Alison Van Eenennaam: key outside spokesperson and lobbyist for the agrichemical and GMO industries

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Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a cooperative extension specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California, Davis, is a leading promoter of genetically engineered animals, crops and the pesticides that accompany them, and an advocate for deregulation.

Dr. Van Eenennaam argues GE animals should not be subject to pre-market safety reviews or labels.

Dr. Van Eenennaam is a former Monsanto employee who opposes requiring safety studies for genetically engineered animals and holds several patents involving genetic engineering. Her lab experiments include using CRISPR, a genetic engineering technique, to eliminate the horns of dairy cows and breed “all-male terminator cattle” to father only male offspring — a project she calls “Boys Only.” A proposal by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require safety and efficacy studies for genetically engineered animals is “insane,” according to Dr. Van Eenennaam.

See also: Wall Street Journal (12.14.2018),            Big Tongues and Extra Vertebrae: The Unintended Consequences of Animal Gene Editing 

Although often presented in the media as an independent scientist, Dr. Van Eenennaam coordinates with agrichemical companies and their PR firms on messaging, lobbying and PR activities, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library. Examples of collaborations include:

Monsanto edited her remarks for the Intelligence Squared debate 

Emails show that Lee Quarles, Monsanto’s global communication lead, and Tony Zagora, senior vice president and partner of the FleishmanHillard PR firm, edited Dr. Van Eenennaam’s remarks for a December 2014 Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate where she argued for public acceptance of genetically engineered foods alongside Robb Fraley of Monsanto.

Quarles also connected Dr. Van Eenennaam with higher ups at Monsanto and FleishmanHillard to discuss the core positions she and Fraley should align on, and he arranged for Zagora and the PR agency to provide her with guidance on “approach, tone, delivery and personal presentation. This will help you better understand what are the key things our team should consider as we work to win over the people in the room, as well as all of those consumers in the NPR rebroadcast of the event.”

Some of Monsanto’s edits to Professor Van Eenennaam’s remarks are shown in track changes:

 

Source documents linked here

Former Monsanto Communications Director Jay Byrne and industry PR firm Ketchum provided coaching for media interviews 

In 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam assisted the industry-funded No on Proposition 37 campaign in California to oppose GMO labeling. Emails show that the “No on 37” campaign staff arranged for Dr. Van Eenennaam to appear on the Dr. Oz Show to speak against labeling, and also arranged for her to receive media and messaging training from Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former head of corporate communications. (Emails also revealed that Jay Byrne worked with Monsanto to set up a front group to attack GMO critics and the organic industry while “keeping Monsanto in the background“.)

In 2014, the agrichemical industry’s lead public relations firm, Ketchum, pitched Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source and helped her prepare for a radio interview to debunk a study that linked genetically engineered animal feed to stomach inflammation. Ketchum provided Dr. Van Eenennaam with talking points from industry allies describing the stomach study as “junk science.”

Appeared at Hill briefing organized by climate science skeptic group 

In September 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam appeared at a Competitive Enterprise Institute congressional briefing to argue for the deregulation of genetically engineered animals. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is an industry-funded group that promotes climate science skepticism and opposes regulations for the chemical industry. In 2013, donors to the Competitive Enterprises Institute annual fundraiser included Monsanto, Syngenta, FMC Corporation, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Google, as well as oil and tobacco companies and foundations related to Koch Industries. In 2016, CEI’s Director of Energy and Environment Myron Ebell, a prominent climate science skeptic who has said the case for global warming is “silly,” was chosen by the Trump Administration’s to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Coordinated lobbying efforts; defends pesticides 

Dr. Van Eenennaam has coordinated lobbying to deregulate genetically engineered crops and animals, and keep them unlabeled. In 2012, she wrote a letter to the Obama Administration on behalf of the American Society of Animal Science public policy committee arguing for approval of the Aqua Bounty genetically engineered salmon without rigorous safety testing or labeling. In 2015, she recruited professors to support deregulating the Simplot Innate 2.0 genetically engineered potato. “Simplot is looking for some comments on their deregulation … the antis are trying to get the comment period extended as usual,” she wrote to the professors.

Dr. Van Eenennaam also defends glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide and a probable human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency. For a post on her website, she used pesticide industry sources and infographics to speculate about the market consequences of banning glyphosate, and characterized people raising concerns as the “worried wealthy.” The Monsanto (now Bayer) website promotes Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source to discredit a study that linked glyphosate to liver disease at low doses.

Some of Alison Van Eenennaam’s other industry collaborations 

  • Is a member of “AgBioChatter,” a private email listserve that pro-industry academics, senior staff of agrichemical companies and public relations consultants have used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities.

Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists

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By Stacy Malkan (updated May 17, 2019)

DeWayne Johnson, a 46-year-old father dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was the first person to face Monsanto in trial last June over allegations the company hid evidence about the cancer-causing dangers of its Roundup weedkiller. Juries have since returned with three unanimous verdicts finding that glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides were a substantial cause of cancer, and leveling massive punitive damages against Bayer (which now owns Monsanto).  Thousands more people are suing in state and federal courts, and corporate documents coming out of the trials are shining light on the heavy-handed tactics Monsanto used to deny cancer risk and protect the chemical that was the lynchpin of its profits.

“Monsanto was its own ghostwriter for some safety reviews,” Bloomberg reported, and an EPA official reportedly helped Monsanto “kill” another agency’s cancer study (that study, now out, did confirm a cancer link to glyphosate). An award-winning  investigation in Le Monde details how Monsanto has tried “to destroy the United Nations cancer agency by any means possible” to save glyphosate. Journal articles based on reviews of the Roundup trial discovery documents report on corporate interference in a scientific publication and a federal regulatory agency, and other examples of “poisoning the scientific well.”

“Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science and society,” wrote Tufts University Professor Sheldon Krimsky in June 2018. The discovery documents, he said, “uncover the corporate capture of science, which puts public health and the very foundation of democracy at risk.”

Since then, with the trials underway, more documents have come to light about the extent of Monsanto’s manipulations of the scientific process, regulatory agencies, and public debate. In May 2019, journalists in France obtained a secret “Monsanto File” created by the public relations firm FleishmanHillard listing a “multitude of information” about 200 journalists, politicians, scientists and others deemed likely to influence the debate on glyphosate in France. Prosecutors in France have opened a criminal probe and Bayer said it is investigating its PR firm.

This corporate war on science has major implications for all of us, considering that half of all men in the U.S. and a third of women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The documents the food industry doesn’t want you to see

For years, the food and chemical industries have set their sights on one particular target in the science world: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the independent research group that for 50 years has worked to identify cancer hazards to inform policies that can prevent cancer.

“I’ve been fighting IARC forever!!! :)” one former Kraft Foods scientist wrote to a former Syngenta scientist in an email obtained through a state open records request. “Foods and ag are under siege since Glyphosate in March 2015. We all need to gather somehow and expose IARC, as you guys did in the paper. Next priorities are all food ingredients: aspartame, sucralose, dietary iron, B-carotene, BPA, etc. IARC is killing us!”

The IARC expert panel decision to classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” created a rallying point for the panel’s foes to gather forces. A key Monsanto document released via litigation reveals the plan of attack: discredit the cancer scientists with the help of allies across the food industry.

Monsanto’s public relations plan assigned 20 corporate staffers to prepare for the IARC carcinogenicity report on glyphosate, with objectives including “neutralize impact,” “establish public perspective on IARC,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “engage industry associations” in “outrage.”

The document identified four tiers of “industry partners” to help advance the three objectives named in the PR plan: protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies” to keep allowing the use of glyphosate.

Uncovering Monsanto’s network of “industry partners”

The industry partner groups Monsanto tapped to discredit the IARC scientists included the largest pesticide and food industry lobby organizations; industry-funded spin groups that portray themselves as independent sources such as GMO Answers and the International Food Information Council; and “science-y” sounding front groups like Sense about Science, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review – all using similar messaging and often referring back to each other as sources.

Documents obtained by the U.S. Right to Know investigation illuminate on how these partner groups work together to promote the “MON POV” about the safety and necessity of pesticides and GMOs.

One set of documents revealed how Monsanto’s PR operatives organized “Academics Review” as a neutral-sounding platform from which they could launch attacks against a target list of foes, including the Sierra Club, author Michael Pollan, the movie Food, Inc. and the organic industry.

The architects of Academics Review – co-founders Bruce Chassy and David Tribe, Monsanto executive Eric Sachs, former Monsanto communications director Jay Byrne, and former VP of the biotech industry trade group Val Giddingstalked openly in the emails about setting up Academics Review as a front group to promote industry interests and attract industry cash, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden.

Email from Eric Sachs, Monsanto’sScience, Technology & Outreach Lead, to Bruce Chassy

Even now with their playbook exposed – and their primary funding identified as coming from a trade group funded by Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and DowDuPont – Academics Review still claims on its website to accept donations only from “non-corporate sources.” Academics Review also claims that the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts,” in a post sourced by the industry-funded PR website GMO Answers, the industry-funded front group American Council on Science and Health, and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Miller and the Academics Review organizers Chassy, Tribe, Byrne, Sachs and Giddings are members of AgBioChatter, a private email forum that appeared in Monsanto’s PR plan as a tier 2 industry partner. Emails from the AgBioChatter list suggest it was used to coordinate industry allies on lobbying and promotional activities to defend GMOs and pesticides. Members included senior agrichemical industry staff, PR consultants and pro-industry academics, many of whom write for industry media platforms such as GMO Answers and Genetic Literacy Project, or play leadership roles in other Monsanto partner groups.

Genetic Literacy Project, led by longtime chemical industry PR operative Jon Entine, also partnered with Academics Review to run a series of conferences funded by the agrichemical industry to train journalists and scientists how to better promote GMOs and pesticides and argue for their deregulation. The organizers were dishonest about the sources of their funding.

These groups cast themselves as honest arbiters of science even as they spread false information and level near hysterical attacks against scientists who raised concerns about the cancer risk of glyphosate.

A key example can be found on the Genetic Literacy Project website, which was listed as a “tier 2 industry partner” in Monsanto’s PR plan to protect Roundup against cancer concerns raised by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. A search for “IARC” on the Genetic Literacy Project website brings up more than 200 articles, many of them attacking the scientists who raised cancer concerns as “anti-chemical enviros” who “lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate, and arguing that the global cancer agency should be defunded and abolished.

Many of the anti-IARC articles posted on Genetic Literacy Project, or pushed by other industry surrogates, ignore the many news reports based on the Monsanto Papers documenting corporate interference in the scientific research, and instead promote the claims of chemical industry PR operatives or the false narratives of a journalist with cozy ties to Monsanto. The political battle against reached all the way to Capitol Hill, with Congressional Republicans led by Rep. Lamar Smith calling for investigations and trying to withhold U.S. funding from the world’s leading cancer research agency.

Who is on the side of science?

Monsanto’s lobbying and messaging to discredit the IARC cancer panel is based on the argument that other agencies using risk-based assessments have exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk. But as investigative reports and journal articles based on the Monsanto Papers have detailed, evidence is piling up that the regulatory risk assessments on glyphosate, which rely heavily on industry-provided research, have been compromised by undisclosed conflicts of interest, reliance on dubious science, ghostwritten materials and other methods of corporate strong-arming that puts public health at risk, as the Tufts Professor Sheldon Krimsky wrote.

“To protect the scientific enterprise, one of the core pillars of a modern democratic society, against the forces that would turn it into the handmaiden of industry or politics, our society must support firewalls between academic science and the corporate sectors and educate young scientists and journal editors on the moral principles behind their respective professional roles,” Krimsky wrote.

Policy makers must not allow corporate-spun science to guide decisions about cancer prevention. Media must do a better job reporting and probing into conflicts of interest behind the corporate science spin. It’s time to end the corporate war on cancer science.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know and author of the book “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

How Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post

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Tamar Haspel is a freelance journalist who has been writing monthly food columns for the Washington Post since October 2013. Haspel’s columns frequently promote and defend agrichemical industry products, while she also receives payments to speak at industry-aligned events, and sometimes from industry groups – a practice known as “buckraking” that raises questions about objectivity.

A review of Haspel’s Washington Post columns turns up further concerns: in multiple instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry connections of her sources, relied on industry-slanted studies, cherry-picked facts to back up industry positions or cited industry propaganda uncritically. See source review and other examples described below. Haspel has not yet responded to inquiries for this article.

Buckraking on the food beat: a conflict of interest?

In a 2015 online chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” She discloses her speaking engagements on her personal website, but does not disclose which companies or trade groups fund her or what amounts they give.

When asked how much money she has taken from the agrichemical industry and its front groups, Haspel tweeted, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!”

According to the Washington Post Standards and Ethics, reporters cannot accept gifts, free trips, preferential treatment or free admissions from news sources, and “should make every effort to remain in the audience, to stay off the stage, to report the news, not to make the news.” These rules do not apply to freelancers however, and the paper leaves it up to editors to decide.

Haspel describes her criteria for accepting paid speaking engagements on her personal website: that the events are constructive debates about food issues involving more voices than for-profit companies. Not all events on her roster appear to fit that criteria (see the “biotech literacy” industry-funded message training events described below). Haspel’s editor Joe Yonan has said he is comfortable with Haspel’s approach to paid speaking engagements and finds it a “reasonable balance.” 

More comments from Haspel and Yonan are reported here, “Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a Conflict of Interest?” by Stacy Malkan (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 2015). See also, “A short report on three journalists mentioned in our FOIA requests,” by Gary Ruskin (U.S. Right to Know, 2015). For perspectives from journalists and editors on buckraking, see Ken Silverstein’s reporting (Harper’s, 2008).

Taking up the GMO beat

Haspel began writing about genetically engineered foods in March 2013 in the Huffington Post (“Go Frankenfish! Why We Need GM Salmon”). Her writings about other food-related topics began appearing in the Washington Post and HuffPo in 2011 and elsewhere since the mid 1990s. Haspel’s final series of articles for Huffington Post continued on the topic of agrichemical industry products, with blogs debunking studies about possible risks of glyphosate and GMO animal feed, an argument against GMO labeling campaigns and a puff piece about the agrichemical industry’s marketing website, GMO Answers.

GMOAnswers.org was part of a multi-million-dollar public relations initiative the agrichemical industry announced in the spring of 2013 to combat consumer concerns about genetically engineered foods in the wake of campaigns to label GMOs.

HuffPo July 2013: An example of how Haspel has promoted industry sources uncritically. More examples below. 

WaPo Unearthed column: digging for industry perspectives

Haspel launched her monthly “Unearthed” food column in the Washington Post in October 2013  (“Genetically modified foods: What is and isn’t true”) with a promise to “dig deep to try and figure out what’s true and what isn’t in the debate about our food supply.” She advised readers to figure out “whom you can trust” in the GMO debate and identified several groups that did not pass her impartiality test (the Union of Concerned Scientists among them).

Haspel’s November 2013 column (“GMO common ground: Where supporters and opponents agree”) provided a broad range of perspectives from public interest as well as industry sources; however, in subsequent columns, Haspel seldom quotes public interest groups and devotes far less space to public health experts and data sources than she does to industry-connected sources or experts in risk analysis or “risk perception” who tend to downplay public health and safety concerns, and echo industry views. In several instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry ties to sources.

Industry-sourced ‘food movement’ column

An example that illustrates some of these problems is Haspel’s January 2016 column (“The surprising truth about the food movement”), in which she argues that people who care about genetic engineering or other aspects of food production – the “food movement” – are a marginal part of the population. She included no interviews with consumer, health, environmental or justice groups that consider themselves part of the food movement.

Haspel sourced the column with two industry-funded spin groups, the International Food Information Council and Ketchum, the public relations firm that runs GMO Answers. While she described Ketchum as a PR firm that “works extensively with the food industry,” Haspel did not disclose that Ketchum was hired by the agrichemical industry to change consumer views of GMO foods (nor did she mention Ketchum’s scandalous history of flacking for Russia and conducting espionage against environmental groups).

A third source for her column was a two-year old phone survey conducted by William Hallman, a public perception analyst from Rutgers who reported that most people don’t care about GMO labeling. (A year earlier, Hallman and Haspel discussed consumer perspectives about GMOs on a government-sponsored panel they shared with Eric Sachs of Monsanto.)

Collaborations with industry spin groups

Tamar Haspel’s affinity for and collaborations with key players in the agrichemical industry’s public relations efforts raise further concerns about her objectivity.

A promotional quote from Haspel appears on the homepage of STATS/Sense About Science, describing STATS as “invaluable” to her reporting. Other journalists have described STATS as a product-defense “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk and plays a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation.” A 2016 story in The Intercept described the tobacco ties of STATS and Sense About Science (which merged in 2014 under the direction of Trevor Butterworth) and the role they play in pushing industry views about science.

A 2015 public relations strategy document named Sense About Science among the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage in its campaign to “orchestrate outcry” against the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency to discredit a report about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.

Agrichemical industry spin events

In June 2014, Haspel was a “faculty” member (alongside several industry representatives) at a messaging training event called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp that was funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two industry front groups that Monsanto also identified as “industry partners” in its 2015 PR plan.

Genetic Literacy Project is a former program of STATS, and Academics Review was set up with the help of Monsanto to discredit industry critics while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden, according to emails obtained through public records requests.

The boot camp Haspel attended was aimed at “reframing the food safety and GMO debate,” according to the agenda. Paul Thacker reported about the event in The Progressive, “Industry has also secretly funded a series of conferences to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate …  In emails, organizers referred to these conferences as biotech literacy bootcamps, and journalists are described as ‘partners.'”

Academics familiar with corporate spin tactics reviewed the boot camp documents at Thacker’s request. “These are distressing materials,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University. “It is clearly intended to persuade people that GMO crops are beneficial, needed, and not sufficiently risky to justify labeling.” Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said, “If journalists attend conferences that they are paid to attend, they need to be deeply suspicious from the get-go.”

Cami Ryan, a boot camp staffer who later went on to work for Monsanto, noted in the conference evaluation that participants wanted, “More Haspel-ish, Ropeik-ish sessions.” David Ropeik is a risk perception consultant whose clients include Bayer and other chemical companies, and whom Haspel used as a source in a column she wrote about glyphosate.

2015 biotech literacy day with Kevin Folta 

In May 2015, Haspel presented at a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” at the University of Florida organized by Kevin Folta, a professor tied in with agrichemical industry public relations and lobbying efforts. Folta had included Haspel in a proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem” resulting from activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” Page 4 of the proposal described an event to feature UF professors “and several others brought in from the outside including industry representatives, journalist experts in science communication (e.g. Tamar Haskel [sic], Amy Harmon), and experts in public risk perception and psychology (e.g. Dan Kahan).”

Monsanto funded Folta’s proposal, calling it “a great 3rd-party approach to developing the kind of advocacy we’re looking to develop.” (The money was donated to a food pantry in August 2015 after the funding became public.)

In April 2015, Folta wrote to Haspel with details about the messaging training event, “We’ll cover the costs and an honorarium, whatever that takes. The audience will be scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”

Haspel responded, “I am definitely in,” and she relayed an anecdote from another recent “science communication” panel that had changed somebody’s view about Monsanto. “It is possible to make headway, but I’m convinced it’s by person-to-person interactions,” Haspel wrote to Folta.

The archived agenda for the Florida communication day listed the speakers as Haspel, Folta, three other UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe and representatives from Biofortified and Center for Food Integrity (two more groups Monsanto referred to as industry partners in its PR strategy to defend glyphosate). In another email to Folta, Haspel enthused about meeting Crowe, “Very much looking forward to this. (I’ve wanted to meet Vance Crowe – very glad he’ll be there.)”

Ethics and disclosure

In September 2015, The New York Times featured Folta in a front-page story by Eric Lipton about how industry groups relied on academics to fight the GMO labeling war. Lipton reported on Folta’s fundraising appeal to Monsanto, and that Folta had been publicly claiming he had no associations with Monsanto.

Haspel wrote to Folta a few months later, “I am very sorry for what you’ve gone through, and it’s distressing when mean-spirited, partisan attacks overshadow the real issues — both on the science and on the transparency, both of which are so important.” Haspel mentioned she was working with the National Press Foundation to develop better conflict of interest standards for freelance journalists.

Haspel was a 2015 fellow for the National Press Foundation (a group partly funded by corporations, including Bayer and DuPont). In an article she wrote for NPF about ethics for freelancers, Haspel discussed the importance of disclosure and described her criteria for speaking at events only if non-industry funders and diverse views are involved — criteria not met by either of the biotech literacy events. The disclosure page on her website does not accurately disclose the conveners and funders of the 2014 biotech literacy boot camp. Haspel has not responded to questions about the biotech literacy events.

Source review: misleading reporting about pesticides

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

  • “Is organic better for your health? A look at milk, meat, eggs, produce and fish” (April 7, 2014)
  • “It’s the chemical Monsanto depends on. How dangerous is it?” (October 2015)
  • “The truth about organic produce and pesticides” (May 21, 2018)

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

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

In her 2018 report on the “truth about organic produce and pesticides,” Haspel gave readers “an idea of the magnitude of risk” from cumulative pesticide exposures by citing a study that equated the risk of consuming pesticides from food to drinking wine. Haspel did not disclose that four of five authors of that study were employed by Bayer Crop Sciences, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers. She also did not disclose that the study originally contained a glaring error that was later corrected (even though she linked to both the original and corrected study). The study originally reported the risk as equal to drinking one glass of wine every seven years; it was later corrected to one glass of wine every three months; That error and several others were pointed out in letter to the journal by several scientists who described the wine study as “overly simplistic and seriously misleading.”

To dismiss concerns about the synergistic effects of exposure to multiple pesticides, Haspel cited another study from the only non-Bayer affiliated author of the flawed wine-comparison study, and “a 2008 report” that “made the same assessment.” Authors of that 2008 report included Alan Boobis and Angelo Moretto, two academics who were caught in a conflict of interest scandal in 2016 because they chaired a UN panel that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk at the same time as they held leadership positions in the International Life Sciences Institute, a nonprofit group that received substantial donations from the pesticide industry.

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

In her 2014 column about whether pesticide residues in food pose a health risk, Haspel introduced doubt about the health risks of organophosphates, a class of pesticides linked to neurological damage in children, with a review that found “the epidemiological studies did not strongly implicate any particular pesticide as being causally related to adverse neurological developmental outcomes in infants and children.” The lead author was Carol Burns, a scientist at Dow Chemical Company, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of organophosphates.

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

Misled with out-of-context reporting

In her 2014 column, Haspel used a 2012 paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics out of context to reinforce her argument that eating organic might not offer health benefits, but she did not inform readers of the full scope of the study or its conclusions. The AAP paper chronicled a wide range of scientific evidence suggesting harm to children from both acute and chronic exposures to various pesticides, and concluded, “Children’s exposures to pesticides should be limited as much as possible.” The report cited evidence of a “drastic immediate decrease in urinary excretion of pesticide metabolites” in children eating an organic diet. AAP also issued policy recommendations to reduce children’s exposure to pesticides.

Haspel left out all that context and reported only that the AAP report, “noted the correlation between organophosphate exposure and neurological issues that had been found in some studies but concluded that it was still ‘unclear’ that reducing exposure by eating organic would be ‘clinically relevant.'”

In her 2018 column, Haspel misleadingly reported that the pesticide chlorpyrifos “has been the subject a battle between environmental groups, which want it banned, and the EPA, which doesn’t” — but she did not inform readers of a key point: that the EPA had recommended banning chlorpyrifos due to mounting evidence that prenatal exposure could have lasting effects on children’s brains. The agency reversed course only after the Trump EPA interfered. Haspel sourced her misleading “environmental groups vs EPA” sentence with a link to a New York Times documents page that provided little context about the EPA decision, rather than linking to the NYT story that explained the political context of corporate influence.

Relied on sources who agree with each other 

In her 2018 column, Haspel set up her argument that pesticide exposures in food are not much of a concern with a dubious reporting tactic she has used on other occasions: citing agreement among many sources she knows. In this case, Haspel reported that pesticide levels in food “are very low” and “you shouldn’t be concerned about them,” according to “the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (along with many toxicologists I’ve spoken with over the years).” Although she reported that, “Not everyone has faith in those assessments,” Haspel cited no disagreeing sources and ignored entirely the American Academy of Pediatrics report that recommended reducing children’s exposures to pesticides, which she cited out of context in her 2014 column. In her 2015 column about glyphosate she again quoted like-minded sources, reporting that “every” scientist she spoke with “noted that until recent questions arose, glyphosate had been noted for its safety.”

Missed relevant data 

Relevant data Haspel missed in her reporting about the risks or pesticides and the benefits of organic included statements by prominent health groups and recent science:

  • January 2018 study by Harvard researchers published in in JAMA Internal Medicine reporting that women who regularly consumed pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF, while women who ate organic food had better outcomes;
  • January 2018 commentary in JAMA by pediatrician Phillip Landrigan urging physicians to encourage their patients to eat organic;
  • February 2017 report prepared for the European Parliament outlining the health benefits of eating organic food and practicing organic agriculture;
  • 2016 European Parliament Science and Technology Option Assessment recommended reducing dietary intake of pesticides, especially for women and children;
  • 2012 President’s Cancer Panel report recommends reducing children’s exposure to cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures;
  • 2012 paper and policy recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending reducing children’s exposure to pesticides as much as possible;
  • 2009 statement by the American Public Health Association, “Opposition to the use of hormone growth promoters in beef and dairy cattle production”;
  • 2002 review by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Review reporting that growth-promoting hormones in beef production pose a health risk to consumers.

More perspectives on Haspel’s reporting

The misleading and deceitful ways of Dr. Kevin Folta

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Kevin Folta, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Horticulture Sciences Department at University of Florida, has provided inaccurate information and engaged in misleading activities in his efforts to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. His recent lawsuit against The New York Times is the latest in a long line of examples of Dr. Folta’s misleading and deceptive communications.

Sued NYT for reporting his ties to Monsanto; lawsuit dismissed 

On Sept. 1, 2017, Dr. Folta filed a lawsuit against The New York Times and Eric Lipton, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, claiming they defamed him with a 2015 front-page article that described how Monsanto enlisted academics to oppose the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit was dismissed on February 27, 2019. A federal judge granted the defendants’ motion for final summary judgement.

Lawsuit documents:
Amended complaint (10/5/2017)
NYT motion to dismiss (10/19/2017)
Federal judge denied Dr. Folta’s motions to compel discovery, calling some of the requests “downright silly” and “laughable” (5/11/2018)
NYT and Eric Lipton motion for final summary judgment (7/25/18)
Dr. Folta’s amended opposition to motion for summary judgment (8/16/18)
Order granting defendants’ motion for final summary judgement (2/27/19)
Dr. Folta moved to dismiss the lawsuit and it was dismissed (4/9/2019)

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit claimed the defendants “misrepresented him as a covertly paid operative of one of the largest and most controversial companies in America, Monsanto,” and that they did so in order to “to further their own ‘anti GMO’ agenda.” According to Dr. Folta’s lawsuit, Lipton “has almost singlehandedly silenced the scientific community from teaching scientists how to communicate.”

The lawsuit claimed that Dr. Folta “never received” an “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto and that he “never received any form of grant, and never received support for him to ‘travel around the country and defend genetically modified foods.’” However, documents show that Monsanto provided Dr. Folta with, in their words, “an unrestricted grant in the amount of $25,000 which may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects.”

Emails indicate that Monsanto donated the money in response to a 9-page proposal from Dr. Folta, in which he asked Monsanto for $25,000 to fund his “three tiered solution” to the “biotech communications problem.” Proposed activities included traveling each month to a major domestic university to promote GMOs. The money was donated to a food bank after the documents became public.

Example of Folta discussing/defending an industry product (Monsanto’s Roundup)

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit also claimed (point 67), “Dr. Folta does not discuss industry products of any sort, he teaches broadly about technology.” Yet he has vouched for the supposed safety of Monsanto’s RoundUp, going so far as to drink the product “to demonstrate harmlessness.” He has also said he “will do it again.”

In a Sept. 29, 2015 email, Janine Sikes, University of Florida Assistant Vice President of Public Affairs, wrote to a colleague about Lipton’s NYT story: “for the record I thought the story was fair.”

Quotes from NYT and Eric Lipton’s response to Folta’s lawsuit, from July 2018 motion for final summary judgement:

Mr. Lipton relied on Plaintiff’s own email communications, which were provided to him by UF in response to a public records request. While it may be that Plaintiff, a self-described “public” scientist, would rather not have his associations with industry giants like Monsanto examined, accurate reporting on the records documenting those associations cannot form the basis for a defamation lawsuit. (Page 1)

Among other things, (Folta’s) UF records documented: (1) Plaintiff’s actions in securing a $25,000 “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto—that Plaintiff told Monsanto would not have to be publicly disclosed—to fund talks about GMO science, including the discussion of industry products; (2) Plaintiff’s testifying before governmental bodies in favor of pro-GMO policies; (3) Plaintiff’s interactions with industry, including numerous email communications with industry representatives providing his thoughts about lobbying strategy and describing his efforts to communicate GMO science to the public; (4) his posts for GMOAnswers, an industry-sponsored website; and (5) travel expenses paid by industry, including expenses related to his trip to Monsanto headquarters. (Page 7)

Claimed no association with Monsanto while collaborating with Monsanto  

Dr. Folta stated numerous times that he had no connection to Monsanto. Yet emails reported by The New York Times established that he was in frequent contact with Monsanto and their public relations allies to collaborate on activities to promote genetically engineered foods.

The emails indicate that Monsanto and allies set up media opportunities and lobbying activities for Dr. Folta and worked with him on messaging. In August 2014, Monsanto informed Dr. Folta that he would receive $25,000 to further his promotional activities. The email exchanges suggest a close collaboration:

  • In July 2014, a Monsanto executive praised Dr. Folta’s grant proposal and asked four other Monsanto executives to provide feedback to improve it. He wrote, “This is a great 3rd-party approach to developing the advocacy that we’re looking to develop.”
  • In August 2014, Dr. Folta responded to the acceptance letter for his grant, “I’m grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment.”
  • In October 2014, Dr. Folta wrote to a Monsanto executive, “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.”

Just weeks after the grant details were worked out, in August 2014, Dr. Folta asserted that he had “no formal connection to Monsanto.” He has also claimed he received “no research or personal funding” from “Big Ag,” had “no financial ties to any of the Big Ag companies that make transgenic crops, including Monsanto,” and had “nothing to do with MON.”

Bayer Funding

9/18 Update: Dr. Folta contracted with the law firm Clifford Chance representing Bayer AG to serve an a consultant in an arbitration hearing at a rate of $600 per hour for up to 120 hours. Those documents were made public by Biofortified, Inc., a GMO promotion group that said it severed ties with Dr. Folta over his failure to fully disclose the potential conflict of interest.

11/17 Update: Dr. Folta received and disclosed receiving research funding from Bayer AG (which is in the process of acquiring Monsanto). According to a document obtained by US Right to Know via FOIA, Bayer sent an award letter to Dr. Folta on May 23, 2017 for a grant for 50,000 Euros (approximately $58,000), for his proposal on “New Herbicide Chemistries Discovered in Functional Randomness.”

Proposed hiding Monsanto money from public scrutiny

“My funding is all transparent,” Dr. Folta wrote in his blog, but his proposal to Monsanto to fund his GMO promotional activities concluded with a paragraph advising Monsanto how to donate the money to avoid public disclosure:

“If funded directly to the program as a SHARE contribution (essentially unrestricted funds) it is not subject to IDC and is not in a ‘conflict-of-interest’ account. In other words, SHARE contributions are not publicly noted. This eliminates the potential concern of the funding organization influencing the message.”

Monsanto sent the $25,000 donation as an unrestricted grant for Dr. Folta.

Allowed an industry PR firm to ghostwrite for him, then denied it

An August 2015 story in Inside Higher Ed described allegations that the agrichemical industry’s PR firm, Ketchum, had provided Dr. Folta with “canned answers to questions about GMOs” for the agrichemical industry’s public relations website, GMO Answers.

Dr. Folta denied using the ghostwritten text, according to the story:

“Regarding the canned answers, he said he was ‘pissed off’ when he received them and never used them.”

Dr. Folta later admitted using the ghostwritten text. The New York Times reported in September 2015:

“But Ketchum did more than provide questions (for GMO Answers). On several occasions, it also gave Dr. Folta draft answers, which he then used nearly verbatim, a step that he now says was a mistake.”

In an October 2015 BuzzFeed story, Dr. Folta justified his decision to use Ketchum’s ghostwritten text:

“They gave me extremely good answers that were spot on,” Folta told me. “I’m inundated with work. Maybe it was lazy, but I don’t know that it was lazy. When someone says, ‘We’ve thought about this and here’s what we have’ — there are people who work in academia who have speechwriters who take the words of other people and present them as their own. That’s OK.”

Posted false information about pesticide industry funding to University of Florida

In October 2014, Dr. Folta posted inaccurate information about his own university’s funding on GMO Answers. When asked, “How much have the biotech companies donated to the Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida?” Dr. Folta responded:

“There are zero ‘donations.’ At least during the last five years (all I checked), there are not even any grants or research agreements between the Horticultural Sciences Department at U.F. and any company selling biotech seeds …

During the last five years, at the whole university, there were a total of $21,000 in Monsanto grants to one faculty member in the panhandle who studies weeds. That’s it for the whole university. Our records are all public, so anyone could have found this information.”

In fact, biotech companies donated more than $12 million to the University of Florida in fiscal year 2013/2014 alone, according to University of Florida Foundation documents posted by NYT. Monsanto was listed as a “Gold” donor that year, meaning the company had donated at least $1 million. Syngenta was a “Diamond” donor with “Cumulative Giving of $10 Million+” while BASF donated at least $1 million and Pioneer Hi-Bred gave at least $100,000.

University of Florida has a ‘stance’ on GMOs that is ‘harmonious’ with Monsanto, and Dr. Folta is in charge of promoting it  

Leaders at the University of Florida believe it is the university’s role to educate the masses about GMOs and they share a “stance” with Monsanto, according to an email obtained by the US Right to Know investigation.

David Clark, professor of horticultural biotechnology & genetics and director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Plant Innovation Program (UF/IFAS), wrote to Monsanto executive Robb Fraley on July 21, 2014:

“I thought your talk was excellent and very timely for our community, and it is harmonious with the stance we are taking on GMOs at the University of Florida. Also, thank you for taking a few minutes to chat with me afterward about how we should be educating the 80% of the consumer population who know very little about the technology.

After returning to Gainesville, I communicated with Drs. Kevin Folta and Jack Payne about our discussion. Kevin is our lead spokesperson at UF on the GMO topic and he has taken on the charge of doing just what we discussed – educating the masses. Jack is our Senior VP for IFAS, and just last week he released a video showing just where UF/IFAS stands on the GMO issue: http://www.floridatrend.com/article/17361/jack-payne-of-uf-on-gmos-and-climate-change Both of them are extremely passionate about this issue, and together they are ramping up their efforts to spread the good word.”

In the video, Dr. Payne claims, “there is no science that agrees with these folks that are afraid of GMOs.” In fact, many scientists and studies have raised concerns about GMOs.

Partnered with dishonest front groups on industry-funded “Biotech Literacy” spin events at UF and UC Davis

A June 2014 conference to promote GMOs called the “Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp” was billed as a partnership between University of Florida, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two front groups that work with Monsanto to promote agrichemical industry products and attack industry critics. Those two groups told scientists and journalists — inaccurately — that the events were funded by a combination of government, academia and industry.

In 2015, journalist Brooke Borel reported in Popular Science:

“The conference in question was called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp. I was invited to attend and to speak on some panels, although it wasn’t initially clear what that would involve. I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).”

In a 2016 email to scientists, Bruce Chassy of Academics Review claimed industry was “indirectly a sponsor” of the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps:

“The 3-day bootcamp is relatively expensive since we pay everyone’s travel and lodging as well as honoraria. Participants received $250 and presenters as much as $2,500 (journalists aren’t inexpensive) … I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money, so industry is indirectly a sponsor. We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.”

However, those government and academic sources denied giving any funds to the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Thacker wrote, “the only traceable money source is the biotech industry.”

Both Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project have a history of misleading the public about their funding and activities to defend the agrichemical industry.

  • Academics Review has claimed many times to be an independent group, yet emails obtained by US Right to Know revealed that Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, while “keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
  • The “financial transparency” note on the Genetic Literacy Project website is inaccurate, changes often and has at times contradicted itself. GLP director Jon Entine has many close ties to Monsanto.

Dr. Folta also organized what he called a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” to promote GMOs at the University of Florida in 2015. Speakers included UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe, representatives of two agrichemical industry-aligned spin groups (the Center for Food Integrity and Biofortified), and Tamar Haspel, a food columnist for the Washington Post.

Dr. Folta described his plans in the proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem” resulting from activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” In emails he sent to Haspel, Dr. Folta said the audience of the “biotechnology literacy” event would be “scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”

Described the food movement as a “terrorist faction”

Dr. Folta wrote the forward for a 2015 book called “Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House.” The forward describes the food movement as a terrorist faction, which Folta names “Al Quesadilla”:

“Al Quesadilla is a moniker ascribed to a modern day elite and well financed terrorist faction sworn to use fear to force political change around food. Al Quesadilla has a central mission – to impose their beliefs about food and food production on the broader society. Their beliefs are religious in nature. They are deeply heartfelt and internalized. Their beliefs are grounded in a misinterpretation of nature, a mistrust of corporate culture and a skepticism of modern science …

Al Quesadilla is an agile and sneaky terrorist group. Like all terrorists, they achieve their objectives through the implementation of fear and coercion. They plan careful strikes on vulnerable targets – American consumers…”

The book, published by Senapath Press, was authored by Mark Alsip, a blogger for Bad Science Debunked, Marc Draco, a “veteran member” of the Banned by Food Babe Facebook page, and Kavin Senapathy, a Forbes contributor who had several of her articles deleted by Forbes.

The book promotes GMOs, claims MSG and aspartame are “harmless” and purports to describe “the facts behind those pesticide scares.”

Pesticide propaganda

Dr. Folta dismisses concerns about pesticide exposure with propaganda claims, not science. For example, he made and failed to correct his guest on many dubious statements about the safety of pesticides in this 2015 podcast interview with Yvette d’Entremont, the “SciBabe.” Folta claimed:

  • If someone is concerned about pesticide exposures, “ask them if they have symptoms of pesticide poisoning. Unless they have symptoms of pesticide poisoning, there’s probably nothing to worry about.”
  • “Your risk from any kind of, especially, pesticide exposure from consumption is probably somewhere between 10,000 and a million times lower than a car accident.”

Deceptive communication tactics

Another example of misleading communication associated with Dr. Folta is documented in a 2015 BuzzFeed story by Brooke Borel. The story recounts Borel’s discovery that Dr. Folta used a false identity to interview scientists and even himself on a podcast called the “The Vern Blazek Science Power Hour.”

For further reading:

New York Times, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton (9/6/2015)

Emails posted by The New York Times

The Progressive, “Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media,” by Paul Thacker (7/21/2017)

Huffington Post, “Keith Kloor’s Enduring Love Affair with GMOs,” by Paul Thacker (7/19/2017)

Global News, “Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby,” by Allison Vuchnich (12/22/2015)

Nature Biotechnology, “Standing up for Transparency,” by Stacy Malkan (1/2016)

Mother Jones, “These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO War,” by Tom Philpott (10/2/2015)

BuzzFeed, “Seed Money: Confessions of a GMO Defender,” by Brooke Borel (10/19/2015)

USRTK Short Report, “Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding from Monsanto”

Independent Science News, “The Puppetmasters of Academia (or What the NYT Left Out),” by Jonathan Latham (9/8/2015)

USRTK letter to Dr. Folta about our FOIA requests

AgBioChatter: Where Corporations, Academics Plotted Strategy on GMOs, Pesticides

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AgBioChatter is a private email listserver used by the agrichemical industry and its allies to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. List members include pro-industry academics, senior agrichemical industry staff and public relations operatives.

This internal Monsanto document identifies “Academics (AgBioChatter)” as a Tier 2 “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, IARC judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

Several AgBioChatter academics also play key roles in other “industry partner” groups named in Monsanto’s PR plan to discredit the IARC carcinogenicity report, including GMO Answers, Biofortified, Genetic Literacy Project, Academics Review and Sense About Science.

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

The AgBioChatter emails linked below – along with other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and now hosted at the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive – provide many examples of how academics and industry partner groups work together in covert ways to push industry-coordinated messaging across various platforms to manufacture doubt about the health and environmental risks of pesticides and GMOs.

Media outlets around the world have reported on these behind-the-scenes collaborations to promote industry views of science and oppose regulations.

U.S. Right to Know efforts for transparency

U.S. Right to Know obtained some AgBioChatter emails in 2016 and 2017 via a public records request. In July 2017, U.S. Right to Know sued the University of Florida for its failure to release requested public records involving the agrichemical industry and publicly funded professors, including documents from the AgBioChatter forum.

In March 2018, a Florida judge dismissed the case, stating that the AgBioChatter emails were “purely personal activity born out of (Kevin Folta’s) own self interest” and not public university business. For more information, see the court documents.

Related press coverage

  • Freedom of the Press Foundation, “How corporations suppress disclosure of public records about themselves,” by Camille Fassett (2/27/18)
  • New York Times article, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO labeling war, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton; and email archive, “A Florida Professor Works with the Biotech Industry” (9/5/2015)
  • Alternet, “Is something fishy going on between the University of Florida and the agrichemical industry? Consumers have a right to know,” by Daniel Ross, Alternet (2/13/18)

AgBioChatter list content

The AgBioChatter emails obtained via state public records requests (142 pages) show academics and agrichemical industry staff coordinating talking points to oppose GMO labeling, promote and defend GMOs and pesticides, discredit industry critics, and evade Freedom of Information Act requests for information about publicly funded professors.

A major theme of the emails (and in particular the role of list member Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto) was to identify critics of the agrichemical industry and opportunities to attack them. These included Mehmet Oz, Vandana Shiva, Don Huber, Consumers Union and others.

Another key theme in the AgBioChatter emails is the effort to frame scientific studies that raise concerns about risks of GMOs and pesticides as “agenda-driven,” while studies that report positively about agrichemical industry products are “pro science.”

Academic, industry collaboration 

According to the emails received to date via public records requests, academics, agrichemical industry employees, consultants and PR operatives participated in the “Chatter” list.

Known participants are listed below along with their ties to other “industry partner” groups named in Monsanto’s PR plan to orchestrate an outcry against the IARC cancer panel. For more information about these groups, see our fact sheets:

Also noted below are ties to the American Council on Science and Health, a front group that receives corporate money to promote industry views of science and attack critics.

The links to the Genetic Literacy Project archives provide a sense of the common, repetitive messaging these front groups and academics use to promote GMOs and pesticides, try to discredit critics, argue for deregulation and oppose transparency efforts.

AgBioChatter list members 

Emails obtained via public records requests indicate that the following people were on the AgBioChatter listserver as of the dates in the emails.

Andrew Apel, agrichemical industry consultant and former editor of the biotech industry newsletter AgBiotech Reporter

Graham Brooks, Agricultural Economist, PG Economics Ltd, UK

Jay Byrne, former director of corporate communications for Monsanto; president of v-Fluence Interactive public relations firm

Bruce Chassy, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Food Safety and Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Jon Entine, director of Genetic Literacy Project, Monsanto “industry partner”

Kevin Folta, PhD, Professor and Chairman, Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida

Val Giddings, PhD, industry consultant, former VP of the BIO trade association

  • Senior fellow at Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (funded by pharmaceutical, wireless and agrichemical industry groups)
  • Helped set up Academics Review as a Monsanto front group
  • Genetic Literacy Project archives

Andy Hedgecock, DuPont Pioneer former director of scientific affairs

Drew Kershen, PhD, Emeritus Professor, University of Oklahoma, College of Law

Marcel Kuntz, PhD, research director at CNRS, Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire Végétale, Grenoble, France 

Chris Leaver, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Plant Science, University of Oxford

Adrienne Massey, PhD, Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), managing director of science and regulatory affairs

Robert McGregor, Policy Analyst, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Alan McHughen, PhD, University of California Riverside

Henry Miller, MD, fellow at Hoover Institution, former FDA office of biotechnology

Vivian Moses, PhD, Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division, King’s College London

Piero Morandini, PhD, research assistant, University of Milan

Wayne Parrott, PhD, Professor, Crop Breeding and Genetics, University of Georgia

C.S. Prakash, PhD, Professor, Plant Genetics, Genomics and Biotechnology College of Agricultural, Environmental and Nutrition Sciences, Tuskegee University

Cami Ryan, PhD, Monsanto, social sciences lead, regulatory policy and scientific affairs in Canada

Eric Sachs, PhD, Monsanto, environmental, social and economic platform lead

Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, Animal Genetics and Biotechnology Cooperative Extension Specialist, University of California, Davis

Karl Haro von Mogel, PhD, Biofortified director of science and media   

For more information about the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between industry groups and academics on food issues, see our investigations page. U.S. Right to Know documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.

Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group

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Academics Review, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization launched in 2012, claims to be an independent group but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it is a front group set up with the help of Monsanto and its public relations team to attack agrichemical industry critics while appearing to be independent.

Related: Genetic Literacy Project, Monsanto names its “industry partners,” Biotech Literacy Project boot camps
Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food,” by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (2016)

Covert industry funding 

The Academics Review website describes its founders as “two independent professors,” Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia. As of May 2018, the website claims, “Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.”

However, tax records show that the primary funder of Academics Review has been the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade association that is funded and run by the largest agrichemical companies: BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta.

According to CBI tax records, the industry-funded group gave Academics Review a total of $650,000 in 2014 and 2015-2016. Tax records for AcademicsReview.org report expenses of $791,064 from 2013-2016 (see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). The money was spent on organizing conferences and promoting GMOs and pesticides, according to the tax records.

Dr. Chassy was also for years receiving undisclosed funding from Monsanto via his university. See, “Why didn’t a University of Illinois professor have to disclose his GMO funding?” by Monica Eng, WBEZ (March 2016)

Emails reveal secret origin of academic front group

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state Freedom of Information requests revealed the inner workings of how Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, its PR allies and industry funders. Key facts and emails:

  • According to a March 11, 2010 email chain, Academics Review was established with the help of Monsanto executives along with Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former director of corporate communications; and Val Giddings, former VP of the biotech industry trade association BIO, as a platform to attack critics of the agrichemical industry.
  • Eric Sachs, a senior public relations executive at Monsanto, said he would help find industry funding for Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote to Chassy on November 30, 2010.
  • Byrne compared the concept as similar to – but better than – a front group set up by Rick Berman, a lobbyist known as  “Dr. Evil” and the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda” for his work to promote tobacco and oil industry interests under the cover of neutral-sounding groups. Berman’s “’Center for Consumer Freedom’ (ActivistCash.com) has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept,” Byrne wrote to Chassy on March 11, 2010.
  • Byrne said he was developing an “opportunities list with targets” for Monsanto comprised of “individuals organizations, content items and topic areas” critical of ag-biotech that “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations.”
  • Chassy indicated he was especially keen to go after the organic industry. “I would love to find a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles,” he wrote in March 2010. In 2014, Academics Review attacked the organic industry with a report it falsely claimed was the work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.

Monsanto PR plan named Academics Review as “industry partner” 

Academics Review is an “industry partner”according to a confidential Monsanto PR document that describes the corporation’s plans to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to defend the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. On March 20, 2015, IARC announced it had classified glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The Monsanto PR document lists four tiers of industry partners to engage in its public relations efforts to discredit the cancer panel’s report. Academics Review was listed as a Tier 2 “industry partner” along with Genetic Literacy Project, Sense About Science, Biofortified, and the AgBioChatter academics list serve.

An Academics Review article dated March 25, 2015 claimed the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts.” The article linked to the industry-funded GMO Answers, the front group American Council on Science and Health and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Bruce Chassy’s ties to industry and its front groups

Professor Bruce Chassy, co-founder of Academics Review and president of the board, has been frequently cited in the media as an independent expert on GMOs, while he was also receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto.

Chassy had received $57,000 in undisclosed funds over a two-year period from Monsanto to travel, write and speak about GMOs, according to WBEZ. The story reported that Monsanto also sent at least $5.1 million through the University of Illinois Foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015.

Chassy is on the “Board of Science and Policy Advisors” of the American Council on Science and Health, a front group funded by Monsanto and other companies whose products the group defends. Chassy is also an “independent expert” for GMO Answers, a marketing website for GMOs and pesticides funded by the agrichemical industry.

Articles about Bruce Chassy’s industry ties:

  • New York Times, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton (9/5/2015)
  • New York Times email archive, “A University of Illinois Professor Joins the Fight,” (9/5/2015)
  • WBEZ, “Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding,” by Monica Eng (3/15/2016)
  • US Right to Know, “Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign,” by Carey Gillam (1/29/2016)

David Tribe / Academics Review / Biofortified

David Tribe is co-founder of Academics Review, vice president of the Academics Review Board of Directors, and a reviewer on the 2014 Academics Review report attacking the organic industry. Tribe is also a member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified Inc., or Biofortified, a nonprofit group that aids the agrichemical industry with lobbying and public relations.

Industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps: training scientists and journalists to promote GMOs 

The Biotech Literacy Project boot camps were a series of conferences funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project, another front group that partners with Monsanto on public relations projects while claiming to be independent. The boot camps trained scientists and journalists how to promote GMOs and pesticides, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling and prop up flagging support for agrichemical industry products.

Boot camp organizers falsely claimed to journalists and scientists that funding for the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps came from government and academic sources, as well as industry sources, but the only traceable source of funds came from  agrichemical companies and non-industry sources denied funding the events, Paul Thacker reported in The Progressive.

“I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).” (Journalist Brooke Borel, Popular Science)

“I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money so industry is indirectly a sponsor. We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.” (boot camp organizer Bruce Chassy email to scientists)

The Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group funded by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont and Monsanto Company spent over $300,000 on two boot camps held at UC Davis and University of Florida, according to tax records.

Speakers at the 2015 Biotech Literacy Project boot camp included biotech industry executives and public relations operatives, including Monsanto’s former head of communications Jay Byrne (who helped set up Academics Review as a front group to attack industry critics), Hank Campbell of the front group American Council on Science and Health, and Yvette d’Entremont the “SciBabe”; along with industry-connected academics Kevin Folta of the University of Florida, Pamela Ronald and Alison Van Eenennaam of UC Davis; and journalists including Keith Kloor and Brooke Borel.

More information:

For more information about the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between industry groups and academics on food issues, see our investigations page. U.S. Right to Know documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.

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.

Are You Ready for the New Wave of Genetically Engineered Foods?

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A version of this article was first published in Common Ground Magazine March 2018 (PDF version).

By Stacy Malkan

Everyone loves a feel-good story about the future. You’ve probably heard this one: high-tech foods enhanced by science will feed the 9 billion people expected on the planet by 2050. Food made in labs and crops and animals genetically engineered to grow faster and better will make it possible to feed the crowded world, according to stories that spin through our institutions of media and education.

“6th grade students brainstorming big biotech ideas to #Feedthe9″ touted a recent tweet tagged to the chemical industry’s promotional website GMOAnswers. Student ideas included “breed carrots to have more vitamins” and “corn that will grow in harsh winter conditions.”

It all sounds so promising until you look at the realities behind the rhetoric.

For starters, in a country that leads the world in growing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), millions go hungry. Reducing food waste, addressing inequality and shifting to agroecological farming methods, not GMOs, are the keys to world food security, according to experts at the United Nations. Most genetically engineered foods on the market today have no consumer benefits whatsoever; they are engineered to survive pesticides, and have greatly accelerated the use of pesticides such as glyphosate, dicamba and soon 2,4D, creating what environmental groups call a dangerous pesticide treadmill.

Despite decades of hype about higher nutrients or heartier GMO crops, those benefits have failed to materialize. Vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, for example – “the rice that could save a million kids a year,” reported Time magazine 17 years ago – is not on the market despite millions spent on development. “If golden rice is such a panacea, why does it flourish only in headlines, far from the farm fields where it’s intended to grow?” asked Tom Philpott in Mother Jones article titled, WTF Happened to Golden Rice?

“The short answer is that the plant breeders have yet to concoct varieties of it that work as well in the field as existing rice strains…When you tweak one thing in a genome, such as giving rice the ability to generate beta-carotene, you risk changing other things, like its speed of growth.”

Nature is complex, in other words, and genetic engineering can produce unexpected results.

Consider the case of the Impossible Burger.

The plant-based burger that “bleeds” is made possible by genetically engineering yeast to resemble leghemoglobin, a substance found in soybean plant roots. The GMO soy leghemoglobin (SLH) breaks down into a protein called “heme,” which gives the burger meat-like qualities — its blood-red color and sizzle on the grill — without the environmental and ethical impacts of meat production. But the GMO SLH also breaks down into 46 other proteins that have never been in the human diet and could pose safety risks.

As The New York Times reported, the burger’s secret sauce “highlights the challenges of food tech.” The story was based on documents obtained by ETC Group and Friends of the Earth under a Freedom of Information Act request – documents the company probably hoped would never see the light of day. When Impossible Foods asked the Food and Drug Administration to confirm its GMO ingredient was “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), the Times reported, the agency instead “expressed concern that it has never been consumed by humans and may be an allergen.”

FDA officials wrote in notes describing a 2015 call with the company, “FDA stated that the current arguments at hand, individually and collectively, were not enough to establish the safety of SLH for consumption.” But, as the Times story explained, the FDA did not say the GMO leghemoglobin was unsafe, and the company did not need the approval of FDA to sell its burger anyway.

The arguments presented did not establish safety – FDA

So Impossible Burger is on the market with the company’s assurances of safety and most consumers are in the dark about what’s in it. While the GMO process is explained on the website it is not marketed that way at the point of sale. On a recent visit to a Bay Area restaurant that sells the Impossible Burger, a customer asked if the burger was genetically modified. He was inaccurately told, “no.”

Lack of government oversight, unknown health risks and consumers left in the dark – these are recurring themes in the unfolding narrative about the Wild West of genetic engineering experimentation that is galloping toward a store near you.

A GMO By Any Other Name …

Synthetic biology, CRISPR, gene editing, gene silencing: these terms describe the new forms of genetically engineered crops, animals and ingredients that companies are rushing to get onto the market.

The old method of genetic engineering, called transgenics, involves transferring genes from one species to another. With the new genetic engineering methods – what some environmental groups call GMOs 2.0 – companies are tampering with nature in new and possibly riskier ways. They can delete genes, turn genes on or off, or create whole new DNA sequences on a computer. All these new techniques are GMOs in the way consumers and the U.S. Patent Office consider them – DNA is altered in labs in ways that can’t occur in nature, and used to make products that can be patented. There are a few basic types of GMOs 2.0.

Synthetic biology GMOs involve changing or creating DNA to artificially synthesize compounds rather than extract them from natural sources. Examples include genetically engineering yeast or algae to create flavors such as vanillin, stevia and citrus; or fragrances like patchouli, rose oil and clearwood – all of which may already be in products.

Some companies are touting lab-grown ingredients as a solution for sustainability. But the devil is in the details that companies are reticent to disclose. What are the feedstocks? Some synthetic biology products depend on sugar from chemical-intensive monocultures or other polluting feedstocks such as fracked gas. There are also concerns that engineered algae could escape into the environment and become living pollution.

And what is the impact on farmers who depend on sustainably grown crops? Farmers around the world are worried that lab-grown substitutes, falsely marketed as “natural,” could put them out of business. For generations, farmers in Mexico, Madagascar, Africa and Paraguay have cultivated natural and organic vanilla, shea butter or stevia. In Haiti, the farming of vetiver grass for use in high-end perfumes supports up to 60,000 small growers, helping to bolster an economy ravaged by earthquake and storms.

Does it make sense to move these economic engines to South San Francisco and feed factory-farmed sugar to yeast in order to make cheaper fragrances and flavors? Who will benefit, and who will lose out, in the high-tech crop revolution?

Genetically engineered fish and animals: dehorned cattle, naturally castrated pigs, and chicken eggs engineered to contain a pharmaceutical agent are all in the genetic experimentation pipeline. An all-male “terminator cattle” project – with the code name “Boys Only” – aims to create a bull that will father only male offspring, thereby “skewing the odds toward maleness and making the (meat) industry more efficient,” reported MIT Technology Review.

What could go wrong?

The geneticist working on the terminator cattle, Alison Van Eenennaam of the  University of California, Davis, is lobbying FDA to reconsider its 2017 decision to treat CRISPR-edited animals as if they were new drugs, thereby requiring safety studies; she told the MIT Review that would “put a huge regulatory block on using this gene-editing technique on animals.” But shouldn’t there be requirements for studying the health, safety and environmental impacts of genetically engineered foods, and a framework for considering the moral, ethical and social justice implications? Companies are pushing hard for no requirements; in January, President Trump talked about biotechnology for the first time during his presidency and made a vague declaration about “streamlining regulations.”

The only GMO animal on the market so far is the AquaAdvantage salmon engineered with the genes of an eel to grow faster. The fish is already being sold in Canada, but the company won’t say where, and US sales are held up due to “labeling complications.” The urge for secrecy makes sense from a sales perspective: 75% of respondents in a 2013 New York Times poll said they would not eat GMO fish, and about two-thirds said they would not eat meat that had been genetically modified.

Gene silencing techniques such as RNA interference (RNAi) can turn genes off to create particular traits. The non-browning Arctic Apple was engineered with RNAi to turn down the expression of genes that cause apples to become brown and mushy. As the company explains on its website, “when the apple is bitten, sliced, or otherwise bruised … no yucky brown apple left behind.”

Are consumers actually asking for this trait? Ready or not here it comes. The first GMO Arctic Apple, a Golden Delicious, began heading for test markets in the Midwest last month. Nobody is saying exactly where the apples are landing, but they won’t be labeled GMO. Look out for the “Arctic Apples” brand if you want to know if you’re eating a genetically engineered apple.

“I am confident we’ll see more gene-edited crops falling outside of regulatory authority.” 

Gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, TALEN or zinc finger nucleases are used to cut DNA in order to make genetic changes or insert genetic material. These methods are faster and touted as more precise than the old transgenic methods. But the lack of government oversight raises concerns. “There can still be off-target and unintended effects,” explains Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist of Consumers Union. “When you alter the genetics of living things they don’t always behave as you expect. This is why it’s crucial to thoroughly study health and environmental impacts, but these studies aren’t required.”

A non-browning CRISPR mushroom escaped US regulation, as Nature reported in 2016. A new CRISPR canola oil, engineered to tolerate herbicides, is in stores now and may even be called “non-GMO,” according to Bloomberg, since the US Department of Agriculture has “taken a pass” on regulating CRISPR crops. The story noted that Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical have “stepped through the regulatory void” and struck licensing deals to use the gene-editing technology.

And that raises another red flag with the narrative that new GMOs will provide consumer benefits that the old transgenic methods didn’t. “Just because the techniques are different doesn’t mean the traits will be,” Dr. Hansen pointed out. “The old method of genetic engineering was used mostly to make plants resist herbicides and increase sales of herbicides. The new gene editing techniques will probably be used in much the same way, but there are some new twists.”

Corporate Greed Versus Consumer Needs

The Atlantic’s “transforming food” summit was sponsored by DowDuPont. See our reporting on that story.

The world’s largest agrichemical companies own the majority of seeds and pesticides, and they are consolidating power in the hands of just three multinational corporations. Bayer and Monsanto are closing in on a merger, and the mergers of ChemChina/Syngenta and DowDuPont are complete. DowDuPont just announced its agribusiness unit will operate under the new name Corteva Agriscience, a combination of words meaning “heart” and “nature.”

No matter what re-branding tricks they try, these corporations have a nature we already know: all of them have long histories of ignoring the warnings of science, covering up the health risks of dangerous products and leaving behind toxic messes – Bhopal, dioxin, PCBs, napalm, Agent Orange, teflon, chlorpyrifos, atrazine, dicamba, to name just a few scandals.

The future-focus narrative obscures that sordid past and the present reality of how these companies are actually using genetic engineering technologies today, mostly as a tool for crops to survive chemical sprays. To understand how this scheme is playing out on the ground in leading GMO-growing pesticide-using areas, read the reports about birth defects in Hawaii, cancer clusters in Argentina, contaminated waterways in Iowa and damaged cropland across the Midwest.

The future of food under the control of big agribusiness and chemical corporations is not hard to guess – more of what they are already trying to sell us: GMO crops that drive up chemical sales and food animals engineered to grow faster and fit better in factory farm conditions, with pharmaceuticals to help. It’s a great vision for the future of corporate profits and concentration of wealth and power, but not so great for farmers, public health, the environment or consumers who are demanding a different food future.

Growing numbers of consumers want real, natural food and products. They want to know what’s in their food, how it was produced and where it came from. For those who want to be in the know about what they are eating, there is still a surefire way to avoid old and new GMOs: buy organic. The Non-GMO Project verified certification also ensures products are not genetically engineered or made with synthetic biology.

It will be important for the natural foods industry to hold the line on the integrity of these certifications against the wild stampede of new GMOs.

Stacy Malkan is the co-director of US Right to Know and author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

GMO Answers is a Crisis Management PR Tool for GMOs & Pesticides

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Updates August 2020:

ketchum gmo answers

GMO Answers is billed as a forum where consumers can get straight answers from independent experts about genetically engineered foods, and some journalists take it seriously as an unbiased source. But the website is a straight-up industry marketing tool to spin GMOs in a positive light.

Evidence that GMO Answers is a crisis-management propaganda tool that lacks credibility.

GMO Answers was created as a vehicle to sway public opinion in favor of GMOs. Soon after Monsanto and its allies beat back the 2012 ballot initiative to label GMOs in California, Monsanto announced plans to launch a new public relations campaign to reshape the reputation of GMOs. They hired the public relations firm FleishmanHillard (owned by Omnicom) for a seven-figure campaign.

As part of the effort, the PR firm Ketchum (also owned by Omnicom) was hired by the Council for Biotechnology Information – funded by Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta – to create GMOAnswers.com. The site promised to clear up confusion and dispel mistrust about GMOs using the unedited voices of so-called “independent experts.”

But how independent are those experts?

The website hews to carefully crafted talking points that tell a positive story about GMOs while downplaying or ignoring the health and environmental risks. For example, when asked if GMOs are driving up the use of pesticides, the site offers a convoluted no, despite peer-reviewed data showing that, yes, in fact, they are.

“Roundup Ready” GMO crops have increased use of glyphosate, a probable human carcinogen, by hundreds of millions of pounds. A new GMO/pesticide scheme involving dicamba has led to the destruction of soybean crops across the U.S., and the FDA is bracing this year for triple the use of 2,4-D, an older toxic herbicide, due to new GMO crops that are engineered to resist it. All of this is nothing to worry about, according to GMO Answers.

Questions about safety are answered with false statements such as “every leading health organization in the world stands behind the safety of GMOs.” We found no mention of the statement signed by 300 scientists, physicians and academics who say there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety,” and we received no answers to questions we posted about the statement.

Examples have since come to light that Ketchum PR scripted some of the GMO answers that were signed by “independent experts.”

Shortlisted for crisis management PR award

As further evidence the site is a spin vehicle: In 2014, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.”

And the PR firm that created GMO Answers boasted about its influence on journalists. In a video posted to the CLIO website, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.

Why reporters would trust a marketing vehicle designed by Ketchum as a reliable source is difficult to understand. Ketchum, which until 2016 was the PR firm for Russia, has been implicated in espionage efforts against nonprofits concerned about GMOs. Not exactly a history that lends itself to dispelling mistrust.

Given that GMO Answers is a marketing tool created and funded by companies that sell GMOs, we think it’s fair game to ask: Are the “independent experts” who lend credibility to the website – several of whom work for public universities and are paid by taxpayers – truly independent and working in the public interest? Or are they working in league with corporations and public relations firms to help sell the public a spin story?

In search of these answers, U.S. Right to Know submitted Freedom of Information Act requests seeking the correspondence of publicly funded professors who write for GMOAnswers.com or worked on other GMO promotion efforts. The FOIA’s are narrow requests that cover no personal or academic information, but rather seek to understand the connections between the professors, the agrichemical companies that sell GMOs, their trade associations and the PR and lobbying firms that have been hired to promote GMOs and fight labeling so we’re kept in the dark about what we’re eating.

Follow the results of the U.S. Right to Know investigation here.

See our Pesticide Industry Propaganda Tracker for more information about key players in chemical industry public relations efforts.

You can help expand the Right to Know investigations by making a tax-deductible donation today

Agrichemical Trade Groups: Biotechnology Innovation Organization and Council for Biotechnology Information

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BIO – key facts 

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), formerly the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is a trade association representing over 1,000 companies and industry groups including pesticide, pharmaceutical and biotech corporations. The group markets genetic engineering as a solution to “heal the world, fuel the world, feed the world,” and it organizes lobbying committees in 15 policy areas including food and agriculture, health care policy, technology transfer, finance and taxes. BIO was a leading opponent of labeling genetically engineered foods in the United States. In its tax filing for the year ending December 2016, BIO reported annual expenses exceeding $79 million.

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Council for Biotechnology Information – key facts 

Founded in 2000, the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), is a trade association funded by the largest chemical companies (BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont, Syngenta) to promote biotechnology in agriculture. BIO and CBI share some staff and finances, according to tax filings. CBI reported over $4 million in annual expenses in its tax filings for the year ending December 2016. Since 2013, CBI has spent more than $11 million on Ketchum public relations firm to run GMO Answers, a marketing campaign to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides.

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