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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Right to Know efforts for transparency

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

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

Related press coverage

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

AgBioChatter list content

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

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

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

Academic, industry collaboration 

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

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

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

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

AgBioChatter list members 

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

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

Graham Brooks, Agricultural Economist, PG Economics Ltd, UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Hedgecock, DuPont Pioneer former director of scientific affairs

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

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

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

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

Robert McGregor, Policy Analyst, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Alan McHughen, PhD, University of California Riverside

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

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

Piero Morandini, PhD, research assistant, University of Milan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drew Kershen: Agrichemical Industry Front Group Ringleader

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

Agrichemical industry ties and front group leadership

Genetic Literacy Project / Science Literacy Project

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

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

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

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

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

Secretary of Academics Review Front Group

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

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

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

Why Forbes Deleted Some Drew Kershen Articles

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

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

GMO Answers

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

Intervened in Transparency Lawsuit to Suppress Public Disclosure

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

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