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.

A Short Report on Journalists Mentioned in our FOIA Requests

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Also see: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a conflict of interest?  
Washington Post Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto 

On September 23rd, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel admitted to receiving “plenty” of money from pro-agrichemical industry sources.

Following her admission, I thought it might be useful to report on journalists – including Haspel — mentioned in the documents we have received from state public records requests.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation of the food and agrichemical industries, their PR firms and front groups, and the professors who speak for them.

So far, three reporters come up in interesting ways: Amy Harmon, Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. These reporters appear in the context of Jon Entine, who is perhaps the leading PR operative working to promote the views of the agrichemical industry, and its pesticides and GMOs.

Entine is founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, which, along with the PR firm Ketchum’s GMO Answers, are the agrichemical industry’s two most visible front groups. Entine is also founder and president of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included the agrichemical giant Monsanto.

Amy Harmon

Amy Harmon is a reporter for the New York Times.  She was part of a Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and in 2008 she won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.

On September 23, 2013 at 7:44pm, Jon Entine emailed Renee Kester: “FYI, I think I’ve talked Amy Harmon into doing a Hawaii Hawaii [sic] story. . .  and I gave her your and Kirby’s email information, so she may call at some point if she indeed pursues this.” Kirby Kester is president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, an agrichemical industry front group.

On January 4, 2014, the New York Times published a front-page article by Amy Harmon, titled “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.” The story is datelined from Kona, Hawaii.

In 2014, Harmon won second place for the Society of Environmental Journalists “Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market” for “The Facts About GMOs,” a series that included the article “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.”

On September 30th, Harmon is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote GMOs. The group is running a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Slate and other outlets.  Kloor has written many pro-GMO articles that have been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

Kloor is mentioned in two places in the FOIA documents.

In one email, Jon Entine refers to Keith Kloor as a “very good friend of mine”.

In another email, on October 18, 2014, Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University, emails Adrianne Massey of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), along with several others, to forward an alert from Lorraine Thelian, vice chairman of the PR firm Ketchum that “the hacker community Anonymous is planning a series of attacks on biotechnology and food industry websites…Trade association and corporate websites of CBI [Council for Biotechnology Information] members are being targeted in this planned attack.”  Dr. Prakash writes, “Adrianne I have copied Kevin Folta, Karl von Mogel, David Tribe and Keith Kloor here as well.”

Dr. Prakash cc’d the email to Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy (agrichemical industry advocate) Val Giddings (former VP of BIO), Henry Miller (agrichemical industry advocate), Drew Kershen (agrichemical industry advocate), Klaus Ammann, Piet van der Meer, Martina Newell-McGloughlin (agrichemical industry advocate), Karl Haro von Mogel (member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified, a pro-GMO website), Kevin Folta (agrichemical industry advocate), Keith Kloor and David Tribe (agrichemical industry advocate).

Keith Kloor was the only journalist who received this email.

The email implies that Kloor works closely with the agrichemical industry’s prominent advocates.

Kloor has written three articles that were critical of U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests, in Science Insider, Discover and Nature.

On March 23rd, 2015, Kloor gave a talk for the Cornell Alliance for Science, which is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Tamar Haspel

Tamar Haspel is a columnist at the Washington Post.  She has written many columns for the Post defending or praising GMOs that have later been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

In 2015, Haspel won the James Beard Foundation Award for her Post columns.

In June 2014, Haspel spoke to a pro-industry conference about “How can scientists best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public?”  The conference was coordinated by Jon Entine and Cami Ryan, who is currently social sciences lead for Monsanto.  The conference was led by two agrichemical industry front groups, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, along with the University of Florida, which receives major funding from agrichemical companies, as noted in a September 6 article in the New York Times.

Haspel also moderated a panel organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which “provides long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina through support of biotechnology research, business, education and strategic policy statewide.”

In a September 23 chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Ms. Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” Later that day, I asked Ms. Haspel on Twitter how much money she had received from the agrichemical industry and its front groups.  She replied, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!

Is it appropriate for a Washington Post columnist to write glowing columns about GMOs while appearing at such pro-industry conferences?  Is it a conflict of interest for Haspel to accept money from agrichemical company interests that she covers as part of her beat as a Post food columnist?  How much money has Haspel received from agrichemical industry interests?

Some journalists have criticized journalists for “buckraking” on speakers’ circuits. For example, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said, “I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.”

Haspel wrote in the Washington Post that she will only speak at events where “if for-profit companies are involved in the event (which they often are), they can’t be the only voice.  So, I will speak at a conference co-sponsored by, say, Monsanto and the USDA and NC State University, but not an event sponsored by Monsanto alone.”  However, at the June 2014, conference at which Haspel spoke, no consumer advocates were slated to speak, only pro-industry advocates.

On October 16, Haspel is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO group that is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Haspel has been critical of the U.S. Right to Know FOIA requests.  On August 17, on Twitter, she wrote: “The money/time/brainpower wasted on @garyruskin’s mean-spirited, self-interested attack on @kevinfolta! Can we move on to something useful?” Others did not agree with her news judgment.  On September 6th, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton wrote an article largely based on our FOIA requests – especially of University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta – which ran on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. The article revealed how Folta, who repeatedly denied ties to Monsanto, in fact had received an undisclosed $25,000 grant, as well as writing assignments from the company, and worked closely with it and its PR firm Ketchum, which ghostwrote text for him and organized media and lobbying meetings for him.

U.S. Right to Know is a consumer advocacy group.  We try to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know.  We believe it is useful for the public to see how the food and agrichemical companies do their public relations work.  That is one way we can help consumers to assess the claims and information they receive from the companies involved in our food production, their PR firms and operatives, and the journalists who work with them.