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

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

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See also: Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists, by Stacy Malkan (7/12/2018)

This fact sheet describes the contents of Monsanto’s confidential public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, the international group of experts on the IARC panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

The Monsanto plan names more than a dozen “industry partner” groups that company executives planned to “inform / inoculate / engage” in their efforts to protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent the “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies.” Partners included academics as well as chemical and food industry front groups, trade groups and lobby groups — follow the links below to fact sheets that provide more information about the partner groups.

Together these fact sheets provide a sense of the depth and breadth of the corporate attack on the IARC cancer experts in defense of Monsanto’s top-selling herbicide.

Monsanto’s objectives for dealing with the IARC carcinogenicity rating for glyphosate (page 5).

Background

A key document released in 2017 in legal proceedings against Monsanto describes the corporation’s “preparedness and engagement plan” for the IARC cancer classification for glyphosate, the world’s most widely used agrichemical. The internal Monsanto document — dated Feb. 23, 2015 — assigns more than 20 Monsanto staffers to objectives including “neutralize impact of decision,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “lead voice in ‘who is IARC’ plus 2B outrage.” On March 20, 2015, IARC announced its decision to classify glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

For more background, see: “How Monsanto Manufactured Outrage at Chemical Cancer Classification it Expected,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (9/19/2017)

Monsanto’s Tier 1-4 “Industry Partners”

Page 5 of the Monsanto document identifies four tiers of “industry partners” that Monsanto executives planned to engage in its IARC preparedness plan. These groups together have a broad reach and influence in pushing a narrative about cancer risk that protects corporate profits.

Tier 1 industry partners are agrichemical industry-funded lobby and PR groups.

Tier 2 industry partners are front groups that are often cited as independent sources, but work with the chemical industry behind the scenes on public relations and lobbying campaigns.

Tier 3 industry partners are food-industry funded nonprofit and trade groups. These groups were tapped to, “Alert food companies via Stakeholder Engagement team (IFIC, GMA, CFI) for ‘inoculation strategy’ to provide early education on glyphosate residue levels, describe science-based studies versus agenda-driven hypotheses” of the independent cancer panel.

Tier 4 industry partners are “key grower’s associations.” These are the various trade groups representing corn, soy and other industrial growers and food manufacturers.

Plan suggests Sense About Science to “lead industry response”

The “post-IARC” section details Monsanto’s plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.” The plan suggests the front group Sense About Science (in brackets with a question mark) as the group that “leads industry response and provides platform for IARC observers and industry spokesperson.”

Sense About Science describes itself as a public charity that “promotes public understanding of science,” but that occurs in ways that “tip the scales toward industry,” as The Intercept reported in 2016. The group was founded in London in 2001 by Dick Taverne, an English politician with ties to the tobacco industry and other industries Sense About Science defends.

For more information:

The sister group of Sense About Science, the Science Media Centre, is a nonprofit public relations group in London that receives industry funding and has sparked controversy for pushing corporate science. The Science Media Centre has close ties to Kate Kelland, a Reuters’ reporter who has written inaccurate articles about IARC that have been heavily promoted by the “industry partner” groups named in Monsanto’s PR plan, and used as the basis for political attacks against IARC.

For more information:

  • IARC responds, “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article” (3/1/18)
  • USRTK, “Reuters’ Kate Kelland IARC Story Promotes False Narrative,” by Carey Gillam (7/24/2017)
  • Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency,” by Stacy Malkan (7/24/2017)
  • USRTK, “Reuters’ Kate Kelland Again Promotes False Narrative About IARC and Glyphosate Cancer Concerns” (10/20/2017)

“Engage Henry Miller”

Page 2 of the Monsanto PR document identifies the first external deliverable for planning and preparation: “Engage Henry Miller” to “inoculate / establish public perspective on IARC and reviews.”

“I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.”

Henry I. Miller, MD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, has a long documented history of working with corporations to defend hazardous products. The Monsanto plan identifies the “MON owner” of the task as Eric Sachs, Monsanto’s science, technology and outreach lead.

Documents later reported by The New York Times reveal that Sachs emailed Miller a week before the IARC glyphosate report to ask if Miller was interested in writing about the “controversial decision.” Miller responded, “I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.” On March 23, Miller posted an article on Forbes that “largely mirrored” the draft provided by Monsanto, according to the Times. Forbes severed its relationship with Miller in the wake of the ghostwriting scandal and deleted his articles from the site.

Follow the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between food industry groups and academics on 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.

Biofortified Aids Chemical Industry PR & Lobbying Efforts

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Biology Fortified Inc., known as “Biofortified,” is a nonprofit organization that works closely with the agrichemical industry and its collaborators on public relations and lobbying campaigns to defend genetically engineered foods and pesticides, and attack industry critics.

Board members and bloggers are key agrichemical industry allies

Current and former board members and blog authors listed on Biofortified’s “meet our experts” page have close ties to the agrichemical industry and industry front group efforts.

Following are examples of industry-aligned lobbying and public relations efforts involving Biofortified and its leaders.

“Biofortified boys” lobby squad defends pesticides

In 2013, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA) — a trade group representing DowDuPont, Monsanto and the Hartung Brothers — organized a lobbying trip to Kauai for industry allies to oppose a community ordinance that would have improved public disclosure of pesticide use and required pesticide buffer zones around schools, hospitals and other public areas. According to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, the HCIA executive director referred to four supporters who were invited on the lobby trip as the “Biofortified boys.” They were:

  • Karl Haro von Mogel, Biofortified science director
  • Steve Savage, Biofortified blog author and agrichemical industry consultant
  • Kevin Folta, Biofortified board member and professor at University of Florida
  • Jon Entine, director of Genetic Literacy Project, a Monsanto partner group

Emails show that Renee Kester, lead organizer of the HCIA lobby project, emailed the four men on July 11, 2013 (page 10) to thank them “for all of the support you have given us over here in Hawaii with regard to our recent legislative battles” and to set up a call to discuss their availability to attend an upcoming legislative hearing. Alicia Muluafiti, executive director of HCIA, then emailed the group (page 9) about the need to craft out short term and longer term strategies “using the Biofortified boys”:

More information:

  • New York Times, “A Florida Professor Works with the Biotech Industry: A Trip to Hawaii to Testify, Paid by Industry” (page 23) (9/5/2015)
  • GM Watch, “How the ‘Biofortified Boys’ defended the pesticide industry’s secrets in Hawaii” (9/27/2015)

Biofortified listed as “industry partner” in Monsanto PR doc  

This internal Monsanto document identifies Biofortified as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, an IARC expert panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

The Monsanto PR document identified four tiers of industry partners the corporation planned to engage in its “preparedness plan” for the IARC cancer report. Biofortified is listed in “Tier 2,” along with Academics Review, AgBioChatter academics, Genetic Literacy Project and Sense About Science. These groups are are often cited as independent sources, but as the Monsanto plan and other examples suggest, they work behind the scenes with the agrichemical industry to protect corporate interests. (Update: In October 2018, Biofortified posted a statement from Monsanto saying the company does not fund or partner with them.)

Opposed transparency and state FOIA requests

Biofortified co-sponsored, along with the Cornell Alliance for Science, a March 2015 petition opposing the use of state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to investigate links between publicly funded academics and the agrichemical industry.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state FOIA requests have since revealed numerous examples of academics working in covert ways with agrichemical companies and their PR firms to aid industry’s lobbying and messaging agenda — for example, the documents describing the origins of the front group Academics Review, and those that discussed the “Biofortified boys” lobby trip to Hawaii. Many of the emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know are now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library, USRTK Agrichemical Collection. The documents have generated worldwide media coverage about transparency in the food industry and the health and environmental risks of pesticides and GMOs.

Biofortified’s industry-aligned attacks on critics

A stuffy doll representing GMO corn named Frank N. Foode is the mascot of Biofortified.

Biofortified founding board member David Tribe co-founded Academics Review, a front group set up with the help of Monsanto to attack industry critics, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. In one email, Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto, discussed a target list of industry critics he was developing for Monsanto.

March Against Myths about Modification (MAMyths), a project of Biofortified, also targeted some of the groups and individuals named on Byrne’s target list – for example, the group participated in a protest against Vandana Shiva and reportedly led a failed attempt to derail an event featuring Vani Hari, the “Food Babe,” sponsored by the Center for Food Safety.

MAMyths co-founder Kavin Senapathy had several articles deleted by Forbes after the New York Times revealed that her co-author, Henry Miller, published a column in Forbes that was ghostwritten by Monsanto. Miller was also identified as a partner in Monsanto’s public relations plan to attack the IARC cancer panel.

Senapathy is co-author of a 2015 book about Hari, “The Fear Babe,” which features a forward written by former Biofortified board member Kevin Folta, in which he describes the food movement as a “well financed terrorist faction.”

Senapathy and Haro von Mogel also appear in the GMO propaganda film Food Evolution.

Related projects

GENERA Database is a list of studies to “show people how much research has been conducted on genetically engineered crops,” according to the FAQ on the Biofortified website. The list was first started by David Tribe, who also co-founded the Monsanto front group Academics Review. Early promotion for GENERA misleadingly claimed to show “more than 600 peer-reviewed reports in the scientific literature which document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds.” Many of those studies did not address safety issues. The inaccurate promotional language was later removed, along with about a third of the studies.

IFIC: How Big Food Spins Bad News

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Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and other sources shine light on the inner workings of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a trade group funded by large food and agrichemical companies, and its nonprofit “public education arm” the IFIC Foundation. The IFIC groups conduct research and training programs, produce marketing materials and coordinate other industry groups to communicate industry spin about food safety and nutrition. Messaging includes promoting and defending sugar, artificial sweeteners, food additives, pesticides and genetically engineered foods.

Spinning pesticide cancer report for Monsanto 

As one example of how IFIC partners with corporations to promote agrichemical products and deflect cancer concerns, this internal Monsanto document identifies IFIC as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research team, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, IARC judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

Monsanto listed IFIC as a Tier 3 “industry partner” along with two other food-industry funded groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Center for Food Integrity.

How IFIC tries to communicate its message to women.

The document identifies IFIC, GMA and the Center for Food Integrity as part of a “Stakeholder Engagement team” that could alert the food companies to Monsanto’s “inoculation strategy” for the glyphosate cancer report.

Blogs later posted on the IFIC website illustrate the group’s patronizing “don’t worry, trust us” messaging to women.  Entries include, “8 crazy ways they’re trying to scare you about fruits and vegetables,” “Cutting through the clutter on glyphosate,” and “Before we freak out, let’s ask the experts … the real experts.”

Corporate funders  

IFIC spent $23,659,976 in the five-year period from 2012-2016, while the IFIC Foundation spent $5,639,289 from 2011-2015, according to tax forms filed with the IRS. Corporations and industry groups that support IFIC, according to public disclosures, include the American Beverage Association, American Meat Science Association, Archer Daniels Midland Company, Bayer CropScience, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Dannon, DowDuPont, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Mars, Nestle, Perdue Farms and PepsiCo.

Draft tax records for the IFIC Foundation, obtained via state records requests, list the corporations that funded the group in 2011, 2013 or both: Grocery Manufacturers Association, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Hershey, Mars, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever. The US Department of Agriculture gave IFIC Foundation $177,480 of taxpayer money in 2013 to produce a “communicator’s guide” for promoting genetically engineered foods.

IFIC also solicits money from corporations for specific product-defense campaigns. This April 28, 2014 email from an IFIC executive to a long list of corporate board members asks for $10,000 contributions to update the “Understanding our Food” initiative to improve consumer views of processed foods. The email notes lists the previous financial supporters: Bayer, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Mars, McDonalds, Monsanto, Nestle, PepsiCo and DuPont.

Promotes GMOs to school children  

IFIC coordinates 130 groups via the Alliance to Feed the Future on messaging efforts to “improve understanding” about genetically engineered foods. Members include the American Council on Science and Health, the Calorie Control Council, the Center for Food Integrity and The Nature Conservancy.

The Alliance to Feed the Future also provides free educational curricula to teach students to promote genetically engineered foods, including “The Science of Feeding the World” for K-8 teachers and “Bringing Biotechnology to Life” for grades 7-10.

The inner workings of IFIC’s PR services 

A series of documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know provide a sense of how IFIC operates behind the scenes to spin bad news and defend the products of its corporate sponsors.

Connects reporters to industry-funded scientists  

  • May 5, 2014 email from Matt Raymond, senior director of communications, alerted IFIC leadership and “media dialogue group” to “high profile stories in which IFIC is currently involved” to help spin negative news coverage. He noted they had connected a New York Times reporter with “Dr. John Sievenpiper, our noted expert in the field of sugars.” Sievenpiper “is among a small group of Canadian academic scientists who have received hundreds of thousands in funding from soft-drink makers, packaged-food trade associations and the sugar industry, turning out studies and opinion articles that often coincide with those businesses’ interests,” according to the National Post.
  • Emails from 2010 and 2012 suggest that IFIC relies on a small group of industry-connected scientists to confront studies that raise concerns about GMOs. In both emails, Bruce Chassy pushes the view that there is no difference between conventional bred and genetically engineered crops.

DuPont exec suggests stealth strategy to confront Consumer Reports

  • In a February 3, 2013 email, IFIC staff alerted its “media relations group” that Consumer Reports had reported about safety and environmental concerns of GMOs. Doyle Karr, DuPont director of biotechnology policy and vice president of the board of Center for Food Integrity, forwarded the email to a scientist with a query for response ideas, and suggested confronting Consumer Reports with this stealth tactic: “Maybe create a letter to the editor signed by 1,000 scientists who have no affiliation with the biotech seed companies stating that they take issue with (Consumer Reports’) statements on the safety and environmental impact. ??”

Other PR services IFIC provides to industry

  • Disseminates misleading industry talking points: April 25, 2012 mail to the 130 members of the Alliance to Feed the Future “on behalf of Alliance member Grocery Manufacturers Association” claimed the California ballot initiative to label genetically engineered foods “would effectively ban the sale of tens of thousands of grocery products in California unless they contain special labels.”
  • Confronts troublesome books: February 20, 2013 describes IFIC’s strategy to spin two books critical of the food industry, “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss, and “Pandora’s Lunchbox” by Melanie Warner. Plans included writing book reviews, disseminating talking points and exploring additional options to enhance engagement in the digital media.
  • Research and surveys to support industry positions; one example is a 2012 survey that found 76% of consumers “can’t think of anything additional they would like to see on the label” that was used by industry groups to oppose GMO labeling.
  • “Don’t worry, trust us” marketing brochures, such as this one explaining that artificial sweeteners and food dyes are nothing to worry about.

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 the artificial sweetener Splenda discloses here their partnership with SciBabe to “debunk junk science” about Splenda.

SciBabe has 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, and the 2015 Suppliers Showcase where her talk was sponsored by DuPont. In interviews, she 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

Are You Ready for the New Wave of Genetically Engineered Foods?

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A version of this article was first published in Common Ground Magazine March 2018 (PDF version).

By Stacy Malkan

Everyone loves a feel-good story about the future. You’ve probably heard this one: high-tech foods enhanced by science will feed the 9 billion people expected on the planet by 2050. Food made in labs and crops and animals genetically engineered to grow faster and better will make it possible to feed the crowded world, according to stories that spin through our institutions of media and education.

“6th grade students brainstorming big biotech ideas to #Feedthe9″ touted a recent tweet tagged to the chemical industry’s promotional website GMOAnswers. Student ideas included “breed carrots to have more vitamins” and “corn that will grow in harsh winter conditions.”

It all sounds so promising until you look at the realities behind the rhetoric.

For starters, in a country that leads the world in growing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), millions go hungry. Reducing food waste, addressing inequality and shifting to agroecological farming methods, not GMOs, are the keys to world food security, according to experts at the United Nations. Most genetically engineered foods on the market today have no consumer benefits whatsoever; they are engineered to survive pesticides, and have greatly accelerated the use of pesticides such as glyphosate, dicamba and soon 2,4D, creating what environmental groups call a dangerous pesticide treadmill.

Despite decades of hype about higher nutrients or heartier GMO crops, those benefits have failed to materialize. Vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, for example – “the rice that could save a million kids a year,” reported Time magazine 17 years ago – is not on the market despite millions spent on development. “If golden rice is such a panacea, why does it flourish only in headlines, far from the farm fields where it’s intended to grow?” asked Tom Philpott in Mother Jones article titled, WTF Happened to Golden Rice?

“The short answer is that the plant breeders have yet to concoct varieties of it that work as well in the field as existing rice strains…When you tweak one thing in a genome, such as giving rice the ability to generate beta-carotene, you risk changing other things, like its speed of growth.”

Nature is complex, in other words, and genetic engineering can produce unexpected results.

Consider the case of the Impossible Burger.

The plant-based burger that “bleeds” is made possible by genetically engineering yeast to resemble leghemoglobin, a substance found in soybean plant roots. The GMO soy leghemoglobin (SLH) breaks down into a protein called “heme,” which gives the burger meat-like qualities — its blood-red color and sizzle on the grill — without the environmental and ethical impacts of meat production. But the GMO SLH also breaks down into 46 other proteins that have never been in the human diet and could pose safety risks.

As The New York Times reported, the burger’s secret sauce “highlights the challenges of food tech.” The story was based on documents obtained by ETC Group and Friends of the Earth under a Freedom of Information Act request – documents the company probably hoped would never see the light of day. When Impossible Foods asked the Food and Drug Administration to confirm its GMO ingredient was “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), the Times reported, the agency instead “expressed concern that it has never been consumed by humans and may be an allergen.”

FDA officials wrote in notes describing a 2015 call with the company, “FDA stated that the current arguments at hand, individually and collectively, were not enough to establish the safety of SLH for consumption.” But, as the Times story explained, the FDA did not say the GMO leghemoglobin was unsafe, and the company did not need the approval of FDA to sell its burger anyway.

The arguments presented did not establish safety – FDA

So Impossible Burger is on the market with the company’s assurances of safety and most consumers are in the dark about what’s in it. While the GMO process is explained on the website it is not marketed that way at the point of sale. On a recent visit to a Bay Area restaurant that sells the Impossible Burger, a customer asked if the burger was genetically modified. He was inaccurately told, “no.”

Lack of government oversight, unknown health risks and consumers left in the dark – these are recurring themes in the unfolding narrative about the Wild West of genetic engineering experimentation that is galloping toward a store near you.

A GMO By Any Other Name …

Synthetic biology, CRISPR, gene editing, gene silencing: these terms describe the new forms of genetically engineered crops, animals and ingredients that companies are rushing to get onto the market.

The old method of genetic engineering, called transgenics, involves transferring genes from one species to another. With the new genetic engineering methods – what some environmental groups call GMOs 2.0 – companies are tampering with nature in new and possibly riskier ways. They can delete genes, turn genes on or off, or create whole new DNA sequences on a computer. All these new techniques are GMOs in the way consumers and the U.S. Patent Office consider them – DNA is altered in labs in ways that can’t occur in nature, and used to make products that can be patented. There are a few basic types of GMOs 2.0.

Synthetic biology GMOs involve changing or creating DNA to artificially synthesize compounds rather than extract them from natural sources. Examples include genetically engineering yeast or algae to create flavors such as vanillin, stevia and citrus; or fragrances like patchouli, rose oil and clearwood – all of which may already be in products.

Some companies are touting lab-grown ingredients as a solution for sustainability. But the devil is in the details that companies are reticent to disclose. What are the feedstocks? Some synthetic biology products depend on sugar from chemical-intensive monocultures or other polluting feedstocks such as fracked gas. There are also concerns that engineered algae could escape into the environment and become living pollution.

And what is the impact on farmers who depend on sustainably grown crops? Farmers around the world are worried that lab-grown substitutes, falsely marketed as “natural,” could put them out of business. For generations, farmers in Mexico, Madagascar, Africa and Paraguay have cultivated natural and organic vanilla, shea butter or stevia. In Haiti, the farming of vetiver grass for use in high-end perfumes supports up to 60,000 small growers, helping to bolster an economy ravaged by earthquake and storms.

Does it make sense to move these economic engines to South San Francisco and feed factory-farmed sugar to yeast in order to make cheaper fragrances and flavors? Who will benefit, and who will lose out, in the high-tech crop revolution?

Genetically engineered fish and animals: dehorned cattle, naturally castrated pigs, and chicken eggs engineered to contain a pharmaceutical agent are all in the genetic experimentation pipeline. An all-male “terminator cattle” project – with the code name “Boys Only” – aims to create a bull that will father only male offspring, thereby “skewing the odds toward maleness and making the (meat) industry more efficient,” reported MIT Technology Review.

What could go wrong?

The geneticist working on the terminator cattle, Alison Van Eenennaam of the  University of California, Davis, is lobbying FDA to reconsider its 2017 decision to treat CRISPR-edited animals as if they were new drugs, thereby requiring safety studies; she told the MIT Review that would “put a huge regulatory block on using this gene-editing technique on animals.” But shouldn’t there be requirements for studying the health, safety and environmental impacts of genetically engineered foods, and a framework for considering the moral, ethical and social justice implications? Companies are pushing hard for no requirements; in January, President Trump talked about biotechnology for the first time during his presidency and made a vague declaration about “streamlining regulations.”

The only GMO animal on the market so far is the AquaAdvantage salmon engineered with the genes of an eel to grow faster. The fish is already being sold in Canada, but the company won’t say where, and US sales are held up due to “labeling complications.” The urge for secrecy makes sense from a sales perspective: 75% of respondents in a 2013 New York Times poll said they would not eat GMO fish, and about two-thirds said they would not eat meat that had been genetically modified.

Gene silencing techniques such as RNA interference (RNAi) can turn genes off to create particular traits. The non-browning Arctic Apple was engineered with RNAi to turn down the expression of genes that cause apples to become brown and mushy. As the company explains on its website, “when the apple is bitten, sliced, or otherwise bruised … no yucky brown apple left behind.”

Are consumers actually asking for this trait? Ready or not here it comes. The first GMO Arctic Apple, a Golden Delicious, began heading for test markets in the Midwest last month. Nobody is saying exactly where the apples are landing, but they won’t be labeled GMO. Look out for the “Arctic Apples” brand if you want to know if you’re eating a genetically engineered apple.

“I am confident we’ll see more gene-edited crops falling outside of regulatory authority.” 

Gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, TALEN or zinc finger nucleases are used to cut DNA in order to make genetic changes or insert genetic material. These methods are faster and touted as more precise than the old transgenic methods. But the lack of government oversight raises concerns. “There can still be off-target and unintended effects,” explains Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist of Consumers Union. “When you alter the genetics of living things they don’t always behave as you expect. This is why it’s crucial to thoroughly study health and environmental impacts, but these studies aren’t required.”

A non-browning CRISPR mushroom escaped US regulation, as Nature reported in 2016. A new CRISPR canola oil, engineered to tolerate herbicides, is in stores now and may even be called “non-GMO,” according to Bloomberg, since the US Department of Agriculture has “taken a pass” on regulating CRISPR crops. The story noted that Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical have “stepped through the regulatory void” and struck licensing deals to use the gene-editing technology.

And that raises another red flag with the narrative that new GMOs will provide consumer benefits that the old transgenic methods didn’t. “Just because the techniques are different doesn’t mean the traits will be,” Dr. Hansen pointed out. “The old method of genetic engineering was used mostly to make plants resist herbicides and increase sales of herbicides. The new gene editing techniques will probably be used in much the same way, but there are some new twists.”

Corporate Greed Versus Consumer Needs

The Atlantic’s “transforming food” summit was sponsored by DowDuPont. See our reporting on that story.

The world’s largest agrichemical companies own the majority of seeds and pesticides, and they are consolidating power in the hands of just three multinational corporations. Bayer and Monsanto are closing in on a merger, and the mergers of ChemChina/Syngenta and DowDuPont are complete. DowDuPont just announced its agribusiness unit will operate under the new name Corteva Agriscience, a combination of words meaning “heart” and “nature.”

No matter what re-branding tricks they try, these corporations have a nature we already know: all of them have long histories of ignoring the warnings of science, covering up the health risks of dangerous products and leaving behind toxic messes – Bhopal, dioxin, PCBs, napalm, Agent Orange, teflon, chlorpyrifos, atrazine, dicamba, to name just a few scandals.

The future-focus narrative obscures that sordid past and the present reality of how these companies are actually using genetic engineering technologies today, mostly as a tool for crops to survive chemical sprays. To understand how this scheme is playing out on the ground in leading GMO-growing pesticide-using areas, read the reports about birth defects in Hawaii, cancer clusters in Argentina, contaminated waterways in Iowa and damaged cropland across the Midwest.

The future of food under the control of big agribusiness and chemical corporations is not hard to guess – more of what they are already trying to sell us: GMO crops that drive up chemical sales and food animals engineered to grow faster and fit better in factory farm conditions, with pharmaceuticals to help. It’s a great vision for the future of corporate profits and concentration of wealth and power, but not so great for farmers, public health, the environment or consumers who are demanding a different food future.

Growing numbers of consumers want real, natural food and products. They want to know what’s in their food, how it was produced and where it came from. For those who want to be in the know about what they are eating, there is still a surefire way to avoid old and new GMOs: buy organic. The Non-GMO Project verified certification also ensures products are not genetically engineered or made with synthetic biology.

It will be important for the natural foods industry to hold the line on the integrity of these certifications against the wild stampede of new GMOs.

Stacy Malkan is the co-director of US Right to Know and author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

GMO Answers is a Crisis Management PR Tool for GMOs & Pesticides

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Update May 2018: Tax records show that the Council for Biotechnology Information, a chemical industry trade group, paid Ketchum public relations firm more than $11 million from 2013-2016 to to run GMO Answers. See also this related post, “Monsanto Relied on These Partners to Attack Top Cancer Scientists” (5/31/18).

ketchum gmo answers

By Stacy Malkan

GMO Answers is billed as a forum where consumers can get straight answers from independent experts about genetically engineered foods, and some journalists take it seriously as an unbiased source. But the website is a straight-up industry marketing tool to spin GMOs in a positive light.

Evidence that GMO Answers is a crisis-management propaganda tool that lacks credibility:

1) GMO Answers was created as a vehicle to sway public opinion in favor of GMOs. Soon after Monsanto and its allies beat back the 2012 ballot initiative to label GMOs in California, Monsanto announced plans to launch a new public relations campaign to reshape the reputation of GMOs. They hired the public relations firm FleishmanHillard (owned by Omnicom) for a seven-figure campaign.

As part of the effort, the PR firm Ketchum (also owned by Omnicom) was hired by the Council for Biotechnology Information – funded by Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta – to create GMOAnswers.com. The site promised to clear up confusion and dispel mistrust about GMOs using the unedited voices of so-called “independent experts.”

But how independent are those experts?

The website hews to carefully crafted talking points that tell a positive story about GMOs while downplaying or ignoring the health and environmental risks. For example, when asked if GMOs are driving up the use of pesticides, the site offers a convoluted no, despite peer-reviewed data showing that, yes, in fact, they are.

“Roundup Ready” GMO crops have increased use of glyphosate, a probable human carcinogen, by hundreds of millions of pounds. A new GMO/pesticide scheme involving dicamba has led to the destruction of soybean crops across the U.S., and the FDA is bracing this year for triple the use of 2,4-D, an older toxic herbicide, due to new GMO crops that are engineered to resist it. All of this is nothing to worry about, according to GMO Answers.

Questions about safety are answered with false statements such as “every leading health organization in the world stands behind the safety of GMOs.” We found no mention of the statement signed by 300 scientists, physicians and academics who say there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety,” and we received no answers to questions we posted about the statement.

Examples have since come to light that Ketchum PR scripted some of the GMO answers that were signed by “independent experts.”

2) As further evidence the site is a spin vehicle: In 2014, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.”

3) And the PR firm that created GMO Answers boasted about its influence on journalists. In a video posted to the CLIO website, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.

Why reporters would trust a marketing vehicle designed by Ketchum as a reliable source is difficult to understand. Ketchum, which until 2016 was the PR firm for Russia, has been implicated in espionage efforts against nonprofits concerned about GMOs. Not exactly a history that lends itself to dispelling mistrust.

Given that GMO Answers is a marketing tool created and funded by companies that sell GMOs, we think it’s fair game to ask: Are the “independent experts” who lend credibility to the website – several of whom work for public universities and are paid by taxpayers – truly independent and working in the public interest? Or are they working in league with corporations and public relations firms to help sell the public a spin story?

In search of these answers, U.S. Right to Know submitted Freedom of Information Act requests seeking the correspondence of publicly funded professors who write for GMOAnswers.com or worked on other GMO promotion efforts. The FOIA’s are narrow requests that cover no personal or academic information, but rather seek to understand the connections between the professors, the agrichemical companies that sell GMOs, their trade associations and the PR and lobbying firms that have been hired to promote GMOs and fight labeling so we’re kept in the dark about what we’re eating.

Follow the results of the U.S. Right to Know investigation here.

Food Evolution GMO Film Serves Up Chemical Industry Agenda

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This post was recently updated with reviews of Food Evolution: 

By Stacy Malkan, 6/19/2017 

Some industry messaging efforts are so heavy-handed they end up highlighting their own PR tactics more than the message they are trying to convey. That’s the problem with Food Evolution, a new documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The film, opening in theaters June 23, claims to offer an objective look at the debate over genetically engineered foods, but with its skewed presentation of science and data, it comes off looking more like a textbook case of corporate propaganda for the agrichemical industry and its GMO crops.

That the film’s intended purpose was to serve as an industry-messaging vehicle is no secret. Food Evolution was planned in 2014 and funded by the Institute for Food Technologists, a trade group, to culminate a multi-year messaging effort.

IFT is partly funded by big food corporations, and the group’s president at the time was Janet Collins, a former DuPont and Monsanto executive who now works for CropLife America, the pesticide trade association. IFT’s President-Elect Cindy Stewart works for DuPont.

IFT chose Kennedy to direct the film, but he and producer Trace Sheehan say they had complete control over the film they describe as a fully independent investigation into the topic of GMOs including all points of view.

The film’s credibility suffers from their choice to embrace only the science and scientists who side with the chemical industry players who profit from GMOs and the chemicals used on them, while ignoring science and data that doesn’t fit that agenda.

The Monsanto Science Treatment

The clearest example of the scientific dishonesty in Food Evolution is the way the film deals with glyphosate. The weed killer chemical is at the heart of the GMO story, since 80-90% of GMO crops are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate.

Food Evolution reports that the increase in glyphosate use due to GMOs is not a problem, because glyphosate is safe. Two sources establish this claim in the film: a farmer says glyphosate has “very, very low toxicity; lower than coffee, lower than salt,” and Monsanto’s Robb Fraley – in response to a woman in an audience who asks him about science linking glyphosate to birth defects and cancer – tells her that’s all bad science, “it’s pseudoscience.”

All science raising concerns about glyphosate is “pseudoscience,” says Monsanto.

There is no mention of the carcinogenicity concerns that are engulfing Monsanto in an international science scandal, or the many farmers who are suing Monsanto alleging they got cancer from the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide.

There is no mention of the 2015 report by the World Health Organization’s cancer agency that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, or California’s decision to add glyphosate to the Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, or the peer-reviewed studies that have linked various adverse health outcomes to glyphosate and Roundup.

Instead of an objective look at the evidence, Food Evolution gives viewers the full Monsanto science treatment: any science that raises concerns about the possible health risks of agrichemical products should be ignored, while studies that put those products in a favorable light is the only science worth discussing.

Double Standards in Science and Transparency

Equal treatment of interview subjects with different points of view would have helped the credibility of Food Evolution. Instead, the film paints the GMO critics it features as dishonest or out to make a buck off the organic industry, while leaving out key details about its pro-industry sources.

In one scene, the film’s main character, UC Davis professor Alison van Eenennaam, frets that appearing onstage with a Monsanto executive at a debate could sully her independent reputation. Viewers never learn that she used to work for Monsanto, or that she holds several GE patents which suggest a financial interest in the topic at hand.

Pro-industry scientist Pamela Ronald, another key science source, gets the hero treatment with no mention that two of her studies have been retracted. Yet viewers are hammered with news that a study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini – which found kidney problems and tumors in rats fed GMO corn – was “retracted, retracted, retracted!”

The film leaves out the fact that the study was subsequently republished, and was retracted in the first place after a former Monsanto employee took an editorial position with the journal where it was originally published.

The “Africa Needs GMOs” Narrative

In another neatly spun narrative, Food Evolution takes viewers on an emotional journey to the developing world, and along another favorite industry messaging track: rather than focus on how genetic engineering is used in our food system now – primarily to convey herbicide tolerance – we should focus on how it might possibly be used in the future.

With plenty of airtime and dramatic tension, the film examines the problem of banana wilt, a disease killing staple crops in Africa, and leads viewers to believe that genetic engineering will save the crop, the farmers and the community.

Maybe. But the film neglects to mention that the savior GE technology is not yet available and might not even work. According to a paper in Plant Biotechnology Journal, the resistance shown in the lab is robust but may not be durable in open fields.

The film is “fundamentally dishonest.”

Meanwhile, a low-tech solution is working well and looks like it could use some investment. According to a 2012 paper in the Journal of Development and Agricultural Economics, farmer field schools, which help growers acquire hands-on knowledge of techniques to prevent banana wilt, led to lower infection rates and high crop recovery in Uganda. Results from farmer field schools “have been remarkable,” according to the UN.

The solution doesn’t warrant a mention in Food Evolution.

“It’s fundamentally dishonest of the film to tout a GE solution that may not even work, as the scientists themselves acknowledge,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, “while failing to point out another way to control the problem that works very well, but doesn’t involve selling a product to make money.

Did Monsanto have anything to do with Food Evolution?

Monsanto and allies were discussing plans for a documentary in late 2013, according to emails obtained by US Right to Know. The emails do not contain evidence linking those discussions to Food Evolution, but they do establish Monsanto’s desire for a film that sounds surpassingly similar to the one Kennedy created.

Monsanto’s Eric Sachs wrote in Dec. 2013 to a group of PR advisors, “there is clearly a lot of interest to pursue a documentary film. Importantly, the consensus was the Monsanto’s participation was welcome, particularly in the planning phase.”

He recommended a January 2014 planning call. Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project stepped up to take the lead, and mentioned he had “gotten a personal pledge of $100,000 from a private business person if we can get” (the rest of the line is cut off). Entine also has a connection to the Institute for Food Technologists; he spoke about “anti-food activism” at IFT’s 2012 annual meeting.

Another person mentioned in the Monsanto emails, Karl Haro von Mogel – who had discussed with Sachs “the downsides of a film funded by the ‘Big 6’” and suggested “what would matter more than their money is their participation” – was interviewed in Food Evolution, and was also involved in filming one scene, which suggests some behind the scenes coordination with the filmmakers.

In reaction to the emails, Kennedy wrote on Twitter: “@foodevomovie has had ZERO $ or INPUT from #Monsanto. We are fully transparent & happy 2 have fact-based dialogue.”

He said in an interview, “that email exchange had absolutely nothing to do with our project whatsoever … we hadn’t even committed to making the film with IFT at that date in 2013.”

The people in the email exchange were not involved in filming or advising, he said, and Karl Haro von Mogel “was a subject in the film and had no involvement or influence on any creative/editorial decisions on the film at any point in the production. Also it may be useful to point out that the email conversation you reference occurred long before we ever even knew Karl or any of these people.”

Sneak Peek Behind the Scenes

Another email exchange obtained by US Right to Know offers a peek behind the scenes at the narrative development in Food Evolution. The exchange depicts Kennedy’s search for examples to feature for “us/developing world need GMO.”

“Any other ‘us/developing world need GMO’ you can give me names of aside from oranges? Shintakus lettuce?” Kennedy asked. Producer Trace Sheehan responded with a list of GMO products including drought-tolerant rice, allergy-free peanuts, carcinogen-free potatoes … “and then button with Golden Rice.”

When Kennedy pushed for “the top GMO crops currently in use, and what countries,” Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science wrote, “Really Bt brinjal in Bangladesh is the only one that is truly GMO in and is in widespread operation.”

The film’s frame-driven reporting ignores that detail about the lack of operational GMO solutions, and doesn’t mention that the closer example, vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, still isn’t available despite huge investments and years of trials, because it doesn’t work as well in the field as existing rice strains.

What is propaganda?

In a scene that is supposed to convey scientific credibility, Food Evolution flashes the logo of the American Council on Science and Health at the very moment Neil deGrasse Tyson says there is a global consensus on the safety of GMOs. It’s a fitting slip. ASCH is a corporate front group closely aligned with Monsanto.

The ACSH logo scene also appears in the background in this 2-minute clip from a recent Climate One debate, as Kennedy pushed back against the suggestion that his film is propaganda.

“How do we determine what is propaganda?” Kennedy asked. “I say one of the ways we do it is (to ask), are results asked for, or results promised? I was not asked for results and I did not promise results. If you have a problem with the film, the problem lies with me.”

This review originally appeared in Huffington Post and has been reprinted in Alternet. 

See also: Stacy Malkan’s follow-up article, Neil deGrasse Tyson Owes Fans a More Honest Conversation About GMOs than Food Evolution. “Interviews with several other GMO critics who appear in the film, or were asked to be in it, corroborate the picture of a strange process involving sneaky filming, selective editing, misrepresentation and lack of disclosure about the film’s funding.”

Reuters’ Kate Kelland Again Promotes False Narrative About IARC and Glyphosate Cancer Concerns

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Update: Statement issued by IARC 10/24/2017: “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article”

Continuing her record of industry-biased reporting about the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Reuters reporter Kate Kelland again attacked the science panel with an Oct. 19 story that the panel edited a draft scientific document before issuing the final version of its assessment on glyphosate that found glyphosate a probable human carcinogen.

The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry trade group, immediately issued a press release praising Kelland’s story, claiming her story “undermines IARC’s conclusions about glyphosate” and urging policy makers to “take action against IARC over deliberate manipulation of data.”

Kelland’s story quoted a Monsanto executive claiming that “IARC members manipulated and distorted scientific data” but failed to mention the significant amount of evidence that has emerged from Monsanto’s own documents through court-ordered discovery that demonstrate the many ways the company has worked to manipulate and distort data on glyphosate over decades.

The story also failed to mention that most of the research IARC discounted was Monsanto-financed work that did not have sufficient raw data to meet IARC’s standards. And though Kelland cites a 1983 mouse study and a rat study in which IARC failed to agree with the original investigators, she failed to disclose that these were studies financed by Monsanto and the investigators IARC failed to agree with were paid by Monsanto. She also failed to mention the critical information that in the 1983 mouse study, even the EPA toxicology branch did not agree with Monsanto’s investigators because the evidence of carcinogenicity was so strong, according to EPA documents. They said in numerous memos that Monsanto’s argument was unacceptable and suspect, and they determined glyphosate to be a possible carcinogen.

By leaving out these crucial facts, and by twisting others almost inside out, Kelland has authored another article that serves Monsanto quite well, but victimized innocent members of the public and policy makers who rely on trusted news outlets for accurate information. The only encouraging point to be taken from Kelland’s story is that this time she admitted Monsanto provided her with the information.

As we have previously reported, Kelland’s earlier reporting on IARC has been deeply problematic; her stories have contained errors that Reuters refused to correct, made blatantly misleading claims about documents that were not provided to the public, and relied on industry-connected sources who were presented as independent sources. The story below by Stacy Malkan, originally published in Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, documents these examples.

See also these related stories and documents:

Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?

By Stacy Malkan, July 24, 2017 in FAIR

Ever since they classified the world’s most widely used herbicide as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” a team of international scientists at the World Health Organization’s cancer research group have been under withering attack by the agrichemical industry and its surrogates.

In a front-page series titled “The Monsanto Papers,” the French newspaper Le Monde (6/1/17) described the attacks as “the pesticide giant’s war on science,” and reported, “To save glyphosate, the firm [Monsanto] undertook to harm the United Nations agency against cancer by all means.”

Kate Kelland

Reuters reporter Kate Kelland (LinkedIn)

One key weapon in industry’s arsenal has been the reporting of Kate Kelland, a veteran Reuters reporter based in London.

With two industry-fed scoops and a special report, reinforced by her regular beat reporting, Kelland has aimed a torrent of critical reporting at the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), portraying the group and its scientists as out of touch and unethical, and leveling accusations about conflicts of interest and suppressed information in their decision-making.

The IARC working group of scientists did not conduct new research, but reviewed years of published and peer-reviewed research before concluding that there was limited evidence of cancer in humans from real-world exposures to glyphosate and “sufficient” evidence of cancer in studies on animals. IARC also concluded there was strong evidence of genotoxicity for glyphosate alone, as well as glyphosate used in formulations such as Monsanto’s Roundup brand of herbicide, whose use has increased dramatically as Monsanto has marketed crop strains genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready.”

But in writing about the IARC decision, Kelland has ignored much of the published research backing the classification, and focused on industry talking points and criticisms of the scientists in seeking to diminish their analysis.  Her reporting has relied heavily on pro-industry sources, while failing to disclose their industry connections; contained errors that Reuters has refused to correct; and presented cherry-picked information out of context from documents she did not provide to her readers.

Raising further questions about her objectivity as a science reporter are Kelland’s ties to the Science Media Centre (SMC), a controversial nonprofit PR agency in the UK that connects scientists with reporters, and gets its largest block of funding from industry groups and companies, including chemical industry interests.

SMC, which has been called “science’s PR agency,” launched in 2002 partly as an effort to tamp down news stories driven by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, according to its founding report. SMC has been accused of playing down the environmental and human health risks of some controversial products and technologies, according to multiple researchers who have studied the group.

Kelland’s bias  in favor of the group is evident, as she appears in the SMC promotional video and the SMC promotional report, regularly attends SMC briefings, speaks at SMC workshops and attended meetings in India to discuss setting up an SMC office there.

Neither Kelland nor her editors at Reuters would respond to questions about her relationship with SMC, or to specific criticisms about her reporting.

Fiona Fox, director of SMC, said her group did not work with Kelland on her IARC stories or provide sources beyond those included in SMC’s press releases. It is clear, however, that Kelland’s reporting on glyphosate and IARC mirrors the views put forth by SMC experts and industry groups on those topics.

Reuters takes on cancer scientist

Reuters: Cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence

Kelland’s June 14 Reuters report

On June 14, 2017, Reuters published a special report by Kelland accusing Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist from the US National Cancer Institute and chair of the IARC panel on glyphosate, of withholding important data from its cancer assessment.

Kelland’s story went so far as to suggest that the information supposedly withheld could have changed IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Yet the data in question was but a small subset of epidemiology data gathered through a long-term project known as the Agricultural Health Study (AHS). An analysis of several years of data about glyphosate from the AHS had already been published and was considered by IARC, but a newer analysis of unfinished, unpublished data was not considered, because IARC rules call for relying only on published data.

Kelland’s thesis that Blair withheld crucial data was at odds with the source documents on which she based her story, but she did not provide readers with links to any of those documents, so readers could not check the veracity of the claims for themselves. Her bombshell allegations were then widely circulated, repeated by reporters at other news outlets (including Mother Jones) and immediately deployed as a lobbying tool by the agrichemical industry.

After obtaining the actual source documents, Carey Gillam, a former Reuters reporter and now research director of US Right to Know (the nonprofit group where I also work), laid out multiple errors and omissions in Kelland’s piece.

The analysis provides examples of key claims in Kelland’s article, including a statement supposedly made by Blair, that are not supported by the 300-page deposition of Blair conducted by Monsanto’s attorneys, or by other source documents.

Kelland’s selective presentation of the Blair deposition also ignored what contradicted her thesis—for example, Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate’s connections to cancer, as Gillam wrote in a Huffington Post article (6/18/17).

Kelland inaccurately described Blair’s deposition and related materials as “court documents,” implying they were publicly available; in fact, they were not filed in court, and presumably were obtained from Monsanto’s attorneys or surrogates. (The documents were available only to attorneys involved in the case, and plaintiff’s attorneys have said they did not provide them to Kelland.)

Reuters has refused to correct the errors in the piece, including the false claim about the origin of the source documents and an inaccurate description of a key source, statistician Bob Tarone, as “independent of Monsanto.” In fact, Tarone had received a consultancy payment from Monsanto for his efforts to discredit IARC.

In response to a USRTK request to correct or retract the Kelland article, Reuters global enterprises editor Mike Williams wrote in a June 23 email:

We have reviewed the article and the reporting on which it was based. That reporting included the deposition to which you refer, but was not confined to it. The reporter, Kate Kelland, was also in contact with all the people mentioned in the story and many others, and studied other documents. In the light of that review, we do not consider the article to be inaccurate or to warrant retraction.

Williams declined to address the false citing of “court documents” or the inaccurate description of Tarone as an independent source.

Since then, the lobbying tool Reuters handed to Monsanto has grown legs and run wild. A June 24 editorial by the St. Louis Post Dispatch added errors on top of the already misleading reporting. By mid-July, right-wing blogs were using the Reuters story to accuse IARC of defrauding US taxpayers, pro-industry news sites were predicting the story would be “the final nail in the coffin” of cancer claims about glyphosate, and a fake science news group was promoting Kelland’s story on Facebook with a phony headline claiming that IARC scientists had confessed to a cover-up.

Bacon attack

This was not the first time Kelland had relied on Bob Tarone as a key source, and failed to disclose his industry connections, in an article attacking IARC.

An April 2016 special investigation by Kelland, “Who Says Bacon Is Bad?,” portrayed IARC as a confusing agency that is bad for science. The piece was built largely on quotes from Tarone, two other pro-industry sources whose industry connections were also not disclosed, and one anonymous observer.

IARC’s methods are “poorly understood,” “do not serve the public well,” sometimes lack scientific rigor, are “not good for science,” “not good for regulatory agencies” and do the public “a disservice,” the critics said.

The agency, Tarone said, is “naïve, if not unscientific”—an accusation emphasized with capital letters in a sub-headline.

Tarone works for the pro-industry International Epidemiology Institute, and was once involved with a controversial cell phone study, funded in part by the cell phone industry, that found no cancer connection to cell phones, contrary to independently funded studies of the same issue.

The other critics in Kelland’s bacon story were Paulo Boffetta, a controversial ex-IARC scientist who wrote a paper defending asbestos while also receiving money to defend the asbestos industry in court; and Geoffrey Kabat, who once partnered with a tobacco industry-funded scientist to write a paper defending secondhand smoke.

Kabat also serves on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group. The day the Reuters story hit, ACSH posted a blog item (4/16/17) bragging that Kelland had used its advisor Kabat as a source to discredit IARC.

The industry connections of her sources, and their history of taking positions at odds with mainstream science, seems relevant, especially since the IARC bacon exposé was paired with a Kelland article about glyphosate that accused IARC advisor Chris Portier of bias because of his affiliation with an environmental group.

The conflict-of-interest framing served to discredit a letter, organized by Portier and signed by 94 scientists, that described “serious flaws” in a European Union risk assessment that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk.

The Portier attack, and the good science/bad science theme, echoed through chemical industry PR channels on the same day the Kelland articles appeared.

IARC pushes back

Reuters: WHO cancer agency asked experts to withhold weedkiller documents

Kelland’s “exclusive”: A pro-industry legal group complains it can’t access the IARC’s emails.

In October 2016, in another exclusive scoop, Kelland portrayed IARC as a secretive organization that had asked its scientists to withhold documents pertaining to the glyphosate review. The article was based on correspondence provided to Kelland by a pro-industry law group.

In response, IARC took the unusual step of posting Kelland’s questions and the answers they had sent her, which provided context left out of the Reuters story.

IARC explained that Monsanto’s lawyers were asking scientists to turn over draft and deliberative documents, and in light of the ongoing lawsuits against Monsanto, “the scientists felt uncomfortable releasing these materials, and some felt that they were being intimidated.” The agency said they had faced similar pressure in the past to release draft documents to support legal actions involving asbestos and tobacco, and that there was an attempt to draw deliberative IARC documents into PCB litigation.

The story didn’t mention those examples, or the concerns about draft scientific documents ending up in lawsuits, but the piece was heavy on critiques of IARC, describing it as a group “at odds with scientists around the world,” which “has caused controversy” with cancer assessments that “can cause unnecessary health scares.”

IARC has “secret agendas” and its actions were “ridiculous,” according to a Monsanto executive quoted in the story.

IARC wrote in response (emphasis in original):

The article by Reuters follows a pattern of consistent but misleading reports about the IARC Monographs Programme in some sections of the media beginning after glyphosate was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.

IARC also pushed back on Kelland’s reporting about Blair, noting the conflict of interest with her source Tarone and explaining that IARC’s cancer evaluation program does not consider unpublished data, and “does not base its evaluations on opinions presented in media reports,” but on the “systematic assembly and review of all publicly available and pertinent scientific studies, by independent experts, free from vested interests.”

PR agency narrative

The Science Media Centre—which Kelland has said has influenced her reporting—does have vested interests, and has also been criticized for pushing pro-industry science views. Current and past funders include Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as government agencies, foundations and universities.

By all accounts, SMC is influential in shaping how the media cover certain science stories, often getting its expert reaction quotes in media stories and driving coverage with its press briefings.

As Kelland explained in the SMC promotional video, “By the end of a briefing, you understand what the story is and why it’s important.”

That is the point of the SMC effort: to signal to reporters whether stories or studies merit attention, and how they should be framed.

Sometimes, SMC experts downplay risk and offer assurances to the public about controversial products or technologies; for example, researchers have criticized SMC’s media efforts on fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and genetically engineered foods.

SMC campaigns sometimes feed into lobbying efforts. A 2013 Nature article (7/10/13) explained how SMC turned the tide on media coverage of animal/human hybrid embryos away from ethical concerns and toward their importance as a research tool—and thus stopped government regulations.

The media researcher hired by SMC to analyze the effectiveness of that campaign, Andy Williams of Cardiff University, came to see the SMC model as problematic, worrying that it stifled debate. Williams described SMC briefings as tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives.

On the topic of glyphosate cancer risk, SMC offers a clear narrative in its press releases.

The IARC cancer classification, according to SMC experts, “failed to include critical data,” was based on “a rather selective review” and on evidence that “appears a bit thin” and “overall does not support such a high-level classification.” Monsanto and other industry groups promoted the quotes.

SMC experts had a much more favorable view of risk assessments conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which cleared glyphosate of human cancer concerns.

EFSA’s conclusion was “more scientific, pragmatic and balanced” than IARC’s, and the ECHA report was objective, independent, comprehensive and “scientifically justified.”

Kelland’s reporting in Reuters echoes those pro-industry themes, and sometimes used the same experts, such as a November 2015 story about why European-based agencies gave contradictory advice about the cancer risk of glyphosate. Her story quoted two experts directly from an SMC release, then summarized their views:

In other words, IARC is tasked with highlighting anything that might in certain conditions, however rare, be able to cause cancer in people.  EFSA, on the other hand, is concerned with real life risks and whether, in the case of glyphosate, there is evidence to show that when used in normal conditions, the pesticide poses an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.

Kelland included two brief reactions from environmentalists: Greenpeace called the EFSA review “whitewash,” and Jennifer Sass from the Natural Resources Defense Council said IARC’s review was “a much more robust, scientifically defensible and public process involving an international committee of non-industry experts.” (An NRDC statement on glyphosate put it this way: “IARC Got It Right, EFSA Got It From Monsanto.”)

Kelland’s story followed up the environmental group comments with “critics of IARC…say its hazard identification approach is becoming meaningless for consumers, who struggle to apply its advice to real life,” and ends with quotes from a scientist who “declares an interest as having acted as a consultant for Monsanto.”

When asked about the criticisms of pro-industry bias of the SMC, Fox responded:

We listen carefully to any criticism from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media, but we do not receive criticism of pro-industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro-industry bias, and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3,000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories, we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.

Expert conflicts

Scientific experts do not always disclose their conflicts of interest in news releases issued by SMC, nor in their high-profile roles as decision-makers about the cancer risk of chemicals like glyphosate.

Frequent SMC expert Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology at Imperial College London, offers views in SMC releases on aspartame (“not a concern”), glyphosate in urine (no concern), insecticides and birth defects (“premature to draw conclusions”), alcohol, GMO corn, trace metals, lab rodent diets and more.

The ECHA decision that glyphosate is not a carcinogen “is to be congratulated,” according to Boobis, and the IARC decision that it is probably carcinogenic “is not a cause for undue alarm,” because it did not take into account how pesticides are used in the real world.

Boobis declared no conflicts of interest in the IARC release or any of the earlier SMC releases that carry his quotes. But he then sparked a conflict-of-interest scandal when news broke that he held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a pro-industry group, at the same time he co-chaired a UN panel that found glyphosate unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. (Boobis is currently chair of the ILSI Board of Trustees, and vice president ad interim of ILSI/Europe.)

ILSI has received six-figure donations from Monsanto and CropLife International, the pesticide trade association. Professor Angelo Moretto, who co-chaired the UN panel on glyphosate along with Boobis, also held a leadership role in ILSI. Yet the panel declared no conflicts of interest.

Kelland did not report on those conflicts, though she did write about the findings of the “UN experts” who exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk, and she once recycled a Boobis quote from an SMC press release for an article about tainted Irish pork. (The risk to consumers was low.)

When asked about the SMC conflict of interest disclosure policy, and why Boobis’ ISLI connection was not disclosed in SMC releases, Fox responded:

We ask all researchers we use to provide their COIs and proactively make those available to journalists. In line with several other COI policies, we are unable to investigate every COI, though we welcome journalists doing so.

Boobis could not be reached for comment, but told the Guardian, “My role in ILSI (and two of its branches) is as a public sector member and chair of their boards of trustees, positions which are not remunerated.”

But the conflict “sparked furious condemnation from green MEPs and NGOs,” the Guardian reported, “intensified by the [UN panel] report’s release two days before an EU relicensing vote on glyphosate, which will be worth billions of dollars to industry.”

And so goes it with the tangled web of influence involving corporations, science experts, media coverage and the high-stakes debate about glyphosate, now playing out on the world stage as Monsanto faces lawsuits over the chemical due to cancer claims, and seeks to complete a $66 billion deal with Bayer.

Meanwhile, in the US, as Bloomberg reported on July 13: “Does the World’s Top Weed Killer Cause Cancer? Trump’s EPA Will Decide.”

Messages to Reuters may be sent through this website (or via Twitter: @Reuters). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Reuters’ Kate Kelland IARC Story Promotes False Narrative

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Update: For a broader analysis of Kate Kelland’s reporting on IARC and glyphosate, see Stacy Malkan’s July 24 story in FAIR: Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?

Prepared by Carey Gillam and originally posted June 28.

A June 14 Reuters article authored by Kate Kelland, headlined “The WHO’s cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence,” wrongly accused a cancer scientist of withholding important data in the safety assessment of glyphosate conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Kelland’s story contains factual errors and states conclusions that are contradicted by a full reading of the documents she cited as primary sources. It is notable that Kelland provided no link to the documents she cited, making it impossible for readers to see for themselves how far she veered from accuracy in interpreting them. The primary source document clearly contradicts the premise of Kelland’s story. Additional documents her story referenced, but also did not link to, can be found at the end of this post.

Background: The Reuters story was one in a series of critical pieces the news agency has published about IARC that Kelland wrote after IARC classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. Glyphosate is a highly profitable chemical herbicide used as the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killing products, as well as hundreds of other products sold around the world. The IARC classification triggered mass litigation in the United States brought by people alleging their cancers were caused by Roundup, and prompted the European Union and U.S. regulators to deepen their evaluation of the chemical. In response to the IARC classification, and as a means of defending itself against the litigation and shoring up regulatory support, Monsanto has lodged multiple complaints against IARC seeking to undermine IARC’s credibility. The June 14 Kelland story, which quoted a top Monsanto “strategy” executive, furthered those strategic efforts and has been touted by Monsanto and others in the chemical industry as proof that the IARC classification was flawed.

Consider:

  • A deposition of scientist Aaron Blair, a draft abstract and email communication Kelland references in her story as “court documents” were not in fact court documents but were documents created and obtained as part of discovery in the multidistrict litigation brought by the cancer victims who are suing Monsanto. The documents were held in the possession of Monsanto’s legal team as well as plaintiffs’ legal team. See docket U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, lead case 3:16-md-02741-VC. If Monsanto or a surrogate provided the documents to Kelland, such sourcing should have been cited. Given that the documents were not obtained through the court, as Kelland’s story implies, it seems apparent Monsanto or surrogates planted the storyline and provided Kelland with the documents, or at least selected parts of the documents, along with its assessment of them.
  • Kelland’s article provides commentary and an interpretation of the deposition from Bob Tarone, whom Kelland describes as “independent of Monsanto.” Yet information provided by IARC establishes that Tarone has acted as a paid consultant to Monsanto on its efforts to discredit IARC.
  • Reuters teased the story with this statement: “The scientist leading that review knew of fresh data showing no cancer link – but he never mentioned it and the agency did not take it into account.” Kelland implied that Dr. Blair was intentionally hiding critical information. Yet the deposition shows that Blair testified that the data in question was “not ready” to submit to a journal for publication and would not be allowed for consideration by IARC because it had not been finished and published. Much of the data was gathered as part of a broad U.S. Agricultural Health Study and would have been added onto several years of previously published information from the AHS that showed no association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A Monsanto lawyer questioned Blair about why the data wasn’t published in time to be considered by IARC, saying: “You decided, for whatever reason, that that data was not going to be published at that time, and therefore was not considered by IARC, correct?” Blair replied: “No. Again you foul up the process.” “What we decided was the work that we were doing on these different studies were not yet — were not yet ready to submit to journals.  Even after you decide to submit them to journals for review, you don’t decide when it gets published.” (Blair deposition transcript page 259) Blair also said to the Monsanto attorney: “What is irresponsible is to rush something out that’s not fully analyzed or thought out” (page 204).
  • Blair also testified that some data from the unfinished, unpublished AHS was “not statistically significant” (page 173 of deposition). Blair also testified in that deposition about data showing strong connections between glyphosate and NHL that also was not disclosed to IARC because it was not published.
  • Blair testified that some data from a North American Pooled Project study showed a very strong association with NHL and glyphosate, with a doubling and tripling of risk associated with the pesticide seen in people who used glyphosate more than twice a year. Just as the AHS data, this data was also not published or given to IARC (pages 274-283 of Blair deposition).
  • Kelland’s article also states: “Blair also said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis. He said it would have made it less likely that glyphosate would meet the agency’s criteria for being classed as ‘probably carcinogenic.’”  That testimony (on pages 177-189 of deposition) does not support those statements at all.  Blair ultimately says “probably” to questioning from Monsanto’s attorney asking if the 2013 AHS data had been included in a meta-analysis of epidemiology data considered by IARC, if that “would have lowered the meta-relative risk for glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma even further…” Kelland’s story also leaves the impression that this unpublished epidemiology data from an unfinished study would have been a game-changer for IARC. In fact, reading the deposition in full, and comparing it to IARC’s report on glyphosate, underscores how false and misleading that notion is.  Blair testified only to epidemiology data and IARC had already deemed the epidemiology evidence that it did see as “limited.” Its classification of glyphosate saw significance in the animal (toxicology) data it reviewed, deeming it “sufficient.”
  • Kelland ignores important portions of the Blair deposition specific to a published 2003 study that found “there was over a doubling of the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for people who had been exposed to glyphosate” (pages 54-55 of the deposition).
  • Kelland ignores testimony in the Blair deposition regarding a “300 percent increased risk” for cancer in Swedish research (page 60 of deposition).
  • Reading through the entire deposition shows that Blair testified as to many examples of studies showing a positive association between glyphosate and cancer, all of which Kelland ignored.
  • Kelland writes that in his legal testimony, Blair also described the AHS as “powerful” and agreed the data showed no link to cancer. She implied he was speaking of the specific unpublished 2013 data on NHL and glyphosate that is a tiny subset of information obtained from the AHS, when in fact the testimony shows he was speaking of the larger AHS umbrella of work, which has been tracking farm families and collecting data on dozens of pesticides for several years. What Blair actually said of the broad AHS was this: “ “It’s — it’s a powerful study. And it has advantages. I’m not sure I would say it is the most powerful, but it is a powerful study.” (page 286 of deposition)
    • Furthermore, when speaking directly of the 2013 AHS data on glyphosate and NHL, Blair confirmed that the unpublished data needed “cautious interpretation” given the number of exposed cases in subgroups was “relatively small” (page 289).
  • Kelland states “IARC told Reuters that, despite the existence of fresh data about glyphosate, it was sticking with its findings,” suggesting a cavalier attitude. Such a statement is entirely misleading. What IARC in fact said was its practice is not to consider unpublished findings and that it can re-evaluate substances when a significant body of new data is published in literature.

See also June 19, 2017 story by Carey Gillam, Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist In Flawed Reuters Story.

Related Documents

Videotaped deposition of Aaron Earl Blair, Ph.D., March 20, 2017

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