Stuart Smyth’s agrichemical industry ties and funding

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Stuart Smyth, PhD, promotes and defends genetically engineered foods and pesticides as an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2014, he has held the Industry Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation.

Industry funding

Funders (described as “investing partners”) of Smyth’s research chair position include Bayer CropScience Canada, CropLife Canada, Monsanto Canada, the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission (SaskCanola) and Syngenta Canada. According to the U of S website, “The objective of this Chair is to address the problems regarding the use of regulations as international trade barriers that have the very real probability of negatively impacting food security by restricting developing country farmers from accessing the full variety of tools possible. The research undertaken in the Chair will provide the industry with research from a neutral perspective, but one that will hold industry interests as a priority.” Funding companies hold a seat on a “Stakeholder Advisory Committee” established “to provide a two-way flow of information, insights and feedback between the chairholder and the investing partners.”

Public-private research

Dr. Smyth’s research focuses on “sustainability, agriculture, innovation and food.” In 2015, he was part of a large group of scientists at U of S who received $37 million from the Canada First Research Fund, a federal grant program, targeted toward designing crops to “improve global food security.” The research teams operate under the leadership of the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), a public-private partnership involving the University of Saskatchewan, the Government of Saskatchewan and Nutrien, one of the largest producers of fertilizer products. Under the slogan “feeding the future,” Nutrien markets its chemical products as critical for food security.

Annual contribution from Monsanto

In a May 13, 2016 email, Monsanto Canada’s Public and Industry Affairs Director asked Dr. Smyth to send an invoice for “this year’s contribution” for “program support.”

Industry collaborations

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show how Dr. Smyth has collaborated on messaging with agrichemical companies and industry allies.

Discrediting IARC: In a May 2016 email, Dr. Smyth notified Monsanto employees that he had filed an information request with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to obtain a presentation given by Chris Portier, a scientist in the IARC working group that found glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen. Internal documents and industry communications show that Monsanto’s key strategy to defend glyphosate was to foment attacks against IARC, and specifically Dr. Portier.

In the email to Monsanto, Dr. Smyth said he expected the information he was trying to obtain could provide “clear grounds for a conflict of interest and lack of transparency.” He linked to a blog by the “Risk Monger” (David Zaruk, a former pesticide industry lobbyist) alleging misconduct at IARC and demanding retraction of its glyphosate report. On Twitter, Dr. Smyth called for federal governments to stop funding the WHO’s cancer research agency.

Offering slides to Monsanto for editing: In a November 2016 email, Dr. Smyth asked Monsanto employees if they had suggestions for improvements on his draft slides for a presentation to the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture meeting. IICA is a partnership of Microsoft, Bayer, Corteva Agrisciences (DowDuPont) and the Costa Rica Ministry of Science to promote technology as the solution for agricultural development in rural areas.

BASF/CropLife project offer: In February 2016 emails, BASF’s Business Director of Crop Protection reached out to Dr. Smyth to discuss a “small project we are working on within CropLife Canada that I would like to explore with you.” Dr. Smyth agreed to set up a meeting and noted he was “in Berlin to speak at a food safety conference about the dangers of eating organic food and how the organic industry needs to be honest with consumers about how organic food is produced.”

Promoting GMOs to food buyers: In August 2016, Monsanto’s Cami Ryan notified Dr. Smyth that she suggested him for a speaking slot at a conference to discuss the implications of removing or using less GMOs to a crowd of food producers, major food buyers and investment bankers.

Opting out of biosafety: In a July 2016 email exchange with a writer from the American Council on Science and Health (an industry-funded front group), Dr. Smyth discussed a presentation he had given on global food security “saying that Canada and the US need to help countries opt out of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and that we need to fence Europe out of global ag commodity trade.”

Undeclared conflicts

Dr. Smyth and the University of Saskatchewan disclose on the website that Dr. Smyth’s chair position receives agrichemical industry funding, but Dr. Smyth does not always disclose his industry funding in his academic papers and public communications.

From a 2020 paper he co-authored about biotechnology regulations: “We wish to confirm that there are no known conflicts of interest associated with this publication”

Another 2020 paper he co-authored about food safety and risk assessment: “The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.”

In a 2019 paper titled, “The human health benefits from GM crops,” Dr. Smyth wrote, “I declare no conflict of interest.”

A 2018 paper in New Phytologist Trust declared that “No potential conflicts of interest were disclosed.”

A 2018 paper in Frontiers in Plant Science states, “The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.”

Media outlets have not always disclosed Dr. Smyth’s industry funding. In March 2019, soon after a federal jury awarded $80 million to a cancer victim exposed to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide, Dr. Smyth argued in Newsweek that glyphosate should not be restricted. Newsweek failed to disclose the industry connections of Smyth and his co-author, Henry I. Miller, but later acknowledged that their “ties to the agrochemical industry and Monsanto should have been disclosed.”

Industry messaging

Dr. Smyth produces a steady stream of blogs, media appearances and social media posts promoting and defending agrichemical products and arguing against regulations.  On his SaiFood blog, Dr. Smyth touts the theoretical benefits of GMO crops and promotes glyphosate as necessary and safe, sometimes using student surveys as the frame for promoting industry views.

The blog is the main communication vehicle Dr. Smyth established for his industry research chair position, according to a thank you note he sent to Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer in November 2016, notifying them that his blog had been voted one of the top 50 ag blogs in North America. “Without your support for this research, none of this would have been possible,” Dr. Smyth wrote.

On Twitter, Dr. Smyth promotes industry PR writers and industry front groups such as the Genetic Literacy Project and American Council on Science and Health and regularly attacks environmental NGOs and the organic industry. He has claimed, for example, that the “environmental toxicity of organic chemicals is far higher than industrial ones,” and that, “Organic food can’t be trusted anywhere, it is the food most likely to kill those who eat it.”

More information on corporate public relations

For more information on how agrichemical companies are funding various programs in Canada to promote public acceptance of genetically engineered seeds and agrichemicals, see this post by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network on Corporate Public Relations.