Keeping Secrets From Consumers: Labeling Law a Win for Industry-Academic Collaborations

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You’ve heard the mantra over and over – there are no safety concerns associated with genetically engineered crops. That refrain, music to agrichemical and biotech seed industry ears, has been sung repeatedly by U.S. lawmakers who have just passed a national law that allows companies to avoid stating on food packages if those products contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Sen. Pat Roberts, who shepherded the law through the Senate, dismissed both consumer concerns and research that has fed fears about potential health risks related to genetically engineered crops, in lobbying on behalf of the bill.

“Science has proven again and again that the use of agriculture biotechnology is 100 percent safe,” Roberts declared on the Senate floor on July 7 before bill passed. The House then approved the measure on July 14 in a 306-117 vote.

Under the new law, which now heads to President Obama’s desk, state laws mandating GMO labeling are nullified, and food companies need not clearly tell consumers if foods contain genetically engineered ingredients; instead they can put codes or website addresses on products that consumers must access for the ingredient information. The law intentionally makes it difficult for consumers to gain the information. Lawmakers like Roberts say it’s okay to cloud the issues for consumers because GMOs are so safe.

But many consumers have fought for years for foods to be labeled for GMO content precisely because they do not accept the safety claims. Evidence of corporate influence over many in the scientific community who tout GMO safety has made it difficult for consumers to know who to trust and what to believe about GMOs.

“The ‘science’ has become politicized and focused on serving markets,” said Pamm Larry, director of the LabelGMOs consumer group. “The industry controls the narrative, at least at the political level.” Larry and other pro-labeling groups say there are many studies indicating that GMOs can have harmful impacts.

This week, the French newspaper Le Monde added fresh reason for skepticism about GMO safety claims when it unveiled details of University of Nebraska professor Richard Goodman’s work to defend and promote GMO crops while Goodman was receiving funding from top global GMO crop developer Monsanto Co. and other biotech crop and chemical companies. Email communications obtained through Freedom of Information requests show Goodman consulting with Monsanto frequently on efforts to turn back mandatory GMO labeling efforts and mitigate GMO safety concerns as Goodman conducted “scientific outreach and consulting on GM safety” in the United States, Asia and the European Union.

Goodman is but one of many public university scientists engaged in such work. Similar collaborations have been revealed recently involving public scientists at several universities, including the University of Florida and the University of Illinois. Cumulatively, the relationships underscore how Monsanto and other industry players exercise influence in the scientific arena of GMOs and pesticides to push points that protect their profits.

In its examination of those concerns, the Le Monde article shines a light on how Goodman, who worked at Monsanto for seven years before moving to the public university in 2004, came to be named associate editor of the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) to oversee GMO-related research reports. Goodman’s naming to the FCT editorial board came shortly after the journal angered Monsanto with the 2012 publication of a study by French biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini that found GMOs and Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide could trigger worrisome tumors in rats. After Goodman joined the FCT editorial board the journal retracted the study in 2013. (It was later republished in a separate journal.) Critics at the time alleged the retraction was tied to Goodman’s appointment to the journal’s editorial board. Goodman denied any involvement in the retraction, and resigned from FCT in January 2015.

The Le Monde report cited email communications obtained by the U.S. consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know (which I work for). The emails obtained by the organization show Goodman communicating with Monsanto about how best to criticize the Séralini study shortly after it was released “pre-print” in September 2012. In a Sept. 19, 2012 email, Goodman wrote to Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond: “When you guys have some talking points, or bullet analysis, I would appreciate it.”

Emails also show that FCT Editor in Chief Wallace Hayes said Goodman started serving as associate editor for FCT by Nov. 2, 2012, the same month the Séralini study was published in print, even though Goodman was later quoted saying that he was not asked to join FCT until January 2013. In that email, Hayes asked Monsanto’s Hammond to act as a reviewer for certain manuscripts submitted to the journal. Hayes said the request for Hammond’s help was also “on behalf of Professor Goodman.”

The email communications show numerous interactions between Monsanto officials and Goodman as Goodman worked to deflect various criticisms of GMOs. The emails cover a range of topics, including Goodman’s request for Monsanto’s input on a Sri Lankan study submitted to FCT; his opposition to another study that found harmful impacts from a Monsanto GMO corn; and project funding from Monsanto and other biotech crop companies that makes up roughly half of Goodman’s salary.

Indeed, an October 2012 email exchange shows that around the time Goodman was signing on to the FCT journal and criticizing the Seralini study, Goodman was also expressing concern to his industry funders about protecting his income stream as a “soft-money professor.”

In an October 6, 2014 email, Goodman wrote to Monsanto Food Safety Scientific Affairs Lead John Vicini to say that he was reviewing an “anti-paper” and hoped for some guidance. The paper in question cited a 2014 report from Sri Lanka about a “possible exposure/correlation and a proposed mechanism for glyphosate toxicity related to kidney disease.” Glyphosate is the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and is used on Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops. The World Health Organization in 2015 said glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen after several scientific studies linked it to cancer. But Monsanto maintains glyphosate is safe.

In the email to Vicini, Goodman said he did not have the expertise needed and asked for Monsanto to provide “some sound scientific arguments for why this is or is not plausible.”

The emails show other examples of Goodman’s deference to Monsanto. As the Le Monde article points out, In May 2012, after the publication of certain comments by Goodman in an article on a website affiliate with the celebrity Oprah Winfrey, Goodman is confronted by a Monsanto official for “leaving a reader thinking that we really don’t know enough about these products to say if they are ‘safe.’” Goodman then wrote to individuals at Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, BASF and Dow and Bayer and apologized “to you and all of your companies,” saying he was misquoted and misunderstood.

Later in one July 30, 2012 email, Goodman notified officials at Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta and BASF that he has been asked to do an interview with National Public Radio about whether or not there is a relationship between GMO crops and increasing food allergies. In an Aug 1, 2012 reply, an official at Bayer offered him free “media training” before his interview.

The emails also show Goodman’s collaborative work with Monsanto to try to defeat GMO labeling efforts. In one October 25, 2014 email to Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs and Vicini, Goodman suggests some “concepts and ideas” for advertisements that can educate “consumers/voters.” He wrote that it was important to convey the “complexity of our food supplies” and how mandatory labeling could add to costs if companies responded by sourcing more non-GMO commodities. He wrote of the importance of conveying those ideas to the Senate and the House, and his hope that “the labeling campaigns fail.”

The emails also make clear that Goodman depends heavily on financial support from St. Louis-based Monsanto and other biotech agricultural companies who provide funding for an “Allergen Database” overseen by Goodman and run through the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska. A look at the sponsorship agreement for the allergen database for 2013 showed that each of six sponsoring companies were to pay roughly $51,000 for a total budget of $308,154 for that year. Each sponsor then can “contribute their knowledge to this important process,” the agreement stated. From 2004-2015, along with Monsanto, the sponsoring companies included Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Bayer CropScience and BASF. One 2012 invoice to Monsanto for the Food Allergen Database requested payment of $38,666.50.

The purpose of the database is aimed at “assessing the safety of proteins that may be introduced into foods through genetic engineering or through food processing methods.” The potential for unintended allergens in some genetically engineered foods is one of the common fears expressed by consumer groups and some health and medical experts.

In comments on the House floor, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said the QR codes were a gift to a food industry seeking to hide information from consumers. The law is “not what’s in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want,” he said. “Every American has a fundamental right to know what’s in the food they eat.”

Goodman, Monsanto and others in the biotech ag industry can celebrate their win in Congress but the new labeling law is likely to only breed more consumer skepticism about GMOs given the fact that it negates the type of transparency consumers seek – just a few simple words if a product is “made with genetic engineering.”

Hiding behind a QR code does not inspire confidence.

Will Senate Democrats Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory on GMO Labeling?

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Update June 27: A new “compromise” bill announced by Senator Stabenow is “completely unacceptable” and worse than the original bill, say consumer advocates. Read the latest news here.

By Stacy Malkan

Nearly 90% of Americans say genetically engineered food should be labeled, with high support across all ages, races and political affiliations, according to a December 2015 Mellman Group poll. It’s hard to think of a political issue that shares such broad appeal. Belief in our right to know what’s in our food is as American as apple pie.

Now, after a hard-fought battle led by millions of consumers and the nation’s largest environmental, health and consumer groups, we are winning that right. Large food companies from General Mills to Kellogg to Campbell’s have said they are putting labels on food products to indicate if they are produced with genetic engineering.

Is it possible to undo this progress? Could the new food labels actually roll back to the factories to be replaced by incomprehensible black blobs called QR codes?

Are Senate Democrats, led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, about to make a deal that will stop GMO labeling in its tracks?

spaghettiosThe agrichemical industry is swarming the U.S. Senate right now with a last-ditch lobbying effort to pass the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act, and thereby nullify state labeling efforts. They have just a few weeks left to get this done before Vermont implements the nation’s first mandatory GMO labeling law July 1.

The House of Representatives passed the DARK Act last year. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said at the time in a CNN op ed, “The fact that Congress is even considering a proposal to deny Americans basic information about their food speaks to overwhelming power of these corporate lobbyists over the public interest.”

All eyes are now on Sen. Stabenow, who, according to the Hagstrom Report, just proposed new language for a “compromise.” This may or may not include QR codes, an 800 number, or some other way of claiming “mandatory” labeling while allowing food companies to remove the words “genetic engineering” from the new labels that are already on their way to a store near you.

Details on the compromise are murky. But one thing is clear: as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Stabenow holds the keys to decide whether or not Americans will finally get clear, on-package GMO labels that are already required in 64 other countries around the world.

Both sides are doing their best to influence her. As Politico reported, organic industry leaders held a fundraiser for Sen. Stabenow in March, just days before the last vote on the DARK Act, and organic industry leaders donated several thousand dollars to her campaign in 2015 and 2016.

A review of Federal Election Commission filings for donations to Sen. Stabenow’s campaign from corporations and trade groups over the past five years found little from the organic industry – just one donation from the Organic Trade Association in 2012 for $2,500.

Big food, chemical and agribusiness groups, meanwhile, donated well over $100,000 to her campaign in that time period, including a combined $60,000 from Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Bayer and ConAgra.

Those corporations were among the top 10 donors to anti-labeling campaigns that spent over $100 million to defeat GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California, Washington, Oregon and California – using dirty tricks to do so, such as mailers from fake front groups, false claims in ads and voter guides, and the largest money laundering operation in Washington State election history.

Why are these companies so afraid to give Americans an informed choice about GMOs in our food?

Big agribusiness groups are sending the message that it’s none of our business what’s in our food and how it’s produced. Political cartoonist Rick Friday learned that lesson the hard way when he was recently fired from his job of 21 years at Iowa’s Farm News for pointing out in a cartoon that top executives at Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere made more money last year than 2,129 Iowa farmers.

What else don’t these companies want us to know about our food?

The fact is, most genetically engineered crops are engineered to survive chemical herbicides, which is great for chemical company profits but not so good for farmers and families in GMO-growing communities such as Hawaii, Argentina and Iowa – or for the rest of us who may be eating food every day that contains glyphosate, which was recently classified as probably carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization’s cancer panel.

The good news is, consumer demand for transparency is now too loud to ignore.

State drives for GMO labeling succeeded in educating millions of people that our most important food crops have been genetically engineered with no transparency. Vermont’s labeling law is a victory for the nation and food companies are already well on their way to labeling GMOs for the first time in the U.S. history.

If the agrichemical lobby succeeds in pushing Democrats to accept a Dark Act deal that involves anything less than mandatory on-package labeling, Sen. Stabenow will be forever remembered for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for our right to know what’s in our food.

This story originally appeared in Huffington Post. Want more food for thought? Sign up for the USRTK Newsletter.

Conflict of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review

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By Carey Gillam

It’s been a little more than a year since the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research experts upended the agrichemical industry’s favorite child. The group, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared the globe’s most widely used herbicide – glyphosate – to be a probable human carcinogen.

Since then, Monsanto Co., which draws roughly a third of its $15 billion in annual revenues from its Roundup branded glyphosate-based herbicide products, (and much of the rest from glyphosate-tolerant crop technology) has been on a mission to invalidate the IARC finding. Through an army of foot soldiers that include industry executives, public relation professionals and public university scientists, the company has called for a rebuke of IARC’s work on glyphosate.

How successful those efforts will or will not be is still an open question. But some answers are expected following a meeting being held this week in Geneva, Switzerland. An “international expert scientific group” known as JMPR is reviewing IARC’s work on glyphosate, and the results are expected to offer regulators around the world a guide for how to view glyphosate.

The group, officially known as the Joint FAO-WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), is administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO. JMPR meets regularly to review residues and analytical aspects of pesticides, to estimate maximum residue levels, and to review toxicological data and estimate acceptable daily intakes (ADIs) for humans.

After this week’s meeting, set to run from May 9-13, JMPR is expected to issue a series of recommendations that will then go to the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Codex Alimentarius was established by FAO and the World Health Organization develops harmonized international food standards as a means to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade.

The meeting comes as both European and U.S. regulators are wrestling with their own assessments and how to react to the IARC classification. It also comes as Monsanto looks for backing for its claims of glyphosate safety.

Glyphosate is not just a lynchpin for sales of the company’s herbicides but also for its genetically modified seeds designed to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate. The company also is currently defending itself against several lawsuits in which farmworkers and others allege they contracted cancer linked to glyphosate and that Monsanto knew of, but hid, the risks. And, a rebuke of IARC’s glyphosate classification could help the company in its lawsuit against the state of California, which aims to stop the state from following the IARC classification with a similar designation.

Depending on the result of the JMPR, the Codex will decide on any actions necessary regarding glyphosate, said WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic.

“It is the JMPR’s function to conduct risk assessment for agricultural use and assessing the health risks to consumers from residues found in food,” said Jasarevic

The outcome of the JMPR meeting is being watched closely by a number of environmental and consumer groups that want to see new safety standards for glyphosate. And not without some worry. The coalition, which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth, has expressed concern about apparent conflicts of interest on the expert advisory panel. Some individuals appear to have financial and professional ties to Monsanto and the chemical industry, according to the coalition.

The coalition specifically cited concerns with member ties to the nonprofit International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which is funded by Monsanto and other chemical, food and drug companies. The Institute’s board of trustees includes executives from Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Nestle and others, while its list of member and supporting companies includes those and many more global food and chemical concerns.

Internal ILSI documents, obtained by a state public records request, suggest that ILSI has been generously funded by the agrichemical industry. One document that appears to be ILSI’s 2012 major donor list shows total contributions of $2.4 million, with more than $500,000 each from CropLife International and from Monsanto.

“We have significant concerns that the committee will be unduly influenced by the overall pesticide industry and particularly Monsanto- the largest producer of glyphosate in the world,” the coalition told WHO in a letter last year.

One such JMPR expert is Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology and director of the toxicology unit in the faculty of medicine at Imperial College London. He is a member and a past chairman of the board of trustees of ILSI, vice-president of ILSI Europe and chair of ILSI.

Another member is Angelo Moretto, Director of the International Centre for Pesticides and Health Risks Prevention at “Luigi Sacco” Hospital of the ASST Fatebenefratelli Sacco, in Milan, Italy. The coalition said that Moretto has been involved in various projects with ILSI and has served as a member of the steering team for an ILSI project on risks of chemical exposures financed by agrichemical companies that included Monsanto.

Another is Aldert Piersma, a senior scientist at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands and an advisor to projects of ILSI’s Health and Environmental Sciences Institute.

In all the JMPR list of experts totals 18. Jasarevic said that the roster of experts are chosen from a group of individuals who expressed interest in being involved, and all are “independent and are selected based on their scientific excellence, as well as on their experience in the field of pesticide risk assessment.”

Aaron Blair, a scientist emeritus at the National Cancer Institute and the chairman of the IARC group that made the glyphosate classification, has defended IARC’s work as based on a thorough scientific review. He said he had no concerns to discuss regarding the  JMPR review of IARC’s work.

“I am sure the evaluation by the joint FAO/WHO group will make the reasons for their evaluation clear, which is what is critical for the press and public,” he said.

The world is waiting.

Why is Cornell University Hosting a GMO Propaganda Campaign?

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Standing up for science - or propaganda?

Standing up for science – or propaganda?

This article by Stacy Malkan original appeared in The Ecologist

The founders of Cornell University, Andrew D. White and Ezra Cornell, dreamed of creating a great university that took a radical approach to learning. Their revolutionary spirit, and the promise to pursue knowledge for the greater good, is said to be at the heart of the Ivy League school their dream became.

It is difficult to understand how these ideals are served by a unit of Cornell operating as a public relations arm for the agrichemical industry.

Yet that is what seems to be going on at the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS), a program launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a goal to “depolarize the charged debate” about GMOs.

A review of the group’s materials and programs suggests that beneath its promise to “restore the importance of scientific evidence in decision making,” CAS is promoting GMOs using dishonest messaging and PR tactics developed by agrichemical corporations with a long history of misleading the public about science.

Communicating science or propaganda?

CAS is a communications campaign devoted to promoting genetically engineered foods (also known as GMOs) around the world. This is made clear in the group’s promotional video.

CAS Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, describes her group as a “communications-based nonprofit organization represented by scientists, farmers, NGOs, journalists and concerned citizens” who will use “interactive online platforms, multimedia resources and communication training programs to build a global movement to advocate for access to biotechnology.”

In this way, they say they will help alleviate malnourishment and hunger in developing countries, according to the video.

Dr. Evanega said her group has no connections to industry and receives no resources from industry. “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate for or promote industry-owned products,” she wrote in a blog post titled “A Right to Be Known (Accurately) in which she pushed back against criticisms from my group, U.S. Right to Know.

Yet the flagship programs of CAS – a 12-week course for Global Leadership Fellows and two-day intensive communications courses – teach communication skills to people who are “committed to advocating for increased access to biotechnology” specifically so they can “lead advocacy efforts in their local contexts.”

The group also has unusual dealings with journalists. What does it mean, as the CAS video states, that it is “represented by” journalists?

CAS offers journalism fellowships with cash awards for select journalists to “promote in-depth contextualized reporting” about issues related to food security, crop production, biotechnology and sustainable agricultural.

Are these journalists also GMO advocates? How ethical is it for journalists to represent the policy positions of a pro-agrichemical-industry group?

Messaging for corporate interests

One thing is clear from the publicly available CAS messaging: the context they offer on the topic of genetically engineered foods is not in depth and comprehensive but rather highly selective and geared toward advancing the interests of the agrichemical industry.

For example, the video: Brimming with hope about the possibilities of GMOs to solve world hunger in the future, it ignores a large body of scientific research that has documented problems connected with GMOs – that herbicide-tolerant GMO crops have driven up the use of glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer by the world’s leading cancer experts; and accelerated weed resistance on millions of acres of U.S. farmland, which makes crop production harder for farmers, not easier.

There is no mention of the failure of GMO crops designed to ward off harmful insects, or the rising concerns of medical doctors about patterns of illness in places like Hawaii and Argentina where exposures are heaviest to the chemicals associated with GMOs.

There is no recognition that many scientists and food leaders have said GMOs are not a priority for feeding the world, a debate that is a key reason GMO crops have not been widely embraced outside of the United States and Latin America.

All these factors are relevant to the discussion about whether or not developing countries should embrace genetically engineered crops and foods. But CAS leaves aside these details and amplifies the false idea that the science is settled on the safety and necessity of GMOs.

Disseminating selective information of a biased or misleading nature to promote a particular agenda is known as the practice of propaganda.

Working from industry’s PR playbook

 The Cornell Alliance for Science was supposed to present “a new vision for biotechnology communications,” yet the group relies on an established set of messages and communication tactics that are familiar to anyone who follows the PR campaigns of the agribusiness industry.

The report Spinning Food, which I co-authored with Kari Hamerschlag and Anna Lappé, documents how agribusiness and food industry funded groups are spending tens of millions of dollars a year to promote misleading messages about the safety and necessity of industrial-scale, chemical-intensive, genetically engineered agriculture.

The companies that profit most from this system – Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and other agrichemical giants – have repeatedly violated trust by misleading the public about science, as Gary Ruskin showed in his report Seedy Business. So they rely on front groups and third-party allies such as scientists and professors to spread their messaging for them.

A core industry narrative is that the science on GMO safety is settled. Pro-industry messengers focus on possible future uses of the technology while downplaying, ignoring or denying the risks; make inaccurate claims about the level of scientific agreement on GMOs; and attack critics who raise concerns as “anti-science.”

As one example, Mark Lynas, political director of CAS, wrote a New York Times op-ed accusing 17 European Union countries that banned GMO crop cultivation of “turning against science.” He dubbed them the “coalition of the ignorant.”

The article is heavy on attack and light on science, brushing over the topic with an inaccurate claim about a safety consensus that many scientists have disputed.

As molecular geneticist Belinda Martineau, PhD, wrote in response to Lynas, “Making general claims about the safety of genetic engineering … (is) unscientific, illogical and absurd.”

The World Health Organization states, “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

Yet, while claiming to stand up for science, CAS routinely makes general – even outlandish – claims about GMO safety.

From the group’s FAQ:

  • “You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than be hurt by GE food – and that’s not an exaggeration.”
  • “GE crops currently available to the public pose no greater health risks or environmental concerns than their non-engineered counterparts. This is not opinion.”

In fact, it is propaganda.

Battling transparency in science

In the spring of 2014, CAS launched a petition attacking my group U.S. Right to Know for filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain the emails of publicly funded professors as part of our investigation into the food and agrichemical industries and their PR operations.

CAS called the FOIA requests a “witch hunt,” yet documents obtained via these FOIA requests generated news stories in several top media outlets about academics who were working with industry PR operatives on campaigns to promote GMOs without disclosing those ties to the public.

The story broke in a front-page New York Times article by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton, who explained how Monsanto, facing consumer skepticism about GMOs, “retooled their lobbying and public relations strategy to spotlight a rarefied group of advocates: academics, brought in for the gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”

In one case, reported by Laura Krantz in the Boston Globe, a Monsanto executive told Harvard professor Calestous Juma to write a paper about how GMOs are needed to feed Africa.

“Monsanto not only suggested the topic to professor Calestous Juma. It went so far as to provide a summary of what the paper could say and a suggested headline. The company then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet as part of Monsanto’s strategy to win over the public and lawmakers,” Krantz wrote.

Juma said he took no money from Monsanto but noted he has received funding from the Gates Foundation, which has been partnering with Monsanto for years on pro-GMO projects after Rob Horsch, Monsanto’s veteran top executive for international development, joined the Foundation in 2006. Horsch now leads Gates’ agricultural research and development team. (A 2014 analysis by the research group Grain found that about 90% of $3 billion the Gates Foundation has spent to feed the poor in Africa has gone to wealthy nations, primarily universities and research centers.)

The public has a right to know if academics posing as independent sources are working behind the scenes with corporations and their PR firms on coordinated messaging campaigns to push a corporate agenda.

CAS takes the position in its petition that the public doesn’t have a right to know about the ties between industry PR operatives and 14 public scientists who have “contributed to the scientific consensus about the safety of GMOs.”

The Cornell petition is accompanied by a photo montage featuring Carl Sagan, Madame Curie, Albert Einstein and other deceased scientists who have not signed the petition, stamped with the slogan, “I stand with the #Science14” – a bit of PR flair that mirrors the dishonest propaganda used to oppose GMO labeling.

Aligning with industry PR writers

At an esteemed institution like Cornell, you might expect to find experts in science or ethics teaching communication courses that promise to restore scientific integrity to public discourse. Instead, at CAS, you will find experts in crisis management communication who specialize in opposing public health regulations.

For example, Trevor Butterworth, a visiting fellow at Cornell and director of Sense About Science (a “non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for sense about science!”) is partnering with CAS to teach students and scientists how to communicate with journalists about GMOs.

Butterworth has a long history of communicating science for the benefit of corporations wishing to keep their products unregulated. A 2009 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article by Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust about industry lobbying efforts on bisphenol A (BPA) identified him as a “chemical industry public relations writer.”

As an editor of STATS at George Mason University, Butterworth was a prolific defender of BPA who “regularly combs the Internet for stories about BPA and offers comments without revealing his ties to industry,” Kissinger and Rust wrote.

“STATS claims to be independent and nonpartisan. But a review of its financial reports shows it is a branch of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. That group was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco.” (The tobacco industry, they noted, was lobbying alongside the chemical industry to keep BPA unregulated.)

Butterworth has also promoted industry positions arguing against regulations for vinyl plastic and phthalates, fracking, high fructose corn syrup and sugary sodas.

He now partners with CAS to teach students how to communicate about GMOs, and CAS political director Lynas sits on the advisory board of Sense About Science.

Lynas’ work raises more questions: Why does a science group need a political director? And why would CAS choose Lynas for the role? Lynas is not a scientist but an environmental writer who rose to sudden fame after embracing GMOs, and his science has been critiqued at length by scientists, reporters and professors.

Depolarizing the GMO debate?

Corporations have been known to deploy outrageous messaging when their products run into trouble; examples include “DDT is good for me,” “More doctors smoke Camels” and the Dutch Boy campaign to promote lead paint to children.

A low point for chemical industry messaging was its PR campaign to paint “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson (and environmentalists in general) as murderers of millions of children in Africa for raising concerns about DDT.

That sort of messaging is making a comeback in the GMO debate.

In September 2015, the CAS Speakers Series hosted Owen Paterson, Member of Parliament from the UK, for a talk titled, “Check Your Green Privilege: It’s Not Environmentally Friendly to Allow Millions to Die.”

Paterson’s speech was filled with hyperbolic claims about GMOs that lack scientific rigor (GMOs “are in fact safer than conventionally bred crops … one of the most environmentally friendly advances this world has ever seen … can save millions of lives that today are squandered by the ideology of massively supported environmental campaign groups.”)

The speech garnered praise from the American Council on Science and Health, a well-known industry front group, in a blog by Dr. Gil Ross titled, “Billion Dollar Green Campaigns Kill Poor Children.”

Ross explained in the blog that the CAS Speakers Series was created, “to use facts to counter the perceived tendency of college students to follow the environmentalist mantra without too much thought… the concept of being afraid of genetic engineering is akin to looking under the bed for hobgoblins such as Godzilla, awakened by the atomic tests of the Cold War.”

Paterson and Ross are unhelpful to the image of scientific integrity CAS is trying to project. Ross is a convicted felon who spent time in jail for Medicaid fraud. Paterson, the former UK environment secretary, is widely seen as a climate change skeptic whose views are incompatible with science.

How are bloggers in Hawaii helping feed the poor in Africa?

 With its year round growing season, the Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for GMOs. They are also ground zero for concerns about pesticides associated with GMOs, and a key focus of industry’s pro-GMO propaganda campaigns and allies such as CAS.

Elif Bealle, executive director of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, has been active in grassroots efforts for pesticide reporting, bans and pesticide buffer zones around GMO crops. She has also been keeping an eye on CAS, which she said has been recruiting local bloggers and has associates on several of the Islands.

“They present themselves as ‘just concerned local residents’ or ‘neutral journalists.’ They are almost full time commenting on online newspaper articles, submitting, Community Voice Op-Eds, etc. Their blog posts are regularly picked up and disseminated by the biotech trade group website in Hawaii, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association,” Bealle said.

For example, Joni Kamiya, a CAS Global Leadership Fellow, uses her blog, Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter, to promote the “safety and science” of GMOs with messaging that glosses over science and disparages GMO critics.

Kamiya is also an “independent expert” for GMO Answers, a GMO PR website created by Ketchum PR firm and funded by agrichemical companies. Her articles are posted on Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project, which was also tapped to publish the GMO promotion papers assigned by Monsanto and written by professors.

Kamiya’s writing also appears on the home page of Kauai Farming and Jobs Coalition, a group with unknown funding that claims to “represent a wide range of individuals and organizations in our community” and promotes articles by Monsanto, Genetic Literacy Project and other food industry front groups such as the Center for Consumer Freedom.

Other CAS allies in the Islands include Lorie Farrell, a CAS associate who writes for GMO Answers and helped coordinate opposition to the GMO cultivation ban on the Big Island for Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United; and Joan Conrow, who has a consulting contract with Cornell and writes the confrontational blog Kauai Eclectic.

Their messaging follows a typical pattern: they claim a scientific consensus on GMO safety and attack people calling for transparency and safety as outsiders who are killing the “Aloha spirit” of the Islands.

Arming the conflict

In his article, “The War on Genetically Modified Food Critics,” Tufts Professor Timothy Wise takes the media to task for falling for industry PR tactics and incorrectly reporting the science on GMO as “settled.”

“What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign to … paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages,” Wise wrote.

One indicator of that campaign, he said, was the Gates Foundation award to Cornell to “depolarize” the debate over GM foods.

“The Gates Foundation is paying biotech scientists and advocates at Cornell to help them convince the ignorant and brainwashed public, who ‘may not be well informed,’ that they are ignorant and brainwashed … It’s kind of like depolarizing an armed conflict by giving one side more weapons,” Wise wrote.

Instead of arming the PR wars in service of industry, Cornell University should stand up for science by convening a more honest discussion about GMOs – one that acknowledges the risks as well as the benefits of genetically engineered foods.

One that refrains from attacking and instead seeks common ground with groups calling for transparency and health and safety standards.

CAS Director Dr. Evanega said her group does share common values around right to know and access to information, and she disputes the notion that CAS was formed to promote GMOs.

“So-called ‘GMOs’ are not a monolithic thing,” Dr. Evanega wrote in her blog. “For example, it makes no sense to cluster together such diverse technologies as bacteria engineered to produce insulin and papaya engineered to resist a virus. We support access — to innovation and the information that will help people make sound decisions based on science and evidence — not fear, emotions.”

Certainly GMOs are not a monolithic thing. That’s exactly why it is inaccurate and dishonest to claim that people are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than to be harmed by GMOs.

A science alliance that truly is about restoring integrity to science should illuminate a comprehensive record of research, not parrot the talking points of PR firms and corporate players.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. She is author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” (New Society Publishing, 2007). Stacy is a former reporter and newspaper publisher and longtime advocate for environmental health. She co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2002 and worked as communications director of Health Care Without Harm for eight years.

Who’s Behind the Attacks on U.S. Right to Know?

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There have been a couple of recent attacks on U.S. Right to Know, so I thought it might be useful to sketch out who is behind them.

A March 9 article in the Guardian criticized us for sending Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover the connections between taxpayer-paid professors and the genetically engineered food industry’s PR machine. All three of the article’s authors are former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But the article failed to disclose their financial ties.

The first author, Nina Federoff is identified as “an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University” but omits that she works at OFW Law, which is a powerhouse food and agribusiness lobbying firm. OFW Law is registered as lobbying for the Council for Biotechnology Information and Syngenta.

We requested correspondence from both Syngenta and CBI — whose members include “BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta” —  so we can understand why Ms. Federoff might wish to defend them without disclosing who her firm’s clients are.

The second author, Peter Raven, is identified as Director Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is so intertwined with Monsanto that it even has a Monsanto Center and a Monsanto Hall. The Peter H. Raven Library is on the Fourth Floor of the Monsanto Center. A 2012 news release states that, “Monsanto Company and Monsanto Fund have been among the most generous benefactors of the Missouri Botanical Garden over the past 40-plus years, contributing about $10 million for numerous key capital, science and education projects during that period.”

The third author, Phillip Sharp, works at the David H. Koch Institute at MIT — yes, the same David Koch of the Koch Brothers. In their article, the authors liken us to climate change deniers. For someone connected to the Koch Institute to link us with climate change deniers is beyond ironic. Dr. Sharp also has close ties to the biotech industry, as co-founder of the company Biogen.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is acting like the American Association for the Advancement of Monsanto. That, truly, is a loss for science, and for us all.

Also, the Cornell Alliance for Science has been attacking U.S. Right to Know and organizing a petition against our FOIA requests regarding the agrichemical industry PR and political campaigns to defend GMOs.

The Cornell Alliance for Science began last year with a “$5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” the world’s largest foundation, which is a promoter of and investor in the agrichemical industry. The CEO of the Gates Foundation, Sue Desmond-Hellman, worked for fourteen years at the biotech company Genentech.

The Cornell Alliance for Science says that their “goal” is to “depolarize the GMO debate,” but attacking our consumer group is an odd way to “depolarize” the debate over the health and environmental effects of genetically engineered food and crops.

An Open Letter to Professor Kevin Folta on FOIA Requests

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Dear Professor Folta:

Yesterday there was some news coverage and commentary about our use of the state Freedom of Information Acts to obtain the correspondence of professors who wrote for the agrichemical industry’s PR website, GMO Answers. We’re glad to have a public conversation about this topic with the professors involved. We believe that transparency and open dialogue are fundamental values by which we must operate in a democratic society and a truly free market. To that end, I thought it would be useful to explain why we FOIA.

Since 2012, the food and agrichemical industries have spent at least $103 million dollars on a massive PR and political campaign to deceive the public about genetically engineered foods. As the public relations firm Ketchum bragged in a recent video, “positive media coverage had doubled” on GMOs following this PR campaign, and it has put agrichemical industry spin front and center in the debate over GMOs. The purpose of this PR campaign is to repel grassroots efforts to win GMO labels that are already required in 64 countries, and to extend the profit stream from GMOs, and the pesticides that go with them, for as long as possible – not to foster an authentic public dialogue about GMOs.

This anti-consumer campaign has been dirty in more ways than one. It has been packed with numerous deceptions and well-documented efforts to trick voters. In connection with such efforts, the Washington State Attorney General is suing the Grocery Manufacturers Association for the largest instance of campaign money laundering in the history of the state.

At U.S. Right to Know, we believe the food and agrichemical industries must have a lot to hide, because they spend so much money trying to hide it. We try to expose what they’re hiding.

As part of our effort, we made the state FOIA requests to obtain the correspondence of professors who wrote for the agrichemical industry’s PR website, GMO Answers.

These professors are public employees. They are paid by the taxpayers to work for the public good; their university affiliations give them the status of “independent” experts, and they are often quoted in the media as independent experts. But when these professors are closely coordinating with agrichemical corporations and their slick PR firms to shape the public dialogue in ways that foster private gain for corporations, or when they act as the public face for industry PR, we have the right to know what they did and how they did it.

Through the FOIA requests, we are attempting to understand the work these professors did for Ketchum, (as well as agrichemical companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, DuPont and Dow; trade groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Council for Biotechnology Information; other PR firms like Fleishman Hillard and Ogilvy & Mather, and the political firm Winner & Mandabach) on the GMO Answers website which was created as a PR tool for the agrichemical companies.

There are reasons to be concerned about GMO Answers. The website was created by and is run by the public relations firm Ketchum, which also represents Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Ketchum is linked to an espionage effort conducted years ago against nonprofit organizations concerned with GMOs, including the Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth. Ketchum also targeted Greenpeace with espionage.

The professors whose documents we requested are using the prestige of our public universities to burnish the image of an industry that has repeatedly hidden from consumers and workers the truth about the dangers of their products and operations. Entire books have been written documenting their reprehensible conduct. Public relations on behalf of private corporations is not academic work. It is not work for the public good. It is the use of public funds for private gain.

Federal and state Freedom of Information Acts exist, in part, to uncover such potential misuse of public funds for private ends.

We are also interested in failures of scientific integrity. To use one obvious example, one of the professors whose records we requested closely mirrored industry talking points in an op-ed he wrote against GMO labeling for the Woodland Daily-Democrat. Did that professor write the op-ed himself? Or was it written by a PR firm hired by the agrichemical industry?

Repeating industry talking points is not integrity in science; in fact, it is the opposite.

We believe that transparency and openness are good remedies for the lack of integrity in science.

We are glad to live in America, where the tools of the FOIA are open to all citizens. And so our work is guided by the ideals of James Madison: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Sincerely,

Gary Ruskin
Executive Director
U.S. Right to Know

U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance – key facts

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Summary

* Funders include Monsanto and DuPont

* Small farmers criticized use of mandatory marketing fees to promote “Big Ag”

* Other partners include BASF, Dow

USFRA is represented by PR giant Ketchum

Ketchum’s clients include the Russian Federation

Ketchum’s work for the Russian Federation include pushing propaganda for Putin, aiding in a campaign to have Putin named Time Magazine’s 2007 “Person of the Year”

* LA Times: USFRA-funded documentary “lobbyist propaganda”

Funders Include Monsanto, DuPont

As of 2011, USFRA was to have an $11 million annual budget.

The funding would come partly from mandatory marketing fees the Department of Agriculture helps collect from farmers, and from corporations like Monsanto and DuPont, each of which committed to an annual contribution of $500,000. [New York Times, 9/27/11] 

Organization Now Claims Budget is “Less than $12 Million,” But Plans to Expand

USFRA says that its current budget “is less than $12 million,” but “Over time, we expect our program budget to grow as more affiliates and industry partners join our movement.” [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/faqs]

Organization Claims a Third of Funding Comes from Industry Partners

According to USFRA, 32 percent of its funding comes from its industry partners.

“68 percent of our funding is coming from farmer- and rancher-led affiliates,” the group claims. [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/faqs]

Partners Include BASF, Dow, Merck and Others

USFRA’s “Premier Partner Advisory Group” includes both DuPont and Monsanto, while its “Industry Partner Council” includes BASF, Cargill, Dow AgroSciences, Elanco Animal Health, Merck Animal Health, Syngenta and Zoetis. [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/affiliates-board-participants-and-industry-partners]

Small Farmers Upset Mandatory Marketing Fees Used to Promote “Big Ag”

 In a January 2014 article, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that smaller farmers were complaining about the use of mandatory marketing fees, or checkoffs, to fund USFRA, claiming that they had to “fork over money to support activities and advertising that benefit agribusiness, but not necessarily those with small and mid-size operations.”

The article noted that USFRA’s affiliates and partners “are just the kinds of groups that are normally associated with Big Ag,” and that the articles on the USFRA tend to support industrial agriculture, including supporting the benefits of genetically modified crops.

But this caused anger from smaller farmers, including Mike Callicrate, a Colorado rancher who said he found it “very offensive” that USFRA was receiving mandatory marketing fees.

“The whole purpose of those checkoffs being made available to [USFRA] is to promote industrial agriculture that is driving the family farm right out of business,” Callicrate said. [Bloomberg Businessweek, 1/29/14]

PR Giant Ketchum Represents USFRA

In 2011, USFRA announced that PR giant Ketchum would serve as its primary communications agency. [Agri-Pulse, 3/24/11]

Russian Government Among Ketchum’s Clients, Helping Putin Generate Propaganda

Since 2006, Ketchum has served as the PR firm for the Russian Federation, helping the Russian government to place opinion pieces in American news sources, including the New York Times, the Huffington Post and MSNBC.

One of the op-ed columns, which appeared in the New York Times, was published under the byline of Vladimir Putin. [ProPublica, 9/12/13; New York Times, 8/31/14]

The New York Times reported in 2014 that “The company still works with Mr. Putin’s closest advisers, according to current and former employees of Ketchum.

The Times reported that Ketchum “said it worked with Time magazine to have Mr. Putin named the magazine’s Person of the Year in 2007.” [New York Times, 8/31/14]

Ketchum Represented Russian Government-Controlled Energy Company Gazprom

Until recently, Ketchum served as the PR firm for the Russian government-controlled energy company, Gazprom. [New York Times, 8/31/14]

Ketchum Worked for Dow Chemical

Ketchum has worked for (and may continue to work for) Dow Chemical. [DC Court Records]

Other Ketchum Clients Include Drug Companies, Chemical Companies, Food Producers

    • Clorox Company
    • Frito-Lay
    • Hershey’s
    • Pfizer
    • Procter & Gamble
    • Wendy’s International

[O’Dwyer’s Public Relations Firm Database]

LA Times: USFRA-Funded Documentary “Lobbyist Propaganda”

In May 2014, the Los Angeles Times published a review of the documentary Farmland, that was made with the “generous support” of USFRA.

The Times review claimed the film “often comes off like lobbyist propaganda,” and a “puff piece.” While the documentary contains farmers who both support and oppose organic farming technique, the film “does not supply statistics or unaffiliated experts to substantiate or dispute any of the farmers’ claims and provide a broader perspective.” [Los Angeles Times, 5/1/14]