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 all these companies – Monsanto/Bayer, DowDuPont, Syngenta, BASF – have long histories of hiding the harm of their products. Since their records do not inspire trust, they rely on third-party allies to promote and defend their products.
The fact sheets below shine light on this hidden propaganda network: the front groups, academics, journalists and regulators who work behind the scenes with pesticide companies to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides.
Information we report here is based on the U.S. Right to Know investigation which has obtained tens of thousands of pages of internal corporate and regulatory documents since 2015. Our investigation inspired a counter campaign by the pesticide industry which has tried to discredit our work. According to Monsanto documents revealed in 2019, “USRTK’s investigation will impact the entire industry.”
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The Independent Women’s Forum is a nonprofit organization that partners with Monsanto, defends toxic chemicals in food and consumer products, and argues against laws that would curb the power of corporations. Funded largely by right-wing foundations that push climate science denial, IWF began in 1991 as an effort to defend now Supreme Court Justice (and former Monsanto attorney) Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. In 2018, the group also defended Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the face of sexual assault allegations, and described Kavanaugh as a “champion of women.“
With a budget of roughly $2 million a year, the Independent Women ‘s Forum now says it works for policies that “enhance freedom.” Its programs include lobbying and advocating for the deregulation of toxic products, and deflecting blame for health and environmental harms away from polluting corporations and toward personal responsibility. In 2017, the group’s annual gala in Washington DC, which celebrated IWF board member Kellyanne Conway as a champion of women, was sponsored by chemical and tobacco companies.
Kellyanne Conway, White House advisor and former Trump campaign manager, is an IWF board member. Directors Emeritae includeLynne V.Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney and Kimberly O.Dennis, president of the board of directors of Donors Trust and president and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust.
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
In an April 21, 2016 proposal to Monsanto, IWF asked Monsanto to contribute $43,300 for “Super Women of Science” events designed to undercut political support for Proposition 65, a California law that prohibits companies from discharging hazardous chemicals in waterways and requires them to notify consumers about toxic chemical exposures. The proposed events were part of IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project that was created “to debunk media hype about the risks Americans face from the products we use, the foods we eat and the environment surrounding our families.”
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 moms who choose organic food, 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)
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)
The “Culture of Alarmism” project, since renamed the “Project for Progress and Innovation,” is run by Julie Gunlock, who writes frequent blogs arguing against public health protections and defending corporations. She has described “FDA’s refusal to promote e-cigarettes” as “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, IWF’s Julie Gunlock argues that corporations 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 is an IWF fellow but did not disclose that to readers – attempts to shame and blame moms who choose organic food. Riley’s article was sourced entirely by industry front groups and sources that she falsely presented as independent, including Academics Review, a Monsanto front group; the Alliance for Food and Farming and Julie Gunlock of the IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism Project,” who was also not identified in the article as an employee of IWF. For more on this topic, see the “Assault on Organic: Ignoring science to make the case for chemical farming” (FAIR, 2014).
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)
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.