Chemicals on Our Food: When “Safe” May Not Really Be Safe

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Scientific scrutiny of pesticide residue in food grows; regulatory protections questioned

This article was originally published in Environmental Health News.

By Carey Gillam

Weed killers in wheat crackers and cereals, insecticides in apple juice and a mix of multiple pesticides in spinach, string beans and other veggies – all are part of the daily diets of many Americans. For decades, federal officials have declared tiny traces of these contaminants to be safe. But a new wave of scientific scrutiny is challenging those assertions.

Though many consumers might not be aware of it, every year, government scientists document how hundreds of chemicals used by farmers on their fields and crops leave residues in widely consumed foods. More than 75 percent of fruits and more than 50 percent of vegetables sampled carried pesticides residues in the latest sampling reported by the Food and Drug Administration. Even residues of the tightly restricted bug-killing chemical DDT are found in food, along with a range of other pesticides known by scientists to be linked to a range of illnesses and disease. The pesticide endosulfan, banned worldwide because of evidence that it can cause neurological and reproductive problems, was also found in food samples, the FDA report said.

U.S. regulators and the companies that sell the chemicals to farmers insist that the pesticide residues pose no threat to human health. Most residue levels found in food fall within legal “tolerance” levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), regulators say.

“Americans depend on the FDA to ensure the safety of their families and the foods they eat,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release accompanying the agency’s Oct. 1 release of its residue report. “Like other recent reports, the results show that overall levels of pesticide chemical residues are below the Environmental Protection Agency’s tolerances, and therefore don’t pose a risk to consumers.”

The EPA is so confident that traces of pesticides in food are safe that the agency has granted multiple chemical company requests for increases in the allowed tolerances, effectively providing a legal basis for higher levels of pesticide residues to be allowed in American food.

But recent scientific studies have prompted many scientists to warn that years of promises of safety may be wrong. While no one is expected to drop dead from eating a bowl of cereal containing pesticide residues, repeated low level exposures to trace amounts of pesticides in the diet could be contributing to a range of health problems, particularly for children, scientists say.

“There are probably many other health effects; we just haven’t studied them”

A team of Harvard scientists published a commentary in October stating that more research about potential links between disease and consumption of pesticide residues is “urgently needed” as more than 90 percent of the U.S. population has pesticide residues in their urine and blood. The primary route of exposure to these pesticides is through the food people eat, the Harvard research team said.

Several additional Harvard-affiliated scientists published a study earlier this year of women who were trying to get pregnant. The findings suggested that dietary pesticide exposure within a “typical” range was associated both with problems women had getting pregnant and delivering live babies, the scientists said.

“Clearly the current tolerance levels protect us from acute toxicity. The problem is that it is not clear to what extent long-term low-level exposure to pesticide residues through food may or may not be health hazards,” said Dr. Jorge Chavarro, associate professor of the Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and one of the study authors.

“Exposure to pesticide residues through diet is associated [with] some reproductive outcomes including semen quality and greater risk of pregnancy loss among women undergoing infertility treatments. There are probably many other health effects; we just haven’t studied them sufficiently to make an adequate risk assessment,” Chavarro said.

Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, who directs the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), has also raised concerns about pesticide dangers through exposures once assumed to be safe. Last year she called for “an overall reduction in the use of agricultural pesticides” due to multiple concerns for human health, stating that “existing US regulations have not kept pace with scientific advances showing that widely used chemicals cause serious health problems at levels previously assumed to be safe.”

In an interview Birnbaum said that pesticide residues in food and water are among the types of exposures that need greater regulatory scrutiny.

“Do I think that levels that are currently set are safe? Probably not,” said Birnbaum. “We have people of different susceptibility, whether because of their own genetics, or their age, whatever may make them more susceptible to these things,” she said.

“While we look at chemicals one at a time, there is a lot of evidence for things acting in a synergistic fashion. A lot of our standard testing protocols, many that were developed 40 to 50 years ago, are not asking the questions we should be asking,” she added.

Legal doesn’t mean safe

Other recent scientific papers also point to troubling findings. One by a group of international scientists published in May found glyphosate herbicide at doses currently considered “safe” are capable of causing health problems before the onset of puberty. More research is needed to understand potential risks to children, the study authors said.

And in a paper published Oct. 22 in JAMA Internal Medicine, French researchers said that when looking at pesticide residue links to cancer in a study of the diets of more than 68,000 people, they found indications that consumption of organic foods, which are less likely to carry synthetic pesticide residues than foods made with conventionally grown crops, was associated with a reduced risk of cancer.

A 2009 paper published by a Harvard researcher and two FDA scientists found 19 out of 100 food samples that children commonly consumed contained at least one insecticide known to be a neurotoxin. The foods the researchers looked at were fresh vegetables, fruits and juices. Since then, evidence has grown about the harmful human health impacts of insecticides, in particular.

Unacceptable levels

“A number of current legal standards for pesticides in food and water do not fully protect public health, and do not reflect the latest science,” said Olga Naidenko, senior science advisor to the non-profit Environmental Working Group, which has issued several reports looking at potential dangers of pesticides in food and water. “Legal does not necessarily reflect ‘safe,'” she said.

One example of how regulatory assurances of safety have been found lacking when it comes to pesticide residues is the case of an insecticide known as chlorpyrifos. Marketed by Dow Chemical, which became the DowDuPont company in 2017, chlorpyrifos is applied to more than 30 percent of apples, asparagus, walnuts, onions, grapes, broccoli, cherries and cauliflower grown in the U.S. and is commonly found on foods consumed by children. The EPA has said for years that exposures below the legal tolerances it set were nothing to worry about.

Yet scientific research in recent years has demonstrated an association between chlorpyrifos exposure and cognitive deficits in children. The evidence of harm to young developing brains is so strong that the EPA in 2015 said that it “cannot find that any current tolerances are safe.”

The EPA said that because of unacceptable levels of the insecticide in food and drinking water it planned to ban the pesticide from agricultural use. But pressure from Dow and chemical industry lobbyists have kept the chemical in wide use on American farms. The FDA’s recent report found it the 11th most prevalent pesticides in U.S. foods out of hundreds included in the testing.

A federal court in August said that the Trump Administration was endangering public health by keeping chlorpyrifos in use for agricultural food production. The court cited “scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children” and ordered the EPA to revoke all tolerances and ban the chemical from the market. The EPA has yet to act on that order, and is seeking a rehearing before the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

When asked how to explain its changing positions on chlorpyrifos, an agency spokesman said that the EPA “plans to continue to review the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects” of the chemical.

The fact that it is still in wide use frustrates and angers physicians who specialize in child health and leaves them wondering what other pesticide exposures in food might be doing to people.

“The bottom line is that the biggest public health concerns for chlorpyrifos are from its presence in foods,” said Dr. Bradley Peterson director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. “Even small exposures can potentially have harmful effects.”

The EPA decision to continue to allow chlorpyrifos into American diets is “emblematic of a broader dismissal of scientific evidence” that challenges human health as well as scientific integrity, according to Dr. Leonardo Trasande, who directs the Division of Environmental Pediatrics within the Department of Pediatrics at New York University’s Langone Health.

Epidemiologist Philip Landrigan, director of Boston College’s Global Public Health initiative, and a former scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, is advocating for a ban on all organophosphates, a class of insecticides that includes chlorpyrifos, because of the danger they pose to children.

“Children are exquisitely vulnerable to these chemicals,” said Landrigan. “This is about protecting kids.”

Increased tolerances at industry request

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act authorizes the EPA to regulate the use of pesticides on foods according to specific statutory standards and grants the EPA a limited authority to establish tolerances for pesticides meeting statutory qualifications.

Tolerances vary from food to food and pesticide to pesticide, so an apple might legally carry more of a certain type of insecticide residue than a plum, for instance. The tolerances also vary from country to country, so what the U.S. sets as a legal tolerance for residues of a pesticide on a particular food can – and often is – much different than limits set in other countries. As part of the setting of those tolerances, regulators examine data showing how much residue persists after a pesticide is used as intended on a crop, and they undertake the dietary risk assessments to confirm that the levels of pesticide residues don’t pose human health concerns.

The agency says that it accounts for the fact that the diets of infants and children may be quite different from those of adults and that they consume more food for their size than adults. The EPA also says it combines information about routes of pesticide exposure – food, drinking water residential uses – with information about the toxicity of each pesticide to determine the potential risks posed by the pesticide residues. The agency says if the risks are “unacceptable,” it will not approve the tolerances.

The EPA also says that when it makes tolerance decisions, it “seeks to harmonize U.S. tolerances with international standards whenever possible, consistent with U.S. food safety standards and agricultural practices.”

Monsanto, which became of unit of Bayer AG earlier this year, has successfully asked the EPA to expand the levels of glyphosate residues allowed in several foods, including in wheat and oats.

In 1993, for example, the EPA had a tolerance for glyphosate in oats at 0.1 parts per million (ppm) but in 1996 Monsanto asked EPA to raise the tolerance to 20 ppm and the EPA did as asked. In 2008, at Monsanto’s suggestion, the EPA again looked to raise the tolerance for glyphosate in oats, this time to 30 ppm.

At that time, it also said it would raise the tolerance for glyphosate in barley from 20 ppm to 30 ppm, raise the tolerance in field corn from 1 to 5 ppm and raise the tolerance of glyphosate residue in wheat from 5 ppm to 30 ppm, a 500 percent increase. The 30 ppm for wheat is matched by more than 60 other countries, but is well above the tolerances allowed in more than 50 countries, according to an international tolerance database established with EPA funding and maintained now by a private government affairs consulting group.

“The Agency has determined that the increased tolerances are safe, i.e, there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to the pesticide chemical residue,” the EPA stated in the May 21, 2008 Federal Register.

“All these statements from EPA – trust us it’s safe. But the truth is we have no idea if it actually is safe,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a clinician scientist at the Child & Family Research Institute, BC Children’s Hospital, and a professor in the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. Lanphear said that while regulators assume toxic effects increase with dose, scientific evidence shows that some chemicals are most toxic at the lowest levels of exposure. Protecting public health will require rethinking basic assumptions about how agencies regulate chemicals, he argued in a paper published last year.

In recent years both Monsanto and Dow have received new tolerance levels for the pesticides dicamba and 2,4-D on food as well.

Raising tolerances allows farmers to use pesticides in various ways that may leave more residues, but that doesn’t threaten human health, according to Monsanto. In a blog posted last year, Monsanto scientist Dan Goldstein asserted the safety of pesticide residues in food generally and of glyphosate in particular. Even when they exceed the regulatory legal limits, pesticide residues are so minuscule they pose no danger, according to Goldstein, who posted the blog before he retired from Monsanto this year.

About half of foods sampled contained traces of pesticides

Amid the scientific concerns, the most recent FDA data on pesticide residues in food found that roughly half of the foods the agency sampled contained traces of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and other toxic chemicals used by farmers in growing hundreds of different foods.

More than 90 percent of apple juices sampled were found to contain pesticides. The FDA also reported that more than 60 percent of cantaloupe carried residues. Overall, 79 percent of American fruits and 52 percent of vegetables contained residues of various pesticides – many known by scientists to be linked to a range of illnesses and disease. Pesticides were also found in soy, corn, oat and wheat products, and finished foods like cereals, crackers and macaroni.

The FDA analysis “almost exclusively” is focused on products that are not labeled as organic, according to FDA spokesman Peter Cassell.

The FDA downplays the percentage of foods containing pesticide residues and focuses on the percentage of samples for which there is no violation of the tolerance levels. In its most recent report, the FDA said that more than “99% of domestic and 90% of import human foods were compliant with federal standards.”

The report marked the agency’s launch of testing for the weed killer glyphosate in foods. The Government Accountability Office said in 2014 that both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should start regularly testing foods for glyphosate. The FDA did only limited tests looking for glyphosate residues, however, sampling corn and soy and milk and eggs for the weed killer, the agency said. No residues of glyphosate were found in milk or eggs, but residues were found in 63.1 percent of the corn samples and 67 percent of the soybean samples, according to FDA data.

The agency did not disclose findings by one of its chemists of glyphosate in oatmeal and honey products, even though the FDA chemist made his findings known to supervisors and other scientists outside the agency.

Cassell said the honey and oatmeal findings were not part of the agency’s assignment.

Overall, the new FDA report covered sampling done from Oct. 1, 2015, through Sept. 30, 2016, and included analysis of 7,413 samples of food examined as part of the FDA’s “pesticide monitoring program.” Most of the samples were of food to be eaten by people, but 467 samples were of animal food. The agency said that pesticide residues were found in 47.1 percent of the samples of food for people produced domestically and 49.3 percent of food imported from other countries destined for consumer meals. Animal food products were similar, with pesticide residues found in 57 percent of the domestic samples and 45.3 percent of imported foods for animals.

Many imported food samples showed residues of pesticides high enough to break the legal limits, the FDA said. Nearly 20 percent of imported grain and grain product samples showed illegally high levels of pesticides, for example.

How Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post

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

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

Buckraking on the food beat: a conflict of interest?

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

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

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

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

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

Taking up the GMO beat

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

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

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

WaPo Unearthed column: digging for industry perspectives

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

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

Industry-sourced ‘food movement’ column

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

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

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

Collaborations with industry spin groups

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

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

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

Agrichemical industry spin events

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

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

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

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

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

2015 biotech literacy day 

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics and disclosure

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

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

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

Misleading reporting on pesticides

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

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

Failed to disclose industry connections to sources

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

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

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

Misled with out-of-context reporting

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

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

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

Relied on industry go-to sources and sources who agree

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

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

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

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

Missed relevant data 

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

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

More perspectives on Haspel’s reporting

SciBabe says eat your pesticides. But who is paying her?

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SciBabe’s bad science tries to make the pesticide industry look good.

Blogging under the name SciBabe, Yvette d’Entremont defends toxic chemicals in food products and promotes pesticides as safe. She does not disclose all her funding sources. The manufacturer of Splenda, the artificial sweetener, has said they partner with SciBabe to “debunk junk science” in defense of their product.

SciBabe has also been a featured speaker at various chemical and food industry-sponsored events such as the 2017 Atlantic Farm Women conference sponsored by CropLife and Monsanto, the 2015 Suppliers Showcase where her luncheon talk was sponsored by DuPont, and the 2016 CropLife America annual meeting where her keynote speech was sponsored by Monsanto. In interviews, SciBabe frequently cites her former job in a pesticide lab as the basis for her knowledge about pesticide safety.

Worked for a controversial pesticide company that had agreement with Monsanto to promote GMOs

Before becoming a full time blogger, Yvette d’Entremont worked as an as an analytical chemist at Amvac Chemical Corporation, which “does a booming business selling some of the world’s most dangerous pesticides,” according to a 2007 story in the Los Angeles Times:

“Amvac has fueled double-digit revenue growth through an unusual business practice: It has bought from larger companies the rights to older pesticides, many of them at risk of being banned or restricted because of safety concerns. The company has fought to keep those chemicals on the market as long as possible, hiring scientists and lawyers to do battle with regulatory agencies. Amvac’s focus on older pesticides has come at a cost to human health and the environment, according to federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state records, regulatory investigations and a string of lawsuits. Accidents involving the company’s pesticides have led to the evacuation of neighborhoods and the poisoning of scores of field workers in California and elsewhere.”

Amvac Chemical Corporation has an exclusive agreement with Dow Chemical Corporation to sell Lorsban made with chlorpyrifos, a controversial pesticide that decades of science strongly suggests harms children’s brains. The EPA has said chlorpyrifos should be banned, but it is still widely used on apples, oranges, strawberries and broccoli, and Amvac markets it as “the right choice!” Amvac also has an agreement with Monsanto to promote Roundup Ready GMO crops.

2016 Monsanto sponsored SciBabe talk.

False statements about pesticides and GMOs, and Amvac influence

SciBabe makes false claims about the health risks and safety protocols of pesticides, GMOs and chemicals in food:

  • “We’ve proven very, very carefully that, once they get into the food supply, [pesticides] are safe for people … because we’re in such a heavily regulated environment, the odds of you getting something in your food supply that’s unsafe at this point is very, very low. I mean, extraordinarily low.” (podcast with University of Florida professor Kevin Folta)
  • Artificial sweeteners are safe with no evidence of harm. (SciBabe blog; here are facts about the health risks of aspartame)
  • For GMOs, “There are serious testing standards in place from the EPA, FDA, and USDA. GMOs are basically tested down to the last strand of DNA.” (article for Genetic Literacy Project)

SciBabe credits her former job at the Amvac lab for inspiring her to get involved as a science communicator:

  • “When I was working there, that was when I started really getting into the fray of this kind of battle that we have on the Internet with people who say there is no research done into these pesticides before the hit the market. And I’m like yes, I really just lick the vile and say it’s probably not going to kill your kids before approving it for sale – which, I promise you, that’s not how it works.” (podcast)
  • “I started the blog when I was working there, and it’s partially because I kept seeing really bad information online about pesticides.” (Popular Science Q&A)
  • “Whenever I saw the argument online that (GMOs) aren’t tested for safety, I realized in my own pesticide lab that I was working in, we were. I’m like, ‘How can these not be tested for safety when my exact job is testing for safety?’ And sometimes I spent two weeks calibrating one instrument, and I’m just one cog in a machine. And I know the other sides are just as meticulous as I am.” (Popular Science)

Front group friends

SciBabe’s work is regularly promoted by chemical industry front groups, such as the American Council on Science and Health (which has received funding from Amvac Chemical Corporation) and the Genetic Literacy Project.

The “Kevin Folta Fan Club” is a who’s who of Monsanto friends and pesticide defenders.

SciBabe is part of what she calls the “Kevin Folta Fan Club” defending the University of Florida professor who has repeatedly made false and misleading statements. The fan club photo features d’Entremont with Julie Gunlock of the Independent Women’s Forum, a Koch-funded group that partners with Monsanto to downplay fears about pesticides; pesticide propagandist Julie Kelly; and Monsanto’s social sciences lead Cami Ryan.

More on Yvette d’Entremont:

  • “SciBabe is Neither a Scientist Nor a Babe: She’s Bullshit,” Medium
  • “Response to Gawker ‘The Food Babe Blogger is Full of …,” FoodBabe
  • “SciBabe, paid by Splenda, touts its product,” by Jerry Coyne, PhD, professor at Univ. of Chicago.

Doctors, scientists recommend reducing exposure to pesticides 

Resources to learn more about pesticide risks and weak regulations that fail to protect health:

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reducing children’s exposure to pesticides. Here is the AAP’s 2012 science position paper.

“Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. Related animal toxicology studies provide supportive biological plausibility for these findings. Recognizing and reducing problematic exposures will require attention to current inadequacies in medical training, public health tracking, and regulatory action on pesticides.”

The President’s Cancer Panel Report recommends reducing children’s exposure to cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures.

“The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures. The Panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

The President’s Cancer Panel chapter on pesticides starts on page 43:

“Nearly 1,400 pesticides have been registered (i.e., approved) by the EPA for agricultural and non-agricultural use. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to brain/central nervous system, breast, colon, lung, ovarian (female spouses), pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach cancers, as well as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma. Pesticide-exposed farmers, pesticide applicators, crop duster pilots, and manufacturers also have been found to have elevated rates of prostate cancer, melanoma, other skin cancers, and cancer of the lip.”

The 2016 European Parliament Science and Technology Option Assessment recommended reducing dietary intake of pesticides, especially for women and children.

Pesticide risk assessments “disregard evidence from epidemiological studies that show negative effects of low-level exposure to organophosphate insecticides on children’s cognitive development, despite the high costs of IQ losses to society. While the intake of fruit and vegetables should not be decreased, existing studies support the ideal of reduced dietary exposure to pesticide residues, especially among pregnant women and children.”

Journal of American Medical Association commentary by Phillip Landrigan, MD, recommends eating organic food.

  • “our current laissez-faire attitude toward the regulation of pesticides is failing us”
  • “multiple lines of evidence suggest that human fertility is on the decline and that the frequency of reproductive impairment is increasing.” These trends are “almost certainly” linked to environmental exposures to chemicals
  • See also Harvard pesticide/infertility study in JAMAHarvard researchers followed 325 women at an infertility clinic for two years and reported that women who regularly ate pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF

Consensus statement from leading scientists: Concerns over the risks of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposure, Environmental Health Journal

Recent news on pesticides

Dow’s insecticide chlorpyrifos has been shown to harm children’s brains and EPA’s own scientists said in 2016 they could no longer vouch for safety of the pesticide in food or water, but it remains widely used in farming due to political pressure from the agrichemical industry.

A Strong Case Against a Pesticide Does Not Faze E.P.A. Under Trump, By Roni Caryn Rabin New York Times

This is what a common pesticide does to a child’s brain, By Nicholas Kristof New York Times

Monsanto says its pesticides are safe. Now, a court wants to see the proof

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This week’s events will mark the first time that the science used to justify certain pesticides will be analyzed under oath for all to see

This article was first published in The Guardian.

By Carey Gillam

On Monday, a federal court hearing in San Francisco will turn a public spotlight on to the science surrounding the safety of one of the world’s most widely used pesticides, a weedkilling chemical called glyphosate that has been linked to cancer and is commonly found in our food and water, even in our own bodily fluids. Given the broad health and environmental implications tied to the use of this pesticide, we would be well served to pay attention.

As the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup and hundreds of other herbicides, glyphosate represents billions of dollars in annual revenues for Monsanto and other companies, and is prominently used by farmers as an aid in food production. It’s also favored by cities for keeping public parks and playgrounds weed free, and by homeowners who want a tidy lawn. But the chemical was deemed a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s cancer experts in 2015 in a finding that has since triggered waves of liability lawsuits against Monsanto.

Heated debates over the safety – or lack thereof – of this popular pesticide have spanned the globe and sparked propaganda warfare with each side claiming the other has misrepresented the scientific record. Cancer victims allege Monsanto has “ghost” written research reviews, unduly influenced regulators and created front groups to falsely claim glyphosate safety. Monsanto, meanwhile, asserts multiple studies by international scientists are flawed and politically motivated, and says industry studies demonstrate the product is safe when used as intended.

This week’s events will mark the first time that the body of research, some that has been gathering dust in stuffy scientific journals or confidential corporate files, will be analyzed under oath for all to see.

It is no idle exercise. Real lives are at stake in this and broader debates about pesticide risks to our health. One in every two men and one in every three women are now expected to develop cancer in their lifetimes and childhood cancers are on the rise.

In children, pesticide exposure is linked not just to pediatric cancers, but also to decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. In adults, pesticides are linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, brain, prostate and other cancers. More than 3,000 plaintiffs suing Monsanto allege exposure to the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup caused them or their family members to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Monsanto has tried to persuade US judge Vince Chhabria to throw out the litigation, and sought to keep secret the many internal documents it has been forced to turn over in discovery. But Chhabria has ordered that the hearing be video-recorded and shared publicly over the internet. And he has granted permission for plaintiffs to explore in open court such things as the ghostwriting of science as well as a controversial 1983 study that EPA scientists at the time said showed evidence of glyphosate’s cancer-causing potential.

The court has dubbed the 5-9 March events as “science week” because the only evidence to be presented will come from experts in cancer science, including epidemiologists, toxicologists and others called to analyze relevant research. There will be no crying cancer victims to tug on heart strings; just opposing sides presenting science to a judge who will decide if the lawsuits can move forward.

To bolster its defense, the company and chemical industry allies have been working to discredit cancer scientists and others who have been warning of danger. That effort was highlighted when members of the House committee on science, space and technology held a hearing in Washington on 6 February to air Monsanto’s complaints about the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, and to threaten to strip funding from the scientific body.

The committee effort – effectively turning a war on cancer into a war on cancer science – was applauded by the chemical industry. Monsanto, along with lobbyist CropLife America and other agricultural organizations, has also sued California to stop environmental regulators from requiring cancer warnings on glyphosate products, and on 26 February they won an injunction blocking such a warning.

The debate over glyphosate is but the latest example of how industry efforts often focus not on scrutinizing scientific evidence of harm, but on discrediting the offending science. Last year, for instance, Dow Chemical successfully lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency leadership to ignore warnings from its own scientists (and others) about extensive research tying a profitable Dow pesticide called chlorpyrifos to brain development problems in children.

The public offering of expert testimony in San Francisco about Monsanto’s pervasive pesticide presents an important opportunity to separate the science from the spin. We all should be watching.

Hold the Plum Pudding: US Food Sampling Shows Troubling Pesticide Residues

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By Carey Gillam

Sometimes the truth about our food is not very appetizing.

As many gather this holiday season for shared family meals, it is likely that they’ll be serving up small doses of pesticides with each plate passed, including a prevalent type shown to be harmful to children and reproductive health.

New data released recently by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows a rise in the occurrence of pesticide residues detected in thousands of samples of commonly consumed foods. Documents obtained from the agency through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests also show the government is bracing for more, with the use of at least one controversial weed killing chemical – the herbicide known as 2,4-D – expected to triple in the next year.

And buried deep within the FDA’s latest annual pesticide residue report is data showing that a controversial insecticide called chlorpyrifos, which is marketed by Dow Chemical and is banned from household use due to known dangers, was the fourth-most prevalent pesticide found in foods out of 207 pesticides detected.

Overall, about 50 percent of domestic food and 43 percent of imported foods sampled showed pesticide residues in the FDA’s testing for fiscal year 2015, which is the period covered in the new report. That is up from about 37 percent of domestic and 28 percent of imported foods found with residues in 2010, and up from 38.5 percent and 39 percent, respectively, found by FDA a decade earlier in 2005.

FDA sampling has been shrinking over the years, dropping about 25 percent from a decade ago from more than 7,900 samples to 5,989 samples tested in its latest report. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also does annual pesticide residue testing, but looks at more than 10,000 samples. The latest USDA residue report, which also was for the 2015 time period, found about 85 percent of samples contained pesticide residues.

Notably, samples of fruits and vegetables – considered healthy food choices – showed the highest frequency of pesticide residues in the new FDA report. Roughly 82 percent of domestic American fruits and 62 percent of domestic vegetables carried residues of weed killers, insecticides and other pesticides commonly used by farmers.

Among the domestic food samples, FDA said 97 percent of apples, 83 percent of grapes, 60 percent of tomatoes, 57 percent of mushrooms and 53 percent of plums carried residues. Exactly half of the fruit jams and jellies and similar spreads examined were tainted with pesticides, according to the FDA data.

Looking at imported fruits and vegetables, the FDA found that roughly 51 percent of imported fruits and 47 percent of imported vegetables carried residues. Overall, the imported foods had more illegally high levels of pesticide residues than did domestic foods sampled. More than 9 percent of both imported fruits and vegetables were considered in violation of legal pesticide residue limits compared to only 2.2 percent of American-grown fruits and 3.8 percent of domestic vegetables.

The FDA said some specific commodities brought into the country may warrant special attention due to illegally high levels of pesticides, including cabbage, mushrooms, oranges and orange juice and rice.

Outdated “safe” levels

The Environmental Protection Agency sets legal limits, referred to as “maximum residue limits” (MRLs) for pesticide residues on foods. The FDA and USDA routinely assure consumers that if residues are below the established MRLs, they are both legal and safe. But many scientists and medical professionals disagree, saying regulatory methods are outdated and too dependent on input from the chemical industry players selling the pesticides.

“Risk assessment practices at federal agencies have not been updated for modern scientific principles, including accounting for the fact that people are exposed to multiple chemicals and that certain groups, such as genetically susceptible, the very young and old can be at greater risk of exposure,” said Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA senior scientist who directs the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

The controversy around chlorpyrifos underscores those concerns. Farmers have been using chlorpyrifos since 1965 and the government has long maintained that as long as residues are below established MRLs, they are safe.

But in recent years, that regulatory view has shifted as studies show that this pesticide, which is used on corn and fruits and vegetables such as cranberries, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli, can have harmful neurodevelopmental effects on fetuses whose mothers are exposed and on young children. Research ties the chemical to attention deficit problems, tremors, and autism.

On December 15, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment listed chlorpyrifos as known to “cause reproductive toxicity.” And the EPA has said that it can no longer vouch for the safety of the residues found in food. The EPA had planned to outlaw chlorpyrifos use in agriculture. But the Trump administration reversed that plan earlier this year after heavy lobbying from Dow and other agrochemical industry representatives.

The FDA declined to comment about its report and declined to address questions about the safety of chlorpyrifos residues found in food.

Surge in 2,4-D expected

Separate from the FDA’s published residue report, internal FDA documents show the agency working to get a handle on the residues of two widely used herbicides – glyphosate and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D). An internal memo dated in May of this year obtained through FOIA states that 2,4-D use is “expected to triple in the coming year” because of new genetically engineered crops designed to tolerate direct application of the herbicide.

Neither FDA nor USDA has routinely tested for glyphosate despite the fact it is the world’s most widely used herbicide, and testing by academics, consumer groups and other countries has shown residues of the weed killer in food. The FDA said in early 2016 that it planned to start testing for the weed killer, and documents show that one FDA chemist reported finding residues in honey and in oatmeal products, but overall results of the program testing have not been released publicly.

Details of the testing program are being kept secret, and in the documents released by FDA through the FOIA, large blocks of information are blacked out. FDA declined to comment about the status of the glyphosate and 2,4-D testing, including when it might publish some results.

Pesticides that the FDA did test for, and find, in the latest food sampling report, included endosulfan, an insecticide that has been banned in more than 80 countries and is being phased out due to established dangers to human health; the insecticide DDT, which was banned in the 1970s in the United States, and malathion, an insecticide classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as probably carcinogenic.

This article first appeared in Environmental Health News.

The Rise of Anti-Women, Anti-Public Health Groups

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Photo©Tony Powell. 2017 Independent Women’s Forum Gala. Union Station. November 15, 2017

This article first appeared in Huffington Post.  

By Stacy Malkan

At a recent soiree at Union Station, the DC power elite gathered in an anti-public health confab dressed up as a celebration of women that should concern anyone who cares about the health and rights of women and children.

The Independent Women’s Forum drew an impressive array of Republican politicians to its annual gala sponsored by, among others, the American Chemistry Council, the tobacco company Phillip Morris, the cosmetics industry trade group, Google and the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council.

Speakers included House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, who won the IWF Valor Award for being a “passionate advocate for limited government” who does not embrace “the idea that being a woman is a handicap.” Conway is also an IWF board member.

So what is the Independent Women’s Forum?

IWF got its start 25 years ago as an effort to defend now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. The group has since raised millions from the secretive foundations of the Koch brothers and other right-wing billionaires to carry out its mission of “increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty.”

In the world of the IWF — a group Joan Walsh described in The Nation as “the ‘feminists’ doing the Koch’s dirty work” — that means defending the freedom of corporations to sell toxic products and pollute the environment, while trying to frame that agenda as good for women and children.

E-cigarettes should be approved because of the unique biological needs of women, for example, and climate science education is too scary for students. (The e-cig letter is “standard Phillip Morris PR,” says tobacco industry expert Stan Glanz; and Greenpeace classifies IWF as a “Koch Industries climate denial front group.”)

Women can also benefit by ignoring “alarmist” concerns about toxic chemicals, according to an IWF lecture series sponsored by Monsanto.

To give you a sense of the messaging on chemicals: Moms who insist on organic food are arrogant, snobby “helicopter parents” who “need to be in control of everything when it comes to their kids, even the way food is grown and treated,” according to Julie Gunlock, director of IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project, as quoted in an article titled “The tyranny of the organic mommy mafia” that was written by an IWF fellow.

At the IWF gala, Gunlock posed for a photo op with Monsanto staffer Aimee Hood and Julie Kelly, who writes articles casting doubt on climate science and pesticide risk, and once even called climate hero Bill McKibben “a piece of shit.”

Gunlock and Kelly are “rock stars,” Hood tweeted.

“I’m framing this,” Monsanto employee Cami Ryan tweeted in return.

Put a frame around the whole shindig and behold the absurdity of corporate-captured politics in America, where policy leaders openly embrace an anti-women “women’s group” that equates “freedom” with eating toxic pesticides, at an event sponsored by the chemical industry, a tobacco company, an extremist group that wants to do away with a voter-elected Senate and the world’s most influential news source.

Meanwhile in the rational world

Recent science suggests that if you want to get pregnant and raise healthy children, you should reject the propaganda that groups like the Independent Women’s Forum are trying to sell.

In just the past few weeks, the Journals of the American Medical Association published a Harvard study implicating pesticide-treated foods in fertility problems, a UC San Diego study documenting huge increases in human exposure to a common pesticide, and a physician’s commentary urging people to eat organic food.

Mainstream groups have been giving similar advice for years.

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended reducing children’s exposure to pesticides due to a growing body of literature that links pesticides to chronic health problems in children, including behavioral problems, birth defects, asthma and cancer.

In 2009, the bipartisan President’s Cancer Panel reported: “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”

The panel urged then-President George W. Bush “most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

Unfortunately for our nation, acting on that advice has not been possible in a political system indentured to corporate interests.

Corporate capture of health and science
For decades, pesticide corporations have manipulated science and U.S. regulatory agencies to keep the truth hidden about the health dangers of their chemicals.

The details are being revealed by hundreds of thousands of pages of industry documentsturned loose from legal discovery, whistleblowers and FOIA requests that have been examined in government hearings and by many media outlets.

For a synopsis of Monsanto’s “long-running secretive campaign to manipulate the scientific record, to sway public opinion, and to influence regulatory assessments” on its herbicide glyphosate, see this essay by my colleague Carey Gillam in Undark magazine.

As one example of government/corporate collusion: in 2015, on the Obama administration’s watch, the EPA official in charge of evaluating the cancer risk of glyphosate allegedly bragged to a Monsanto executive about helping to “kill” another agency’s cancer study, as Bloomberg reported.

Suppressing science has been a bipartisan, decades-long project. Since 1973, Monsanto has presented dubious science to claim the safety of glyphosate while EPA largely looked the other way, as Valerie Brown and Elizabeth Grossman documented for In These Times.

Brown and Grossman spent two years examining the publicly available archive of EPA documents on glyphosate, and reported:

“Glyphosate is a clear case of ‘regulatory capture’ by a corporation acting in its own financial interest while serious questions about public health remain in limbo. The record suggests that in 44 years—through eight presidential administrations—EPA management has never attempted to correct the problem. Indeed, the pesticide industry touts its forward-looking, modern technologies as it strives to keep its own research in the closet, and relies on questionable assumptions and outdated methods in regulatory toxicology.”

The only way to establish a scientific basis for evaluating glyphosate’s safety, they wrote, would be to “force some daylight between regulators and the regulated.”

Limited government means freedom to harm

In Trump’s Washington, there is no daylight at all between the corporations selling harmful products and the agencies that are supposed to regulate them.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is pushing scientists off advisory boards and stacking the EPA with political appointees connected to the oil, coal and chemical industries, many of whom are connected to climate science deniers.

As one of his first official actions, Pruitt tossed aside the recommendation of EPA’s scientists and allowed Dow Chemical to keep selling a pesticide developed as a nerve gas that is linked to brain damage in children.

“Trump’s most enduring legacy may be cancer, infertility and diminished I.Q.s for decades to come.”

“Kids are told to eat fruits and vegetables, but EPA scientists found levels of this pesticide on such foods at up to 140 times the limits deemed safe,” Nicholas Kristof wrote in a scathing NYT op-ed. “Trump’s most enduring legacy may be cancer, infertility and diminished I.Q.s for decades to come.”

Pruitt has gone so far as to put a chemical industry lobbyist in charge of a sweeping new toxics law that was supposed to regulate the chemical industry.

It’s all so outrageous – but then, it has been for a very long time.

That sweeping new toxics law, which passed last year in a hailstorm of bipartisan glory, was opposed by many environmental groups but lauded by – and reportedly written by – the American Chemistry Council.

“The $800 billion chemical industry lavishes money on politicians and lobbies its way out of effective regulation. This has always been a problem, but now the Trump administration has gone so far as to choose chemical industry lobbyists to oversee environmental protections,” as Kristof described it.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics protested the administration’s decision on the nerve gas pesticide, but officials sided with industry over doctors. The swamp won. The chemical industry lobby, the American Chemistry Council, is today’s version of Big Tobacco…”

“Some day we will look back and wonder: What were we thinking?!”

The Character of our Country

A decade ago, the Independent Women’s Forum presented its Valor Award to Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nation’s largest breast cancer organization – a group that has also drawn criticism for taking money from polluting corporations and promoting unhealthy food and toxic products.

At the 2007 IWF gala, in an acceptance speech she called “The Character of our Country,” Brinker warned that millions of lives will be lost unless America acts to avert the coming “cancer tsunami.”

But then, she said: “My friends, this is not a problem of politics. When it comes to cancer, there are no Republicans or Democrats, no liberals or conservatives.”

Rather, she said, invoking vagueness as she stood before a group that tells women not to worry about pesticides, at an event awash in corporate cash, beating cancer is a matter of summoning the will to make cancer a “national and global priority!”

But that is exactly a problem of politics. It’s about Republicans and Democrats, both of whom have let Americans down by failing to confront the chemical industry. It’s about summoning the political will to get chemicals linked to cancer, infertility and brain damage off the market and out of our food.

In the meantime, we can take the advice of science: eat organic and vote for politicians who are willing to stand up to the pesticide industry.

Q&A with Carey Gillam on Whitewash

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Carey Gillam’s new book is available now from Island Press: Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science

Gilliam’s Whitewash is a hard-hitting investigation into the most widely used agrichemical in history, based on 20 years of research and scores of internal industry documents. For decades glyphosate has been lauded as the chemical that’s “safe enough to drink,” but a growing body of scientific research ties glyphosate to cancers and a host of other health and environmental threats.

Whitewash is a “must-read,” says Booklist.  Kirkus Reviews calls Whitewash a “hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative,” and a “forceful argument for an agricultural regulatory environment that puts public interest above corporate profits.”

Q: Carey, you’ve been reporting on pesticides and Monsanto for nearly 20 years. As a journalist, why was it important to write a book about the topic? Why now?

A: Health experts around the world recognize that pesticides are a big contributor to a range of health problems suffered by people of all ages, but a handful of very powerful and influential corporations have convinced policy makers that the risks to human and environmental health are well worth the rewards that these chemicals bring in terms of fighting weeds, bugs, or plant diseases. These corporations are consolidating and becoming ever more powerful, and are using their influence to push higher and higher levels of many dangerous pesticides into our lives, including into our food system. We have lost a much-needed sense of caution surrounding these chemicals, and Monsanto’s efforts to promote increased uses of glyphosate is one of the best examples of how this corporate pursuit of profits has taken priority over protection of the public.

Q: People may not be familiar with the term “glyphosate” or even “Roundup.” What is it? Why should people care?

A: Roundup herbicide is Monsanto’s claim to fame. Well before it brought genetically engineered crops to market, Monsanto was making and selling Roundup weed killer. Glyphosate is the active ingredient—the stuff that actually kills the weeds—in Roundup. Glyphosate is also now used in hundreds of other products that are routinely applied to farm fields, lawns and gardens, golf courses, parks, and playgrounds. The trouble is that it’s not nearly as safe as Monsanto has maintained, and decades of scientific research link it to a range of diseases, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Monsanto has known about these risks and worked very hard to hide them.

Monsanto has known about these risks and worked very hard to hide them while promoting more and more use. Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops are all built to encourage glyphosate use. The key genetic trait Monsanto has inserted into its GMO soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, and other crops is a trait that allows those crops to survive being sprayed directly with glyphosate. After Monsanto introduced these “glyphosate-tolerant” crops in the mid-1990s, glyphosate use skyrocketed. Like other pesticides used in food production, glyphosate residues are commonly found in food, including cereals, snacks, honey, bread, and other products.

Q: You write that Whitewash shows we’ve forgotten the lessons of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. What do you mean by that?

A: Carson laid out the harms associated with indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides, and she predicted the devastation they could and would bring to our ecosystems. She also accused the chemical industry of intentionally spreading disinformation about their products. Her book was a wake-up call that spurred an environmental movement and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But over the decades since, the general population and certainly our politicians and regulators have clearly forgotten the need for caution and scrutiny in dealing with these pesticides and the companies that profit from them. You see a push by our political leaders for fewer regulations, for more unchecked use of glyphosate and other pesticides in our food production, while research about how these pesticides cause cancer, how they harm children’s brain development, and how they alter reproductive health all get pushed aside.

Q: You obtained industry communications and regulatory documents that reveal evidence of corporate influence in regulatory agencies like the EPA. Does the evidence you uncovered take on new significance in light of the current political climate in the US? How can people keep regulatory agencies accountable for working in the public’s best interest?

A: Yes, it’s quite clear that Monsanto and other corporate giants like Dow Chemical enjoy significant sway with regulators, the very people who are supposed to be protecting the public. The companies use their money and political power to influence regulatory decision- making as well as the scientific assessments within the regulatory agencies. If we consumers and taxpayers want to protect our children, our families, our future, we need to pay attention, educate ourselves on these issues, write and call our lawmakers, and support organizations working on our behalf to protect our health and environment. We need to be proactive on policies that protect the public, not the profits of giant corporations. Capitalism is great—the pursuit of wealth through a free marketplace provides much that is good, that is true. But when we let corporate profit agendas take precedence over the health and well- being of our people and our planet we’re sacrificing far too much.

Q: Monsanto attempted to censor and discredit you when you published stories that contradicted their business interests. What strategies can journalists—or scientists— employ when faced with this pushback? What are the stakes if they don’t?

A: Monsanto, and organizations backed by Monsanto, have certainly worked to undermine my work for many years. But I’m not alone; they’ve gone after reporters from an array of major news outlets, including the New York Times, as well as scientists, academics, and others who delve too deeply into the secrets they want to keep hidden. I see it as a badge of honor that Monsanto and others in the chemical industry feel threatened enough by our work to attack us. It’s certainly not easy, for journalists in particular, to challenge the corporate propaganda machine.

Reporters that go along with the game, repeat the talking points, and publish stories that support corporate interests are rewarded with coveted access to top executives and handed “exclusive” stories about new products or new strategies, all of which score them bonus points with editors. In contrast, reporters who go against the grain, who report on unflattering research, or who point out failures or risks of certain products often find they lose access to key corporate executives. The competition gets credit for interviews with top corporate chieftains while reporters who don’t play the game see their journalistic skills attacked and insulted and become the subject of persistent complaints by the corporate interests to their editors.

What can be done? Editors and reporters alike need to check their backbones, realize that the job of a journalist is to find the story behind the spin, to ask uncomfortable questions and to forge an allegiance only to truth and transparency. When we lose truthful independent journalism, when we’re only hearing what the powerful want heard, it’s assured that those without power will be the ones paying the price.

Q: You interviewed a huge number of people for this book, including scientists, farmers, and regulators. Is there a particular conversation or story that stands out to you?

A: I’ve interviewed thousands of people over my career, from very big-name political types to celebrities to every day men and women, and I find it’s always those who are most unassuming, those “regular folk” who grab my heart. In researching this book, the individual story that most resonated with me is that of Teri McCall, whose husband Jack suffered horribly before dying of cancer the day after Christmas in 2015. The McCall family lived a quiet and rather simple life, raising avocadoes and assorted citrus fruits on their Cambria, California farm, using no pesticides other than Roundup in their orchards. Jacks’ death from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer linked to glyphosate, fully devastated Teri and her children and grandchildren. She has shown so much grace and strength and she gave me so much of her time—and her tears—in telling me Jack’s story. She is a woman I truly admire.

Of course there are so many others I have learned from, who I feel for, including the     scientists who have struggled to publish research, who have been censored or worse for their findings of harm associated with glyphosate and other pesticides. And farmers—I have   so much regard for farmers generally, including each and every one interviewed for this book. The work they do to raise our food is incredibly challenging and they are on the front lines of the pesticide dangers every day.

Jaw-dropping is the best way to describe some of the documents I and others have uncovered.

Q: You’ve been immersed in this topic for years. Was there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?

A: Jaw-dropping is the best way to describe some of the documents I and others have uncovered. Seeing behind the curtain, reading in their own words how corporate agents worked intentionally to manipulate science, to mislead consumers and politicians, was shocking. As a long-time journalist, I’m a bit of a hardened cynic. Still, the depth of the deception laid bare in these documents, and other documents still coming to light, is incredible.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Whitewash?

A: A writer at the New York Times told me after reading Whitewash that she feared eating anything in her refrigerator because of the information the book provides about the range of pesticide residues found in so many food products. That definitely is not my goal, to frustrate or frighten people. But I do hope that readers will be moved to care more about how our food is produced, how we make use of dangerous synthetic pesticides not just on farms but also on schoolyards and in parks where our children play.

And I hope they will want to be engaged in the larger discussion and debate about how we build a future that adequately balances the risks and rewards associated with these pesticides. As Whitewash shows, the current system is designed to pump up corporate profits much more than it is to promote long-term environmental and food production sustainability. There are many powerful forces at work to keep the status quo, to continue to push dangerous pesticides, almost literally down our throats. It’s up to the rest of us to push back.

Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist, researcher, and writer with more than 25 years of experience covering corporate America. A former senior correspondent for Reuters’ international news service, Gillam digs deep into the big business of food and agriculture. Carey is also the research director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy.

How Not to Drain the Swamp

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

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

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

The signs are legion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was first published in The Hill.

What Bill Gates Isn’t Saying About GMOs

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Also see:
Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign? And why is Gates Foundation funding it?

As the big food companies announce plans to label genetically engineered foods in the United States, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the stories we hear from proponents and people who are raising concerns about the controversial food technology. Two recent videos illuminate the divide over GMOs.

In January, Bill Gates explained his support for genetic engineering in an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Blumenstein:

“What are called GMOs are done by changing the genes of the plant, and it’s done in a way where there’s a very thorough safety procedure, and it’s pretty incredible because it reduces the amount of pesticide you need, raises productivity (and) can help with malnutrition by getting vitamin fortification. And so I think, for Africa, this is going to make a huge difference, particularly as they face climate change …

The US, China, Brazil, are using these things and if you want farmers in Africa to improve nutrition and be competitive on the world market, you know, as long as the right safety things are done, that’s really beneficial. It’s kind of a second round of the green revolution. And so the Africans I think will choose to let their people have enough to eat.”

If Gates is right, that’s great news. That means the key to solving the hunger problem is lowering barriers for companies to get their climate-resilient, nutrition-improved genetically engineered crops to market.

Is Gates right?  

Another video released the same week as Gates’ WSJ interview provides a different perspective.

The short film by the Center for Food Safety describes how the state of Hawaii, which hosts more open-air fields of experimental genetically engineered crops than any other state, has become contaminated with high volumes of toxic pesticides.

The film and report explain that five multinational agrichemical companies run 97% of GE field tests on Hawaii, and the large majority of the crops are engineered to survive herbicides. According to the video:

“With so many GE field tests in such a small state, many people in Hawaii live, work and go to school near intensively sprayed test sites. Pesticides often drift so it’s no wonder that children and school and entire communities are getting sick. To make matters even worse, in most cases, these companies are not even required to disclose what they’re spraying.”

If the Center for Food Safety is right, that’s a big problem. Both these stories can’t be right at the same time, can they?

Facts on the ground

Following the thread of the Gates’ narrative, one would expect the agricultural fields of Hawaii – the leading testing grounds for genetically engineered crops in the U.S. – to be bustling with low-pesticide, climate-resilient, vitamin-enhanced crops.

Instead, the large majority of GMO crops being grown on Hawaii and in the US are herbicide-tolerant crops that are driving up the use of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and a chemical the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classify as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In the 20 years since Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” GMO corn and soy, glyphosate use has increased 15-fold and it is now “the most heavily-used agricultural chemical in the history of the world”, reported Douglas Main in Newsweek.

The heavy herbicide use has accelerated weed resistance on millions of acres of farmland. To deal with this problem, Monsanto is rolling out new genetically engineered soybeans designed to survive a combination of weed-killing chemicals, glyphosate and dicamba. EPA has yet to approve the new herbicide mix.

But Dow Chemical just got the green light from a federal judge for its new weed-killer combo of 2,4D and glyphosate, called Enlist Duo, designed for Dow’s Enlist GMO seeds. EPA tossed aside its own safety data to approve Enlist Duo, reported Patricia Callahan in Chicago Tribune.

The agency then reversed course and asked the court to vacate its own approval – a request the judge denied without giving reason.

All of this raises questions about the claims Bill Gates made in his Wall Street Journal interview about thorough safety procedures and reduced use of pesticides.

 Concerns grow in Hawaii, Argentina, Iowa

Instead of bustling with promising new types of resilient adaptive GMO crops, Hawaii is bustling with grassroots efforts to protect communities from pesticide drift, require chemical companies to disclose the pesticides they are using, and restrict GMO crop-growing in areas near schools and nursing homes.

Schools near farms in Kauai have been evacuated due to pesticide drift, and doctors in Hawaii say they are observing increases in birth defects and other illnesses they suspect may be related to pesticides, reported Christopher Pala in the Guardian and The Ecologist.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, prenatal and early-life pesticide exposures are linked to childhood cancers, decreased cognitive function, behavioral problems and birth defects.

In Argentina – the world’s third largest producer of GMO crops – doctors are also raising concerns about higher than average rates of cancer and birth defects they suspect are related to pesticides, reported Michael Warren in The Associated Press.

Warren’s story from 2013 cited evidence of “uncontrolled pesticide applications”:

“The Associated Press documented dozens of cases around the country where poisons are applied in ways unanticipated by regulatory science or specifically banned by existing law. The spray drifts into schools and homes and settles over water sources; farmworkers mix poisons with no protective gear; villagers store water in pesticide containers that should have been destroyed.”

In a follow-up story, Monsanto defended glyphosate as safe and called for more controls to stop the misuse of agricultural chemicals, and Warren reported:

“Argentine doctors interviewed by the AP said their caseloads – not laboratory experiments – show an apparent correlation between the arrival of intensive industrial agriculture and rising rates of cancer and birth defects in rural communities, and they’re calling for broader, longer-term studies to rule out agrochemical exposure as a cause of these and other illnesses.”

Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher responded, “the absence of reliable data makes it very difficult to establish trends in disease incidence and even more difficult to establish causal relationships. To our knowledge there are no established causal relationships.”

The absence of reliable data is compounded by the fact that most chemicals are assessed for safety on an individual basis, yet exposures typically involve chemical combinations.

 ‘We are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals’

A recent UCLA study found that California regulators are failing to assess the health risks of pesticide mixtures, even though farm communities – including areas near schools, day care centers and parks – are exposed to multiple pesticides, which can have larger-than-anticipated health impacts.

Exposures also occur by multiple routes. Reporting on health problems and community concerns in Avia Teria, a rural town in Argentina surrounded by soybean fields, Elizabeth Grossman wrote in National Geographic:

“Because so many pesticides are used in Argentina’s farm towns, the challenges of understanding what may be causing the health problems are considerable, says Nicolas Loyacono, a University of Buenos Aires environmental health scientist and physician. In these communities, Loyacono says, “we are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals.”

In Iowa, which grows more genetically engineered corn than any other state in the U.S., water supplies have been polluted by chemical run off from corn and animal farms, reported Richard Manning in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine:

“Scientists from the state’s agricultural department and Iowa State University have penciled out and tested a program of such low-tech solutions. If 40% of the cropland claimed by corn were planted with other crops and permanent pasture, the whole litany of problems caused by industrial agriculture – certainly the nitrate pollution of drinking water – would begin to evaporate.”

These experiences in three areas leading the world in GMO crop production are obviously relevant to the question of whether Africa should embrace GMOs as the best solution for future food security. So why isn’t Bill Gates discussing these issues?

Propaganda watch

GMO proponents like to focus on possible future uses of genetic engineering technology, while downplaying, ignoring or denying the risks. They often try to marginalize critics who raise concerns as uninformed or anti-science; or, as Gates did, they suggest a false choice that countries must accept GMOs if they want “to let their people have enough to eat.”

This logic leaps over the fact that, after decades of development, most GMO crops are still engineered to withstand herbicides or produce insecticides (or both) while more complicated (and much hyped) traits, such as vitamin-enhancement, have failed to get off the ground.

“Like the hover boards of the Back to the Future franchise, golden rice is an old idea that looms just beyond the grasp of reality,” reported Tom Philpott in Mother Jones.

Meanwhile, the multinational agrichemical companies that also own a large portion of the seed business are profiting from both the herbicide-resistant seeds and the herbicides they are designed to resist, and many new GMO applications in the pipeline follow this same vein.

These corporations have also spent hundreds of million dollars on public relations efforts to promote industrial-scale, chemical-intensive, GMO agriculture as the answer to world hunger – using similar talking points that Gates put forth in his Wall Street Journal interview, and that Gates-funded groups also echo.

For a recent article in The Ecologist, I analyzed the messaging of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO communications program launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

My analysis found that the group provides little information about possible risks or downsides of GMOs, and instead amplifies the agrichemical industry’s PR mantra that the science is settled on the safety and necessity of GMOs.

For example, the group’s FAQ states,

“You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than be hurt by GE food – and that’s not an exaggeration.”

This contradicts the World Health Organization, which states, “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” Over 300 scientists, MDs and academics have said there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”

The concerns scientists are raising about the glyphosate-based herbicides that go with GMOs are also obviously relevant to the safety discussion.

Yet rather than raising these issues as part of a robust science discussion, the Cornell Alliance for Science deploys fellows and associates to downplay concerns about pesticides in Hawaii and attack journalists who report on these concerns.

It’s difficult to understand how these sorts of shenanigans are helping to solve hunger in Africa.

Public science for sale

The Cornell Alliance for Science is the latest example of a larger troubling pattern of universities and academics serving corporate interests over science.

Recent scandals relating to this trend include Coca-Cola funded professors who downplayed the link between diet and obesity, a climate-skeptic professor who described his scientific papers as “deliverables” for corporate funders, and documents obtained by my group U.S. Right to Know that reveal professors working closely with Monsanto to promote GMOs without revealing their ties to Monsanto.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped expose the Flint water crisis, warned that public science is in grave danger.

“I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill – pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index – and the idea of science as a public good is being lost … People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.”

As the world’s wealthiest foundation and as major funders of academic research, especially in the realm of agriculture, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is in a position to support science in the public interest.

Gates Foundation strategies, however, often align with corporate interests. A 2014 analysis by the Barcelona-based research group Grain found that about 90% of the $3 billion the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent to benefit hungry people in the world’s poorest countries went to wealthy nations, mostly for high-tech research.

A January 2016 report by the UK advocacy group Global Justice Now argues that Gates Foundation spending, especially on agricultural projects, is exacerbating inequality and entrenching corporate power globally.

“Perhaps what is most striking about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is that despite its aggressive corporate strategy and extraordinary influence across governments, academics and the media, there is an absence of critical voices,” the group said.

But corporate voices are close at hand. The head of the Gates Foundation agricultural research and development team is Rob Horsch, who spent decades of his career at Monsanto.

 The case for an honest conversation

Rather than making the propaganda case for GMOs, Bill Gates and Gates-funded groups could play an important role in elevating the scientific integrity of the GMO debate, and ensuring that new food technologies truly benefit communities.

Technology isn’t inherently good or bad; it all depends on the context. As Gates put it, “as long as the right safety things are done.” But those safety things aren’t being done.

Protecting children from toxic pesticide exposures in Hawaii and Argentina and cleaning up water supplies in Iowa doesn’t have to prevent genetic engineering from moving forward. But those issues certainly highlight the need to take a precautionary approach with GMOs and pesticides.

That would require robust and independent assessments of health and environmental impacts, and protections for farmworkers and communities.

That would require transparency, including labeling GMO foods as well as open access to scientific data, public notification of pesticide spraying, and full disclosure of industry influence over academic and science organizations.

It would require having a more honest conversation about GMOs and pesticides so that all nations can use the full breadth of scientific knowledge as they consider whether or not to adopt agrichemical industry technologies for their food supply.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. Sign up for our newsletter here. Stacy is author of the book, ‘Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,’ (New Society Publishing, 2007) and co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Follow Stacy on Twitter: @stacymalkan.