SF Roundup Case Demonstrates Importance of Independence in Scientific Evidence

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Thisarticlewas originally publishedinSanFranciscoChronicle.

By Nathan Donley and Carey Gillam

It’s been three weeks since a San Francisco jury found that exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides contributed to former school groundskeeper Dewayne “Lee” Johnson’s terminal cancer and awarded a stunning $289 million in damages to the 46-year-old father. And during that time, we’ve seen repeated assertions from the pesticide giant and its allies that, in fact, the jury was wrong and the weed killer of choice for millions of Americans is perfectly safe.

Monsanto Vice President Scott Partridge repeated the familiar mantra: Hundreds of scientific studies, as well as reviews by regulatory agencies across the globe, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have found that glyphosate — the active ingredient in Roundup — does not cause cancer. Monsanto’s new owner, Bayer AG, went further. Bayer CEO Werner Baumann told investors that the jury was just flat-out “wrong” and that Bayer would work to ensure that sales of the weed-killing products were not interrupted. “More than 800 scientific studies and reviews” support glyphosate safety, he told investors.

Unchallenged, the carefully honed talking points sound impressive and conclusive — exactly as intended.

But in the wake of the jury’s award, many people across the United States who have been spraying the pesticide on their lawns and gardens for years doubt those reassuring words. And with good reason.

Corporate assurances of safety leave out one important word — a word that is critically important to anyone who wants to make an informed decision about the cancer risk associated with Roundup and the hundreds of other glyphosate-based herbicides on the market.

That word is “independent,” as in “independent scientific studies and reviews.”

As was laid out in the trial, there is a wealth of evidence, much of it from within Monsanto’s own internal documents, detailing how much of the research suggesting that Roundup is safe has been orchestrated and/or influenced by Monsanto and its chemical industry allies.

But truly independent research has shown that there is reason for concern. As Roundup use on U.S. farms, residential lawns and gardens has soared from roughly 40 million pounds a year in the 1990s to nearly 300 million pounds in recent years, the dangers of the chemical have been documented in numerous peer-reviewed studies.

It was those independent and peer-reviewed works that convinced the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization to determine that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. In the wake of that WHO finding, California added glyphosate to the state’s list of cancer-causing chemicals.

Monsanto’s response to that 2015 classification was more manipulated science. An “independent review” of glyphosate showed up in a peer-reviewed scientific journal decrying the IARC classification. The review not only was titled as being independent, but declared that no Monsanto employee had any involvement in the writing of it. Yet the company’s internal emails, turned over in discovery associated with the litigation, revealed that a Monsanto scientist in fact aggressively edited and reviewed the analysis prior to its publication.

That was but one of multiple examples detailed in the unsealed documents of similar efforts, referred to by Monsanto’s own employees as “ghostwriting.”

The EPA has sided with Monsanto over independent scientists, declaring the pesticide is not likely to cause cancer. By doing so, the agency has ignored the fact that its own Office of Research and Development expressed unease with the EPA’s handling of the glyphosate evaluation, as did a scientific advisory panel convened by the agency to peer-review the evaluation.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the trial evidence also included communications detailing what can only be described as cozy collaborations between Monsanto and certain EPA officials.

Americans deserve better from their regulators, whose priority should be to put the public’s health far before corporate profits.

Instead, it took a brave man dying of cancer and jury of 12 ordinary citizens to step up and face the challenge of taking a hard look at the scientific facts and calling for justice.

Drew Kershen: Agrichemical Industry Front Group Ringleader

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Drew Kershen, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, is a close ally of the agrichemical industry. He argues for deregulation of genetically engineered plants and animals and against transparency. Kershen has played a key role in agrichemical industry-funded promotional efforts and front groups that lobby for industry interests. Kershen does not disclose funding sources.

Agrichemical industry ties and front group leadership

Genetic Literacy Project / Science Literacy Project

Kershen is a board member of Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that partners with Monsanto to do public relations for genetically engineered foods and pesticides, and does not accurately disclose its funding. Documents reveal that the Genetic Literacy Project:

Kershen is also a board member of the Science Literacy Project, the 501(c)(3) parent organization of the Genetic Literacy Project. Both are directed by Jon Entine, a longtime PR ally of the chemical industry.

According to 2015 tax records, Jon Entine and the Science Literacy Project assumed control of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a group formerly affiliated with the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) and the Genetic Literacy Project. Operations for STATS were folded into Sense About Science USA, which shares the same address of record with Science Literacy Project.

The founders of STATS, CMPA and Sense About Science did public relations work for the tobacco industry and these groups are not independent arbiters of science, according to a 2016 investigation in The Intercept.

For more information, see USRTK fact sheets on Jon Entine and Genetic Literacy Project and Sense About Science/STATS.

Secretary of Academics Review Front Group

Kershen was the secretary of the board of directors of Academics Review, according to its 2016 tax records. Academics Review claimed to be an independent group, but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it was a front group set up with the help of Monsanto to attack critics of the agrichemical industry while appearing to be independent.

Kershen was a reviewer for a 2014 report by Academics Review that tried to discredit the organic industry; the press release for the report claimed that it was work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.

Tax records show that the primary funder of Academics Review was the Council for Biotechnology Information, a nonprofit organization funded and run by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. CBI gave a total of $600,000 to Academics Review in 2014 and 2015-2016.

Why Forbes Deleted Some Drew Kershen Articles

Kershen co-authored several articles that were deleted by Forbes and Project Syndicate after his co-author, Henry Miller, was caught using a column ghostwritten by Monsanto as his own work in Forbes. The New York Times revealed the ghostwriting scandal in 2017.

Kershen and Miller also co-wrote articles for Slate, National Review, the Hoover Institution and the American Council on Science and Health (an industry-funded front group) arguing against labeling and regulating genetically engineered foods, attacking industry critics, and claiming “the world’s poor are suffering and dying unnecessarily” due to the “gratuitous regulation demanded by activists.”

GMO Answers

Kershen is an “ambassador expert” for GMO Answers, a marketing and PR website for genetically engineered foods that is funded by the big agrichemical companies via the Council for Biotechnology Information, and run by the public relations firm Ketchum.

Intervened in Transparency Lawsuit to Suppress Public Disclosure

Several documents reported in this fact sheet, which exposed undisclosed ties between corporations and front groups, were first obtained via Freedom of Information requests by U.S. Right to Know. Kershen has intervened in lawsuits to try to stop further disclosure, as the Freedom of the Press Foundation reported in February 2018.

For more information about food industry front groups, see the USRTK investigations page.

Henry Miller Dropped by Forbes for Monsanto Ghostwriting Scandal

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Update: In August of 2018, Miller left his perch of two decades as a fellow at the Hoover Institution for unknown reasons. He is now a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, a think tank funded by right-wing foundations related to the Koch Brothers that promotes climate science skepticism and seeks to end environmental regulations.

Henry I. Miller, MD, is a former FDA official and founding director of the FDA Office of Biotechnology; he has a long history of arguing against public health protections and taking positions outside of the scientific mainstream. Dr. Miller has claimed nicotine “is not particularly bad for you,” said low levels of radiation may be beneficial to health, and calls for the re-introduction of the insecticide DDT. He is perhaps the most prolific and best-known promoter of genetically engineered foods, writing for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Forbes and other outlets.

In August 2017, Forbes deleted all columns authored or co-authored by Miller in the wake of revelations that Monsanto ghostwrote a column that Miller published under his own name in Forbes.

Monsanto ghostwriting / dropped by Forbes

On August 1, 2017, the New York Times reported:

“Documents show that Henry I. Miller asked Monsanto to draft an article for him that largely mirrored one that appeared under his name on Forbes’s website in 2015. Forbes removed the story from its website on Wednesday and said that it ended its relationship with Mr. Miller amid the revelations.”

The emails between Miller and Monsanto’s Eric Sachs show how corporations and writers sometimes work together to promote corporate talking points in ways that are not disclosed to editors or the public.

In the emails, Sachs asked Miller to write about the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) on the cancer hazard of glyphosate. Miller replied, “I would be if I could start from a high-quality draft.” Sachs provided what he called a “still quite rough” draft, which he described to Miller as “a good start for your magic.” The draft appeared a few days later, largely unchanged, in this Forbes column that appeared under Miller’s name.

According to Retraction Watch, Forbes removed Miller’s work because it violated Fobes.com rules that contributors declare any potential conflicts of interest and publish only their original writing. “When it came to our attention that Mr. Miller violated these terms, we removed all of his posts from Forbes.com and ended our relationship with him,” said Mia Carbonell, senior VP of global communications at Forbes.

Forbes also removed articles co-bylined by Miller and other chemical industry allies, including Julie Kelly, Kavin Senapathy and Bruce Chassy.

Project Syndicate added this editor’s note to the top of articles written by Miller (and later deleted the columns entirely):

Legitimate objections have been raised about the independence and integrity of the commentaries that Henry Miller has written for Project Syndicate and other outlets; in particular that Monsanto, rather than Miller, drafted some of them. Readers should be aware of this potential conflict of interest, which, had it been known at the time Miller’s commentaries were accepted, would have constituted grounds for rejecting them.

Named as deliverable in Monsanto PR document

A Monsanto PR document describes the company’s plans to “protect the reparation and FTO of Roundup” by discrediting a cancer agency’s report about the cancer hazard of glyphosate. Page 2 of the plan describes the first external deliverable: “Engage Henry Miller.” Documents reported by the New York Times show that a Monsanto executive asked Miller to write about the cancer report and provided him with a draft that Miller posted largely unchanged under his own name in Forbes.

Read more about the Monsanto PR plan to discredit IARC here.

Funding and pitching his PR services

The Hoover Institution, where Miller resides as a fellow, has received funding from corporations and industry groups, including Exxon Mobil and the American Chemistry Council, as well as right-wing foundations — Sarah Scaife Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation, Donors Trust – and other leading funders of climate science denial that also push deregulation across the economy.

Miller pitched his corporate PR services in a 1998 “Work Plan Promoting Sound Science in Health, Environmental and Biotechnology Policy.” The document, posted in the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Library, describes Miller’s fees for writing articles, $5,000-$15,000, and proposed an expanded “science and risk communication” program to include arranging speeches, improving web presence and publishing a book. (Source: «Monsanto Papers»: la bataille de l’information, by Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel in Le Monde, June 2, 2017.)

Friend and trustee of corporate front group ACSH

Miller is a “friend and longtime trustee” of the American Council on Science and Health, and he has also been described as a “director” of that group. ACSH is a corporate front group that pitches its services to corporations for product defense, according to a 2012 leaked financial plan.

Defending the tobacco industry

In a 1994 APCO Associates PR strategy memo to help Phillip Morris organize a global campaign to fight tobacco regulations, Henry Miller was referred to as “a key supporter” of these pro-tobacco industry efforts.

In 2012, Miller wrote that “nicotine … is not particularly bad for you in the amounts delivered by cigarettes or smokeless products.”

Denying climate change

Miller is a member of the “scientific advisory board” of the George C. Marshall Institute, which is famous for its oil and gas industry funded denials of climate change.

Claiming nuclear radiation exposure may be “good for you”

In 2011, after the Japanese tsunami and radiation leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, Miller argued in Forbes that “those … who were exposed to low levels of radiation could have actually benefitted from it.” He asked in Project Syndicate, “Can radiation be good for you?

Defending the pesticide industry 

Miller defended the use of widely-criticized neonicotinoid pesticides and claimed in the Wall Street Journal that “the reality is that honeybee populations are not declining.”

Miller has repeatedly argued for the re-introduction of DDT, a toxic pesticide banned in the United States since 1972, which has been linked to pre-term birth and fertility impairment in women.

Attacking the organic industry

Miller’s has written numerous attacks on the organic industry, including “The Colossal Hoax of Organic Agriculture” (Forbes), “Organic Farming is Not Sustainable” (Wall Street Journal) and “The Dirty Truth About Organic Produce” (Newsweek). Newsweek has refused to disclose Miller’s conflicts of interest; a 2018 Newsweek article by Miller attacking the organic industry was surrounded by Bayer ads.

Miller’s rhetoric about the organic industry, like many of his scientific claims, is far outside of mainstream science and common sense. In May 2017, Miller claimed, “Organic agriculture is to the environment what cigarette smoking is to human health.”

Defending the plastics industry

Miller defended the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA), which is banned in Europe and Canada for use in baby bottles.

Miller’s prolific pro-industry writings include

Jayson Lusk and Henry I. Miller, “We Need G.M.O. Wheat.” New York Times, February 2, 2014. Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, “General Mills Has a Soggy Idea for Cheerios.” Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “India’s GM Food Hypocrisy.” Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2012. Henry I. Miller, “Organic Farming Is Not Sustainable.” Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “More Crop for the Drop.” Project Syndicate, August 7, 2014. Henry Miller, “California’s Anti-GMO Hysteria.” National Review, March 31, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “Genetic Engineering and the Fight Against Ebola.” Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “Salmon Label Bill Should Be Thrown Back.” Orange County Register, April 4, 2011. Henry I. Miller, “GE Labels Mean Higher Costs.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 7, 2012. Gregory Conko and Henry Miller, “Labeling Of Genetically Engineered Foods Is a Losing Proposition.” Forbes, September 12, 2012. Gregory Conko and Henry I. Miller, “A Losing Proposition on Food Labeling.” Orange County Register, October 11, 2012. Henry I. Miller and Bruce Chassy, “Scientists Smell A Rat In Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study.” Forbes, September 25, 2012. Jay Byrne and Henry I. Miller, “The Roots of the Anti-Genetic Engineering Movement? Follow the Money!Forbes, October 22, 2012.

Miller articles removed from Forbes include: Henry I. Miller and Julie Kelly, “How Organic Agriculture Evolved from Marketing Tool to Evil Empire,” Forbes, Dec. 2, 2015; Henry I. Miller and Julie Kelly, “Federal Subsidies to Organic Agriculture Should be Plowed Under,” Forbes, July 12, 2017;  Henry I. Miller and Julie Kelly, “Government Favors and Subsidies to Organic Agriculture: Follow the Money,” Forbes, Sept. 23, 2015.

Articles About Miller 

“Some GMO Cheerleaders Also Deny Climate Change” — Mother Jones

“Pro-Science GMO and Chemical Boosters Funded by Climate Deniers” – The Ecologist

“DDT and Malaria: Setting the Record Straight” – Pesticide Action Network

“TV Ad Against Food Labeling Initiative is Pulled” – Los Angeles Times

“Stanford Ad Demands Anti-Prop 37 Ad Be Changed” – Palo Alto News

Chemical Industry Allies

USRTK has compiled a series of fact sheets about writers and PR groups the agrichemical industry relies on to manufacture doubt about science that raises concern about risky products and argue against environmental health protections.
– Why You Can’t Trust Henry I. Miller
Why Forbes Deleted Some Kavin Senapathy Articles
Julie Kelly Cooks up Propaganda for the Chemical Industry
– The American Council on Science and Health is a Corporate Front Group
– Jon Entine of Genetic Literacy Project: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger
– Trevor Butterworth / Sense About Science Spins Science for Industry
Does Science Media Centre Push Corporate Views of Science?

Follow the USRTK investigation of Big Food and its front groups: https://usrtk.org/our-investigations/