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.

Transforming the Food We Eat With DowDuPont

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Update 2/26/18: In a spinoff following the merger with Dow, DuPont Pioneer will change its name to Corteva Agriscience; based on a combination of words meaning “heart” and “nature.” Here’s our take.

By Stacy Malkan

The world’s largest pesticide and seed companies want you to believe they are on the side of science. High-tech foods are the future, they say, and people who raise concerns about their pesticides and genetically engineered seeds are “anti-science.”

The Atlantic magazine will provide a platform to those industry talking points in exchange for corporate cash at a Feb. 15 event titled, “Harvest: Transforming the Food We Eat” sponsored by DowDuPont.

The fluff agenda has “farmers, foodies, techies and tinkerers” discussing how the latest food technologies are transforming the way we cultivate crops and animals, and the implications for the future of food.

Will any of the participants ask why DowDuPont continues to push a dangerous pesticide despite strong scientific evidence that it harms children’s brains?

Will any of them ask why DuPont covered up the health risks of the Teflon chemical linked to birth defects, as it allowed the chemical to contaminate waterways across the globe?

Will they ask why – despite record profits – DowDupont has refused to help disaster victims or even clean up the chemical contamination caused by a 1984 pesticide plant accident in Bhopal?

Would The Atlantic host a “transforming climate” event with ExxonMobil?

What’s next? Will The Atlantic agree to host a “transforming health” event sponsored by Phillip Morris or a “transforming climate” event sponsored by ExxonMobil?

Maybe. In 2015, The Atlantic Food Summit was underwritten by Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly that makes ractopamine, a growth-promoting chemical used in meat production that is banned in 100 countries due to health concerns, but still used here.

As Tom Philpott reported in Mother Jones, Elanco’s President Jeff Simmons delivered a sponsored speech at the event, in which “he complained that a group he labeled the ‘fringe 1 percent,’ agitating for increased regulation on meat producers, is driving the national debate around food.”

Simmons’ 15-minute speech featured an emotional video of a mother who attended an Elanco/American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics program and learned about “the importance of protein” and eating more meat as a way to improve her family’s health.

Purchasing the Food Narrative

The Atlantic covered Dow/Union Carbide’s dirty past but is now providing cover for DowDuPont’s PR spin on the future.

With its rent-a-food-summit model, The Atlantic is helping corporations shape how we think about our food system. That is fundamentally incompatible with The Atlantic’s guiding commitment to “look for the truth.”

All the brands participating in this week’s “Transforming Food” event – Food Tank, Land O’Lakes and New Harvest, too – are giving DowDuPont cover to present themselves as champions of science while framing the food debate around the technologies they sell.

But the facts of history are important to any honest discussion about the future, and DowDuPont is no champion of science.

Both Dow and Dupont have long histories of covering up sciencesuppressing science, knowingly selling dangerous products, covering up health concerns, failing to clean up their messes, and engaging in other scandals, crimes and wrongdoings – whatever it took to protect the bottom line.

Protecting reliable profit streams, rather than innovating what’s best for people and the environment, will motivate these companies into the future, too.

 GMO Pesticide Profit Treadmill

To understand how DowDuPont and the other pesticide/seed mega-mergers are likely to impact the future of our food system, look to how these companies are deploying patented food technologies right now.

Most GMO foods on the market today are engineered for use with specific pesticides, which has led to increased use of those pesticides, the proliferation of weeds resistant to those pesticides, and an aggressive effort to sell more and worse pesticides that are damaging farmland across the Midwest.

To understand what needs to change to have a healthier food system, ask farmers, not DowDuPont. Ask the communities that are fighting for their health and their right to know about the pesticides they are drinking and breathing.

In Hawaii and Argentina, where genetically engineered crops are grown intensively, doctors are raising concerns about increases in birth defects and other illnesses they suspect may be related to pesticides. In Iowa, another leading GMO producer, water supplies have been polluted by chemical runoff from corn and animal farms.

The future of high-tech food, under the stewardship of companies like DowDuPont and Elanco, is easy to guess: more of what those companies are already selling – more seeds genetically engineered to survive pesticides, more pesticides, and food animals engineered to grow faster and fit better in crowded conditions, with pharmaceuticals to help.

Purchased media forums such as The Atlantic’s “transforming food,” and the articles and debates about the “future of food” that Syngenta was just caught buying in London, and other covert industry PR projects to reframe the GMO debate, are efforts to distract from the facts of history and the truth on the ground.

Consumers aren’t buying the spin. Demand for organic food continues to rise across all demographics of American society.

Changing consumer tastes are shrinking the big food companies like icebergs and splitting up the food industry lobby as “millennials and moms seek healthier and more transparent products.”

Let’s give them what they want: a food system that is healthy for people, farmers, the soil and the bees – a food system that prioritizes protecting our children’s brains over the profits of the pesticide industry.

That’s the discussion we need to have about transforming the food we eat.

See also:
Letter to The Atlantic from Anne Frederick director of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action: “Our community has repeatedly attempted to enact common sense regulations at the county and state level, only to be thwarted by DowDuPont and the agrochemical industry … As a reader of your publication, it is unsettling to learn that The Atlantic would align its brand with an industry that has so recklessly endangered the health and safety of our communities. I hope you will reconsider DowDuPont’s sponsorship, and stand in solidarity with our communities who are living on the frontline of these environmental injustices.”

Want to know more secrets the food and chemical companies are hiding about our food? Sign up for the U.S. Right to Know newsletter here, and you can donate here to keep our investigations cooking.