AgBioChatter: Where Corporations, Academics Plotted Strategy on GMOs, Pesticides

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AgBioChatter is a private email listserver used by the agrichemical industry and its allies to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. List members include pro-industry academics, senior agrichemical industry staff and public relations operatives.

This internal Monsanto document identifies “Academics (AgBioChatter)” as a Tier 2 “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, IARC judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

Several AgBioChatter academics also play key roles in other “industry partner” groups named in Monsanto’s PR plan to discredit the IARC carcinogenicity report, including GMO Answers, Biofortified, Genetic Literacy Project, Academics Review and Sense About Science.

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

The AgBioChatter emails linked below – along with other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and now hosted at the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive – provide many examples of how academics and industry partner groups work together in covert ways to push industry-coordinated messaging across various platforms to manufacture doubt about the health and environmental risks of pesticides and GMOs.

Media outlets around the world have reported on these behind-the-scenes collaborations to promote industry views of science and oppose regulations.

U.S. Right to Know efforts for transparency

U.S. Right to Know obtained some AgBioChatter emails in 2016 and 2017 via a public records request. In July 2017, U.S. Right to Know sued the University of Florida for its failure to release requested public records involving the agrichemical industry and publicly funded professors, including documents from the AgBioChatter forum.

In March 2018, a Florida judge dismissed the case, stating that the AgBioChatter emails were “purely personal activity born out of (Kevin Folta’s) own self interest” and not public university business. For more information, see the court documents.

Related press coverage

  • Freedom of the Press Foundation, “How corporations suppress disclosure of public records about themselves,” by Camille Fassett (2/27/18)
  • New York Times article, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO labeling war, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton; and email archive, “A Florida Professor Works with the Biotech Industry” (9/5/2015)
  • Alternet, “Is something fishy going on between the University of Florida and the agrichemical industry? Consumers have a right to know,” by Daniel Ross, Alternet (2/13/18)

AgBioChatter list content

The AgBioChatter emails obtained via state public records requests (142 pages) show academics and agrichemical industry staff coordinating talking points to oppose GMO labeling, promote and defend GMOs and pesticides, discredit industry critics, and evade Freedom of Information Act requests for information about publicly funded professors.

A major theme of the emails (and in particular the role of list member Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto) was to identify critics of the agrichemical industry and opportunities to attack them. These included Mehmet Oz, Vandana Shiva, Don Huber, Consumers Union and others.

Another key theme in the AgBioChatter emails is the effort to frame scientific studies that raise concerns about risks of GMOs and pesticides as “agenda-driven,” while studies that report positively about agrichemical industry products are “pro science.”

Academic, industry collaboration 

According to the emails received to date via public records requests, academics, agrichemical industry employees, consultants and PR operatives participated in the “Chatter” list.

Known participants are listed below along with their ties to other “industry partner” groups named in Monsanto’s PR plan to orchestrate an outcry against the IARC cancer panel. For more information about these groups, see our fact sheets:

Also noted below are ties to the American Council on Science and Health, a front group that receives corporate money to promote industry views of science and attack critics.

The links to the Genetic Literacy Project archives provide a sense of the common, repetitive messaging these front groups and academics use to promote GMOs and pesticides, try to discredit critics, argue for deregulation and oppose transparency efforts.

AgBioChatter list members 

Emails obtained via public records requests indicate that the following people were on the AgBioChatter listserver as of the dates in the emails.

Andrew Apel, agrichemical industry consultant and former editor of the biotech industry newsletter AgBiotech Reporter

Graham Brooks, Agricultural Economist, PG Economics Ltd, UK

Jay Byrne, former director of corporate communications for Monsanto; president of v-Fluence Interactive public relations firm

Bruce Chassy, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Food Safety and Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Jon Entine, director of Genetic Literacy Project, Monsanto “industry partner”

Kevin Folta, PhD, Professor and Chairman, Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida

Val Giddings, PhD, industry consultant, former VP of the BIO trade association

  • Senior fellow at Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (funded by pharmaceutical, wireless and agrichemical industry groups)
  • Helped set up Academics Review as a Monsanto front group
  • Genetic Literacy Project archives

Andy Hedgecock, DuPont Pioneer former director of scientific affairs

Drew Kershen, PhD, Emeritus Professor, University of Oklahoma, College of Law

Marcel Kuntz, PhD, research director at CNRS, Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire Végétale, Grenoble, France 

Chris Leaver, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Plant Science, University of Oxford

Adrienne Massey, PhD, Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), managing director of science and regulatory affairs

Robert McGregor, Policy Analyst, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Alan McHughen, PhD, University of California Riverside

Henry Miller, MD, fellow at Hoover Institution, former FDA office of biotechnology

Vivian Moses, PhD, Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division, King’s College London

Piero Morandini, PhD, research assistant, University of Milan

Wayne Parrott, PhD, Professor, Crop Breeding and Genetics, University of Georgia

C.S. Prakash, PhD, Professor, Plant Genetics, Genomics and Biotechnology College of Agricultural, Environmental and Nutrition Sciences, Tuskegee University

Cami Ryan, PhD, Monsanto, social sciences lead, regulatory policy and scientific affairs in Canada

Eric Sachs, PhD, Monsanto, environmental, social and economic platform lead

Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, Animal Genetics and Biotechnology Cooperative Extension Specialist, University of California, Davis

Karl Haro von Mogel, PhD, Biofortified director of science and media   

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

How Not to Drain the Swamp

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The guys in the C-suites sure must be laughing today. They pulled a fast one on the American public.

As the seating chart fills out for the incoming Trump administration, it becomes clear that Team Trump seeks to “drain the swamp” in Washington by putting the swamp’s corporate lobbyists in charge.

It’s party time for the corporate elite that really runs our nation.

The signs are legion.

Jeffrey Eisenach, who has worked as a consultant for Verizon and its trade association, is running the FCC transition, and will likely use his post to eviscerate Internet freedoms and bury Net Neutrality.

As our nation’s obesity epidemic continues on, what could be worse than installing a lobbyist for the American Beverage Association, Michael Torrey, to head up Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture transition team. Nevermind the 25,000 Americans who die each year due to overconsumption of sugary drinks.

Prominent climate change skeptic Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the corporate front group Competitive Enterprise Institute, is leading Trump’s EPA transition team, a slap in the face to all Americans who recoil at climate change, dirty air and poisoned water.

Two of the biggest winners will be billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, and their firm Koch Industries. At least two of their lobbyists have prominent places in the Trump transition.

Mike Catanzaro, who lobbies for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council and Koch Industries, is the honcho for Trump’s “energy independence” agenda.

Mike McKenna, who is in charge of the transition at the Department of Energy, lobbies for Dow Chemical and Koch Industries.

Doubtless Team Trump’s lobbyists are working on how to gut the key regulators, for example, carrying out Trump’s promise to undermine the “FDA Food Police,” which is supposed to keep our nation’s food system safe for all Americans. Try telling that to the one in six Americans who contract food poisoning each year.

According to some news outlets, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, is joining Trump’s transition team. Thiel is co-founder of Palantir Technologies, which played a key role in a corporate espionage scandal involving U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to spy on unions and citizen groups.

Trump’s promise to “end our government corruption” by putting corporate lobbyists in charge is laughable. As is the idea of empowering Newt Gingrich, who left Congress with a record of contempt for law and House Rules on ethics and corruption, after being forced to pay a $300,000 fine for his congressional wrongdoing.

To be sure, Hillary Clinton has been no great friend of the consumers, public health or government watchdogs. Clinton has a well-honed reticence to taking on the corporations and trade associations who paid her mammoth speaking fee and filled her foundation coffers. Her victory would not have brought citizen movements to power, just as her husband’s did not.
One open question: How will Trump voters respond to — instead of draining the swamp — putting the swamp in charge of the swamp?

Trump voters ought to be mad — they just got sold out.

Gary Ruskin is co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a food industry watchdog group.  For 14 years, he directed the Congressional Accountability Project, which opposed corruption in Congress. You can follow him on Twitter at @garyruskin.

This article was first published in The Hill.