Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR Campaign for the Agrichemical Industry

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Despite its academic-sounding name and affiliation with an Ivy League institution, the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) is a public relations campaign funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides. On Sept. 23, 2020, the group announced $10 million in new funding from the Gates Foundation, bringing the total Gates funding to $22 million for the “global communications campaign” based at Cornell University that purports to “address misinformation about biotechnology.”

This fact sheet documents many examples of deceptive messaging from CAS and people affiliated with the group. Numerous academics, scientists and food groups have called out CAS messengers for making inaccurate claims and using aggressive tactics to try to discredit critics of the pesticide industry. The examples described here provide evidence that CAS is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to advance the PR and political agenda of the world’s largest chemical and seed corporations.

Industry-aligned mission and messaging

The Gates Foundation launched CAS in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant in an effort to “depolarize” the debate around genetically engineered foods. The group says its mission is to “promote access” to GMO crops and foods by training “science allies” around the world to educate their communities about the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.

Pesticide industry group promotes CAS 

A key part of the CAS strategy is to recruit and train Global Leadership Fellows in communications and promotional tactics, focusing on regions where there is public opposition to the biotech industry, particularly African countries that have resisted GMO crops.

The CAS mission is strikingly similar to the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a pesticide-industry funded public relations initiative that has partnered with CAS and promotes the group. CBI aimed to build alliances across the food chain and train third-parties, particularly academics and farmers, persuade the public to accept GMOs.

CAS messaging also aligns closely with industry PR efforts: they focus on promoting the possible future benefits of genetically engineered foods while downplaying or denying risks and working to discredit critics.

Widespread criticism

CAS and its writers have drawn criticism from academics, farmers, students, community groups and food sovereignty movements who say the group promotes inaccurate and misleading messaging and uses unethical tactics. See for example:

Examples of misleading messaging

Experts in genetic engineering, biology, agroecology and food policy have documented many examples of inaccurate claims made by Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell who has written dozens of articles defending agrichemical products in the name of CAS; see for example his many articles promoted by the Genetic Literacy Project, a PR group that works with Monsanto. Lynas’ 2018 book argues for African countries to accept GMOs, and devotes a chapter to defending Monsanto.

Inaccurate claims about GMOs

Numerous scientists have criticized Lynas for making false statements, “unscientific, illogical and absurd” arguments, promoting dogma over data and research on GMOs, rehashing industry talking points, and making inaccurate claims about pesticides that “display a deep scientific ignorance, or an active effort to manufacture doubt.”

“The laundry list of what Mark Lynas got wrong about both GMOs and science is extensive, and has been refuted point by point by some of the world’s leading agroecologists and biologists,” wrote Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First, in April 2013 (Lynas joined Cornell as a visiting fellow later that year).  

“disingenuous and untruthful”

Africa-based groups have critiqued Lynas at length. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a coalition of more than 40 food and farming groups across Africa, has described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.” Million Belay, director of AFSA, described Lynas as “a racist who is pushing a narrative that only industrial agriculture can save Africa.”

In a 2018 press release, the South Africa-based African Centre for Biodiversity described unethical tactics Lynas has used to promote the biotech lobby agenda in Tanzania. “There is an issue definitely about accountability and [need for] reigning the Cornell Alliance for Science in, because of the misinformation and the way that they are extremely disingenuous and untruthful,” Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, said in a July 2020 webinar.

For detailed critiques of Lynas’ work, see articles at the end of this post and our Mark Lynas fact sheet.

Attacking agroecology

A recent example of inaccurate messaging is a widely panned article on the CAS website by Lynas claiming, “agro-ecology risks harming the poor.” Academics described the article as a “demagogic and non-scientific interpretation of a scientific paper,” “deeply unserious,” “pure ideology” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be scientific,” a “really flawed analysis“ that makes “sweeping generalizations“ and “wild conclusions.” Some critics called for a retraction.

2019 article by CAS fellow Nassib Mugwanya provides another example of misleading content on the topic of agroecology. The article, “Why traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture,” reflects the typical messaging pattern in CAS materials: presenting GMO crops as the “pro-science” position while painting “alternative forms of agricultural development as ‘anti-science,’ groundless and harmful,” according to an analysis by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice.

“Particularly notable in the article are strong usages of metaphors (e.g., agroecology likened to handcuffs), generalizations, omissions of information and a number of factual inaccuracies,” the group said.

Using Monsanto playbook to defend pesticides

Another example of misleading industry-aligned CAS messaging can be found in the group’s defense of glyphosate-based Roundup. The herbicides are a key component of GMO crops with 90% of corn and soy grown in the United States genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup. In 2015, after the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel said glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, Monsanto organized allies to “orchestrate outcry” against the independent science panel to “protect the reputation” of Roundup, according to internal Monsanto documents.

Monsanto’s PR playbook: attacking cancer experts as ‘activists’

Mark Lynas used the CAS platform to amplify the Monsanto messaging, describing the cancer report as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “anti-Monsanto activists” who “abused science” and committed “an obvious perversion of both science and natural justice” by reporting a cancer risk for glyphosate. Lynas used the same flawed arguments and industry sources as the American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto paid to help spin the cancer report.

While claiming to be on the side of science, Lynas ignored ample evidence from Monsanto documents, widely reported in the press, that Monsanto interfered with scientific research, manipulated regulatory agencies and used other heavy-handed tactics to manipulate the scientific process in order to protect Roundup. In 2018, a jury found the that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in covering up the cancer risk of Roundup.

Lobbying for pesticides and GMOs in Hawaii

Although its main geographical focus is Africa, CAS also aids pesticide industry efforts to defend pesticides and discredit public health advocates in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for GMO crops and also an area that reports high exposures to pesticides and concerns about pesticide-related health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma. These problems led residents to organize a years-long fight to pass stronger regulations to reduce pesticide exposures and improve disclosure of the chemicals used on agricultural fields.

“launched vicious attacks”

As these efforts gained traction, CAS engaged in a “massive public relations disinformation campaign designed to silence community concerns” about the health risks of pesticides, according to Fern Anuenue Holland, a community organizer for Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. In the Cornell Daily Sun, Holland described how “paid Cornell Alliance for Science fellows — under the guise of scientific expertise — launched vicious attacks. They used social media and wrote dozens of blog posts condemning impacted community members and other leaders who had the courage to speak up.”

Holland said she and other members of her organization were subjected to “character assassinations, misrepresentations and attacks on personal and professional credibility” by CAS affiliates. “I have personally witnessed families and lifelong friendships torn apart,” she wrote.

Opposing the public’s right to know     

CAS Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, has said her group is independent of industry: “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate or promote industry-owned products. As our website clearly and fully discloses, we receive no resources from industry.” However, dozens of emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show CAS and Evanega coordinating closely with the pesticide industry and its front groups on public relations initiatives. Examples include:

More examples of CAS partnerships with industry groups are described at the bottom of this fact sheet.  

Elevating front groups and unreliable messengers

In its efforts to promote GMOs as a “science-based” solution for agriculture, Cornell Alliance for Science has lent its platform to industry front groups and even a notorious climate science skeptic.

Trevor Butterworth and Sense About Science/STATS: CAS partners with Sense About Science/STATS to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” and gave a fellowship to the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending products important to the chemical, fracking, junk food and drug industries. Butterworth is founding director of Sense About Science USA, which he merged with his former platform, Statistical Assessment Service (STATS).

Journalists have described STATs and Butterworth as key players in chemical and pharmaceutical industry product defense campaigns (see Stat News, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Intercept and The Atlantic).  Monsanto documents identify Sense About Science among the “industry partner” it counted on to defend Roundup against cancer concerns.

Climate science skeptic Owen Paterson: In 2015, CAS hosted Owen Paterson, a British Conservative Party politician and well-known climate science skeptic who slashed funding for global warming mitigation efforts during his stint as UK Environment Minister. Paterson used the Cornell stage to claim that environmental groups raising concerns about GMOs “allow millions to die.” Pesticide industry groups used similar messaging 50 years ago to try to discredit Rachel Carson for raising concerns about DDT.

Lynas and Sense About Science: Lynas of CAS is also affiliated with Sense About Science as a longtime advisory board member. In 2015, Lynas partnered with climate science skeptic Owen Paterson Paterson also Sense About Science Director Tracey Brown to launch what he called the “ecomodernism movement,” a corporate-aligned, anti-regulation strain of “environmentalism.”

Hawaii Alliance for Science messengers

In 2016, CAS launched an affiliate group called the Hawaii Alliance for Science, which said its purpose was to “support evidence-based decision-making and agricultural innovation in the Islands.” Its messengers include:

Sarah Thompson, a former employee of Dow AgroSciences, coordinated the Hawaii Alliance for Science, which described itself as a “communications-based non-profit grassroots organization associated with the Cornell Alliance for Science.” (The website no longer appears active, but the group maintains a Facebook page.)

Social media posts from the Hawaii Alliance for Science and its coordinator Thompson have described critics of the agrichemical industry as arrogant and ignorant people, celebrated corn and soy mono-crops and defended neonicotinoid pesticides which many studies and scientists say are harming bees.

Joan Conrow, Managing Editor of CAS, writes articles on her personal website, her “Kauai Eclectic” blog and for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project trying to discredit health professionals, community groups and politicians in Hawaii who advocate for stronger pesticide protections, and journalists who write about pesticide concerns. Conrow has accused environmental groups of tax evasion and compared a food safety group to the KKK.

Conrow has not always disclosed her Cornell affiliation. Hawaii’s Civil Beat newspaper criticized Conrow for her lack of transparency and cited her in 2016 as an example of why the paper was changing its commenting policies. Conrow “often argued the pro-GMO perspective without explicitly mentioning her occupation as a GMO sympathist,” wrote journalism professor Brett Oppegaard. “Conrow also has lost her journalistic independence (and credibility) to report fairly about GMO issues, because of the tone of her work on these issues.”

Joni Kamiya, a 2015 CAS Global Leadership Fellow argues against pesticide regulations on her website Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter, in the media and also for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project. She is an “ambassador expert” for the agrichemical industry-funded marketing website GMO Answers. Like Conrow, Kamiya claims pesticide exposures in Hawaii aren’t a problem, and tries to discredit elected officials and “environmental extremists” who want to regulate pesticides.

Cornell Alliance for Science staffers, advisors

CAS describes itself as “an initiative based at Cornell University, a non-profit institution.” The group does not disclose its budget, expenditures or staff salaries, and Cornell University does not disclose any information about CAS in its tax filings.

The website lists 20 staff members, including Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, and Managing Editor Joan Conrow (it does not list Mark Lynas or other fellows who may also receive compensation). Other notable staff members listed on the website include:

The CAS advisory board includes academics who regularly assist the agrichemical industry with their PR efforts.

Gates Foundation: critiques of agricultural development strategies 

Since 2016, the Gates Foundation has spent over $4 billion on agricultural development strategies, much of that focused on Africa. The foundation’s agricultural development strategies were led by Rob Horsch (recently retired), a Monsanto veteran of 25 years. The strategies have drawn criticism for promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa.

Critiques of the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural development and funding include:

More CAS-industry collaborations 

Dozens of emails obtained via FOIA by U.S. Right to Know, and now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show CAS coordinating closely with the agrichemical industry and its public relations groups to coordinate events and messaging:

More critiques of Mark Lynas 

Key pesticide industry PR group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife

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The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a major public relations initiative launched two decades ago by leading agrichemical companies to persuade the public to accept GMOs and pesticides, has shut down. A spokesperson confirmed via email that CBI “dissolved at the end of 2019, and its assets, including the GMO Answers platform, were transferred to Belgian-based CropLife International.”

Previous disclosure from GMOAnswers.com

CBI is still promoting industry views and front groups via its Facebook page. Its flagship project GMO Answers, a marketing campaign that amplifies the voices of academics to promote GMOs and pesticides, now says its funding comes from CropLife, the international trade group for pesticide companies.

GMOAnswers.com website now explains, “As of 2020, GMO Answers is a program of CropLife International.” The website also notes the group’s history “as a campaign produced by The Council for Biotechnology Information, whose members included BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta.”

See our new fact sheet with more details on the activities of the Council for Biotechnology Information and GMO Answers

“Training third party spokespeople”

CBI spent over $28 million on its product defense efforts from 2014-2019, according to tax records. (Tax forms and more supporting documents are posted here.)

The tax forms highlight the crucial role “third party” allies – especially academics, dieticians and farmers – play in the product defense efforts of the world’s largest pesticide and seed companies. A line item in CBI’s 2015 tax form for $1.4 million spent in North America notes: “Canada focused on training third party spokespeople (farmers, academics, dieticians) to educate media and public about the benefits of ag biotech.” In Mexico, the tax form notes, CBI “hosted media training and conferences for students, farmers, and academics” and “partnered with grower groups, academia, and the food chain to enhance acceptance” of GMOs. CBI also “created policy briefs for regulators.”

CBI’s largest expense, over $14 million since 2013, was for Ketchum public relations firm to run GMO Answers, which promotes the voices and content of  “independent” experts, many of whom have ties to the pesticide industry. Although GMO Answers discloses its industry funding, its activities have been less than transparent.

Other groups funded by CBI included the Global Farmer’s Network and Academics Review, a nonprofit that organized a series of “boot camps” at top universities to train scientists and journalists to promote and lobby for GMOs and pesticides.

CBI also produced a children’s coloring and activity book promoting industry viewpoints on biotechnology. The link for the book, and also a WhyBiotech.com website created by CBI, now redirect to a trade group for manufacturers and distributors of hemp-derived cannabinoids.

Backstory: Shaping public opinion on GMOs

The backstory of CBI was described in 2001 by public relations industry analyst Paul Holmes, founder of PRovoke (formerly the Holmes Report): In 1999, seven leading pesticide/seed companies and their trade groups “came together as a coalition and developed an industry-led public information program” to “shape public opinion and public policy formation on food biotechnology.” CBI would “develop alliances across the entire food ‘chain’ … to focus on promoting the benefits of food biotechnology,” Holmes reported.

“The campaign would counter criticism that biotech foods were unsafe, by emphasizing the extensive testing of biotech foods,” and “would be structured so as to answer questions and concerns from the public and respond to misinformation and ‘scare-tactics’ by biotechnology opponents,” Holmes noted. He explained that the information would be made available to the public “not only by the biotechnology industry, but through a variety of academic, scientific, government and independent, third-party sources.”

The two-decade evolution of CBI also highlights the consolidation of power in the pesticide/GMO industry. Founding members of CBI were BASF, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, Zeneca Ag products, Aventis CropScience, the American Crop Protection Association (now CropLife) and BIO.

The seven companies have since merged into four: Aventis and Monsanto were absorbed by Bayer; Dow Chemical and DuPont became Dow/DuPont and spun off agricultural business operations to Corteva Agriscience; Novartis and Zenica (which later merged with Astra) came together under the banner of Syngenta (which later also acquired ChemChina); while BASF acquired significant assets from Bayer.

More information:

CBI fact sheet

GMO Answers fact sheet

Academics Review fact sheet

More fact sheets from U.S. Right to Know: Tracking the pesticide industry propaganda network

U.S. Right to Know is a non-profit investigative research group producing groundbreaking investigations to expose how powerful food and chemical industry interests impact the food we eat and feed our children. 

Council for Biotechnology Information, GMO Answers, CropLife: pesticide industry PR initiatives 

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The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) was a public relations campaign launched in April 2000 by seven leading chemical/seed companies and their trade groups to persuade the public to accept genetically engineered foods. The initiative was created in response to public concerns about the health and environmental risks of genetically engineered foods, and said its focus would be developing alliances across the food chain to promote GMO crops (“ag biotech”) as beneficial.

CBI closed shop in 2019 and shifted its assets — including the marketing campaign GMO Answers, run by Ketchum PR firm — over to CropLife International, the international trade group for pesticide companies.

See: Key pesticide industry propaganda group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife, USRTK (2020)

CBI tax form: focused on third parties

CBI spent over $28 million from 2014-2019, according to tax records (see 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) on projects promoting genetically engineered foods. As noted in its 2015 tax form, CBI had an explicit focus on developing and training third-party spokespeople – particularly academics, farmers and dieticians – to promote industry views about the benefits of GMOs.

Projects funded by CBI included GMO Answers (via Ketchum public relations firm); Academics Review, a group that claimed to be independent of industry; Biotech Literacy Project boot camps held at top universities (via Academics Review) and the Global Farmer Network.

GMO Answers/Ketchum

GMO Answers is a marketing website and public relations campaign that uses the voices of academics and others to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. CBI spent $14.4 million on Ketchum public relations firm between 2014-2019 to run the PR salvo, according to tax forms.

GMO Answers discloses its industry funding on its website and says it promotes the views of independent experts. However, examples have come to light that Ketchum PR scripted some of the GMO answers offered by “independent experts” (see coverage in New York Times and Forbes). GMO Answers also appears in Monsanto PR documents as partners in industry’s efforts to defend glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides from cancer concerns, and to try to discredit a public interest research investigation by U.S. Right to Know to uncover hidden ties between pesticide companies and academics who promote agrichemical products.

An an example of how GMO Answers builds influence with key reporters, see reporting in Huffington Post about how Ketchum cultivated ties with Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel. Haspel was an early promoter of GMO Answers, and later participated in CBI-funded Biotech Literacy Project messaging events. A source review of Haspel’s columns conducted by USRTK found several examples of undisclosed industry sources and misleading information in her articles about pesticides.

GMO Answers was recognized as a successful spin effort in 2014 when it was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.” In a video produced for the award, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs,” and noted they “closely monitor the conversation” on Twitter where they “successfully balanced 80% of interactions with detractors.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.

Related reporting:

Monsanto document released in 2019

When USRTK submitted FOIAs to investigate industry ties with academics, Monsanto fought back.

Academics Review

CBI provided $650,000 in funding to Academics Review, a nonprofit that claimed it received no corporate funding. The group was co-founded by Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed Academics Review was set up explicitly as a front group with the help of Monsanto executives and the company’s former director of communications Jay Byrne. The group discussed using Academics Review as a vehicle to discredit critics of GMOs and agrichemicals, finding corporate contributions and hiding Monsanto’s fingerprints.

Related reporting: Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food, by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (2017)

Biotech Literacy Project spin events

CBI spent over $300,000 on two “Biotech Literacy Project boot camps” held at the University of Florida in 2014 and the University of California, Davis in 2015, according to tax records. The money was routed through Academics Review, which co-organized the conferences with the Genetic Literacy Project, another group that helps Monsanto with PR projects while claiming to be independent.

The three-day boot camp events trained students, scientists and journalists in communication and lobbying techniques to  promote and defend GMOs and pesticides, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling in the U.S.

Related reporting:  Flacking for GMOs: How the biotech industry cultivates positive media – and discourages criticism, by Paul Thacker, The Progressive (2017)

Monsanto ‘partner’ groups defend Roundup 

Although GMO Answers, Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project all claimed to be independent of the influence of industry, all three groups appeared in a Monsanto PR documents as “industry partners” the company engaged in its efforts to defend glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides from cancer concerns.

Monsanto PR document discusses plans to defend Roundup from cancer concerns

Kids’ coloring book

CBI also produced a children’s coloring and activity book to promote GMOs. The link for the book, and also the WhyBiotech.com website created by CBI, now redirect to a trade group for manufacturers and distributors of hemp-derived cannabinoids.

Related U.S. Right to Know posts

GMO Answers is a crisis management PR tool for GMOs and pesticides (updated 2020)

Key pesticide industry propaganda group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife (2020)

Monsanto’s campaign against U.S. Right to Know (2019)

Monsanto relied on these ‘partners’ to attack top cancer scientists (2019)

Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group (2018)

Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project: PR Messengers for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry (2018)

How Tamar Haspel misleads readers of the Washington Post and source review of Haspel’s pesticide columns (2018)

Russia’s former PR firm Ketchum runs the chemical industry’s PR salvo on GMO (2015)

Nina Fedoroff: Mobilizing the authority of American science to back Monsanto

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  • As a president and board chair of AAAS from 2011-2013, Dr. Fedoroff advanced agrichemical industry policy objectives. She now works for a lobbying firm.
  • Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show how public relations and lobbying efforts are coordinated behind the scenes among the agrichemical industry, front groups and academics who appear independent.

Nina Fedoroff, PhD, is one of the most influential scientists advocating for the proliferation and deregulation of genetically engineered foods. She is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011-2012) and former chair of the AAAS Board of Directors (2012-2013). She is a senior science advisor since 2015 at OFW Law, a lobbying firm whose clients have included Syngenta and the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group representing Bayer (which owns Monsanto), BASF, Corteva (a division of DowDuPont) and Syngenta.

From 2007-2010, Dr. Fedoroff served as science and technology advisor to the Secretary of State and the Administrator of USAID under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Prior to that, she was a board member of the Sigma-Aldrich Corporation, a multinational chemical and biotech firm; and an advisory board member of Evogene, a biotechnology company that partnered with DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto.

A 2017 event to promote the American Council on Science and Health’s “junk science” book featured Dr. Fedoroff and two scientists affiliated with groups that deny climate science.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “science czar,” Dr. Fedoroff served as diplomat for the “GMO all the way” thrust of U.S. foreign policy, Tom Philpott reported in Grist in 2008 and 2009. Pesticide Action Network of North America has described Dr. Fedoroff as “literally the U.S. ambassador” for genetic engineering. According to Greenpeace, Dr. Fedoroff has been “a fervent advocate for the global proliferation of GM (genetically modified) foods throughout her career.”

During her tenure as president and chairman of AAAS, the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society, Dr. Fedoroff leveraged those roles to provide political aid to the agrichemical industry: for example, the AAAS Board of Directors under her chairmanship issued a politically timed statement to oppose GMO labeling in 2012. While president of the scientific organization in 2011, Dr. Fedoroff helped defeat a U.S. EPA proposal that would have required additional health and safety data for GMO crops, according to emails described below. See, Nina Fedoroff, AAAS and the agrichemical industry lobby. Dr. Fedoroff and AAAS have not responded to requests for response.

Affiliations with deceptive industry front groups and PR efforts

Dr. Fedoroff has promoted and helped to legitimize groups that claim to be independent voices for science but work behind the scenes with the agrichemical industry in ways that mislead the public − including two groups that helped Monsanto try to discredit the scientists who served on the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) expert panel that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is funded by chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, according to leaked internal documents that document how the group pitches its services to corporations for product-defense campaigns. Emails released via court proceedings show that Monsanto agreed to fund ACSH in 2015, and asked the group to write about the IARC cancer report on glyphosate; ACSH later claimed the cancer report was a “scientific fraud.”     

Dr. Fedoroff helped promote this group as a legitimate science source in a 2017 National Press Club event to launch the ACSH’s “Little Black Book of Junk Science.” Appearing alongside Dr. Fedoroff at the press event were two scientists affiliated with groups that deny climate science and lobby for tobacco products:

Genetic Literacy Project: Dr. Fedoroff is listed as a board member on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group that claims to be independent but partners with Monsanto on PR and lobbying projects, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. Documents released in court filings show that Monsanto listed this group among the “industry partners” it planned to engage in a strategy to “orchestrate outcry” against IARC’s glyphosate assessment in order to “protect the reputation and FTO of Roundup.” Genetic Literacy Project has since posted more than 200 articles critical of the cancer research agency, including numerous personal attacks on the scientists involved in the glyphosate report, accusing them of conspiracy, fraud, lying, corruption, secrecy, and being motivated by “profit and vanity.”

In an award-winning series in Le Monde about Monsanto’s “effort to destroy the UN cancer agency by any means possible,” journalists Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel described Genetic Literacy Project and ACSH as “well-known propaganda websites” and said GLP is “fed by PR people linked to the pesticides and biotechnology industries.” GLP was launched in 2011 by Jon Entine, who owns a public relations firm that had Monsanto as a client at that time.

Attacks on cancer researchers on the Genetic Literacy Project website that lists Dr. Fedoroff as a “board member”:

Academics Review: Dr. Fedoroff promoted Academics Review as a trustworthy science source in a 2012 article in Trends in Genetics and a 2016 interview with the Washington Examiner about poor science journalism. Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto to discredit critics of genetic engineering and pesticides, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden. The group, which claimed to be independent but was funded by agrichemical companies, attacked the organic industry as a “marketing scam.”

Biotech Literacy Boot Camp: Dr. Fedoroff was listed as a core faculty member of a Biotech Literacy Project “boot camp” held at UC Davis in 2015. The event was organized by two PR groups, Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, and secretly funded by agrichemical companies to “train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate,” reported Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Speakers included a familiar list of industry PR allies including Jay Byrne, Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy, David Tribe, Hank Campbell of ACSH and a keynote by the “Sci Babe.”

AgBioWorld: In her 2012 Trends and Genetics article, Dr. Fedoroff promoted the website AgBioWorld as “another invaluable resource” to learn about science. In a 2002 article in the Guardian, George Monbiot described how Monsanto’s PR team used the AgBioWorld website and fake social media accounts to discredit scientists and environmentalists who raised concerns about GM crops. Monbiot reported: 

“At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly [Monsanto’s] director of internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of them established by Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings). He told them to ‘think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed.’

While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow that he ‘spends his time and effort participating’ in web discussions about biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he ‘ensures his company gets proper play.’ AgBioWorld is the site on which [fake online personality Mary] Smetacek launched her campaign.”

Attack on Greenpeace: Dr. Fedoroff spoke at a 2016 press event for a group calling itself “Support Precision Agriculture,” which presented a letter signed by over 100 Nobel laureates criticizing Greenpeace for their opposition to GMOs. Agrichemical industry allies helped out with the campaign, including Monsanto’s former Communications Director Jay Byrne; former biotech trade group VP Val Giddings; and Matt Winkler, who funds the PR group Genetic Literacy Project and is listed as a board member along with Dr. Fedoroff on the group’s website. The .com version of the supposedly independent “Support Precision Agriculture” website redirected to the Genetic Literacy Project for years (it was delinked after we called attention to it in 2019). In emails from 2011, Byrne identified Greenpeace on a “targets” list he was developing for Monsanto with names of industry critics they could confront from behind the cover of an industry-funded academic group that appeared independent.

Friend of GMO Answers: Dr. Fedoroff is an independent expert for GMO Answers, a PR campaign developed by Ketchum public relations, which has a history of using deceptive tactics to influence the public. Although Ketchum claimed the GMO Answers campaign would “redefine transparency,” the group scripted answers for an “independent” expert and was listed among the “industry partners” in Monsanto’s PR plan to protect Roundup from cancer concerns. A “resources” section (page 4) pointed to GMO Answers and Monsanto links that communicate the company message that “Glyphosate is not carcinogenic.” In 2016, Dr. Fedoroff spoke on a panel sponsored by GMO Answers, Scientific American and the Cornell Alliance for Science about media coverage of science featuring industry-friendly journalists Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. See “Monsanto’s Media Machine Comes to Washington,” by Paul Thacker.

Opposed investigation to uncover industry-academic ties

In 2015, Dr. Fedoroff and two other former AAAS presidents, Peter Raven and Phillip Sharp, promoted their AAAS leadership roles, but failed to disclose any of their industry ties, in a Guardian op-ed opposing a public records investigation that sought to uncover undisclosed partnerships and financial arrangements between agrichemical companies, their PR groups and publicly funded professors. The investigation by U.S. Right to Know uncovered some of the key documents described in this fact sheet.

Although the Guardian later added a disclosure that Dr. Fedoroff works at the lobby firm OFW Law, it did not disclose that OFW Law’s client at the time was the agrichemical industry trade group, whose member companies were a focus of the public records investigation. The former AAAS presidents argued in their op-ed that the investigation to uncover undisclosed industry-academic conflicts of interest was “taking a page out of the Climategate playbook” and involved “science denialism,” the same claims made by industry PR groups described in this fact sheet.

Using the AAAS to advance agrichemical industry policy objectives

During her tenure as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) from 2011-2012 and as Chair of the Board of Directors from 2012-2013, Dr. Fedoroff worked with agrichemical industry allies to advance key policy objectives: keeping genetically engineered foods unlabeled and defeating a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would have required additional data on the health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops that are classified as pesticides.

AAAS helped persuade voters to oppose GMO labeling

In 2012, the AAAS Board of Directors under Dr. Fedoroff’s chairmanship took the unusual step of taking a position on a contentious political issue just two weeks before voters in California went to the polls to decide on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative to label GMOs. A review of the many political statements made by AAAS found no other examples of the organization attempting to influence voters ahead of a state election. (The AAAS and Dr. Fedoroff did not respond to requests for comment. Also disclosure: the USRTK co-directors worked on the pro-labeling campaign.)

The AAAS board’s statement opposing GMO labeling was controversial. It contained inaccuracies, according to longtime AAAS members, several of whom denounced the anti-labeling statement as a “paternalistic” attack on consumer rights that misled the public by omitting important scientific and regulatory context. An AAAS spokeswoman at the time, Ginger Pinholster, called the criticisms “unfair and without merit.” She told a reporter she was in the room when the board passed the statement: “We are not an advocacy group. We make our statements based on scientific evidence,” Pinholster said. “I can tell you that our statement is not the work of nor was it influenced by any outside organization.”

Some observers noted the similarities in language used by the AAAS and the industry-funded campaign to defeat Proposition 37. “Is a major science group stumping for Monsanto?” Michele Simon asked in Grist. Simon described the board’s statement as “non-scientific but very quote-worthy,” and noted that the accompanying AAAS press release contained “talking points” that matched No on 37 campaign literature.

“appearing to be less than transparent is a really bad idea for the scientific community”

In a 2013 letter to Science magazine, another group of 11 scientists raised concerns that the AAAS board’s statement on GMO foods “could backfire.” They wrote, “we are concerned that AAA’s position represents a poorly informed approach to communicating science …  appearing to be less than transparent is a really bad idea for the scientific community.”

Dr. Fedoroff was an early supporter of the industry-backed No on 37 campaign, which listed her on its website in June 2012 as one of four scientists representing the “scientific and academic community” who opposed GMO labeling. The campaign later asked Dr. Fedoroff to help recruit more academics to their cause, which she did according to an October 1, 2012 email to Meghan Callahan of BCF Public Affairs, “I’ve forwarded your [request for academic supporters] to an international group of biotechnology supporting academics. I suspect you’ll be hearing from many corners of the world,” Dr. Fedoroff wrote.

Helped kill data requirements for pesticide-producing plants

In 2011 while serving as AAAS president, Dr. Fedoroff worked with agrichemical industry allies and an industry lobbyist to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from requiring companies to provide additional health and safety data for genetically engineered foods that are classified as pesticides, according to emails described below.

The EPA proposal stemmed from a 2009 EPA Scientific Advisory Panel discussion about ways to improve the agency’s ability to make regulatory decisions about plants that are genetically engineered to produce or contain pesticides, which EPA refers to as “plant-incorporated protectants” (PIPs). Panel members were asked to evaluate current and proposed EPA data requirements for PIPs in the following areas:

  • data to assess potential similarities between PIPs and allergens, toxins, anti-nutrients and other hazardous proteins;
  • testing for synergistic effects on health and non-target organisms, when two or more GMO traits are combined (stacked trait GMOs);
  • potential impacts on microbial populations in soil ecosystems; and
  • data to better address the impacts of gene flow.

According to notes from an October 2009 EPA meeting, the proposed rules would “mostly codify existing data requirements that are currently applied on a case-by-case basis,” and would encompass five categories of data and information: product characterization, human health, non-target effects, environmental fate and resistance management. EPA announced the proposed rules in the Federal Register in March 2011.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via public records requests show how industry allies mobilized to defeat the proposal.

The emails show conversations between Bruce Chassy, a University of Illinois professor at the time, Eric Sachs of Monsanto and other industry reps discussing activities and meetings that involved Dr. Fedoroff. Chassy described himself in the emails (page 66) as the liaison between industry and academics in the effort to oppose the EPA data requirements. Interspersed in his emails to Sachs were queries about whether Monsanto had sent a check to the University of Illinois Foundation in support of Chassy’s “biotechnology outreach and education activities.” (For more details about the undisclosed funds Chassy received from Monsanto for years as he promoted biotechnology, see reporting by Monica Eng in WBEZ and emails posted by the New York Times.)

On July 5, Dr. Chassy emailed Eric Sachs of Monsanto to report that Dr. Fedoroff had sent a letter to EPA over her signature co-signed by 60 members of the National Academy of Sciences. “Nina really picked up the ball and moved it down the field,” Chassy wrote. He described the EPA proposal as a “train wreck.”

The emails show that on August 19, industry trade group representatives were surprised and pleased (page 19) to see a New York Times op-ed from Dr. Fedoroff arguing against regulations for genetic engineering; “who got Nina’s op ed placed?” Adrienne Massey of BIO asked Dr. Chassy and two other industry allies, Henry Miller and Val Giddings. Chassy responded:

Massey forwarded Dr. Chassy the letter BIO sent to the EPA “hoping to build on the academics’ letter and short-circuit any dismissive response of EPA to that letter.” Their efforts did not succeed as they hoped. On August 24, Dr. Chassy wrote to Eric Sachs (page 14) that Dr. Fedoroff “got a response from EPA that is an insult.” He described plans to ratchet up the pressure.

 

In September, Chassy organized a conference call with Fedoroff, Monsanto’s Eric Sachs, Adrienne Massey of BIO and their lobbyist Stanley Abramson, among others. According to Chassy’s notes from the call, “Finding a way to ensure that the EPA proposal never sees the light of day would be the best possible outcome we could hope for. Next best would be to make sure it is DOA, but if needs be we must be willing to continue the fight.”

He also shared the problem that, “The EPA does not believe that the academic community can mount a sustained opposition to their proposed rule making; they believe that only a small handful are behind the petition and that most of the signatories are not committed to the issue.” The group decided they needed to “build a core of leading scientists who are in fact willing to speak out and devote time to this issue.”

By October, the group was more hopeful. Chassy emailed Sachs to report on a “surprisingly productive” meeting he and Dr. Fedoroff attended with Steve Bradbury of EPA. The meeting had been set up by Massey and the lobbyist Abramson. The EPA proposal to require data for GMO PIPs never did see the light of day, according to Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union, who participated in the public meetings with the agency.

Full email chains, via the UCSF Industry Documents Library:

Related reporting 

I Was Barred from a Nobel Laureate Press Conference by a PR Consultant with Monsanto Ties,” by Tim Schwab, Food & Water Watch (2016)

The Puppetmasters of Academia,” by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent Science News (2015)

20 years later: the biotech brigade marches on,” Pesticide Action Network (2012)

Engineering food for whom?” by Marcia Ishii-Eitemann, PhD, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America (2011)

Sorry, NY Times: GMOs still won’t save the world,” by Anna Lappe, Grist (2011)

In which I go toe to toe with H. Clinton’s science czar over GMOs,” by Tom Philpott, Grist (2009)

Genetically Modified Diplomat: U.S. Foreign Policy GMO All the Way,” by Tom Philpott, Grist (2008)

Bayer’s Shady PR Firms: FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, FTI Consulting

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In the latest PR scandal to engulf Bayer, journalists at Le Monde reported May 9 that they obtained a “Monsanto File” created by the public relations firm FleishmanHillard listing a “multitude of information” about 200 journalists, politicians, scientists and others deemed likely to influence the debate on glyphosate in France. Le Monde filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office alleging that the document involved illegal collection and processing of personal data, spurring the prosecutor’s office to open a criminal probe. “This is a very important discovery because it shows there are objective strategies to silence strong voices. I can see they were trying to isolate me,” France’s former Environment Minister Segolene Royal, who is on the list, told France 24 TV.

“This is a very important discovery because it shows there are objective strategies to silence strong voices.”

Francois Veillerette, an environmentalist also on the list, told France 24 that it contained personal contact details, opinions and level of engagement in relation to Monsanto. “This is a major shock in France,” he said. “We don’t think this is normal.” Bayer has since admitted that FleishmanHillard drew up “‘watch lists’ of pro- or anti-pesticides figures” in seven countries across Europe, the AFP reported. The lists contained information about journalists, politicians and other interest groups. The AFP said it filed a complaint with a French regulatory agency because some of its journalists were on the list that surfaced in France.

Adding to Bayer’s PR troubles, AFP reported on May 18 that an employee of another PR firm was caught posing as a freelance journalist who worked for the BBC at the recent federal trial in San Francisco that ended with an $80 million judgment against Bayer. The woman, who was seen chatting up reporters about story ideas at the trial, did not disclose that she actually worked for FTI Consulting, a “crisis management firm” whose clients include Bayer and Monsanto.

In the wake of the “Monsanto File” revelations in France, Bayer apologized and said it suspended its relationship with the firms involved, including FleishmanHillard and Publicis Consultants, pending an investigation. “Our highest priority is to create transparency,” Bayer said. “We do not tolerate unethical behavior in our company.” However the PR companies Bayer relies upon, including FleishmanHillard and PR firms under the same corporate ownership, have histories of using underhanded tactics to promote and defend their clients – and they have done the same for Bayer.

Ketchum and FleishmanHillard hired to rehab image of GMOs

In 2013, the agrichemical industry tapped FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, both owned by Omnicom, to head up a PR offensive to rehabilitate the image of its embattled GMO and pesticide products. Monsanto selected FleishmanHillard to “reshape” its reputation amid “fierce opposition” to genetically modified foods, according to the Holmes Report. Around the same time, FleishmanHillard also became the PR agency of record for Bayer, and the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) — a trade group funded by Bayer (Monsanto), Corteva (DowDuPont), Syngenta and BASF — hired Ketchum public relations firm to launch a marketing campaign called GMO Answers.

Spin tactics employed by these firms included “wooing mommy bloggers” and using the voices of supposedly “independent” experts to “clear up confusion and mistrust” about GMOs. However, evidence surfaced that the PR firms edited and scripted some of the “independent” experts. For example, documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Ketchum scripted posts for GMO Answers that were signed by a University of Florida professor who claimed to be independent as he worked behind the scenes with Monsanto on PR projects. A senior vice president at FleishmanHillard edited the speech of a UC Davis professor and coached her how to “win over people in the room” at an IQ2 debate to convince the public to accept GMOs. Ketchum also gave the professor talking points for a radio interview about a scientific study.

Academics were important messengers for industry lobbying efforts to oppose GMO labeling, reported the New York Times in 2015. “Professors/researchers/scientists have a big white hat in this debate and support in their states, from politicians to producers,” Bill Mashek, a vice president at Ketchum, wrote to the University of Florida professor. “Keep it up!”  The industry trade group CBI has spent over $11 million on Ketchum’s GMO Answers since 2013, according to tax records.

The spin has influenced journalists, according to the PR industry. In 2014, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award for “Crisis Management & Issue Management.” In this video, Ketchum bragged about how it nearly doubled positive media attention of GMOs and “balanced 80% of interactions”  on Twitter. Many of those online interactions are from accounts that appear independent and do not disclose their connection to industry’s PR campaign.

Although the Ketchum video claimed GMO Answers would “redefine transparency” with information from experts with “nothing filtered or censored, and no voices silenced,” a Monsanto PR plan suggests the company counted on GMO Answers to help spin its products in a positive light. The document from 2015 listed GMO Answers among the “industry partners” that could help protect Roundup from cancer concerns; in a “resources” section on page 4, the plan listed links to GMO Answers alongside Monsanto documents that could communicate the company message that “Glyphosate is not carcinogenic.”

This Ketchum video was posted to the CLIO website and removed after we called attention to it.

Omnicom’s FleishmanHillard and Ketchum: histories of deception

Why any company would put FleishmanHillard or Ketchum in front of efforts to inspire trust is difficult to understand, given their histories of documented deceptions. For example:

Until 2016, Ketchum was the PR firm for Russia and Vladimir Putin. According to documents obtained by ProPublica, Ketchum was caught placing pro-Putin op-eds under the names of “seemingly independent professionals” in various news outlets. In 2015, the embattled Honduran government hired Ketchum to try to rehabilitate its reputation after a multi-million dollar corruption scandal.

Documents leaked to Mother Jones indicate that Ketchum worked with a private security firm that “spied on Greenpeace and other environmental organizations from the late 1990s through at least 2000, pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings.” FleishmanHillard was also caught using unethical espionage tactics against public health and tobacco control advocates on behalf of the tobacco company R. J. Reynolds, according to a study by Ruth Malone in the American Journal of Public Health. The PR firm even secretly audiotaped tobacco control meetings and conferences.

FleishmanHillard was the public relations firm for The Tobacco Institute, the cigarette industry’s main lobbying organization, for seven years. In a 1996 Washington Post article, Morton Mintz recounted the story of how FleishmanHillard and the Tobacco Institute converted the Healthy Buildings Institute into a front group for the tobacco industry in its effort to spin away public concern about the dangers of second-hand smoke. Ketchum also did work for the tobacco industry.

Both firms have at times worked on both sides of an issue. FleishmanHillard has been hired for anti-smoking campaigns. In 2017, Ketchum launched a spin-off firm called Cultivate to cash in on the growing organic food market, even though Ketchum’s GMO Answers has disparaged organic food, claiming that consumers pay a “hefty premium” for food that is no better than conventionally-grown food.

FTI Consulting: climate deception and more tobacco ties

FTI Consulting, the “crisis management” PR firm that works with Bayer and whose employee was caught impersonating a journalist at the recent Roundup cancer trial in San Francisco, shares several similarities with FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, including its use of covert tactics, lack of transparency and history of working with the tobacco industry.

The firm is known as a key player in ExxonMobil’s efforts to evade responsibility for climate change. As Elana Schor and Andrew Restuccia reported in Politico in 2016:

“Aside from [Exxon] itself, the most vocal resistance to the greens has come from FTI Consulting, a firm filled with former Republican aides that has helped unify the GOP in defense of fossil fuels. Under the banner of Energy in Depth, a project it runs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, FTI has peppered reporters with emails that suggest “collusion” between green activists and state AGs, and has raised questions over InsideClimate’s Rockefeller grants.”

FTI Consulting employees have been caught impersonating journalists before. Karen Savage reported in January 2019 in Climate Liability News, “Two public relations strategists representing Exxon recently posed as journalists in an attempt to interview an attorney representing Colorado communities that are suing Exxon for climate change-related damages. The strategists—Michael Sandoval and Matt Dempsey—are employed by FTI Consulting, a firm long linked with the oil and gas industry.” According to Climate Liability News, the two men were listed as writers for Western Wire, a website run by oil interests and staffed with strategists from FTI Consulting, which also provides staff to Energy In Depth, a pro-fossil fuel “research, education and public outreach campaign.”

Energy In Depth presented itself as a “mom and pop shop” representing small energy providers but was created by major oil and gas companies to lobby for deregulation, DeSmog blog reported in 2011. The Greenpeace group uncovered a 2009 industry memo describing Energy In Depth as a “new industry-wide campaign… to combat new environmental regulations, especially with regard to hydraulic fracturing” that “would not be possible without the early financial commitments” of major oil and gas interests including BP, Halliburton, Chevron, Shell, XTO Energy (now owned by ExxonMobil).

Another feature in common with all these firms is their tobacco industry ties. FTI Consulting has “a long history of working with the tobacco industry,” according to Tobacco Tactics.org. A search of the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents library brings up over 2,400 documents relating to FTI Consulting.

More on Bayer’s recent PR scandals

Coverage in French:

Coverage in English:

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.

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 names its “industry partners,” Biotech Literacy Project boot camps
Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food,” by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (2016)

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.

Dr. Chassy was also for years receiving undisclosed funding from Monsanto via his university. See, “Why didn’t a University of Illinois professor have to disclose his GMO funding?” by Monica Eng, WBEZ (March 2016)

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. Key facts and emails:

  • According to a March 11, 2010 email chain, Academics Review was established with the help of Monsanto executives along with Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former director of corporate communications; and Val Giddings, former VP of the biotech industry trade association BIO, as a platform to attack critics of the agrichemical industry.
  • 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.
  • 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 in March 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 PR plan named 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, a front group funded by Monsanto and other companies whose products the group defends. 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 front group that partners with Monsanto on public relations projects while claiming to be independent. The boot camps trained scientists and journalists how to promote GMOs and pesticides, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling and prop up flagging support for agrichemical industry products.

Boot camp organizers falsely claimed to journalists and scientists that funding for the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps came from government and academic sources, as well as industry sources, but the only traceable source of funds came from  agrichemical companies and non-industry sources denied funding the events, Paul Thacker reported in The Progressive.

“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 Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group funded by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont and Monsanto Company spent over $300,000 on two boot camps held at UC Davis and University of Florida, according to tax records.

Speakers at the 2015 Biotech Literacy Project boot camp included biotech 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”; along with industry-connected academics Kevin Folta of the University of Florida, Pamela Ronald and Alison Van Eenennaam of UC Davis; and journalists including Keith Kloor and Brooke Borel.

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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Updates August 2020:

ketchum gmo answers

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.

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.”

Shortlisted for crisis management PR award

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.”

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.

See our Pesticide Industry Propaganda Tracker for more information about key players in chemical industry public relations efforts.

You can help expand the Right to Know investigations by making a tax-deductible donation today

Agrichemical Trade Groups: Biotechnology Innovation Organization and Council for Biotechnology Information

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BIO – key facts 

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), formerly the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is a trade association representing over 1,000 companies and industry groups including pesticide, pharmaceutical and biotech corporations. The group markets genetic engineering as a solution to “heal the world, fuel the world, feed the world,” and it organizes lobbying committees in 15 policy areas including food and agriculture, health care policy, technology transfer, finance and taxes. BIO was a leading opponent of labeling genetically engineered foods in the United States. In its tax filing for the year ending December 2016, BIO reported annual expenses exceeding $79 million.

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Council for Biotechnology Information – key facts 

Founded in 2000, the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), is a trade association funded by the largest chemical companies (BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont, Syngenta) to promote biotechnology in agriculture. BIO and CBI share some staff and finances, according to tax filings. CBI reported over $4 million in annual expenses in its tax filings for the year ending December 2016. Since 2013, CBI has spent more than $11 million on Ketchum public relations firm to run GMO Answers, a marketing campaign to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides.

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