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. Her columns frequently promote and defend pesticide industry products, while she also receives payments to speak at industry-aligned events, and sometimes from industry groups. This practice of journalists receiving payments from industry groups, known as “buckraking,” 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 the industry connections of her sources, relied on industry-slanted studies, cherry-picked facts to back up industry positions, or cited industry propaganda uncritically. See our source review for documentation. Haspel has not yet responded to inquiries for this article.

Agrichemical funding conflicts of interest

“I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for,” Haspel wrote in a 2015 online chat hosted by the Washington Post, in response to a question about whether she receives money from industry sources. Haspel said she discloses her speaking engagements on her personal website, but she does not disclose which companies or 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’s editor Joe Yonan has said he is comfortable with Haspel’s approach to paid speaking engagements and finds it a “reasonable balance.”

For more information:

Pro GMO beat

Haspel began writing about genetically engineered foods in March 2013 in the Huffington Post (“Go Frankenfish! Why We Need GM Salmon”). Her final series of articles for Huffington Post focused favorably on agrichemical industry products. She debunked the risks of glyphosate and GMO animal feed, argued against GMO labeling campaigns, and promoted the pesticide industry-funded website GMO Answers. That site was part of a multi-million dollar public relations initiative 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. 

Haspel launched her monthly “Unearthed” food column in the Washington Post soon afterward, in October 2013, with an article about “what is and isn’t true” about GMOs. She promised 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 was among them.

Haspel’s next 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 quoted public interest groups and devoted far less space to public health sources than to industry-connected sources. She often quotes experts in “risk perception” who tend to downplay public health and safety concerns. In several instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry ties to sources when reporting on GMOs, pesticides or organic foods.

Industry-sourced ‘food movement’ column

An example that illustrates problems of bias is Haspel’s January 2016 column, “The surprising truth about the food movement.” 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 the pesticide industry-funded website GMO Answers. While she described Ketchum as a PR firm that “works extensively with the food industry,” Haspel did not disclose the background: that Ketchum was hired by a trade association to change consumer views of GMO foods. She also 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 had appeared together on a government-sponsored panel to discuss GMOs 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.

The above promotional quote 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. STATs played a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation” and the industry’s efforts to discredit health concerns about bisphenol-A, according to reporting in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

A 2016 story in The Intercept described the tobacco ties of STATS and Sense About Science, which merged in 2014, and the role these groups 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 at a pesticide industry-funded messaging training event called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp. The event was organized by the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two industry front groups 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.

Industry funded biotech messaging conferences

In May 2015, Haspel presented at a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” at the University of Florida. The event was organized by Kevin Folta, a professor tied in with agrichemical industry public relations and lobbying efforts. Folta had even included Haspel in a proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem.” The problem, Folta said, was due to activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” On Page 4, Folta described an event that would feature UF professors along with “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 the proposal, calling it “a great 3rd-party approach to developing the kind of advocacy we’re looking to develop.” (The money was later donated to a food pantry after the funding source 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 questions

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 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 the study were employed by Bayer Crop Sciences, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers.

She also did not inform her readers that the original study contained a glaring error that was later corrected (even though her column linked to both the original and corrected study). The study first equated pesticide exposures from food as equal to drinking one glass of wine every seven years. The authors later corrected that to one glass of wine every three months. That was only one of several errors in the paper, according to a letter to the journal from scientists who described the 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 she cited “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. The sources were 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 who has a PR firm whose clients include Dow, DuPont and Bayer.

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. She cited 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; the connection was not disclosed.

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 about organic food, 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, and she did not inform readers of the full scope of the study or its conclusions. The AAP paper reported a wide range of scientific evidence suggesting harm to children from both acute and chronic exposures to various pesticides. It 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 about organic produce, 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” comparison with a link to a New York Times documents page that provided no context about the EPA decision, rather than linking to the NYT story that reported on corporate influence behind the EPA decision to allow chlorpyrifos.

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 unnamed sources.

In this case, Haspel reported that pesticide levels in food “are very low” and “you shouldn’t be concerned about them,” according to U.S. government agencies “(along with many toxicologists I’ve spoken with over the years).” Although she reported that “not everyone has faith” in those government 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 said that, until recent questions arose, “glyphosate had been noted for its safety.”

Missed relevant data 

Haspel missed plenty of relevant data in her “get to the bottom of it” reporting on the risks of pesticides and the benefits of organic. Recent statements by prominent health groups and science she missed include:

  • 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.

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 has received funding and honoraria from a variety of companies and industry groups.

In 2017, the artificial sweetener company SPLENDA hired SciBabe to “debunk junk science” in defense of their product. SciBabe has been a featured speaker at various chemical and food industry-sponsored events such as the 2017 Atlantic Farm Women conference sponsored by CropLife and Monsanto, 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. According to the disclosures reported for a 2017 webinar, d’Entremont serves as a consultant to SPLENDA and has received honoraria from, among others, Flavor Producers, Florida Dairy Farmers, CropLife, the American Soybean Association and the CA Beet Growers.

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.”

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.”

Reuters report that IARC ‘edited out’ findings is a false narrative

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Updates: New Monsanto documents expose cozy connection to Reuters Reporter, Roundup Trial Tracker (April 25, 2019)
IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article, statement by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (October 24, 2017)

Original date of post: October 20, 2017

Continuing her record of industry-biased reporting about the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Reuters reporter Kate Kelland again attacked the cancer agency with an October 19, 2017 story claiming the scientists edited a draft document before issuing their final assessment that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry trade group, immediately issued a press release praising Kelland’s story, claiming it “undermines IARC’s conclusions about glyphosate” and urging policy makers to “take action against IARC over deliberate manipulation of data.”

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

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

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

Related stories and documents:

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

By Stacy Malkan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reuters takes on cancer scientist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bacon attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[See related post March 2019: Geoffrey Kabat’s Ties to Tobacco and Chemical Industry Groups

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

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

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

IARC pushes back

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

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

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

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

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

IARC wrote in response (emphasis in original):

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

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

PR agency narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expert conflicts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reuters’ Kate Kelland promoted false narrative about IARC and Aaron Blair

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UPDATE January 2019: Documents filed in court show that Monsanto provided Kate Kelland with the documents for her June 2017 story about Aaron Blair and gave her a slide deck of talking points the company wanted covered. For more details, see Carey Gillam’s Roundup Trial Tracker post.

The following analysis was prepared by Carey Gillam and posted June 28, 2017:

A June 14, 2017 Reuters article authored by Kate Kelland, headlined “The WHO’s cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence,” wrongly accused a cancer scientist of withholding important data in the safety assessment of glyphosate conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

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

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

Consider:

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

Related coverage:

Related Documents

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

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Science Media Centre Promotes Corporate Views of Science

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The Science Media Centre (SMC) is a nonprofit PR agency started in the UK that gets its largest block of funding from industry groups. Current and past funders include Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as media groups, government agencies, foundations and universities. The SMC model is spreading around the world and has been influential in shaping media coverage of science, sometimes in ways that downplay the risks of controversial products or technologies. This fact sheet describes SMC history, philosophy, funding model, tactics and reports from critics who have said SMC offers pro-industry science views, a characterization SMC denies.

Related:

Key facts

The Science Media Centre launched in 2002 in response to “media frenzies over MMR, GM crops and animal research” to help news outlets better represent mainstream science, according to the group’s fact sheet.

In its founding report, Science Media Centre describes how it was created to address:

  • a growing “crisis of confidence ” in society’s views of science
  • a collapse of respect for authority and expertise
  • a risk-averse society and alarmist media coverage and
  • the “apparently superior media strategies” used by environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

Independent SMCs that share the same charter as the original now operate in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Japan, and SMCs are being planned in Brussels and the United States.

The SMC model has been influential in shaping media coverage about science. A media analysis of UK newspapers in 2011 and 2012 found that a majority of reporters who used SMC services did not seek additional perspectives for their stories. The group also wields political influence. In 2007, SMC stopped a proposed ban on human/animal hybrid embryos with its media campaign to shift coverage from ethical concerns to the benefits of embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.

Several academics and researchers have criticized SMC for pushing corporate views of science, and for playing down the environmental and human health risks of controversial products and technologies. Reports have documented SMC’s tendency to push pro-industry messaging and exclude opposing perspectives on topics such as fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and GMOs.

In an email, SMC Director Fiona Fox said her group is not biased in favor of industry: “We listen carefully to any criticism of the SMC from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media but we do not receive criticism of pro industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro industry bias and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.”

Quotes about the Science Media Centre

Journalists and researchers on the influence and bias of the Science Media Centre (emphases added in quotes below):

  • “Science Media Centers … have become influential, but controversial players in the world of journalism. While some reporters find them helpful, others believe they are biased toward government and industry scientists.” Columbia Journalism Review
  • “Depending on whom you ask, (SMC Director) Fiona Fox is either saving science journalism or destroying it,Ewen Callway, Nature
  • “A decreasing pool of time-pressed UK science journalists no longer go into the field and dig for stories. They go to pre-arranged briefings at the SMC … The quality of science reporting and the integrity of information available to the public have both suffered, distorting the ability of the public to make decisions about risk.” Connie St. Louis, City College of London, in CJR
  • “The problem is not that they promote science, as they say they do, but that they promote pro-corporate science.” David Miller, University of Bath, in SciDev
  • “For those not blinded by the SMC’s dazzling aura, it appears that its covert purpose is to ensure that journalists and the media report scientific and medical matters only in a way that conforms to government and industry’s ‘policy’ on the issues in question.” Malcolm Hooper, University of Sunderland, paper on CFS/ME
  • “It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology.” Don Maisch paper on cell phones
  • “The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking.” Paul Mobbs, Mobbs Environmental Investigations
  • “The scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network.” George Monbiot, The Guardian

Science Media Centre’s Corporate Funding

SMC’s largest share of funding, roughly 30%, comes from corporations and trade groups. Funders as of August 2016 included a wide range of chemical, biotechnology, nuclear, food, medical, telecommunications and cosmetic industry interests. Agrichemical industry funders included Bayer, DuPont, BASF, CropLife International, BioIndustry Association and the Chemical Industries Association. Previous funders have included Monsanto, ExxonMobile, Shell, Coca-Cola and Kraft. SMC also receives funding from several media, government and academic groups.

SMC says it caps donations from any one company or institution to 5% of annual income in an effort to “protect from undue influence” – exceptions are made for larger donations from the Wellcome Trust and the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

SMC History: “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth”

By the late 1990s, the relationship between science and media was at a breaking point, explains the SMC promotional video. “Around the time of BSE, MMR, GM crops, there was a real sense of this gulf between scientists and the media,” Fox said in the video. SMC was created “to help renew public trust in science by working to promote more balanced, accurate and rational coverage of the controversial science stories,” according to its consultation report.

SMC foundational documents include:

  • February 2000 House of Lords committee report describes a “crisis of trust” in society’s relationship with science, and recommended a new initiative on science and the media.
  • September 2000 “Code of Practice / Guidelines on Science and Health Communication,” by the Royal Society and Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) recommends guidelines for journalists and scientists to counter “the negative impact of what are viewed as unjustified ‘scare stories’ and those which offer false hopes to the seriously ill.”
  • 2002 SMC Consultation Report describes the interview process with stakeholders from government, industry and media who informed how SMC would “take up the gauntlet thrown down by the Lords … of adapting science to frontline news.”

The SMC effort was immediately controversial. Author Tom Wakeford predicted in 2001 that SMC would become “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth of which George Orwell’s fictional rulers would be proud.” He wrote in the Guardian, “Senior figures in the Government, Royal Society and Royal Institution have decided that their much-prized Knowledge Economy necessitates the curtailment of free speech.” He described the Code of Practice: “The Code recommends that journalists consult with approved experts, a secret directory of which is to be provided to ‘registered journalists with bona fide credentials.'”

SMC’s first project – an effort to discredit a BBC fictional film that portrayed genetically engineered crops in an unfavorable light – elicited a series of critical articles in the Guardian (a Guardian editor co-authored the film). The articles described SMC as a “science lobby group backed by major pharmaceutical and chemical companies” that was operating “a sort of Mandelsonian rapid rebuttal unit” and employing “some of the clumsiest spin techniques of New Labour in trying to discredit (the film) in advance.”

Dick Taverne and Sense About Science

Sense About Science –  a lobby effort to reshape perceptions of science – launched in the UK in 2002 alongside SMC under the leadership of Lord Dick Taverne and others with ties to SMC. Lord Taverne was an SMC Advisory Board member and he co-created the SIRC Code of Practice.

A 2016 story in The Intercept by Liza Gross described Sense About Science and its leaders as “self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’” who “tip the scales toward industry.” Gross described Taverne’s tobacco industry ties and corporate PR efforts:

According to internal documents released in litigation by cigarette manufacturers, Taverne’s consulting company, PRIMA Europe, helped British American Tobacco improve relations with its investors and beat European regulations on cigarettes in the 1990s. Taverne himself worked on the investors project: In an undated memo, PRIMA assured the tobacco company that “the work would be done personally by Dick Taverne,” because he was well placed to interview industry opinion leaders and “would seek to ensure that industry’s needs are foremost in people’s minds.” During the same decade, Taverne sat on the board of the British branch of the powerhouse public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which claimed Philip Morris as a client. The idea for a “sound science” group, made up of a network of scientists who would speak out against regulations that industrial spokespeople lacked the credibility to challenge, was a pitch Burson-Marsteller made to Philip Morris in a 1994 memorandum.

Among its first projects, Sense About Science organized a letter from 114 scientists lobbying the British government to “contradict false claims” about GMOs, and conducted a survey highlighting the problem of vandalism against GMO crops.

Sense About Science USA opened in 2014 under the leadership of longtime chemical industry ally Trevor Butterworth, and partners with the Gates-funded Cornell Alliance for Science, a GMO promotion group.

Revolutionary Communist Roots

The founding and current directors of Science Media Centre and Sense About Science – SMC Director Fiona Fox and SAS Director Tracey Brown – and others involved with those groups, were reportedly connected through the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyist splinter party organized in the late 1970s under the leadership of sociologist Frank Ferudi, according to writers George Monbiot, Jonathan Matthews, Zac Goldsmith and Don Maisch.

Ferudi’s splinter group RCP morphed into Living Marxism, LM magazine, Spiked Magazine and the Institute of Ideas, which embraced capitalism, individualism and promoted an idealized vision of technology and disdain for environmentalists, according to Monbiot. (Ferudi responds in this piece.) A Guardian article about an LM event in 1999 described the network as “a reaction against the Left” (in Furedi’s words) with a worldview that left-wing thinking “is not a political factor” and there is “no alternative to the market.”

“One of strangest aspects of modern politics is the dominance of former left-wingers who have swung to the right,” Monbiot wrote in a 2003 article describing the ties between Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre, the people involved with those efforts and links to the LM network:

“Is all this a coincidence? I don’t think so. But it’s not easy to understand why it is happening. Are we looking at a group which wants power for its own sake, or one following a political design, of which this is an intermediate step? What I can say is that the scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network. Far from rebuilding public trust in science and medicine, this group’s repugnant philosophy could finally destroy it.”

Tactics

The SMC in the UK says it has a database with 2700 experts and more than 1200 press officers, and mailing lists with more than 300 journalists representing every major UK news outlet. SMC uses three main tactics to influence science coverage, according to its promotional video:

  1. Rapid response to breaking news with opinion quotes: When a science story breaks, “within minutes there are SMC emails in inboxes of every single national reporter offering experts,” said Fox.
  2. Getting to reporters first with new research. SMC “has privileged access to about 10-15 scientific journals in advance of the embargo lifting” so they can prepare advance comments from third-party experts signaling whether new studies merit attention and how they should be framed.
  3. Organizing about 100 press briefings a year that “proactively set the agenda” on a wide range of controversial science topics such as nuclear waste, biotechnology and emerging diseases.

Examples of influence and bias

Several researchers and academics have reported what they say is SMC’s pro-industry bias on controversial topics, and the extent to which journalists rely on SMC expert views to frame science stories.

Lacking diverse perspectives

Journalism professor Connie St. Louis of City University, London, evaluated SMC’s impact on science reporting in 12 national newspapers in 2011 and 2012, and found:

  • 60% of articles covering SMC press briefings did not use an independent source
  • 54% of “expert reactions” reactions offered by SMC to breaking news during the time period covered were in the news
    • Of these stories, 23% did not use an independent source
    • Of those that did, only 32% of the external sources offered an opposing view to that offered by the expert in the SMC reaction.

“There are more journalists than there should be that are only using experts from the SMC and not consulting independent sources,” St. Louis concluded.

Experts aren’t always scientists

David Miller, professor of sociology from the University of Bath, UK, analyzed SMC content on the website and via Freedom of Information Act requests, and reported:

  • Some 20 of the 100 most quoted SMC experts were not scientists, as defined by having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society, but were lobbyists for and CEOs of industry groups.
  • Funding sources were not always completely or timely disclosed online.
  • There was no evidence of SMC favoring a particular funder, but it did favor particular corporate sectors and topics it covered “reflect the priorities of their funders.”

“If you say you quote scientists and end up using lobbyists and NGOs, the question is: how do you choose which lobbyists or NGOs to have? Why don’t you have lobbyists who oppose genetic testing or members of Greenpeace expressing their view rather than bioindustry’s position? That really reveals the kind of biases that are in operation,” Miller said.

Strategic spin triumph on human/animal hybrid embryos

In 2006, when the UK government considered banning scientists from creating human-animal hybrid embryos, the SMC coordinated efforts to shift the focus of media coverage away from ethical concerns and toward the importance of hybrid embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.

The SMC campaign “was a strategic triumph in media relations” and was “largely responsible for turning the tide of coverage on human–animal hybrid embryos,” according to Andy Williams, a media researcher at the University of Cardiff, UK, who conducted an analysis on behalf of SMC and campaign allies.

Williams found:

  • More than 60% of the sources in stories written by science and health reporters — the ones targeted by the SMC — supported the research, and only one-quarter of sources opposed to it.
  • By contrast, journalists who had not been targeted by the SMC spoke to fewer supportive scientists and more opponents.

“Williams now worries that the SMC efforts led reporters to give too much deference to scientists, and that it stifled debate,” the Nature article reported. An interview with Williams in SciDevNet reports:

“A lot of the language used to describe [SMC media briefings] stresses that they were a chance for the scientists to explain the science in their own words, but — crucially — in a neutral and value-free way,” he said.  But this ignores the fact that these were tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives, he added, and that they were set up to secure maximum media impact for the scientists involved. Specialist science journalists were fed “information subsidies” by the SMC and were far more likely than other journalists to quote pro-hybridisation sources, Williams said.

Promotes industry views on fracking

According to a February 2015 media analysis conducted by Paul Mobbs of Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations, SMC offered numerous expert commentaries on fracking between 2012-2015, but the handful of scientists who dominated the commentary were from institutes with funding relationships with the fossil fuel industry or industry-sponsored research projects.

“The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking. These opinions are based upon the professional position of those involved, and are not supported with references to evidence to confirm their validity. In turn, these views have often been quoted in the media without question.”

“In the case of shale gas, the SMC is not providing a balanced view of the available evidence, and uncertainties, on the impacts of unconventional oil and gas. It is providing quotes from academics who mostly represent a ‘UK establishment’ viewpoint, which ignores the whole body of evidence available on this issue from the USA, Australia and Canada.”

Discrediting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 

A 2013 paper by Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK, accused SMC of promoting the views of certain medical professionals, failing to report on biomedical science and pushing “the ideology and propaganda of the powerful vested interest groups” in its media work on chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME).

Hooper’s paper reports on links between the SMC and key players in the CFS/ME controversy with ties to the insurance industry, and provides evidence of what Hooper described as the SMC’s campaign to discredit people with CFS/ME, and its efforts to misrepresent the PACE trial results to the media. He concludes, “An organisation which behaves in such a blatantly unscientific way can have no legitimate claim to represent science.”

For SMC views, see 2018 fact sheet on CFS/ME “the illness and the controversy.”

Cell phone safety and telecom funders

A 2006 paper by Don Maisch, PhD, “raises serious concerns over the impartiality of the SMC model in science communication when tendering expert advice on contentious issues when vested interests are part of the SMC structure.” The Maisch paper explores SMC communications on issues involving electromagnetic radiation and cell phone safety, and offers what he calls an “uncensored history of the SMC model of science communication.”

“It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology. This may explain why people with no real qualifications in science communication were able to reach positions that essentially became the public face of the British scientific establishment. It also explains why the UK scientific and medical establishment, aware that a large part of scientific funding comes from industry sources, are willing partners in allowing PR organizations with a pre-determined agenda to speak for them and champion government economic policy over the public interest.”

Defending GMO

As descried above, both Science Media Centre and its sister group Sense About Science launched with projects defending genetically engineered foods. SMC frequently offers experts who are critical of studies that raise concerns about GMOs. Examples include:

In 2016, scientists pushed back against SMC expert reactions they said misrepresented their work on GMOs. The study led by Michael Antoniou, PhD, Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group, King’s College London School of Medicine, and published in Scientific Reports, used molecular profiling to compare GMO corn to its non-GM counterpart and reported the GM and non-GM corn were “not substantially equivalent.” SMC issued an expert reactions disparaging the study, and would not allow the authors to respond or correct inaccurate information in the SMC release, according to the study authors.

“These comments [quoted in the SMC release] are inaccurate and thus spread misinformation about our paper. We have been informed that it is not the Science Media Centre’s policy to post responses, such as ours, to commentaries that they commission/post on their website,” Antoniou said. The study authors posted their response here.

Journalist Rebekah Wilce reported in PR Watch in 2014 on several examples of pro-GMO bias in SMC communications. She wrote:

SMC calls itself an independent media briefing center for scientific issues. Critics, however, question its independence from the GMO industry — despite the group’s statement that each individual corporation or other funder may only donate up to five percent of the group’s annual income — and warn that the organization is headed across the pond to the United States to provide more GMO spin here.

The SMC spearheaded the response to a 2012 study that reporting finding tumors in lab animals fed GMOs in a long-term feeding study. The study was widely disparaged in the press, was retracted by the original journal and later republished in another journal.

Media Coverage

Columbia Journalism Review three-part series, June 2013, “Science Media Centres and the Press”

  • CJR part 1: “Does the UK Model Help Journalists?”
  • CJR part 2: “How did the SMCs perform during the Fukushima nuclear crisis?”
  • CJR part 3: “Can a SMC work in the US?”

Nature, by Ewen Callaway, July 2013, “Science media: Centre of attention; Fiona Fox and her Science Media Centre are determined to improve Britain’s press. Now the model is spreading around the world”

Nature, by Colin Macilwain, “Two nations divided by a common purpose: Plans to replicate Britain’s Science Media Centre in the United States are fraught with danger”

FAIR, by Stacy Malkan, July 24, 2017, “Reuters vs. Un Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?”

SciDevNet, by Mićo Tatalović, May 2014, “UK’s Science Media Centre lambasted for pushing corporate science” Centre lamb

PR Watch, by Rebekah Wilke, April 2014, “Science Media Centre Spins Pro-GMO Line”

On related group Sense About Science:

The Intercept, by Liza Gross, November 2016, “Seeding Doubt: How self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’ tip the scales toward industry.”

USRTK Fact Sheet: Sense About Science-USA Director Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry

USRTK Fact Sheet: Monsanto Relied on These ‘Partners’ to Attack Top Cancer Scientists

Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist In Flawed Reuters Story

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In a well-orchestrated and highly coordinated media coup, Monsanto Co. and friends this week dropped a bombshell on opponents who are seeking to prove that the company’s beloved Roundup herbicide causes cancer.

A widely circulated story published June 14 in the global news outlet Reuters (for which I formerly worked) laid out what appeared to be a scandalous story of hidden information and a secretive scientist, “exclusive” revelations that the story said could have altered a critical 2015 classification that associated Monsanto’s Roundup to cancer and triggered waves of lawsuits against Monsanto.

It was a blockbuster of a story, and was repeated by news organizations around the globe, pushed by press releases from Monsanto-backed organizations and trumpeted by industry allies like the American Chemistry Council.

It was also flawed and misleading in a number of critical respects.

Authored by Reuters’ reporter Kate Kelland, who has a history of cozy relations with a group partly funded by agrichemical company interests, the piece accused a top epidemiologist from the U.S. National Cancer Institute of failing to share “important” scientific data with other scientists as they all worked together assessing the herbicide glyphosate for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). That group reviewed a wide body of research on glyphosate and determined in March of 2015 that the pesticide should be classified as a probable human carcinogen. Had the group known of this missing data, it’s conclusion could have been different, according to Reuters.

The story was particularly timely given glyphosate and Roundup are at the center of mass litigation in the United States and under scrutiny by U.S. and European regulators. After the IARC classification, Monsanto was sued by more than 1,000 people in the United States who claim they or their loved ones got non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup and the company and the cases could start going to trial next year. Roundup is the most widely used herbicide in the world and brings in billions of dollars a year for Monsanto. The company insists the IARC classification is meritless and the chemical is proven safe by decades of research.

So yes, it was a big story that scored big points for Monsanto in the debate over glyphosate safety. But drilling deeply into the sourcing and selective nature of the Reuters piece makes it clear the story is not only seriously flawed, but that it is part of an ongoing and carefully crafted effort by Monsanto and the pesticide industry to discredit IARC’s work.

The story contains at least two apparent factual errors that go to the credibility of its theme. First the story cites “court documents” as primary sources when in fact the documents referred to have not been filed in court and thus are not publicly available for reporters or members of the public to access. Kelland does not share links to the documents she references but makes it clear her information is largely based on a deposition from Aaron Blair, the National Cancer Institute epidemiologist who chaired the IARC working group on glyphosate, as well as related emails and other records. All were obtained by Monsanto as part of the discovery process for the Roundup litigation that is pending in federal court in San Francisco. By citing court documents, Kelland avoided addressing whether or not Monsanto or its allies spoon-fed the records to her. And because the article did not provide a link to the Blair deposition, readers are unable to see the full discussion of the unpublished study or the multiple comments by Blair of many other studies that do show evidence of links between glyphosate and cancer. I’m providing the deposition here, and disclosing that I requested and obtained it from attorneys involved in the Roundup litigation after Kelland’s story was published.

Second, the story relies in part on an anti-IARC view of a scientist named Bob Tarone and refers to him as an “independent” expert, someone “independent of Monsanto.” Kelland quotes Tarone as saying that IARC’s evaluation of glyphosate is “flawed and incomplete.” Except, according to information provided by IARC, Tarone is far from independent of Monsanto; Tarone in fact has acknowledged that he is a paid consultant to Monsanto, and a piece cited by Reuters and authored by Tarone last year in a European scientific journal is being recorrected to reflect Tarone’s conflict of interest, according to IARC, which said it has been in communication with that journal.

But much more noteworthy than the errors is how selective the story is in pulling from the Blair deposition. The story ignored Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate connections to cancer, and focused instead on Blair’s knowledge of one unpublished research study that was still in progress. The story hones in on speculation that the data perhaps could have been finished and published in time to be reviewed by IARC and further speculation by Blair, prodded by a Monsanto attorney, that had it been finished and had it been published it could have helped counter the other studies IARC viewed that showed positive cancer connections.

That research, part of a massive ongoing project by U.S. government researchers called the Agricultural Health Study, includes hundreds of studies and years of data analyzing pesticide impacts on farmers. Blair, who retired from the National Cancer Institute in 2007, was not leading that research but was part of a team of scientists who in 2013 were analyzing data about pesticide use and the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The data specific to glyphosate did not show a connection to NHL but in working to publish a paper about all the data the group had gathered, they decided to narrow the focus to insecticides and in 2014 did publish a paper on that work. The data on glyphosate and NHL has yet to be published, and some scientists who are familiar with the work say it has not tracked people long enough yet to be definitive given NHL generally takes 20 or more years to develop. A prior compilation of data by AHS researchers that also showed no connection between glyphosate and NHL was published in 2005 and was considered by IARC. But because the newer data was not published it was not considered by IARC.

Blair said the decision to limit the published work to insecticides was to make the data more manageable and was made well before IARC announced it would be looking at glyphosate in 2015.

“The rule is you only look at things that are published,” Blair told me this week after the Reuters story was published. “What would it be like if everyone on the working group whispered things they knew but weren’t published and made decisions on that?” IARC confirmed it does not consider unpublished research. In his deposition, Blair states that nothing has changed his opinion about glyphosate and NHL.

Epidemiologist and University of Toronto scientist John McLaughlin, who sat on the glyphosate working group for IARC with Blair, said to me in a note this week that the information about the unpublished work written about by Reuters did not alter his view of the validity of IARC conclusion on glyphosate either.

Also left out of the Reuters story – the deposition and a draft copy of the study in question shows that there were concerns about the AHS results due to “relatively small” subgroups of exposed cases. And notably, the Reuters report leaves out Blair’s discussion of the North American Pooled Project, in which he participated, which also contains data related to glyphosate and NHL but is not favorable to Monsanto. A synopsis of that project presented to the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology in 2015 showed that people who used glyphosate for more than five years had significantly increased odds of having NHL, and the risk was also significantly higher for people who handled glyphosate for more than two days per year. That information, like the new AHS data, was not given to IARC because it wasn’t yet published.

“When Dr. Blair’s deposition transcript is read in total, it shows that nothing was wrongfully withheld from IARC,” said Plaintiffs’ attorney Aimee Wagstaff. She said Monsanto was using pieces of the deposition to “further its agenda in the media.”

To epidemiologist Peter Infante, who spent more than 20 years leading a cancer identification unit at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and analyzed a body of epidemiology research on glyphosate in testimony to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scientific Advisory Committee in December, the attention drawn to unpublished data that supports Monsanto’s position is much ado about nothing.

“You still have other studies that show dose response,” he told me. “This Agricultural Health Study is not the gold standard. For glyphosate and NHL they haven’t been following people long enough. Even if the data had been published and had been considered by IARC it would be in the context of all the other study results.”

And finally, in an odd exclusion, the story fails to disclose that Kelland herself has at least tangential ties to Monsanto and friends. Kelland has helped promote an organization called the Science Media Centre, a group whose aim is to connect certain scientists such as Tarone with journalists like Kelland, and which gets its largest block of funding from corporations that include the agrichemical industry. Current and past funders include Monsanto, Monsanto’s proposed merger partner Bayer AG, DuPont and agrichemical industry lobbyist CropLife International. Kelland appears in a promotional video for SMC touting the group and authored an essay applauding the SMC that appeared in a SMC promotional report.

As a Reuters reporter for 17 years (1998-2015) I know the value of an “exclusive.” The more such scoops a reporter garners, the more bonus points and high praise from editors. It’s a system seen in many news agencies and it works great when it encourages dogged, investigative journalism. But powerful corporations like Monsanto also know how eager reporters are to land exclusives and know that handing favored journalists cherry-picked information with the promise of exclusivity can serve their public relations needs quite well. Follow up the hand-fed story with a press release from an industry-funded outlet and calls for an investigation from the industry group American Chemistry Council and you have propaganda gold.

What you don’t have is the truth.