Propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view
Just four corporations now control more than 60% of the global supply of seeds and pesticides. Public oversight of their activities is crucial for a safe and healthy food supply. Yet these companies – Monsanto/Bayer, DowDuPont, Syngenta and BASF – have documented histories of hiding the health risks and environmental harms of their products. Since their records do not inspire trust, these companies rely on third-party allies to promote and defend their products.
U.S. Right to Know has uncovered many documents that shine light on the hidden corporate connections of front groups, academics, journalists and regulators who work with the pesticide companies to promote GMOs and pesticides and discredit critics, including journalists, scientists and public health groups; the following fact sheets document our findings.
Update: Newly released Monsanto documents reveal their full-court-press campaign to try to discredit our investigation and the work of our colleague, journalist and author Carey Gillam. “USRTK’s investigation has the potential to impact the entire industry,” according to Monsanto. See the documents here.
This fact sheet describes the contents of Monsanto’s confidential public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, the international group of experts on the IARC panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.
The Monsanto plan names more than a dozen “industry partner” groups that company executives planned to “inform / inoculate / engage” in their efforts to protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent the “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies.” Partners included academics as well as chemical and food industry front groups, trade groups and lobby groups — follow the links below to fact sheets that provide more information about the partner groups.
Together these fact sheets provide a sense of the depth and breadth of the corporate attack on the IARC cancer experts in defense of Monsanto’s top-selling herbicide.
Monsanto’s objectives for dealing with the IARC carcinogenicity rating for glyphosate (page 5).
A key document released in 2017 in legal proceedings against Monsanto describes the corporation’s “preparedness and engagement plan” for the IARC cancer classification for glyphosate, the world’s most widely used agrichemical. The internal Monsanto document — dated Feb. 23, 2015 — assigns more than 20 Monsanto staffers to objectives including “neutralize impact of decision,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “lead voice in ‘who is IARC’ plus 2B outrage.” On March 20, 2015, IARC announced its decision to classify glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Page 5 of the Monsanto document identifies four tiers of “industry partners” that Monsanto executives planned to engage in its IARC preparedness plan. These groups together have a broad reach and influence in pushing a narrative about cancer risk that protects corporate profits.
Tier 1 industry partners are agrichemical industry-funded lobby and PR groups.
Tier 3 industry partners are food-industry funded nonprofit and trade groups. These groups were tapped to, “Alert food companies via Stakeholder Engagement team (IFIC, GMA, CFI) for ‘inoculation strategy’ to provide early education on glyphosate residue levels, describe science-based studies versus agenda-driven hypotheses” of the independent cancer panel.
Tier 4 industry partners are “key grower’s associations.” These are the various trade groups representing corn, soy and other industrial growers and food manufacturers.
Orchestrating outcry against the cancer report on glyphosate
Monsanto’s PR document described their plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.”
How that played out can be seen in the writings of the industry partner groups that used common messaging and sources to accuse the cancer research agency of wrongdoing and attempt to discredit the scientists who worked on the glyphosate report.
Examples of the attack messaging can be seen on the Genetic Literacy Project website. This group claims to be an independent source on science, however, documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Genetic Literacy Project works with Monsanto on PR projects without disclosing those collaborations. Jon Entine launched the group in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his PR firm. This is a classic front group tactic; moving a company’s messaging through a group that claims to be independent but isn’t.
Plan suggests Sense About Science to “lead industry response”
Monsanto’s PR document discusses plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.” The plan suggests the group Sense About Science (in brackets with a question mark) for “leads industry response and provides platform for IARC observers and industry spokesperson.”
Page 2 of the Monsanto PR document identifies the first external deliverable for planning and preparation: “Engage Henry Miller” to “inoculate / establish public perspective on IARC and reviews.”
“I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.”
Henry I. Miller, MD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, has a long documented history of working with corporations to defend hazardous products. The Monsanto plan identifies the “MON owner” of the task as Eric Sachs, Monsanto’s science, technology and outreach lead.
Documents later reported by The New York Times reveal that Sachs emailed Miller a week before the IARC glyphosate report to ask if Miller was interested in writing about the “controversial decision.” Miller responded, “I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.” On March 23, Miller posted an article on Forbes that “largely mirrored” the draft provided by Monsanto, according to the Times. Forbes severed its relationship with Miller in the wake of the ghostwriting scandal and deleted his articles from the site.
Monsanto’s senior science lead Daniel Goldstein wrote his colleagues, “I can assure you I am not all starry eyed about ACSH- they have PLENTY of warts- but: You WILL NOT GET A BETTER VALUE FOR YOUR DOLLAR than ACSH” (emphasis his). Goldstein sent links to dozens of ACSH materials promoting and defending GMOs and pesticides that he described as “EXTREMELY USEFUL.”
Newsweek failed to disclose the chemical industry connections of two opinion writers who argued today in an op-ed that glyphosate can’t be regulated. The commentary by Henry I. Miller and Stuart Smyth, both of whom have ties to Monsanto that were not disclosed in the piece, appeared soon after a federal jury handed cancer victim Edwin Hardeman an $80 million verdict against Monsanto (now Bayer), and said the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide was a “substantial factor” in causing Hardeman’s cancer.
Last year, we complained to Newsweek’s opinion editor about an op-ed Dr. Miller wrote attacking the organic industry that was based on pesticide industry sources and didn’t disclose Miller’s Monsanto ties. See our bizarre email exchange with the editor, Nicholas Wapshott, in which he declined to inform readers about the conflicts of interest. Wapshott is no longer at Newsweek, but Miller’s organic food attack still appears there, and today it was surrounded by Bayer advertisements promoting glyphosate.
Bayer ads surrounding Dr. Miller’s 2018 attack on organic food – March 28, 2019
Today’s op-ed in Newsweek, in which Miller and Smyth defended Monsanto and Roundup, provided these bios: Stuart J. Smyth is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and holds the Industry Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
Here’s what Newsweek did not disclose to its readers about the authors:
Henry Miller’s Monsanto ties:
In 2017, the New York Times reported that Dr. Miller published an article in Forbes defending glyphosate that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto. Forbes severed ties with Miller and deleted all his articles.
Miller has a long history of partnering with – and pitching his PR services to – corporations that need help convincing the public their products aren’t dangerous and don’t need to be regulated.
Stuart Smyth’s Monsanto ties:
Dr. Smyth also collaborates with the agrichemical industry on PR projects, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and published in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive.
Emails from 2016 indicate that Dr. Smyth receives “program support” from Monsanto. The email from Monsanto Canada’s Public and Industry Affairs Director asks Dr. Smyth to send the “invoice for this year’s contribution.”
Newsweek has a duty to inform its readers about the chemical industry connections of writers and sources who argue in Newsweek for the safety and necessity of pesticides linked to cancer.
How badly did Monsanto want to discredit international cancer scientists who found the company’s glyphosate herbicide to be a probable human carcinogen and promote a counter message of glyphosate safety instead? Badly enough to allocate about $17 million for the mission, in just one year alone, according to evidence obtained by lawyers representing cancer victims suing Monsanto.
That detail and others about the internal workings of Monsanto public relations operations have come to light in a Jan. 22 video-taped deposition of Monsanto executive Sam Murphey. Murphey’s job at Monsanto included directing global media relations and “advocacy efforts in support of major litigation, policy matters, and reputational threats” involving the company’s glyphosate-based herbicide business. And one of the biggest threats came from those cancer scientists. Murphey now works for Bayer after the German company purchased Monsanto last summer.
U.S. District judge Vince Chhabria did not allow Murphey’s disclosure of the anti-IARC budget to be introduced into evidence in the Hardeman V. Monsanto trial, which went to the jury for deliberation on Tuesday. Jurors in that San Francisco case already determined that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup caused Hardeman’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but now are weighing damages.
But the Murphey evidence is expected to be introduced at the Pilliod V. Monsanto trial that concluded jury selection in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, California on Tuesday. The parties selected a jury of 12 members and five alternates. Opening statements in that case are expected Thursday.
It has been four years since the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reviewed the published and peer-reviewed scientific literature regarding glyphosate and found the herbicide to be probably carcinogenic, with a particular association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. IARC is part of the World Health Organization and has classified over 1,000 substances as to their cancer hazard, typically without too much controversy.
But glyphosate was different. Following the March 2015 classification, hundreds, and then thousands, of people diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma after exposures to Monsanto’s herbicides filed suit against the agrochemical giant.
Also immediately after the IARC classification of glyphosate – and continuing to this day – the cancer scientists became the subject of sweeping condemnation from an assortment of organizations, individuals and even some U.S. lawmakers. They have been accused of operating not on sound science but on behalf of a political agenda, cherry-picking data, and promoting junk science, among other things. The criticisms have been magnified and repeated around the world in news articles, opinion pieces, blogs, Internet Google advertisements and more.
Internal Monsanto documents that have surfaced through discovery for the more than 11,000 lawsuits filed against the company show that among other tactics, Monsanto has been secretly using third parties for its anti-IARC messaging because company executives and public relations agents thought the information would appear more credible coming from entities separate from Monsanto.
In his deposition, Murphey was asked how much the company spent trying to cast doubt upon the IARC classification.
Here is a bit of the exchange:
Plaintiff attorney Pedram Esfandiary: “So it’s true that Monsanto’s allocated millions of dollars in responding to the IARC classification, correct?”
Murphey: “We — we have — we had to spend a significant amount of resources, over several years now, correcting misinformation, and addressing questions in the public about — about glyphosate.”
Esfandiary: “Has Monsanto allocated millions of dollars to responding to the IARC classification?”
Esfandiary: “Do you know roughly how much Monsanto allocated to it in 2016?”
Murphey: “I can only speak within the context of, you know, public affairs activities, you know, things that I would have been directly involved in. But in 2016, you know, I believe for some of the projects I was involved in, it was around 16 or 17 million.”
Esfandiary: “$16 or 17 million… was allocated to responding to the IARC clarification (stet) ?
Murphey: “No, not specifically and solely focused on IARC. It’s — it would have focused on engagement and media relations and other activities on glyphosate, more generally.”
Esfandiary then asked Murphey how much it would have cost the company to perform a long-term cancer bioassay test of its formulated glyphosate products, something the company has acknowledged it never did. Murphey said he did not know.
The year 2016 was a particularly critical time for Monsanto because in addition to facing litigation, the company’s glyphosate license was up for renewal in Europe, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was also reviewing glyphosate’s registration.
HOW WAS THE MONEY SPENT?
In the deposition, Murphey was asked about a July 2015 internal Monsanto document called “IARC Follow Up” that cited a goal to “invalidate relevance of IARC” and “protect freedom to operate” (FTO). He was asked about a host of actions undertaken to minimize or discredit IARC’s work that were laid out in that and other internal Monsanto communications. Several pages of the deposition are completely redacted, per court order, so it is not possible to see all of what was said by Murphey in his deposition. But here are a few examples of what was discussed:
Amplifying pro-glyphosate/Roundup messaging through “third-party channels.” One example of using an outside party to parrot Monsanto talking points was an article that appeared on the Forbes contributor platform that appeared to be written by Henry Miller, who at the time was a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Internal Monsanto documents show the piece criticizing IARC was actually drafted by Monsanto and sent to Miller with a request for him to publish the materials.
Other Op-Ed maneuvers. Just prior to the IARC classification, Monsanto executive Dan Goldstein discussed five “potential draft Op Eds he said he had written for “medical toxicologists to work from” that included “paragraphs on criticism of IARC.” Goldstein was emailing the draft opinion articles out to doctors and scientists with the hope that they would adopt the drafts as their own and have them published, the records show. Monsanto was available to “coordinate Op Ed versions” as needed, Murphey said in his deposition.
“Let Nothing Go” strategy. According to Murphey, the initiative involved “carefully monitoring media coverage” with a focus on the European Union. “We had a number of markets we were — we were prioritizing,” Murphey said. The project called for monitoring stories and highlighting or flagging those that contained what Monsanto saw as inaccurate information or misinformation about the company or its products, or stories that didn’t include the company’s perspective or point of view. Someone would then be assigned to follow up with those reporters, “proactively calling reporters in those instances, to share a statement, to provide some additional context, and to encourage those reporters to contact us in the future,” said Murphey.
Convincing a Reuters reporter to write a story undermining the validity of the IARC classification was another example of Murphey’s work. Emails from within Monsanto showed that Murphey sent a slide deck of talking points and a suggested narrative to Reuters reporter Kate Kelland asking her to write a story that accused Aaron Blair, who was the chairman of the IARC working group on glyphosate, of concealing data that would have changed IARC’s conclusion on glyphosate. Murphey told Kelland in an April 2017 email that it was “vitally important information that needs to be reported.” He also told her to treat the information he sent her as “background,” meaning she should not mention she got the story idea and materials from Monsanto. Kelland then wrote the story Monsanto wanted. A deposition of Aaron Blair indicated the accusations laid out in the story were false, but Kelland did not include a copy of the deposition with her story. The story was promoted by Monsanto and chemical industry organizations and Google advertisements and was picked up and repeated by media outlets around the world. Murphey said in his deposition that he put no undue pressure on Kelland, and Monsanto believed the story to be valid and important. “Once I provided the initial information to — to Ms. Kelland, she was free to do with that information what she saw fit,” he said. “And the decision to investigate a story and ultimately — ultimately publish it was her decision, and the decision of her editors at Reuters.”
Murphey said there was nothing nefarious in the efforts that Monsanto undertook after the IARC opinion was published. He said the company’s plan involved “engagement with third parties to provide information, share talking points, and other resources” along with “outreach to the media, to ensure balance and accuracy, and the right context and perspective on the science in — in their coverage of — of our product.”
“As we moved forward, after the IARC classification, again, we were very forthright in
engaging with agriculture groups, engaging with reporters, engaging on social media, to share - to share the company’s views,” Murphey said in the deposition. “We — you know, we kept our — we kept agriculture groups and others informed. We were pleased that many of them continued to speak out as well about what they saw as an inaccurate classification. But Monsanto was always very, again, I’ll just — very forthright in sharing our views about the classification.”
Jay Byrne: Meet the Man Behind the Monsanto PR Machine
Monsanto’s former Director of Corporate Communications Jay Byrne, president of the public relations firm v-Fluence, is a key player in the covert propaganda and lobbying campaigns of the world’s largest agrichemical companies. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive, reveal a range of deceptive tactics Byrne and other industry allies are using to promote and defend GMO foods and pesticides.
The examples here showcase some of the ways companies are moving their messaging into the public arena from behind the cover of neutral-sounding front groups, government helpers and academics who appear to be independent as they work with corporations or their PR consultants.
Clients are top agrichemical, agribusiness and drug companies and tradegroups
Byrne’s client list has included a range of the largest agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies and business groups, including the American Chemistry Council, Syngenta, AstraZeneca, Monsanto, Pfizer, the International Rice Research Institute, the American Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Rohm & Haas and the pesticide industry trade group CropLife.
Cooked up academic front group to attack Monsanto critics
A key strategy of the agrichemical industry, as the New York Times reported, is to deploy “white hat” professors to fight the industry’s PR and lobbying battles from behind the cover of the “gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”
In March 2010, Byrne and University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy discussed setting up a front group called “Academics Review” that could attract donations from corporations while appearing to be independent. Byrne compared the idea to the Center for Consumer Freedom (a front group run by infamous corporate propaganda front-man Rick Berman), which “has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept.” Byrne described an “‘opportunities’ list with targets” they could go after. Byrne wrote to Dr. Chassy:
In November 2010, Byrne wrote to Chassy again, “It will be good to get the next phase of work on Academics Review going – we’ve got a relative slow first quarter coming up in 2011 if business remains the same.” Byrne offered to “schedule some pro bono search engine optimization time” for his team to counter a GMO critic’s online influence. Byrne concluded the email, “As always, would love to find the next topic (and sponsor) to broaden this while we are able.”
In 2014, Academics Review released a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam; in its own marketing materials for the report, Academics Review claimed to be independent and did not disclose its agrichemical industry funding.
“US government-GLP-Byrne projects” to sway journalists
Byrne’s lobbying and PR operations for the GMO and pesticide industry intersect at many points with the work of Jon Entine, another key figure in agrichemical industry defense campaigns. Entine directs the Genetic Literacy Project, which he launched in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his PR firm. (Entine’s PR firm ESG MediaMetrics listed Monsanto as a client on its website in 2010, 2011, 2012 and up to January 2013, according to internet archives still available online.)
In December 2013, Entine wrote to Max T. Holtzman, who was then acting deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to propose collaborating on a series of what he described as “US government-GLP-Byrne projects” to promote GMOs. Entine wrote to Holtzman:
Entine’s proposed “US government-GLP-Byrne” projects included a “Boot Camp and Response Swat Team” to prepare third-party academics for “potential legislative engagement on [GMO] labeling and related issues,” a “journalism conclave” to bolster media coverage about food security challenges and “provide coaching to younger journalists,” a global media outreach campaign to promote acceptance of biotechnology, and “multi-media content and placements from credible sources” reinforcing key themes “with segments and footage made available on U.S. government websites, GLP and other platforms.”
Holtzman responded, “Thanks Jon. It was great meeting you as well. I think your outline below provides natural intersection points where usda/USG messaging and your efforts intersect well. I’d like to engage further and loop other folks here at usda not only from the technical/trade areas but from our communications shop as well.”
Taxpayer-funded, Monsanto-aligned videos to promote GMOs
A series of taxpayer-funded videos produced in 2012 to promote genetically engineered foods provide another example of how academics and universities push corporate-aligned messaging. Byrne’s PR firm v-Fluence helped create the videos that were “designed to appear a little low budget and amateurish,” according to an email from University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy.
Sachs offered to assist with messaging of future videos by sharing the results of focus group tests Monsanto was conducting. Dr. Chassy invited Sachs to offer suggestions for future video topics and asked him to send along the Monsanto focus group results.
Training scientists and journalists to frame the debate about GMOs and pesticides
Byrne was on the organizing team, along with Cami Ryan (who now works for Monsanto) and Bruce Chassy (who was receiving funds from Monsanto that weren’t publicly disclosed), according to emails from Entine and Ryan.
Bonus Eventus: the agrichemical industry’s social media echo chamber
A key service Byrne provides to agrichemical promotional efforts is his “Bonus Eventus community” that supplies academics and other industry allies with talking points and promotional opportunities. Internal documents (page 9) describe Bonus Eventus as “a private social networking portal that serves as a communication cooperative for agriculture-minded scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders.” Members receive Byrne’s newsletter, plus access to his reference library of agribusiness topics, “stakeholder database” of influential people in the GMO debate, and trainings and support for social media engagement.
When a group of Nobel laureates called on Greenpeace to stop opposing genetically engineered rice, it looked like an independent effort. But behind the curtain of impressive credentials were the helping hands of two key players in the agrichemical industry’s PR lobby: Jay Byrne and a board member of the Genetic Literacy Project. Byrne was posted at the door at a National Press Club event promoting a group called Support Precision Agriculture. The .com version of that website redirected for years to the Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that works with Monsanto on PR projects without disclosing those ties.
So who paid for the anti-Greenpeace press event? Sir Richard Roberts, a biochemist who said he organized the Nobel laureate letter, explained the backstory in an FAQ on the website: the “campaign has been pretty inexpensive so far,” he wrote, consisting mostly of his salary paid by his employer New England Biolabs and “out-of-pocket expenses” paid by Matt Winkler. Winkler, founder and chairman of the biotech company Asuragen, is also a funder and board member of Genetic Literacy Project, according to the group’s website. Roberts explained that Winkler “enlisted a friend, Val Giddings,” (the former biotech trade group VP) who “suggested Jay Byrne” (Monsanto’s former communications director) who offered pro bono logistical support for the press event.
In his FAQ, Dr. Roberts dismissed Dr. Stone’s independent research as “not an accurate representation of the state of affairs,” and instead pointed to industry-connected PR sources who will be familiar to readers of Byrne’s Bonus Eventus newsletter: Julie Kelly, Henry Miller and Academics Review. The press event took place at a critical political moment, and generated a helpful story in the Washington Post, a week before Congress voted to prohibit states from labeling GMOs.
Reporting for The Guardian in 2002, George Monbiot described a covert tactic that agrichemical corporations and their PR operatives have been using for decades to promote and defend their products: creating fake personalities and fake websites to silence critics and influence online search results.
Monbiot reported that “fake citizens” (people who did not actually exist) “had been bombarding internet listservers with messages denouncing the scientists and environmentalists who were critical of GM crops” – and the fake citizens had been traced back to Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings.
Monbiot described Jay Byrne’s connection to Bivings:
“think of the internet as a weapon on the table … somebody is going to get killed.”
“At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly [Monsanto’s] director of internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of them established by Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings). He told them to ‘think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed.’ While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow that he ‘spends his time and effort participating’ in web discussions about biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he ‘ensures his company gets proper play’. AgBioWorld is the site on which [fake citizen] Smetacek launched her campaign.”
A 2013 Power Point presentation showcases the role Byrne plays for his clients in the agrichemical industry. Here he explains his theories about eco-advocates, ranks their influence online and urges companies to pool their resources to confront them, in order to avoid “regulatory and market constraints.”
Val Giddings, PhD, is a key player in agrichemical industry efforts to oppose transparency and safety regulations for genetically engineered foods and pesticides. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library indicate that Dr. Giddings helped set up a corporate front group and played a key behind-the-scenes role in other activities to push the deregulatory agenda of the world’s largest agrichemical companies.
Dr. Giddings is a former vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade group for agrichemical and biotechnology companies. He now runs the consulting firm PrometheusAB, and is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
Cooked up academic front group to discredit Monsanto critics
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Giddings played a central role in setting up Academics Review as a front group that falsely claimed to be independent while taking agrichemical industry funds and trying to keep corporate fingerprints hidden.
Other key planners were Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications at Monsanto; Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Eric Sachs, PhD, director of regulatory policy and scientific affairs at Monsanto.
Academics Review falsely claims on its website that it does not accept corporate money or solicit donations for specific activities; but according to tax forms, most of the funding for Academics Review came from the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group funded and run by the world’s largest chemical companies: BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta/ChemChina.
Timeline of key events for Academics Review:
March 11, 2010: Byrne and Dr. Chassy discussed setting up Academics Review as a front group to target critics of GMOs and pesticides with help from Dr. Giddings. Byrne said he and Dr. Giddings could serve as “commercial vehicles” to connect corporate entities to the project “in a manner which helps ensure the credibility and independence (and thus value) of the primary contributors/ owners…” Byrne noted he was developing for Monsanto a list of agrichemical industry critics to target:
March 24, 2010: Dr. Chassy launched the Academics Review website along with David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, with both men listed as cofounders.
“I bet we could generate some respectable support for it,” Dr. Giddings wrote to Dr. Chassy.
Chassy responded in part, “I bet our friends at Monsanto would be willing to write the rebuttal and pay us to post it.”
Giddings wrote, “I think the soybean guys might be willing to pony up a chunk to underwrite a rebuttal … If we do this right we can leverage the AcaRev Brand here a bit.”
A week later, Dr. Chassy asked Eric Sachs if Monsanto planned to refute the soy paper, and told Sachs: “The US Soybean Board is going to entertain a proposal from me and Graham Brookes to respond to the piece.” (Academics Review posted a response from Chassy and Brookes in 2012 with no disclosure about funders.)
November 30, 2010: In the email exchange with Dr. Chassy, Eric Sachs of Monsanto said he could help motivate the pesticide and GMO industry trade groups to support Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote.
August 2011: Dr. Giddings submitted a proposal to the agrichemical industry-funded trade group CBI for the project: “what we do over the next year is directly a function of the support we can raise,” he wrote to CBI Managing Director Ariel Gruswich, in an email copied to Drs. Chassy and Tribe. Gruswich urged the men to join a phone call with her group: “I really believe that hearing directly from you all will increase the likelihood of support among the companies,” she wrote. Tax records show the corporate-funded CBI gave Academics Review $650,000 from 2014 to 2016 for “scientific outreach.”
Industry-funded “boot camps” trained scientists, journalists how to spin GMOs and pesticides
Over $300,000 of the chemical industry funds Dr. Giddings helped raise for Academics Review went to pay for two conferences called the “Biotech Literacy Project” boot camps, held at the University of Florida in 2014 and UC Davis in 2015, according to tax records. The boot camps – organized by Academics Review and another industry front group, Genetic Literacy Project – trained journalists and scientists how to reframe the debate about GMOs and pesticides.
In emails dated February 2015, Dr. Giddings discussed with several academics a plan to write five journal papers arguing for the need to deregulate the biotech industry. Dr. Giddings wrote that the papers should capture, “what I call Henry’s ‘Blow the whole damn thing up’ argument, which is a case I do think should be made.” University of Arizona law professor Gary Marchant, who initiated the email exchange, explained, “paper 1 is intended to be the blow the whole damn thing up topic.”
Coordinated scientist sign-on letter against Seralini study
In September 2012, Dr. Giddings coordinated a scientist sign-on letter urging Wallace Hayes, editor-in-chief of Food and Chemical Toxicology, to reconsider a September 2012 paper by the French researcher Gilles-Éric Séralini that reported tumors in rats fed a diet of Roundup-tolerant GM corn. The paper was retracted a year later and later republished in another journal.
Suggested attractive “mommy farmers” should pitch GMOs
In conversations with a Monsanto lobbyist about how to defeat GMO labeling campaigns in Colorado and Oregon in 2014, Dr. Giddings suggested that good-looking “mommy farmers” would be the best messengers to allay concerns about genetically engineered foods. “What the situation requires is a suite of TV spots featuring attractive young women, preferably mommy farmers, explaining why biotech derived foods are the safest & greenest in the history of ag and worthy of support,” Dr. Giddings wrote to Lisa Drake, Monsanto’s lead for government affairs.
“In this extended email exchange, some of the scientists and academicswho have been recruited to help Monsanto push its cause question whether they are the best messengers. Two suggest that Monsanto run more television ads featuring farmers instead. The Monsanto lobbyist replies that polling shows that the public believes scientists. In fact, the company has already run TV ads featuring female farmers.”
Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist and an adjunct journalism faculty member at New York University who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Slate and dozens of articles for Discover Magazine promoting genetically engineered foods and attacking critics of the agrichemical industry, while also assisting industry allies behind the scenes.
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library, reveal instances in which Kloor coached and edited his sources, obscured the industry ties of a source, and selectively reported on information in ways that bolstered industry narratives. Kloor declined to respond to questions for this article.
The emails obtained via state records requests reveal that Kloor himself was part of the story he was reporting on; he had attended agrichemical industry-funded message-training conferences with Dr. Folta and assisted Dr. Folta with messaging. The correspondence shows that Dr. Folta reached out to Kloor to suggest a “preemptive” release of his emails “but selectively” to help mitigate the damage of the documents – which Kloor did, in the journal Nature. At the same time as Kloor was covering the story for top science publications, the documents show he participated in discussions with industry insiders about the challenges posed by the public records requests.
July 2014: Monsanto agreed fund Dr. Folta’s proposal for $25,000 for promotional events that Dr. Folta described as a “solution to the biotech communications problem” that arose from activist campaigns to label GMOs. (Folta donated the money to a food bank after the proposal became public.)
Emails show that in August and November of 2014, Kloor provided Dr. Folta with messaging advice about how to best challenge GMO critics (see examples below).
February 2015: U.S. Right to Know submitted public records requests for correspondence to and from professors at public universities, including Dr. Folta, to investigate undisclosed collaborations with the agrichemical industry.
February 2015: Kloor wrote about the USRTK investigation for Science Insider, quoting Dr. Folta and other industry allies who were “rattled” by the open records requests they described as a “fishing expedition” that could have a “chilling effect on academic freedom.”
August 6, 2015: Kloor reported on the emails in a forgiving article for Nature. The emails “do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Dr. Folta. But they do reveal his close ties to agriculture giant Monsanto,” Kloor reported.
August 8, 2015: Jon Entine, who organized the industry-funded messaging boot camps, complained to Kloor about his use of the term “close ties” to describe Dr. Folta’s relationship with Monsanto. “It’s both incorrect and inflammatory. It reflects poorly on what otherwise was first class reporting,” Entine wrote. Kloor said the term was “arguable” but backed away from it: “In my defense, I didn’t write that – it was added in the final edits.” He then tipped Entine off about the emails: “You and I should also talk. You are in the emails.” Kloor was also in the emails, which he did not mention in his reporting. (Subsequent requests turned up more emails involving Kloor.)
September 5, 2015: a front-page New York Times article by three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton reported that Monsanto recruited academics, including Dr. Folta, to fight against GMO labeling. The Times posted emails from Dr. Folta and Dr. Chassy revealing undisclosed industry payments to both men and their collaborations with agrichemical companies and their PR firms.
Kloor continued to engage in the debate as a journalist for industry events, such as a February 2016 forum hosted by GMO Answers, a marketing campaign to promote GMOs funded by Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, and DowDuPont, and managed by the public relations firm Ketchum.
Coaching, editing sources; obscuring industry ties
The emails suggest Kloor worked with his sources behind the scenes to hone their messaging in support of a key agrichemical industry cause: convincing wary consumers to accept genetically engineered foods. One of these sources was Dr. Kevin Folta, the University of Florida professor who was the key figure Kloor featured in stories he wrote for science publications about academic transparency.
The emails show that Kloor drafted a bio for Dr. Folta that included the line, “No research is sponsored by Monsanto.” Dr. Folta asked him to adjust that sentence, noting that Monsanto indirectly sponsored some of his biotech outreach efforts and that he had received research money from a small biotech firm. Kloor decided on a bio that avoided mentioning Dr. Folta’s industry funding entirely: “his research is sponsored by federal and state agencies.”
In the email below, Kloor provided guidance to Dr. Folta about how to write the letter to Nye:
Around that time, Monsanto was also lobbying Nye to change his position on GMOs, which they eventually succeeded in doing. A March 2015 Washington Post story about Nye’s conversion claimed that Nye’s criticisms of GMOs “had angered many scientists,” but linked only to Dr. Folta’s letter on Kloor’s blog.
Discover: “Not our policy to prompt sources”
Emails from August 2014 show Kloor offering messaging advice to Dr. Folta and another source, Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel, the media director of the GMO promotion group Biofortified. Kloor asked them to critique an article by Carole Bartolotto, a dietician who had written critically about GMOs. The emails show that Kloor edited the comments and suggested ways to strengthen the messaging: “My advice: keep the language as neutral and judgment-free as possible. You’re aiming for the fence-sitters, who may well be turned off by language that comes off as heavy handed.”
Kloor posted the Bartolotto critique on his Discover blog and described Drs. Folta and von Mogel as “two scientists who receive no funding from the biotech industry.” Emails later revealed that, just a few weeks earlier, Monsanto had agreed to fund Dr. Folta’s promotional efforts for GMOs; and, the previous summer, Dr. Folta planned to visit Hawaii to lobby against pesticide restrictions on a trip organized and paid for by a pesticide industry trade group (Dr. von Mogel was also included on those emails). Kloor’s article still appears on the Discover website without updates or corrections.
For a 2017 Huffington post article, journalist Paul Thacker asked Discover magazine editor Becky Lang to comment on the Bartolotto emails. Lang declined to comment on specifics, but said: “Of course, it’s not our policy now, and never has been, to prompt sources to write criticism, edit criticism, and then run it as independent. It’s also not our policy to ever help sources try to hide their industry relationships.” (Kloor’s Discover blog ended in ended in April 2015.)
Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project connection
Kloor’s prolific writings in defense of the agrichemical industry can be viewed on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a promotional website for the agrichemical industry that features dozens of articles written by Kloor or quoting his work. Genetic Literacy Project is run by Jon Entine, a longtime PR operative who promotes and defends chemical industry interests. Entine is principal of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients included Monsanto. Kloor and Entine use similar messaging and frame the issues in similar ways, and appear to have a close relationship, according to the emails.
In a July 2013 email to a pesticide industry lobby group, Entine described Kloor as a “very good friend of mine” who could help broker a meeting with another Discover blogger to write about agrichemical industry activities in Hawaii. Another email shows Entine connecting Kloor with Rebecca Goldin at George Mason University to discuss “abuse of FOIA.” Goldin works with Entine’s former employer STATS, a group journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk.
DeWayne Johnson, a 46-year-old father dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was the first person to face Monsanto in trial last June over allegations the company hid evidence about the cancer-causing dangers of its Roundup weedkiller. Juries have since returned with threeunanimousverdicts finding that glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides were a substantial cause of cancer, and leveling massive punitive damages against Bayer (which now owns Monsanto). Thousands more people are suing in state and federal courts, and corporate documents coming out of the trials are shining light on the heavy-handed tactics Monsanto used to deny cancer risk and protect the chemical that was the lynchpin of its profits.
“Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science and society,” wrote Tufts University Professor Sheldon Krimsky in June 2018. The discovery documents, he said, “uncover the corporate capture of science, which puts public health and the very foundation of democracy at risk.”
This corporate war on science has major implications for all of us, considering that half of all men in the U.S. and a third of women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The documents the food industry doesn’t want you to see
For years, the food and chemical industries have set their sights on one particular target in the science world: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the independent research group that for 50 years has worked to identify cancer hazards to inform policies that can prevent cancer.
“I’ve been fighting IARC forever!!! :)” one former Kraft Foods scientist wrote to a former Syngenta scientist in an email obtained through a state open records request. “Foods and ag are under siege since Glyphosate in March 2015. We all need to gather somehow and expose IARC, as you guys did in the paper. Next priorities are all food ingredients: aspartame, sucralose, dietary iron, B-carotene, BPA, etc. IARC is killing us!”
Monsanto’s public relations plan assigned 20 corporate staffers to prepare for the IARC carcinogenicity report on glyphosate, with objectives including “neutralize impact,” “establish public perspective on IARC,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “engage industry associations” in “outrage.”
The document identified four tiers of “industry partners” to help advance the three objectives named in the PR plan: protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies” to keep allowing the use of glyphosate.
Uncovering Monsanto’s network of “industry partners”
Documents obtained by the U.S. Rightto Know investigation illuminate on how these partner groups work together to promote the “MON POV” about the safety and necessity of pesticides and GMOs.
One set of documents revealed how Monsanto’s PR operatives organized “Academics Review” as a neutral-sounding platform from which they could launch attacks against a target list of foes, including the Sierra Club, author Michael Pollan, the movie Food, Inc. and the organic industry.
Email from Eric Sachs, Monsanto’sScience, Technology & Outreach Lead, to Bruce Chassy
Even now with their playbook exposed – and their primary funding identified as coming from a trade group funded by Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and DowDuPont – Academics Review still claims on its website to accept donations only from “non-corporate sources.” Academics Review also claims that the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts,” in a post sourced by the industry-funded PR website GMO Answers, the industry-funded front group American Council on Science and Health, and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.
Miller and the Academics Review organizers Chassy, Tribe, Byrne, Sachs and Giddings are members of AgBioChatter, a private email forum that appeared in Monsanto’s PR plan as a tier 2 industry partner. Emails from the AgBioChatter list suggest it was used to coordinate industry allies on lobbying and promotional activities to defend GMOs and pesticides. Members included senior agrichemical industry staff, PR consultants and pro-industry academics, many of whom write for industry media platforms such as GMO Answers and Genetic Literacy Project, or play leadership roles in other Monsanto partner groups.
These groups cast themselves as honest arbiters of science even as they spread false information and level near hysterical attacks against scientists who raised concerns about the cancer risk of glyphosate.
A key example can be found on the Genetic Literacy Project website, which was listed as a “tier 2 industry partner” in Monsanto’s PR plan to protect Roundup against cancer concerns raised by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. A search for “IARC” on the Genetic Literacy Project website brings up more than 200 articles, many of them attacking the scientists who raised cancer concerns as “anti-chemical enviros” who “lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate, and arguing that the global cancer agency should be defunded and abolished.
“To protect the scientific enterprise, one of the core pillars of a modern democratic society, against the forces that would turn it into the handmaiden of industry or politics, our society must support firewalls between academic science and the corporate sectors and educate young scientists and journal editors on the moral principles behind their respective professional roles,” Krimsky wrote.
Policy makers must not allow corporate-spun science to guide decisions about cancer prevention. Media must do a better job reporting and probing into conflicts of interest behind the corporate science spin. It’s time to end the corporate war on cancer science.
Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know and author of the book “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”
AgBioChatter: Where Corporations, Academics Plotted Strategy on GMOs, Pesticides
AgBioChatter is a private email listserver used by the agrichemical industry and its allies to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. List members include pro-industry academics, senior agrichemical industry staff and public relations operatives.
This internal Monsanto document identifies “Academics (AgBioChatter)” as a Tier 2 “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, IARC judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.
The AgBioChatter emails linked below – along with other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and now hosted at the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive – provide many examples of how academics and industry partner groups work together in covert ways to push industry-coordinated messaging across various platforms to manufacture doubt about the health and environmental risks of pesticides and GMOs.
U.S. Right to Know obtained some AgBioChatter emails in 2016 and 2017 via a public records request. In July 2017, U.S. Right to Know sued the University of Florida for its failure to release requested public records involving the agrichemical industry and publicly funded professors, including documents from the AgBioChatter forum.
In March 2018, a Florida judge dismissed the case, stating that the AgBioChatter emails were “purely personal activity born out of (Kevin Folta’s) own self interest” and not public university business. For more information, see the court documents.
New York Times article, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO labeling war, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton; and email archive, “A Florida Professor Works with the Biotech Industry” (9/5/2015)
Alternet, “Is something fishy going on between the University of Florida and the agrichemical industry? Consumers have a right to know,” by Daniel Ross, Alternet (2/13/18)
AgBioChatter list content
The AgBioChatter emails obtained via state public records requests (142 pages) show academics and agrichemical industry staff coordinating talking points to oppose GMO labeling, promote and defend GMOs and pesticides, discredit industry critics, and evade Freedom of Information Act requests for information about publicly funded professors.
A major theme of the emails (and in particular the role of list member Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto) was to identify critics of the agrichemical industry and opportunities to attack them. These included Mehmet Oz, Vandana Shiva, Don Huber, Consumers Union and others.
Another key theme in the AgBioChatter emails is the effort to frame scientific studies that raise concerns about risks of GMOs and pesticides as “agenda-driven,” while studies that report positively about agrichemical industry products are “pro science.”
Academic, industry collaboration
According to the emails received to date via public records requests, academics, agrichemical industry employees, consultants and PR operatives participated in the “Chatter” list.
Known participants are listed below along with their ties to other “industry partner” groups named in Monsanto’s PR plan to orchestrate an outcry against the IARC cancer panel. For more information about these groups, see our fact sheets:
The links to the Genetic Literacy Project archives provide a sense of the common, repetitive messaging these front groups and academics use to promote GMOs and pesticides, try to discredit critics, argue for deregulation and oppose transparency efforts.
AgBioChatter list members
Emails obtained via public records requests indicate that the following people were on the AgBioChatter listserver as of the dates in the emails.
For more information about the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between industry groups and academics on food issues, see our investigations page. U.S. Right to Know documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.
Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group
Academics Review, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization launched in 2012, claims to be an independent group but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it is a front group set up with the help of Monsanto and its public relations team to attack agrichemical industry critics while appearing to be independent.
The Academics Review website describes its founders as “two independent professors,” Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia. As of May 2018, the website claims, “Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.”
However, tax records show that the primary funder of Academics Review has been the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade association that is funded and run by the largest agrichemical companies: BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta.
According to CBI tax records, the industry-funded group gave Academics Review a total of $650,000 in 2014 and 2015-2016. Tax records for AcademicsReview.org report expenses of $791,064 from 2013-2016 (see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). The money was spent on organizing conferences and promoting GMOs and pesticides, according to the tax records.
Emails reveal secret origin of academic front group
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state Freedom of Information requests revealed the inner workings of how Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, its PR allies and industry funders. Key facts and emails:
Eric Sachs, a senior public relations executive at Monsanto, said he would help find industry funding for Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote to Chassy on November 30, 2010.
Byrne compared the concept as similar to – but better than – a front group set up by Rick Berman, a lobbyist known as “Dr. Evil” and the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda” for his work to promote tobacco and oil industry interests under the cover of neutral-sounding groups. Berman’s “’Center for Consumer Freedom’ (ActivistCash.com) has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept,” Byrne wrote to Chassy on March 11, 2010.
Byrne said he was developing an “opportunities list with targets” for Monsanto comprised of “individuals organizations, content items and topic areas” critical of ag-biotech that “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations.”
Chassy indicated he was especially keen to go after the organic industry. “I would love to find a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles,” he wrote in March 2010.In 2014, Academics Review attacked the organic industry with a report it falsely claimed was the work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.
Monsanto PR plan named Academics Review as “industry partner”
Academics Review is an “industry partner”according to a confidential Monsanto PR document that describes the corporation’s plans to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to defend the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. On March 20, 2015, IARC announced it had classified glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Bruce Chassy’s ties to industry and its front groups
Professor Bruce Chassy, co-founder of Academics Review and president of the board, has been frequently cited in the media as an independent expert on GMOs, while he was also receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto.
Chassy had received $57,000 in undisclosed funds over a two-year period from Monsanto to travel, write and speak about GMOs, according to WBEZ. The story reported that Monsanto also sent at least $5.1 million through the University of Illinois Foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015.
WBEZ, “Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding,” by Monica Eng (3/15/2016)
US Right to Know, “Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign,” by Carey Gillam (1/29/2016)
David Tribe / Academics Review / Biofortified
David Tribe is co-founder of Academics Review, vice president of the Academics Review Board of Directors, and a reviewer on the 2014 Academics Review report attacking the organic industry. Tribe is also a member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified Inc., or Biofortified, a nonprofit group that aids the agrichemical industry with lobbying and public relations.
Industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps: training scientists and journalists to promote GMOs
The Biotech Literacy Project boot camps were a series of conferences funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project, another front group that partners with Monsanto on public relations projects while claiming to be independent. The boot camps trained scientists and journalists how to promote GMOs and pesticides, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling and prop up flagging support for agrichemical industry products.
Boot camp organizers falsely claimed to journalists and scientists that funding for the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps came from government and academic sources, as well as industry sources, but the only traceable source of funds came from agrichemical companies and non-industry sources denied funding the events, Paul Thacker reported in The Progressive.
“I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).” (Journalist Brooke Borel, Popular Science)
“I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money so industry is indirectly a sponsor. We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.” (boot camp organizer Bruce Chassy email to scientists)
The Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group funded by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont and Monsanto Company spent over $300,000 on two boot camps held at UC Davis and University of Florida, according to tax records.
For more information about the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between industry groups and academics on food issues, see our investigations page. U.S. Right to Know documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.