Does Science Media Centre Promote 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 charge SMC denies.

Update: See July 24 story in FAIR, “Reuters vs. Un Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?” Analysis of Kate Kelland’s coverage of IARC and close ties to Science Media Centre.

Key facts

The SMC was set up in the UK in 2002 “after media frenzies over MMR, GM crops and animal research” to help the news media better represent mainstream science, according to the SMC fact sheet.

According to the group’s 2002 founding report, SMC was created to address:

  • a growing “crisis of confidence ” in society’s views of science in the wake of media controversies over mad cow disease, GMOs and the MMR vaccine;
  • 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 to get their case across.

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 sometimes wields political influence. In 2007, SMC stopped a proposed ban on human/animal hybrid embryos with its media campaign that shifted coverage away from ethical concerns to the benefits of the 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.

SMC says it is “committed to reflecting the weight of scientific evidence and opinion, and one of our main aims is that the news media should better represent mainstream science.”

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

“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, Senior Lecturer and Director of MA in Science Journalism, City University London

“The problem is not that they promote science, as they say they do, but that they promote pro-corporate science.” David Miller, Professor of Sociology, University of Bath, United Kingdom

“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 Hopper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK

“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, PhD

“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, Guardian

SMC 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, especially when these big controversial stories were breaking,” 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 that now regularly hit the headlines,” according to its consultation report.

SMC foundational documents include:

  • February 2000 House of Lords committee report on Science and Society – describes a “crisis of trust” in society’s relationship with science, and recommended an initiative on the interface between science and the media.
  • September 2000 “Code of Practice / Guidelines on Science and Health Communication,” prepared by the Royal Society and Social Issues Research Center (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 the approaches SMC would use to “take up the gauntlet thrown down by the Lords to meet the ‘great challenge’ 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.” Wakeford quoted two politicians involved in the SMC effort:

“As (Lord Melvyn) Bragg warned, ‘if ignorance stirred to hysteria by sensationalism were to get in the driving seat, thousands of highly skilled and remarkable opportunities for self-fulfilment, wealth creation and knowledge formation would be lost.’ Advocate of GM crops, Lord (Dick) Taverne, argues that the media’s ‘sloppiness’ on issues of GM was now ‘undermining the health of our democracy.’

Before you can say ‘freedom of the press,’ a new Code of Practice has already been endorsed by Lord Wakeham’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC). 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 guidelines.

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 past public relations 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.

As 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 from experts: 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 by bringing new science or evidence to journalists” on a wide range of controversial 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 certain 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 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.

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, reported evidence that SMC promoted the views of certain psychiatrists while ignoring other evidence that contradicted the psychiatrists’ theory, in an effort to discredit people with ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

“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.”

“An organisation which behaves in such a blatantly unscientific way can have no legitimate claim to represent science.”

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.”

Pro GMO

SMC has been critical of studies that raise concerns about GMOs. In 2016, scientists pushed back against SMC expert reactions that 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

Food Evolution GMO Film Serves Up Chemical Industry Agenda

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This post is being updated with reviews of Food Evolution, and see below for USRTK review.

Letter from 45 academics: “Food Evolution deserves to be called out for what it is: a piece of propaganda.”

NYU Professor Marion Nestle: Food Evolution is a “slick piece of GMO industry propaganda.”

  • “I have asked repeatedly to have my short interview clip removed from this film. The director refuses. He believes his film is fair and balanced. I do not. I am often interviewed and hardly ever quoted incorrectly or out of context. This film is one of those rare exceptions.”
  • Follow-up post by Prof. Nestle. “A win for GMO Trolls: this blog no longer accepts comments.”

UC Berkeley Professor Michael Pollan:My experience and take much the same” and “This movie is funded by industry.”

UC Berkeley Associate Professor Alastair Iles: No evolution in thinking in Food Evolution

UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri: “Food Evolution is propaganda for public support of GMOs

Vice, by Alex Swerdloff: “Experts Call It Propaganda

Alternet, by Stacy Malkan: “Neil deGrasse Tyson Fans Deserve More than Twisted Tale on GMOs

By Stacy Malkan 

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 the 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. 

Glyphosate: Health Concerns About the Most Widely Used Pesticide

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Updates: Carey Gillam’s book about glyphosate is now available from Island Press. See also Gillam’s presentation about glyphosate to European Parliament committees and the Monsanto Papers archive of documents

Glyphosate is a synthetic herbicide patented in 1974 by the Monsanto Company, and now manufactured and sold by many companies in hundreds of products around the world. Glyphosate is best known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup branded herbicides.

Here are some key facts about glyphosate:

Most Widely Used Pesticide 

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

  • Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate since its introduction in 1974.
  • Worldwide 9.4 million tons 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.
  • Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready,” genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996.

Cancer Concerns

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The team of international scientists found there was a particularly strong link between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

On March 28, 2017, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment confirmed that 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.

The EPA convened a Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) in December 2016 to receive expert feedback from independent scientists about the assessment and the conclusion contained in the issue paper. The panel members were divided in their assessment of EPA’s work, with some finding the EPA erred in how it evaluated certain research and reached its conclusion. The EPA’s final report on glyphosate is scheduled to be released before the end of 2017.

According to an internal EPA document, two EPA departments disagreed with each other about glyphosate safety. The Office of Research and Development’s epidemiologists said the Office of Pesticide Programs had not followed proper agency protocol in determining glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

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 argues that regulators relied improperly on research that was directed and manipulated by the chemical industry.

The World Health Organization Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues also cleared glyphosate as unlikely to pose a risk to humans, although that group was tarnished by conflicts of interest regarding ties to the International Life Sciences Institute, a food industry front group.

Cancer Lawsuits

More than 50 lawsuits against Monsanto Co. are pending in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, filed by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks. The litigation has been consolidated as multidistrict litigation (MDL) for more efficient processing. Several hundred similar actions are pending in state courts.

In March 2017, the federal court judge overseeing the MDL 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.

U.S. Right to Know is posting key documents and analysis from the litigation.

Endocrine Disruption and Other Health Concerns

Some research has also indicated that glyphosate may be an endocrine disruptor; has been linked to liver disease, birth defects and reproductive problems in laboratory animals; and may kill beneficial gut bacteria and damage the DNA in human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

Many scientists have raised concerns about the health risks of glyphosate:

GMO Connection

Most genetically modified (GMO) crops – some 94% of soy and 89% of corn grown in the U.S., according to USDA data – are “herbicide tolerant” crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate exposure.

Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready” GMO crops were introduced in 1996, according to a study by Charles Benbrook in Environmental Sciences Europe.

Desiccation 

Farmers also 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, according to Benbrook.

Glyphosate Found in Food: U.S. Drags Its Feet on Testing

The USDA has quietly dropped a plan to start testing food for residues of glyphosate. 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 on April 1, 2017. Now the agency says the plan is dead. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began a limited testing program of its own 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 are the most recent findings about glyphosate levels in food:

  • Sept. 21, 2016: FDA found glyphosate in US honey at double the levels allowed in the EU.
  • Nov. 3, 2016: FDA chemist found glyphosate in honey in Iowa at 10X higher levels than allowed in EU.

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: New Data on Pesticides in Food Raises Safety Questions

New Research: GMO Insect Resistance Failing; Corn Crop in Jeopardy

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By Carey Gillam 

New research adds to evidence that the effectiveness of popular genetically engineered traits used to protect corn and cotton from insects is failing, putting U.S. corn production potential in jeopardy, and spurring a need for increased insecticide use.

The study, authored by a trio of independent researchers, documents resistance in a major crop pest called corn earworm, and adds to warnings that the popular GMO insect-resistant technology known as Bt, after the soil-dwelling bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, has lost its luster. It is noteworthy as the first long-term, in-field assessment of transgenic Bt corn’s effectiveness against one of the most damaging pests of sweet corn, field corn, cotton and many other high-value crops. Before publishing their findings, which cover 20 years of observations, the researchers presented them to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as to the corporations that developed and market the traits, said Galen Dively, a University of Maryland entomologist and lead researcher on the study.

Crops engineered with Bt genes express specific proteins known as (Cry proteins) that make the crops toxic to specific insects – the plants effectively provide their own insecticide – reducing the need for chemical applications. In 2015, more than 80 percent of the U.S. corn crop carried at least one Bt trait. Much of the corn now planted is engineered with multiple Bt Cry proteins, but the new research indicates that the insect (called earworm in corn but bollworm in cotton) is now able to survive multiple genetically engineered traits in a pyramided variety. Other research has shown wide failure of traits supposed to protect against the western corn rootworm as well, leaving farmers facing big and potentially costly problems as resistance builds, according to the researchers.

“With widespread use of genetically engineered crops, the targeted insects developing resistance to these protein is a major threat to the sustainability of the Bt technology,” researcher Dilip Venugopal wrote in a summary of the group’s findings. “Increasing damages by corn earworm to Bt field corn are reported already in North Carolina and Georgia, and corn earworm could become a major pest. We predict that corn earworm resistance to the Cry toxins is likely to increase, and spread. Therefore, the risk of damage to corn production across a large portion of U.S. is high.” Venugopal is a science and technology policy fellow working with a division of the EPA.

The research adds to evidence that after 20 years of use of crops engineered to tolerate herbicides and resist certain harmful insects, both technologies are losing effectiveness. The two most widely used types of GMO traits are glyphosate-tolerance, developed in soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and other crops; and the Bt insect-resistant trait. But at least 70 million acres of U.S. farmland have become infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds since the GMO crops were introduced. As well, signs of mounting insect resistance to the Bt technology have been raising concerns across the farm belt for the last several years. Last summer, scientists published research documenting increasing western corn rootworm resistance to the Bt proteins, and widespread corn damage was reported by farmers. Farmers are using more herbicides to try to control resistant weeds, and returning to insecticide use to combat the resistant pests, agricultural experts say.

Fred Gould, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, said the Dively work is a “very important study,” that does not bode well for future crop health. And University of Minnesota Extension Entomologist William Hutchinson said the study demonstrates a need for better monitoring of resistance in traits that still work. As the study showed, there is still very good effectiveness with varieties that contain both Vip3A+Cry1Ab, he pointed out.

One key misstep has been reliance on the “refuge-in-a-bag” (RIB) system that allowed farmers to avoid setting aside part of their fields as areas free of the Bt trait, a practice proven to discourage resistance. With the RIB system, however, researchers have found that farmers actually encouraged resistance by spreading uneven low doses of the Bt toxin to feeding insects throughout their fields, which helped build up resistance in the insects over time. The companies behind the Bt traits have encouraged refuge-in-a-bag. Seed giant Monsanto Co., which made $5.8 billion in sales of corn seeds and traits last year, has touted refuge-in-a-bag as fast and convenient for farmers, allowing them to plant the specialized seed “fence row to fence row.

The EPA shoulders a good deal of the blame for the problem, according to the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which criticized the agency last year for its handling of the resistance issues. Among other missteps, the agency has been too reliant on the seed and chemical industry to self-report the resistance issues, and has not provided farmers or researchers with a direct means to report resistance incidents to the regulators, according to the OIG.

The EPA also is too secretive with the information it does get from the seed companies, keeping compliance reports and monitoring data from the public. “Transparency is an EPA core value,” the OIG wrote. “The EPA has both information and the means to enhance transparency regarding its regulatory oversight of genetically engineered crops such as Bt corn.”

Trusting the industry to self-report is a particular problem because there is evidence the industry would rather not do so. An Iowa case of insect resistance found in 2009 was not reported as it should have been, for instance, the OIG said. The EPA has been working to correct the deficiencies laid out by the OIG by mid-2017.

The EPA said it is “conducting an analysis of this study and other information related to corn earworm resistance and will determine if improvements to the current resistance management strategies are warranted.” The EPA said as part of that process, it will hold a public meeting with a panel of scientific advisers later this year.

But it may well be too little too late. Time-tested agricultural practices such as crop rotation and a mix of other strategies are essential to combating resistance issues. Relying on one type of genetically engineered technology season after season is bound to fail eventually, according to agricultural experts.

“There’s nothing they can do about it,” said Dively. “There is pretty strong evidence it’s going to get worse,” said Dively.

New Data on Pesticides in Food Raises Safety Questions

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As American gather their families to share a Thanksgiving meal this week, new government data offers a potentially unappetizing assessment of the U.S. food supply: Residues of many types of insecticides, fungicides and weed killing chemicals have been found in roughly 85 percent of thousands of foods tested.

Data released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows varying levels of pesticide residues in everything from mushrooms to potatoes and grapes to green beans. One sample of strawberries contained residues of 20 pesticides, according to the “Pesticide Data Program” (PDP) report issued this month by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The report is the 25th annual such compilation of residue data for the agency, and covered sampling the USDA did in 2015

Notably, the agency said only 15 percent of the 10,187 samples tested were free from any detectable pesticide residues. That’s a marked difference from 2014, when the USDA found that over 41 percent of samples were “clean” or showed no detectable pesticide residues. Prior years also showed roughly 40-50 percent of samples as free of detectable residues, according to USDA data. The USDA said it is not “statistically valid” to compare one year to others, however, because the mix of food sampled changes each year. Still the data shows that 2015 was similar to the years prior in that fresh and processed fruits and vegetables made up the bulk of the foods tested.

Though it might sound distasteful, the pesticide residues are nothing for people to worry about, according to the USDA. The agency said “residues found in agricultural products sampled are at levels that do not pose risk to consumers’ health and are safe…”

But some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. Regulators do not have sufficient comprehensive research regarding how regular, repeated consumption of residues of multiple types of pesticides impact human health over the long term, and government assurances of safety are simply false, say some scientists.

“We don’t know if you eat an apple that has multiple residues every day what will be the consequences 20 years down the road,” said Chensheng Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “They want to assure everybody that this is safe but the science is quite inadequate. This is a big issue.”

The USDA said in its latest report that 441 of the samples it found were considered worrisome as “presumptive tolerance violations,” because the residues found either exceeded what is set as safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or they were found in foods that are not expected to contain the pesticide residues at all and for which there is no legal tolerance level. Those samples contained residues of 496 different pesticides, the USDA said.

Spinach, strawberries, grapes, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelon were among the foods found with illegal pesticide residue levels. Even residues of chemicals long banned in the United States were found, including residues of DDT or its metabolites found in spinach and potatoes. DDT was banned in 1972 because of health and environmental concerns about the insecticide.

Absent from the USDA data was any information on glyphosate residues, even though glyphosate has long been the most widely used herbicide in the world and is commonly sprayed directly on many crops, including corn, soy, wheat, and oats. It is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup herbicide, and was declared a probable human carcinogen last year by a team of international cancer scientists working with the World Health Organization. But Monsanto has said glyphosate residues on food are safe. The company asked the EPA to raise tolerance levels for glyphosate on several foods in 2013 and the EPA did so.

The Food and Drug Administration also annually samples foods for residues of pesticides. New documents obtained from the FDA show illegal levels of two types of insecticides – propargite, used to kill mites, and flonicamid, usually aimed at killing aphids and whiteflies – were recently found in honey. Government documents also show that DEET, a common insect repellant, was recently detected by regulators in honey, and the herbicide acetochlor was found on mushrooms.

FDA scientists also reported illegally high levels of the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam found in rice, according to information from the agency. Syngenta has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to allow for higher residues of thiamethoxam permitted in numerous crops because the company wants it to have expanded use as a leaf spray. That request with EPA is still pending, according to an agency spokeswoman.

The most recent public residue report issued by the FDA shows that violation rates for pesticide residues have been climbing in recent years. Residue violations in domestic food samples totaled 2.8 percent for the year 2013; double the rate seen in 2009. Violations totaled 12.6 percent for imported foods in 2013, up from 4 percent in 2009.

Like the USDA, the FDA has skipped glyphosate in decades of testing for pesticide residues. But the agency did launch a “special assignment” this year to determine what levels of glyphosate might be showing up in a small group of foods. An FDA chemist reported finding glyphosate residues in honey and several oatmeal products, including baby food.

Private testing data released this month also reported the presence of glyphosate residues in Cheerios cereal, Oreo cookies and a variety of other popular packaged foods.

QUESTIONS ON CUMULATIVE IMPACTS

Whether or not consumers should worry about food containing pesticide residues is a matter of ongoing dispute. The trio of federal agencies involved in pesticide residue issues all point to what they refer to as “maximum residue limits” (MRLs), or “tolerances,” as benchmarks for safety. The EPA uses data supplied by the agrichemical industry to help determine where MRLs should be set for each pesticide and each crop the pesticides are expected to be used with.

As long as most of foods sampled show pesticide residues in food below the MRLs, there is no reason to worry, the USDA maintains. “The reporting of residues present at levels below the established tolerance serves to ensure and verify the safety of the Nation’s food supply,” the 2015 residue report states. The agrichemical industry offers even broader assurances, saying there is nothing to fear from consuming residues of the chemicals it sells farmers for use in food production, even if they exceed legal tolerances.

But many scientists say the tolerances are designed to protect the pesticide users more than consumers. Tolerances vary widely depending upon the pesticide and the crop. The tolerance for the insecticide chlorpyrifos on an apple, for instance, is very different than the amount of chlorpyrifos allowed on citrus fruits, or on a banana or in milk, according to government tolerance data.

In the case of chlorpyrifos, the EPA has actually said it wants to revoke all food tolerances because studies have linked the chemical to brain damage in children. Though the agency has long considered residues of chlorpyrifos safe, now the agency says, they may not be.

The “EPA cannot, at this time, determine that aggregate exposure to residues of chlorpyrifos, including all anticipated dietary exposures and all other non-occupational exposures for which there is reliable information, are safe,” the EPA said last year. Dow AgroSciences, which developed chlorpyrifos in the 1960s, is protesting the EPA efforts, arguing chlorpyrifos is a “critical tool” for farmers. In the latest USDA residue report, chlorpyrifos was found in peaches, apples, spinach, strawberries, nectarines and other foods, though not at levels considered to violate tolerances.

The EPA defends its work with tolerances, and says it has been complying with the Food Quality Protection Act that requires the EPA to consider the cumulative effects of residues of substances “that have a common mechanism of toxicity.” The agency says to set a tolerance for a pesticide, it looks at studies submitted by pesticide companies to identify possible harmful effects the chemical could have on humans, the amount of the chemical likely to remain in or on food and other possible exposures to the same chemical.

But critics say that is not good enough – assessments must consider more realistic scenarios that take into account the broader cumulative impacts of many different types of pesticide residues to determine how safe it is to consume the mixtures seen in a daily diet, they say. Given that several pesticides commonly used in food production have been linked to disease, declines in cognitive performance, developmental disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children, there is an urgent need for more in-depth analysis of these cumulative impacts, according to many scientists. They point to the National Research Council’s declaration years ago that “dietary intake represents the major source of pesticide exposure for infants and children, and the dietary exposure may account for the increased pesticide-related health risks in children compared with adults.”

“With the ubiquitous exposure to chemical mixtures, assurances of safety based on lists of individual toxicity thresholds can be quite misleading,” said Lorrin Pang, an endocrinologist with the Hawaii Department of Health and a former advisor to the World Health Organization.

Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA senior scientist and policy advisor who specializes in environmental pollutants and child health, said there is a clear need for more research. Woodruff directs the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

“This is not a trivial matter,” she said. “The whole idea of looking at cumulative exposures is a hot topic with scientists. Evaluating individual tolerances as if they occur in solo is not an accurate reflection of what we know – people are exposed to multiple chemicals at the same time and the current approaches do not scientifically account for that.”

Critics say scrutiny of pesticide safety is likely to only soften given President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to name Myron Ebell to oversee transition efforts at the EPA. Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is a staunch advocate of pesticides and their safety.

“Pesticide levels rarely, if ever, approach unsafe levels. Even when activists cry wolf because residues exceed federal limits that does not mean the products are not safe,” states the SAFEChemicalPolicy.org website Ebell’s group runs. “In fact, residues can be hundreds of times above regulatory limits and still be safe.”

The mixed messages make it hard for consumers to know what to believe about the safety of pesticide residues in food, said Therese Bonanni, a clinical dietitian at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

“Although the cumulative effect of consuming these toxins over a lifetime is not yet known, short-term data suggests there is certainly a reason to be cautious,” she said. “The message to consumers becomes very confusing.”

(Article first appeared in The Huffington Post)

Glyphosate ‘Revolution’ Growing — Consumers Want Answers

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By Carey Gillam 

They’re calling it a glyphosate “revolution.” Consumers around the world are waking up to the fact that they’re living in a world awash in the weed-killing pesticide known as glyphosate. And they don’t like it one bit.

Over the last several years, some scientists have been warning that the long-touted environmental and health safety promises associated with glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup, may not be as iron-clad as asserted. Last year’s finding by the World Health Organization’s cancer research experts that glyphosate “probably” is a human carcinogen sparked a firestorm that only grows more heated by the day. Consumers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are now demanding that regulators step up and restrict or ban glyphosate herbicides – the most widely used in the world – to protect both human health and the environment.

Glyphosate’s current license for use in the EU expires in June, and the European Union recently delayed making a decision on extending the registration due to the controversy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is similarly stymied. Last month a petition signed by thousands of Americans was presented to EPA demanding glyphosate be revoked in the United States. A group of U.S. scientists and activists has a meeting scheduled with the EPA on June 14 to try to convince the regulatory agency it needs to restrict or ban glyphosate. The agency is trying to finish a long-overdue new risk assessment for the chemical.

More fuel was added to the fire this week when a coalition of scientists and activists working through what they call “The Detox Project” announced that testing at a University of California San Francisco laboratory revealed glyphosate in the urine of 93 percent of a sample group of 131 people. The group said it used a method known as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry or LC/MS/MS, to analyze urine and water samples. (The group said it found no glyphosate residues in tap water.) Further data from this public bio-monitoring study will be released later in 2016, according to the group overseeing the testing.

In the urine tests, glyphosate was detected at an average level of 3.096 parts per billion (PPB) with children having the highest levels with an average of 3.586 PPB, according to Henry Rowlands, director of the Detox Project.

Private groups have already been testing foods for glyphosate residues in the absence of testing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and they have found residues in a variety of products on grocery store shelves. Glyphosate is used widely in production of numerous food crops, most notably with biotech crops genetically engineered to tolerate being sprayed directly with glyphosate. The FDA said in February it would start some limited testing for food residues, but has provided few details.

Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist from London who has been studying glyphosate concerns for years and is supporting the Detox Project, said more testing is needed. “With increasing evidence from laboratory studies showing that glyphosate-based herbicides can result in a wide range of chronic illnesses through multiple mechanisms, it has become imperative to ascertain the levels of glyphosate in food and in as large a section of the human population as possible,” he said in a statement.

The Detox Project is billing itself as a platform for consumers to submit their personal bodily fluids for testing. The urine testing was commissioned by the Organic Consumers Association, and one of the objectives is to gather research to determine if eating an organic diet has any effect on the level of synthetic chemicals in people’s bodies.

Earlier in May test results for urine samples from members of the European Parliament also showed glyphosate in their systems.

Monsanto and leading agrichemical scientists say glyphosate is among the safest of pesticides on the market, and essential to robust food production. They point to decades of safety studies and regulatory approvals around the world. They say even if glyphosate residues are in food, water and bodily fluids, they aren’t harmful.

Support for that argument came last week from a United Nations panel of scientists who proclaimed that a thorough review of the scientific literature made it clear that glyphosate was probably not carcinogenic to humans. But the finding was quickly pilloried as tainted because the chairman of the panel, Alan Boobis, also helps run the International Life Science Institute (ILSI), which has received more than $500,000 from Monsanto and other large donations from additional agrichemical interests.

The uproar over glyphosate shows no sign of easing. Next month, the consumer group Moms Across America is launching a “National Toxin Free Town Tour” to crisscross the country to advocate for a pull back on glyphosate and other chemicals seen as harmful.

To be sure, glyphosate, which is used in hundreds of herbicide products globally, is only one of many chemicals pervasive in today’s environment. It seems that everywhere we turn, worrisome chemicals are found in our food supply, our water, our air, our land. Heightened consumer awareness about glyphosate comes as consumers are increasingly demanding more information and tighter controls on many aspects of how their food is produced.

Those behind the Detox Project have an agenda, just as do many of the group’s pushing for regulatory restrictions, and those supporting continued use of glyphosate. But the concern about glyphosate’s impact on human health and the environment cannot be swept aside.

On one of its webpages, Monsanto uses the motto “We May Not Have All the Answers But We Keep on Searching.”

The consumer groups pushing for more testing and more regulatory controls on glyphosate are saying the same thing.

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

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist and now research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group.  Follow Carey Gillam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careygillam

Organic Trade Meets in D.C. as Battle Brews Over Standards

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This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

It’s “Organic Week” again in Washington, D.C., and attendees of the “signature policymaking event” for the Organic Trade Association (OTA) have much to celebrate. Last week, the OTA, the leading voice for the organic industry, announced that the sector posted its largest-ever annual dollar gain in 2015, with total organic retail sales growing by $4.2 billion, or 11 percent, to a record of $43.3 billion.

“Fueled by consumer choice, organic is the future of farming,” the OTA said in a statement touting the conference, which runs May 23-May 27.

Still, the industry acknowledges that future is clouded by persistent supply shortages in the face of what OTA calls the “seemingly unquenchable consumer demand for organic.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is slated to address the OTA Wednesday, to tell organic leaders that the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to make it easier for new farmers to become certified organic and to help the organic sector with its demand problem.

But across the country, in a federal courtroom in California, a group of consumer and environmental lawyers and nonprofit groups are raising a red flag in the face of the USDA push to grow the organic sector. Corners are being cut, they allege. Standards are being shirked, and consumers are being short-changed by USDA National Organic Program standard changes.

A hearing is scheduled Thursday in one key case involving synthetic chemicals in compost in organic production. The Center for Environmental Health, the Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides sued Vilsack and other USDA officials last year for issuing a guidance document in 2010 that “radically changed organic requirements.” Under the new provision, organic producers can use compost materials that have been treated with synthetic pesticides that otherwise are banned from organic use.

Under the changes introduced by USDA, organic producers can use materials such as lawn trimmings that have been contaminated with synthetic pesticides as compost feedstocks for their crops. Compost contaminated with an insecticide known as bifenthrin and other pesticides are now allowed, the lawsuit alleges.

This flouts a key appeal of organics – the idea that synthetic pesticides have little to no place in production, the groups argue. And the agency violated the law by failing to give public notice or allow for public comment as they created this “loophole,” the groups allege.

“Organic consumers are being misled, and can no longer rely on the organic label to ensure the food they purchase is produced without synthetic pesticides in agricultural inputs,” the lawsuit states.

The Center for Food Safety and other plaintiffs describe themselves in court pleadings as working to protect the environment and public health and to act as a watchdog on the integrity of organic production. They expected the OTA to back up their bid for organic integrity, or at least not to try to get in their way. But on May 2, OTA asked to participate in the case not on the side of the consumer advocates but against them.

In its filing, OTA, along with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) have joined with Western Growers Association (WG), which represents farmers responsible for roughly a third of fresh U.S. organic produce, to oppose the consumer protection groups over the compost issue. The OTA and other industry groups are arguing that if the USDA provision allowing for synthetic pesticides in compost is thrown out by the court, organic practices would be “severely unsettled.”

The groups say in court filings that it would be analytically and economically impossible to demonstrate all compost is free of each synthetic chemical substance prohibited in organic crop production. They say a sudden elimination of the compost provision could lead to costly civil litigation and many growers’ organic certifications would be directly at risk. Unwinding the USDA’s “professional and responsible approach to a complex subject” would be “extremely disruptive,” the organic groups say.

The plaintiffs counter that such claims of disruptive consequences are a “red herring.” An erosion of organic standards may help expand production and meet consumer demands, but such a path could make for a slippery slope and an ultimate demise of the draw organics hold. “These environmental values, and specifically not supporting pesticide-dependent agriculture, are a major driver to why consumers pay the premium to buy organic foods,” their filing states.

Thursday’s hearing in San Francisco will take up pending cross motions for summary judgment in the case. Meanwhile back in Washington, the OTA will be marking “advocacy day,” fanning out through Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and push for policies that support continued organic industry growth.

Consumers would do well to keep an eye on both.

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist and now research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group.  Follow Carey Gillam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careygillam 

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U.S. Review of GMOs Finds Risks, Rewards; Calls for Transparency

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By Carey Gillam

A new study of genetically modified crop technology by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offers a mix of observations about the controversial crops, and takes U.S. regulators to task for an ongoing lack of transparency that is fueling distrust by consumers and calls for mandatory labeling of GMO foods.

The lengthy report, sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, runs roughly 400-pages and seeks to address a range of environmental, health, social and regulatory issues surrounding genetically engineered (GE) crop technology. It is the culmination of work by a committee that includes scientists specializing in ecology, genetics and crop health from several state universities, as well as experts from the International Food Policy Research Institute, and other groups.

The release is timely, coming as Congress is debating whether or not GMO foods should be labeled, and as the Environmental Protection Agency assesses if glyphosate, a widely used herbicide whose use has increased with the commercialization of glyphosate-tolerant GMO crops, should be restricted.

Both critics and fans can point to findings they deem favorable, but the broad take-away from the committee’s work is that while GMOs on the market today appear not to pose a risk to human health, there should be greater accountability to a wary public and more independent study of a range of potential risks.

The committee steered clear of taking a stand on the current hot-button issue of GMO labeling, declining to clearly endorse either the consumer groups who want mandatory labeling of GMO foods or the food and agribusiness players who want to block mandatory labeling like the law set to take effect in Vermont on July 1. But the committee did state that GMO labeling “serves purposes that go beyond food safety.”

“There clearly are strong non-safety arguments and considerable public support for mandatory labeling of products containing GE material. The committee does not believe that mandatory labeling of foods with GE content is justified to protect public health… however, product labeling serves purposes that go beyond food safety. U.S. policy-makers and the private sector have the ability to address the broader social and economic issues and to balance the competing interests involved.”

The committee further stressed a need for public accountability when it discussed regulatory reviews of these GMO crops.

“Transparency and public participation have been shown by research to be critically important for appropriate, sound, and credible governance of all aspects of the development, deployment, and use of GE crops.”

The committee said that much of the information submitted to regulatory agencies seeking approval of new GMO products is kept secret, treated as “confidential business information.” This lack of public access to health and safety data submitted by developers creates distrust, the committee said.

“Given a developer’s self-interest in getting a product approved and its control over the material considered by the agency, the lack of access creates skepticism about the quality of the data.”

The committee pointed out that in 2002 the U.S. General Accounting Office (now Government Accountability Office) recommended that the Food and Drug Administration randomly verify raw test data provided by a GMO developer, but there is no evidence FDA has adopted that recommendation.

The committee said when it comes to environmental problems, the committee did not find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. “However, evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem.”

The committee criticized USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for not requiring post-market controls and monitoring of GMO crops, which the committee said could have mitigated resistance problems before they spread.

When seeking to address a number of concerns about the health impacts of consumption of foods made with GMO crops. the committee said that there was little evidence of specific links:

“The committee concluded that no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts. The committee states this finding very carefully, acknowledging that any new food—GE or non-GE—may have some subtle favorable or adverse health effects that are not detected even with careful scrutiny and that health effects can develop over time.”

Regarding specific concerns about GMOs and concerns about ties to allergies, the committee said that “testing for allergenicity before commercialization could miss allergens to which the population had not previously been exposed,” and “post-commercialization allergen testing would be useful in ensuring that consumers are not exposed to allergens,” though the committee said it realized such testing would be difficult to conduct.

NO GMO YIELD GAIN

In another notable finding, the committee’s work countered the credibility of often-repeated industry propaganda that genetically engineered crops are necessary to “feed the world” because they yield so much more than non-GMO crops.

The report found little foundation for the claims of yield benefit, however:

“The committee examined data on overall rates of increase in yields of soybean, cotton, and maize in the U.S. for the decades preceding introduction of GE crops and after their introduction, and there was no evidence that GE crops had changed the rate of increase in yields.”

The committee’s work also addressed another hot-button issue – the safety of the herbicide glyphosate. Though agrichemical interests say the safety of the herbicide is firmly established and accepted by the world’s scientific community, the NAS committee said there “is significant disagreement among expert committees on the potential harm that could be caused by the use of glyphosate on GE crops and in other applications.”

The committee also addressed the dicey new debate over emerging genome editing technologies that are billed by developers as decreasing the risks of unintended changes in the plants. The committee found that this decreased risk should simplify food safety testing. However, the committee also warned that “major changes in metabolic pathways or insertion of multiple resistance genes will complicate the determination of food safety because changes in metabolic pathways are known to have unexpected effects on plant metabolites.”

As part of the study, the committee said it examined almost 900 research and other publications on the development, use, and effects of genetically engineered characteristics in corn, soybean, and cotton, which account for almost all commercial GE crops to date. As well, the committee said it listened to 80 speakers at three public meetings and 15 public webinars, and read more than 700 comments from members of the public.

The committee didn’t provide all the answers, and indeed in many ways, raised new questions. But the committee call for more transparency to a skeptical public was loud and clear. Lawmaker, regulators and crop developers would do well to answer that call.

Clock is Ticking on GMO Labeling Issue

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After years of state-by-state battles over consumer calls for mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), time is quickly running out for the agribusiness and food manufacturing industries working to block such labeling.

The threat that ticking clock holds for the food industry was underscored Tuesday in a hastily held meeting of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. With less than an hour of discussion, members voted 14-6 to move forward with legislation that would prohibit state GMO labeling laws, notably one set to take effect July 1 in Vermont. Other states are considering similar laws.

The measure preempts “any state or political subdivision law relating to the labeling of whether food or seed is genetically engineered or developed or produced using genetic engineering” and “authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate regulations establishing a national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard.”

The measure also outlaws any “express or implied claims regarding safety or quality based on whether food is or is not bioengineered or produced or developed with the use of bioengineering…”

Many of the senators in Tuesday’s meeting cited the notion that something had to be done quickly before Vermont’s labeling law takes effect.

“We’re running out of time,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota. She was one of three Democrats who joined with Republicans to vote for the bill –  She and other ag committee members said the bill needs work – “compromise” – before it can pass the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas and the bill’s sponsor, has been working with ranking member Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, to find a compromise that could pass the full Senate.

Compromise may be hard to come by. Consumer advocates for what has become known as the “Right to Know” movement across the country see labeling on a voluntary basis as little more than a slap in the face to millions of consumers who have concerns about the health and environmental impacts of GMO crops, and want to know if GMOs are used in the food they buy and consume. And nullifying a law already passed in Vermont only adds to the insult to voters and consumers.

“It is very disturbing that Republicans in Congress, while blocking any meaningful legislation, have found the time to push a law that deprives Vermont’s citizens their right to know about the food they buy, and could rescind over one hundred and thirty other state laws on food and seed,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.

Those who want to see mandatory labeling say that among their concerns about GMO foods is a worry that the herbicide glyphosate, which is widely used on genetically modified crops, is harmful to human health. Residues of the pesticide have been detected in foods, and a World Health Organization research unit earlier this year said glyphosate was a probable cause of cancer in humans.

In the meantime, the food and agribusiness fear of labeling, and the efforts to scare consumers over the issue, only promises to heat up. Ironically, the food industry doesn’t just admit that they fear consumers will turn away from GMO foods if they are labeled; the industry embraces that fear as a central theme.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a chief backer of the legislation and other food industry backers warn that if labeling is required, consumers will turn away from GMO foods in droves, meaning farmers who grow GMO crops – the bulk of which are corn and soy –  will suffer and food costs will soar. They give little to no nod to farmers who grow a multitude of other organic or conventional crops.

In a blog published Tuesday in The Hill,  Lorraine Merrill, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, said: “Mandatory labeling of foods derived from biotechnology will create a ‘skull and crossbones effect’ on our safe and affordable food supply which will generate or exacerbate fears of advanced genetic techniques… If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up.”

The measure now heads to the full Senate where passage is expected to be tricky. Sixty votes will be required to overcome a filibuster, and both senators from Vermont – Sen Patrick Leahy and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders – promise to oppose the law.

The GOP-backed bill would “move production methods into the shadows” and “give agriculture a black eye,” Leahy told The Hill. “The legislation undermines the public’s right to know.”

Stabenow has been quoted saying that if the law is to pass the Senate, “it must contain a pathway to a national system of mandatory disclosure that provides consumers the information they need and want to make informed choices.”

A similar measure backed by Republicans was passed last July by the U.S. House of Representatives, 275-150. Only 45 Democrats voted for the bill.

Kimbrell said on Tuesday that supporters of mandatory labeling would be pushing senators to vote against the bill.

“The Democrats who consented to pushing this bill forward will certainly be hearing from the food movement,” Kimbrell said.

Big Campaign Cash for Clinton from Monsanto Lobbyist

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A Monsanto Co. lobbyist, who is seen as Hillary Clinton’s “main man” in Iowa, was among the top financial bundlers of contributions to benefit Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House in the most recent quarter, new Federal Election Commission reports show.

Jerry Crawford of the Crawford & Mauro Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa, bundled $151,727 for the campaign over the quarter ending Dec. 31, FEC documents show. Crawford is senior adviser to Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and was the Midwest Co-Chair of the Hillary Clinton for President Campaign in 2007-08. His firm listed Monsanto as a client in the most recent quarter, reporting $60,000 in lobbying income from Monsanto. Monsanto is known as one of the nation’s most powerful corporations, and is currently engaged in a range of public policy debates over regulation of its genetically modified crops and top herbicide product, Roundup.

Another Monsanto lobbyist, Steve Elmendorf, bundled $20,295 in contributions for the Hillary for America organization during the quarter, FEC documents show.  Elmendorf also does work for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has been battling against mandatory labeling laws for foods made with GMOs.

The total of all bundlers for Clinton campaign over the quarter was $716,981, according to the FEC documents.

Clinton is widely seen as a friend to genetically engineered crop technology and agrichemical interests, while her chief competitor for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, has been a supporter of mandatory GMO labeling.