Glyphosate Fact Sheet: Cancer and Other Health Concerns

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Glyphosate, a synthetic herbicide patented in 1974 by the Monsanto Company and now manufactured and sold by many companies in hundreds of products, has been associated with cancer and other health concerns. Glyphosate is best known as the active ingredient in Roundup-branded herbicides, and the herbicide used with “Roundup Ready” genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Herbicide tolerance is the most prevalent GMO trait engineered into food crops, with some 90% of corn and 94% of soybeans in the U.S. engineered to tolerate herbicides, according to USDA data. A 2017 study found that Americans’ exposure to glyphosate increased approximately 500 percent since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced in the U.S in 1996. Here are some key facts about glyphosate:

Most Widely Used Pesticide

According to a February 2016 study, glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide: “In the U.S., no pesticide has come remotely close to such intensive and widespread use.” Findings include:

  • Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate (or 1.6 billion kilograms) since its introduction in 1974 to 2014. 
  • Worldwide 9.5 million tons (or 8.6 billion kilograms) of the chemical has been sprayed on fields – enough to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world, according to an examination of data from 1994-2014.
  • Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced. 
  • Approximately 281 million pounds of glyphosate was applied to 298 million acres annually in U.S. agricultural settings, on average, from 2012 to 2016, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Most glyphosate was applied to soybean (117.4 million lbs applied annually), corn (94.9 million lbs applied annually), and cotton (20 million lbs applied annually). Many citrus fruits, including grapefruit, oranges, and lemons, and field crops such as soybeans, corn, and cotton have  high percentages of their acres treated with glyphosate. Approximately 24 million pounds of glyphosate are applied to non-agricultural sites annually, on average, from 2012 through 2016, according to EPA.  The majority of non-agricultural use is in the homeowner market. About 5 million lbs is applied annually for residential use.

Statements from scientists and health care providers 

Cancer Concerns

The scientific literature and regulatory conclusions regarding glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides show a mix of findings, making the safety of the herbicide a hotly debated subject. 

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” after reviewing years of published and peer-reviewed scientific studies. The team of international scientists found there was a particular association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

U.S. agencies: At the time of the IARC classification, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was conducting a registration review. The EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC) issued a report in September 2016 concluding that glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at doses relevant to human health. In December 2016, the EPA convened a Scientific Advisory Panel to review the report; members were divided in their assessment of EPA’s work, with some finding the EPA erred in how it evaluated certain research. Additionally, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development determined that EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs had not followed proper protocols in its evaluation of glyphosate, and said the evidence could be deemed to support a “likely” carcinogenic or “suggestive” evidence of carcinogenicity classification. Nevertheless the EPA issued a draft report on glyphosate in December 2017 continuing to hold that the chemical is not likely to be carcinogenic. In April 2019, the EPA reaffirmed its position that glyphosate poses no risk to public health. But earlier that same month, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reported that there are links between glyphosate and cancer. According to the draft report from ATSDR, “numerous studies reported risk ratios greater than one for associations between glyphosate exposure and risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or multiple myeloma.” 

The EPA issued an Interim Registration Review Decision in January 2020 with updated information about its position on glyphosate, continuing to hold the position that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer. 

European Union: The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency have said glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. A March 2017 report by environmental and consumer groups argued that regulators relied improperly on research that was directed and manipulated by the chemical industry. A 2019 study found that Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment report on glyphosate, which found no cancer risk, included sections of text that had been plagiarized from Monsanto studies.  In February 2020, reports surfaced that 24 scientific studies submitted to the German regulators to prove the safety of glyphosate came from a large German laboratory that has been accused of fraud and other wrongdoing.

In June 2021, the European Union’s (EU) Assessment Group on Glyphosate (AGG) issued an 11,000-page draft report concluding that glyphosate is safe when used as directed and does not cause cancer. The finding is based in part on a dossier of roughly 1,500 studies submitted to European regulators by the “Glyphosate Renewal Group (GRG),” a collection of companies that includes Monsanto owner Bayer AG. The companies are seeking the renewal of the EU authorization of glyphosate. Current authorization in Europe expires in December 2022. The companies say they also gave regulators a “literature review” of around 12,000 published scientific articles on glyphosate.

WHO/FAO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues determined in 2016 that glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet, but this finding was tarnished by conflict of interest concerns after it came to light that the chair and co-chair of the group also held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute, a group funded in part by Monsanto and one of its lobbying organizations.

California OEHHA: On March 28, 2017, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment confirmed it would add glyphosate to California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. Monsanto sued to block the action but the case was dismissed. In a separate case, the court found that California could not require cancer warnings for products containing glyphosate. On June 12, 2018, a U.S. District Court denied the California Attorney General’s request for the court to reconsider the decision. The court found that California could only require commercial speech that disclosed “purely factual and uncontroversial information,” and the science surrounding glyphosate carcinogenicity was not proven.

Agricultural Health Study: A long-running U.S. government-backed prospective cohort study of farm families in Iowa and North Carolina has not found any connections between glyphosate use and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but the researchers reported that “among applicators in the highest exposure quartile, there was an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) compared with never users…” The most recent published update to the study was made public in late 2017.

Recent studies linking glyphosate to cancer and other health concerns 

Cancer

Endocrine disruption, fertility and reproductive concerns 

Liver disease 

  • A 2017 study associated chronic, very low-level glyphosate exposures to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in rats. According to the researchers, the results “imply that chronic consumption of extremely low levels of a GBH formulation (Roundup), at admissible glyphosate-equivalent concentrations, are associated with marked alterations of the liver proteome and metabolome,” the biomarkers for NAFLD.

Microbiome disruption

  • November 2020 paper in the Journal of Hazardous Materials reports that approximately 54 percent of species in the core of the human gut microbiome are “potentially sensitive” to glyphosate. With a “large proportion” of bacteria in the gut microbiome susceptible to glyphosate, the intake of glyphosate “may severely affect the composition of the human gut microbiome,” the authors said in their paper. 
  • A 2020 literature review of glyphosate’s effects on the gut microbiome concludes that, “glyphosate residues on food could cause dysbiosis, given that opportunistic pathogens are more resistant to glyphosate compared to commensal bacteria.” The paper continues, “Glyphosate may be a critical environmental trigger in the etiology of several disease states associated with dysbiosis, including celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Glyphosate exposure may also have consequences for mental health, including anxiety and depression, through alterations in the gut microbiome.”
  • A 2018 rat study conducted by the Ramazzini Institute reported that low-dose exposures to Roundup at levels considered safe significantly altered the gut microbiota in some of the rat pups.
  • Another 2018 study reported that higher levels of glyphosate administered to mice disrupted the gut microbiota and caused anxiety and depression-like behaviors.

Harmful impacts bees and monarch butterflies

Cancer lawsuits

More than 42,000 people have filed suit against Monsanto Company (now Bayer) alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), and that Monsanto covered up the risks. As part of the discovery process, Monsanto has had to turn over millions of pages of internal records. We are posting these Monsanto Papers as they become available. For news and tips about the ongoing legislation, see Carey Gillam’s Roundup Trial Tracker. The first three trials ended in large awards to plaintiffs for liability and damages, with juries ruling that Monsanto’s weed killer was a substantial contributing factor in causing them to develop NHL. Bayer is appealing the rulings. 

Monsanto influence in research: In March 2017, the federal court judge unsealed some internal Monsanto documents that raised new questions about Monsanto’s influence on the EPA process and about the research regulators rely on. The documents suggest that Monsanto’s long-standing claims about the safety of glyphosate and Roundup do not necessarily rely on sound science as the company asserts, but on efforts to manipulate the science

More information about scientific interference

Sri Lankan scientists awarded AAAS freedom award for kidney disease research

The AAAS has awarded two Sri Lankan scientists, Drs. Channa Jayasumana and Sarath Gunatilake, the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for their work to “investigate a possible connection between glyphosate and chronic kidney disease under challenging circumstances.” The scientists have reported that glyphosate plays a key role in transporting heavy metals to the kidneys of those drinking contaminated water, leading to high rates of chronic kidney disease in farming communities. See papers in  SpringerPlus (2015), BMC Nephrology (2015), Environmental Health (2015), International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2014). The AAAS award had been suspended amidst a fierce opposition campaign by pesticide industry allies to undermine the work of the scientists. After a review, the AAAS reinstated the award

Desiccation: another source of dietary exposures 

Some farmers use glyphosate on non-GMO crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and lentils to dry down the crop ahead of harvest in order to accelerate the harvest. This practice, known as desiccation, may be a significant source of dietary exposure to glyphosate.

Glyphosate in food: U.S. drags its feet on testing

The USDA quietly dropped a plan to start testing food for residues of glyphosate in 2017. Internal agency documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show the agency had planned to start testing over 300 samples of corn syrup for glyphosate in April 2017. But the agency killed the project before it started. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began a limited testing program in 2016, but the effort was fraught with controversy and internal difficulties and the program was suspended in September 2016. Both agencies have programs that annually test foods for pesticide residues but both have routinely skipped testing for glyphosate.

Before the suspension, one FDA chemist found alarming levels of glyphosate in many samples of U.S. honey, levels that were technically illegal because there have been no allowable levels established for honey by the EPA. Here is a recap of news about glyphosate found in food:

Pesticides in our food: Where’s the safety data?

USDA data from 2016 shows detectable pesticide levels in 85% of more than 10,000 foods sampled, everything from mushrooms to grapes to green beans. The government says there are little to no health risks, but some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. See “Chemicals on our food: When “safe” may not really be safe: Scientific scrutiny of pesticide residue in food grows; regulatory protections questioned,” by Carey Gillam (11/2018).

Bill Gates’ radical menu for food systems: ultra-processed foods, patents, monocrops

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By Stacy Malkan

If Bill Gates has his way, the food in our future will little resemble what’s on our plates today. Gates and his agribusiness industry partners are proposing to transform our food and how it is produced. 

To the techno-food industrialists, hunger and climate change are problems to be solved with data and engineering. The core ingredients of their revolutionary plan: genetic engineering — and patenting — of everything from seeds and food animals, to microbes in the soil, to the processes we use to make food. Local food cultures and traditional diets could fade away as food production moves indoors to labs that cultivate fake meat and ultra-processed foods. 

Gates says rich countries should shift entirely to synthetic beef. And he has the intellectual property rights to sell them. As a food that can help fix the climate, Gates touts the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty made from genetically engineered soy and textured with engineered yeast. Its manufacturer, the Gates-funded Impossible Foods, has two dozen patents and more than 100 patents pending to artificially replicate cheese, beef and chicken and permeate these products with manufactured flavors, scents and textures.

Ginkgo Bioworks, a Gates-backed start-up that makes “custom organisms,” just went public in a $17.5 billion deal. The company uses its “cell programming” technology to genetically engineer flavors and scents into commercial strains of engineered yeast and bacteria to create “natural” ingredients, including vitamins, amino acids, enzymes and flavors for ultra-processed foods.

According to its investor presentation, Ginkgo plans to create up to 20,000 engineered “cell programs” (it now has five) for food products and many other uses. Axios reports that the company plans to charge customers to use its “biological platform” like Amazon charges for its data center, and will take royalties like apps in the Apple Store. Ginkgo’s customers, the investor pitch makes clear, are not consumers or farmers, but rather the world’s largest chemical, food and pharmaceutical companies.

If techno-food products are not high on most consumers’ shopping lists, this is a menu investors can get behind. The market for genetically engineered products has the potential to reach $2-4 trillion in the next 20 years. And Bill and Melinda Gates are positioned to reap the rewards. The Gates back “a multitude of agrifood tech startups,” reports AgFunder News, either through private investment vehicles or through the Gates Foundation Trust, which funds the foundation’s charitable activities.

Gates and the tech start-ups pitch their products as solutions for our most challenging environmental and social issues. But are they really?

Doubling down on monocultures 

Gates’ “winning strategy for food and farming,” according to a recent Fortune magazine article by Shawn Tully, “is finding ways for farmers to produce more corn and soybeans on every acre … while substantially lowering carbon emissions.” Gates believes that “genetically modified seeds and chemical herbicides, in the right doses – and not land-intensive organic farming – are crucial to curbing carbon emissions.”

Since 2006, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent over $5 billion on efforts to transform African agriculture; its flagship program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, works to transition farmers to high-input industrial agriculture and scale up markets for commercial seeds and agrichemicals. Gates says these methods can boost production and lift farmers out of poverty.

Many critics, including African faith leaders and hundreds of civil society groups around the world, say the foundation’s agricultural development strategies are failing to deliver on promises and benefitting multinational corporations over small farmers and communities in Africa. The foundation did not respond to our requests for comment.

“Gates has influenced the direction of agriculture to benefit the corporates,” said Million Belay, coordinator of Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a coalition of 50 Africa-based groups. “His foundation has contributed hugely in weakening our seed, biosafety and agrochemical related regulations … it will take years to undo what they have done.”

Gates also influences how governments and academic institutions think about the future of agriculture in Africa, Belay said. “The narrative now is you need to use agrichemicals, high-yield varieties, GMOs and a host of other farm management techniques to feed yourself,” he said. “It will also take years to convince our elites the future is agroecology. As one of the most rich and powerful people on the planet, the doors of our governments are open (to Gates) while it is ajar for African citizens. He has to be called out and has to change direction.”

Leading experts in food security and nutrition are calling for a paradigm shift away from green revolution-style industrial agriculture and toward agroecology, which promotes biodiversity instead of monocultures, integrates animals to rebuild soils, and advocates for political and economic reforms to address inequities and social divisions. Diversified agroecological systems are more resilient, they say, and have a greater capacity to recover from disturbances including extreme weather events, pests and disease.  

Recent science suggests that chemical-intensive industrial agriculture is a key driver of climate change, soil erosion and the worldwide decline of insects. Corn and soy monocultures are especially problematic; they deplete the soil and rely on synthetic fertilizers that emit nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. These are problems Bill Gates is hoping technology can fix. 

A climate solution?

Fortune describes Gates’ plans to intensify corn and soy production as a “pivotal campaign in the war against global warming.” How so? Syngenta, the world’s second largest agrichemical company, is “deploying big data, gene editing, DNA analysis, and other groundbreaking technologies in pursuit of growing bumper harvests while lowering CO2.” Bayer, the leading chemical and seed firm, is making a similar pitch, and claims its new sustainability technologies will “empower 100 million smallholder farmers around the world.”

For 30 years, agrichemical companies promised GMOs could feed the poor and help small farmers, but it hasn’t yet worked out that way. Most GMO crops in the ground today are engineered to survive weed-killing chemicals or kill insects. While these crops provided short-term benefits to farmers, they provided no benefits to consumers, nor did they deliver on promises to boost yields, but they did increase herbicide use. Evidence now indicates the crops are failing as weeds and bugs evolve around the technology.

As a solution to meet the climate crisis, and enable “sustainable intensification” of industrial agriculture, Gates and Bayer point to experimental projects to genetically engineer microbes to fix nitrogen to plants. “If these approaches work,” Gates writes in his climate book, “they’ll dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer and all the emissions it’s responsible for.” In 2017, Ginkgo Bioworks teamed up with Bayer to launch JoynBio, a microbe company that is working to create self-fertilizing plants.

This, too, is a promise Bayer has made before. As far back as 1897, Bayer promoted a product that could reportedly assimilate atmospheric nitrogen, according to Mark Finlay, a history professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University. Bayer said its product could “conceivably make all agricultural lands permanently fertile,” Finlay wrote in a 2015 book about the history of agriculture. “Although early results were disappointing, many popular press writers hailed the potential of this discovery.” 

GMO 2.0: genome-editing 

Gates is an evangelist for genetically engineered foods. He predicts that “GMOs will end starvation in Africa” and GMOs can “end world hunger by 2030.” If the first generation of GMO crops failed to deliver on these hopes, Gates believes new genetic engineering methods will get us there.  

With CRISPR-Cas9 and other “genome-editing” techniques, scientists can now add or delete strands of DNA, or turn genes on or off, to produce specific traits in plants or animals — as if writing computer code. Examples include mushrooms that are “edited” to resist browning, “terminator cattle” bred to father only male offspring, or harmless strains of E Coli converted to antioxidant factories

Gene-editing techniques, and especially CRISPR, are efficient but unpredictable. Studies show the CRISPR process can create unexpected mutations including DNA damage and other off-target effectsIn 2019, a plan to release CRISPR-edited “hornless cows” to Brazil was scrapped after a U.S. government researcher discovered the cattle had two antibiotic-resistance genes that weren’t supposed to be there. The Recombinetics, Inc. cows were the “poster animals of the gene-editing revolution,” according to MIT Technology Review, until the “major screw-up in their DNA” came to light. The company’s researchers missed the extra DNA in their own studies; they reported, incorrectly, that the animals were “free of off-target effects.” 

Genetic engineering, including genome-editing, “has unpredictable outcomes,” says Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist at King’s College in London. “You don’t know in advance what the consequences are of the GM transformation process … and because you don’t know, the only way to evaluate safety is generically,” Antoiniou said. “You basically need to conduct a long term feeding trial in animals and see what happens …  and that’s just not going on anywhere in the world for regulatory purposes, at all.”

Nevertheless, experiments continue on important crops and food animals. Gates Foundation has spent over $40 million on projects to genetically engineer dairy cows, with hopes of creating the “perfect” cow. Acceligen (a division of Recombinetics) is working with a Gates Foundation grant to engineer multiple traits into dairy cows to maximize productivity and durability in hot climates.

The foundation is also a leading funder of gene drive experiments that can force an engineered trait through a species. This month in the Florida Keys, the Gates Foundation-backed company Oxitec released 144,000 mosquitos engineered to eliminate females in a disease-carrying species. Proposed agricultural uses for gene drives include reversing herbicide tolerance in plants, suppressing weeds and eradicating agricultural pestsWhat could possibly go wrong? 

Systemic risk 

One of the world’s foremost experts on probability and uncertainty, Nassim Taleb, considered that question — What could go wrong with GMOs? — for a 2014 paper he wrote with colleagues at the New York University School of Engineering. The authors analyzed GMOs in the context of what they called a “non-naive” view of the Precautionary Principle. They concluded: “GMOs represent a public risk of global harm” and should be subject to “severe limits.”  

The Precautionary Principle states that if an action has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain, the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety. The authors believe it “should be evoked only in extreme situations” when the potential harm is systemic and the consequences widespread and irreversible; they said GMOs “fall squarely” within this criteria. 

Among the systemic risks they cited: GMOs have the propensity to spread uncontrollably, with irreversible system-wide effects and unknown downsides. The ecological impacts are not tested empirically — and therefore not understood — before the technologies are released. The researchers noted two factors that contribute to systemic risk: the engineered genetic modifications and the monocultures in which they grow.

“Instead of a long history of evolutionary selection, these modifications rely not just on naive engineering strategies that do not appropriately consider risk in complex environments, but also explicitly reductionist approaches that ignore unintended consequences,” the researchers said. “Labeling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor—indeed warped—understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.”

Taleb summed up their conclusions in a 2015 New York Times op-ed: “The GMO experiment, carried out in real time and with our entire food and ecological system as its laboratory, is perhaps the greatest case of human hubris ever. It creates yet another systemic, ‘too big too fail’ enterprise — but one for which no bailouts will be possible when it fails.”

Ginkgo Bioworks investor pitch

Monopoly Bill 

If Gates’ plans for the food system make little sense from an equity or ecological perspective, they are logical from the point of view of an economic monopolist. 

As the former CEO and largest shareholder of Microsoft, you might think that Bill Gates is a capitalist, but that’s not exactly the case,” Megan Tompkins-Stange, a scholar of philanthropy at University of Michigan, told The Ink. “Gates’ version of capitalism would better be called monopolistic. He has consistently sought to distort free markets in order to advance his own corporation’s accumulation of wealth, power, and preeminence.”

These ideologies led to the recent controversy over Covid-19 vaccines, in which Gates’ insistence on patents may have impeded vaccine access for the world’s poor. The incident raised concerns about the powerful influence Gates wields over vital issues involving public health. As Timothy Schwab wrote in The Nation,“It is increasingly urgent to ask if Gates’s multiple roles in the pandemic — as a charity, a business, an investor, and a lobbyist — are about philanthropy and giving away money, or about taking control and exercising power — monopoly power.” 

Gates is playing all the same roles in our food system. “Gates has placed his investment bets in many of the key places in this emerging corporate narrative about what the food system needs: gene drives, geoengineering, fake meat, digital agriculture, carbon sequestration,” says Jim Thomas from the ETC Group, which investigates corporate concentration in the food industry. “Clearly he is set to benefit from these changes, plus his Foundation funding supports all this.”

Agribusiness companies are deploying digital apps on farms around the world to gather data on all aspects of farming: soil health, product inputs, weather, cropping patterns and more, including genetic information on the world’s most important seeds and livestock and knowledge indigenous farmers have developed over thousands of years. All this data to be owned and controlled by corporations, run through AI algorithms, and sold back to farmers with “prescriptions” for how to farm and which corporate products to buy, with little transparency or explanation.

The hyper-consolidated food and agriculture system has already brought numerous negative consequences to farmers and consumers. A 2019 report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems documents how corporate concentration has squeezed farmer incomes, eroded their choices, narrowed the scope of innovation and escalated public health and environmental risks. The corporate drive to control Big Data, IPES said, “stands to exacerbate existing power imbalances, dependencies, and barriers to entry across the agri-food sector.”

Gates Ag One 

Impatient with the creeping progress of the techno-food revolution, the Gates Foundation last year launched a new tax-exempt nonprofit that “seeks to accelerate the development of innovations supported by the foundation’s Agricultural Development team” in two of the fastest-growing regions in the world: sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. 

The new “ag tech startup” will “work with partners from the public and private sector to commercialize resilient, yield-enhancing seeds and traits.” It is located in St. Louis, Missouri, former home of Monsanto and current hub of leading chemical and seed firms, and headed up by Joe Cornelius, the former managing director of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition at Bayer CropSciences. As if to underscore that uniformity and centralized control are core goals of the effort, the new nonprofit is called “Gates Ag One.”

Farm of the future?

In 2019, Cargill (a partner of Ginkgo Bioworks) opened a $50 million factory in Lincoln, Nebraska. The plant manufactures EverSweet, a substance that tastes like the sweetener stevia. To produce it, Cargill combines genetically engineered yeast with sugar molecules to mimic the taste of stevia. 

Consumers would not know this by reading the website or looking at the package; the company artfully describes the process as a “centuries-old technique” involving “fermentation.” It markets EverSweet as “non-artificial.”  

Cargill also pitches the product as “sustainably produced,” presumably because it moves stevia production off the land, in places like Paraguay where small farmers have been cultivating stevia for generations. But the feedstock for engineered foods made in Cargill’s new plant has to come from somewhere. Cargill would not tell us what it uses for feedstock, but the factory’s’ location in Nebraska offers a clue: it is surrounded by monocrops of GMO corn and soy.

Read more at USRTK:

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Bill Gates’ plans to remake food systems will harm the climate

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By Stacy Malkan

In his new book on how to avoid a climate disaster, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates discusses his plans to model African food systems upon India’s “green revolution,” in which a plant scientist increased crop yields and saved a billion lives, according to Gates. The obstacle to implementing a similar overhaul in Africa, he asserts, is that most farmers in poor countries don’t have the financial means to buy fertilizers.  

“If we can help poor farmers raise their crop yields, they’ll earn more money and have more to eat, and millions of people in some of the world’s poorest countries will be able to get more food and the nutrients they need,” Gates concludes. He doesn’t consider many obvious aspects of the hunger crisis, just as he skips crucial elements of the climate debate, as Bill McKibben points out in the New York Times review of Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. 

Gates fails to mention, for example, that hunger is largely due to poverty and inequality, not scarcity. And he seems unaware that the decades-long “green revolution” push for industrial agriculture in India has left a harsh legacy of harm for both the ecosystem and smallholder farmers, who have been protesting in the streets since last year.   

“Farmer protests in India are writing the Green Revolution’s obituary,” Aniket Aga wrote in Scientific American last month. Decades into the green revolution strategy, “it is evident that new problems of industrial agriculture have added to the old problems of hunger and malnutrition,” Aga writes. “No amount of tinkering on the marketing end will fix a fundamentally warped and unsustainable production model.”

This model — which moves farmers toward ever-larger and less-diverse farming operations that rely on pesticides and climate-harming chemical fertilizers — is one the Gates Foundation has been promoting in Africa for 15 years, over the opposition of African food movements who say the foundation is pushing the priorities of multinational agribusiness corporations to the detriment of their communities.  

Hundreds of civil society groups are protesting the Gates Foundation’s agricultural strategies and its influence over the upcoming UN World Food Summit. Insiders say this leadership is threatening to derail meaningful efforts to transform the food system, at a crucial moment when much of sub-Saharan Africa is reeling from multiple shocks and a growing hunger crisis due to pandemic and climate change conditions. 

All this has gone unnoticed by major media outlets that are rolling out the red carpet for Gates’ book. Here are some of the reasons the critics say Gates Foundation’s agricultural development program is bad for the climate. The foundation has not responded to multiple requests for comment. 

Related post: Why we’re tracking Bill Gates’ plans to remake the food system 

Ramping up greenhouse gas emissions

Gates is not shy about his passion for synthetic fertilizer, as he explains in this blog about his visit to the Yara fertilizer distribution plant in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The new plant is the largest of its kind in East Africa. Fertilizer is a “magical invention that can help lift millions of people out of poverty,” Gates writes. “Watching workers fill bags with the tiny white pellets containing nitrogen, phosphorous, and other plant nutrients was a powerful reminder of how every ounce of fertilizer has the potential to transform lives in Africa.”

Corp Watch describes Yara as “the fertilizer giant causing climate catastrophe.” Yara is Europe’s biggest industrial buyer of natural gas, actively lobbies for fracking, and is a top producer of synthetic fertilizers that scientists say are responsible for worrying increases in emissions of nitrous oxide. The greenhouse gas that is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. According to a recent Nature paper, nitrous oxide emissions driven largely by agriculture are rising in an increasing feedback loop that is putting us on a worst-case trajectory for climate change.

Gates acknowledges that synthetic fertilizers harm the climate. As a solution, Gates hopes for technological inventions on the horizon, including an experimental project to genetically engineer microbes to fix nitrogen to soil. “If these approaches work,” Gates writes, “they’ll dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer and all the emissions it’s responsible for.” 

In the meantime, the key focus of Gates’ green revolution efforts for Africa is expanding the use of synthetic fertilizer with the aim of boosting yields, even though there isn’t any evidence to show that 14 years of these efforts have helped small farmers or the poor, or produced significant yield gains.

Expanding climate-harming monocultures 

The Gates Foundation has spent over $5 billion since 2006 to “help drive agricultural transformation” in Africa. The bulk of the funding goes to technical research and efforts to transition African farmers to industrial agricultural methods and increase their access to commercial seeds, fertilizer and other inputs. Proponents say these efforts give farmers the choices they need to boost production and lift themselves out of poverty. Critics argue that Gates’ “green revolution” strategies are harming Africa by making ecosystems more fragile, putting farmers into debt, and diverting public resources away from deeper systemic changes needed to confront the climate and hunger crises. 

“The Gates Foundation promotes a model of industrial monoculture farming and food processing that is not sustaining our people,” a group of faith leaders from Africa wrote in a letter to the foundation, raising concerns that the foundation’s “support for the expansion of intensive industrial agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.” 

The foundation, they noted, “encourages African farmers to adopt a high input–high output approach that is based on a business model developed in a Western setting” and “puts pressure on farmers to grow just one or a few crops based on commercial high-yielding or genetically modified (GM) seeds.”

Gates’ flagship agricultural program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), steers farmers toward maize and other staple crops with the aim of boosting yields. According to AGRA’s operational plan for Uganda (emphasis theirs):

  • Agricultural transformation is defined as a process by which farmers shift from highly diversified, subsistence-oriented production towards more specialized production oriented towards the market or other systems of exchange, involving a greater reliance on input and output delivery systems and increased integration of agriculture with other sectors of the domestic and international economies.

AGRA’s primary focus is programs to increase farmers’ access to commercial seeds and fertilizers to grow maize and a few other crops. This “green revolution” technology package is further supported by $1 billion a year in subsidies from African governments, according to research published last year by the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute and report by African and German groups

The researchers found no sign of a productivity boom; the data show modest yield gains of 18% for staple crops in AGRA’s target countries, while incomes stagnated and food security worsened, with the number of hungry and undernourished people up 30%. AGRA disputed the research but has not provided detailed reporting of its results over 15 years. An AGRA spokesperson told us a report will be forthcoming in April.

The independent researchers also reported a decline in traditional crops, such as millet, which is climate-resilient and also an important source of micronutrients for millions of people.

The AGRA model imposed on previously relatively diverse Rwanda farming almost certainly undermined its more nutritious and sustainable traditional agricultural cropping patterns,” Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former UN assistant secretary-general for economic development, wrote in an article describing the research.  The AGRA package, he notes, was “imposed with a heavy hand” in Rwanda, with “the government reportedly banning cultivation of some other staple crops in some areas.”  

Diverting resources from agroecology 

“If global food systems are to become sustainable, input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots must become obsolete,” the African faith leaders wrote in their appeal to the Gates Foundation.

Indeed, many experts say a paradigm shift is necessary, away from uniform, monoculture cropping systems toward diversified, agroecological approaches that can address the problems and limitations of industrial agriculture including inequalities, increased poverty, malnutrition and ecosystem degradation.

The 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns against the damaging effects of monocropping, and highlights the importance of agroecology, which the panel said could improve the “sustainability and resilience of agricultural systems by buffering climate extremes, reducing degradation of soils, and reversing unsustainable use of resources; and consequently increase yield without damaging biodiversity.”

Rupa Marya, MD, associate professor of medicine at UCSF, discusses agroecology at the 2021 EcoFarm conference

A UN Food and Agriculture Organization expert panel report on agroecology clearly calls for a shift away from the “green revolution” industrial agriculture model and toward agroecological practices that have been shown to increase the diversity of food crops, reduce costs and build climate resilience. 

But programs to scale up agroecology are starving for funding  as billions in aid and subsidies go to prop up industrial agriculture models. Key barriers holding back investments in agroecology include donor preferences for profitability, scalability and short-term results, according to a 2020 report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

As many as 85% of Gates Foundation funded agricultural development research projects for Africa in recent years were limited to “supporting industrial agriculture and/or increasing its efficiency via targeted approaches such as improved pesticide practices, livestock vaccines or reductions in post-harvest losses,” the report said. Only 3% of the projects included elements of agroecological redesign.

The researchers note, “agroecology does not not fit within existing investment modalities. Like many philanthropic givers, the BMGF [Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favours targeted, technological solutions.” 

These preferences weigh heavy in decisions about how research develops for global food systems. The largest recipient of Gates Foundation’s agricultural funding is CGIAR, a consortium of 15 research centers employing thousands of scientists and managing 11 of the world’s most important gene banks. The centers historically focused on developing a narrow set of crops that could be mass produced with the help of chemical inputs. 

In recent years, some CGIAR centers have taken steps toward systemic and rights-based approaches, but a proposed restructuring plan to create “One CGIAR” with a single board and new agenda-setting powers is raising concerns. According to IPES food, the restructuring proposal threatens to “reduce the autonomy of regional research agendas and reinforce the grip of the most powerful donors,” such as the Gates Foundation, who are “reluctant to diverge from the Green Revolution pathway.”

The restructuring process led by a Gates Foundation representative and former leader of the Syngenta Foundation, “appears to have been driven forward in a coercive manner,” IPES said, “with little buy-in from the supposed beneficiaries in the global South, with insufficient diversity among the inner circle of reformers, and without due consideration of the urgently-needed paradigm shift in food systems.”

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation has kicked in another $310 million to CGIAR to “help 300 million smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.” 

Inventing new uses for GMO pesticide crops

The takeaway message of Gates new book is that technological breakthroughs can feed the world and fix the climate, if only we can invest enough resources toward these innovations. The world’s largest pesticide/seed companies are promoting the same theme, rebranding themselves from climate deniers to problem solvers: advances in digital farming, precision agriculture and genetic engineering will reduce the ecological footprint of agriculture and “empower 100 million smallholder farmers” to adapt to climate change, “all by the year 2030,” according to Bayer CropScience.

The Gates Foundation and the chemical industry are “selling the past as innovation in Africa,” argues Timothy Wise, a research fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, in a new paper for Tufts GDAE. “The real innovation,” Wise said, “is happening in farmers’ fields as they work with scientists to increase the production of a diversity of food crops, reduce costs, and build climate resilience by adopting agroecological practices.” 

As a harbinger of tech breakthroughs to come, Gates points in his book to the Impossible Burger. In a chapter entitled “How We Grow Things,” Gates describes his satisfaction with the bleeding veggie burger (in which he is a major investor) and his hopes that plant-based burgers and cell-based meats will be major solutions for climate change. 

He’s right, of course, that shifting away from factory-farmed meat is important for the climate. But is the Impossible Burger a sustainable solution, or just a marketable way to turn industrially produced crops into patented food productsAs Anna Lappe explains, Impossible Foods “is going all in on GMO soy,” not only as the burger’s core ingredient but also as the theme of the company’s sustainability branding.  

For 30 years, the chemical industry promised GMO crops would boost yields, reduce pesticides and feed the world sustainably, but it hasn’t turned out that way. As Danny Hakim reported in the New York Times, GMO crops did not produce better yields. The GMO crops also drove up the use of herbicides, especially glyphosate, which is linked to cancer among other health and environmental problems. As weeds became resistant, the industry developed seeds with new chemical tolerances. Bayer, for example, is forging ahead with GMO crops engineered to survive five herbicides.

Mexico recently announced plans to ban GMO corn imports, declaring the crops “undesirable” and “unnecessary.”

In South Africa, one of the few African countries to allow commercial cultivation of GMO crops, more than 85% of maize and soy is now engineered, and most is sprayed with glyphosate. Farmers, civil society groups, political leaders and doctors are raising concerns about rising cancer rates. And food insecurity is rising, too.  South Africa’s experience with GMOs has been “23 years of failures, biodiversity loss and escalating hunger,” according to the African Centre for Biodiversity.

The green revolution for Africa, says the group’s founder Mariam Mayet, is a “dead-end” leading to “declining soil health, loss of agricultural biodiversity, loss of farmer sovereignty, and locking of African farmers into a system that is not designed for their benefit, but for the profits of mostly Northern multinational corporations.” 

“It is vital that now, at this pivotal moment in history,” says the African Centre for Biodiversity, “that we shift the trajectory, phasing out industrial agriculture and transition towards a just and ecologically sound agricultural and food system.”  

Stacy Malkan is managing editor and co-founder of U.S. Right to Know, an investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. Sign up for the Right to Know newsletter for regular updates.

Related: Read about Cargill’s $50 million production facility to genetically engineer stevia, a high-value and sustainably grown crop that many farmers in the Global South depend on.

Gates Foundation doubles down on misinformation campaign at Cornell as African leaders call for agroecology 

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Related reporting: Gates Foundation’s failing green revolution in Africa (7.29.20)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded another $10 million last week to the controversial Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications campaign housed at Cornell that trains fellows in Africa and elsewhere to promote and defend genetically engineered foods, crops and agrichemicals. The new grant brings BMGF grants to the group to $22 million.

The PR investment comes at a time when the Gates Foundation is under fire for spending billions of dollars on agricultural development schemes in Africa that critics say are entrenching farming methods that benefit corporations over people. 

Faith leaders appeal to Gates Foundation 

On September 10, faith leaders in Africa posted an open letter to the Gates Foundation asking it to reassess its grant-making strategies for Africa. 

“While we are grateful to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its commitment to overcoming food insecurity, and acknowledging the humanitarian and infrastructural aid provided to the governments of our continent, we write out of grave concern that the Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis,” says the sign-on letter coordinated by the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI).  

The letter cites the Gates-led Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) for its “highly problematic” support of commercial seed systems controlled by large companies, its support of restructuring seed laws to protect certified seeds and criminalize non-certified seed, and its support of seed dealers who offer narrow advice about corporate products over much-needed public sector extension services. 

Uganda’s largest daily newspaper reported on AGRA’s failing project

“We appeal to the Gates Foundation and AGRA to stop promoting failed technologies and outdated extension methods and start listening to the farmers who are developing appropriate solutions for their contexts,” the faith leaders said.

Despite billions of dollars spent and 14 years of promises, AGRA has failed to achieve its goals of reducing poverty and raising incomes for small farmers, according to a July report False Promises. The research was conducted by a coalition of African and German groups and includes data from a recent white paper published by Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute. 

The Gates Foundation has not yet responded to requests for comment for this article but said in an earlier email, “We support organisations like AGRA because they partner with countries to help them implement the priorities and policies contained in their national agricultural development strategies.”

Disappearing promises of the green revolution 

Launched in 2006 by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, AGRA has long promised to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households in Africa by 2020. But the group quietly removed those goals from its website sometime in the past year. AGRA’s Chief of Staff Andrew Cox said via email that the group has not reduced his ambition but is refining its approaches and its thinking about metrics. He said AGRA will do a full evaluation on its results next year. 

AGRA declined to provide data or answer substantive questions from researchers of the False Promises report, its authors say. Representatives from BIBA Kenya, PELUM Zambia and HOMEF Nigeria sent a letter to Cox Sept. 7 asking for a response to their research findings. Cox responded Sept. 15 with what one researcher described as “basically three pages of PR.” (See full correspondence here including BIBA’s Oct. 7 response.)

“African farmers deserve a substantive response from AGRA,” said the letter to Cox from Anne Maina, Mutketoi Wamunyima and Ngimmo Bassay.  “So do AGRA’s public sector donors, who would seem to be getting a very poor return on their investments. African governments also need to provide a clear accounting for the impacts of their own budget outlays that support Green Revolution programs.”

African governments spend about $1 billion per year on subsidies to support commercial seeds and agrichemicals. Despite the large investments in agricultural productivity gains, hunger has increased thirty percent during the AGRA years, according to the False Promises report.

Gates Foundation investments have a significant influence on how food systems are shaped in Africa, according to a June report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES). The group reported that billions of dollars in Gates Foundation grants have incentivized industrial agriculture in Africa and held back investments in more sustainable, equitable food systems.  

“BMGF looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favours targeted, technological solutions,” IPES said.

Local producers and short food chains 

The Gates Foundation agricultural development approach of building markets for larger-scale, high-input commodity crops puts it at odds with emerging thinking about how to best deal with the volatile conditions caused by the twin crises of climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.

In September, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said it is essential to build more resilient local food systems as the pandemic “has put local food systems at risk of disruptions along the entire food chain.” The report documents pandemic-related challenges and lessons from a global survey conducted in April and May that drew 860 responses. 

“The clear message is that, in order to cope with shocks such as COVID-19, cities with suitable socio-economic and agroclimatic conditions should adopt policies and programmes to empower local producers to grow food, and promote short food chains to enable urban citizens to access food products,” the report concluded. “Cities have to diversify their food supplies and food sources, reinforcing local sources where possible, but without shutting off national and global supplies.”

As the pandemic threatens farming communities already struggling with climate change, Africa is at a crossroads, wrote Million Belay, coordinator of the African Food Sovereignty Alliance, and Timothy Wise, lead researcher of the Tufts analysis of AGRA, in a Sept. 23 op-ed. “Will its people and their governments continue trying to replicate industrial farming models promoted by developed countries? Or will they move boldly into the uncertain future, embracing ecological agriculture?”

Belay and Wise described some good news from recent research; “two of the three AGRA countries that have reduced both the number and share of undernourished people – Ethiopia and Mali – have done so in part due to policies that support ecological agriculture.”

The biggest success story, Mali, saw hunger drop from 14% to 5% since 2006. According to a case study in the False Promises report, “progress came not because of AGRA but because the government and farmers’ organizations actively resisted its implementation,” Belay and Wise wrote, pointing to land and seed laws that guarantee farmers’ rights to choose their crops and farming practices, and government programs that promote not just maize but a wide variety of food crops.

“It’s time for African governments to step back from the failing Green Revolution and chart a new food system that respects local cultures and communities by promoting low-cost, low-input ecological agriculture,” they wrote. 

Doubling down on PR campaign housed at Cornell 

Against this backdrop, the Gates Foundation is doubling down on its investment in the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS), a public relations campaign launched in 2014 with a Gates grant and promises to “depolarize the debate” around GMOs. With the new $10 million, CAS plans to widen its focus “to counter conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns that hinder progress in climate change, synthetic biology, agricultural innovations.” 

But the Cornell Alliance for Science has become a polarizing force and a source of misinformation as it trains fellows around the world to promote and lobby for genetically engineered crops in their home countries, many of them in Africa. 

Numerous academics, food groups and policy experts have called out the group’s inaccurate and misleading messaging. Community groups working to regulate pesticides and biosafety have accused CAS of using bully tactics in Hawaii and exploiting farmers in Africa in its aggressive promotional and lobby campaigns.  

A July 30 article by Mark Lynas, a Cornell visiting fellow who works for CAS, illuminates the controversy over the group’s messaging. Citing a recent meta-analysis on conservation agriculture, Lynas claimed,  “agro-ecology risks harming the poor and worsening gender equality in Africa.” His analysis was widely panned by experts in the field.

Marc Corbeels, the agronomist who authored the meta-analysis, said the article made “sweeping generalizations.” Other academics described Lynas’ article as “really flawed,” “deeply unserious,” “demagogic and non-scientific,” an erroneous conflation that jumps to “wild conclusions,” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be scientific.”

The article should be retracted, said Marci Branski, a former USDA climate change specialist and Marcus Taylor, a political ecologist at Queen’s University.

Debate over agroecology heats up

The controversy resurfaced this week over a webinar CAS is hosting Thursday Oct. 1 on the topic of agroecology. Citing concerns that the Cornell-based group is “not serious enough to engage in an open, unbiased” debate, two food-system experts withdrew from the webinar earlier this week.

The two scientists said they agreed to participate in the webinar after seeing each other’s names among the panelists; “that was enough for both of us to trust also the organization behind the event,” wrote Pablo Tittonell, PhD, Principal Research Scientist in Argentina’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONICET) and Sieglinde Snapp, PhD, Professor of Soils and Cropping Systems Ecology at Michigan State University, to panel moderator Joan Conrow, editor of CAS. 

“But reading some of the blogs and opinion pieces issued by the Alliance, the publications by other panelists, learning about the biased and uninformed claims against agroecology, the ideologically charged push for certain technologies, etc. we came to the conclusion that this venue is not serious enough to engage in an open, unbiased, constructive and, most importantly, well informed scientific debate,” Tittonell and Snapp wrote to Conrow.

“We therefore withdraw from this debate.” Conrow has not responded to requests for comment.

 The webinar will go forward with Nassib Mugwanya, a 2015 CAS global leadership fellow and doctoral student at North Carolina State University, who has also been accused of making unfair attacks on agroecology. In a 2019 article for the Breakthrough Institute, Mugwanya argued, “traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture.” 

The article reflects typical biotech industry messaging: presenting GMO crops as the “pro-science” position while painting “alternative forms of agricultural development as ‘anti-science,’ groundless and harmful,” according to an analysis by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice.

“Particularly notable in the article,” the group noted, “are strong usages of metaphors (e.g., agroecology likened to handcuffs), generalizations, omissions of information and a number of factual inaccuracies.”

With Tittonell and Snapp off the roster at Thursday’s webinar, Mugwanya will be joined by Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, who has ties to pesticide industry front groups, and Frédéric Baudron, senior scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a Gates Foundation-funded group. 

Asking for a ‘fair fight’

Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, sees the ramped up PR campaigns as “evidence of desperation” that they “just cannot get it right on the continent.” 

Her group has for years been documenting “the efforts to spread the Green Revolution in Africa, and the dead-ends it will lead to: declining soil health, loss of agricultural biodiversity, loss of farmer sovereignty, and locking of African farmers into a system that is not designed for their benefit, but for the profits of mostly Northern multinational corporations.”

The Cornell Alliance for Science should be reigned in, Mayet said in an August webinar about the Gates Foundation’s influence in Africa, “because of the misinformation (and) the way that they are extremely disingenuous and untruthful.” She asked, “Why don’t you engage in a fair fight with us?”

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and reporter for U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on public health issues. She is author of the 2007 book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.” Follow her on Twitter @StacyMalkan 

Is Cargill’s new stevia plant the ‘farm’ of the future?

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The international food conglomerate Cargill is ramping up commercial-scale production of its genetically engineered sweetener, EverSweet, in a new $50 million production facility that began operating this week in Blair, Nebraska. The plant will “be producing enough EverSweet to sweeten many millions of bottles/cans of soft drinks or servings of yogurt each month,” according to a Cargill spokesman. 

Cargill’s new GMO stevia plant

Cargill is marketing its new stevia substitute as “non-artificial.” What does that mean? Consumers who click on the link provided in the press release will not get a straight answer. The web page twists itself in knots trying to describe the new process, which involves genetically engineering yeast to convert sugar molecules into a substance that mimics the taste of stevia, as a “centuries old technique” — without once mentioning genetic engineering or the genetic modified organisms (GMOs) used to make the product. 

Cargill told the Star Tribune it does not market EverSweet as “natural” – so “non-artificial” it is.  The subterfuge doesn’t end there. 

Cargill, which former Congressman Henry Waxman’s environmental group named the “worst company in the world” in 2019 for (among other things) its “repeated insistence on standing in the way of global progress on sustainability,” markets EverSweet as “sustainably” produced. That claim, as we reported in 2017 Huffington Post article, was cooked up by PR strategists tasked with figuring out how to make vat-produced ingredients sound palatable to consumers who are demanding fresh, natural foods with clear, simple labels.

Corporations and investors with their sights set on moving stevia — and other high-value plant-based flavors and fragrances — off the farms and into the labs met in a 2014 strategy session to discuss how to sell this concept to consumers. PR strategists at the meeting recommended avoiding terms like “synthetic biology” and “genetic engineering” (too scary, too much backlash), and suggested going with more vague descriptions such as “fermentation derived” and “nature identical.”  They recommended focusing reporters on stories of hope and promise, and making food activists “feel like we are we are all marching under the same banner” for food sustainability, transparency and food sovereignty.

Companies and consumers who truly do care about those concepts would do well to look behind the hype. In Cargill’s frame, Eversweet is “sustainable” because it moves production off the land. But it really doesn’t; the company’s new $50 million “fermentation facility,” situated in the heart of GMO Roundup Ready corn country, will depend on those pesticide-sprayed crops – or some other sugar source grown on the land – to feed the yeast in its vats to make EverSweet. Its press release uses the buzzwords of sustainability but provides no details to back up the claims. We reached out to the company to ask for more details; no response yet but we will add any comments we receive. 

Meanwhile, farmers in countries like Paraguay have been sustainably farming stevia for generations, and they make a good living cultivating the crop, reports the ETC Group. The World Economic Forum noted in a survey of leading global risks that “the invention of cheap, synthetic alternatives to high-value agricultural exports … could suddenly destabilize vulnerable economies by removing a source of income on which farmers rely.” Moreover, poor farmers have been actively encouraged to invest in stevia, because its cultivation can help preserve fragile and unique ecosystems. 

For consumers in the U.S., it is getting harder to avoid the new genetically engineered foods that are quietly making their way to grocery stores without clear labeling. Certified organic or non-GMO verified remain two standards committed to avoiding synthetic biology and genetically engineered ingredients.

As for Cargill, it is the largest privately held company in the U.S., bigger even than the notorious Koch Industries, and its  footprint extends around the world, notes former congressman Waxman, chairman of the Mighty Earth campaign, in their July report naming Cargill the Worst Company in the World. “We recognize this is an audacious claim. There are, alas, many companies that could vie for this dubious honor. But this report provides extensive and compelling evidence to back it up … In my 40-year long career in Congress, I took on a range of companies that engaged in abusive practices. I have seen firsthand the harmful impact of businesses that do not bring their ethics with them to work. But Cargill stands out.”

Further reading

Are you ready for the new wave of genetically engineered foods? by Stacy Malkan, CommonGround magazine (3.16.2018)

Meet the New Stevia! GMOs 2.0 Get Dressed for Success, by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (6.15.2017)

A Bad Bet on Synthetic Biology: Cargill’s Eversweet is competing with farmers and misleading consumers, ETC Group (11.11.2015)  

Biotech industry cooks up PR plans to get us to swallow synthetic biology food, by Dana Perls, Friends of the Earth (5.22.2014)

Gene Editing Mishaps Highlight Need for FDA Oversight

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A Midwestern company’s quest to genetically engineer the world’s first hornless dairy cows hit a snag this summer when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found extra genes in the cows that weren’t supposed to be there. The mistakes that FDA caught – but the company missed – highlight the importance of government oversight of gene-edited foods at a time when industry groups are pushing for deregulation.

Cows without horns: a job for gene editing?

Pork producers, for example, “say the federal government should ease regulations on the use of gene editing in livestock,” which they claim is slowing down research and development, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. The producers want oversight moved from the FDA to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which already allows gene-edited crops to be planted and sold with no regulatory oversight.

But the FDA plans to require pre-market safety assessments for gene-edited food animals, as they do for new animal drugs. The regulations will ensure that genetic changes are safe for animals and consumers, and help consumers get comfortable with the technology, an FDA spokeswoman told the Journal.

The FDA’s discovery of extra genes in the hornless cattle, and other recently reported mishaps involving new genetic engineering techniques, bolster the case for government scrutiny, and have industry groups scrambling to control the public relations fiasco.

The extra genes Recombinetics missed

Researchers at the Minnesota-based company Recombinetics, Inc., reported in a 2016 paper that they created the first polled (hornless) cows using a gene editing technique called TALENS to alter the gene sequence in the cows. The researchers reported finding no unintended impacts. They wrote, “our animals are free of off-target effects.”

But when FDA researchers reexamined the DNA this summer, using genome sequences that had been posted online by Recombinetics, they did find off-target effects. Two edited cows carried copies of the entire bacterial plasmid used in the editing process, including two antibiotic resistance genes in virtually every cell of their bodies. The genes don’t normally occur in cattle.

This “raises issues of biosafety given that there is a strong global push to limit the spread of genes conferring antibiotic resistance,” writes Jonathan Latham, PhD, in Independent Science News. It also raises questions about the lack of precision of gene editing techniques and gives weight to arguments for government oversight. Plans to breed the hornless cows in Brazil were scrapped after the off-target effects came to light, Wired reported, because regulators there could no longer consider the cows non-GMO.

The FDA researchers said their discovery “highlights a potential blind spot in standard genome editing screening methods,” and said they suspect integration errors are “underreported or overlooked” in genome editing experiments. They noted other examples of unexpected alterations – a 2017 mouse study that found complex deletions and insertions in an edited mouse genome, and a 2018 study that reported DNA damage in human cell lines.

So how did the Recombinetics researchers miss the unintended DNA integrations?

“we didn’t look”

“It was not something expected, and we didn’t look for it,” said Tad Sonstegard, CEO of Recombinetics’ agriculture subsidiary Acceligen, according to MIT Technology Review. A more complete check “should have been done,” he said. Wired magazine quoted Sonstegard explaining, “We weren’t looking for plasmid integrations. We should have.”

That should have been an obvious place to look, says Michael Hansen, PhD, Senior Scientist, Advocacy, of Consumers Reports. “Whether any DNA from the bacterial plasmid used in the gene editing process got picked up and transferred would be one of the first things you would look for if you were interested in finding off-target effects,” Hansen said.

In his view, the fact that Recombinetics missed the problem suggests that, “they didn’t do the necessary oversight. That’s why we need government oversight,” including requirements for pre-market safety assessments, he said.

Latham, a biologist and former genetic engineer, also points to recent findings from Japan that he believes may be more consequential than the FDA’s findings, and have greater implications for the regulatory landscape. In a 2019 study, Japanese researchers reported that edited mouse genomes had acquired DNA from the E. coli genome, as well as goat and bovine DNA. This stray DNA came from the gene editing reagents, the delivery method used to make the edits.

These findings “are very simple: cutting DNA inside cells, regardless of the precise type of gene editing, predisposes genomes to acquire unwanted DNA,” , Latham wrote in Independent Science News. He said the findings “imply, at the very least, the need for strong measures to prevent contamination by stray DNA, along with thorough scrutiny of gene-edited cells and gene-edited organisms. And, as the Recombinetics case suggests, these are needs that developers themselves may not meet.”

Next logical step

Recombinetics has “noisily objected” to FDA oversight all along and lobbied the Trump Administration to wrest oversight powers away from the food safety agency, according to MIT Technology Review. And when Recombinetics claimed in 2016 that its gene-edited hornless cows were “free of off-target effects,” that finding was immediately deployed as a lobby tool in the campaign against FDA scrutiny.

In a commentary that ran alongside the company’s study, five university researchers argued that pre-market safety assessments for gene-edited food animals are onerous and unnecessary. One of the authors, Alison Van Eenennaam PhD, an animal extension specialist at UC Davis and a leading advocate for deregulation, has described FDA’s plan to require pre-market safety assessments as “insane.”

“The effects of gene editing are largely identical to natural processes,” the researchers wrote in their commentary. Any “off-target effects can be minimized by careful design and extensive testing,” they said, noting that the researchers from Recombinetics “found none” in their gene-edited cattle.

They also claimed, inaccurately as it turned out, that the gene-edited cattle carried the same DNA “that has been consumed by humans for over 1,000 years.” The “next logical step,” they wrote, would be to spread the edited genome sequence “into global dairy populations.”

The disconnect between the rush to market genetically engineered foods, and the need for due diligence to understand off-target effects of gene manipulations and their possible impacts on health and the environment, has long been a sticky point in the GMO debate. For most GMO foods, the companies have been in charge of safety assessments all along, with little or no government oversight. But what incentive do companies have to look for problems?

Back in 1998, in an interview with Michael Pollan for the New York Times, Monsanto’s then director of communications was blunt in his assessment of where the industry’s interests lie: ”Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.”

Further reading

Gene editing needs to become more precise to live up to its promise — by David Edgell, The Conversation (10.7.19)

Gene-editing unintentionally adds bovine DNA, goat DNA, and bacterial DNA, mouse researchers find — by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent ScienceNews (9.23.19)

Gene-edited cattle have a major screwup in their DNA — by Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review (8.28.19)

FDA finds unexpected antibiotic resistance genes in ‘gene-edited’ dehorned cattle — by Jonathan Latham, PhD, and Allison Wilson, PhD, Independent Science News (8.12.19)

Off-target mutations not the only concern in gene-edited plants — GM Watch (7.10.19)

Why the “molecular scissors” metaphor for CRISPR is misleading — by Elinor Hortle, The Conversation (7.4.19)

CRISPR causes unexpected outcomes even at the intended site of genetic modification — GM Watch (4.16.19)

CRISPR spin-off causes unintended mutations in DNA — GM Watch (3.13.19)

CRISPR base editing, known for precision, hits a snag with off-target mutations — by Sharon Begley, STAT (2.28.19)

Big tongues and extra vertebrae: The unintended consequences of animal gene editing — By Preetika Rana and Lucy Craymer, Wall Street Journal (12.14.18)

Potential DNA damage from CRISPR has been ‘seriously underestimated,’ study finds — by Sharon Begley, STAT (7.16.18)

Turns out CRISPR editing can also vandalize genomes — MIT Technology Review (7.16.2018)

A serious new hurdle for CRISPR: Edited cells might cause cancer, two studies find — by Sharon Begley, STAT (6.11.18)

Farmland gene editors want cows without horns, pigs without tails, and business without regulations — by Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review (3.12.18)

Report: Gene-edited animals will intensify factory farming and the climate crisis, could harm human health — Friends of the Earth (9.17.19)

Are you ready for the new wave of genetically engineered foods? — by Stacy Malkan, USRTK (3.16.18)

Impossible Burger Fails to Inspire Trust in the GMO Industry

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By Stacy Malkan

For anyone who wonders why consumers aren’t inspired to trust the GMO industry, consider this bizarre rant from Impossible Foods Chief Communications Officer Rachel Konrad in defense of the Impossible Burger, a veggie burger made more meat-like via genetically engineered yeast. Konrad was upset that a story in Bloomberg raised concerns about the insufficient research, lack of regulation and poor transparency for genetically engineered food technologies.

Impossible Burger’s marketing chief “set the record straight” with information sourced from chemical industry front groups and other unreliable messengers who regularly communicate inaccurate information.

So Konrad took to Medium, blasting critics of the Impossible Burger as “anti-science fundamentalists” and “setting the record straight” with information she sourced from chemical industry front groups and other unreliable anti-consumer messengers who regularly communicate inaccurate information about science.

Bloomberg is not a trusted source of reporting on science, according to Konrad, because the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) says so. The ACSH is a corporate front group that solicits money from tobacco, chemical and pharmaceutical companies to defend pesticides, e-cigs, cosmetics and other toxic products that aren’t likely to win over the vegan crowd.

Instead of enduring the bias of Bloomberg, Konrad tells us, we should take heart in the rise of Mark Lynas, a promoter of GMOs and pesticides who communicates inaccurate information about science, according to scientists and food experts. Mark Lynas works for the Cornell Alliance for Science, a public relations campaign to promote GMOs funded primarily by the Gates Foundation. (Gates is also an investor in the Impossible Burger.)

The misleading messaging these groups use to promote genetically engineered foods, defend pesticides, ignore health and environmental risks and silence consumer and environmental advocates goes a long way toward explaining why the GMO industry isn’t winning consumer trust.

Impossible Foods had a chance to turn a new leaf. Up to now, most GMO foods have been engineered to survive the spraying of weed-killing chemicals: glyphosate, now also dicamba, and soon also 2,4-D, in what environmental groups call the GMO pesticide treadmill. But the GMO industry is changing with the emergence of new techniques such as CRISPR and synthetic biology.

As one of the first food companies out with a GM food product that may actually offer consumer benefits (if one likes “bleeding” veggie burgers), Impossible Foods had the opportunity to write a new story, and build trust with an open, transparent process that respects consumer concerns. They blew it.

We are supposed to trust the manufacturer to vouch for the safety of Impossible Burger’s new genetically engineered protein, which is new to the human food supply. But the company’s process hasn’t inspired trust.

Their GMO “heme” ingredient is “super safe,” according to the Impossible Foods website. Konrad explains in Medium, “An objective, third-party team of the nation’s top food researchers unanimously concluded in 2014 that the Impossible Burger’s key ingredient, soy leghemoglobin (produced by a genetically engineered yeast), is ‘generally recognized as safe.’ The panel made this conclusion in 2014, well before we began selling the Impossible Burger on the market in 2016.”

She left out some important facts. As the New York Times reported last August, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raised concerns that the studies Impossible Foods presented in its GRAS notification were inadequate to establish safety, the company withdrew its petition but put the burger on the market anyway.

That was within their rights, but not a way to establish confidence in their product.

“These are standing panels of industry hired guns.”

Another flag: The three food researchers who wrote the expert panel report that Impossible Foods submitted to the FDA—Joseph Borzelleca, Michael Pariza and Steve Taylor—are on a short list of scientists the “food industry turns to over and over again” to obtain GRAS status, and all three served on the Phillip Morris Scientific Advisory Board, according to a 2015 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, “The Misinformation Industry: Food safety scientists have ties to Big Tobacco.”

Borzelleca, the Center for Public Investigation reported, was the most active of the go-to scientists, having served on 41 percent of 379 panels convened in the last 17 years to review the safety of new food ingredients.

“Despite his decades of experience and praise heaped upon him by colleagues—one called him a ‘wonder’—critics of the GRAS system say Borzelleca is emblematic of a system that is rife with conflicts of interest,” CPI reported. “If scientists depend on the food industry for income, they may be less likely to contest the safety of ingredients companies hope to market, critics say.”

“These are standing panels of industry hired guns,” Laura MacCleery, an attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told CPI. “It is funding bias on steroids.”

But the views of critics with legitimate concerns are not welcome in the world of the Impossible Burger, according to Rachel Konrad.

Rather than blazing a new path of integrity with its new food technology, Impossible Foods has decided to follow a path well worn by many other purveyors of food additives and genetically engineered foods: rush new products to market without a transparent process or comprehensive safety reviews, then shout down anyone who raises concerns. Across our nation, people who want to know what’s in their food find such arrogance distasteful.

This article originally appeared in EcoWatch

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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Food Evolution GMO Film Serves Up Chemical Industry Agenda

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This post has been updated with reviews of Food Evolution: 

By Stacy Malkan, 6/19/2017 

Some industry messaging efforts are so heavy-handed they end up highlighting their own PR tactics more than the message they are trying to convey. That’s the problem with Food Evolution, a new documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The film, opening in theaters June 23, claims to offer an objective look at the debate over genetically engineered foods, but with its skewed presentation of science and data, it comes off looking more like a textbook case of corporate propaganda for the agrichemical industry and its GMO crops.

That the film’s intended purpose was to serve as an industry-messaging vehicle is no secret. Food Evolution was planned in 2014 and funded by the Institute for Food Technologists, a trade group, to culminate a multi-year messaging effort.

IFT is partly funded by big food corporations, and the group’s president at the time was Janet Collins, a former DuPont and Monsanto executive who now works for CropLife America, the pesticide trade association. IFT’s President-Elect Cindy Stewart works for DuPont.

IFT chose Kennedy to direct the film, but he and producer Trace Sheehan say they had complete control over the film they describe as a fully independent investigation into the topic of GMOs including all points of view.

The film’s credibility suffers from their choice to embrace only the science and scientists who side with the chemical industry players who profit from GMOs and the chemicals used on them, while ignoring science and data that doesn’t fit that agenda.

The Monsanto Science Treatment

The clearest example of the scientific dishonesty in Food Evolution is the way the film deals with glyphosate. The weed killer chemical is at the heart of the GMO story, since 80-90% of GMO crops are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate.

Food Evolution reports that the increase in glyphosate use due to GMOs is not a problem, because glyphosate is safe. Two sources establish this claim in the film: a farmer says glyphosate has “very, very low toxicity; lower than coffee, lower than salt,” and Monsanto’s Robb Fraley – in response to a woman in an audience who asks him about science linking glyphosate to birth defects and cancer – tells her that’s all bad science, “it’s pseudoscience.”

All science raising concerns about glyphosate is “pseudoscience,” says Monsanto.

There is no mention of the carcinogenicity concerns that are engulfing Monsanto in an international science scandal, or the many farmers who are suing Monsanto alleging they got cancer from the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide.

There is no mention of the 2015 report by the World Health Organization’s cancer agency that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, or California’s decision to add glyphosate to the Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, or the peer-reviewed studies that have linked various adverse health outcomes to glyphosate and Roundup.

Instead of an objective look at the evidence, Food Evolution gives viewers the full Monsanto science treatment: any science that raises concerns about the possible health risks of agrichemical products should be ignored, while studies that put those products in a favorable light is the only science worth discussing.

Double Standards in Science and Transparency

Equal treatment of interview subjects with different points of view would have helped the credibility of Food Evolution. Instead, the film paints the GMO critics it features as dishonest or out to make a buck off the organic industry, while leaving out key details about its pro-industry sources.

In one scene, the film’s main character, UC Davis professor Alison van Eenennaam, frets that appearing onstage with a Monsanto executive at a debate could sully her independent reputation. Viewers never learn that she used to work for Monsanto, or that she holds several GE patents which suggest a financial interest in the topic at hand.

Pro-industry scientist Pamela Ronald, another key science source, gets the hero treatment with no mention that two of her studies have been retracted. Yet viewers are hammered with news that a study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini – which found kidney problems and tumors in rats fed GMO corn – was “retracted, retracted, retracted!”

The film leaves out the fact that the study was subsequently republished, and was retracted in the first place after a former Monsanto employee took an editorial position with the journal where it was originally published.

The “Africa Needs GMOs” Narrative

In another neatly spun narrative, Food Evolution takes viewers on an emotional journey to the developing world, and along another favorite industry messaging track: rather than focus on how genetic engineering is used in our food system now – primarily to convey herbicide tolerance – we should focus on how it might possibly be used in the future.

With plenty of airtime and dramatic tension, the film examines the problem of banana wilt, a disease killing staple crops in Africa, and leads viewers to believe that genetic engineering will save the crop, the farmers and the community.

Maybe. But the film neglects to mention that the savior GE technology is not yet available and might not even work. According to a paper in Plant Biotechnology Journal, the resistance shown in the lab is robust but may not be durable in open fields.

The film is “fundamentally dishonest.”

Meanwhile, a low-tech solution is working well and looks like it could use some investment. According to a 2012 paper in the Journal of Development and Agricultural Economics, farmer field schools, which help growers acquire hands-on knowledge of techniques to prevent banana wilt, led to lower infection rates and high crop recovery in Uganda. Results from farmer field schools “have been remarkable,” according to the UN.

The solution doesn’t warrant a mention in Food Evolution.

“It’s fundamentally dishonest of the film to tout a GE solution that may not even work, as the scientists themselves acknowledge,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, “while failing to point out another way to control the problem that works very well, but doesn’t involve selling a product to make money.”

Did Monsanto have anything to do with Food Evolution?

Monsanto and allies were discussing plans for a documentary in late 2013, according to emails obtained by US Right to Know. The emails do not contain evidence linking those discussions to Food Evolution, but they do establish Monsanto’s desire for a film that sounds surpassingly similar to the one Kennedy created.

Monsanto’s Eric Sachs wrote in Dec. 2013 to a group of PR advisors, “there is clearly a lot of interest to pursue a documentary film. Importantly, the consensus was that Monsanto’s participation was welcome, particularly in the planning phase.”

He recommended a January 2014 planning call. Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project stepped up to take the lead, and mentioned he had “gotten a personal pledge of $100,000 from a private business person if we can get” (the rest of the line is cut off). Entine also has a connection to the Institute for Food Technologists; he spoke about “anti-food activism” at IFT’s 2012 annual meeting.

Another person mentioned in the Monsanto emails, Karl Haro von Mogel – who had discussed with Sachs “the downsides of a film funded by the ‘Big 6’” and suggested “what would matter more than their money is their participation” – was interviewed in Food Evolution, and was also involved in filming one scene, which suggests some behind the scenes coordination with the filmmakers.

In reaction to the emails, Kennedy wrote on Twitter: “@foodevomovie has had ZERO $ or INPUT from #Monsanto. We are fully transparent & happy 2 have fact-based dialogue.”

He said in an interview, “that email exchange had absolutely nothing to do with our project whatsoever … we hadn’t even committed to making the film with IFT at that date in 2013.”

The people in the email exchange were not involved in filming or advising, he said, and Karl Haro von Mogel “was a subject in the film and had no involvement or influence on any creative/editorial decisions on the film at any point in the production. Also it may be useful to point out that the email conversation you reference occurred long before we ever even knew Karl or any of these people.”

Sneak Peek Behind the Scenes

Another email exchange obtained by US Right to Know offers a peek behind the scenes at the narrative development in Food Evolution. The exchange depicts Kennedy’s search for examples to feature for “us/developing world need GMO.”

“Any other ‘us/developing world need GMO’ you can give me names of aside from oranges? Shintakus lettuce?” Kennedy asked. Producer Trace Sheehan responded with a list of GMO products including drought-tolerant rice, allergy-free peanuts, carcinogen-free potatoes … “and then button with Golden Rice.”

When Kennedy pushed for “the top GMO crops currently in use, and what countries,” Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science wrote, “Really Bt brinjal in Bangladesh is the only one that is truly GMO in and is in widespread operation.”

The film’s frame-driven reporting ignores that detail about the lack of operational GMO solutions, and doesn’t mention that the closer example, vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, still isn’t available despite huge investments and years of trials, because it doesn’t work as well in the field as existing rice strains.

What is propaganda?

In a scene that is supposed to convey scientific credibility, Food Evolution flashes the logo of the American Council on Science and Health at the very moment Neil deGrasse Tyson says there is a global consensus on the safety of GMOs. It’s a fitting slip. ASCH is a corporate front group closely aligned with Monsanto.

The ACSH logo scene also appears in the background in this 2-minute clip from a recent Climate One debate, as Kennedy pushed back against the suggestion that his film is propaganda.

“How do we determine what is propaganda?” Kennedy asked. “I say one of the ways we do it is (to ask), are results asked for, or results promised? I was not asked for results and I did not promise results. If you have a problem with the film, the problem lies with me.”

This review originally appeared in Huffington Post and has been reprinted in Alternet. 

See also: Stacy Malkan’s follow-up article, Neil deGrasse Tyson Owes Fans a More Honest Conversation About GMOs than Food Evolution. “Interviews with several other GMO critics who appear in the film, or were asked to be in it, corroborate the picture of a strange process involving sneaky filming, selective editing, misrepresentation and lack of disclosure about the film’s funding.”

Science Media Centre Promotes Corporate Views of Science

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

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Key facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quotes about the Science Media Centre

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

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

Science Media Centre’s Corporate Funding

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

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

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

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

SMC foundational documents include:

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

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

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

Dick Taverne and Sense About Science

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

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

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

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

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

Revolutionary Communist Roots

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

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

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

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

Tactics

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

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

Examples of influence and bias

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

Lacking diverse perspectives

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

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

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

Experts aren’t always scientists

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

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

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

Strategic spin triumph on human/animal hybrid embryos

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

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

Williams found:

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

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

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

Promotes industry views on fracking

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

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

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

Discrediting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 

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

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

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

Cell phone safety and telecom funders

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

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

Defending GMO

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Coverage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On related group Sense About Science:

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

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

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