could have died by direct exposure to the planter dust) and the neonic exposures didn’t appear to impact longer-term colony strength or overwintering success. They published these conclusions in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in 2020, in addition to the CDRC final report.

The conversations leading up to publication show that, although the researchers ultimately published all their findings, they first had to respond to funders who had a financial interest in the results as they reviewed and suggested changes to their report.

The flaky seed coating ordeal

During corn planting, Johnson and Watters noticed the insecticidal coating on their seeds was visibly flaking off, so they sampled the seeds after they’d been rattling around in the planting hopper for 15 minutes to an hour. They later photographed a few seeds from every sample. The photos showed the seeds were losing a lot of their insecticidal coating before they went into the ground. Johnson and Watters included these photos in a November 2015 presentation to the Entomological Society of America and a contractually-required December 2015 presentation to CDRC stakeholders.

By January, the CDRC’s industry-affiliated stakeholders began to take intense interest. In emails from January through November of 2016, they asked Watters and Johnson for minute details about their research conditions, remarked that the seeds looked unusually bad, and suggested conducting more studies to replicate the phenomenon.

“I can’t explain the photos taken by OSU,” wrote David Fischer, the director of pollinator science for Bayer, prior to a July 2016 presentation of the Ohio State team’s preliminary results. “I’d like to know more about the seed treatment quality. … So much of the seed treatment has been eroded from these seeds I don’t see how any pest control efficacy could be achieved. In past studies, the amount of active ingredient removed from the seed is usually less than 2%. The seeds from the OSU study look to be 30% or more.”

While Fischer insisted the findings were an outlier, Watters defended his research and said the coating problems he observed were likely typical in the field, in an interview with U.S. Right to Know.

One important distinction is that most of the prior experiments Fischer referenced were conducted on small plots, Watters said.

“Frequently when we do corn trials in small plots we use a length of 17 feet 5 inches – because in a 30-inch row this is 1/1,000th of an acre. It makes calculations for yield very easy. I do not use this for most of my work because I feel it is too small to get world/reality check as to accuracy,” he said. “A typical farm field is 40, 80, 160 or perhaps 320 acres in size. My work was done in these typically sized farm fields.”

Furthermore, Johnson and Watters’ research was conducted on working farmers’ fields, using the coated seed the grower already planned to use for that field.

“The seed came off the typical commercial lots sold to farmers,” Watters said. “So hybrid, company of origin, maturity, etc. would have been at random – we made no prior plans on seed, only what field we were in and with what grower.”

Ultimately, Watters said they observed degraded seed coatings at random throughout the study.

“Our observations were totally random and as a conclusion I would expect similar seed coat breakage to happen everywhere,” he said.

At least one stakeholder on the conference calls told Watters and Johnson that getting seed treatments to stick to corn seeds is difficult as a rule, Watters said.

“This was apparently not unexpected for at least that one person.”

“I think there was an understanding that this is probably a component of the problem: the quality of the coating maybe was not as good as the seed casing they were producing in their own facilities,” Johnson said, referencing an American Seed Trade Association top lobbyist asking about how the seeds had been stored and under what circumstances they’d been purchased. But he said he believed the scrutiny was coming from industry affiliates’ interest in identifying what to fix. “I think they genuinely wanted to solve this problem,” he said.

“The recollection I have is they couldn’t believe that there were actually flakes of the seed coating coming off of the seed,” Watters said when asked about the emailed exchanges. “The seed coats did crack. We collected material in the field, we had sticky traps… there were chunks of the seed coat that were coming off as the seed was being planted.”

Although he engaged with the questions from the industry stakeholders, Watters said he remained firm in his testimony.

“I’m comfortable with the remarks I made with them that these were the results I saw,” he said.

Watters also found a 2013 review from Belgium that documented similar seed coat loss. He wrote to Johnson in August 2016 that “apparently it is not unheard of… and should not be a surprise.”

Bayer’s David Fischer asks for changes in the report

In advance of a conference call with other research stakeholders in July 2016, Bayer’s Fischer wrote to the group:

“Bayer has very significant concerns about the inclusion in the CDRC report of the photographs of seeds with severely eroded seed coatings that are shown in Fig 10 of the report from Ohio State University, especially the photo characterized as “typical” example of what seeds look like after passing through a planter. Many BCS [Bayer Crop Science] personnel have seen these photos and consider them completely atypical of anything they’ve seen in their experience.”

Fischer went on to say that Bayer’s internal studies yielded very different results, where the coating stayed on nearly perfectly after passing through a planter. Fischer then asked for further studies and interpretations on the matter.

The CDRC final report indicates which seed companies sold the seeds used in Johnson and Watters’ study (Beck’s, Dekalb/Monsanto, Master’s Choice and Stewart’s) but no information explicitly named which seed coating manufacturer’s product was on those seeds. Although three seed coating manufacturers were represented in the CDRC’s stakeholder group (Syngenta, BASF, and Bayer), Bayer’s David Fischer dominates the communications obtained by USRTK.

After the meeting, Fischer sent Johnson several pages of comments in which he asked for Johnson to remove the photos, and asked him to qualify several statements pertaining to bee health.

Despite this, conclusions remained unchanged between the June 2016 draft that Fischer commented on and the final report, aside from one statement that Johnson added to qualify the observed uptick in bee deaths: “The increase in adult mortality, however, would not be expected based on the concentrations of seed treatment insecticide measured in bulk pollen samples.”

In other words, it clarified that pesticide concentrations in the pollen were too low to adequately explain the bee deaths they observed.

“The insecticide was probably not evenly distributed throughout the pollen,” Johnson explained, referring to it as “the toxic chocolate chip cookie hypothesis.”

“There were these little chunks of the seed treatments and if the bee got that chunk, it was gonna die. But overall, the concentration, if you averaged it all together, was still below the level that was expected to kill bees,” he said in an interview with U.S. Right to Know.

Although Fisher’s requests appeared to elicit little change in the report, he asked for many changes: With regards to the flaky seed coatings, he called for a dedicated study to determine whether OSU’s seeds met industry standards, but noted that might be impossible for the specific batch of seeds that had been used in Johnson’s study.

“So the quality of the seed treatment of the seeds used in the OSU study is an uncertainty. Given this uncertainty, I would suggest that the photographs of abraded seeds be removed from the report, or at least a clear statement made that indicates the quality of the treatment of these seeds is unknown,” Fischer wrote. “Figure 10, showing the photos of seeds with a large amount of the seed treatment eroded as a result of planter abrasion is problematic. There are no data backing up the statement that the photo on the left represents a typical seed after passing through a planter. Also, the amount of a.i. [active ingredient] remaining on the seed hasn’t been determined. These photos have the potential to mislead the reader regarding the amount of a.i. lost due to dust abrasion. These photos should be deleted from the report.”

Fischer further suggested qualifiers and changes to the report, such as removing the word “elevated” from “[neonic] residues are reliably detected at elevated levels (8 ppb above background on average).” This suggestion was ignored.

Fischer also suggested that Johnson contextualize the neonicotinoid levels he found in pollen that bees had collected by discussing their risk to bee health. He provided several paragraphs of analysis and a diagram to that extent.

“The residue levels measured DO NOT indicate any appreciable risk to honey bees, and DO NOT explain the acute mortality observed in the study.  The above analysis should be included in the report. Without it, the reader might mistakenly think that the residue measurements DO explain the mortality observed.” (Emphasis Fischer’s.) This appears to be the one area where Johnson et al added a sentence to emphasize the above fact, although Fischer’s diagram was not included in the final report.

Fischer also wrote to Johnson about the bee deaths documented in the research.

“It is important that the CDRC report emphasizes that the level of mortality documented in this study was low, and had no observed effect on colony development or viability.” he said.

Fischer went on to tell Johnson that one of his conclusions, that removing flowering weeds is unlikely to reduce pesticide exposure to bees, “needs to be considered speculative, because the risk to bees was very low regardless of the landscape conditions in this study.” This was ignored in Johnson’s section of the final report.

Fischer also told Johnson that “the number of trials is too few to draw the definitive conclusions” his lab made about the relative efficacy of Bayer’s seed planting lubricant.

Johnson responded to Fischer’s comments in an email to Pollinator Partnership staff two days later.

“Clearly, the photos of seeds have struck a nerve. I’d be very reluctant to remove the photos entirely, but I think David Fischer does have valid concerns,” he wrote.

When asked in an interview about what Fischer asked him to do, Johnson said he thought Fischer didn’t want the pictures to be highlighted in the report.

“I pushed back,” Johnson said, because he believed the degraded seed coatings could be an important factor in the questions the CDRC sought to answer. However, Johnson acknowledged that he didn’t know much about coated seeds, and Fischer’s concerns seemed valid if the seeds he’d photographed had been a fluke. He largely disregarded Fischer’s suggested edits, though, besides adding the line about how the average insecticide levels were lower than lethal in the pollen samples.

“I think we were happy with the conclusions we had come to. I guess we disagreed with what David Fischer had suggested,” he said, “except on that one point.”

Did Johnson think this exchange was an overstep on Fischer’s part?

“I think that was his role to play in this group, and he did it,” Johnson said.

When asked whether he thought several stakeholders’ commercial interests in coated seeds affected the discussion of his study results, Johnson said he thought their presence was productive.

“It was interesting because they definitely came at this with their point of view, which was expected,” he said.

They were engaged on the conference calls and there was sometimes genuine disagreement, he said, about things like the efficacy of the lubricants, the mechanism of bee exposure to neonics, and whether weed control was a good approach to mediate the effects of seed treatment dust.

But the group was well-mediated, and it was “really exciting” to be on calls with the very people who had the ability to make changes and solve the problem, he said.

“In many ways they’re the prime audience for this research. I felt the discussions were quite productive. I always had it in my mind they were coming at it with their point of view,” he said, adding that he freely presented the study’s results to many audiences, and the chapter he submitted to the CDRC final report was published with all data and conclusions intact.

Funder/researcher interactions consistent with funding contracts

The funding contracts Johnson signed in 2014 and 2015 specify an obligation to share results with the funders before publication. “The Corn Dust Research Consortium has been formed to review proposals and oversee the project execution, including review and comment on study protocols, draft reports and presentation materials prior to their execution and public release. Final decisions on technical interpretation of the study findings and content of study reports, publications and presentations will be made by study personnel,” read the CDRC request for proposals. Both contracts Johnson signed contained provisions that all press releases and release of research results must be pre-approved by the Pollinator Partnership. Furthermore, “Research data is not to be released outside of the CDRC group without an agreed upon date between P2 [Pollinator Partnership] and the principal investigator,” the contracts read, with a suggested date soon after that of each contract’s expiration.

The contracts explicitly encouraged “photography or videography documentation from the onset of methods, experimental plots locations and in field activity for use in explaining the methodology and illustrating observations.”

“That was one of the expectations going into this project… they said they would let us publish whatever we wanted,” Johnson said. When asked about the contract’s pre-approval clause, he said that only factored in during the length of the contract. “They were actively encouraging us to publish our results,” he said.

Dr. Quinn Grundy is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, who studies corporate influence in health and health research. She said elements of this situation at Ohio State are “really familiar” to what she sees in the medically-related industries.

Overall, the CDRC contract “sounds pretty standard” to Grundy:  “I think, in most cases, sponsors ask for updates or the ability to comment or to approve publication,” she said.

However, the clause in the CDRC contract requiring  pre-approval of press releases isn’t ideal: “It definitely raises red flags for me, and I think in an ideal world the sponsor would have no role in approving the output of sponsored research, but unfortunately I think it’s pretty common. Usually the clause is something like the sponsor has the right to see, but can’t block publication or overrule the researchers, in the decision to publish,” she said.

It’s “so important” that contracts explicitly state a researcher’s ability to publish their research regardless of the results, Grundy said, particularly for early career scientists.

Grundy also noted that the CDRC is one instance of many where corporations have obscured their research contributions by providing them through a foundation or trade organization. Such entities might have “innocuous and nice sounding names,” Grundy said, but are “actually representing the pooled contributions of several commercial or corporate entities with an interest in shaping the direction of a research agenda.”

It can be hard for an average reader to identify conflicts of interest in a system that relies on voluntary disclosures from researchers, Grundy said. Structural or policy interventions might be necessary to eliminate bias or funder influence.  “It sounds like [Johnson and Watters] in fact did the right thing, but could have benefited from more supports to ensure the independence and integrity of their work which… has some pretty powerful implications for not only bees, but all of us that depend on bees,” she said.

One beekeeper stakeholder’s perspective on chemical industry influence

Iowa Beekeeper Manley Bigalk was appointed a CDRC stakeholder on behalf of the American Beekeeping Federation, a beekeeping industry interest group. He said that the chemical company stakeholders contributed more funds and had a more central role in discussions.

“So I was a stakeholder for, I forget what was pledged, $300 or $700 or something like that. Well, the companies were in there for hundreds of thousands because they were sponsoring the tests,” Bigalk said.

“A chemical company running grants to find out if their chemicals are active? Might be a little bit of a conflict of interest there. But a lot of the research today is funded by these people even at the universities,” he said. “And they have the money.” Bigalk spoke about the way he saw the main sponsors, the chemical company stakeholders, attempt to shape the scope of the study and the content of the report. “There never was a full admission there was dust in the air, to tell you the truth,” he said. Bigalk also noted they left certain critical details out of the CDRC’s final report. “Wouldn’t you think,” he said, if the study sought to address beekeeper complaints about toxic corn dust, “ …that you would have some evidence of things that now have been corrected? Or evidence that it does kill bees? Wouldn’t you think?”

Although Bigalk saw the project through from start to finish, another beekeeping interest group representative grew so disheartened with the CDRC that he dropped out of the partnership. Randy Verhoek attended a couple meetings on behalf of the American Honey Producers Association, but dropped out after hearing the group arrive at conclusions he didn’t agree with,  American Honey Producers Association president Chris Hiatt confirmed.

“It was really a strange experience. And for more ways than one,” Bigalk said. In one of the very first stakeholder meetings, Bigalk said he suggested the seed coating dust could be remediated with a different polymer that would stick better to corn seed. “That comment was made and there was no response and they went on to something else,” he said. That surprised him, he said, since a small chemical vendor had readily mentioned the coating problem to Bigalk previously.

Johnson’s team stands their ground

Several days after Johnson responded to Fischer’s feedback, Pollinator Partnership personnel scheduled a phone conversation with Johnson, then convened another conference call in November specifically to talk about the seed coating issue.

During that call, minutes obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Fischer said that “chunks coming off seeds do not affect the bees as much as the pollen-sized seed coating that comes off,” to which then-Pollinator Partnership Executive Director Laurie Davies Adams responded that big chunks of insecticidal coating could still affect the water quality on the site.

Meeting minutes show one seed company representative, Beck’s Hybrids manager Jim Herr, suggested throwing out the worst-looking photo. “In trying to understand how this could have happened, it seems that this one photo (picture 2. B-F) was an extreme scenario so it may not be the best to include in a report.”

The CDRC final report included 14 photos of the degraded seeds, including the contested “extreme” photo mentioned above.

“All examined corn seeds showed signs of seed treatment degradation, varying in severity,” the report reads. The photo caption says that “seeds varied in the perceived integrity of the coating, but most showed signs [of] particle generation. In an extreme case, we found one seed that had almost no coating left on it (B2), though this was the only example we noticed of such extensive degradation.”

In an early November email exchange, Watters and Johnson expressed their “exhaustion” on the topic to one another.

“However I get the sense there may be some appetite for funding additional research? Hard to say,” Johnson wrote.

Ultimately, Johnson said that he didn’t conduct any of the further studies that had been suggested. “I would really have loved to follow up,” he said.

He described a study he wanted to do where he’d use a dust meter to measure the amount of coating flaking off of the seeds, but it was “actually quite difficult” to access the necessary equipment, the CDRC didn’t offer any further funding opportunities, and eventually, Johnson moved on.

“I’m a honey bee researcher, and I finally made the decision that this is really getting too far afield,” he said.

Other issues with the final CDRC report

Starting in January 2017, the Pollinator Partnership circulated a draft of their final report, which was meant to summarize the study results and make final recommendations for mitigating planter dust contamination. Members of Johnson’s lab internally expressed disdain for the long list of recommendations to farmers, beekeepers, pesticide and equipment manufacturers, seed dealers, regulators, and educators. They were particularly irked that the report made recommendations to beekeepers, whose practices were not the focus of the study.

“I’m genuinely offended that the farmers and beekeepers are the first groups to be addressed, as though they bear the primary responsibility for this issue,” a lab member whose name was redacted told Johnson when he asked them what they thought of the conclusions.

When submitting comments on the report’s final draft in April, Johnson wrote, “I don’t recall anyone doing research on supplemental feeding or providing water or placement of hives around a field. I realize this leaves you with no bolded recommendations for beekeepers, but generating recommendations for beekeepers really wasn’t a focus of the research,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, the CDRC’s final report featured bolded recommendations for beekeepers.

Furthermore, the report’s overall conclusions recommended that farmers remove flowering vegetation within fields “through tillage, mowing or use of herbicides where appropriate” prior to planting, despite Johnson’s chapter recommending against that. Johnson said he believes some of the above discrepancies came from the fact that, although the 2017 report only contained the final year of each university team’s research data, the report’s overall conclusions attempted to synthesize three years of sometimes conflicting conclusions made by the different university research groups.

Johnson believes that Pollinator Partnership staff drafted the overall conclusions. Pollinator Partnership did not respond to a request to confirm this.

The aftermath

“My conclusion is that, at the end of this project our major conclusion was that it was really a quality control issue… and the seed treatment wasn’t adhering well to the seed,” Johnson said.

He said he believes that the seed coating formulation changed in the years since his study.

“I don’t get any calls about bees dying during corn planting anymore,” he said, compared to many calls in 2012 and 2013, and he detects lower insecticide concentrations in pollen during planting season nowadays. “It seems that this problem has been solved one way or another,” he said. “I think [the research] reached an audience who needed to see it.”

“I still don’t…like these insecticidal seed treatments, for a whole variety of reasons,” Johnson said. “The bee issues are just one of them. The fact that they’re not really very effective at pest control is another major issue here. But they do seem to have solved it causing mass bee kills from dust off like it did in these years.”

The CDRC research did not signify the end of neonic contamination issues, however, Bigalk said.

“They made the steps to research the corn dust situation. But in many ways, it just stopped short of showing the full toxic effect of neonics on what we call beneficial insects,” he said, or on aquatic organisms.

Bigalk said he believes the participating chemical companies corrected the flaky seed coating formula, as Johnson suspects. He also believes that mechanical dust control kits, which farmers can attach to corn planters, have helped to reduce dust since the CDRC was formed.

“We have controlled a great amount of that dust,” he said.

Although Bigalk had a large bee kill prior to the formation of the CDRC, he hasn’t had anything like it in the years since, he said. But he said problems from the “abuse of chemicals” persist.

“But with the things affecting honey bees today during the summer months and into the winter, we don’t have outright kills…. we’ve got this invisible negative influence that are coming into the hive and are just disrupting many, many things. And it’s a subtle thing,” Bigalk said, which might manifest in a colony’s queen dying or never returning to the hive after going out to mate.  “My word, there’s such a dramatic change in colony health today compared to what it was 30 years ago. 40 years ago,” he said. Although parasitic Varroa and tracheal mites hurt colony health, Bigalk said they’re not the only bee stressor at play.  “There are beekeepers out there without any elevated number of Varroa mites that are suffering greatly. It’s invisible…. Invisible negative influences from abuse of chemicals,” he said.

Just last year, Nebraska regulators closed down the AltEn LLC ethanol plant after the neonic coatings on the seeds the plant processed caused widespread environmental contamination.

Bigalk is a farmer as well as a beekeeper. He said he’s aware that neonicotinoids are applied to far more acres than actually need treatment.

“It’s abusive use,” he said.

However, he still allows them to be applied on his own land, in part to make things less complicated for his neighbors, since their fields are planted with the same equipment.

“I would surely prefer not having it on, but it doesn’t work out that well when you’re in a custom [planting] situation,” he said.

The Pollinator Partnership did not respond to requests for comment on this story. A Bayer representative informed USRTK that David Fischer has retired. The representative did not respond to requests for comment.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the documents for this report through an Ohio Public Records Act request to Ohio State University, and by asking Dr. Johnson directly for certain additional communications.

Abbe Hamilton is an investigative reporter covering corporate influence on neonicotinoid science and policy for U.S. Right to Know.

Alison Van Eenennaam: key outside spokesperson and lobbyist for the agrichemical and GMO industries

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Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a Professor of Cooperative Extension in Animal Biotechnology and Genomics at University of California, Davis, is a leading promoter of genetically engineered animals, crops and the pesticides that accompany them, and an advocate for deregulation.

Dr. Van Eenennaam argues GE animals should not be subject to pre-market safety reviews or labels.

Dr. Van Eenennaam is a former Monsanto employee who opposes requiring safety studies for genetically engineered animals and holds several patents involving genetic engineering. Her lab experiments include using CRISPR, a genetic engineering technique, to eliminate the horns of dairy cows and breed “all-male terminator cattle” to father only male offspring — a project she calls “Boys Only.” A proposal by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require safety and efficacy studies for genetically engineered animals is “insane,” according to Dr. Van Eenennaam.

See also: Wall Street Journal (12.14.18),  Big Tongues and Extra Vertebrae: The Unintended Consequences of Animal Gene Editing 

Although often presented in the media as an independent scientist, Dr. Van Eenennaam coordinates with agrichemical companies and their PR firms on messaging, lobbying and PR activities, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library.

She is also a member of the board of directors of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a corporate funded front group that engages in product defense efforts for the largest food and chemical companies. For more information about IFIC see:

  • March 2022 study in Globalization and Health, “Confronting potential food industry ‘front groups’: case study of the international food information Council’s nutrition communications using the UCSF food industry documents archives,” describes how food and chemical industry players view IFIC and the IFIC Foundation as “being central to promoting industry-favourable content in defence of products facing potentially negative press, such as aspartame…”
  • U.S. Right to Know fact sheet: “IFIC: How Big Food Spins Bad News”

More examples of Van Eenennaam’s collaborations with the agrichemical industry include:

Monsanto edited her remarks for the Intelligence Squared debate 

Emails show that Lee Quarles, Monsanto’s global communication lead, and Tony Zagora, senior vice president and partner of the FleishmanHillard PR firm, edited Dr. Van Eenennaam’s remarks for a December 2014 Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate where she argued for public acceptance of genetically engineered foods alongside Robb Fraley of Monsanto.

Quarles also connected Dr. Van Eenennaam with higher ups at Monsanto and FleishmanHillard to discuss the core positions she and Fraley should align on, and he arranged for Zagora and the PR agency to provide her with guidance on “approach, tone, delivery and personal presentation. This will help you better understand what are the key things our team should consider as we work to win over the people in the room, as well as all of those consumers in the NPR rebroadcast of the event.”

Some of Monsanto’s edits to Professor Van Eenennaam’s remarks are shown in track changes:

 

Source documents linked here

Former Monsanto Communications Director Jay Byrne and industry PR firm Ketchum provided coaching for media interviews 

In 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam assisted the industry-funded No on Proposition 37 campaign in California to oppose GMO labeling. Emails show that the “No on 37” campaign staff arranged for Dr. Van Eenennaam to appear on the Dr. Oz Show to speak against labeling, and also arranged for her to receive media and messaging training from Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former head of corporate communications. (Emails also revealed that Jay Byrne worked with Monsanto to set up a front group to attack GMO critics and the organic industry while “keeping Monsanto in the background“.)

In 2014, the agrichemical industry’s lead public relations firm, Ketchum, pitched Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source and helped her prepare for a radio interview to debunk a study that linked genetically engineered animal feed to stomach inflammation. Ketchum provided Dr. Van Eenennaam with talking points from industry allies describing the stomach study as “junk science.”

Appeared at Hill briefing organized by climate science skeptic group 

In September 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam appeared at a Competitive Enterprise Institute congressional briefing to argue for the deregulation of genetically engineered animals. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is an industry-funded group that promotes climate science skepticism and opposes regulations for the chemical industry. In 2013, donors to the Competitive Enterprises Institute annual fundraiser included Monsanto, Syngenta, FMC Corporation, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Google, as well as oil and tobacco companies and foundations related to Koch Industries. In 2016, CEI’s Director of Energy and Environment Myron Ebell, a prominent climate science skeptic who has said the case for global warming is “silly,” was chosen by the Trump Administration’s to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Coordinated lobbying efforts; defends pesticides 

Dr. Van Eenennaam has coordinated lobbying to deregulate genetically engineered crops and animals, and keep them unlabeled. In 2012, she wrote a letter to the Obama Administration on behalf of the American Society of Animal Science public policy committee arguing for approval of the Aqua Bounty genetically engineered salmon without rigorous safety testing or labeling. In 2015, she recruited professors to support deregulating the Simplot Innate 2.0 genetically engineered potato. “Simplot is looking for some comments on their deregulation … the antis are trying to get the comment period extended as usual,” she wrote to the professors.

Dr. Van Eenennaam also defends glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide and a probable human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency. For a post on her website, she used pesticide industry sources and infographics to speculate about the market consequences of banning glyphosate, and characterized people raising concerns as the “worried wealthy.” The Monsanto (now Bayer) website promotes Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source to discredit a study that linked glyphosate to liver disease at low doses.

Some of Alison Van Eenennaam’s other industry collaborations 

  • Is a member of “AgBioChatter,” a private email listserve that pro-industry academics, senior staff of agrichemical companies and public relations consultants have used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities.

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, processed foods, artificial sweeteners, food additives, pesticides and genetically engineered foods.

2022 study: IFIC pushes food industry product defense

A new study co-authored by U.S. Right to Know in the journal Globalization and Health shows that food and chemical industry players view IFIC and the IFIC Foundation as “being central to promoting industry-favourable content in defence of products facing potentially negative press, such as aspartame…” 

The study quotes Alex Malaspina, a former Coca-Cola executive and founder of ILSI, explaining the close relationship between the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) and IFIC: “… IFIC is kind of a sister entity to ILSI. ILSI generates the scientific facts and IFIC communicates them to the media and public…” See also our fact sheet on ILSI, a food industry lobby group.

Based on documents in the USCF chemical industry archive, the study provides evidence that is “more than sufficient to negate IFIC’s portrayal that it is a neutral organization,” the authors wrote. “We argue that IFIC and its Foundation’s communications should be viewed as conducting marketing and public relations for the food industry.”

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 groups were identified 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 and board members

IFIC spent over $22 million in the five-year period from 2013-2017, while the IFIC Foundation spent over $5 million in those five years, 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 previous financial supporters: Bayer, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Mars, McDonalds, Monsanto, Nestle, PepsiCo and DuPont.

The IFIC board of directors includes executives from PepsiCo, General Mills and other food companies. Also on the board is Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a Professor of Cooperative Extension in Animal Biotechnology and Genomics at University of California, Davis, who is a leading promoter of genetically engineered animals, crops and the pesticides that accompany them, and an advocate for deregulation. See our fact sheet on Dr. Van Eenennaam for more examples of food pesticide industry spin.

Promotes GMOs to schoolchildren

IFIC coordinated 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 provided 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, including responding to the movie Fed Up. 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, a University of Illinois professor who received undisclosed funds from Monsanto to promote and defend GMOs, advises IFIC on how to respond to studies raising concerns about GMOs.

DuPont executive suggests stealth strategy to confront Consumer Reports

  • In a February 3, 2013 email, IFIC staff alerted its “media relations group” that Consumer Reports reported concerns about the safety and environmental impact of GMOs. Doyle Karr, DuPont’s 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 that 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 books critical of processed foods: February 20, 2013 email 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 measured by the extent of coverage.” In a February 22, 2013 email, an IFIC executive reached out to three academics — Roger Clemens of the University of Southern California, Mario Ferruzzi of Purdue University and Joanne Slavin of University of Minnesota — to ask them to be available for media interviews about the books. The email provided the academics with summaries of the two books and IFIC’s talking points defending processed foods. “We will appreciate you sharing any specific talking points about specific science issues that are raised in the books,” states the email from Marianne Smith Edge, IFIC’s senior vice president of nutrition and food safety.
  • 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 food additives and colors are nothing to worry about. The chemicals and dyes “have played an important role in reducing serious nutritional deficiencies among consumers,” according to the IFIC Foundation brochure that was “prepared under a partnering agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration.”

originally posted May 31, 2018 and updated in February 2020

International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a Food Industry Lobby Group

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The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a corporate-funded nonprofit organization based in Washington DC, with 17 affiliated chapters around the world. ILSI describes itself as a group that conducts “science for the public good” and “improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment.” However, investigations by academics, journalists and public interest researchers show that ILSI is a lobby group that protects the interests of the food industry, not public health.

Recent news

  • March 2022 study in Cambridge University Press found that 95% of the U.S. 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee had conflicting interests with the food, and/or pharmaceutical industries. Particular actors, including Kellogg, Abbott, Kraft, Mead Johnson, General Mills, Dannon, and the ILSI had connections with multiple members. “Trustworthy dietary guidelines result from a transparent, objective, and science-based, process,” the researchers wrote. The “significant and widespread” COI on the committee “prevent the DGA from achieving the recommended standard for transparency without mechanisms in place to make this information publicly available.”

  • February 2022 study in Globalization and Health co-authored by U.S. Right to Know shows that food and chemical industry players view the International Food Information Council (IFIC) as “being central to promoting industry-favorable content in defense of products facing potentially negative press, such as aspartame…” The study describes IFIC as “a sister entity to ILSI. ILSI generates the scientific facts and IFIC communicates them to the media and public. See also, IFIC: How Big Food Spins Bad News.

  • April 2021 study in Globalization and Health documents how ILSI plays a key role in helping the food industry shape scientific principles by promoting the acceptance of public-private partnerships and permissiveness about conflicts of interest. 

  • Coca-Cola has severed its longtime ties with ILSI. The move is “a blow to the powerful food organization known for its pro-sugar research and policies,” Bloomberg reported in January 2021.  
  • ILSI helped Coca-Cola Company shape obesity policy in China, according to a September 2020 study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh. “Beneath ILSI’s public narrative of unbiased science and no policy advocacy lay a maze of hidden channels companies used to advance their interests. Working through those channels, Coca Cola influenced China’s science and policy making during every phase in the policy process, from framing the issues to drafting official policy,” the paper concludes.

  • Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know add more evidence that ILSI is a food industry front group. A May 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition based on the documents reveal “a pattern of activity in which ILSI sought to exploit the credibility of scientists and academics to bolster industry positions and promote industry-devised content in its meetings, journal, and other activities.” See coverage in The BMJ, Food and drink industry sought to influence scientists and academics, emails show  (5.22.20)

  • Corporate Accountability’s April 2020 report examines how food and beverage corporations have leveraged ILSI to infiltrate the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and cripple progress on nutrition policy around the globe. See coverage in The BMJ, Food and soft drink industry has too much influence over US dietary guidelines, report says (4.24.20) 

  • New York Times investigation by Andrew Jacobs reveals that a trustee of the industry-funded nonprofit ILSI advised the Indian government against going ahead with warning labels on unhealthy foods. The Times described ILSI as a “shadowy industry group” and “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of.” (9.16.19) The Times cited a June study in Globalization and Health co-authored by Gary Ruskin of U.S. Right to Know reporting that ILSI operates as a lobby arm for its food and pesticide industry funders.

  • The New York Times revealed the undisclosed ILSI ties of Bradley C. Johnston, a co-author of five recent studies claiming red and processed meat don’t pose significant health problems. Johnston used similar methods in an ILSI-funded study to claim sugar is not a problem. (10.4.19)

  • Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog, ILSI: true colors revealed (10.3.19)

ILSI ties to Coca-Cola 

ILSI was founded in 1978 by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola who worked for Coke from 1969-2001. Coca-Cola has kept close ties with ILSI. Michael Ernest Knowles, Coca-Cola’s VP of global scientific and regulatory affairs from 2008–2013, was president of ILSI from 2009-2011. In 2015, ILSI’s president was Rhona Applebaum, who retired from her job as Coca-Cola’s chief health and science officer (and from ILSI) in 2015 after the New York Times and Associated Press reported that Coke funded the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network to help shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks.  

Corporate funding 

ILSI is funded by its corporate members and company supporters, including leading food and chemical companies. ILSI acknowledges receiving funding from industry but does not publicly disclose who donates or how much they contribute. Our research reveals:

  • Corporate contributions to ILSI Global amounting to $2.4 million in 2012. This included $528,500 from CropLife International, a $500,000 contribution from Monsanto and $163,500 from Coca-Cola.
  • A draft 2013 ILSI tax return shows ILSI received $337,000 from Coca-Cola and more than $100,000 each from Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrisciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer CropScience and BASF.
  • A draft 2016 ILSI North America tax return shows a $317,827 contribution from PepsiCo, contributions greater than $200,000 from Mars, Coca-Cola, and Mondelez, and contributions greater than $100,000 from General Mills, Nestle, Kellogg, Hershey, Kraft, Dr. Pepper, Snapple Group, Starbucks Coffee, Cargill, Uniliver and Campbell Soup.  

Emails show how ILSI seeks to influence policy to promote industry views 

A May 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition adds evidence that ILSI is a food industry front group. The study, based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records requests, reveals how ILSI promotes the interests of the food and agrichemical industries, including ILSI’s role in defending controversial food ingredients and suppressing views that are unfavorable to industry; that corporations such as Coca-Cola can earmark contributions to ILSI for specific programs; and, how ILSI uses academics for their authority but allows industry hidden influence in their publications.

The study also reveals new details about which companies fund ILSI and its branches, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions documented from leading junk food, soda and chemical companies.

A June 2019 paper in Globalization and Health provides several examples of how ILSI advances the interests of the food industry, especially by promoting industry-friendly science and arguments to policymakers. The study is based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records laws.  

The researchers concluded: “ILSI seeks to influence individuals, positions, and policy, both nationally and internationally, and its corporate members deploy it as a tool to promote their interests globally. Our analysis of ILSI serves as a caution to those involved in global health governance to be wary of putatively independent research groups, and to practice due diligence before relying upon their funded studies and/or engaging in relationship with such groups.”   

ILSI undermined obesity fight in China

In January 2019, two papers by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh revealed ILSI’s powerful influence on the Chinese government on issues related to obesity. The papers document how Coca-Cola and other corporations worked through the China branch of ILSI to influence decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Read the papers:

ILSI is so well-placed in China that it operates from inside the government’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.

Professor Geenhalgh’s papers document how Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants “helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related diseases” by operating through ILSI to cultivate key Chinese officials “in an effort to stave off the growing movement for food regulation and soda taxes that has been sweeping the west,” the New York Times reported.  

Additional academic research from U.S. Right to Know about ILSI 

The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has over 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI.  

ILSI sugar study “right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook”

Public health experts denounced an ILSI-funded sugar study published in a prominent medical journal in 2016 that was a “scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar,” reported Anahad O’Connor in The New York Times. The ILSI-funded study argued that warnings to cut sugar are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.  

The Times story quoted Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research, on the ILSI study: “This comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science,” Nestle said. “This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful.” 

Tobacco companies used ILSI to thwart policy 

A July 2000 report by an independent committee of the World Health Organization outlined a number of ways in which the tobacco industry attempted to undermine WHO tobacco control efforts, including using scientific groups to influence WHO’s decision-making and to manipulate scientific debate surrounding the health effects of tobacco. ILSI played a key role in these efforts, according to a case study on ILSI that accompanied the report. Findings indicate that ILSI was used by certain tobacco companies to thwart tobacco control policies. Senior office bearers in ILSI were directly involved in these actions,” according to the case study. See: 

The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has more than 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI

ILSI leaders helped defend glyphosate as chairs of key panel 

In May 2016, ILSI came under scrutiny after revelations that the vice president of ILSI Europe, Professor Alan Boobis, was also chairman of a UN panel that found Monsanto’s chemical glyphosate was unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. The co-chair of the UN Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), Professor Angelo Moretto, was a board member of ILSI’s Health and Environment Services Institute. Neither of the JMPR chairs declared their ILSI leadership roles as conflicts of interest, despite the significant financial contributions ILSI has received from Monsanto and the pesticide industry trade group. See: 

ILSI’s cozy ties at U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  

In June 2016, U.S. Right to Know reported that Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of a CDC division charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, tried to help ILSI’s founder Alex Malaspina influence World Health Organization officials to back off policies to reduce sugar consumption. Bowman suggested people and groups for Malaspina to talk to, and solicited his comments on some CDC summaries of reports, the emails show. (Bowman stepped down after our first article was published reporting on these ties.)

This January 2019 study in the Milbank Quarterly describes key emails of Malaspina cozying up to Dr. Bowman. For more reporting on this topic, see: 

ILSI influence on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

report by the nonprofit group Corporate Accountability documents how ILSI has major influence on U.S. dietary guidelines via its infiltration of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.  The report examines the pervasive political interference of food and beverage transnationals like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, and how these corporations have leveraged the International Life Sciences Institute to cripple progress on nutrition policy across the globe.

ILSI influence in India 

The New York Times reported on ILSI’s influence in India in its article titled, “A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World.”

ILSI has close ties to some Indian government officials and, as in China, the nonprofit has pushed similar messaging and policy proposals as Coca-Cola – downplaying the role of sugar and diet as a cause of obesity, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution, according to the India Resource Center. 

Members of ILSI India’s board of trustees include Coca-Cola India’s director of regulatory affairs and representatives from Nestlé and Ajinomoto, a food additive company, along with government officials who serve on scientific panels that are tasked with deciding about food safety issues.  

Longstanding concerns about ILSI 

ILSI insists it is not an industry lobby group, but concerns and complaints are longstanding about the group’s pro-industry stances and conflicts of interest among the organization’s leaders. See, for example:

Untangle food industry influences, Nature Medicine (2019)

Food agency denies conflict-of-interest claim. But accusations of industry ties may taint European body’s reputation, Nature (2010)

Big Food Vs. Tim Noakes: The Final Crusade, Keep Fitness Legal, by Russ Greene (1.5.17) 

Real Food on Trial, by Dr. Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros (Columbus Publishing 2019). The book describes “the unprecedented prosecution and persecution of Professor Tim Noakes, a distinguished scientist and medical doctor, in a multimillion rand case that stretched over more than four years. All for a single tweet giving his opinion on nutrition.”

U.S. Supreme Court sets date to consider review of Monsanto Roundup case

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Bayer AG’s effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to review a key trial loss in the nationwide Roundup litigation inched forward this week when the high court said it would include Bayer’s petition for a writ of certiorari in a December 10 conference where the justices will discuss which cases to accept for review.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, filed the petition in August, asking the court to review the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that affirmed the district court’s judgment in Monsanto’s 2019 trial loss to plaintiff Edwin Hardeman. The jury in the case found that exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide was a cause of Hardeman’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Hardeman’s attorneys presented jurors with a range of scientific research showing cancer connections to Monsanto’s herbicides as well as evidence of many Monsanto strategies aimed at suppressing the scientific information about the risks of its products. Hardeman’s attorneys argued that instead of hiding information, Monsanto should have warned consumers about the risks that its products could cause cancer.

Two key issues

Bayer maintains Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicides do not cause cancer, and it additionally argues that  the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which governs the registration, distribution, sale, and use of pesticides in the United States, preempts “failure-to-warn” claims by Hardeman and other plaintiffs in the Roundup litigation. Because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved labels with no cancer warning, failure-to-warn claims should be barred, the company maintains.

In addition to the FIFRA issue, the company petition filed in August urged the Supreme Court to also address whether or not the Ninth Circuit’s standard for admitting expert testimony “is inconsistent with this Court’s precedent and Federal Rule of Evidence 702.” Bayer argues that the admission of expert testimony in the Hardeman case “departed from federal standards, enabling plaintiff’s causation witnesses to provide unsupported testimony on the principal issue in the case, Roundup’s safety profile.”

In response to Bayer’s petition that the Supreme Court review the case, Hardeman’s attorneys filed a reply brief arguing the company’s request “is unworthy of review,” mischaracterizes elements of the case, and the company’s petition should be denied.

No certainty

There is no certainty the Supreme Court will agree to take up the case; nor a certainty that there will even be much discussion of the case, but if the court does decide to grant the company’s request, it would shine a national spotlight on the product liability litigation that has seen more than 100,000 plaintiffs sue over allegations Roundup herbicide causes cancer.

A favorable Supreme Court decision is widely seen as Bayer’s best hope for putting an end to the Roundup litigation, which has attracted tens of thousands of plaintiffs, all alleging they developed NHL due to exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides.

Several organizations have joined in the request for Supreme Court review of the Hardeman decision, including the industry lobbying group CropLife America, The Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America; Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; the American Tort Reform Association; the Product Liability Advisory Council; the Washington Legal Foundation; and Lawyers for Civil Justice.

The Supreme Court typically takes fewer than 200 cases out of thousands of case review requests each year, and favors accepting cases that have national significance, or deal with conflicting decisions in lower courts and those that are seen as setting an important precedent.

California court rejects Bayer’s petition to review Pilliod Roundup trial victory

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Bayer AG suffered yet another setback this week in the company’s ongoing effort to undo at least one of the trial losses dealt to Monsanto Co. in U.S. litigation alleging that the company’s Roundup herbicide causes cancer and Monsanto spent decades covering up the risks.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018 just as the first Roundup trial was getting underway, petitioned the California Supreme Court in September seeking a review of the case of Pilliod v. Monsanto.  The court rejected that petition for review on Wednesday.

Husband and wife Alva and Alberta Pilliod were awarded over $2 billion in 2019 after a trial in which their lawyers presented evidence that the non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) suffered by both was caused by their long-term exposure to Roundup herbicide. Alberta was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma brain cancer  in 2015, while her husband Alva was diagnosed in 2011 with non-Hodgkin lymphoma that spread from his bones to his pelvis and spine. The couple had started using Roundup in the 1970s and used it for more than 30 years.

The trial judge then lowered the jury award to $87 million.

Alberta Pilliod told US Right to Know that she and her husband were very happy to hear of the court’s rejection of Bayer’s petition, and hope to soon see their judgment paid.

“We’ve jumped through all the hoops. We’d like to get to the final score,” she said.

Alva Pilliod, 79, remains in remission, and though 77-year-old Alberta is also currently in remission she has had multiple recurrences of her cancer and has to be hospitalized frequently for health problems, she said.

The California Supreme  Court’s refusal to review the Pilliod case comes three months after the 1st Appellate District in the Court of Appeal for California rejected Monsanto’s bid to overturn the trial loss.

The appeals court ruling had scathing words for Monsanto: “We find that substantial evidence supports the jury’s verdicts,” the court stated. “Monsanto’s conduct evidenced reckless disregard of the health and safety of the multitude of unsuspecting consumers it kept in the dark. This was not an isolated incident; Monsanto’s conduct involved repeated actions over a period of many years motivated by the desire for sales and profit.”

The court also said there was substantial evidence that Monsanto acted with a “willful and conscious disregard for the safety of others,” supporting the awarding of punitive damages.

The evidence showed that Monsanto “failed to conduct adequate studies on glyphosate and Roundup, thus impeding discouraging, or distorting scientific inquiry concerning glyphosate and Roundup,” the court said.

The court specifically rejected the argument that federal law preempts such claims, an argument Bayer has told investors offers a potential path out of the litigation. Bayer has said it hopes it can get the U.S. Supreme  Court to agree with its preemption argument.

Damning evidence

Evidence laid out in the Pilliod trial and two previous trials included numerous scientific studies that showed what plaintiffs’ attorneys said was proof Monsanto’s herbicides cause NHL. As well, the attorneys presented jurors with many internal Monsanto communications obtained through court-ordered discovery that show Monsanto has intentionally manipulated the public record to hide the cancer risks.

Bayer has settled several other cases that were scheduled to go to trial over the last two years. And in 2020, the company said it would pay roughly $11 billion to settle about 100,000 existing Roundup cancer claims. This year, Bayer said it would set aside another $4.5 billion toward Roundup litigation liability.

Bayer also announced it would stop selling Roundup, and other herbicides made with the active ingredient glyphosate, to U.S. consumers by 2023. But the company continues to sell the products for use by farmers and commercial applicators.

Stephens trial drags on

Even as Bayer attempts to settle cases, it also is proceeding to trial with several. One trial that has turned into a sluggish, on-again-off-again, Zoom-based trial is the case of Donnetta Stephens v. Monsanto.

The case, in the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California, has been held via Zoom due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19, but has been marred by numerous technical problems as well as scheduling conflicts.

The jury trial has generally only been in session 2-3 days per week after getting underway in July. The next session is set for Monday, which will be the 51st day of trial.

Stephens suffers from non-Hodgkin lymphoma she blames on her use of Roundup. Her trial is a “preference” case, meaning her case was expedited after her lawyers informed the court that Stephens was “in a perpetual state of pain” and losing cognition and memory due.

Stephens trial drags on, toxicologist testifies about studies of herbicide and cancer risk

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A scientist testified Monday that a California woman’s regular use of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide “vastly” exceeded the exposure scientific research shows more than doubles the risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

William Sawyer, a toxicologist and expert witness for plaintiff Donnetta Stephens in her lawsuit against Monsanto, cited scientific research that links use of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, including Roundup, to cancer and specifically to NHL.  Sawyer has testified in prior Roundup cancer trials, including a 2019 trial that resulted in a jury verdict of more than $2 billion for a husband-and-wife who both suffered from NHL.

The Stephens v. Monsanto trial has been underway for roughly three months, starting in late July. The proceedings have been  handled via Zoom, and multiple technical problems have at time hindered the delivery of testimony and sharing of evidence with jury members.

Jurors have heard from Stephens, her son, various cancer  experts and from some of Monsanto’s top scientists, including longtime Monsanto toxicologist Donna Farmer. Farmer now works for Bayer AG, the German pharmaceutical company that bought Monsanto in 2018.

“Perpetual” pain

Stephens’ trial is a “preference” case, meaning her case was expedited after her lawyers informed the court that Stephens was “in a perpetual state of pain” and losing cognition and memory.

The case is being tried in the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California under the oversight of Judge Gilbert Ochoa. Stephens is one of tens of thousands of plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against Monsanto after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen with an association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Juries in the first three trials found in favor of the plaintiffs, agreeing with claims that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weed killers, such as Roundup, cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Monsanto spent decades covering up the risks, and failing to warn users.

Monsanto won a recent trial involving a mother who claimed her son developed NHL because of exposure he experienced while she sprayed the weed killer.

More trouble for Bayer

Angry investors can proceed with litigation against Bayer over allegations that the company made misleading statements about its $63 billion 2018 acquisition of Monsanto, and of the extent of concerns about the company’s herbicide products.

A federal judge ruled last week that a class action led by a group of pension funds can proceed with their claims that Bayer proceeded with its purchase of Monsanto despite analyst warnings and an awareness that acquiring Monsanto brought significant risks, and assuring investors Bayer management had fully assessed those risks.

Bayer has settled several cases that were scheduled to go to trial over the last two years. And in 2020, the company said it would pay roughly $11 billion to settle a majority of the more than 100,000 existing Roundup cancer claims. The company recently said it was setting aside another $4.5 billion toward Roundup litigation liability.

Bayer also announced it would stop selling Roundup, and other herbicides made with the active ingredient glyphosate, to U.S. consumers by 2023. But the company continues to sell the products for use by farmers and commercial applicators.