Val Giddings: Top Operative for the Agrichemical Industry

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Val Giddings, PhD, is a key player in agrichemical industry efforts to oppose transparency and safety regulations for genetically engineered foods and pesticides. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library indicate that Dr. Giddings helped set up a corporate front group and played a key behind-the-scenes role in other activities to push the deregulatory agenda of the world’s largest agrichemical companies.

Dr. Giddings is a former vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade group for agrichemical and biotechnology companies. He now runs the consulting firm PrometheusAB, and is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

ITIF is a think tank funded by the pharmaceutical, wireless, telecom, film and biotech industries, best known for opposing “net neutrality” and promoting the agenda of the tech industry. The group moved into biotechnology in 2011 with Dr. Giddings. Members of Congress who serve as “honorary co-chairs” of ITIF, including U.S. Reps Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Chris Coons (D-DE), appear to be endorsing and assisting the tobacco tactics that Dr. Giddings has used to advance agrichemical industry interests.

Cooked up academic front group to discredit Monsanto critics

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Giddings played a central role in setting up Academics Review as a front group that falsely claimed to be independent while taking agrichemical industry funds and trying to keep corporate fingerprints hidden.

Other key planners were Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications at Monsanto; Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Eric Sachs, PhD, director of regulatory policy and scientific affairs at  Monsanto.

Academics Review falsely claims on its website that it does not accept corporate money or solicit donations for specific activities; but according to tax forms, most of the funding for Academics Review came from the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group funded and run by the world’s largest chemical companies: BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta/ChemChina.

Timeline of key events for Academics Review:

March 11, 2010: Byrne and Dr. Chassy discussed setting up Academics Review as a front group to target critics of GMOs and pesticides with help from Dr. Giddings.  Byrne said he and Dr. Giddings could serve as “commercial vehicles” to connect corporate entities to the project “in a manner which helps ensure the credibility and independence (and thus value) of the primary contributors/ owners…” Byrne noted he was developing for Monsanto a list of agrichemical industry critics to target:

March 24, 2010:  Dr. Chassy launched the Academics Review website along with David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, with both men listed as cofounders.

November 23, 2010: Dr. Giddings and Dr. Chassy discussed which companies and industry groups might “pony up” for Academics Review to refute a paper that criticized genetically engineered soy.

  • “I bet we could generate some respectable support for it,” Dr. Giddings wrote to Dr. Chassy.
  • Chassy responded in part, “I bet our friends at Monsanto would be willing to write the rebuttal and pay us to post it.”
  • Giddings wrote, “I think the soybean guys might be willing to pony up a chunk to underwrite a rebuttal … If we do this right we can leverage the AcaRev Brand here a bit.”

A week later, Dr. Chassy asked Eric Sachs if Monsanto planned to refute the soy paper, and told Sachs: “The US Soybean Board is going to entertain a proposal from me and Graham Brookes to respond to the piece.” (Academics Review posted a response from Chassy and Brookes in 2012 with no disclosure about funders.)

November 30, 2010: In the email exchange with Dr. Chassy, Eric Sachs of Monsanto said he could help motivate the pesticide and GMO industry trade groups to support Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote.

August 2011: Dr. Giddings submitted a proposal to the agrichemical industry-funded trade group CBI for the  project: “what we do over the next year is directly a function of the support we can raise,” he wrote to CBI Managing Director Ariel Gruswich, in an email copied to Drs. Chassy and Tribe. Gruswich urged the men to join a phone call with her group: “I really believe that hearing directly from you all will increase the likelihood of support among the companies,” she wrote. Tax records show the corporate-funded CBI gave Academics Review $650,000 from 2014 to 2016 for “scientific outreach.”

April 2014: Academics Review published a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam, and claimed to be an independent group with no conflicts of interest. See: “Monsanto fingerprints found all over attack on organic food,” by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post

Industry-funded “boot camps” trained scientists, journalists how to spin GMOs and pesticides  

Over $300,000 of the chemical industry funds Dr. Giddings helped raise for Academics Review went to pay for two conferences called the “Biotech Literacy Project” boot camps, held at the University of Florida in 2014 and UC Davis in 2015, according to tax records. The boot camps – organized by Academics Review and another industry front group,  Genetic Literacy Project – trained journalists and scientists how to reframe the debate about GMOs and pesticides.

See: “Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media – and Discourages Criticism,” by Paul Thacker, The Progressive

Deregulating GMOs: “blow the whole damn thing up”

In emails dated February 2015, Dr. Giddings discussed with several academics a plan to write five journal papers arguing for the need to deregulate the biotech industry. Dr. Giddings wrote that the papers should capture, “what I call Henry’s ‘Blow the whole damn thing up’ argument, which is a case I do think should be made.”  University of Arizona law professor Gary Marchant, who initiated the email exchange, explained, “paper 1 is intended to be the blow the whole damn thing up topic.”

Alan McHughen, a public sector educator at UC Riverside and “ambassador expert” for the agrichemical industry-funded marketing campaign GMO Answers, offered to write paper 1. Henry Miller, MD, said he could help but had too much on his plate to be primary author. (A month later, Miller posted an article in Forbes that the New York Times later revealed had been ghostwritten by Monsanto.)

Others copied on the email about the journal papers were Drew Kershen of the University of Oklahoma College of Law; Guy Cardineau, Yvonne Stevens and Lauren Burkhart of Arizona State University; Steven Strauss of Oregon State University; Kevin Folta of University of Florida; Shane Morris of Natural Resources Canada; Alison Van Eenennaam of UC Davis; Joanna Sax of the California Western School of Law; and Thomas Reddick of the Global Environmental Ethics Council.

Coordinated scientist sign-on letter against Seralini study

In September 2012, Dr. Giddings coordinated a scientist sign-on letter urging Wallace Hayes, editor-in-chief of Food and Chemical Toxicology, to reconsider a September 2012 paper by the French researcher Gilles-Éric Séralini that reported tumors in rats fed a diet of Roundup-tolerant GM corn. The paper was retracted a year later and later republished in another journal.

To help coordinate the sign on letter, Dr. Giddings used AgBioChatter – a private liserver that pro-industry academics, senior agrichemical industry staffers and their PR operatives used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. One professor who signed the letter, Chris Leaver, noted that he had “been doing behind the scenes briefing via Sense About Science” about the Séralini study. Sense About Science has a long history of spinning science for the benefit of corporate interests.

Signers of the letter to Food and Chemical Toxicology were Robert Wager, Alda Lerayer, Nina Fedoroff, Giddings, Steve Strauss, Chris Leaver, Shanthu Shantharam, Ingo Potrykus, Marc Fellous, Moises Burachik, Klaus-Dieter Jany, Anthony Trewavas, C Kameswara Rao, C.S. Prakash, Henry Miller, Kent Bradford, Selim Cetiner, Alan McHughen, Luis De Stefano-Beltrán, Bruce Chassy, Salbah Al-Momin, Martina Newell-McGloughlin, Klaus Ammann, Ronald Herring, Lucia de Souza.

Related: “Unearthed emails: Monsanto connected to campaign to retract GMO paper,” Retraction Watch

Suggested attractive “mommy farmers” should pitch GMOs

In conversations with a Monsanto lobbyist about how to defeat GMO labeling campaigns in Colorado and Oregon in 2014, Dr. Giddings suggested that good-looking “mommy farmers” would be the best messengers to allay concerns about genetically engineered foods. “What the situation requires is a suite of TV spots featuring attractive young women, preferably mommy farmers, explaining why biotech derived foods are the safest & greenest in the history of ag and worthy of support,” Dr. Giddings wrote to Lisa Drake, Monsanto’s lead for government affairs.

In a September 2015 front-page New York Times story, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton described the emails:

“In this extended email exchange, some of the scientists and academicswho have been recruited to help Monsanto push its cause question whether they are the best messengers. Two suggest that Monsanto run more television ads featuring farmers instead. The Monsanto lobbyist replies that polling shows that the public believes scientists. In fact, the company has already run TV ads featuring female farmers.”

See: “Food industry enlisted academics in GMO labeling war, emails show,” by Eric Lipton, New York Times.

Keith Kloor: The Agrichemical Industry’s Favorite Writer

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Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist and an adjunct journalism faculty member at New York University who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Slate and dozens of articles for Discover Magazine promoting genetically engineered foods and attacking critics of the agrichemical industry, while also assisting industry allies behind the scenes.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library, reveal instances in which Kloor coached and edited his sources, obscured the industry ties of a source, and selectively reported on information in ways that bolstered industry narratives. Kloor declined to respond to questions for this article.

Preemptive, selective release of FOIA emails

From 2015 to 2017, Kloor reported for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Issues in Science and Technology, and Slate on a public records investigation by U.S. Right to Know that revealed undisclosed ties between the agrichemical industry and publicly funded academics who promote agrichemical products, including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta. In each of these published pieces, Kloor framed the public records requests as an undue burden on academics.

The emails obtained via state records requests reveal that Kloor himself was part of the story he was reporting on; he had attended agrichemical industry-funded message-training conferences with Dr. Folta and assisted Dr. Folta with messaging. The correspondence shows that Dr. Folta reached out to Kloor to suggest a “preemptive” release of his emails “but selectively” to help mitigate the damage of the documents – which Kloor did, in the journal Nature. At the same time as Kloor was covering the story for top science publications, the documents show he participated in discussions with industry insiders about the challenges posed by the public records requests.

Timeline of coverage and collaborations:

  • March 2014: Kloor attended the Biotech Literacy Project boot camp, an industry-funded conference to train scientists and journalists how to frame the debate over GMOs and pesticides. The conference was hosted by Dr. Folta and organized by Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two groups that partner with Monsanto on public relations projects.
  • July 2014: Monsanto agreed fund Dr. Folta’s proposal for $25,000 for promotional events that Dr. Folta described as a “solution to the biotech communications problem” that arose from activist campaigns to label GMOs. (Folta donated the money to a food bank after the proposal became public.)
  • Emails show that in August and November of 2014, Kloor provided Dr. Folta with messaging advice about how to best challenge GMO critics (see examples below).
  • February 2015: U.S. Right to Know submitted public records requests for correspondence to and from professors at public universities, including Dr. Folta, to investigate undisclosed collaborations with the agrichemical industry.
  • February 2015: Kloor wrote about the USRTK investigation for Science Insider, quoting Dr. Folta and other industry allies who were “rattled” by the open records requests they described as a “fishing expedition” that could have a “chilling effect on academic freedom.”
  • March 2015: Kloor gave a presentation to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a GMO promotion group that was campaigning against the public records requests.
  • June 2015: Kloor appeared at a second industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project boot camp message-training held at UC Davis, on a panel to discuss “FOIA Challenges” with Dr. Folta and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, whom emails later revealed had also been secretly receiving funds from Monsanto.
  • August 1, 2015: Dr. Folta emailed Kloor to report that his emails had been turned over to U.S. Right to Know in response to the open records requests. “I started going through this last night and I’m thinking that a preemptive release of the materials is a good idea, but selectively,” Dr. Folta wrote. He suggested a framing that “exposes the danger of the FOIA laws.”
  • August 6, 2015: Kloor reported on the emails in a forgiving article for Nature. The emails “do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Dr. Folta. But they do reveal his close ties to agriculture giant Monsanto,” Kloor reported.
  • August 8, 2015: Jon Entine, who organized the industry-funded messaging boot camps, complained to Kloor about his use of the term “close ties” to describe Dr. Folta’s relationship with Monsanto. “It’s both incorrect and inflammatory. It reflects poorly on what otherwise was first class reporting,” Entine wrote. Kloor said the term was “arguable” but backed away from it: “In my defense, I didn’t write that – it was added in the final edits.” He then tipped Entine off about the emails: “You and I should also talk. You are in the emails.” Kloor was also in the emails, which he did not mention in his reporting. (Subsequent requests turned up more emails involving Kloor.)
  • September 5, 2015: a front-page New York Times article by three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton reported that Monsanto recruited academics, including Dr. Folta, to fight against GMO labeling. The Times posted emails from Dr. Folta and Dr. Chassy revealing undisclosed industry payments to both men and their collaborations with agrichemical companies and their PR firms.
  • Kloor continued to engage in the debate as a journalist for industry events, such as a February 2016 forum hosted by GMO Answers, a marketing campaign to promote GMOs funded by Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, and DowDuPont, and managed by the public relations firm Ketchum.
  • Dr. Folta is now suing the New York Times and Eric Lipton over the 2015 article. Kloor reported on Dr. Folta’s lawsuit for Slate in 2017 without disclosing his now-public collaborations with Dr. Folta and other industry insiders.

Coaching, editing sources; obscuring industry ties

The emails suggest Kloor worked with his sources behind the scenes to hone their messaging in support of a key agrichemical industry cause: convincing wary consumers to accept genetically engineered foods. One of these sources was Dr. Kevin Folta, the University of Florida professor who was the key figure Kloor featured in stories he wrote for science publications about academic transparency.

Campaign to convert Bill Nye

In November 2014, Kloor used his Discover blog to challenge Bill Nye’s critiques about GMOs with an “Open Letter to Bill Nye from a Plant Scientist” signed by Dr. Folta. Emails indicate that Kloor asked Dr. Folta to challenge Nye, came up with the idea of the open letter and coached Dr. Folta on how to write it. He then edited Dr. Folta’s biography to avoid mentioning industry funding, according to the emails.

The emails show that Kloor drafted a bio for Dr. Folta that included the line, “No research is sponsored by Monsanto.” Dr. Folta asked him to adjust that sentence, noting that Monsanto indirectly sponsored some of his biotech outreach efforts and that he had received research money from a small biotech firm. Kloor decided on a bio that avoided mentioning Dr. Folta’s industry funding entirely: “his research is sponsored by federal and state agencies.”

In the email below, Kloor provided guidance to Dr. Folta about how to write the letter to Nye:

Around that time, Monsanto was also lobbying Nye to change his position on GMOs, which they eventually succeeded in doing. A March 2015 Washington Post story about Nye’s conversion claimed that Nye’s criticisms of GMOs “had angered many scientists,” but linked only to Dr. Folta’s letter on Kloor’s blog.

Discover: “Not our policy to prompt sources”

Emails from August 2014 show Kloor offering messaging advice to Dr. Folta and another source, Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel, the media director of the GMO promotion group Biofortified. Kloor asked them to critique an article by Carole Bartolotto, a dietician who had written critically about GMOs. The emails show that Kloor edited the comments and suggested ways to strengthen the messaging: “My advice: keep the language as neutral and judgment-free as possible. You’re aiming for the fence-sitters, who may well be turned off by language that comes off as heavy handed.”

Kloor posted the Bartolotto critique on his Discover blog and described Drs. Folta and von Mogel as “two scientists who receive no funding from the biotech industry.” Emails later revealed that, just a few weeks earlier, Monsanto had agreed to fund Dr. Folta’s promotional efforts for GMOs; and, the previous summer, Dr. Folta planned to visit Hawaii to lobby against pesticide restrictions on a trip organized and paid for by a pesticide industry trade group (Dr. von Mogel was also included on those emails). Kloor’s article still appears on the Discover website without updates or corrections.

For a 2017 Huffington post article, journalist Paul Thacker asked Discover magazine editor Becky Lang to comment on the Bartolotto emails. Lang declined to comment on specifics, but said: “Of course, it’s not our policy now, and never has been, to prompt sources to write criticism, edit criticism, and then run it as independent. It’s also not our policy to ever help sources try to hide their industry relationships.” (Kloor’s Discover blog ended in ended in April 2015.)

Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project connection  

Kloor’s prolific writings in defense of the agrichemical industry can be viewed on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a promotional website for the agrichemical industry that features dozens of articles written by Kloor or quoting his work. Genetic Literacy Project is run by Jon Entine, a longtime PR operative who promotes and defends chemical industry interests. Entine is principal of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients included Monsanto. Kloor and Entine use similar messaging and frame the issues in similar ways, and appear to have a close relationship, according to the emails.

In a July 2013 email to a pesticide industry lobby group, Entine described Kloor as a “very good friend of mine” who could help broker a meeting with another Discover blogger to write about agrichemical industry activities in Hawaii. Another email shows Entine connecting Kloor with Rebecca Goldin at George Mason University to discuss “abuse of FOIA.” Goldin works with Entine’s former employer STATS, a group journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk.

In another email from October 2014, Kloor was the only journalist included in an email warning from Ketchum public relations firm about a possible hacking operation on corporate websites by the group Anonymous. The email was forwarded by Adrianne Massey, managing director of the Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), to a group of industry allies, including Entine.

“I have no idea what type of attack. Private sector entities may be their only targets, but I don’t want any of you to be harmed who see you as industry allies,” Massey wrote.

Kloor was looped in on the email by Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University. Also included in the email were Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Val Giddings (former vice president of the biotech trade association), Karl Haro von Mogel (media director of Biofortified), Bruce Chassy and David Tribe (co-founders of the Monsanto front group Academics Review), and other key industry allies who promote GMOs and advocate for deregulation: Kevin Folta, Henry Miller, Drew Kershen, Klaus AmmannPiet van der Meer and Martina Newell-McGloughlin.

Industry allies frequently promote Kloor’s work; see tweets by Robb Fraley of MonsantoJon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project and the agrichemical industry trade group CBI.

Further reading:

How Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post

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

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

Buckraking on the food beat: a conflict of interest?

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

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

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

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

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

Taking up the GMO beat

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

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

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

WaPo Unearthed column: digging for industry perspectives

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

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

Industry-sourced ‘food movement’ column

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

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

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

Collaborations with industry spin groups

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

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

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

Agrichemical industry spin events

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

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

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

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

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

2015 biotech literacy day 

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics and disclosure

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

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

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

Misleading reporting on pesticides

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

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

Failed to disclose industry connections to sources

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

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

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

Misled with out-of-context reporting

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

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

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

Relied on industry go-to sources and sources who agree

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

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

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

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

Missed relevant data 

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

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

More perspectives on Haspel’s reporting