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 three quarters of the global supply of seeds and pesticides. Public oversight of their activities is crucial for a safe and healthy food supply. Yet all of these companies – Monsanto/Bayer, DowDuPont, Syngenta/ChemChina and BASF – have documented histories of hiding the health risks and environmental impacts of their products. Since their records do not inspire trust, they often make use of third-party allies who promote the industry’s commercial and political agenda to the public, media, regulators and policy makers, while appearing to be acting independently of industry.
The public has a right to know about groups and people who collaborate with agrichemical corporations to push industry messaging and policy agendas. U.S. Right to Know has uncovered many documents that reveal, for the first time, how companies are working behind the scenes with academics, journalists and independent-sounding groups, in ways that are not disclosed to the public, to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides and stave off regulations. The evidence is described in our fact sheets about key players in the agrichemical industry propaganda network:
Funded largely by right-wing foundations that push climate science denial, the Independent Women’s Forum also partners with Monsanto, defends toxic chemicals in food and consumer products and argues against laws that would curb the power of corporations. IWF got its start in 1991 as an effort to defend now Supreme Court Justice (and former Monsanto attorney) Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. The group also defended Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the face of sexual assault allegations, and described Kavanaugh as a “champion of women.“
The Independent Women ‘s Forum now says it works for policies that “enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities.” In practice, the group advocates for deregulating toxic products and works to deflect the blame for health and environmental harms away from polluting corporations and toward personal responsibility. The 2017 annual IWF gala in Washington DC drew Republican leaders, awarded IWF board member Kellyanne Conway, and was sponsored by chemical and tobacco companies, among others.
Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, a former Koch Industries lobbyist, left Koch Industries to become president of IWF in 2001 and she later served as Vice Chairman of IWF’s Board of Directors. She has a long history of promoting dirty energy and pushing for deregulation of polluting industries.
IWF’s agenda closely follows the lobbying and messaging agenda of tobacco, oil and chemical industry interests. Following are some examples:
Denies climate science
A 2019 tweet and article from the Independent Women’s Forum praises President Trump’s “pragmatism” in not acting to curb climate change.
Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker in 2010: “The (Koch) brothers have given money to more obscure groups, too, such as the Independent Women’s Forum, which opposes the presentation of global warming as a scientific fact in American public schools. Until 2008, the group was run by Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries. Mary Beth Jarvis, a vice-president of a Koch subsidiary, is on the group’s board.”
Opposes teaching climate science in schools
The Denver Post reported in 2010 that IWF “thinks global warming is ‘junk science’ and that teaching it is unnecessarily scaring schoolchildren.” Through a campaign called “Balanced Education for Everyone,” IWF opposed climate science education in schools, which the group described as “alarmist global warming indoctrination.”
IWF President Carrie Lucas writes about the “growing skepticism about climate change” and argues “the public could pay dearly for the hysteria.”
Partners with Monsanto
IWF is a leading messenger for promoting toxic chemicals as nothing to worry about, opposing public health protections and trying to build trust for corporations like Monsanto. According to IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project, sharing information about hazardous chemicals in consumer products leads to “wasted tax dollars, higher costs and inferior goods for consumers, fewer jobs … and a needlessly worried, less free American populace.”
In February 2017, Monsanto partnered with IWF on an event titled “Food and Fear: How to Find Facts in Today’s Culture of Alarmism,” and an IWF podcast that month discussed “How Monsanto is Vilified by Activists.”
IWF pushes the talking points of Monsanto and the chemical industry: promoting GMOs and pesticides, attacking the organic industry and opposing transparency in food labels. Examples include:
Sinister GMO labeling will cause grocery costs to skyrocket. (IWF)
Anti-GMO hype is the real threat to the well being of families. (National Review)
General Mills caved in to the “food police” by removing GMOs (USA Today)
Chipotle is stuffing their non-GMO burritos with nonsense. (IWF)
Reasonable moms need to push back on the mom shaming and guilt tripping organic food narrative. (IWF podcast)
GMO critics are cruel, vain, elite and seek to deny those in need. (New York Post)
Educates celebrity moms about GMOs with Monsanto’s talking points (IWF)
2019 update: Julie Gunlock’s “Culture of Alarmism” project is now renamed the “Project for Progress and Innovation.” Recent articles by Gunlock include “Soda Bans Don’t Make Kids Healthier!” and “FDA’s Refusal to Promote E-Cigarettes is a Public Health Crisis.”
Argues ‘Philips Morris PR’
In August 2017, IWF lobbied FDA to approve Philip Morris’ IQOS e-cigarettes, arguing that women need the products for various biological reasons to help them quit smoking regular cigarettes.
“Clearly, the FDA doesn’t intend to punish women, simply for their gender. Yet, that’s precisely what’s going to happen if women are limited to smoking cessation products that biologically cannot provide them with the help they need to quit traditional cigarettes,” IWF wrote.
In response to the IWF letter, Stanton Glantz, PhD, Professor of Medicine at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said: “This is standard Philip Morris PR. There is no independent confirmation that IQOS are safer than cigarettes or that they help people quit smoking.”
A June 2017 IWF event tried to stoke fears about public health guidance
In 2012, IWF launched a “Women for Food Freedom” project to “push back on the nanny state and encourage personal responsibility” for food choices. The agenda included opposing “food regulations, soda and snack food taxes, junk science and food and home-product scares, misinformation about obesity and hunger, and other federal food programs, including school lunches.”
On obesity, IWF tries to shift attention away from corporate accountability and toward personal choices. In this interview with Thom Hartmann,Julie Gunlock of IWF’s Culture of Alarmism Project argues thatcorporations are not to blame for America’s obesity problem but rather “people are making bad choices and I think parents are completely checking out.” The solution, she said, is for parents to cook more, especially poor parents since they have a worse problem with obesity.
Attacks moms for trying to reduce pesticide exposures
IWF pushes industry messaging, using covert tactics, in attempt to ostracize moms who are concerned about pesticides; a prime example is this 2014 New York Post article, “Tyranny of the Organic Mommy Mafia” by Naomi Schafer Riley.
Under the guise of complaining about “mom shaming,” Riley – who isan IWF fellowbut did not disclose that to readers – attempts to shame and blame moms who choose organic food.
Riley’s article relied on information from industry front groups that she falsely presented as independent sources:
IWF events attacking moms who are concerned about toxic chemicals, such as this “hazmat parenting” event,featured ACSH representative Josh Bloom andchemical industry public relations writer Trevor Butterworth.
As many journalists and articles have pointed out, IWF also partners with many other Koch-funded activist groups that deny climate science and push the deregulatory agenda of corporations.
For further reading:
The Intercept,”Koch Brothers Operatives Fill Top White House Positions,” by Lee Fang(4/4/2017)
The Nation,“Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh (8/18/2016)
Center for Media and Democracy, “Confirmation: the Not-so-Independent Women’s Forum was Born in Defense of Clarence Thomas and the Far Right,” by Lisa Graves and Calvin Sloan(4/21/2016)
Slate,“Confirmation Bias: How ‘Women for Judge Thomas’ turned into a conservative powerhouse,” by Barbara Spindel(4/7/2016)
Truthout, “Independent Women’s Forum Uses Misleading Branding to Push Right Wing Agenda,” by Lisa Graves, Calvin Sloan and Kim Haddow (8/19/2016)
Inside Philanthropy,“The Money Behind the Conservative Women’s Groups Still Fighting the Culture War,”by Philip Rojc (9/13/2016)
The Nation,”Guess Which Women’s Group Rush Limbaugh has Donated Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to? Hint: it’s the one that defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade,” by Eli Clifton(6/12/2014)
The New Yorker,”The Koch Brothers Covert Operations,” by Jane Mayer(8/30/2010)
SciBabe’s bad science tries to make the pesticide industry look good.
Blogging under the name SciBabe, Yvette d’Entremont defends toxic chemicals in food products and promotes pesticides as safe. She does not disclose all her funding sources. The manufacturer of the artificial sweetener Splenda discloses here their partnership with SciBabe to “debunk junk science” about Splenda.
SciBabe has been a featured speaker at various chemical and food industry sponsored events such as the 2017 Atlantic Farm Women conference sponsored by CropLife and Monsanto, and the 2015 Suppliers Showcase where her talk was sponsored by DuPont. In interviews, she frequently cites her former job in a pesticide lab as the basis for her knowledge about pesticide safety.
Worked for a controversial pesticide company that had agreement with Monsanto to promote GMOs
“Amvac has fueled double-digit revenue growth through an unusual business practice: It has bought from larger companies the rights to older pesticides, many of them at risk of being banned or restricted because of safety concerns. The company has fought to keep those chemicals on the market as long as possible, hiring scientists and lawyers to do battle with regulatory agencies. Amvac’s focus on older pesticides has come at a cost to human health and the environment, according to federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state records, regulatory investigations and a string of lawsuits. Accidents involving the company’s pesticides have led to the evacuation of neighborhoods and the poisoning of scores of field workers in California and elsewhere.”
False statements about pesticides and GMOs, and Amvac influence
SciBabe makes false claims about the health risks and safety protocols of pesticides, GMOs and chemicals in food:
“We’ve proven very, very carefully that, once they get into the food supply, [pesticides] are safe for people … because we’re in such a heavily regulated environment, the odds of you getting something in your food supply that’s unsafe at this point is very, very low. I mean, extraordinarily low.” (podcast with University of Florida professor Kevin Folta)
For GMOs, “There are serious testing standards in place from the EPA, FDA, and USDA. GMOs are basically tested down to the last strand of DNA.” (article for Genetic Literacy Project)
SciBabe credits her former job at the Amvac lab for inspiring her to get involved as a science communicator:
“When I was working there, that was when I started really getting into the fray of this kind of battle that we have on the Internet with people who say there is no research done into these pesticides before the hit the market. And I’m like yes, I really just lick the vile and say it’s probably not going to kill your kids before approving it for sale – which, I promise you, that’s not how it works.” (podcast)
“I started the blog when I was working there, and it’s partially because I kept seeing really bad information online about pesticides.” (Popular Science Q&A)
“Whenever I saw the argument online that (GMOs) aren’t tested for safety, I realized in my own pesticide lab that I was working in, we were. I’m like, ‘How can these not be tested for safety when my exact job is testing for safety?’ And sometimes I spent two weeks calibrating one instrument, and I’m just one cog in a machine. And I know the other sides are just as meticulous as I am.” (Popular Science)
“Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. Related animal toxicology studies provide supportive biological plausibility for these findings. Recognizing and reducing problematic exposures will require attention to current inadequacies in medical training, public health tracking, and regulatory action on pesticides.”
“The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures. The Panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”
The President’s Cancer Panel chapter on pesticides starts on page 43:
“Nearly 1,400 pesticides have been registered (i.e., approved) by the EPA for agricultural and non-agricultural use. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to brain/central nervous system, breast, colon, lung, ovarian (female spouses), pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach cancers, as well as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma. Pesticide-exposed farmers, pesticide applicators, crop duster pilots, and manufacturers also have been found to have elevated rates of prostate cancer, melanoma, other skin cancers, and cancer of the lip.”
Pesticide risk assessments “disregard evidence from epidemiological studies that show negative effects of low-level exposure to organophosphate insecticides on children’s cognitive development, despite the high costs of IQ losses to society. While the intake of fruit and vegetables should not be decreased, existing studies support the ideal of reduced dietary exposure to pesticide residues, especially among pregnant women and children.”
“our current laissez-faire attitude toward the regulation of pesticides is failing us”
“multiple lines of evidence suggest that human fertility is on the decline and that the frequency of reproductive impairment is increasing.” These trends are “almost certainly” linked to environmental exposures to chemicals
See also Harvard pesticide/infertility study in JAMA: Harvard researchers followed 325 women at an infertility clinic for two years and reported that women who regularly ate pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF
Dow’s insecticide chlorpyrifos has been shown to harm children’s brains and EPA’s own scientists said in 2016 they could no longer vouch for safety of the pesticide in food or water, but it remains widely used in farming due to political pressure from the agrichemical industry.
A Strong Case Against a Pesticide Does Not Faze E.P.A. Under Trump, By Roni Caryn Rabin New York Times
This is what a common pesticide does to a child’s brain, By Nicholas Kristof New York Times
At a recent soiree at Union Station, the DC power elite gathered in an anti-public health confab dressed up as a celebration of women that should concern anyone who cares about the health and rights of women and children.
The Independent Women’s Forum drew an impressive array of Republican politicians to its annual gala sponsored by, among others, the American Chemistry Council, the tobacco company Phillip Morris, the cosmetics industry trade group, Google and the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council.
Speakers included House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, who won the IWF Valor Award for being a “passionate advocate for limited government” who does not embrace “the idea that being a woman is a handicap.” Conway is also an IWF board member.
So what is the Independent Women’s Forum?
IWF got its start 25 years ago as an effort to defend now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. The group has since raised millions from the secretive foundations of the Koch brothers and other right-wing billionaires to carry out its mission of “increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty.”
In the world of the IWF — a group Joan Walsh described in The Nation as “the ‘feminists’ doing the Koch’s dirty work” — that means defending the freedom of corporations to sell toxic products and pollute the environment, while trying to frame that agenda as good for women and children.
E-cigarettes should be approved because of the unique biological needs of women, for example, and climate science education is too scary for students. (The e-cig letter is “standard Phillip Morris PR,” says tobacco industry expert Stan Glanz; and Greenpeace classifies IWF as a “Koch Industries climate denial front group.”)
Women can also benefit by ignoring “alarmist” concerns about toxic chemicals, according to an IWF lecture series sponsored by Monsanto.
To give you a sense of the messaging on chemicals: Moms who insist on organic food are arrogant, snobby “helicopter parents” who “need to be in control of everything when it comes to their kids, even the way food is grown and treated,” according to Julie Gunlock, director of IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project, as quoted in an article titled “The tyranny of the organic mommy mafia” that was written by an IWF fellow.
At the IWF gala, Gunlock posed for a photo op with Monsanto staffer Aimee Hood and Julie Kelly, who writes articles casting doubt on climate science and pesticide risk, and once even called climate hero Bill McKibben “a piece of shit.”
“I’m framing this,” Monsanto employee Cami Ryan tweeted in return.
Put a frame around the whole shindig and behold the absurdity of corporate-captured politics in America, where policy leaders openly embrace an anti-women “women’s group” that equates “freedom” with eating toxic pesticides, at an event sponsored by the chemical industry, a tobacco company, an extremist group that wants to do away with a voter-elected Senate and the world’s most influential news source.
Meanwhile in the rational world
Recent science suggests that if you want to get pregnant and raise healthy children, you should reject the propaganda that groups like the Independent Women’s Forum are trying to sell.
In just the past few weeks, the Journals of the American Medical Association published a Harvard study implicating pesticide-treated foods in fertility problems, a UC San Diego study documenting huge increases in human exposure to a common pesticide, and a physician’s commentary urging people to eat organic food.
Mainstream groups have been giving similar advice for years.
In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended reducing children’s exposure to pesticides due to a growing body of literature that links pesticides to chronic health problems in children, including behavioral problems, birth defects, asthma and cancer.
In 2009, the bipartisan President’s Cancer Panel reported: “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”
The panel urged then-President George W. Bush “most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”
Unfortunately for our nation, acting on that advice has not been possible in a political system indentured to corporate interests.
Corporate capture of health and science
For decades, pesticide corporations have manipulated science and U.S. regulatory agencies to keep the truth hidden about the health dangers of their chemicals.
For a synopsis of Monsanto’s “long-running secretive campaign to manipulate the scientific record, to sway public opinion, and to influence regulatory assessments” on its herbicide glyphosate, see this essay by my colleague Carey Gillam in Undark magazine.
As one example of government/corporate collusion: in 2015, on the Obama administration’s watch, the EPA official in charge of evaluating the cancer risk of glyphosate allegedly bragged to a Monsanto executive about helping to “kill” another agency’s cancer study, as Bloomberg reported.
Suppressing science has been a bipartisan, decades-long project. Since 1973, Monsanto has presented dubious science to claim the safety of glyphosate while EPA largely looked the other way, as Valerie Brown and Elizabeth Grossman documented for In These Times.
Brown and Grossman spent two years examining the publicly available archive of EPA documents on glyphosate, and reported:
“Glyphosate is a clear case of ‘regulatory capture’ by a corporation acting in its own financial interest while serious questions about public health remain in limbo. The record suggests that in 44 years—through eight presidential administrations—EPA management has never attempted to correct the problem. Indeed, the pesticide industry touts its forward-looking, modern technologies as it strives to keep its own research in the closet, and relies on questionable assumptions and outdated methods in regulatory toxicology.”
The only way to establish a scientific basis for evaluating glyphosate’s safety, they wrote, would be to “force some daylight between regulators and the regulated.”
Limited government means freedom to harm
In Trump’s Washington, there is no daylight at all between the corporations selling harmful products and the agencies that are supposed to regulate them.
As one of his first official actions, Pruitt tossed aside the recommendation of EPA’s scientists and allowed Dow Chemical to keep selling a pesticide developed as a nerve gas that is linked to brain damage in children.
“Trump’s most enduring legacy may be cancer, infertility and diminished I.Q.s for decades to come.”
“Kids are told to eat fruits and vegetables, but EPA scientists found levels of this pesticide on such foods at up to 140 times the limits deemed safe,” Nicholas Kristof wrote in a scathing NYT op-ed. “Trump’s most enduring legacy may be cancer, infertility and diminished I.Q.s for decades to come.”
Pruitt has gone so far as to put a chemical industry lobbyist in charge of a sweeping new toxics law that was supposed to regulate the chemical industry.
It’s all so outrageous – but then, it has been for a very long time.
“The $800 billion chemical industry lavishes money on politicians and lobbies its way out of effective regulation. This has always been a problem, but now the Trump administration has gone so far as to choose chemical industry lobbyists to oversee environmental protections,” as Kristof described it.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics protested the administration’s decision on the nerve gas pesticide, but officials sided with industry over doctors. The swamp won. The chemical industry lobby, the American Chemistry Council, is today’s version of Big Tobacco…”
“Some day we will look back and wonder: What were we thinking?!”
The Character of our Country
A decade ago, the Independent Women’s Forum presented its Valor Award to Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nation’s largest breast cancer organization – a group that has also drawn criticism for taking money from polluting corporations and promoting unhealthy food and toxic products.
At the 2007 IWF gala, in an acceptance speech she called “The Character of our Country,” Brinker warned that millions of lives will be lost unless America acts to avert the coming “cancer tsunami.”
But then, she said: “My friends, this is not a problem of politics. When it comes to cancer, there are no Republicans or Democrats, no liberals or conservatives.”
Rather, she said, invoking vagueness as she stood before a group that tells women not to worry about pesticides, at an event awash in corporate cash, beating cancer is a matter of summoning the will to make cancer a “national and global priority!”
But that is exactly a problem of politics. It’s about Republicans and Democrats, both of whom have let Americans down by failing to confront the chemical industry. It’s about summoning the political will to get chemicals linked to cancer, infertility and brain damage off the market and out of our food.
In the meantime, we can take the advice of science: eat organic and vote for politicians who are willing to stand up to the pesticide industry.
When a reputable-sounding nonprofit organization released a report attacking the organic food industry in April 2014, the group went to great lengths to tout its independence.
The 30-page report by Academics Review, described as “a non-profit led by independent academic experts in agriculture and food sciences,” found that consumers were being duped into spending more money for organic food because of deceptive marketing practices by the organic industry.
Trade press headlines blared: “Organics exposed!” (Brownfield News) and “Organic Industry Booming by Deceiving Consumers” (Food Safety Tech News), touting the findings by supposedly independent experts.
The findings were “endorsed by an international panel of independent agricultural science, food science, economic and legal experts from respected international institutions,” according to the group’s press release.
In case the point about independence wasn’t clear, the press release ends on this note: “Academics Review has no conflicts-of-interest associated with this publication, and all associated costs for which were paid for using our general funds without any specific donor’ influence or direction.”
What was not mentioned in the report, the news release or on the website: Executives for Monsanto Co., the world’s leading purveyor of agrichemicals and genetically engineered seeds, along with key Monsanto allies, engaged in fund raising for Academics Review, collaborated on strategy and even discussed plans to hide industry funding, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Monsanto’s motives in attacking the organic industry are obvious: Monsanto’s seeds and chemicals are banned from use in organic farming, and a large part of Monsanto’s messaging is that its products are superior to organics as tools to boost global food production.
Academics Carry Monsanto’s Message
Academics Review was co-founded by “two independent professors … on opposite ends of the planet,” Bruce Chassy, Ph.D., professor emeritus at University of Illinois, and David Tribe, Ph.D., senior lecturer at University of Melbourne. They claim the group “only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources.”
Yet two email exchanges in 2010 reveal plans to find corporate funding for Academics Review while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden.
In a March 11, 2010 email exchange with Chassy, Jay Byrne, former head of communications at Monsanto who now runs a PR and market research firm, offered to act as a “commercial vehicle” to help find corporate funding for Academics Review.
Chassy discussed his interest in attacking the organic industry in the emails. “I would love to have a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles…” he wrote, “I sure don’t have the money.”
“Well, I suggest we work on the money (for all of us) first and quickly! I’ve proposed to Val [Giddings, former vice president of BIO, the biotech industry trade association] that he and I meet while I’m in DC next week so we can (not via e-mail) get a clear picture of options for taking the Academic Review project and other opportunities forward. The “Center for Consumer Freedom” (ActivistCash.com) has cashed in on this to the extreme.”
The Center for Consumer Freedom is directed by Rick Berman, a lobbyist who has been called “Dr. Evil“ and the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda“ for his work to promote the tobacco industry and other corporate interests under the cover of neutral-sounding groups.
“I think we have a much better concept,” Byrne told Chassy.
Byrne shared an “opportunities” list of targets comprised of people, groups and content critical of GMOs and Monsanto: Vandana Shiva, Andrew Kimbrell, Ronnie Cummins, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food,” the movies “Food, Inc” and “The World According to Monsanto,” and “topic cross-over on all the risk areas of ag-biotech (out crossing/ contamination, bees, butterflies, human safety, etc…).”
“All of these individuals, organizations, content items and topic areas mean money for a range of well heeled corporations, Byrne wrote, adding:
All of these individuals, organizations, content items and topic areas mean money for a range of well heeled corporations.
“I believe Val and I can identify and serve as the appropriate (non-academic) commercial vehicles by which we can connect these entities with the project in a manner which helps to ensure the credibility and independence (and thus value) of the primary contributors/owners… I believe our kitchen cabinet here can serve as gatekeepers (in some cases toll takers) for effective, credible responses, inoculation and proactive activities using this project platform…”
“Sounds good to me,” Chassy replied. “I’m sure that you will let me know what you discuss.”
In an email exchange with Chassy dated November 30, 2010, Eric Sachs, a senior public relations operative for Monsanto, discussed finding corporate support for Academics Review while “keeping Monsanto in the background.”
Sachs wrote to Chassy:
“You and I need to talk more about the “academics review” site and concept. I believe that there is a path to a process that would better respond to scientific concerns and allegations. I shared with Val yesterday. From my perspective the problem is one of expert engagement and that could be solved by paying experts to provide responses. You and I have discussed this in the past. Val explained that step one is establishing 501(c)3 not-for-profit status to facilitate fund raising. That makes sense but there is more. I discussed with Jerry Steiner today (Monsanto Executive Team) and can help motivate CLI/BIO/CBI and other organizations to support. The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.
CLI/BIO/CBI refers to three industry trade groups — Crop Life International, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and the Council for Biotechnology Information — that represent agrichemical corporations.
Chassy responded to Sachs, “Yes we should talk about Academics Review. I think we are on the same page.”
When asked directly about funding, Chassy replied via email: “Academics Review does not solicit or accept funds from any source for specific research or any other activities associated with any products, services or industry. Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.”
He said that Academics Review incorporated and reported no income in 2012 and he provided the IRS form 990s for 2013 and 2014 (now also posted on the website). Those documents report $419,830 in revenues but include no information about contributors. Chassy did not respond to requests to provide that information.
Press Covers “Independent” Attack on Organic
Academics Review released its organic marketing study in April 2014 to a robust round of trade press coverage describing the findings of “independent researchers”:
• “The Organic Food Industry Has Been Engaged in ‘Multi-Decade Public Disinformation Campaign’ claims report” (Food Navigator)
• “Report: Organic Industry Achieved 25 Years of Fast Growth Through Fear and Deception” (Food Safety News)
In the New York Post, Naomi Schaffer Riley built a case against “tyranny of the organic mommy mafia” who are duped by disingenuous marketing tactics of the organic industry. Her sources included the Academics Review report and Julie Gunlock, author of a book about the “culture of alarmism.”
In the Des Moines Register, John R. Block, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture who now works for a law firm that lobbies for agribusiness interests, reported on the “blockbuster report” by Academics Review and its findings that the organic industry’s secret to success is “black marketing.”
In March 2016, Monica Eng reported for WBEZ on documents showing that Monsanto paid Professor Bruce Chassy more than $57,000 over a 23-month period to travel, write and speak about GMOs — money that was not disclosed to the public.
According to Eng’s investigation, the money was part of at least $5.1 million in undisclosed money Monsanto sent through the University of Illinois Foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015.
“Chassy did not disclose his financial relationship with Monsanto on state or university forms aimed at detecting potential conflicts of interest,” Eng reported.
“Documents further show that Chassy and the university directed Monsanto to deposit the payments through the University of Illinois Foundation, a body whose records are shielded from public scrutiny. The foundation also has the ability to take in private money and disburse it to an individual as a ‘university payment’ — exempt from disclosure.”
In January 2016, Carey Gillam, research director of U.S. Right to Know, reported on emails showing that hundreds of thousands of dollars had flowed from Monsanto to the University of Illinois “as Chassy collaborated on multiple projects with Monsanto to counter public concerns about genetically modified crops (GMOs) – all while representing himself as an independent academic for a public institution.”
“What you find when reading through the email chains is an arrangement that allowed industry players to cloak pro-GMO messaging within a veil of independent expertise, and little, if any, public disclosure of the behind-the-scenes connections,” Gillam wrote.
The last post on the Academics Review site, dated Sept. 2, 2015, is a blog by Chassy explaining that some of his emails would be made public due to the FOIA requests of U.S. Right to Know, which he characterized as an assault on his 40 years of public science, research and teaching.
Financial support from the private sector for public sector research and outreach is “appropriate, commonplace and needed to further the public interest,” Chassy wrote. “Such support should be, and in all my experiences has been, transparent and done under the strict ethical guidelines of the public institutions that are benefiting from private sector or individual financial contributions.”
Three days later, some of Chassy’s emails were first made public in a front-page New York Times article by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eric Lipton. Lipton reported that Monsanto gave Chassy a grant for an undisclosed sum in 2011 for “biotechnology outreach and education activities.”
Chassy told Lipton that the money he received from Monsanto “helped to elevate his voice through travel, a website he created and other means.”
Still Getting Press as an Independent Source
Despite the revelations in the emails and the disclosure of Chassy’s financial ties to Monsanto, the Academics Review website and its report attacking the organic industry are still posted online with all the descriptions claiming independence.
And Chassy still enjoys press coverage as an “independent” expert on GMOs. In May 2016, two separate Associated Pressstories quoted Chassy on that topic. Neither story mentioned Chassy’s now-public financial ties to Monsanto.
Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. She is author of the award-winning book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry” (New Society 2007).