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

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

By Stacy Malkan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the case of the Impossible Burger.

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

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

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

The arguments presented did not establish safety – FDA

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

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

A GMO By Any Other Name …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate Greed Versus Consumer Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Update May 2018: Tax records show that the Council for Biotechnology Information, a chemical industry trade group, paid Ketchum public relations firm more than $11 million from 2013-2016 to to run GMO Answers. In a 2015 Monsanto PR plan, Monsanto named GMO Answers as one of the “industry partners” it planned to engage to discredit a report about glyphosate cancer concerns from the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel, see “Monsanto Relied on These Partners to Attack Top Cancer Scientists” (5/31/18).

ketchum gmo answers

By Stacy Malkan

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

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

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

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

But how independent are those experts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CropLife International — key facts

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Summary

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

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

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

CLI Members

Reuters report that IARC ‘edited out’ findings is a false narrative

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Updates: New Monsanto documents expose cozy connection to Reuters Reporter, Roundup Trial Tracker (April 25, 2019)
IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article, statement by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (October 24, 2017)

Original date of post: October 20, 2017

Continuing her record of industry-biased reporting about the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Reuters reporter Kate Kelland again attacked the cancer agency with an October 19, 2017 story claiming the scientists edited a draft document before issuing their final assessment that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry trade group, immediately issued a press release praising Kelland’s story, claiming it “undermines IARC’s conclusions about glyphosate” and urging policy makers to “take action against IARC over deliberate manipulation of data.”

Kelland’s story quoted a Monsanto executive claiming that “IARC members manipulated and distorted scientific data” but failed to mention the significant amount of evidence that has emerged from Monsanto’s own documents through court-ordered discovery that demonstrate the many ways the company has worked to manipulate and distort data on glyphosate over decades.

The story also failed to mention that most of the research IARC discounted was Monsanto-financed work that did not have sufficient raw data to meet IARC’s standards. And though Kelland cites a 1983 mouse study and a rat study in which IARC failed to agree with the original investigators, she failed to disclose that these were studies financed by Monsanto. She also failed to mention the critical information that in the 1983 mouse study, even the EPA toxicology branch did not agree with Monsanto’s investigators because the evidence of carcinogenicity was so strong, according to EPA documents. They said in numerous memos that Monsanto’s argument was unacceptable and suspect, and they determined glyphosate to be a possible carcinogen.

By leaving out these crucial facts, and by twisting others almost inside out, Kelland has authored another article that serves Monsanto quite well, but misled the public and policy makers who rely on trusted news outlets for accurate information. The only encouraging point to be taken from Kelland’s story is that this time she admitted Monsanto provided her with the information.

Related stories and documents:

Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?

By Stacy Malkan

Ever since they classified the world’s most widely used herbicide as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” a team of international scientists at the World Health Organization’s cancer research group have been under withering attack by the agrichemical industry and its surrogates.

In a front-page series titled “The Monsanto Papers,” the French newspaper Le Monde (6/1/17) described the attacks as “the pesticide giant’s war on science,” and reported, “To save glyphosate, the firm [Monsanto] undertook to harm the United Nations agency against cancer by all means.”

With two industry-fed scoops and a special report, reinforced by her regular beat reporting, Kelland has aimed a torrent of critical reporting at the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), portraying the group and its scientists as out of touch and unethical, and leveling accusations about conflicts of interest and suppressed information in their decision-making.One key weapon in industry’s arsenal has been the reporting of Kate Kelland, a veteran Reuters reporter based in London.

The IARC working group of scientists did not conduct new research, but reviewed years of published and peer-reviewed research before concluding that there was limited evidence of cancer in humans from real-world exposures to glyphosate and “sufficient” evidence of cancer in studies on animals. IARC also concluded there was strong evidence of genotoxicity for glyphosate alone, as well as glyphosate used in formulations such as Monsanto’s Roundup brand of herbicide, whose use has increased dramatically as Monsanto has marketed crop strains genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready.”

But in writing about the IARC decision, Kelland has ignored much of the published research backing the classification, and focused on industry talking points and criticisms of the scientists in seeking to diminish their analysis.  Her reporting has relied heavily on pro-industry sources, while failing to disclose their industry connections; contained errors that Reuters has refused to correct; and presented cherry-picked information out of context from documents she did not provide to her readers.

Raising further questions about her objectivity as a science reporter are Kelland’s ties to the Science Media Centre (SMC), a controversial nonprofit PR agency in the UK that connects scientists with reporters, and gets its largest block of funding from industry groups and companies, including chemical industry interests.

SMC, which has been called “science’s PR agency,” launched in 2002 partly as an effort to tamp down news stories driven by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, according to its founding report. SMC has been accused of playing down the environmental and human health risks of some controversial products and technologies, according to multiple researchers who have studied the group.

Kelland’s bias  in favor of the group is evident, as she appears in the SMC promotional video and the SMC promotional report, regularly attends SMC briefings, speaks at SMC workshops and attended meetings in India to discuss setting up an SMC office there.

Neither Kelland nor her editors at Reuters would respond to questions about her relationship with SMC, or to specific criticisms about her reporting.

Fiona Fox, director of SMC, said her group did not work with Kelland on her IARC stories or provide sources beyond those included in SMC’s press releases. It is clear, however, that Kelland’s reporting on glyphosate and IARC mirrors the views put forth by SMC experts and industry groups on those topics.

Reuters takes on cancer scientist

On June 14, 2017, Reuters published a special report by Kelland accusing Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist from the US National Cancer Institute and chair of the IARC panel on glyphosate, of withholding important data from its cancer assessment.

Kelland’s story went so far as to suggest that the information supposedly withheld could have changed IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Yet the data in question was but a small subset of epidemiology data gathered through a long-term project known as the Agricultural Health Study (AHS). An analysis of several years of data about glyphosate from the AHS had already been published and was considered by IARC, but a newer analysis of unfinished, unpublished data was not considered, because IARC rules call for relying only on published data.

Kelland’s thesis that Blair withheld crucial data was at odds with the source documents on which she based her story, but she did not provide readers with links to any of those documents, so readers could not check the veracity of the claims for themselves. Her bombshell allegations were then widely circulated, repeated by reporters at other news outlets (including Mother Jones) and immediately deployed as a lobbying tool by the agrichemical industry.

After obtaining the actual source documents, Carey Gillam, a former Reuters reporter and now research director of US Right to Know (the nonprofit group where I also work), laid out multiple errors and omissions in Kelland’s piece.

The analysis provides examples of key claims in Kelland’s article, including a statement supposedly made by Blair, that are not supported by the 300-page deposition of Blair conducted by Monsanto’s attorneys, or by other source documents.

Kelland’s selective presentation of the Blair deposition also ignored what contradicted her thesis—for example, Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate’s connections to cancer, as Gillam wrote in a Huffington Post article (6/18/17).

Kelland inaccurately described Blair’s deposition and related materials as “court documents,” implying they were publicly available; in fact, they were not filed in court, and presumably were obtained from Monsanto’s attorneys or surrogates. (The documents were available only to attorneys involved in the case, and plaintiff’s attorneys have said they did not provide them to Kelland.)

Reuters has refused to correct the errors in the piece, including the false claim about the origin of the source documents and an inaccurate description of a key source, statistician Bob Tarone, as “independent of Monsanto.” In fact, Tarone had received a consultancy payment from Monsanto for his efforts to discredit IARC.

In response to a USRTK request to correct or retract the Kelland article, Reuters global enterprises editor Mike Williams wrote in a June 23 email:

We have reviewed the article and the reporting on which it was based. That reporting included the deposition to which you refer, but was not confined to it. The reporter, Kate Kelland, was also in contact with all the people mentioned in the story and many others, and studied other documents. In the light of that review, we do not consider the article to be inaccurate or to warrant retraction.

Williams declined to address the false citing of “court documents” or the inaccurate description of Tarone as an independent source.

Since then, the lobbying tool Reuters handed to Monsanto has grown legs and run wild. A June 24 editorial by the St. Louis Post Dispatch added errors on top of the already misleading reporting. By mid-July, right-wing blogs were using the Reuters story to accuse IARC of defrauding US taxpayers, pro-industry news sites were predicting the story would be “the final nail in the coffin” of cancer claims about glyphosate, and a fake science news group was promoting Kelland’s story on Facebook with a phony headline claiming that IARC scientists had confessed to a cover-up.

Bacon attack

This was not the first time Kelland had relied on Bob Tarone as a key source, and failed to disclose his industry connections, in an article attacking IARC.

An April 2016 special investigation by Kelland, “Who Says Bacon Is Bad?,” portrayed IARC as a confusing agency that is bad for science. The piece was built largely on quotes from Tarone, two other pro-industry sources whose industry connections were also not disclosed, and one anonymous observer.

IARC’s methods are “poorly understood,” “do not serve the public well,” sometimes lack scientific rigor, are “not good for science,” “not good for regulatory agencies” and do the public “a disservice,” the critics said.

The agency, Tarone said, is “naïve, if not unscientific”—an accusation emphasized with capital letters in a sub-headline.

Tarone works for the pro-industry International Epidemiology Institute, and was once involved with a controversial cell phone study, funded in part by the cell phone industry, that found no cancer connection to cell phones, contrary to independently funded studies of the same issue.

The other critics in Kelland’s bacon story were Paulo Boffetta, a controversial ex-IARC scientist who wrote a paper defending asbestos while also receiving money to defend the asbestos industry in court; and Geoffrey Kabat, who once partnered with a tobacco industry-funded scientist to write a paper defending secondhand smoke.

Kabat also serves on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group. The day the Reuters story hit, ACSH posted a blog item (4/16/17) bragging that Kelland had used its advisor Kabat as a source to discredit IARC.

[See related post March 2019: Geoffrey Kabat’s Ties to Tobacco and Chemical Industry Groups

The industry connections of her sources, and their history of taking positions at odds with mainstream science, seems relevant, especially since the IARC bacon exposé was paired with a Kelland article about glyphosate that accused IARC advisor Chris Portier of bias because of his affiliation with an environmental group.

The conflict-of-interest framing served to discredit a letter, organized by Portier and signed by 94 scientists, that described “serious flaws” in a European Union risk assessment that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk.

The Portier attack, and the good science/bad science theme, echoed through chemical industry PR channels on the same day the Kelland articles appeared.

IARC pushes back

In October 2016, in another exclusive scoop, Kelland portrayed IARC as a secretive organization that had asked its scientists to withhold documents pertaining to the glyphosate review. The article was based on correspondence provided to Kelland by a pro-industry law group.

In response, IARC took the unusual step of posting Kelland’s questions and the answers they had sent her, which provided context left out of the Reuters story.

IARC explained that Monsanto’s lawyers were asking scientists to turn over draft and deliberative documents, and in light of the ongoing lawsuits against Monsanto, “the scientists felt uncomfortable releasing these materials, and some felt that they were being intimidated.” The agency said they had faced similar pressure in the past to release draft documents to support legal actions involving asbestos and tobacco, and that there was an attempt to draw deliberative IARC documents into PCB litigation.

The story didn’t mention those examples, or the concerns about draft scientific documents ending up in lawsuits, but the piece was heavy on critiques of IARC, describing it as a group “at odds with scientists around the world,” which “has caused controversy” with cancer assessments that “can cause unnecessary health scares.”

IARC has “secret agendas” and its actions were “ridiculous,” according to a Monsanto executive quoted in the story.

IARC wrote in response (emphasis in original):

The article by Reuters follows a pattern of consistent but misleading reports about the IARC Monographs Programme in some sections of the media beginning after glyphosate was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.

IARC also pushed back on Kelland’s reporting about Blair, noting the conflict of interest with her source Tarone and explaining that IARC’s cancer evaluation program does not consider unpublished data, and “does not base its evaluations on opinions presented in media reports,” but on the “systematic assembly and review of all publicly available and pertinent scientific studies, by independent experts, free from vested interests.”

PR agency narrative

The Science Media Centre—which Kelland has said has influenced her reporting—does have vested interests, and has also been criticized for pushing pro-industry science views. Current and past funders include Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as government agencies, foundations and universities.

By all accounts, SMC is influential in shaping how the media cover certain science stories, often getting its expert reaction quotes in media stories and driving coverage with its press briefings.

As Kelland explained in the SMC promotional video, “By the end of a briefing, you understand what the story is and why it’s important.”

That is the point of the SMC effort: to signal to reporters whether stories or studies merit attention, and how they should be framed.

Sometimes, SMC experts downplay risk and offer assurances to the public about controversial products or technologies; for example, researchers have criticized SMC’s media efforts on fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and genetically engineered foods.

SMC campaigns sometimes feed into lobbying efforts. A 2013 Nature article (7/10/13) explained how SMC turned the tide on media coverage of animal/human hybrid embryos away from ethical concerns and toward their importance as a research tool—and thus stopped government regulations.

The media researcher hired by SMC to analyze the effectiveness of that campaign, Andy Williams of Cardiff University, came to see the SMC model as problematic, worrying that it stifled debate. Williams described SMC briefings as tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives.

On the topic of glyphosate cancer risk, SMC offers a clear narrative in its press releases.

The IARC cancer classification, according to SMC experts, “failed to include critical data,” was based on “a rather selective review” and on evidence that “appears a bit thin” and “overall does not support such a high-level classification.” Monsanto and other industry groups promoted the quotes.

SMC experts had a much more favorable view of risk assessments conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which cleared glyphosate of human cancer concerns.

EFSA’s conclusion was “more scientific, pragmatic and balanced” than IARC’s, and the ECHA report was objective, independent, comprehensive and “scientifically justified.”

Kelland’s reporting in Reuters echoes those pro-industry themes, and sometimes used the same experts, such as a November 2015 story about why European-based agencies gave contradictory advice about the cancer risk of glyphosate. Her story quoted two experts directly from an SMC release, then summarized their views:

In other words, IARC is tasked with highlighting anything that might in certain conditions, however rare, be able to cause cancer in people.  EFSA, on the other hand, is concerned with real life risks and whether, in the case of glyphosate, there is evidence to show that when used in normal conditions, the pesticide poses an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.

Kelland included two brief reactions from environmentalists: Greenpeace called the EFSA review “whitewash,” and Jennifer Sass from the Natural Resources Defense Council said IARC’s review was “a much more robust, scientifically defensible and public process involving an international committee of non-industry experts.” (An NRDC statement on glyphosate put it this way: “IARC Got It Right, EFSA Got It From Monsanto.”)

Kelland’s story followed up the environmental group comments with “critics of IARC…say its hazard identification approach is becoming meaningless for consumers, who struggle to apply its advice to real life,” and ends with quotes from a scientist who “declares an interest as having acted as a consultant for Monsanto.”

When asked about the criticisms of pro-industry bias of the SMC, Fox responded:

We listen carefully to any criticism from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media, but we do not receive criticism of pro-industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro-industry bias, and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3,000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories, we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.

Expert conflicts

Scientific experts do not always disclose their conflicts of interest in news releases issued by SMC, nor in their high-profile roles as decision-makers about the cancer risk of chemicals like glyphosate.

Frequent SMC expert Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology at Imperial College London, offers views in SMC releases on aspartame (“not a concern”), glyphosate in urine (no concern), insecticides and birth defects (“premature to draw conclusions”), alcohol, GMO corn, trace metals, lab rodent diets and more.

The ECHA decision that glyphosate is not a carcinogen “is to be congratulated,” according to Boobis, and the IARC decision that it is probably carcinogenic “is not a cause for undue alarm,” because it did not take into account how pesticides are used in the real world.

Boobis declared no conflicts of interest in the IARC release or any of the earlier SMC releases that carry his quotes. But he then sparked a conflict-of-interest scandal when news broke that he held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a pro-industry group, at the same time he co-chaired a UN panel that found glyphosate unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. (Boobis is currently chair of the ILSI Board of Trustees, and vice president ad interim of ILSI/Europe.)

ILSI has received six-figure donations from Monsanto and CropLife International, the pesticide trade association. Professor Angelo Moretto, who co-chaired the UN panel on glyphosate along with Boobis, also held a leadership role in ILSI. Yet the panel declared no conflicts of interest.

Kelland did not report on those conflicts, though she did write about the findings of the “UN experts” who exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk, and she once recycled a Boobis quote from an SMC press release for an article about tainted Irish pork. (The risk to consumers was low.)

When asked about the SMC conflict of interest disclosure policy, and why Boobis’ ISLI connection was not disclosed in SMC releases, Fox responded:

We ask all researchers we use to provide their COIs and proactively make those available to journalists. In line with several other COI policies, we are unable to investigate every COI, though we welcome journalists doing so.

Boobis could not be reached for comment, but told the Guardian, “My role in ILSI (and two of its branches) is as a public sector member and chair of their boards of trustees, positions which are not remunerated.”

But the conflict “sparked furious condemnation from green MEPs and NGOs,” the Guardian reported, “intensified by the [UN panel] report’s release two days before an EU relicensing vote on glyphosate, which will be worth billions of dollars to industry.”

And so goes it with the tangled web of influence involving corporations, science experts, media coverage and the high-stakes debate about glyphosate, now playing out on the world stage as Monsanto faces lawsuits over the chemical due to cancer claims, and seeks to complete a $66 billion deal with Bayer.

Meanwhile, in the US, as Bloomberg reported on July 13: “Does the World’s Top Weed Killer Cause Cancer? Trump’s EPA Will Decide.”

Messages to Reuters may be sent through this website (or via Twitter: @Reuters). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

New ‘Monsanto Papers’ Add To Questions Of Regulatory Collusion, Scientific Mischief

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The other shoe just dropped.

Four months after the publication of a batch of internal Monsanto Co. documents stirred international controversy, a new trove of company records was released early Tuesday, providing fresh fuel for a heated global debate over whether or not the agricultural chemical giant suppressed information about the potential dangers of its Roundup herbicide and relied on U.S. regulators for help.

More than 75 documents, including intriguing text messages and discussions about payments to scientists, were posted for public viewing early Tuesday morning by attorneys who are suing Monsanto on behalf of people alleging Roundup caused them or their family members to become ill with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. The attorneys posted the documents, which total more than 700 pages, on the website for the law firm Baum Hedlund Aristei Goldman, one of many firms representing thousands of plaintiffs who are pursuing claims against Monsanto. More than 100 of those lawsuits have been consolidated in multidistrict litigation in federal court in San Francisco, while other similar lawsuits are pending in state courts in Missouri, Delaware, Arizona and elsewhere. The documents, which were obtained through court-ordered discovery in the litigation, are also available as part of a long list of Roundup court case documents compiled by the consumer group I work for, U.S. Right to Know.

It was important to release the documents now because they not only pertain to the ongoing litigation, but also to larger issues of public health and safety, while shedding light on corporate influence over regulatory bodies, according to Baum Hedlund attorneys Brent Wisner and Pedram Esfandiary.

“This is a look behind the curtain,” said Wisner. “These show that Monsanto has deliberately been stopping studies that look bad for them, ghostwriting literature and engaging in a whole host of corporate malfeasance. They (Monsanto) have been telling everybody that these products are safe because regulators have said they are safe, but it turns out that Monsanto has been in bed with U.S. regulators while misleading European regulators.”

Esfandiary said public dissemination of the documents is important because regulatory agencies cannot properly protect public and environmental health without having accurate, comprehensive, and impartial scientific data, and the documents show that has not been the case with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and the active ingredient glyphosate.

Monsanto did not respond to a request for comment.

Several of the documents discuss a lack of robust testing of formulated Roundup products. In one email, Monsanto scientist Donna Farmer writes “you cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen … we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. The testing on the formulations are not anywhere near the level of the active ingredient.”

The release of the documents Tuesday came without the blessing of Judge Vince Chhabria, who is overseeing the multidistrict litigation moving its way through the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In March, Chhabria did agree to unseal several other discovery documents – over Monsanto’s objections – and those documents prompted a wave of outrage for what they revealed: questionable research practices by Monsanto, cozy ties to a top official within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and indications that Monsanto may have engaged in “ghostwriting,” of research studies that appeared to be independent of the company.

The revelations within those documents prompted an investigation by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General into possible Monsanto-EPA collusion, and roiled Europe where regulators now are trying to decide whether or not to reauthorize glyphosate, which is the most widely used herbicide in the world and is found in numerous products in addition to Roundup.

The lawyers said they are sending copies of the documents to European authorities, to the EPA’s OIG and to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), which has been sued by Monsanto for moving to list glyphosate as a known carcinogen

Monsanto has fought to keep most of the documents it turned over in discovery sealed, complaining to Judge Chhabria that in several court filings plaintiffs’ attorneys presented discovery materials out of context and tried to exploit the information to influence public opinion. Chhabria has both chided Monsanto for trying to improperly seal certain documents and warned plaintiffs’ attorneys against unfairly publicizing certain documents. It is unclear how Judge Chhabria will react, if at all, to the law firm’s release of these documents.

Baum Hedlund attorneys said they notified Monsanto on June 30 of their intent to unveil the 86 documents and gave Monsanto the legally required 30-day window to formally object. That period expired Monday, clearing the way for them to make the release early Tuesday, said Wisner.

Concerns about the safety of glyphosate and Roundup have been growing for years amid mounting research showing links to cancer or other diseases. But the lawsuits only began to accumulate after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015 classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. The plaintiffs in the lawsuits allege that the combination of glyphosate with certain surfactants used in Monsanto-branded Roundup products is even more toxic than glyphosate alone, and Monsanto has sought to cover up that information.

Monsanto has publicly denied that there are cancer connections to glyphosate or Roundup and says 40 years of research and scrutiny by regulatory agencies around the world confirm its safety.

Monsanto has made billions of dollars a year for decades from its glyphosate-based herbicides, and they are the linchpin to billions of dollars more it makes each year from the genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops it markets. The company is currently moving toward a planned merger with Bayer AG.

(Article first appeared in Huffington Post)

Reuters’ Kate Kelland promoted false narrative about IARC and Aaron Blair

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UPDATE January 2019: Documents filed in court show that Monsanto provided Kate Kelland with the documents for her June 2017 story about Aaron Blair and gave her a slide deck of talking points the company wanted covered. For more details, see Carey Gillam’s Roundup Trial Tracker post.

The following analysis was prepared by Carey Gillam and posted June 28, 2017:

A June 14, 2017 Reuters article authored by Kate Kelland, headlined “The WHO’s cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence,” wrongly accused a cancer scientist of withholding important data in the safety assessment of glyphosate conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Kelland’s story contains factual errors and states conclusions that are contradicted by a full reading of the documents she cited as primary sources. It is notable that Kelland provided no link to the documents she cited, making it impossible for readers to see for themselves how far she veered from accuracy in interpreting them. The primary source document clearly contradicts the premise of Kelland’s story. Additional documents her story referenced, but also did not link to, can be found at the end of this post.

Background: The Reuters story was one in a series of critical pieces the news agency has published about IARC that Kelland wrote after IARC classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. Glyphosate is a highly profitable chemical herbicide used as the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killing products, as well as hundreds of other products sold around the world. The IARC classification triggered mass litigation in the United States brought by people alleging their cancers were caused by Roundup, and prompted the European Union and U.S. regulators to deepen their evaluation of the chemical. In response to the IARC classification, and as a means of defending itself against the litigation and shoring up regulatory support, Monsanto has lodged multiple complaints against IARC seeking to undermine IARC’s credibility. The June 14 Kelland story, which quoted a top Monsanto “strategy” executive, furthered those strategic efforts and has been touted by Monsanto and others in the chemical industry as proof that the IARC classification was flawed.

Consider:

  • A deposition of scientist Aaron Blair, a draft abstract and email communication Kelland references in her story as “court documents” were not in fact court documents but were documents created and obtained as part of discovery in the multidistrict litigation brought by the cancer victims who are suing Monsanto. The documents were held in the possession of Monsanto’s legal team as well as plaintiffs’ legal team. See docket U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, lead case 3:16-md-02741-VC. If Monsanto or a surrogate provided the documents to Kelland, such sourcing should have been cited. Given that the documents were not obtained through the court, as Kelland’s story implies, it seems apparent Monsanto or surrogates planted the storyline and provided Kelland with the documents, or at least selected parts of the documents, along with its assessment of them.
  • Kelland’s article provides commentary and an interpretation of the deposition from Bob Tarone, whom Kelland describes as “independent of Monsanto.” Yet information provided by IARC establishes that Tarone has acted as a paid consultant to Monsanto on its efforts to discredit IARC.
  • Reuters teased the story with this statement: “The scientist leading that review knew of fresh data showing no cancer link – but he never mentioned it and the agency did not take it into account.” Kelland implied that Dr. Blair was intentionally hiding critical information. Yet the deposition shows that Blair testified that the data in question was “not ready” to submit to a journal for publication and would not be allowed for consideration by IARC because it had not been finished and published. Much of the data was gathered as part of a broad U.S. Agricultural Health Study and would have been added onto several years of previously published information from the AHS that showed no association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A Monsanto lawyer questioned Blair about why the data wasn’t published in time to be considered by IARC, saying: “You decided, for whatever reason, that that data was not going to be published at that time, and therefore was not considered by IARC, correct?” Blair replied: “No. Again you foul up the process.” “What we decided was the work that we were doing on these different studies were not yet — were not yet ready to submit to journals.  Even after you decide to submit them to journals for review, you don’t decide when it gets published.” (Blair deposition transcript page 259) Blair also said to the Monsanto attorney: “What is irresponsible is to rush something out that’s not fully analyzed or thought out” (page 204).
  • Blair also testified that some data from the unfinished, unpublished AHS was “not statistically significant” (page 173 of deposition). Blair also testified in that deposition about data showing strong connections between glyphosate and NHL that also was not disclosed to IARC because it was not published.
  • Blair testified that some data from a North American Pooled Project study showed a very strong association with NHL and glyphosate, with a doubling and tripling of risk associated with the pesticide seen in people who used glyphosate more than twice a year. Just as the AHS data, this data was also not published or given to IARC (pages 274-283 of Blair deposition).
  • Kelland’s article also states: “Blair also said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis. He said it would have made it less likely that glyphosate would meet the agency’s criteria for being classed as ‘probably carcinogenic.’”  That testimony (on pages 177-189 of deposition) does not support those statements at all.  Blair ultimately says “probably” to questioning from Monsanto’s attorney asking if the 2013 AHS data had been included in a meta-analysis of epidemiology data considered by IARC, if that “would have lowered the meta-relative risk for glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma even further…” Kelland’s story also leaves the impression that this unpublished epidemiology data from an unfinished study would have been a game-changer for IARC. In fact, reading the deposition in full, and comparing it to IARC’s report on glyphosate, underscores how false and misleading that notion is.  Blair testified only to epidemiology data and IARC had already deemed the epidemiology evidence that it did see as “limited.” Its classification of glyphosate saw significance in the animal (toxicology) data it reviewed, deeming it “sufficient.”
  • Kelland ignores important portions of the Blair deposition specific to a published 2003 study that found “there was over a doubling of the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for people who had been exposed to glyphosate” (pages 54-55 of the deposition).
  • Kelland ignores testimony in the Blair deposition regarding a “300 percent increased risk” for cancer in Swedish research (page 60 of deposition).
  • Reading through the entire deposition shows that Blair testified as to many examples of studies showing a positive association between glyphosate and cancer, all of which Kelland ignored.
  • Kelland writes that in his legal testimony, Blair also described the AHS as “powerful” and agreed the data showed no link to cancer. She implied he was speaking of the specific unpublished 2013 data on NHL and glyphosate that is a tiny subset of information obtained from the AHS, when in fact the testimony shows he was speaking of the larger AHS umbrella of work, which has been tracking farm families and collecting data on dozens of pesticides for several years. What Blair actually said of the broad AHS was this: “ “It’s — it’s a powerful study. And it has advantages. I’m not sure I would say it is the most powerful, but it is a powerful study.” (page 286 of deposition)
    • Furthermore, when speaking directly of the 2013 AHS data on glyphosate and NHL, Blair confirmed that the unpublished data needed “cautious interpretation” given the number of exposed cases in subgroups was “relatively small” (page 289).
  • Kelland states “IARC told Reuters that, despite the existence of fresh data about glyphosate, it was sticking with its findings,” suggesting a cavalier attitude. Such a statement is entirely misleading. What IARC in fact said was its practice is not to consider unpublished findings and that it can re-evaluate substances when a significant body of new data is published in literature.

Related coverage:

Related Documents

Videotaped deposition of Aaron Earl Blair, Ph.D., March 20, 2017

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Science Media Centre Promotes Corporate Views of Science

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The Science Media Centre (SMC) is a nonprofit PR agency started in the UK that gets its largest block of funding from industry groups. Current and past funders include Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as media groups, government agencies, foundations and universities. The SMC model is spreading around the world and has been influential in shaping media coverage of science, sometimes in ways that downplay the risks of controversial products or technologies. This fact sheet describes SMC history, philosophy, funding model, tactics and reports from critics who have said SMC offers pro-industry science views, a characterization SMC denies.

Related:

Key facts

The SMC was set up in the UK in 2002 “after media frenzies over MMR, GM crops and animal research” to help the news media better represent mainstream science, according to the SMC fact sheet. According to the group’s 2002 founding report, the SMC was created to address:

  • a growing “crisis of confidence ” in society’s views of science
  • a collapse of respect for authority and expertise
  • a risk-averse society and alarmist media coverage and
  • the “apparently superior media strategies” used by environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

Independent SMCs that share the same charter as the original now operate in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Japan, and SMCs are being planned in Brussels and the United States.

The SMC model has been influential in shaping media coverage about science. A media analysis of UK newspapers in 2011 and 2012 found that a majority of reporters who used SMC services did not seek additional perspectives for their stories. The group also wields political influence. In 2007, SMC stopped a proposed ban on human/animal hybrid embryos with its media campaign to shift coverage from ethical concerns to the benefits of embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.

Several academics and researchers have criticized SMC for pushing corporate views of science, and for playing down the environmental and human health risks of controversial products and technologies. Reports have documented SMC’s tendency to push pro-industry messaging and exclude opposing perspectives on topics such as fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and GMOs.

In an email, SMC Director Fiona Fox said her group is not biased in favor of industry: “We listen carefully to any criticism of the SMC from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media but we do not receive criticism of pro industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro industry bias and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.”

Quotes about the Science Media Centre

Journalists and researchers on the influence and bias of the Science Media Centre (emphases added in quotes below):

  • “Science Media Centers … have become influential, but controversial players in the world of journalism. While some reporters find them helpful, others believe they are biased toward government and industry scientists.” Columbia Journalism Review
  • “Depending on whom you ask, (SMC Director) Fiona Fox is either saving science journalism or destroying it,Ewen Callway, Nature
  • “A decreasing pool of time-pressed UK science journalists no longer go into the field and dig for stories. They go to pre-arranged briefings at the SMC … The quality of science reporting and the integrity of information available to the public have both suffered, distorting the ability of the public to make decisions about risk.” Connie St. Louis, City College of London, in CJR
  • “The problem is not that they promote science, as they say they do, but that they promote pro-corporate science.” David Miller, University of Bath, in SciDev
  • “For those not blinded by the SMC’s dazzling aura, it appears that its covert purpose is to ensure that journalists and the media report scientific and medical matters only in a way that conforms to government and industry’s ‘policy’ on the issues in question.” Malcolm Hooper, University of Sunderland, paper on CFS/ME
  • “It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology.” Don Maisch paper on cell phones
  • “The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking.” Paul Mobbs, Mobbs Environmental Investigations
  • “The scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network.” George Monbiot, The Guardian

Science Media Centre’s Corporate Funding

SMC’s largest share of funding, roughly 30%, comes from corporations and trade groups. Funders as of August 2016 included a wide range of chemical, biotechnology, nuclear, food, medical, telecommunications and cosmetic industry interests. Agrichemical industry funders included Bayer, DuPont, BASF, CropLife International, BioIndustry Association and the Chemical Industries Association. Previous funders have included Monsanto, ExxonMobile, Shell, Coca-Cola and Kraft. SMC also receives funding from several media, government and academic groups.

SMC says it caps donations from any one company or institution to 5% of annual income in an effort to “protect from undue influence” – exceptions are made for larger donations from the Wellcome Trust and the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

SMC History: “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth”

By the late 1990s, the relationship between science and media was at a breaking point, explains the SMC promotional video. “Around the time of BSE, MMR, GM crops, there was a real sense of this gulf between scientists and the media,” Fox said in the video. SMC was created “to help renew public trust in science by working to promote more balanced, accurate and rational coverage of the controversial science stories,” according to its consultation report.

SMC foundational documents include:

  • February 2000 House of Lords committee report describes a “crisis of trust” in society’s relationship with science, and recommended a new initiative on science and the media.
  • September 2000 “Code of Practice / Guidelines on Science and Health Communication,” by the Royal Society and Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) recommends guidelines for journalists and scientists to counter “the negative impact of what are viewed as unjustified ‘scare stories’ and those which offer false hopes to the seriously ill.”
  • 2002 SMC Consultation Report describes the interview process with stakeholders from government, industry and media who informed how SMC would “take up the gauntlet thrown down by the Lords … of adapting science to frontline news.”

The SMC effort was immediately controversial. Author Tom Wakeford predicted in 2001 that SMC would become “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth of which George Orwell’s fictional rulers would be proud.” He wrote in the Guardian, “Senior figures in the Government, Royal Society and Royal Institution have decided that their much-prized Knowledge Economy necessitates the curtailment of free speech.” He described the Code of Practice: “The Code recommends that journalists consult with approved experts, a secret directory of which is to be provided to ‘registered journalists with bona fide credentials.'”

SMC’s first project – an effort to discredit a BBC fictional film that portrayed genetically engineered crops in an unfavorable light – elicited a series of critical articles in the Guardian (a Guardian editor co-authored the film). The articles described SMC as a “science lobby group backed by major pharmaceutical and chemical companies” that was operating “a sort of Mandelsonian rapid rebuttal unit” and employing “some of the clumsiest spin techniques of New Labour in trying to discredit (the film) in advance.”

Dick Taverne and Sense About Science

Sense About Science –  a lobby effort to reshape perceptions of science – launched in the UK in 2002 alongside SMC under the leadership of Lord Dick Taverne and others with ties to SMC. Lord Taverne was an SMC Advisory Board member and he co-created the SIRC Code of Practice.

A 2016 story in The Intercept by Liza Gross described Sense About Science and its leaders as “self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’” who “tip the scales toward industry.” Gross described Taverne’s tobacco industry ties and corporate PR efforts:

According to internal documents released in litigation by cigarette manufacturers, Taverne’s consulting company, PRIMA Europe, helped British American Tobacco improve relations with its investors and beat European regulations on cigarettes in the 1990s. Taverne himself worked on the investors project: In an undated memo, PRIMA assured the tobacco company that “the work would be done personally by Dick Taverne,” because he was well placed to interview industry opinion leaders and “would seek to ensure that industry’s needs are foremost in people’s minds.” During the same decade, Taverne sat on the board of the British branch of the powerhouse public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which claimed Philip Morris as a client. The idea for a “sound science” group, made up of a network of scientists who would speak out against regulations that industrial spokespeople lacked the credibility to challenge, was a pitch Burson-Marsteller made to Philip Morris in a 1994 memorandum.

Among its first projects, Sense About Science organized a letter from 114 scientists lobbying the British government to “contradict false claims” about GMOs, and conducted a survey highlighting the problem of vandalism against GMO crops.

Sense About Science USA opened in 2014 under the leadership of longtime chemical industry ally Trevor Butterworth, and partners with the Gates-funded Cornell Alliance for Science, a GMO promotion group.

Revolutionary Communist Roots

The founding and current directors of Science Media Centre and Sense About Science – SMC Director Fiona Fox and SAS Director Tracey Brown – and others involved with those groups, were reportedly connected through the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyist splinter party organized in the late 1970s under the leadership of sociologist Frank Ferudi, according to writers George Monbiot, Jonathan Matthews, Zac Goldsmith and Don Maisch.

Ferudi’s splinter group RCP morphed into Living Marxism, LM magazine, Spiked Magazine and the Institute of Ideas, which embraced capitalism, individualism and promoted an idealized vision of technology and disdain for environmentalists, according to Monbiot. (Ferudi responds in this piece.) A Guardian article about an LM event in 1999 described the network as “a reaction against the Left” (in Furedi’s words) with a worldview that left-wing thinking “is not a political factor” and there is “no alternative to the market.”

“One of strangest aspects of modern politics is the dominance of former left-wingers who have swung to the right,” Monbiot wrote in a 2003 article describing the ties between Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre, the people involved with those efforts and links to the LM network:

“Is all this a coincidence? I don’t think so. But it’s not easy to understand why it is happening. Are we looking at a group which wants power for its own sake, or one following a political design, of which this is an intermediate step? What I can say is that the scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network. Far from rebuilding public trust in science and medicine, this group’s repugnant philosophy could finally destroy it.”

Tactics

The SMC in the UK says it has a database with 2700 experts and more than 1200 press officers, and mailing lists with more than 300 journalists representing every major UK news outlet. SMC uses three main tactics to influence science coverage, according to its promotional video:

  1. Rapid response to breaking news with opinion quotes: When a science story breaks, “within minutes there are SMC emails in inboxes of every single national reporter offering experts,” said Fox.
  2. Getting to reporters first with new research. SMC “has privileged access to about 10-15 scientific journals in advance of the embargo lifting” so they can prepare advance comments from third-party experts signaling whether new studies merit attention and how they should be framed.
  3. Organizing about 100 press briefings a year that “proactively set the agenda” on a wide range of controversial science topics such as nuclear waste, biotechnology and emerging diseases.

Examples of influence and bias

Several researchers and academics have reported what they say is SMC’s pro-industry bias on controversial topics, and the extent to which journalists rely on SMC expert views to frame science stories.

Lacking diverse perspectives

Journalism professor Connie St. Louis of City University, London, evaluated SMC’s impact on science reporting in 12 national newspapers in 2011 and 2012, and found:

  • 60% of articles covering SMC press briefings did not use an independent source
  • 54% of “expert reactions” reactions offered by SMC to breaking news during the time period covered were in the news
    • Of these stories, 23% did not use an independent source
    • Of those that did, only 32% of the external sources offered an opposing view to that offered by the expert in the SMC reaction.

“There are more journalists than there should be that are only using experts from the SMC and not consulting independent sources,” St. Louis concluded.

Experts aren’t always scientists

David Miller, professor of sociology from the University of Bath, UK, analyzed SMC content on the website and via Freedom of Information Act requests, and reported:

  • Some 20 of the 100 most quoted SMC experts were not scientists, as defined by having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society, but were lobbyists for and CEOs of industry groups.
  • Funding sources were not always completely or timely disclosed online.
  • There was no evidence of SMC favoring a particular funder, but it did favor particular corporate sectors and topics it covered “reflect the priorities of their funders.”

“If you say you quote scientists and end up using lobbyists and NGOs, the question is: how do you choose which lobbyists or NGOs to have? Why don’t you have lobbyists who oppose genetic testing or members of Greenpeace expressing their view rather than bioindustry’s position? That really reveals the kind of biases that are in operation,” Miller said.

Strategic spin triumph on human/animal hybrid embryos

In 2006, when the UK government considered banning scientists from creating human-animal hybrid embryos, the SMC coordinated efforts to shift the focus of media coverage away from ethical concerns and toward the importance of hybrid embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.

The SMC campaign “was a strategic triumph in media relations” and was “largely responsible for turning the tide of coverage on human–animal hybrid embryos,” according to Andy Williams, a media researcher at the University of Cardiff, UK, who conducted an analysis on behalf of SMC and campaign allies.

Williams found:

  • More than 60% of the sources in stories written by science and health reporters — the ones targeted by the SMC — supported the research, and only one-quarter of sources opposed to it.
  • By contrast, journalists who had not been targeted by the SMC spoke to fewer supportive scientists and more opponents.

“Williams now worries that the SMC efforts led reporters to give too much deference to scientists, and that it stifled debate,” the Nature article reported. An interview with Williams in SciDevNet reports:

“A lot of the language used to describe [SMC media briefings] stresses that they were a chance for the scientists to explain the science in their own words, but — crucially — in a neutral and value-free way,” he said.  But this ignores the fact that these were tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives, he added, and that they were set up to secure maximum media impact for the scientists involved. Specialist science journalists were fed “information subsidies” by the SMC and were far more likely than other journalists to quote pro-hybridisation sources, Williams said.

Promotes industry views on fracking

According to a February 2015 media analysis conducted by Paul Mobbs of Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations, SMC offered numerous expert commentaries on fracking between 2012-2015, but the handful of scientists who dominated the commentary were from institutes with funding relationships with the fossil fuel industry or industry-sponsored research projects.

“The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking. These opinions are based upon the professional position of those involved, and are not supported with references to evidence to confirm their validity. In turn, these views have often been quoted in the media without question.”

“In the case of shale gas, the SMC is not providing a balanced view of the available evidence, and uncertainties, on the impacts of unconventional oil and gas. It is providing quotes from academics who mostly represent a ‘UK establishment’ viewpoint, which ignores the whole body of evidence available on this issue from the USA, Australia and Canada.”

Discrediting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 

A 2013 paper by Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK, accused SMC of promoting the views of certain medical professionals, failing to report on biomedical science and pushing “the ideology and propaganda of the powerful vested interest groups” in its media work on chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME).

Hooper’s paper reports on links between the SMC and key players in the CFS/ME controversy with ties to the insurance industry, and provides evidence of what Hooper described as the SMC’s campaign to discredit people with CFS/ME, and its efforts to misrepresent the PACE trial results to the media. He concludes, “An organisation which behaves in such a blatantly unscientific way can have no legitimate claim to represent science.”

For SMC views, see 2018 fact sheet on CFS/ME “the illness and the controversy.”

Cell phone safety and telecom funders

A 2006 paper by Don Maisch, PhD, “raises serious concerns over the impartiality of the SMC model in science communication when tendering expert advice on contentious issues when vested interests are part of the SMC structure.” The Maisch paper explores SMC communications on issues involving electromagnetic radiation and cell phone safety, and offers what he calls an “uncensored history of the SMC model of science communication.”

“It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology. This may explain why people with no real qualifications in science communication were able to reach positions that essentially became the public face of the British scientific establishment. It also explains why the UK scientific and medical establishment, aware that a large part of scientific funding comes from industry sources, are willing partners in allowing PR organizations with a pre-determined agenda to speak for them and champion government economic policy over the public interest.”

Defending GMO

As descried above, both Science Media Centre and its sister group Sense About Science launched with projects defending genetically engineered foods. SMC frequently offers experts who are critical of studies that raise concerns about GMOs. Examples include:

In 2016, scientists pushed back against SMC expert reactions they said misrepresented their work on GMOs. The study led by Michael Antoniou, PhD, Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group, King’s College London School of Medicine, and published in Scientific Reports, used molecular profiling to compare GMO corn to its non-GM counterpart and reported the GM and non-GM corn were “not substantially equivalent.” SMC issued an expert reactions disparaging the study, and would not allow the authors to respond or correct inaccurate information in the SMC release, according to the study authors.

“These comments [quoted in the SMC release] are inaccurate and thus spread misinformation about our paper. We have been informed that it is not the Science Media Centre’s policy to post responses, such as ours, to commentaries that they commission/post on their website,” Antoniou said. The study authors posted their response here.

Journalist Rebekah Wilce reported in PR Watch in 2014 on several examples of pro-GMO bias in SMC communications. She wrote:

SMC calls itself an independent media briefing center for scientific issues. Critics, however, question its independence from the GMO industry — despite the group’s statement that each individual corporation or other funder may only donate up to five percent of the group’s annual income — and warn that the organization is headed across the pond to the United States to provide more GMO spin here.

The SMC spearheaded the response to a 2012 study that reporting finding tumors in lab animals fed GMOs in a long-term feeding study. The study was widely disparaged in the press, was retracted by the original journal and later republished in another journal.

Media Coverage

Columbia Journalism Review three-part series, June 2013, “Science Media Centres and the Press”

  • CJR part 1: “Does the UK Model Help Journalists?”
  • CJR part 2: “How did the SMCs perform during the Fukushima nuclear crisis?”
  • CJR part 3: “Can a SMC work in the US?”

Nature, by Ewen Callaway, July 2013, “Science media: Centre of attention; Fiona Fox and her Science Media Centre are determined to improve Britain’s press. Now the model is spreading around the world”

Nature, by Colin Macilwain, “Two nations divided by a common purpose: Plans to replicate Britain’s Science Media Centre in the United States are fraught with danger”

FAIR, by Stacy Malkan, July 24, 2017, “Reuters vs. Un Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?”

SciDevNet, by Mićo Tatalović, May 2014, “UK’s Science Media Centre lambasted for pushing corporate science” Centre lamb

PR Watch, by Rebekah Wilke, April 2014, “Science Media Centre Spins Pro-GMO Line”

On related group Sense About Science:

The Intercept, by Liza Gross, November 2016, “Seeding Doubt: How self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’ tip the scales toward industry.”

USRTK Fact Sheet: Sense About Science-USA Director Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry

USRTK Fact Sheet: Monsanto Relied on These ‘Partners’ to Attack Top Cancer Scientists

Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist In Flawed Reuters Story

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In a well-orchestrated and highly coordinated media coup, Monsanto Co. and friends this week dropped a bombshell on opponents who are seeking to prove that the company’s beloved Roundup herbicide causes cancer.

A widely circulated story published June 14 in the global news outlet Reuters (for which I formerly worked) laid out what appeared to be a scandalous story of hidden information and a secretive scientist, “exclusive” revelations that the story said could have altered a critical 2015 classification that associated Monsanto’s Roundup to cancer and triggered waves of lawsuits against Monsanto.

It was a blockbuster of a story, and was repeated by news organizations around the globe, pushed by press releases from Monsanto-backed organizations and trumpeted by industry allies like the American Chemistry Council.

It was also flawed and misleading in a number of critical respects.

Authored by Reuters’ reporter Kate Kelland, who has a history of cozy relations with a group partly funded by agrichemical company interests, the piece accused a top epidemiologist from the U.S. National Cancer Institute of failing to share “important” scientific data with other scientists as they all worked together assessing the herbicide glyphosate for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). That group reviewed a wide body of research on glyphosate and determined in March of 2015 that the pesticide should be classified as a probable human carcinogen. Had the group known of this missing data, it’s conclusion could have been different, according to Reuters.

The story was particularly timely given glyphosate and Roundup are at the center of mass litigation in the United States and under scrutiny by U.S. and European regulators. After the IARC classification, Monsanto was sued by more than 1,000 people in the United States who claim they or their loved ones got non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup and the company and the cases could start going to trial next year. Roundup is the most widely used herbicide in the world and brings in billions of dollars a year for Monsanto. The company insists the IARC classification is meritless and the chemical is proven safe by decades of research.

So yes, it was a big story that scored big points for Monsanto in the debate over glyphosate safety. But drilling deeply into the sourcing and selective nature of the Reuters piece makes it clear the story is not only seriously flawed, but that it is part of an ongoing and carefully crafted effort by Monsanto and the pesticide industry to discredit IARC’s work.

The story contains at least two apparent factual errors that go to the credibility of its theme. First the story cites “court documents” as primary sources when in fact the documents referred to have not been filed in court and thus are not publicly available for reporters or members of the public to access. Kelland does not share links to the documents she references but makes it clear her information is largely based on a deposition from Aaron Blair, the National Cancer Institute epidemiologist who chaired the IARC working group on glyphosate, as well as related emails and other records. All were obtained by Monsanto as part of the discovery process for the Roundup litigation that is pending in federal court in San Francisco. By citing court documents, Kelland avoided addressing whether or not Monsanto or its allies spoon-fed the records to her. And because the article did not provide a link to the Blair deposition, readers are unable to see the full discussion of the unpublished study or the multiple comments by Blair of many other studies that do show evidence of links between glyphosate and cancer. I’m providing the deposition here, and disclosing that I requested and obtained it from attorneys involved in the Roundup litigation after Kelland’s story was published.

Second, the story relies in part on an anti-IARC view of a scientist named Bob Tarone and refers to him as an “independent” expert, someone “independent of Monsanto.” Kelland quotes Tarone as saying that IARC’s evaluation of glyphosate is “flawed and incomplete.” Except, according to information provided by IARC, Tarone is far from independent of Monsanto; Tarone in fact has acknowledged that he is a paid consultant to Monsanto, and a piece cited by Reuters and authored by Tarone last year in a European scientific journal is being recorrected to reflect Tarone’s conflict of interest, according to IARC, which said it has been in communication with that journal.

But much more noteworthy than the errors is how selective the story is in pulling from the Blair deposition. The story ignored Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate connections to cancer, and focused instead on Blair’s knowledge of one unpublished research study that was still in progress. The story hones in on speculation that the data perhaps could have been finished and published in time to be reviewed by IARC and further speculation by Blair, prodded by a Monsanto attorney, that had it been finished and had it been published it could have helped counter the other studies IARC viewed that showed positive cancer connections.

That research, part of a massive ongoing project by U.S. government researchers called the Agricultural Health Study, includes hundreds of studies and years of data analyzing pesticide impacts on farmers. Blair, who retired from the National Cancer Institute in 2007, was not leading that research but was part of a team of scientists who in 2013 were analyzing data about pesticide use and the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The data specific to glyphosate did not show a connection to NHL but in working to publish a paper about all the data the group had gathered, they decided to narrow the focus to insecticides and in 2014 did publish a paper on that work. The data on glyphosate and NHL has yet to be published, and some scientists who are familiar with the work say it has not tracked people long enough yet to be definitive given NHL generally takes 20 or more years to develop. A prior compilation of data by AHS researchers that also showed no connection between glyphosate and NHL was published in 2005 and was considered by IARC. But because the newer data was not published it was not considered by IARC.

Blair said the decision to limit the published work to insecticides was to make the data more manageable and was made well before IARC announced it would be looking at glyphosate in 2015.

“The rule is you only look at things that are published,” Blair told me this week after the Reuters story was published. “What would it be like if everyone on the working group whispered things they knew but weren’t published and made decisions on that?” IARC confirmed it does not consider unpublished research. In his deposition, Blair states that nothing has changed his opinion about glyphosate and NHL.

Epidemiologist and University of Toronto scientist John McLaughlin, who sat on the glyphosate working group for IARC with Blair, said to me in a note this week that the information about the unpublished work written about by Reuters did not alter his view of the validity of IARC conclusion on glyphosate either.

Also left out of the Reuters story – the deposition and a draft copy of the study in question shows that there were concerns about the AHS results due to “relatively small” subgroups of exposed cases. And notably, the Reuters report leaves out Blair’s discussion of the North American Pooled Project, in which he participated, which also contains data related to glyphosate and NHL but is not favorable to Monsanto. A synopsis of that project presented to the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology in 2015 showed that people who used glyphosate for more than five years had significantly increased odds of having NHL, and the risk was also significantly higher for people who handled glyphosate for more than two days per year. That information, like the new AHS data, was not given to IARC because it wasn’t yet published.

“When Dr. Blair’s deposition transcript is read in total, it shows that nothing was wrongfully withheld from IARC,” said Plaintiffs’ attorney Aimee Wagstaff. She said Monsanto was using pieces of the deposition to “further its agenda in the media.”

To epidemiologist Peter Infante, who spent more than 20 years leading a cancer identification unit at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and analyzed a body of epidemiology research on glyphosate in testimony to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scientific Advisory Committee in December, the attention drawn to unpublished data that supports Monsanto’s position is much ado about nothing.

“You still have other studies that show dose response,” he told me. “This Agricultural Health Study is not the gold standard. For glyphosate and NHL they haven’t been following people long enough. Even if the data had been published and had been considered by IARC it would be in the context of all the other study results.”

And finally, in an odd exclusion, the story fails to disclose that Kelland herself has at least tangential ties to Monsanto and friends. Kelland has helped promote an organization called the Science Media Centre, a group whose aim is to connect certain scientists such as Tarone with journalists like Kelland, and which gets its largest block of funding from corporations that include the agrichemical industry. Current and past funders include Monsanto, Monsanto’s proposed merger partner Bayer AG, DuPont and agrichemical industry lobbyist CropLife International. Kelland appears in a promotional video for SMC touting the group and authored an essay applauding the SMC that appeared in a SMC promotional report.

As a Reuters reporter for 17 years (1998-2015) I know the value of an “exclusive.” The more such scoops a reporter garners, the more bonus points and high praise from editors. It’s a system seen in many news agencies and it works great when it encourages dogged, investigative journalism. But powerful corporations like Monsanto also know how eager reporters are to land exclusives and know that handing favored journalists cherry-picked information with the promise of exclusivity can serve their public relations needs quite well. Follow up the hand-fed story with a press release from an industry-funded outlet and calls for an investigation from the industry group American Chemistry Council and you have propaganda gold.

What you don’t have is the truth.

Serious scrutiny needed as EPA seeks input on cancer ties to Monsanto herbicide

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By Carey Gillam

The glyphosate geeks are gathering in Washington this week. After a two-month delay, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is holding four days of meetings aimed at examining the evidence that does or does not tie the world’s most widely used herbicide — glyphosate — to cancer.

Scientists, activists and agricultural industry leaders are all expected to show up to either defend or attack the chemical that is currently at the center of international controversy. More than 250,000 public comments have been filed with the EPA ahead of the Dec. 13-16 meetings, and the agency is girding for more than 10 hours of personally delivered public comments before a specially appointed scientific advisory panel gets down to work.

The panel assignment: To offer advice on how the EPA should evaluate and interpret relevant data and how it all should translate into a EPA “carcinogen risk” classification for glyphosate.

The exercise is academic by design, but powerful economic forces are hard at work hoping to influence the outcome. Glyphosate is the billion-dollar-baby, the chief ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup herbicide as well as in hundreds of other herbicides sold around the world. It’s also the lynchpin to Monsanto’s top-selling, glyphosate-tolerant, genetically engineered crops.

An official regulatory nod to cancer concerns could be devastating to Monsanto’s bottom line, not to mention it’s planned $66 billion merger with Bayer AG, as well as to other agrichemical companies that sell glyphosate products. Monsanto is also facing more than three dozen lawsuits over glyphosate cancer concerns and needs EPA backing to defend against the court actions.

The questions about glyphosate and health issues are not new. Numerous scientific studies over multiple decades have raised concerns about harmful glyphosate impacts. Monsanto has always countered with its own studies and league of supportive scientists who say glyphosate is not carcinogenic and is one of the safest pesticides ever brought to market.

Last year the argument got more heated after a team of international cancer scientists working with the World Health Organization (WHO) said that there was sufficient evidence in the body of research to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. That news was particularly worrisome to consumers because glyphosate use is so pervasive that government researchers have documented the chemical as “widespread in the environment,”  found even in common foods like honey and oatmeal. It’s even found in urine samples of farmers and city dwellers alike.

The controversy has delayed re-authorization decisions not only in the United States, but also in Europe. Several European countries, including Italy and France, have called for an outright ban on glyphosate after glyphosate residues have been found in numerous foods there. Residues found in bread products prompted a “Not in Our Bread” campaign in Britain.

Numerous scientific studies over multiple decades have raised concerns about harmful glyphosate impacts.

But despite the consumer angst on both sides of the Atlantic, the EPA has already made it clear it largely agrees with Monsanto’s message that the international cancer scientists are wrong. The agency issued a report in September laying out the reasons it proposes to classify glyphosate as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

To get to that finding, the agency had to inappropriately discount the results of numerous human and animal studies showing evidence of ties to cancer, according to many scientists who are asking the EPA to reconsider its position.

“There are strong arguments for a classification of “Likely to be carcinogenic to humans” because there are multiple positive results in animals…  and positive epidemiologic studies strengthened by other lines of evidence (DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells and possibly exposed humans),” Maarten Bosland, professor of pathology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote in comments submitted to the agency.

Bosland is one of more than 90 scientists who issued a detailed report identifying the research that ties glyphosate to cancer. They say available human evidence shows an association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma; while significant carcinogenic effects are seen in laboratory animals for rare kidney and other types of tumors.

History has given us numerous examples of chemicals that are declared safe for decades only to be proven dangerous after extended arguments like the one we’re now seeing over glyphosate. It’s been common practice for the corporate players who profit off chemical agents to fight tooth and nail for their continued use even as study after study builds a case of sometimes devastating environmental and human health costs. And it’s been equally common for weak-kneed regulators to do as industry bids.

That appears to be the path EPA has followed with glyphosate. Ever since the agency announced last July that it would hold these meetings, the agrichemical industry’s trade group CropLife America has been working to make sure that the EPA repudiates the cancer concerns. CropLife first suggested the EPA scrap the meetings altogether, arguing there was no “scientific justification” for a review. The association then outlined criteria for the EPA to use in selecting scientists who might serve on the panel. And then after the panel was in place, CropLife told the EPA it should remove epidemiologist Dr. Peter Infante. CropLife considered him biased against the industry. The EPA responded by removing Infante as CropLife asked, and then refusing to explain its decision to the public, issuing a ‘no comment” to those who inquired about Infante’s removal.

Infante, who has served as an expert consultant in epidemiology for the EPA and several world bodies, says allegations of bias are invalid, and he still plans to attend but in a different capacity. After the EPA kicked him off the advisory panel, the agency agreed to grant him a few minutes to address the panel during the public comment part of the agenda. He is slated to speak Thursday morning.

In another hint at industry favoritism, earlier this year, the EPA “inadvertently” publicly posted an internal glyphosate assessment on its website that made a case for the safety of glyphosate. The document was up long enough for Monsanto to issue a press release gleefully tout the documents’ findings and providing a link to a copy of the document before the agency pulled it down, explaining it wasn’t final.

The agency’s actions have left environmental and consumer activists disheartened and doubtful the EPA will listen to any serious independent scrutiny of glyphosate’s safety.

“Their track record is awful,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. “We don’t want to throw in the towel entirely. We want to try to hold them to their mission. But there is clearly evidence of industry influence. They aren’t doing anything to inspire confidence that they’re taking a serious look at this.”

Consumers rely on the EPA to prioritize their interests over corporate interests, and the EPA should not forget that, according to the public comment filed by Pamela Koch, executive director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“We urge the EPA to apply the precautionary principle in this review…” Koch wrote. “We believe that caring for the public health is of the upmost importance and need regulations that protect farm workers, workers who apply glyphosate in non-agricultural settings, as well as the general public.”

This article originally appeared in The Hill

Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist, formerly with Reuters, who directs research for U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer education group focused on food safety and policy matters. Follow @CareyGillam on Twitter 

Upcoming EPA Meetings on Safety of Monsanto Weed Killer Drawing Scrutiny

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By Carey Gillam

Bayer better be paying attention to this.

The German company’s intended $66 billion acquisition of Monsanto Co. comes amid growing concern over the future of the company’s top-selling weed killer, a chemical called glyphosate that Monsanto introduced to the world 40 years ago as the active ingredient in its Roundup herbicide. Monsanto reaps billions of dollars annually, roughly a third of its sales, from those products.

So it’s no small matter that in mid-October the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to spend four days holding public meetings with a scientific advisory panel on the topic of whether or not glyphosate can cause cancer. The idea of shining a public spotlight on this mounting concern about the world’s most widely used herbicide has not set well with Monsanto and the rest of the industry that profits from glyphosate products like Roundup. Agrichemical interests have gone so far as to tell the EPA that the meetings should not be held at all, and have said that if they are, many of the world’s top scientists should be excluded from participating.

The industry clearly does not welcome the public scrutiny the meetings bring, but it should be satisfied that the EPA has made it clear it has no intention of contradicting Monsanto’s claims of glyphosate’s safety. After all, in a Sept. 12 report issued to the public, the EPA offered a 227-page evaluation of glyphosate’s cancer-causing potential that ended with a “proposed” conclusion that glyphosate was ‘“not likely to be carcinogenic to humans’ at doses relevant to human health risk assessment.” All of this before the meetings are held.

To its credit, the EPA did issue several caveats in that report, acknowledging that some research does link glyphosate to cancer, but offering various explanations as to why the agency doesn’t believe those study results are significant, and/or are outweighed by other studies. The agency also added a host of qualifiers, stating that with respect to epidemiological studies, the data is limited and outdated. Because there has been such an “increased use of glyphosate following the introduction of glyphosate-tolerant crops in 1996, there is a need for more recent studies since a large number of studies were conducted prior to 1996,” the EPA stated. The agency also said that research needs to be done on glyphosate formulations, not just glyphosate alone.

And the agency included a specific caveat with respect to research tying glyphosate to non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), saying: “There are conflicting views on how to interpret the overall results for NHL. Some believe that the data are indicative of a potential association between glyphosate exposure and risk of NHL.” The agency added: “Due to study limitations and contradictory results across studies… a conclusion regarding the association between glyphosate exposure and risk of NHL cannot be determined based on the available data.”

There is obviously a lot at stake – Monsanto is currently being sued by dozens of people who say the company’s Roundup herbicide gave them or their family members NHL, and the company is fighting a court battle with the state of California over regulatory efforts to add glyphosate to a list of known or probable carcinogens. And there remains the matter of the EPA’s long overdue environmental and health risk assessment for glyphosate, in which the EPA could add restrictions to the use of glyphosate if the agency deems those are necessary. That risk assessment was due out in 2015. Then the agency said it would be released in 2016. Now the agency says it may be completed by spring of 2017.

With the Bayer acquisition, the lawsuits and the risk assessment looming, Monsanto has been pulling out all the stops to defend glyphosate. The pressure on the EPA to defend glyphosate began immediately after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared in March 2015 that research showed glyphosate was “probably” carcinogenic to humans. The IARC decision was announced on Friday, March 20, 2015 and by the following Monday morning, Monsanto’s Dan Jenkins, the company’s regulatory affairs leader, was already calling and emailing EPA officials demanding they “correct” the record on glyphosate. Emails obtained through Freedom of Information request show Jenkins submitted “talking points” to the EPA to try to contradict IARC. And since then Monsanto has only intensified its efforts to invalidate the findings of the IARC group, attacking the veteran scientists as an “unelected, undemocratic, unaccountable and foreign body.”

Monsanto has also subpoenaed emails and other records from the chairman of that IARC committee, Aaron Blair, a scientist emeritus at the National Cancer Institute, who served as chairman of the IARC team. Blair has a long career of accolades and appointments that acknowledge his expertise, and he has served on numerous national and international scientific review groups, including for the EPA. But Monsanto has deemed Blair’s work suspect.

And Monsanto’s apparently has done some arm-twisting in Congress. On Monday, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wrote to the National Institutes of Health, reciting many of the complaints Monsanto and its allies have made about IARC and challenging grants the NIH has made to IARC.

The EPA’s appearance of aligning with Monsanto angers many in the scientific community who say the EPA is straying from established scientific principles and ignoring key evidence so it can keep the corporate interests who profit from glyphosate herbicides happy.

“This chemical is a probable human carcinogen by any reasonable definition. It is nonsense to say otherwise,” said Christopher Portier, former director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Prior to that role, Portier spent 32 years with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), where he served as the NIEHS associate director, director of the Environmental Toxicology Program, and associate director of the National Toxicology Program. In retirement, Portier, who was an “invited specialist” to the IARC review on glyphosate, has done some part-time work for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Portier and more than 90 other international scientists have issued a detailed report laying out the specific research that ties glyphosate to cancer both in animal studies and in human observations. The scientists said the only way for regulators to discount the evidence is to bend well-established rules for scientific evaluations. They say available human evidence does show an association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, while significant carcinogenic effects are seen in laboratory animals for rare kidney and other types of tumors. There is also “strong evidence of genotoxicity and oxidative stress,” including findings of DNA damage in the peripheral blood of people exposed to glyphosate, the scientists said.

“The most appropriate and scientifically based evaluation of the cancers reported in humans and laboratory animals as well as supportive mechanistic data is that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen,” the report states. “On the basis of this conclusion and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable to conclude that glyphosate formulations should also be considered likely human carcinogens.”

“The EPA is in a bad spot with this. The pushback really has come out of the industry based on things that are not scientifically sound,” said Maarten Bosland, one of the authors of the report on glyphosate research. Bosland is director of the Center for Global Health Outreach Department of Pathology at The University of Illinois at Chicago, and holds a Ph.D. in experimental pathology. “The amount of money that is involved in this compound is gigantic. It’s a worldwide conglomerate of financial interests that are affected by this.”

It seems more than coincidental that the EPA’s rationale for dismissing scientific studies that IARC said showed cancer links closely dovetails with the findings of a 16-member Monsanto-funded panel. That group of 16 scientists, all but four of whom had previously worked either as employees or consultants for Monsanto, issued a report in December that supported Monsanto’s contention that there is no real evidence that glyphosate can cause cancer. Leading the work was Gary M. Williams, director of environmental pathology and toxicology at New York Medical College, and a consultant to Monsanto. Williams has a history of publishing positive findings about glyphosate; he was an author of one of Monsanto’s most-touted studies, a 2000 research report that concluded glyphosate is not only not a carcinogen, but “is considered to be practically nontoxic.”

That panel is preparing to release five articles supporting glyphosate safety in the journal Critical Reviews of Toxicology soon, according to Intertek Scientific & Regulatory Consultancy, which was paid by Monsanto to arrange the panel.

In the EPA report, the one bright spot for critics of glyphosate is that the EPA does call for more testing. Specifically, the agency acknowledges the need to explore the fears that glyphosate formulations may be more toxic than glyphosate alone. The EPA is developing a “research plan” with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to “evaluate the role of glyphosate in product formulations and the differences in formulation toxicity,” the EPA said.

Fresh answers can’t come soon enough for consumers who worry about persistent levels of glyphosate in the food they eat. The FDA this year found high levels of glyphosate in U.S. honey, some levels more than double what is considered safe in the European Union.

The meetings in Washington run Oct. 18-21, and are expected to draw a variety of attendees – lawyers, activists, farmers, environmentalists and corporate allies are all making their travel plans.

It should be interesting.

(Article first appeared in The Huffington Post)