Pamela Ronald’s Ties to Chemical Industry Front Groups

Print Email Share Tweet

Updated in June 2019

Pamela Ronald, PhD, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis and author of the 2008 book “Tomorrow’s Table,” is a well-known advocate for genetically engineered foods. Less known is Dr. Ronald’s role in organizations that portray themselves as acting independently of industry, but in fact are collaborating with chemical corporations to promote and lobby for GMOs and pesticides, in arrangements that are not transparent to the public. 

Ties to key agrichemical industry front group

Pamela Ronald has multiple ties to a leading agrichemical industry front group, the Genetic Literacy Project, and its executive director, Jon Entine. She assisted them in many ways. For example, documents show that in 2015, Dr. Ronald appointed Entine as a senior fellow and instructor of science communications at UC Davis, and collaborated with Genetic Literacy Project to host an agrichemical industry-funded messaging event that trained participants how to promote agrichemical products. 

The Genetic Literacy Project is described in an award-winning Le Monde investigation as a “well-known propaganda website” that played a key role in Monsanto’s campaign to discredit the World Health Organization cancer research agency’s report on glyphosate. In a 2015 PR document, Monsanto identified Genetic Literacy Project among the  “industry partners” the company planned to engage to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report. GLP has since published many articles attacking the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who lied and engaged in corruption, distortion, secrecy and fraud.

Entine has longtime ties to the chemical industry; his body of work includes defending pesticides, industrial chemicals, plastics, fracking, and the oil industry, often with attacks on scientists, journalists and academics.  Entine launched the Genetic Literacy Project in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his public relations firm. The GLP was originally associated with STATS, a nonprofit group journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that seeds doubt about science and is “known for its defense of the chemical industry.” 

In 2015, the Genetic Literacy Project moved to a new parent organization, the Science Literacy Project. IRS tax filings for that year indicated that Dr. Ronald was a founding board member of the Science Literacy Project, but emails from August 2018 show that Dr. Ronald convinced Entine to retroactively remove her name from the tax form after it became known she was listed there (the amended tax form is now available here). Dr. Ronald wrote to Entine, “I did not serve on this board and did not give permission for my name to be listed. Please take immediate action to notify the IRS that my name was listed without consent.” Entine wrote that he had a different recollection. “I clearly recall you agreeing to be part of the board and head the initial board … You were enthusiastic and supportive in fact. There is no question in my mind that you agreed to this.” Nevertheless he agreed to try to get her name removed from the tax document.

The two discussed the tax form again in December 2018 after this fact sheet was posted. Entine wrote, “I listed you in the original 990 based on a telephone conversation in which you agreed to be on the board. When you represented to me that you disagreed, I purged the record as you requested.” In another email that day, he reminded Dr. Ronald that “in fact you were associated with ‘that organization: as we worked together, seamlessly and constructively, in making the boot camp at your university a great success.”  

Science Literacy Project tax forms now list three board members: Entine; Drew Kershen, a former law professor who was also on the board of “Academics Review,” a group that claimed to be independent while receiving its funds from agrichemical companies; and Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist who serves on the board of scientific advisors for the American Council on Science and Health, a group that received money from Monsanto for its work defending pesticides and GMOs.

Founded, led UC Davis group that elevated industry PR efforts

Dr. Ronald was the founding director of the World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL), a group launched in 2014 at UC Davis to train faculty and students to promote genetically engineered foods, crops and pesticides. The group does not fully disclose its funding.

Documents show that Dr. Ronald gave Jon Entine and his industry front group Genetic Literacy Project a platform at UC Davis, appointing Entine as an unpaid senior fellow of IFAL and an instructor and mentor in a science communications graduate program. Entine is no longer a fellow at UC Davis. See our 2016 letter to the World Food Center inquiring about funding for Entine and IFAL and their obscure explanation about where their funding comes from.

In July 2014, Dr. Ronald indicated in an email to a colleague that Entine was an important collaborator who could give them good suggestions on who to contact to raise additional funds for the first IFAL event. In June 2015, IFAL co-hosted the “Biotech Literacy Project boot camp” with Genetic Literacy Project and the Monsanto-backed group Academics Review. Organizers claimed the event was funded by academic, government and industry sources, but non-industry sources denied funding the events and the only traceable source of money came from industry, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive.

Tax records show that Academics Review, which received its funding from the agrichemical industry trade group, spent $162,000 for the three-day conference at UC Davis. The purpose of the boot camp, according to the agenda, was to train and support scientists, journalists and academic researchers to persuade the public and policy makers about the benefits of GMOs and pesticides.

Speakers at the UC Davis boot camp included Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former director of corporate communications; Hank Campbell of the Monsanto-funded American Council on Science and Health; professors with undisclosed industry ties such as University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy and University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta; Cami Ryan, who now works for Monsanto; David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant who has a PR firm with clients including Dow and Bayer; and other agrichemical industry allies.

Keynote speakers were Dr. Ronald, Yvette d’Entremont the Sci Babe, a “science communicator” who defends pesticides and artificial sweeteners while taking money from companies that sell those products, and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute. (Nordhaus was also listed as a Science Literacy Project board member on the original 2015/2016 tax form, but his name was removed along with Dr. Ronald’s in the amended form Entine filed in 2018; Nordhaus said he never served on the board.)

Cooking up a Chipotle boycott

Emails indicate that Dr. Ronald and Jon Entine collaborated on messaging to discredit critics of genetically engineered foods. In one case, Dr. Ronald proposed to organize a boycott against the Chipotle restaurant chain over its decision to offer and promote non-GMO foods.

In April 2015, Dr. Ronald emailed Entine and Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a former Monsanto employee and cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, to suggest they find a student to write about farmers using more toxic pesticides to grow non-GMO corn. “I suggest we publicize this fact (once we get the details) and then organize a chipotle boycott,” Dr. Ronald wrote. Entine directed an associate to write an article for Genetic Literacy Project on the theme that “pesticide use often soars” when farmers switch to a non-GMO model to supply restaurants like Chipotle. The article, co-authored by Entine and touting his UC Davis affiliation, fails to substantiate that claim with data.

Co-founded biotech spin group BioFortified

Dr. Ronald co-founded and served as board member (2012-2015) of Biology Fortified, Inc. (Biofortified), a group that promotes GMOs and has a partner activist group that organizes protests to confront Monsanto critics. Other leaders of Biofortified include founding board member David Tribe, a geneticist at University of Melbourne who co-founded Academics Review, the group that claimed to be independent while receiving industry funds, and collaborated with IFAL to host the Biotech Literacy Project “boot camp” at UC Davis.

Former board member Kevin Folta (2015-2018), a plant scientist at the University of Florida, was the subject of a New York Times story reporting that he misled the public about undisclosed industry collaborations. Biofortified bloggers include Steve Savage, a former DuPont employee turned industry consultant; Joe Ballanger, a consultant for Monsanto; and Andrew Kniss, who has received money from Monsanto. Documents suggest that members of Biofortified coordinated with the pesticide industry on a lobbying campaign to oppose pesticide restrictions in Hawaii.

Played leading role in industry-funded propaganda movie

Dr. Ronald featured prominently in Food Evolution, a documentary film about genetically engineered foods funded by the trade group Institute for Food Technologists. Dozens of academics have called the film propaganda, and several people interviewed for the film described a deceptive filming process and said their views were taken out of context.

https://www.foodpolitics.com/2017/06/gmo-industry-propaganda-film-food-evolution/

Advisor for Cornell-based GMO public relations campaign

Dr. Ronald is on the advisory board of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a PR campaign based at Cornell University that promotes the GMOs and pesticides using agrichemical industry messaging. Funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has opposed the use of Freedom of Information Act to investigate public institutions, misled the public with inaccurate information and elevated unreliable messengers; see documentation in our fact sheet.

Receives money from the agrichemical industry

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Ronald receives compensation from agrichemical companies to speak at events where she promotes GMOs to key audiences that companies seek to influence, such as dieticians. Emails from November 2012 provide an example of how Dr. Ronald works with companies.

Monsanto staffer Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, a dietician who formerly worked for the food-industry spin group IFIC, invited Ronald to speak at two conferences in 2013, Food 3000 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. Emails show that the two discussed fees and book purchases and agreed Dr. Ronald would speak at Food 3000, a conference organized by the PR firm Porter Novelli that Kapsak said would reach “90 high media impact food and nutrition professionals/influencers.” (Dr. Ronald invoiced $3,000 for the event). Kapsak asked to review Dr. Ronald’s slides and set up a call to discuss messaging. Also on the panel were moderator Mary Chin (a dietician who consults with Monsanto), and representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto, with Kapsak giving opening remarks. Kapsak later reported that the panel got rave reviews with participants saying they would share the idea that, “We have to have biotech to help feed the world.”

Other industry-funded speaking engagements for Dr. Ronald included a 2014 speech at Monsanto for $3,500 plus 100 copies of her book which she declined to tweet about; and a 2013 speaking engagement for which she invoiced Bayer AG for $10,000.

Retracted papers

Retraction Watch reported that, “2013 was a rough year for biologist Pamela Ronald. After discovering the protein that appears to trigger rice’s immune system to fend off a common bacterial disease – suggesting a new way to engineer disease-resistant crops – she and her team had to retract two papers in 2013 after they were unable to replicate their findings. The culprits: a mislabeled bacterial strain and a highly variable assay. However, the care and transparency she exhibited earned her a ‘doing the right thing’ nod from us at the time.”

See coverage:

What do you do about painful retractions? Q&A with Pamela Ronald and Benjamin Swessinger,” Retraction Watch (7.24.2015)

Can the scientific reputation of Pamala Ronald, the public face of GMOs, be salvaged?” by Jonathan Latham, Independent Science News (11.12.2013)

Pamela Ronald does the right thing again, retracting a Science paper,” Retraction Watch (10.10.2013)

Doing the right thing: Researchers retract quorum sensing paper after public process,” Retraction Watch (9.11.2013)

Climate Science Denial Network Funds Toxic Chemical Propaganda

Print Email Share Tweet

They promote GMOs and pesticides, defend toxic chemicals and junk food, and attack people who raise concerns about those products as “anti-science.” Yet Jon Entine, Trevor Butterworth and Henry Miller are funded by the same groups that finance climate-science denial.

By Stacy Malkan

British writer George Monbiot has a warning for those of us trying to grasp the new political realities in the U.S. and the U.K.: “We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates,” he wrote in the Guardian.

Corporate America may have been slow to warm up to Donald Trump, but once Trump secured the nomination, “the big money began to recognize an unprecedented opportunity,” Monbiot wrote. “His incoherence was not a liability, but an opening: his agenda could be shaped. And the dark money network already developed by some American corporations was perfectly positioned to shape it.”

This network, or dark money ATM as Mother Jones described it, refers to the vast amount of hard-to-trace money flowing from arch-conservative billionaires, such as Charles and David Koch and allies, and corporations into front groups that promote extreme free-market ideas – for example, fights against public schools, unions, environmental protection, climate change policies and science that threatens corporate profits.

“We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates.”

Investigative writers Jane Mayer, Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway and others have exposed how “the story of dark money and the story of climate change denial are the same story: two sides of the same coin,” as U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse described it last year in a speech.

The strategies of the “Koch-led, influence-buying operation” – including propaganda operations that spin science with no regard for the truth – “are probably the major reason we don’t have a comprehensive climate bill in Congress,” Whitehouse said.

While these strategies have been well-tracked in the climate sphere, less reported is the fact that the funders behind climate science denial also bankroll a network of PR operatives who have built careers spinning science to deny the health risks of toxic chemicals in the food we eat and products we use every day.

The stakes are high for our nation’s health. Rates of childhood cancer are now 50% higher than when the “war on cancer” began decades ago, and the best weapon is one we are hardly using: policies to limit exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

“If we want to win the war on cancer, we need to start with the thousand physical and chemical agents evaluated as possible, probable or known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization” wrote scientist and author Devra Lee Davis, PhD, MPH, in The Hill.

Reducing known agents of harm has had “less to do with science, and more to do with the power of highly profitable industries that rely on public relations to counteract scientific reports of risks,” Davis noted.

Defending toxic chemicals and junk food 

When products important to the chemical and junk food industries run into trouble with science, a predictable cast of characters and groups appear on the scene, using well-worn media strategies to bail out corporations in need of a PR boost.

Their names and the tactics they use – lengthy adversarial articles, often framed by personal attacks – will be familiar to many scientists, journalists and consumer advocates who have raised concerns about toxic products over the past 15 years.

Public records requests by U.S. Right to Know that have unearthed thousands of documents, along with recent reports by Greenpeace, The Intercept and others, are shining new light on this propaganda network.

Key players include Jon Entine, Trevor Butterworth, Henry I. Miller and groups connected with them: STATS, Center for Media and Public Affairs, Genetic Literacy Project, Sense About Science and the Hoover Institute.

Despite well-documented histories as PR operatives, Entine, Butterworth and Miller are presented as serious science sources on many media platforms, appearing in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Philadelphia Enquirer, Harvard Business Review and, most often, Forbes – without disclosure of their funding sources or agenda to deregulate the polluting industries that promote them.

Their articles rank high in Google searches for many of the chemical and junk food industry’s top messaging priorities – pushing the narratives that GMOs, pesticides, plastic chemicals, sugar and sugar substitutes are safe, and anyone who says otherwise is “anti-science.”

In some cases, they are even gaining in influence as they align with establishment institutions such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cornell University and the University of California, Davis.

Yet their funding sources trace back to the same “ultra free market” ideologues from oil, pharmaceutical and chemical fortunes who are financing climate science denial – Searle Freedom Trust, Scaife Foundations, John Templeton Foundation and others identified as among the largest and most consistent funders of climate science denial groups, according to a 2013 study by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, PhD.

Those seeking to understand the dark money network’s policy goals for dismantling health protections for our food system would do well to keep an eye on these modern propagandists and their messaging.

Jon Entine – Genetic Literacy Project / STATS

Jon Entine, a former journalist, presents himself as an objective authority on science. Yet ample evidence suggests he is a longtime public relations operative with deep ties to chemical companies plagued with questions about health risks.

Over the years, Entine has attacked scientists, professors, funders, lawmakers and journalists who have raised concerns about fracking, nuclear power, pesticides and chemicals used in baby bottles and children’s toys. A 2012 Mother Jones story by Tom Philpott describes Entine as an “agribusiness apologist,” and Greenpeace details his history on their Polluter Watch website.

Entine is now director of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group that promotes genetically engineered foods and pesticides. The site claims to be neutral, but “it’s clearly designed to promote a pro-industry position and doesn’t try to look neutrally at the issues,” said Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union.

“The message is that genetic engineering is good and anybody who criticizes it is a horrible ideologue, but that’s just not indicative of where the scientific debate actually is.”

Entine claims, for example, that the “scientific consensus on GMO safety is stronger than for global warming” – a claim contradicted by the World Health Organization, which states it is not possible to make general statements about GMO safety, and by hundreds of scientists who have said there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety.

The Genetic Literacy Project also has not been transparent about its connections to Monsanto. As one example, the site published several pro-GMO academic papers that emails later revealed were assigned to professors by a Monsanto executive who provided talking points for the papers and promised to pump them out all over the internet.

Another example: Genetic Literacy Project partners with Academics Review on the Biotechnology Literacy Project, pro-industry conferences that train scientists and journalists on how to “best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public.”

“The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”

Academics Review, which published a report in 2014 attacking the organic industry, presents itself as an independent group, but emails revealed it was set up with the help of a Monsanto executive who promised to find funding “while keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.” Emails also showed that Academics Review co-founder Bruce Chassy had been receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto via the University of Illinois Foundation.

So who funds Genetic Literacy Project and Entine?

According to their website, the bulk of funding comes from two foundations – Searle and Templeton – identified in the Drexel study as leading funders of climate science denial. The site also lists funding from the Winkler Family Foundation and “pass through support for University of California-Davis Biotech Literacy Bootcamp” from the Academics Review Charitable Association.

Previous funding sources also include climate science denial supporters and undisclosed pass-through funding.

The Genetic Literacy Project and Entine previously operated under the umbrella of Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a group located at George Mason University, where Entine was a fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication from 2011-2014.

STATS was funded largely by the Scaife Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust between 2005 and 2014, according to a Greenpeace investigation of STATS funding.

Kimberly Dennis, the president and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust, is also chairman of the board of Donors Trust, the notorious Koch-connected dark money fund whose donors cannot be traced. Under Dennis’ leadership, Searle and Donors Trust sent a collective $290,000 to STATS in 2010, Greenpeace reported.

In 2012 and 2013, STATS received loans from its sister organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which received donations during those years from the George Mason University Foundation, which does not disclose funding sources.

Entine has at times tried to distance himself and GLP from these groups; however, tax records show Entine was paid $173,100 by the Center for Media and Public Affairs for the year ending June 30, 2015.

By 2014, emails show, Entine was trying to find a new home for Genetic Literacy Project, and wanted to establish a “more formal relationship” with the University of California, Davis, World Food Center. He became a Senior Fellow at the school’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy and now identifies as a former fellow. GLP is now under the umbrella of a group called the Science Literacy Project.

Entine said he would not respond to questions for this story.

Trevor Butterworth – Sense About Science USA / STATS

Trevor Butterworth has been a reliable industry messenger for many years, defending the safety of various risky products important to the chemical and junk food industries, such as phthalates, BPA, vinyl plastic, corn syrup, sugary sodas and artificial sweeteners. He is a former contributor at Newsweek and has written book reviews for the Wall Street Journal.

From 2003 to 2014, Butterworth was an editor at STATS, funded largely by Scaife Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust. In 2014, he became the founding director of Sense About Science USA and folded STATS into that group.

A recent exposé by Liza Gross in The Intercept described Sense About Science, its director Tracey Brown, Butterworth, STATS and the founders of those groups as “self-appointed guardians of sound science” who “tip the scales toward industry.”

Sense About Science “purports to help the misinformed public sift through alarming claims about health and the environment” but “has a disturbing history of promoting experts who turn out to have ties to regulated industries,” Gross wrote.

“When journalists rightly ask who sponsors research into the risks of, say, asbestos, or synthetic chemicals, they’d be well advised to question the evidence Sense About Science presents in these debates as well.”

Sense About Science USA posted this response to the piece, and Butterworth said via email he was “disappointed with the Intercept’s misleading article, which lumped people and organizations with no connection to Sense About Science USA together.” He said his group takes no corporate funding and is legally independent from the UK Sense About Science.

He also said, “I have never been involved in industry messaging campaigns — in any capacity, paid or not.”

Some journalists have concluded otherwise. 

Reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Atlantic and Consumer Reports portrayed Butterworth as a key player in the chemical industry’s aggressive PR efforts to defend the chemical BPA.

In 2009, journalists Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger of the Journal Sentinel described Butterworth as BPA’s “most impassioned” defender, and an example of “chemical industry public relations writers” who do not disclose their affiliations.

 “The most impassioned defense of BPA on the blogs comes from Trevor Butterworth.”

STATS, they wrote, “claims to be an independent media watchdog” but “is funded by public policy organizations that promote deregulation.” Its sister organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, “has a history of working for corporations trying to deflect concerns about the safety of their products.” Butterworth said his reporting on BPA reflected the evidence at the time from authoritative sources, and STATS posted responses here and here to the critical reporting.

A more recent example of how Butterworth’s writings played a key role in corporate lobby efforts to discredit troublesome science can be seen in his work on the controversial artificial sweetener sucralose.

In 2012, Butterworth wrote a Forbes article criticizing a study that raised concerns about the cancer risk of sucralose. He described the researchers, Dr. Morando Soffritti and the Ramazzini Institute, as “something of a joke.”

In 2016, a food industry front group featured Butterworth’s 2012 article and “something of a joke” critique in a press release attacking a new Soffritti “panic study” that raised concerns about sucralose. Reporters at The IndependentThe Daily MailThe Telegraph and Deseret News picked up Butterworth’s quotes discrediting the researchers, and identified him only as a reporter from Forbes.

Similarly, in 2011, Butterworth was a featured expert at the International Sweeteners Association Conference, and claimed in their press release there is “no evidence of a risk to health” from sucralose. He was identified as a “journalist who regularly contributes to the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.”

Emails obtained by USRTK show that Coca Cola VP Rhona Applebaum described Butterworth to the leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network – a Coca-Cola front group working to spin the science on obesity – as “our friend” and a journalist who was “ready and able” to work with them. Butterworth said he never worked with that group.

Butterworth is now affiliated with Cornell University as a visiting fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science, a group launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million Gates Foundation grant to promote GMOs. The Gates-funded group now partners with Sense About Science USA on a workshop to teach young scientists to “Stand Up for Science.”

Sense About Science USA also runs public engagement workshops for scientists at such venues as the University of Washington, University of Pittsburg, Carnegie Melon, Rockefeller University, Caltech and University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Henry I. Miller – Hoover Institution

Henry I. Miller, MD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is one of the most prolific defenders of genetically engineered foods and fiercest opponents of labeling them. He has penned numerous attacks on the organic industry, including “The Colossal Hoax of Organic Agriculture” (Forbes), “Organic Farming is Not Sustainable” (Wall Street Journal) and “The Dirty Truth About Organic Produce” (Newsweek).

Miller has also written in defense of bee-harming pesticides, plastic chemicals and radiation from nuclear power plants, and has repeatedly argued for the reintroduction of DDT. He did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

Unlike Butterworth and Entine, Miller has a science background and government credentials; he is a medical doctor and was the founding director of the FDA’s office of biotechnology.

Like Butterworth and Entine, Miller’s funding comes from groups that finance climate science denial – the Hoover Institute’s top funder is the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the group has also taken money from the Searle Freedom Trust, Exxon Mobile, American Chemistry Council, Charles Koch Foundation and Donors Trust.

Like the founders of STATS and Sense About Science, Miller also has ties to the tobacco industry PR campaigns. In a 1994 PR strategy memo for the tobacco company Phillip Morris, Miller was referred to as “a key supporter” of the global campaign to fight tobacco regulations. In 2012, Miller wrote that nicotine “is not particularly bad for you in the amounts delivered by cigarettes or smokeless products.”

Miller is also a member of the “scientific advisory board” of the George C. Marshall Institute, which is famous for its oil and gas industry funded denials of climate change, and a former trustee of the American Council on Science and Health, which “depends heavily on funding from corporations that have a financial stake in the scientific debates it aims to shape,” according to Mother Jones.

Perhaps recognizing that pontificating men aren’t the best sources to influence the women who buy food, Miller has recently been sharing bylines with female protégés who have joined his attacks on health advocates and organic farmers.

Examples include a co-authored piece with Kavin Senapathy, co-founder of a group that tries to disrupt speaking events of GMO critics, headlined “Screw the Activists;” and one with Julie Kelly, a cooking instructor whose husband is a lobbyist for the agribusiness giant ADM, describing organic agriculture as an “evil empire.”

Recent work by Kelly includes a piece in National Review casting doubt on climate science researchers, and an article in The Hill calling on Congress to defund the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which she accused of “cancer collusion” and “using shoddy science to promote a politically motivated agenda.”

As we enter the fifth decade of losing the war on cancer, and as climate instability threatens ecosystems and our food system, it’s time to unravel the network of science deniers who claim the mantle of science and expose them for what they are: propagandists who do the dirty work of industry.

This article was originally published in The Ecologist.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the nonprofit public watchdog group US Right to Know. She is author of “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” a co-founder of the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and a former newspaper publisher.

Why is Cornell University Hosting a GMO Propaganda Campaign?

Print Email Share Tweet

Standing up for science - or propaganda?

Standing up for science – or propaganda?

This article by Stacy Malkan original appeared in The Ecologist

The founders of Cornell University, Andrew D. White and Ezra Cornell, dreamed of creating a great university that took a radical approach to learning. Their revolutionary spirit, and the promise to pursue knowledge for the greater good, is said to be at the heart of the Ivy League school their dream became.

It is difficult to understand how these ideals are served by a unit of Cornell operating as a public relations arm for the agrichemical industry.

Yet that is what seems to be going on at the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS), a program launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a goal to “depolarize the charged debate” about GMOs.

A review of the group’s materials and programs suggests that beneath its promise to “restore the importance of scientific evidence in decision making,” CAS is promoting GMOs using dishonest messaging and PR tactics developed by agrichemical corporations with a long history of misleading the public about science.

Communicating science or propaganda?

CAS is a communications campaign devoted to promoting genetically engineered foods (also known as GMOs) around the world. This is made clear in the group’s promotional video.

CAS Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, describes her group as a “communications-based nonprofit organization represented by scientists, farmers, NGOs, journalists and concerned citizens” who will use “interactive online platforms, multimedia resources and communication training programs to build a global movement to advocate for access to biotechnology.”

In this way, they say they will help alleviate malnourishment and hunger in developing countries, according to the video.

Dr. Evanega said her group has no connections to industry and receives no resources from industry. “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate for or promote industry-owned products,” she wrote in a blog post titled “A Right to Be Known (Accurately) in which she pushed back against criticisms from my group, U.S. Right to Know.

Yet the flagship programs of CAS – a 12-week course for Global Leadership Fellows and two-day intensive communications courses – teach communication skills to people who are “committed to advocating for increased access to biotechnology” specifically so they can “lead advocacy efforts in their local contexts.”

The group also has unusual dealings with journalists. What does it mean, as the CAS video states, that it is “represented by” journalists?

CAS offers journalism fellowships with cash awards for select journalists to “promote in-depth contextualized reporting” about issues related to food security, crop production, biotechnology and sustainable agricultural.

Are these journalists also GMO advocates? How ethical is it for journalists to represent the policy positions of a pro-agrichemical-industry group?

Messaging for corporate interests

One thing is clear from the publicly available CAS messaging: the context they offer on the topic of genetically engineered foods is not in depth and comprehensive but rather highly selective and geared toward advancing the interests of the agrichemical industry.

For example, the video: Brimming with hope about the possibilities of GMOs to solve world hunger in the future, it ignores a large body of scientific research that has documented problems connected with GMOs – that herbicide-tolerant GMO crops have driven up the use of glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer by the world’s leading cancer experts; and accelerated weed resistance on millions of acres of U.S. farmland, which makes crop production harder for farmers, not easier.

There is no mention of the failure of GMO crops designed to ward off harmful insects, or the rising concerns of medical doctors about patterns of illness in places like Hawaii and Argentina where exposures are heaviest to the chemicals associated with GMOs.

There is no recognition that many scientists and food leaders have said GMOs are not a priority for feeding the world, a debate that is a key reason GMO crops have not been widely embraced outside of the United States and Latin America.

All these factors are relevant to the discussion about whether or not developing countries should embrace genetically engineered crops and foods. But CAS leaves aside these details and amplifies the false idea that the science is settled on the safety and necessity of GMOs.

Disseminating selective information of a biased or misleading nature to promote a particular agenda is known as the practice of propaganda.

Working from industry’s PR playbook

 The Cornell Alliance for Science was supposed to present “a new vision for biotechnology communications,” yet the group relies on an established set of messages and communication tactics that are familiar to anyone who follows the PR campaigns of the agribusiness industry.

The report Spinning Food, which I co-authored with Kari Hamerschlag and Anna Lappé, documents how agribusiness and food industry funded groups are spending tens of millions of dollars a year to promote misleading messages about the safety and necessity of industrial-scale, chemical-intensive, genetically engineered agriculture.

The companies that profit most from this system – Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and other agrichemical giants – have repeatedly violated trust by misleading the public about science, as Gary Ruskin showed in his report Seedy Business. So they rely on front groups and third-party allies such as scientists and professors to spread their messaging for them.

A core industry narrative is that the science on GMO safety is settled. Pro-industry messengers focus on possible future uses of the technology while downplaying, ignoring or denying the risks; make inaccurate claims about the level of scientific agreement on GMOs; and attack critics who raise concerns as “anti-science.”

As one example, Mark Lynas, political director of CAS, wrote a New York Times op-ed accusing 17 European Union countries that banned GMO crop cultivation of “turning against science.” He dubbed them the “coalition of the ignorant.”

The article is heavy on attack and light on science, brushing over the topic with an inaccurate claim about a safety consensus that many scientists have disputed.

As molecular geneticist Belinda Martineau, PhD, wrote in response to Lynas, “Making general claims about the safety of genetic engineering … (is) unscientific, illogical and absurd.”

The World Health Organization states, “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

Yet, while claiming to stand up for science, CAS routinely makes general – even outlandish – claims about GMO safety.

From the group’s FAQ:

  • “You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than be hurt by GE food – and that’s not an exaggeration.”
  • “GE crops currently available to the public pose no greater health risks or environmental concerns than their non-engineered counterparts. This is not opinion.”

In fact, it is propaganda.

Battling transparency in science

In the spring of 2014, CAS launched a petition attacking my group U.S. Right to Know for filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain the emails of publicly funded professors as part of our investigation into the food and agrichemical industries and their PR operations.

CAS called the FOIA requests a “witch hunt,” yet documents obtained via these FOIA requests generated news stories in several top media outlets about academics who were working with industry PR operatives on campaigns to promote GMOs without disclosing those ties to the public.

The story broke in a front-page New York Times article by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton, who explained how Monsanto, facing consumer skepticism about GMOs, “retooled their lobbying and public relations strategy to spotlight a rarefied group of advocates: academics, brought in for the gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”

In one case, reported by Laura Krantz in the Boston Globe, a Monsanto executive told Harvard professor Calestous Juma to write a paper about how GMOs are needed to feed Africa.

“Monsanto not only suggested the topic to professor Calestous Juma. It went so far as to provide a summary of what the paper could say and a suggested headline. The company then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet as part of Monsanto’s strategy to win over the public and lawmakers,” Krantz wrote.

Juma said he took no money from Monsanto but noted he has received funding from the Gates Foundation, which has been partnering with Monsanto for years on pro-GMO projects after Rob Horsch, Monsanto’s veteran top executive for international development, joined the Foundation in 2006. Horsch now leads Gates’ agricultural research and development team. (A 2014 analysis by the research group Grain found that about 90% of $3 billion the Gates Foundation has spent to feed the poor in Africa has gone to wealthy nations, primarily universities and research centers.)

The public has a right to know if academics posing as independent sources are working behind the scenes with corporations and their PR firms on coordinated messaging campaigns to push a corporate agenda.

CAS takes the position in its petition that the public doesn’t have a right to know about the ties between industry PR operatives and 14 public scientists who have “contributed to the scientific consensus about the safety of GMOs.”

The Cornell petition is accompanied by a photo montage featuring Carl Sagan, Madame Curie, Albert Einstein and other deceased scientists who have not signed the petition, stamped with the slogan, “I stand with the #Science14” – a bit of PR flair that mirrors the dishonest propaganda used to oppose GMO labeling.

Aligning with industry PR writers

At an esteemed institution like Cornell, you might expect to find experts in science or ethics teaching communication courses that promise to restore scientific integrity to public discourse. Instead, at CAS, you will find experts in crisis management communication who specialize in opposing public health regulations.

For example, Trevor Butterworth, a visiting fellow at Cornell and director of Sense About Science (a “non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for sense about science!”) is partnering with CAS to teach students and scientists how to communicate with journalists about GMOs.

Butterworth has a long history of communicating science for the benefit of corporations wishing to keep their products unregulated. A 2009 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article by Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust about industry lobbying efforts on bisphenol A (BPA) identified him as a “chemical industry public relations writer.”

As an editor of STATS at George Mason University, Butterworth was a prolific defender of BPA who “regularly combs the Internet for stories about BPA and offers comments without revealing his ties to industry,” Kissinger and Rust wrote.

“STATS claims to be independent and nonpartisan. But a review of its financial reports shows it is a branch of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. That group was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco.” (The tobacco industry, they noted, was lobbying alongside the chemical industry to keep BPA unregulated.)

Butterworth has also promoted industry positions arguing against regulations for vinyl plastic and phthalates, fracking, high fructose corn syrup and sugary sodas.

He now partners with CAS to teach students how to communicate about GMOs, and CAS political director Lynas sits on the advisory board of Sense About Science.

Lynas’ work raises more questions: Why does a science group need a political director? And why would CAS choose Lynas for the role? Lynas is not a scientist but an environmental writer who rose to sudden fame after embracing GMOs, and his science has been critiqued at length by scientists, reporters and professors.

Depolarizing the GMO debate?

Corporations have been known to deploy outrageous messaging when their products run into trouble; examples include “DDT is good for me,” “More doctors smoke Camels” and the Dutch Boy campaign to promote lead paint to children.

A low point for chemical industry messaging was its PR campaign to paint “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson (and environmentalists in general) as murderers of millions of children in Africa for raising concerns about DDT.

That sort of messaging is making a comeback in the GMO debate.

In September 2015, the CAS Speakers Series hosted Owen Paterson, Member of Parliament from the UK, for a talk titled, “Check Your Green Privilege: It’s Not Environmentally Friendly to Allow Millions to Die.”

Paterson’s speech was filled with hyperbolic claims about GMOs that lack scientific rigor (GMOs “are in fact safer than conventionally bred crops … one of the most environmentally friendly advances this world has ever seen … can save millions of lives that today are squandered by the ideology of massively supported environmental campaign groups.”)

The speech garnered praise from the American Council on Science and Health, a well-known industry front group, in a blog by Dr. Gil Ross titled, “Billion Dollar Green Campaigns Kill Poor Children.”

Ross explained in the blog that the CAS Speakers Series was created, “to use facts to counter the perceived tendency of college students to follow the environmentalist mantra without too much thought… the concept of being afraid of genetic engineering is akin to looking under the bed for hobgoblins such as Godzilla, awakened by the atomic tests of the Cold War.”

Paterson and Ross are unhelpful to the image of scientific integrity CAS is trying to project. Ross is a convicted felon who spent time in jail for Medicaid fraud. Paterson, the former UK environment secretary, is widely seen as a climate change skeptic whose views are incompatible with science.

How are bloggers in Hawaii helping feed the poor in Africa?

 With its year round growing season, the Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for GMOs. They are also ground zero for concerns about pesticides associated with GMOs, and a key focus of industry’s pro-GMO propaganda campaigns and allies such as CAS.

Elif Bealle, executive director of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, has been active in grassroots efforts for pesticide reporting, bans and pesticide buffer zones around GMO crops. She has also been keeping an eye on CAS, which she said has been recruiting local bloggers and has associates on several of the Islands.

“They present themselves as ‘just concerned local residents’ or ‘neutral journalists.’ They are almost full time commenting on online newspaper articles, submitting, Community Voice Op-Eds, etc. Their blog posts are regularly picked up and disseminated by the biotech trade group website in Hawaii, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association,” Bealle said.

For example, Joni Kamiya, a CAS Global Leadership Fellow, uses her blog, Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter, to promote the “safety and science” of GMOs with messaging that glosses over science and disparages GMO critics.

Kamiya is also an “independent expert” for GMO Answers, a GMO PR website created by Ketchum PR firm and funded by agrichemical companies. Her articles are posted on Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project, which was also tapped to publish the GMO promotion papers assigned by Monsanto and written by professors.

Kamiya’s writing also appears on the home page of Kauai Farming and Jobs Coalition, a group with unknown funding that claims to “represent a wide range of individuals and organizations in our community” and promotes articles by Monsanto, Genetic Literacy Project and other food industry front groups such as the Center for Consumer Freedom.

Other CAS allies in the Islands include Lorie Farrell, a CAS associate who writes for GMO Answers and helped coordinate opposition to the GMO cultivation ban on the Big Island for Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United; and Joan Conrow, who has a consulting contract with Cornell and writes the confrontational blog Kauai Eclectic.

Their messaging follows a typical pattern: they claim a scientific consensus on GMO safety and attack people calling for transparency and safety as outsiders who are killing the “Aloha spirit” of the Islands.

Arming the conflict

In his article, “The War on Genetically Modified Food Critics,” Tufts Professor Timothy Wise takes the media to task for falling for industry PR tactics and incorrectly reporting the science on GMO as “settled.”

“What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign to … paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages,” Wise wrote.

One indicator of that campaign, he said, was the Gates Foundation award to Cornell to “depolarize” the debate over GM foods.

“The Gates Foundation is paying biotech scientists and advocates at Cornell to help them convince the ignorant and brainwashed public, who ‘may not be well informed,’ that they are ignorant and brainwashed … It’s kind of like depolarizing an armed conflict by giving one side more weapons,” Wise wrote.

Instead of arming the PR wars in service of industry, Cornell University should stand up for science by convening a more honest discussion about GMOs – one that acknowledges the risks as well as the benefits of genetically engineered foods.

One that refrains from attacking and instead seeks common ground with groups calling for transparency and health and safety standards.

CAS Director Dr. Evanega said her group does share common values around right to know and access to information, and she disputes the notion that CAS was formed to promote GMOs.

“So-called ‘GMOs’ are not a monolithic thing,” Dr. Evanega wrote in her blog. “For example, it makes no sense to cluster together such diverse technologies as bacteria engineered to produce insulin and papaya engineered to resist a virus. We support access — to innovation and the information that will help people make sound decisions based on science and evidence — not fear, emotions.”

Certainly GMOs are not a monolithic thing. That’s exactly why it is inaccurate and dishonest to claim that people are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than to be harmed by GMOs.

A science alliance that truly is about restoring integrity to science should illuminate a comprehensive record of research, not parrot the talking points of PR firms and corporate players.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. She is author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” (New Society Publishing, 2007). Stacy is a former reporter and newspaper publisher and longtime advocate for environmental health. She co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2002 and worked as communications director of Health Care Without Harm for eight years.