What Killed Jack McCall? A Farmer Dies; A Case Against Monsanto Takes Root

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By Carey Gillam

CAMBRIA, Calif.- Standing on the ridge overlooking her central California farm, new widow Teri McCall sees her husband Jack nearly everywhere. There, atop the highest hill, is where the couple married in 1975- two self-described “hippies’ who knew more about how to surf than farm. And over there, surrounded by the lemon, avocado and orange trees Jjack mccall copyack planted, sits the 800-square-foot house the young Vietnam veteran built for his bride and a family that grew to include two sons and a daughter. Solar panels Jack set up in a sun-drenched stretch of grass power the farm’s irrigation system.

And down there, clasped in the cusp of the velvet green valley sits the century-old farmhouse Jack and Teri eventually made their permanent home. Jack installed a stained glass window featuring a heart and flowers over the front door.

“Literally hundreds of times a day, something reminds me of him,” McCall says, as she and a visitor strolled through the orchards on a recent sunny spring morning. “That’s part of why it’s so hard to believe… I can never see him again.”

Anthony ‘Jack’ McCall, 69, died Dec. 26 after a painful and perplexing battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The loss is certain, fixed forever into his family’s heartbreak. But questions about why and how he was stricken – a man who never smoked, stayed fit and had no history of cancer in his family – are part of what some legal experts see as a potential landmark legal claim against one of the world’s largest agrichemical companies, Monsanto Co.

McCall shunned pesticide use on his farm, except for the herbicide called Roundup – marketed by Monsanto as having extremely low toxicity. He used Roundup regularly, spraying it himself around the farm to drive back worrisome weeds. He even recommended Roundup to friends, telling them it was supposed to be much safer than alternatives on the market, and touting its effectiveness.

But now in his death, McCall is one of several plaintiffs in more than a dozen lawsuits that claim the active ingredient in Roundup – a chemical called glyphosate – gave them cancer, and that Monsanto has long known glyphosate poses “significant risks to human health, including a risk of causing cancer.”

The lawsuits, brought by plaintiffs in California, Florida, MissouriDelaware, Hawaii,and elsewhere over the last several months, claim Monsanto has hidden evidence, and manipulated regulators and the public into believing in the safety of glyphosate, which annually brings in about $5 billion, or a third of total sales, for the agribusiness giant. Like McCall, many farmed, or worked in agricultural jobs in which they regularly were using or exposed to glyphosate.

The claims come at a critical time for Monsanto and its signature product as regulators in the United States and other countries evaluate whether or not to continue to allow glyphosate herbicides. Last year the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. That team, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), said glyphosate shows a “positive association” for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 

The outcomes of the legal battle and the regulatory reviews could have broad implications. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide on the planet, sprayed on fields for row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat, as well as a variety of fruits, nuts and vegetable crops such as almonds, apples, cherries and oranges.

That ubiquitous role played by glyphosate means the litigation, plaintiffs’ lawyers say, marks the beginning of a potential wave of legal actions against Monsanto. Teams of attorneys have been criss-crossing the country lining up potential plaintiffs who they say will likely number in the hundreds and possibly thousands. It’s a time-tested practice by plaintiffs’ attorneys who have brought similar mass actions in the past against tobacco, pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

“Monsanto has deliberately concealed or suppressed information about the dangers of its product,” said environmental and chemical pollution attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is assisting in litigating glyphosate cases. “This is big. It’s on every farm in the world.”

Kennedy predicts glyphosate liability litigation will become as widespread as has been decades of litigation over asbestos, which is seen in legal circles as the longest-running mass tort action in U.S. history. Asbestos was used for years as a safe and effective flame retardant in the construction industry but has been tied to lung diseases and cancers, and spawned hundreds of millions of dollars in legal claims.

The glyphosate litigation partly mirrors courtroom battles Monsanto has been fighting for years involving the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs it once manufactured. Plaintiffs in those cases also claim PCBs caused them to fall ill while Monsanto hid the risks. Monsanto claims plaintiffs cannot definitively link illnesses to PCB exposure.

AMONG THE SAFEST OPTIONS
Patented by Monsanto and commercialized in 1974, glyphosate herbicide has long been considered among the safest pesticide options on the market. The weed-killer came off patent in 2000 and is now used in more than 700 products around the world, beloved by farmers, homeowners, and groundskeepers. The chemical is the world’s most widely used herbicide with an estimated 1.8 billion pounds applied in 2014, up 12-fold from 1994, according to recently published research.

But as use has grown, concerns about safety have also mounted. Residues have been documented by public and private researchers in waterways, air, food and in human bodily fluids. Several scientific studies tied the chemical to cancers and other health problems before the March 2015 classification by IARC.

Lawyers for plaintiffs in the glyphosate cases say that among the evidence that glyphosate’s toxicity has long been known is an EPA memo detailing how glyphosate was classified by agency scientists as a possible human carcinogen in 1985 before classified in 1991 as a having “evidence of non-carcinogenicity” for humans. The classification was changed despite the fact that some peer review members did not concur. The lawsuits also cite evidence of fraud at laboratories used by Monsanto to perform toxicology studies of glyphosate, and point to fraud convictions of executives at those labs.

St. Louis-based Monsanto, a global agrichemical and seed powerhouse, cites its own evidence to counter both the validity of the allegations in the lawsuits, as well as the IARC findings. Last year, the company hired a team of experts to review the safety of glyphosate, and said that team found no cancer links. 

“Comprehensive long-term toxicological studies repeated over the last 30 years have time and again demonstrated that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a cancer risk in humans,” Monsanto states on its website. ‘Regulatory authorities and independent experts around the world have reviewed numerous long-term/carcinogenicity and genotoxicity studies and agree that there is no evidence that glyphosate… causes cancer, even at very high doses.”

Monsanto attorneys have been seeking to dismiss and/or delay several cases thus far filed, asserting that federal law and approvals by the Environmental Protection Agency for labels on Roundup herbicide products protect Monsanto from the claims in the lawsuits. In recent arguments in U.S. District Court in Northern California, for example, lawyers for Monsanto argued that “EPA repeatedly has concluded that glyphosate is not a carcinogen.” But in April a federal judge in California ruled that Monsanto was not protected from liability by the EPA registration and approved labels.

In a Missouri case that Monsanto also was unable to get dismissed, discovery is starting, and plaintiffs’ lawyers are eagerly awaiting what they hope will be a treasure trove of evidence for their clients.

The legal claims come at the same time that European and U.S. regulators are conducting their own assessments of the safety of glyphosate and considering restrictions, processes that have become fraught with infighting and accusations of bias from both fans and foes of glyphosate. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said in November that evidence shows glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic. But the European Parliament has said the herbicide use should be reined in with a ban on non-professional use and around parks and playgrounds because of the health worries.

The EPA was due to release a fresh risk assessment on glyphosate nearly a year ago, but has stalled the process amid the uproar. And in an odd twist to the saga, on April 29, the agency posted an internal document to its website, showing that the EPA’s cancer assessment experts have determined that glyphosate is “Not Likely to be Carcinogenic to Humans.”

On May 2, EPA withdrew the memo from its website and said it was not supposed to have been released because the cancer assessment is ongoing. But Monsanto heralded the release of the document as proof of what it has been saying about glyphosate’s safety.

Wall Street is keeping a wary eye on the litigation. But generally market watchers care less about Monsanto’s risk from potential liability payouts and more about any potential long-term revenue hit if regulators were to restrict or ban glyphosate, said Piper Jaffray analyst Brett Wong, who tracks Monsanto’s business strategies and financial health. The courtroom battles could influence regulators, he said.

“There are obviously a lot of lawsuits,” Wong said. “They aren’t intrinsic to impacting their business but there is always some sentiment pressure on investors. If it were to impact the regulatory structure and glyphosate was banned… that could obviously have an impact.”

Legal experts with experience defending the chemical industry are watching the cases with interest, and many say given a lack of regulatory support for the cancer linkage, plaintiffs’ attorneys have an uphill climb to make such claims stick.

“The evidence to support the claims isn’t there, said one prominent lawyer, declining to be quoted by name. “It’s not mothers’ milk by any means. I wouldn’t mix it in my drink, but it’s one of the safest chemicals out there,” he said.

Attorney Brent Wisner, who is representing the McCall family, said he is confident in the strength of the evidence against Monsanto. “It’s going to be a fairly large litigation when it’s all said and done. We’re confident we’ll be able to show that Monsanto controlled research and suppressed science,” he said.

Back in Cambria, Jack McCall’s son Paul McCall is running the farm in his father’s place. His eyes tear quickly when asked about his father’s diagnosis in September 2015 and death only three months later, the day after Christmas. He doesn’t want to talk about the lawsuit, other than to say he has no use for glyphosate now, and wants to warn others away from it.

“This is a battle that has to be fought,” he said.

How big and how bloody the litigation becomes is still an open question. The shouting from both sides of the issues is getting louder with each passing day. But the deep questions about the safety of this herbicide deserve serious and scientific review as the answers hold implications for our food production, our environment and the health of our families well into the future.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist, current freelance writer/editor and research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group

Not Just For Corn and Soy: A Look at Glyphosate Use in Food Crops

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By Carey Gillam

As the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup weed killer, along with hundreds of other weed-killing products, the chemical called glyphosate spells billions of dollars in sales for Monsanto and other companies each year as farmers around the world use it in their fields and orchards.  Ubiquitous in food production, glyphosate is used not just with row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat but also a range of fruits, nuts and veggies. Even spinach growers use glyphosate.

Though considered for years as among the safest of agrichemicals, concerns about glyphosate have been growing after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts last year classified it as a probable human carcinogen, based on a series of scientific studies.  There are other concerns as well – mounting weed resistance to glyphosate; negative impacts on soil health; and a demise in the monarch butterfly population tied to glyphosate use on forage that young monarchs feed on. The EPA is currently finishing a risk assessment for glyphosate that examines the range of issues.

The EPA is still trying to determine just how worrisome glyphosate is, or isn’t. In the meantime it’s worth a look at how widespread the use of glyphosate is in our food supply. A document released by EPA on April 29 gives us a peek.

In a memorandum dated Oct. 22, 2015, EPA analysts reported an “updated Screening Level Usage Analysis”for glyphosate use on food items. That memo updates estimates of glyphosate use on crops in top agricultural states, and provides annual average use estimates for the decade 2004-2013. Seventy crops are on the EPA list, ranging alphabetically from alfalfa and almonds to watermelons and wheat. And, when compared to a prior analysis that ran through 2011, it shows that glyphosate use has been growing in production of most of the key food crops on the list. Here’s a snapshot:

Glyphosate used on U.S. soybean fields, on an average annual basis, was pegged at 101.2 million pounds; with corn-related use at 63.5 million pounds. Both estimates are up from a prior analysis that ran through 2011, which pegged average annual soybean use at 86.4 million pounds and corn at 54.6 million pounds. Both those crops are genetically engineered so they can be sprayed directly with glyphosate as farmers treat fields for weeds. Use with sugar beets, also genetically engineered as glyphosate-tolerant, was estimated at 1.3 million pounds, compared to 1 million pounds.

Notably, glyphosate use is also seen with a variety of crops not engineered to be sprayed directly. Looking at the period ending in 2013 compared to 2011, glyphosate use in wheat production was pegged at 8.6 million pounds, up from 8.1 million pounds; use in almonds was pegged at 2.1 million pounds, unchanged from the prior analysis;  grape use was pegged at 1.5 million pounds, up from 1.4 million pounds; and rice use was estimated at 800,000 pounds, compared to 700,000 pounds in the prior analysis.

You can check out your own favorite food here, and compare it to the prior analysis here. Some on the list may surprise you, including cherries, avocados, apples, lemons, grapefruit, peanuts, pecans and walnuts.

The growing use of glyphosate on food crops has prompted calls for regulators to start testing levels of such residues on food to determine if they are within levels regulators deem safe. They’ve been doing such testing for years for residues of other agrichemicals. The Food and Drug Administration said in February it would start doing that type of testing for glyphosate residues this year on a limited basis.

In the meantime, the EPA, which sets the “tolerance” levels that deem what is safe regarding pesticide residue,  announced May 3 that it was finalizing a new rule that will expand the numbers of crops that can have tolerances established. The EPA said this will “allow minor use growers a wider choice of pest control tools including lower-risk pesticides, to be used on minor crops, both domestically and in countries that import food to the United States.”

 Yummy.

Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign

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By Carey Gillam

Former University of Illinois food science professor Bruce Chassy is known for his academic gravitas. Now retired nearly four years, Chassy still writes and speaks often about food safety issues, identifying himself with the full weight of the decades of experience earned at the public university and as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health. Chassy tells audiences that before he retired in 2012, he worked “full time” doing research and teaching.

What Chassy doesn’t talk much about is the other work he did while at the University of Illinois – promoting the interests of Monsanto Co., which has been trying to overcome mounting public concerns about the genetically engineered crops and chemicals the company sells. He also doesn’t talk much about the hundreds of thousands of dollars Monsanto donated to the university as Chassy was helping promote GMOs, or Monsanto’s secretive role in helping Chassy set up a nonprofit group and website to criticize individuals and organizations who raise questions about GMOs.

But emails released through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Chassy was an active member of a group of U.S. academics who have been quietly collaborating with Monsanto on strategies aimed at not just promoting biotech crop products, but also rolling back regulation of these products and fending off industry critics. The emails show money flowing into the university from Monsanto as Chassy collaborated on multiple projects with Monsanto to counter public concerns about genetically modified crops (GMOs) – all while representing himself as an independent academic for a public institution.

A New York Times article by Eric Lipton published last September laid bare the campaign crafted by Monsanto and other industry players to use the credibility of prominent academics to push the industry’s political agenda. That Times article focused primarily on University of Florida academic Kevin Folta, chairman of the university’s Horticultural Sciences Department, and Folta’s work on behalf of Monsanto. But an examination of recently released email exchanges between Monsanto and Chassy show new depths to the industry efforts.

The collaborations come at a critical juncture in the United States regarding GMO public policy. Mandatory GMO labeling is set to take effect in Vermont on July 1; Congress is wrestling over a federal labeling law for GMOs; and several other states are seeking their own answers to rising consumer demand for transparency about this topic.

Many consumer and environmental groups want to see more restrictions and regulation on GMO crops and the glyphosate herbicide many know as Roundup, which is used on GMOs. But the companies that market the crops and chemicals argue their products are safe and there should be less regulation, not more. Monsanto’s roughly $15 billion in annual revenue comes almost exclusively from GMO crop technology and related chemicals.

Amid the furor, the revelations about corporate collaboration with public university scientists to promote GMOs have sparked a new debate about a lack of transparency in the relationships between academics and industry.

Chassy has said he did nothing unethical or improper in his work supporting Monsanto and the biotech crop industry. “As a public-sector research scientist, it was expected… that I collaborate with and solicit the engagement of those working in my field of expertise,” Chassy has stated.

Still, what you find when reading through the email chains is an arrangement that allowed industry players to cloak pro-GMO messaging within a veil of independent expertise, and little, if any, public disclosure of the behind-the-scenes connections.

CRITICAL COLLABORATIONS

  • In a November 2010 email, Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs tells Chassy that Monsanto has just sent a “gift of $10,000” to the university “so the funds should be there.”  He then tells Chassy he is working on a plan for Monsanto and others in the agribusiness industry to support an “academics review” website that Chassy can use to counter concerns and allegations raised by critics of GMOs.  “From my perspective the problem is one of expert engagement and that could be solved by paying experts to provide responses,” Sachs wrote. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
  • In a separate 2010 exchange, Jay Byrne, president of the v-Fluence public relations firm and former head of corporate communications for Monsanto, tells Chassy he is trying to move the Academics Review project forward. He suggests “we work on the money (for all of us).” Byrne says that he has a list of GMO critics for Academics Review to target. He tells Chassy that the topic areas “mean money for a range of well-heeled corporations.”
  • In one email exchange from September 2011, Chassy suggests how the biotech crop industry might “spin” a government study that found significant levels of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, in air and water samples.
  • In emails from 2012, Chassy and Monsanto’s Sachs and Monsanto’s John Swarthout, who leads the company’s “scientific outreach and issues management,” discuss an upcoming presentation Chassy is preparing to make in China. They discuss Monsanto’s review of, and changes to, the presentation.  Monsanto’s Sachs instructs Swarthout to send slide decks to Chassy as material for his presentation.
  • In April 2012, Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond asks in an email if short videos can be created about the “safety of GM crops.” Chassy says that he is applying for funding from the State Department and “also seeking other sources of support” and can use university equipment to make the videos. Chassy asks Monsanto’s Hammond for a list of videos that “you think would be helpful.” Chassy tells Hammond that Byrne’s group V-fluence has helped create and edit the video scenarios.

EMAILS ABOUT MONEY 

The emails also discuss money.

  • In an October 2010 email, Chassy tells colleagues at the university that Monsanto has told him it is going to make a “substantial contribution” to his biotech account at the university.
  • In an October 2011 exchange, Chassy asked Sachs about a contribution for the university foundation biotech fund. The Monsanto executive responded that he would “make a gift to the foundation right away” if it had not already been made. Chassy instructs Monsanto to mail the check to the head of the university’s department of food science and to enclose a letter saying the check is “an unrestricted grant… in support of the biotechnology outreach and education activities of Professor Bruce M. Chassy.”
  • Also in May 2012, Monsanto made a $250,000 grant to the university to help set up an agricultural communications endowed chair. That donation was just a drop in the bucket of the donations from Monsanto – at least $1.9 million in the last five years, according to the university, – for agriculture-related projects.

CONTINUED CLOSE TIES

The close ties between Monsanto and Chassy continued past Chassy’s retirement in June 2012 from the university. Through 2013 and 2014 Chassy frequently appeared as an “independent expert” on the GMO Answers website, a pro-GMO site funded by Monsanto and other agribusiness giants. In that role, he answered questions and concerns about GMOs.

Chassy also has continued to operate Academics Review, publishing critical articles about individuals and organizations, including the World Health Organization’s cancer experts, that report information unfavorable for the GMO crop industry.  (I was the subject of at least two such attacks in 2014. Chassy objected to my presentation of both sides of the GMO safety debate in one Reuters article and objected to a second Reuters article that detailed the findings of a USDA report that found both benefits but also concerns associated with GMOs.)

When asked about its interactions with Chassy, Monsanto has said that there is nothing improper with its “engagements” with “public sector experts,” and that such collaborations help educate the public on important topics.  The university also has said it sees nothing wrong with the relations. A university spokeswoman said Chassy has “strong scientific credibility.”  She also said that Monsanto has given the university at least $1.9 million in the last five years.

But others familiar with the issues say the lack of transparency is a problem.

“These revelations regarding the connections are very important,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “The basic disclosure that some academics and other ‘neutral’ commentators in the public sphere are actually paid operatives/working directly with the chemical industry rightly alarms the public, as they are being misled.”

Revelations similar to these involving University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta’s connections to Monsanto did spark a public backlash after emails showed Folta received an unrestricted $25,000 grant and told Monsanto he would “write whatever you like.”  Folta said in a Jan. 18 blog that he no longer works with Monsanto because of the heated backlash.

Both Chassy and Folta have repeatedly written or been quoted in news articles that failed to disclose their connections to Monsanto and the GMO industry. In a recent example, Chassy has co-authored a series of articles that argue GMO labeling is a “disaster in waiting,” again with no disclosure of his collaboration with GMO developer Monsanto. His co-author is Jon Entine, founder of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included Monsanto, a connection Entine does not include in the article.

The revelations in the emails about Chassy, Folta and other assorted academics, leave many questions about who to trust, and how to trust, information critical to understanding our evolving food system. With food labeling issues at the forefront of debate, it’s time for more transparency.

Carey Gillam has worked as a journalist, researcher and writer specializing in the food and agriculture industry for nearly 20 years and has been recognized as one of the top food and agriculture journalists in the United States, winning several awards for her coverage of the industry. She recently left a career as senior correspondent for the Reuters international news service to become  Research Director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit public interest group that works to inform the public about the U.S.  food industry and its often-hidden role in public policy. 

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.

USDA Shirking Obligation to Give Consumers Clarity Over Herbicide Residues on Food

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When microbiologist Bruce Hemming was hired two years ago to test breast milk samples for residues of the key ingredient in the popular weed-killer Roundup, Hemming at first scoffed at the possibility. Hemming, the founder of St. Louis-based Microbe Inotech Laboratories, knew that the herbicidal ingredient called glyphosate was not supposed to accumulate in the human body. Hemming, who previously worked as a scientist for Roundup maker Monsanto Co., now operates a commercial testing facility located just a few miles from Monsanto’s headquarters.

But Hemming said his lab’s testing did find residues of glyphosate in the samples of breast milk he received from a small group of mothers who were worried that traces of the world’s most popular herbicide might be invading their bodies. Food companies, consumer groups, academics and others have also solicited testing for glyphosate residues, fueled by fears that prevalent use of the pesticide on genetically engineered food crops may be contributing to health problems as people eat foods containing glyphosate residues.

Those fears have been growing, stoked by some scientific studies that have shown health concerns tied to glyphosate, as well as data from the U.S. Department of Interior finding glyphosate in water and air samples. The concern surged last year after the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit said it had found enough scientific evidence to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Consumers groups have been calling on the U.S. government to test foods for glyphosate residues on behalf of the public, to try to determine what levels may be found and if those levels are dangerous. But so far those requests have fallen on deaf ears.

It would seem that would be an easy request to meet. After all, since 1991, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has conducted a “Pesticide Data Program” (PDP) that annually collects pesticide residue data for hundreds of pesticides. The testing looks for residues on a range of food products, including infant formula and other baby foods, and also looks for residues in drinking water. The purpose of the program is to “assure consumers that the food they feed their families is safe,” according to the USDA.

But while the USDA looks for residues of other herbicides, as well as fungicides and insecticides, the agency routinely does not test for glyphosate. It did one “special project” in  2011, testing 300 soybean samples for glyphosate, and found that 271 of the samples had residues. (The agency said all fell within the range deemed safe by the EPA.)  The agency has said testing for glyphosate is “not a high priority.”

In the latest annual PDP report — issued Jan. 11 — once again, glyphosate data is absent. Testing was done to look for residues of more than 400 different herbicides, insecticides and other pesticides on food products. But no tests reported for glyphosate.

The USDA says it is too expensive to test for glyphosate residues; much costlier than tests for the other 400+ pesticides that are part of the analysis, the agency says. The agency also echoes the position held by Monsanto that glyphosate is safe enough that trace amounts in food are nothing to worry about. (This begs the question: But how do we know there are only trace amounts, without the testing?) And all that World Health Organization talk of cancer connections to glyphosate? Monsanto hired its own experts who concluded that finding was wrong.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which sets the tolerance levels allowed for glyphosate and other pesticides has said glyphosate is safe at certain defined tolerance levels, and has actually raised those tolerance levels in recent years. At the same time, the EPA has been conducting a multi-year re-evaluation of glyphosate, its usage and impacts. The agency was due to release a risk assessment last year. In fact, EPA’s chief pesticide regulator Jim Jones said in May that assessment was nearly completed then and should be released by July 2015. But this week an EPA spokeswoman said the report would likely be made public “sometime later this year.”

The government pegged glyphosate use in the United States at nearly 300 million pounds for 2013, the most recent year the estimate is available. That was up from less than 20 million pounds in 1992. The rise in usage parallels the rise of crops genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant, meaning farmers can spray the herbicide directly on their fields and kill weeds but not their crops. Many key food crops are sprayed directly with glyphosate, including corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and even in some cases, wheat, though wheat has not been genetically engineered as glyphosate-tolerant.

“It is a scandal that USDA tests for hundreds of pesticide residues but not glyphosate, which is among the most widely used chemicals on our food crops,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer group. “Consumers want to know how much glyphosate is in our food.  Why won’t the USDA tell us? “

In a statement that accompanied the annual pesticide residue report, the EPA’s Jones lauded the data as an “important part of… our work to evaluate pesticide exposure from residues in food,” and said that “EPA is committed to a rigorous, science-based, and transparent regulatory program for pesticides that continues to protect people’s health and the environment.”

But given the health concerns raised by the World Health Organization and the rising use of this pesticide, consumers deserve better. It seems reasonable for the USDA to respect consumer concerns and make glyphosate residue testing a priority.

Carey Gillam is Research Director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and promotes transparency regarding the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. She has worked as a journalist, researcher and writer specializing in the food and agriculture for more than 20 years.

How the media fell for a GMO front group attack on Dr. Oz

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The 55-point headline in Slate blares, “Letter from Prominent Doctors Implies Columbia Should Fire Dr. Oz for Being a Quack.” The story by Ben Mathis-Lilly is based on a letter by a group of doctors who want Columbia University to relieve Dr. Oz of his position as vice chair of the department of surgery at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops,” states the letter, which was sent soon after Dr. Oz aired a show about glyphosate, the herbicide associated with most genetically engineered crops that was recently designated as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

The complaint to Columbia was signed by Dr. Henry I. Miller and nine colleagues, “all of whom are distinguished physicians,” the letter claims.

So who are these prominent distinguished physicians?

Mathis-Lilly didn’t ask that question, nor did reporters who covered the letter for the Associated Press, Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, Vox or New York Daily News.

If they had, they would have learned that not all the physicians on the letter are so distinguished. One was stripped of his medical license in New York and sent to federal prison camp for Medicaid fraud. Yet Dr. Gilbert Ross plays up his M.D. credentials in his role as acting president of the American Council for Science and Health (ACSH). Ross was joined on the Columbia letter by ACSH board member Dr. Jack Fisher.

So what is ACSH? Though some reporters treat it as an independent science source, the group has been heavily funded by oil, chemical and tobacco companies, and has a long history of making inaccurate statements about science that directly benefit those industries – for example claiming that secondhand smoke isn’t linked to heart attacks, fracking doesn’t pollute water, and there is no scientific consensus on global warming.

Two other signatories of the letter – Miller and Dr. Scott Atlas – hail from the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank based at Stanford University that has a special affinity for featuring the work of climate change deniers.

“In other words, it’s an institution whose commitment to science is highly questionable to nonexistent in one area, and it’s attacking Oz for pseudoscience?” pointed out Dr. David Gorski in his blog about the Columbia letter.

Though an Oz critic himself, Gorski dismissed the Columbia letter as unlikely to yield anything but a brief media blip, and noted that Miller did “a half-assed job” getting credible signers. (Gorski describes ACSH as “a group that is pro-science when that science aligns with industry interests, particularly the pesticide industry.”)

The obvious irony of Miller’s Hoover Institute association may be why he tends to downplay it in the press; for example, AP reported the Columbia letter was “led by Dr. Henry Miller of Stanford University.” But Miller has landed in hot water before for tying himself too closely to Stanford.

In 2012, a TV ad imploring Californians to vote against GMO labeling was yanked off the air because it identified Miller as an M.D. at Stanford and had him perched in front of the ornately vaulted campus walkway. Stanford demanded it be changed to reflect Miller’s true status at Hoover.

Along with his “colleagues” at ACSH, Miller has a long history of defending the indefensible for polluting and dangerous industries. Nicotine is “not particularly bad for you in the amounts delivered by cigarettes,” he wrote in 2012. He has repeatedly argued to bring back the banned pesticide DDT. After the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, Miller wrote that people exposed to low levels of radiation “could have actually benefitted from it.”

Now, he’s fronting for the GMO industry. Miller has become one of the most prolific and best-known promoters of genetically engineered food and crops, with frequent articles in Forbes, Wall Street Journal and other outlets – most recently Slate, where he attacked Oz for his coverage of GMOs. Among other industry talking points in the piece, Miller claims that glyphosate “has lower overall health impacts than white vinegar,” and fails to mention its recent listing by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen.

These facts are relevant in stories about scientific integrity. The scientific accuracy and motivations of the accusers matter when they are publicly challenging the scientific accuracy and motivations of somebody they are trying to get fired.

We urge reporters and editors to take a closer look at the sources selling them story ideas, and to act as better watchdogs for the public interest.

Also see:
Mother Jones – Paging Dr. Ross: A doctor who defends corporations from “inconvenient” science has a secret of his own

Mother Jones – Leaked Documents Reveal the Secret Finances of Pro-Industry Science Group: The American Council on Science and Health defends fracking, BPA, and pesticides. Guess who their funders are

USRTK fact sheet – Why You Can’t Trust Henry Miller

USRTK fact sheet – Why You Can’t Trust the American Council on Science and Health