Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group

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Academics Review, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization launched in 2012, claims to be an independent group but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it is a front group set up with the help of Monsanto and its public relations team to attack agrichemical industry critics while appearing to be independent.

Related: Genetic Literacy Project, Monsanto partner groups, Biotech Literacy Project boot camps

Covert industry funding 

The Academics Review website describes its founders as “two independent professors,” Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia. As of May 2018, the website claims, “Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.”

However, tax records show that the primary funder of Academics Review has been the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade association that is funded and run by the largest agrichemical companies: BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta.

According to CBI tax records, the industry-funded group gave Academics Review a total of $650,000 in 2014 and 2015-2016. Tax records for AcademicsReview.org report expenses of $791,064 from 2013-2016 (see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). The money was spent on organizing conferences and promoting GMOs and pesticides, according to the tax records.

Emails reveal secret origin of academic front group

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state Freedom of Information requests revealed the inner workings of how Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, its PR allies and industry funders. See “Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food,” by Stacy Malkan (6/30/2016).

Key facts and emails:

  • Eric Sachs, a senior public relations executive at Monsanto, said he would help find industry funding for Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote to Chassy on November 30, 2010.
  • Academics Review was conceived as a front group that could attack critics of the agrichemical industry. According to a March 11, 2010 email chain, the group was established with the help of Monsanto executives along with Jay Byrne, former director of corporate communications at Monsanto who now runs a PR shop called v-Fluence Interactive; and Val Giddings, former VP of the biotech industry trade association BIO.
  • Byrne compared the concept as similar to – but better than – a front group set up by Rick Berman, a lobbyist known as  “Dr. Evil” and the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda” for his work to promote tobacco and oil industry interests under the cover of neutral-sounding groups. Berman’s “’Center for Consumer Freedom’ (ActivistCash.com) has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept,” Byrne wrote to Chassy on March 11, 2010.
  • Byrne said he was developing an “opportunities list with targets” for Monsanto comprised of “individuals organizations, content items and topic areas” critical of ag-biotech that “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations.”
  • Chassy indicated he was especially keen to go after the organic industry. “I would love to find a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles,” he wrote on March 11, 2010. In 2014, Academics Review attacked the organic industry with a report it falsely claimed was the work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.

Monsanto plan names Academics Review as “industry partner” 

Academics Review is an “industry partner”according to a confidential Monsanto PR document that describes the corporation’s plans to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to defend the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. On March 20, 2015, IARC announced it had classified glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The Monsanto PR document lists four tiers of industry partners to engage in its public relations efforts to discredit the cancer panel’s report. Academics Review was listed as a Tier 2 “industry partner” along with Genetic Literacy Project, Sense About Science, Biofortified, and the AgBioChatter academics list serve.

An Academics Review article dated March 25, 2015 claimed the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts.” The article linked to the industry-funded GMO Answers, the front group American Council on Science and Health and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Bruce Chassy’s ties to industry and its front groups

Professor Bruce Chassy, co-founder of Academics Review and president of the board, has been frequently cited in the media as an independent expert on GMOs, while he was also receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto.

Chassy had received $57,000 in undisclosed funds over a two-year period from Monsanto to travel, write and speak about GMOs, according to WBEZ. The story reported that Monsanto also sent at least $5.1 million through the University of Illinois Foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015.

Chassy is on the “Board of Science and Policy Advisors” of the American Council on Science and Health, an industry funded front group that works with Monsanto. Chassy is also an “independent expert” for GMO Answers, a marketing website for GMOs and pesticides funded by the agrichemical industry.

Articles about Bruce Chassy’s industry ties:

  • New York Times, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton (9/5/2015)
  • New York Times email archive, “A University of Illinois Professor Joins the Fight,” (9/5/2015)
  • WBEZ, “Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding,” by Monica Eng (3/15/2016)
  • US Right to Know, “Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign,” by Carey Gillam (1/29/2016)

David Tribe / Academics Review / Biofortified

David Tribe is co-founder of Academics Review, vice president of the Academics Review Board of Directors, and a reviewer on the 2014 Academics Review report attacking the organic industry. Tribe is also a member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified Inc., or Biofortified, a nonprofit group that aids the agrichemical industry with lobbying and public relations.

Industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps: training scientists and journalists to promote GMOs 

The Biotech Literacy Project boot camps were a series of conferences funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project, another group that partners with Monsanto on public relations projects. The boot camps trained scientists and journalists how to present GMOs and pesticides in a more positive light, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling and prop up flagging support for agrichemical industry products.

Boot camp organizers made false claims to journalists and scientists about the source of funds for the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps; they claimed funding came from a mix of government, academic and industry sources, but the only traceable funders were the agrichemical corporations.

“I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).” (Journalist Brooke Borel, Popular Science)

“I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money so industry is indirectly a sponsor. We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.” (boot camp organizer Bruce Chassy email to scientists)

The USDA and other government and academic sources named by organizers denied funding the events, according Paul Thacker’s reporting in The Progressive, and the only traceable source of funds was the BIO trade group offshoot, the Council for Biotechnology Information, which is funded by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont and Monsanto Company. That group spent over $300,000 on the two boot camps held at UC Davis and University of Florida, according to tax records and Thacker’s reporting.

Speakers at the 2015 Biotech Literacy Project boot camp (according to the wrap-up report) included industry executives and public relations operatives, including Monsanto’s former head of communications Jay Byrne (who helped set up Academics Review as a front group to attack industry critics), Hank Campbell of the front group American Council on Science and Health, and Yvette d’Entremont the “SciBabe.”

More information:

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.

Drew Kershen: Agrichemical Industry Front Group Ringleader

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Drew Kershen, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, is a close ally of the agrichemical industry. He argues for deregulation of genetically engineered plants and animals and against transparency. Kershen has played a key role in agrichemical industry-funded promotional efforts and front groups that lobby for industry interests. Kershen does not disclose funding sources.

Agrichemical industry ties and front group leadership

Genetic Literacy Project / Science Literacy Project

Kershen is a board member of Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that partners with Monsanto to do public relations for genetically engineered foods and pesticides, and does not accurately disclose its funding. Documents reveal that the Genetic Literacy Project:

Kershen is also a board member of the Science Literacy Project, the 501(c)(3) parent organization of the Genetic Literacy Project. Both are directed by Jon Entine, a longtime PR ally of the chemical industry.

According to 2015 tax records, Jon Entine and the Science Literacy Project assumed control of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a group formerly affiliated with the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) and the Genetic Literacy Project. Operations for STATS were folded into Sense About Science USA, which shares the same address of record with Science Literacy Project.

The founders of STATS, CMPA and Sense About Science did public relations work for the tobacco industry and these groups are not independent arbiters of science, according to a 2016 investigation in The Intercept.

For more information, see USRTK fact sheets on Jon Entine and Genetic Literacy Project and Sense About Science/STATS.

Secretary of Academics Review Front Group

Kershen was the secretary of the board of directors of Academics Review, according to its 2016 tax records. Academics Review claimed to be an independent group, but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it was a front group set up with the help of Monsanto to attack critics of the agrichemical industry while appearing to be independent.

Kershen was a reviewer for a 2014 report by Academics Review that tried to discredit the organic industry; the press release for the report claimed that it was work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.

Tax records show that the primary funder of Academics Review was the Council for Biotechnology Information, a nonprofit organization funded and run by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. CBI gave a total of $600,000 to Academics Review in 2014 and 2015-2016.

Why Forbes Deleted Some Drew Kershen Articles

Kershen co-authored several articles that were deleted by Forbes and Project Syndicate after his co-author, Henry Miller, was caught using a column ghostwritten by Monsanto as his own work in Forbes. The New York Times revealed the ghostwriting scandal in 2017.

Kershen and Miller also co-wrote articles for Slate, National Review, the Hoover Institution and the American Council on Science and Health (an industry-funded front group) arguing against labeling and regulating genetically engineered foods, attacking industry critics, and claiming “the world’s poor are suffering and dying unnecessarily” due to the “gratuitous regulation demanded by activists.”

GMO Answers

Kershen is an “ambassador expert” for GMO Answers, a marketing and PR website for genetically engineered foods that is funded by the big agrichemical companies via the Council for Biotechnology Information, and run by the public relations firm Ketchum.

Intervened in Transparency Lawsuit to Suppress Public Disclosure

Several documents reported in this fact sheet, which exposed undisclosed ties between corporations and front groups, were first obtained via Freedom of Information requests by U.S. Right to Know. Kershen has intervened in lawsuits to try to stop further disclosure, as the Freedom of the Press Foundation reported in February 2018.

For more information about food industry front groups, see the USRTK investigations page.

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

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Update May 2018: Tax records show that the Council for Biotechnology Information, a chemical industry trade group, paid Ketchum public relations firm more than $11 million from 2013-2016 to to run GMO Answers. See also this related post, “Monsanto Relied on These Partners to Attack Top Cancer Scientists” (5/31/18).

ketchum gmo answers

By Stacy Malkan

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

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

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

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

But how independent are those experts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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