An Unappetizing Analysis from the FDA

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Last month the Food & Drug Administration published its latest annual analysis of the levels of pesticide residues that contaminate the fruits and veggies and other foods we Americans routinely put on our dinner plates. The fresh data adds to growing consumer concern and scientific debate over how pesticide residues in food may contribute – or not – to illness, disease and reproductive problems.

Over 55 pages of data, charts and graphs, the FDA’s “Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program” report also provides a rather unappetizing example of the degree to which U.S. farmers have come to rely on synthetic insecticides, fungicides and herbicides in growing our food.

We learn, for instance, in reading the latest report, that traces of pesticides were found in 84 percent of domestic samples of fruits, and 53 percent of vegetables, as well as 42 percent of grains and 73 percent of food samples simply listed as “other.” The samples were drawn from around the country, including from California, Texas, Kansas, New York and Wisconsin.

Roughly 94 percent of grapes, grape juice and raisins tested positive for pesticide residues as did 99 percent of strawberries, 88 percent of apples and apple juice, and 33 percent of rice products, according to the FDA data.

Imported fruits and vegetables actually showed a lower prevalence of pesticides, with 52 percent of fruits and 46 percent of vegetables from abroad testing positive for pesticides. Those samples came from more than 40 countries, including Mexico, China, India and Canada.

We also learn that for the most recently reported sampling, among the hundreds of different pesticides, the FDA found traces of the long-banned insecticide DDT in food samples, as well as chlorpyrifos, 2,4-D and glyphosate.  DDT is linked to breast cancer, infertility and miscarriage, while chlorpyrifos – another insecticide – has been scientifically shown to cause neurodevelopmental problems in young children.

Chlorpyrifos is so dangerous that the European Food Safety Authority has recommended a ban of the chemical in Europe, finding that there is no safe exposure level. The herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate are both linked to cancers and other health problems as well.

Thailand recently said it was banning glyphosate and chlorpyrifos due to the scientifically established risks of these pesticides.

Despite the prevalence of pesticides found in U.S. foods, the FDA, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), assert that pesticide residues in food are really nothing to worry about. Amid heavy lobbying by the agrichemical industry the EPA has actually supported continued use of glyphosate and chlorpyrifos in food production.

The regulators echo the words of Monsanto executives and others in the chemical industry by insisting that pesticide residues pose no threat to human health as long as the levels of each type of residue falls under a “tolerance” level set by the EPA.

In the most recent FDA analysis, only 3.8 percent of domestic foods had residue levels that were considered illegally high, or “violative.” For imported foods, 10.4 percent of the foods sampled were violative, according to the FDA.

What the FDA did not say, and what regulatory agencies routinely avoid saying publicly, is that the tolerance levels for certain pesticides have risen over the years as the companies that sell the pesticides request higher and higher legal limits. The EPA has approved several increases allowed for glyphosate residues in food, for instance. As well, the agency often makes the determination that it need not comply with a legal requirement that states the EPA  “shall apply an additional tenfold margin of safety for infants and children” in setting the legal levels for pesticide residues. The  EPA has overridden that requirement in the setting of many pesticide tolerances, saying no such extra margin of safety is needed to protect children.

The bottom line: The higher the EPA sets the “tolerance” allowed as the legal limit, the lower the possibility that regulators will have to report “violative” residues in our food.  As a result, the U.S. routinely allows higher levels of pesticide residues in food than other developed nations. For example, the legal limit for the weed killer glyphosate on an apple is 0.2 parts per million (ppm) in the United States but only half that level – 0.1 ppm – is allowed on an apple in the European Union. As well, the U.S. allows residues of glyphosate on corn at 5 ppm, while the EU allows only 1 ppm.

As legal limits rise for pesticide residues in food, many scientists have been increasingly raising alarms about the risks of regular consumption of the residues, and the lack of regulatory consideration of the potential cumulative impacts of consuming an array of bug and weed killers with every meal.

A team of Harvard scientists are calling for in-depth research about potential links between disease and consumption of pesticide as they estimate that more  than 90 percent of people in the United States have  pesticide residues in their urine and blood due to consumption of pesticide-laced foods.  A study connected to Harvard found that dietary pesticide exposure within a “typical” range was associated both with problems women had getting pregnant and delivering live babies.

Additional studies have found other health problems tied to dietary exposures to pesticides, including to glyphosate.  Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world and is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup and other weed killing products.

Pesticide Industry Push Back 

But as the concerns mount, agrichemical industry allies are pushing back. This month a group of three researchers with long-standing close ties to the companies that sell agricultural pesticides released a report seeking to soothe consumer worries and discount the scientific research.

The report, which was issued Oct. 21, stated that “there is no direct scientific or medical evidence indicating that typical exposure of consumers to pesticide residues poses any health risk. Pesticide residue data and exposure estimates typically demonstrate that food consumers are exposed to levels of pesticide residues that are several orders of magnitude below those of potential health concern.”

Not surprisingly, the three authors of the report are closely tied to the agrichemical industry. One of the report’s authors is Steve Savage, an agrichemical industry consultant and former DuPont employee. Another is Carol Burns, a former scientist for Dow Chemical and current consultant for Cortevia Agriscience, a spin-off of  DowDuPont. The third author is Carl Winter, Chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis. The university has received approximately $2 million a year from the agrichemical industry, according to a university researcher, though the accuracy of that figure has not been established.

The authors took their report directly to Congress, holding three different presentations in Washington, D.C., designed to promote their message of pesticide safety for use in “media food safety stories, and consumer advice regarding which foods consumers should (or should not) consume.”

The pro-pesticide sessions were held at the office buildings for members of Congress and, appropriately it seems, at the headquarters for CropLife America, the lobbyist for the agrichemical industry. 

 

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

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Related: Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists, by Stacy Malkan

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.

Orchestrating outcry against the cancer report on glyphosate

Monsanto’s PR document described their plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.”

How that played out can be seen in the writings of the industry partner groups that used common messaging and sources to accuse the cancer research agency of wrongdoing and attempt to discredit the scientists who worked on the glyphosate report.

Examples of the attack messaging can be seen on the Genetic Literacy Project website. This group claims to be an independent source on science, however, documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Genetic Literacy Project works with Monsanto on PR projects without disclosing those collaborations. Jon Entine launched the group in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his PR firm. This is a classic front group tactic; moving a company’s messaging through a group that claims to be independent but isn’t.

Plan suggests Sense About Science to “lead industry response”

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

Sense About Science is a public charity based in London that claims to promote public understanding of science, but the group is “known to take positions that buck scientific consensus or dismiss emerging evidence of harm,” reported Liza Gross in The Intercept. In 2014, Sense About Science launched a US version under the direction of  Trevor Butterworth, a writer with a long history of disagreeing with science that raises health concerns about toxic chemicals.

Sense About Science is related to the Science Media Centre, a science PR agency in London that receives corporate funding and is known for pushing corporate views of science. A reporter with close ties to the Science Media Centre, Kate Kelland, has published several articles in Reuters critical of the IARC cancer agency that were based on false narratives and inaccurate incomplete reporting. The Reuters articles have been heavily promoted by Monsanto’s “industry partner” groups and were used as the basis for political attacks against IARC.

For more information:

  • “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article,” IARC statement (3/1/18)
  • Reuters’ Aaron Blair IARC story promotes false narrative, USRTK (7/24/2017)
  • Reuters’ claim that IARC “edited out” findings is also false, USRTK (10/20/2017)
  • “Are corporate ties influencing science coverage?” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (7/24/2017)

“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.

American Council on Science and Health 

Although the Monsanto PR document did not name the corporate-funded American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) among its “industry partners,” emails released via litigation show that Monsanto funded the American Council on Science and Health and asked the group to write about the IARC glyphosate report.  The emails indicate that Monsanto executives were uncomfortable about working with ACSH but did so anyway because, “we don’t have a lot of supporters and can’t afford to lose the few we have.”

Monsanto’s senior science lead Daniel Goldstein wrote his colleagues, “I can assure you I am not all starry eyed about ACSH- they have PLENTY of warts- but: You WILL NOT GET A BETTER VALUE FOR YOUR DOLLAR than ACSH” (emphasis his). Goldstein sent links to dozens of ACSH materials promoting and defending GMOs and pesticides that he described as “EXTREMELY USEFUL.”

See also: Tracking the Agrichemical Industry Propaganda Network 

Follow the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between food industry groups and academics on our investigations page. USRTK documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by UCSF.

Pamela Ronald’s Ties to Chemical Industry Front Groups

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Updated in June 2019

Pamela Ronald, PhD, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis and author of the 2008 book “Tomorrow’s Table,” is a well-known advocate for genetically engineered foods. Less known is Dr. Ronald’s role in organizations that portray themselves as acting independently of industry, but in fact are collaborating with chemical corporations to promote and lobby for GMOs and pesticides, in arrangements that are not transparent to the public. 

Ties to key agrichemical industry front group

Pamela Ronald has multiple ties to a leading agrichemical industry front group, the Genetic Literacy Project, and its executive director, Jon Entine. She assisted them in many ways. For example, documents show that in 2015, Dr. Ronald appointed Entine as a senior fellow and instructor of science communications at UC Davis, and collaborated with Genetic Literacy Project to host an agrichemical industry-funded messaging event that trained participants how to promote agrichemical products. 

The Genetic Literacy Project is described in an award-winning Le Monde investigation as a “well-known propaganda website” that played a key role in Monsanto’s campaign to discredit the World Health Organization cancer research agency’s report on glyphosate. In a 2015 PR document, Monsanto identified Genetic Literacy Project among the  “industry partners” the company planned to engage to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report. GLP has since published many articles attacking the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who lied and engaged in corruption, distortion, secrecy and fraud.

Entine has longtime ties to the chemical industry; his body of work includes defending pesticides, industrial chemicals, plastics, fracking, and the oil industry, often with attacks on scientists, journalists and academics.  Entine launched the Genetic Literacy Project in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his public relations firm. The GLP was originally associated with STATS, a nonprofit group journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that seeds doubt about science and is “known for its defense of the chemical industry.” 

In 2015, the Genetic Literacy Project moved to a new parent organization, the Science Literacy Project. IRS tax filings for that year indicated that Dr. Ronald was a founding board member of the Science Literacy Project, but emails from August 2018 show that Dr. Ronald convinced Entine to retroactively remove her name from the tax form after it became known she was listed there (the amended tax form is now available here). Dr. Ronald wrote to Entine, “I did not serve on this board and did not give permission for my name to be listed. Please take immediate action to notify the IRS that my name was listed without consent.” Entine wrote that he had a different recollection. “I clearly recall you agreeing to be part of the board and head the initial board … You were enthusiastic and supportive in fact. There is no question in my mind that you agreed to this.” Nevertheless he agreed to try to get her name removed from the tax document.

The two discussed the tax form again in December 2018 after this fact sheet was posted. Entine wrote, “I listed you in the original 990 based on a telephone conversation in which you agreed to be on the board. When you represented to me that you disagreed, I purged the record as you requested.” In another email that day, he reminded Dr. Ronald that “in fact you were associated with ‘that organization: as we worked together, seamlessly and constructively, in making the boot camp at your university a great success.”  

Science Literacy Project tax forms now list three board members: Entine; Drew Kershen, a former law professor who was also on the board of “Academics Review,” a group that claimed to be independent while receiving its funds from agrichemical companies; and Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist who serves on the board of scientific advisors for the American Council on Science and Health, a group that received money from Monsanto for its work defending pesticides and GMOs.

Founded, led UC Davis group that elevated industry PR efforts

Dr. Ronald was the founding director of the World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL), a group launched in 2014 at UC Davis to train faculty and students to promote genetically engineered foods, crops and pesticides. The group does not fully disclose its funding.

Documents show that Dr. Ronald gave Jon Entine and his industry front group Genetic Literacy Project a platform at UC Davis, appointing Entine as an unpaid senior fellow of IFAL and an instructor and mentor in a science communications graduate program. Entine is no longer a fellow at UC Davis. See our 2016 letter to the World Food Center inquiring about funding for Entine and IFAL and their obscure explanation about where their funding comes from.

In July 2014, Dr. Ronald indicated in an email to a colleague that Entine was an important collaborator who could give them good suggestions on who to contact to raise additional funds for the first IFAL event. In June 2015, IFAL co-hosted the “Biotech Literacy Project boot camp” with Genetic Literacy Project and the Monsanto-backed group Academics Review. Organizers claimed the event was funded by academic, government and industry sources, but non-industry sources denied funding the events and the only traceable source of money came from industry, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive.

Tax records show that Academics Review, which received its funding from the agrichemical industry trade group, spent $162,000 for the three-day conference at UC Davis. The purpose of the boot camp, according to the agenda, was to train and support scientists, journalists and academic researchers to persuade the public and policy makers about the benefits of GMOs and pesticides.

Speakers at the UC Davis boot camp included Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former director of corporate communications; Hank Campbell of the Monsanto-funded American Council on Science and Health; professors with undisclosed industry ties such as University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy and University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta; Cami Ryan, who now works for Monsanto; David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant who has a PR firm with clients including Dow and Bayer; and other agrichemical industry allies.

Keynote speakers were Dr. Ronald, Yvette d’Entremont the Sci Babe, a “science communicator” who defends pesticides and artificial sweeteners while taking money from companies that sell those products, and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute. (Nordhaus was also listed as a Science Literacy Project board member on the original 2015/2016 tax form, but his name was removed along with Dr. Ronald’s in the amended form Entine filed in 2018; Nordhaus said he never served on the board.)

Cooking up a Chipotle boycott

Emails indicate that Dr. Ronald and Jon Entine collaborated on messaging to discredit critics of genetically engineered foods. In one case, Dr. Ronald proposed to organize a boycott against the Chipotle restaurant chain over its decision to offer and promote non-GMO foods.

In April 2015, Dr. Ronald emailed Entine and Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a former Monsanto employee and cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, to suggest they find a student to write about farmers using more toxic pesticides to grow non-GMO corn. “I suggest we publicize this fact (once we get the details) and then organize a chipotle boycott,” Dr. Ronald wrote. Entine directed an associate to write an article for Genetic Literacy Project on the theme that “pesticide use often soars” when farmers switch to a non-GMO model to supply restaurants like Chipotle. The article, co-authored by Entine and touting his UC Davis affiliation, fails to substantiate that claim with data.

Co-founded biotech spin group BioFortified

Dr. Ronald co-founded and served as board member (2012-2015) of Biology Fortified, Inc. (Biofortified), a group that promotes GMOs and has a partner activist group that organizes protests to confront Monsanto critics. Other leaders of Biofortified include founding board member David Tribe, a geneticist at University of Melbourne who co-founded Academics Review, the group that claimed to be independent while receiving industry funds, and collaborated with IFAL to host the Biotech Literacy Project “boot camp” at UC Davis.

Former board member Kevin Folta (2015-2018), a plant scientist at the University of Florida, was the subject of a New York Times story reporting that he misled the public about undisclosed industry collaborations. Biofortified bloggers include Steve Savage, a former DuPont employee turned industry consultant; Joe Ballanger, a consultant for Monsanto; and Andrew Kniss, who has received money from Monsanto. Documents suggest that members of Biofortified coordinated with the pesticide industry on a lobbying campaign to oppose pesticide restrictions in Hawaii.

Played leading role in industry-funded propaganda movie

Dr. Ronald featured prominently in Food Evolution, a documentary film about genetically engineered foods funded by the trade group Institute for Food Technologists. Dozens of academics have called the film propaganda, and several people interviewed for the film described a deceptive filming process and said their views were taken out of context.

https://www.foodpolitics.com/2017/06/gmo-industry-propaganda-film-food-evolution/

Advisor for Cornell-based GMO public relations campaign

Dr. Ronald is on the advisory board of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a PR campaign based at Cornell University that promotes the GMOs and pesticides using agrichemical industry messaging. Funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has opposed the use of Freedom of Information Act to investigate public institutions, misled the public with inaccurate information and elevated unreliable messengers; see documentation in our fact sheet.

Receives money from the agrichemical industry

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Ronald receives compensation from agrichemical companies to speak at events where she promotes GMOs to key audiences that companies seek to influence, such as dieticians. Emails from November 2012 provide an example of how Dr. Ronald works with companies.

Monsanto staffer Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, a dietician who formerly worked for the food-industry spin group IFIC, invited Ronald to speak at two conferences in 2013, Food 3000 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. Emails show that the two discussed fees and book purchases and agreed Dr. Ronald would speak at Food 3000, a conference organized by the PR firm Porter Novelli that Kapsak said would reach “90 high media impact food and nutrition professionals/influencers.” (Dr. Ronald invoiced $3,000 for the event). Kapsak asked to review Dr. Ronald’s slides and set up a call to discuss messaging. Also on the panel were moderator Mary Chin (a dietician who consults with Monsanto), and representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto, with Kapsak giving opening remarks. Kapsak later reported that the panel got rave reviews with participants saying they would share the idea that, “We have to have biotech to help feed the world.”

Other industry-funded speaking engagements for Dr. Ronald included a 2014 speech at Monsanto for $3,500 plus 100 copies of her book which she declined to tweet about; and a 2013 speaking engagement for which she invoiced Bayer AG for $10,000.

Retracted papers

Retraction Watch reported that, “2013 was a rough year for biologist Pamela Ronald. After discovering the protein that appears to trigger rice’s immune system to fend off a common bacterial disease – suggesting a new way to engineer disease-resistant crops – she and her team had to retract two papers in 2013 after they were unable to replicate their findings. The culprits: a mislabeled bacterial strain and a highly variable assay. However, the care and transparency she exhibited earned her a ‘doing the right thing’ nod from us at the time.”

See coverage:

What do you do about painful retractions? Q&A with Pamela Ronald and Benjamin Swessinger,” Retraction Watch (7.24.2015)

Can the scientific reputation of Pamala Ronald, the public face of GMOs, be salvaged?” by Jonathan Latham, Independent Science News (11.12.2013)

Pamela Ronald does the right thing again, retracting a Science paper,” Retraction Watch (10.10.2013)

Doing the right thing: Researchers retract quorum sensing paper after public process,” Retraction Watch (9.11.2013)

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 whose clients include Bayer and other chemical companies, and whom Haspel used as a source in a column she wrote about glyphosate.

2015 biotech literacy day with Kevin Folta 

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.

Source review: misleading reporting about pesticides

A source review of three of Tamar Haspel’s Washington Post columns on the topic of pesticides found multiple concerning examples of undisclosed industry-connected sources, data omissions and out-of-context reporting that served to bolster pesticide industry messaging that pesticides are not a concern and organic is not much of a benefit. The source review covers these three columns:

  • “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)

Relied on industry-connected sources; failed to disclose their industry ties

In all three of the columns cited in this source review, Haspel failed to disclose pesticide industry connections of key sources who downplayed the risk of pesticides. None of the following industry connections were mentioned in her columns as of August 2018 when this review was published.

In her 2018 report on the “truth about organic produce and pesticides,” 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 wine. 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. She also did not disclose that the study originally contained a glaring error that was later corrected (even though she linked to both the original and corrected study). The study originally reported the risk as equal to drinking one glass of wine every seven years; it was later corrected to one glass of wine every three months; That error and several others were pointed out in letter to the journal by several scientists who described the wine study as “overly simplistic and seriously misleading.”

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 wine-comparison study, and “a 2008 report” that “made the same assessment.” Authors of that 2008 report included Alan Boobis and Angelo Moretto, two academics who were caught in a conflict of interest scandal in 2016 because they chaired a UN panel that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk at the same time as they held leadership positions in the International Life Sciences Institute, a nonprofit group that received substantial donations from the pesticide industry.

In her 2015 column about the risk of glyphosate, the “chemical Monsanto depends on,” Haspel quoted two sources with pesticide industry connections she didn’t disclose: Keith Solomon, a toxicologist who wrote papers about glyphosate that were funded by Monsanto (and whom Monsanto was promoting as a source); and David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant affiliated with Harvard who also has a PR firm whose clients include Dow, DuPont and Bayer. Haspel and Ropeik spoke together at the agrichemical industry-funded messaging training boot camp at the University of Florida in 2014.

In her 2014 column about whether pesticide residues in food pose a health risk, Haspel 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 was Carol Burns, a scientist at Dow Chemical Company, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of organophosphates.

That column also used industry go-to toxicologist Carl Winter as a source vouching for the safety of pesticide residues in food based on EPA risk assessments. Monsanto was promoting Winter’s work at that time in talking points, and Winter also served on the science advisory board of the Monsanto-funded group American Council on Science and Health, which bragged in a blog post a few months earlier about anti-organic press coverage that quoted their guy, “ACSH advisor Dr. Carl Winter.”

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 of a key point: 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 sources who agree with each other 

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 she 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.”

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

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, including responding to the movie Fed Up. 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 Splenda, the artificial sweetener, announced in 2017 they were partnering with SciBabe to “debunk junk science” in order to defend their product.

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Monsanto sponsored SciBabe talk.

False statements about pesticides and GMOs, and Amvac influence

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

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

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

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

Front group friends

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

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

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

More on Yvette d’Entremont:

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

Doctors, scientists recommend reducing exposure to pesticides 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent news on pesticides

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

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

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

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. In a 2015 Monsanto PR plan, Monsanto named GMO Answers as one of the “industry partners” it planned to engage to discredit a report about glyphosate cancer concerns from the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel, see “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 has been 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 that 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.”