Nina Fedoroff: Mobilizing the authority of American science to back Monsanto

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Key points:

  • As a president and board chair of AAAS from 2011-2013, Dr. Fedoroff advanced agrichemical industry policy objectives. She now works for a lobbying firm.
  • Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show how public relations and lobbying efforts are coordinated behind the scenes among the agrichemical industry, front groups and academics who appear independent.
  • Dr. Fedoroff promotes organizations that mislead the public about science and their industry ties.

Nina Fedoroff, PhD, is one of the most influential scientists advocating for the proliferation and deregulation of genetically engineered foods. She is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011-2012) and former chair of the AAAS Board of Directors (2012-2013). She is a senior science advisor since 2015 at OFW Law, a lobbying firm whose clients have included Syngenta and the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group representing Bayer (which owns Monsanto), BASF, Corteva (a division of DowDuPont) and Syngenta.

From 2007-2010, Dr. Fedoroff served as science and technology advisor to the Secretary of State and the Administrator of USAID under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Prior to that, she was a board member of the Sigma-Aldrich Corporation, a multinational chemical and biotech firm; and an advisory board member of Evogene, a biotechnology company that partnered with DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto. 

In 2017, Dr. Fedoroff promoted the American Council on Science and Health “junk science” book alongside two scientists affiliated with groups that deny climate science and lobby for tobacco products.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “science czar,” Dr. Fedoroff served as diplomat for the “GMO all the way” thrust of U.S. foreign policy, Tom Philpott reported in Grist in 2008 and 2009. Pesticide Action Network of North America has described Dr. Fedoroff as “literally the U.S. ambassador” for genetic engineering. According to Greenpeace, Dr. Fedoroff has been “a fervent advocate for the global proliferation of GM (genetically modified) foods throughout her career.”

During her tenure as president and chairman of AAAS, the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society, Dr. Fedoroff leveraged those roles to provide political aid to the agrichemical industry: the AAAS Board of Directors under her chairmanship issued a politically timed statement to oppose GMO labeling in 2012; while president of the scientific organization in 2011, Dr. Fedoroff helped defeat a U.S. EPA proposal that would have required additional health and safety data for GMO crops, according to emails described below. See, Nina Fedoroff, AAAS and the agrichemical industry lobby. Dr. Fedoroff and AAAS have not responded to requests for response.

Affiliations with deceptive industry front groups and PR efforts

Dr. Fedoroff has promoted and helped to legitimize groups that claim to be independent voices for science but work behind the scenes with the agrichemical industry in ways that mislead the public − including two groups that helped Monsanto try to discredit the scientists who served on the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) expert panel that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is funded by chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, according to leaked internal documents that document how the group pitches its services to corporations for product-defense campaigns. Emails released via court proceedings show that Monsanto agreed to fund ACSH in 2015, and asked the group to write about the IARC cancer report on glyphosate; ACSH later claimed the cancer report was a “scientific fraud.”     

Dr. Fedoroff helped promote this group as a legitimate science source in a 2017 National Press Club event to launch the ACSH’s “Little Black Book of Junk Science.” Appearing alongside Dr. Fedoroff at the press event were two scientists affiliated with groups that deny climate science and lobby for tobacco products:

Genetic Literacy Project: Dr. Fedoroff is listed as a board member on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group that claims to be independent but partners with Monsanto on PR and lobbying projects, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. Documents released in court filings show that Monsanto listed this group among the “industry partners” it planned to engage in a strategy to “orchestrate outcry” against IARC’s glyphosate assessment in order to “protect the reputation and FTO of Roundup.” Genetic Literacy Project has since posted more than 200 articles critical of the cancer research agency, including numerous personal attacks on the scientists involved in the glyphosate report, accusing them of conspiracy, fraud, lying, corruption, secrecy, and being motivated by “profit and vanity.”

In an award-winning series in Le Monde about Monsanto’s “effort to destroy the UN cancer agency by any means possible,” journalists Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel described Genetic Literacy Project and ACSH as “well-known propaganda websites” and said GLP is “fed by PR people linked to the pesticides and biotechnology industries.” GLP was launched in 2011 by Jon Entine, who owns a public relations firm that had Monsanto as a client at that time.

Attacks on cancer researchers on the Genetic Literacy Project website that lists Dr. Fedoroff as a “board member”:

Academics Review: Dr. Fedoroff promoted Academics Review as a trustworthy science source in a 2012 article in Trends in Genetics and a 2016 interview with the Washington Examiner about poor science journalism. Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto to discredit critics of genetic engineering and pesticides, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden. The group, which claimed to be independent but was funded by agrichemical companies, attacked the organic industry as a “marketing scam.”

Biotech Literacy Boot Camp: Dr. Fedoroff was listed as a core faculty member of a Biotech Literacy Project “boot camp” held at UC Davis in 2015. The event was organized by two PR groups, Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, and secretly funded by agrichemical companies to “train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate,” reported Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Speakers included a familiar list of industry PR allies including Jay Byrne, Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy, David Tribe, Hank Campbell of ACSH and a keynote by the “Sci Babe.”

AgBioWorld: In her 2012 Trends and Genetics article, Dr. Fedoroff promoted the website AgBioWorld as “another invaluable resource” to learn about science. In a 2002 article in the Guardian, George Monbiot described how Monsanto’s PR team used the AgBioWorld website and fake social media accounts to discredit scientists and environmentalists who raised concerns about GM crops. Monbiot reported:  

“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 online personality Mary] Smetacek launched her campaign.”

Attack on Greenpeace: Dr. Fedoroff spoke at a 2016 press event for a group calling itself “Support Precision Agriculture,” which presented a letter signed by over 100 Nobel laureates criticizing Greenpeace for their opposition to GMOs. Agrichemical industry allies helped out with the campaign, including Monsanto’s former Communications Director Jay Byrne; former biotech trade group VP Val Giddings; and Matt Winkler, who funds the PR group Genetic Literacy Project and is listed as a board member along with Dr. Fedoroff on the group’s website. The .com version of the supposedly independent “Support Precision Agriculture” website redirected to the Genetic Literacy Project for years (it was delinked after we called attention to it in 2019). In emails from 2011, Byrne identified Greenpeace on a “targets” list he was developing for Monsanto with names of industry critics they could confront from behind the cover of an industry-funded academic group that appeared independent.

Friend of GMO Answers: Dr. Fedoroff is an independent expert for GMO Answers, a PR campaign developed by Ketchum public relations, which has a history of using deceptive tactics to influence the public. Although Ketchum claimed the GMO Answers campaign would “redefine transparency,” the group scripted answers for an “independent” expert and was listed among the “industry partners” in Monsanto’s PR plan to protect Roundup from cancer concerns. A “resources” section (page 4) pointed to GMO Answers and Monsanto links that communicate the company message that “Glyphosate is not carcinogenic.” In 2016, Dr. Fedoroff spoke on a panel sponsored by GMO Answers, Scientific American and the Cornell Alliance for Science about media coverage of science featuring industry-friendly journalists Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. See “Monsanto’s Media Machine Comes to Washington,” by Paul Thacker.

Opposed investigation to uncover industry-academic ties

In 2015, Dr. Fedoroff and two other former AAAS presidents, Peter Raven and Phillip Sharp, promoted their AAAS leadership roles, but failed to disclose any of their industry ties, in a Guardian op-ed opposing a public records investigation that sought to uncover undisclosed partnerships and financial arrangements between agrichemical companies, their PR groups and publicly funded professors. The investigation by U.S. Right to Know uncovered some of the key documents described in this fact sheet.

Although the Guardian later added a disclosure that Dr. Fedoroff works at the lobby firm OFW Law, it did not disclose that OFW Law’s client at the time was the agrichemical industry trade group, whose member companies were a focus of the public records investigation. The former AAAS presidents argued in their op-ed that the investigation to uncover undisclosed industry-academic conflicts of interest was “taking a page out of the Climategate playbook” and involved “science denialism,” the same claims made by industry PR groups described in this fact sheet.

Using the AAAS to advance agrichemical industry policy objectives

During her tenure as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) from 2011-2012 and as Chair of the Board of Directors from 2012-2013, Dr. Fedoroff worked with agrichemical industry allies to advance key policy objectives: keeping genetically engineered foods unlabeled and defeating a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would have required additional data on the health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops that are classified as pesticides.

AAAS helped persuade voters to oppose GMO labeling

In 2012, the AAAS Board of Directors under Dr. Fedoroff’s chairmanship took the unusual step of taking a position on a contentious political issue just two weeks before voters in California went to the polls to decide on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative to label GMOs. A review of the many political statements made by AAAS found no other examples of the organization attempting to influence voters ahead of a state election. (The AAAS and Dr. Fedoroff did not respond to requests for comment. Also disclosure: the USRTK co-directors worked on the pro-labeling campaign.)

The AAAS board’s statement opposing GMO labeling was controversial. It contained inaccuracies, according to longtime AAAS members, several of whom denounced the anti-labeling statement as a “paternalistic” attack on consumer rights that misled the public by omitting important scientific and regulatory context. An AAAS spokeswoman at the time, Ginger Pinholster, called the criticisms “unfair and without merit.” She told a reporter she was in the room when the board passed the statement: “We are not an advocacy group. We make our statements based on scientific evidence,” Pinholster said. “I can tell you that our statement is not the work of nor was it influenced by any outside organization.”

Some observers noted the similarities in language used by the AAAS and the industry-funded campaign to defeat Proposition 37. “Is a major science group stumping for Monsanto?” Michele Simon asked in Grist. Simon described the board’s statement as “non-scientific but very quote-worthy,” and noted that the accompanying AAAS press release contained “talking points” that matched No on 37 campaign literature.

“appearing to be less than transparent is a really bad idea for the scientific community”

In a 2013 letter to Science magazine, another group of 11 scientists raised concerns that the AAAS board’s statement on GMO foods “could backfire.” They wrote, “we are concerned that AAA’s position represents a poorly informed approach to communicating science …  appearing to be less than transparent is a really bad idea for the scientific community.” 

Dr. Fedoroff was an early supporter of the industry-backed No on 37 campaign, which listed her on its website in June 2012 as one of four scientists representing the “scientific and academic community” who opposed GMO labeling. The campaign later asked Dr. Fedoroff to help recruit more academics to their cause, which she did according to an October 1, 2012 email to Meghan Callahan of BCF Public Affairs, “I’ve forwarded your [request for academic supporters] to an international group of biotechnology supporting academics. I suspect you’ll be hearing from many corners of the world,” Dr. Fedoroff wrote.

Helped kill data requirements for pesticide-producing plants

In 2011 while serving as AAAS president, Dr. Fedoroff worked with agrichemical industry allies and an industry lobbyist to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from requiring companies to provide additional health and safety data for genetically engineered foods that are classified as pesticides, according to emails described below.

The EPA proposal stemmed from a 2009 EPA Scientific Advisory Panel discussion about ways to improve the agency’s ability to make regulatory decisions about plants that are genetically engineered to produce or contain pesticides, which EPA refers to as “plant-incorporated protectants” (PIPs). Panel members were asked to evaluate current and proposed EPA data requirements for PIPs in the following areas: 

  • data to assess potential similarities between PIPs and allergens, toxins, anti-nutrients and other hazardous proteins; 
  • testing for synergistic effects on health and non-target organisms, when two or more GMO traits are combined (stacked trait GMOs);
  • potential impacts on microbial populations in soil ecosystems; and 
  • data to better address the impacts of gene flow. 

According to notes from an October 2009 EPA meeting, the proposed rules would “mostly codify existing data requirements that are currently applied on a case-by-case basis,” and would encompass five categories of data and information: product characterization, human health, non-target effects, environmental fate and resistance management. EPA announced the proposed rules in the Federal Register in March 2011.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via public records requests show how industry allies mobilized to defeat the proposal.

The emails show conversations between Bruce Chassy, a University of Illinois professor at the time, Eric Sachs of Monsanto and other industry reps discussing activities and meetings that involved Dr. Fedoroff. Chassy described himself in the emails (page 66) as the liaison between industry and academics in the effort to oppose the EPA data requirements. Interspersed in his emails to Sachs were queries about whether Monsanto had sent a check to the University of Illinois Foundation in support of Chassy’s “biotechnology outreach and education activities.” (For more details about the undisclosed funds Chassy received from Monsanto for years as he promoted biotechnology, see reporting by Monica Eng in WBEZ and emails posted by the New York Times.)

On July 5, Dr. Chassy emailed Eric Sachs of Monsanto to report that Dr. Fedoroff had sent a letter to EPA over her signature co-signed by 60 members of the National Academy of Sciences. “Nina really picked up the ball and moved it down the field,” Chassy wrote. He described the EPA proposal as a “train wreck.”

The emails show that on August 19, industry trade group representatives were surprised and pleased (page 19) to see a New York Times op-ed from Dr. Fedoroff arguing against regulations for genetic engineering; “who got Nina’s op ed placed?” Adrienne Massey of BIO asked Dr. Chassy and two other industry allies, Henry Miller and Val Giddings. Chassy responded: 

Massey forwarded Dr. Chassy the letter BIO sent to the EPA “hoping to build on the academics’ letter and short-circuit any dismissive response of EPA to that letter.” Their efforts did not succeed as they hoped. On August 24, Dr. Chassy wrote to Eric Sachs (page 14) that Dr. Fedoroff “got a response from EPA that is an insult.” He described plans to ratchet up the pressure.

 

In September, Chassy organized a conference call with Fedoroff, Monsanto’s Eric Sachs, Adrienne Massey of BIO and their lobbyist Stanley Abramson, among others. According to Chassy’s notes from the call, “Finding a way to ensure that the EPA proposal never sees the light of day would be the best possible outcome we could hope for. Next best would be to make sure it is DOA, but if needs be we must be willing to continue the fight.” 

He also shared the problem that, “The EPA does not believe that the academic community can mount a sustained opposition to their proposed rule making; they believe that only a small handful are behind the petition and that most of the signatories are not committed to the issue.” The group decided they needed to “build a core of leading scientists who are in fact willing to speak out and devote time to this issue.” 

By October, the group was more hopeful. Chassy emailed Sachs to report on a “surprisingly productive” meeting he and Dr. Fedoroff attended with Steve Bradbury of EPA. The meeting had been set up by Massey and the lobbyist Abramson. The EPA proposal to require data for GMO PIPs never did see the light of day, according to Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union, who participated in the public meetings with the agency.

Full email chains, via the UCSF Industry Documents Library: 

Related reporting  

I Was Barred from a Nobel Laureate Press Conference by a PR Consultant with Monsanto Ties,” by Tim Schwab, Food & Water Watch (2016) 

The Puppetmasters of Academia,” by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent Science News (2015)

20 years later: the biotech brigade marches on,” Pesticide Action Network (2012) 

Engineering food for whom?” by Marcia Ishii-Eitemann, PhD, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America (2011) 

Sorry, NY Times: GMOs still won’t save the world,” by Anna Lappe, Grist (2011) 

In which I go toe to toe with H. Clinton’s science czar over GMOs,” by Tom Philpott, Grist (2009) 

Genetically Modified Diplomat: U.S. Foreign Policy GMO All the Way,” by Tom Philpott, Grist (2008)

Nina Fedoroff: Mobilizing the authority of American science to back Monsanto

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  • As a president and board chair of AAAS from 2011-2013, Dr. Fedoroff advanced agrichemical industry policy objectives. She now works for a lobbying firm.
  • Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show how public relations and lobbying efforts are coordinated behind the scenes among the agrichemical industry, front groups and academics who appear independent.

Nina Fedoroff, PhD, is one of the most influential scientists advocating for the proliferation and deregulation of genetically engineered foods. She is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011-2012) and former chair of the AAAS Board of Directors (2012-2013). She is a senior science advisor since 2015 at OFW Law, a lobbying firm whose clients have included Syngenta and the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group representing Bayer (which owns Monsanto), BASF, Corteva (a division of DowDuPont) and Syngenta.

From 2007-2010, Dr. Fedoroff served as science and technology advisor to the Secretary of State and the Administrator of USAID under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Prior to that, she was a board member of the Sigma-Aldrich Corporation, a multinational chemical and biotech firm; and an advisory board member of Evogene, a biotechnology company that partnered with DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto.

A 2017 event to promote the American Council on Science and Health’s “junk science” book featured Dr. Fedoroff and two scientists affiliated with groups that deny climate science.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “science czar,” Dr. Fedoroff served as diplomat for the “GMO all the way” thrust of U.S. foreign policy, Tom Philpott reported in Grist in 2008 and 2009. Pesticide Action Network of North America has described Dr. Fedoroff as “literally the U.S. ambassador” for genetic engineering. According to Greenpeace, Dr. Fedoroff has been “a fervent advocate for the global proliferation of GM (genetically modified) foods throughout her career.”

During her tenure as president and chairman of AAAS, the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society, Dr. Fedoroff leveraged those roles to provide political aid to the agrichemical industry: for example, the AAAS Board of Directors under her chairmanship issued a politically timed statement to oppose GMO labeling in 2012. While president of the scientific organization in 2011, Dr. Fedoroff helped defeat a U.S. EPA proposal that would have required additional health and safety data for GMO crops, according to emails described below. See, Nina Fedoroff, AAAS and the agrichemical industry lobby. Dr. Fedoroff and AAAS have not responded to requests for response.

Affiliations with deceptive industry front groups and PR efforts

Dr. Fedoroff has promoted and helped to legitimize groups that claim to be independent voices for science but work behind the scenes with the agrichemical industry in ways that mislead the public − including two groups that helped Monsanto try to discredit the scientists who served on the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) expert panel that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is funded by chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, according to leaked internal documents that document how the group pitches its services to corporations for product-defense campaigns. Emails released via court proceedings show that Monsanto agreed to fund ACSH in 2015, and asked the group to write about the IARC cancer report on glyphosate; ACSH later claimed the cancer report was a “scientific fraud.”     

Dr. Fedoroff helped promote this group as a legitimate science source in a 2017 National Press Club event to launch the ACSH’s “Little Black Book of Junk Science.” Appearing alongside Dr. Fedoroff at the press event were two scientists affiliated with groups that deny climate science and lobby for tobacco products:

Genetic Literacy Project: Dr. Fedoroff is listed as a board member on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group that claims to be independent but partners with Monsanto on PR and lobbying projects, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. Documents released in court filings show that Monsanto listed this group among the “industry partners” it planned to engage in a strategy to “orchestrate outcry” against IARC’s glyphosate assessment in order to “protect the reputation and FTO of Roundup.” Genetic Literacy Project has since posted more than 200 articles critical of the cancer research agency, including numerous personal attacks on the scientists involved in the glyphosate report, accusing them of conspiracy, fraud, lying, corruption, secrecy, and being motivated by “profit and vanity.”

In an award-winning series in Le Monde about Monsanto’s “effort to destroy the UN cancer agency by any means possible,” journalists Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel described Genetic Literacy Project and ACSH as “well-known propaganda websites” and said GLP is “fed by PR people linked to the pesticides and biotechnology industries.” GLP was launched in 2011 by Jon Entine, who owns a public relations firm that had Monsanto as a client at that time.

Attacks on cancer researchers on the Genetic Literacy Project website that lists Dr. Fedoroff as a “board member”:

Academics Review: Dr. Fedoroff promoted Academics Review as a trustworthy science source in a 2012 article in Trends in Genetics and a 2016 interview with the Washington Examiner about poor science journalism. Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto to discredit critics of genetic engineering and pesticides, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden. The group, which claimed to be independent but was funded by agrichemical companies, attacked the organic industry as a “marketing scam.”

Biotech Literacy Boot Camp: Dr. Fedoroff was listed as a core faculty member of a Biotech Literacy Project “boot camp” held at UC Davis in 2015. The event was organized by two PR groups, Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, and secretly funded by agrichemical companies to “train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate,” reported Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Speakers included a familiar list of industry PR allies including Jay Byrne, Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy, David Tribe, Hank Campbell of ACSH and a keynote by the “Sci Babe.”

AgBioWorld: In her 2012 Trends and Genetics article, Dr. Fedoroff promoted the website AgBioWorld as “another invaluable resource” to learn about science. In a 2002 article in the Guardian, George Monbiot described how Monsanto’s PR team used the AgBioWorld website and fake social media accounts to discredit scientists and environmentalists who raised concerns about GM crops. Monbiot reported: 

“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 online personality Mary] Smetacek launched her campaign.”

Attack on Greenpeace: Dr. Fedoroff spoke at a 2016 press event for a group calling itself “Support Precision Agriculture,” which presented a letter signed by over 100 Nobel laureates criticizing Greenpeace for their opposition to GMOs. Agrichemical industry allies helped out with the campaign, including Monsanto’s former Communications Director Jay Byrne; former biotech trade group VP Val Giddings; and Matt Winkler, who funds the PR group Genetic Literacy Project and is listed as a board member along with Dr. Fedoroff on the group’s website. The .com version of the supposedly independent “Support Precision Agriculture” website redirected to the Genetic Literacy Project for years (it was delinked after we called attention to it in 2019). In emails from 2011, Byrne identified Greenpeace on a “targets” list he was developing for Monsanto with names of industry critics they could confront from behind the cover of an industry-funded academic group that appeared independent.

Friend of GMO Answers: Dr. Fedoroff is an independent expert for GMO Answers, a PR campaign developed by Ketchum public relations, which has a history of using deceptive tactics to influence the public. Although Ketchum claimed the GMO Answers campaign would “redefine transparency,” the group scripted answers for an “independent” expert and was listed among the “industry partners” in Monsanto’s PR plan to protect Roundup from cancer concerns. A “resources” section (page 4) pointed to GMO Answers and Monsanto links that communicate the company message that “Glyphosate is not carcinogenic.” In 2016, Dr. Fedoroff spoke on a panel sponsored by GMO Answers, Scientific American and the Cornell Alliance for Science about media coverage of science featuring industry-friendly journalists Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. See “Monsanto’s Media Machine Comes to Washington,” by Paul Thacker.

Opposed investigation to uncover industry-academic ties

In 2015, Dr. Fedoroff and two other former AAAS presidents, Peter Raven and Phillip Sharp, promoted their AAAS leadership roles, but failed to disclose any of their industry ties, in a Guardian op-ed opposing a public records investigation that sought to uncover undisclosed partnerships and financial arrangements between agrichemical companies, their PR groups and publicly funded professors. The investigation by U.S. Right to Know uncovered some of the key documents described in this fact sheet.

Although the Guardian later added a disclosure that Dr. Fedoroff works at the lobby firm OFW Law, it did not disclose that OFW Law’s client at the time was the agrichemical industry trade group, whose member companies were a focus of the public records investigation. The former AAAS presidents argued in their op-ed that the investigation to uncover undisclosed industry-academic conflicts of interest was “taking a page out of the Climategate playbook” and involved “science denialism,” the same claims made by industry PR groups described in this fact sheet.

Using the AAAS to advance agrichemical industry policy objectives

During her tenure as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) from 2011-2012 and as Chair of the Board of Directors from 2012-2013, Dr. Fedoroff worked with agrichemical industry allies to advance key policy objectives: keeping genetically engineered foods unlabeled and defeating a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would have required additional data on the health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops that are classified as pesticides.

AAAS helped persuade voters to oppose GMO labeling

In 2012, the AAAS Board of Directors under Dr. Fedoroff’s chairmanship took the unusual step of taking a position on a contentious political issue just two weeks before voters in California went to the polls to decide on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative to label GMOs. A review of the many political statements made by AAAS found no other examples of the organization attempting to influence voters ahead of a state election. (The AAAS and Dr. Fedoroff did not respond to requests for comment. Also disclosure: the USRTK co-directors worked on the pro-labeling campaign.)

The AAAS board’s statement opposing GMO labeling was controversial. It contained inaccuracies, according to longtime AAAS members, several of whom denounced the anti-labeling statement as a “paternalistic” attack on consumer rights that misled the public by omitting important scientific and regulatory context. An AAAS spokeswoman at the time, Ginger Pinholster, called the criticisms “unfair and without merit.” She told a reporter she was in the room when the board passed the statement: “We are not an advocacy group. We make our statements based on scientific evidence,” Pinholster said. “I can tell you that our statement is not the work of nor was it influenced by any outside organization.”

Some observers noted the similarities in language used by the AAAS and the industry-funded campaign to defeat Proposition 37. “Is a major science group stumping for Monsanto?” Michele Simon asked in Grist. Simon described the board’s statement as “non-scientific but very quote-worthy,” and noted that the accompanying AAAS press release contained “talking points” that matched No on 37 campaign literature.

“appearing to be less than transparent is a really bad idea for the scientific community”

In a 2013 letter to Science magazine, another group of 11 scientists raised concerns that the AAAS board’s statement on GMO foods “could backfire.” They wrote, “we are concerned that AAA’s position represents a poorly informed approach to communicating science …  appearing to be less than transparent is a really bad idea for the scientific community.”

Dr. Fedoroff was an early supporter of the industry-backed No on 37 campaign, which listed her on its website in June 2012 as one of four scientists representing the “scientific and academic community” who opposed GMO labeling. The campaign later asked Dr. Fedoroff to help recruit more academics to their cause, which she did according to an October 1, 2012 email to Meghan Callahan of BCF Public Affairs, “I’ve forwarded your [request for academic supporters] to an international group of biotechnology supporting academics. I suspect you’ll be hearing from many corners of the world,” Dr. Fedoroff wrote.

Helped kill data requirements for pesticide-producing plants

In 2011 while serving as AAAS president, Dr. Fedoroff worked with agrichemical industry allies and an industry lobbyist to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from requiring companies to provide additional health and safety data for genetically engineered foods that are classified as pesticides, according to emails described below.

The EPA proposal stemmed from a 2009 EPA Scientific Advisory Panel discussion about ways to improve the agency’s ability to make regulatory decisions about plants that are genetically engineered to produce or contain pesticides, which EPA refers to as “plant-incorporated protectants” (PIPs). Panel members were asked to evaluate current and proposed EPA data requirements for PIPs in the following areas:

  • data to assess potential similarities between PIPs and allergens, toxins, anti-nutrients and other hazardous proteins;
  • testing for synergistic effects on health and non-target organisms, when two or more GMO traits are combined (stacked trait GMOs);
  • potential impacts on microbial populations in soil ecosystems; and
  • data to better address the impacts of gene flow.

According to notes from an October 2009 EPA meeting, the proposed rules would “mostly codify existing data requirements that are currently applied on a case-by-case basis,” and would encompass five categories of data and information: product characterization, human health, non-target effects, environmental fate and resistance management. EPA announced the proposed rules in the Federal Register in March 2011.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via public records requests show how industry allies mobilized to defeat the proposal.

The emails show conversations between Bruce Chassy, a University of Illinois professor at the time, Eric Sachs of Monsanto and other industry reps discussing activities and meetings that involved Dr. Fedoroff. Chassy described himself in the emails (page 66) as the liaison between industry and academics in the effort to oppose the EPA data requirements. Interspersed in his emails to Sachs were queries about whether Monsanto had sent a check to the University of Illinois Foundation in support of Chassy’s “biotechnology outreach and education activities.” (For more details about the undisclosed funds Chassy received from Monsanto for years as he promoted biotechnology, see reporting by Monica Eng in WBEZ and emails posted by the New York Times.)

On July 5, Dr. Chassy emailed Eric Sachs of Monsanto to report that Dr. Fedoroff had sent a letter to EPA over her signature co-signed by 60 members of the National Academy of Sciences. “Nina really picked up the ball and moved it down the field,” Chassy wrote. He described the EPA proposal as a “train wreck.”

The emails show that on August 19, industry trade group representatives were surprised and pleased (page 19) to see a New York Times op-ed from Dr. Fedoroff arguing against regulations for genetic engineering; “who got Nina’s op ed placed?” Adrienne Massey of BIO asked Dr. Chassy and two other industry allies, Henry Miller and Val Giddings. Chassy responded:

Massey forwarded Dr. Chassy the letter BIO sent to the EPA “hoping to build on the academics’ letter and short-circuit any dismissive response of EPA to that letter.” Their efforts did not succeed as they hoped. On August 24, Dr. Chassy wrote to Eric Sachs (page 14) that Dr. Fedoroff “got a response from EPA that is an insult.” He described plans to ratchet up the pressure.

 

In September, Chassy organized a conference call with Fedoroff, Monsanto’s Eric Sachs, Adrienne Massey of BIO and their lobbyist Stanley Abramson, among others. According to Chassy’s notes from the call, “Finding a way to ensure that the EPA proposal never sees the light of day would be the best possible outcome we could hope for. Next best would be to make sure it is DOA, but if needs be we must be willing to continue the fight.”

He also shared the problem that, “The EPA does not believe that the academic community can mount a sustained opposition to their proposed rule making; they believe that only a small handful are behind the petition and that most of the signatories are not committed to the issue.” The group decided they needed to “build a core of leading scientists who are in fact willing to speak out and devote time to this issue.”

By October, the group was more hopeful. Chassy emailed Sachs to report on a “surprisingly productive” meeting he and Dr. Fedoroff attended with Steve Bradbury of EPA. The meeting had been set up by Massey and the lobbyist Abramson. The EPA proposal to require data for GMO PIPs never did see the light of day, according to Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union, who participated in the public meetings with the agency.

Full email chains, via the UCSF Industry Documents Library:

Related reporting 

I Was Barred from a Nobel Laureate Press Conference by a PR Consultant with Monsanto Ties,” by Tim Schwab, Food & Water Watch (2016)

The Puppetmasters of Academia,” by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent Science News (2015)

20 years later: the biotech brigade marches on,” Pesticide Action Network (2012)

Engineering food for whom?” by Marcia Ishii-Eitemann, PhD, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America (2011)

Sorry, NY Times: GMOs still won’t save the world,” by Anna Lappe, Grist (2011)

In which I go toe to toe with H. Clinton’s science czar over GMOs,” by Tom Philpott, Grist (2009)

Genetically Modified Diplomat: U.S. Foreign Policy GMO All the Way,” by Tom Philpott, Grist (2008)

Bayer’s Shady PR Firms: FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, FTI Consulting

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In the latest PR scandal to engulf Bayer, journalists at Le Monde reported May 9 that they obtained a “Monsanto File” created by the public relations firm FleishmanHillard listing a “multitude of information” about 200 journalists, politicians, scientists and others deemed likely to influence the debate on glyphosate in France. Le Monde filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office alleging that the document involved illegal collection and processing of personal data, spurring the prosecutor’s office to open a criminal probe. “This is a very important discovery because it shows there are objective strategies to silence strong voices. I can see they were trying to isolate me,” France’s former Environment Minister Segolene Royal, who is on the list, told France 24 TV.

“This is a very important discovery because it shows there are objective strategies to silence strong voices.”

Francois Veillerette, an environmentalist also on the list, told France 24 that it contained personal contact details, opinions and level of engagement in relation to Monsanto. “This is a major shock in France,” he said. “We don’t think this is normal.” Bayer has since admitted that FleishmanHillard drew up “‘watch lists’ of pro- or anti-pesticides figures” in seven countries across Europe, the AFP reported. The lists contained information about journalists, politicians and other interest groups. The AFP said it filed a complaint with a French regulatory agency because some of its journalists were on the list that surfaced in France.

Adding to Bayer’s PR troubles, AFP reported on May 18 that an employee of another PR firm was caught posing as a freelance journalist who worked for the BBC at the recent federal trial in San Francisco that ended with an $80 million judgment against Bayer. The woman, who was seen chatting up reporters about story ideas at the trial, did not disclose that she actually worked for FTI Consulting, a “crisis management firm” whose clients include Bayer and Monsanto.

In the wake of the “Monsanto File” revelations in France, Bayer apologized and said it suspended its relationship with the firms involved, including FleishmanHillard and Publicis Consultants, pending an investigation. “Our highest priority is to create transparency,” Bayer said. “We do not tolerate unethical behavior in our company.” However the PR companies Bayer relies upon, including FleishmanHillard and PR firms under the same corporate ownership, have histories of using underhanded tactics to promote and defend their clients – and they have done the same for Bayer.

Ketchum and FleishmanHillard hired to rehab image of GMOs

In 2013, the agrichemical industry tapped FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, both owned by Omnicom, to head up a PR offensive to rehabilitate the image of its embattled GMO and pesticide products. Monsanto selected FleishmanHillard to “reshape” its reputation amid “fierce opposition” to genetically modified foods, according to the Holmes Report. Around the same time, FleishmanHillard also became the PR agency of record for Bayer, and the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) — a trade group funded by Bayer (Monsanto), Corteva (DowDuPont), Syngenta and BASF — hired Ketchum public relations firm to launch a marketing campaign called GMO Answers.

Spin tactics employed by these firms included “wooing mommy bloggers” and using the voices of supposedly “independent” experts to “clear up confusion and mistrust” about GMOs. However, evidence surfaced that the PR firms edited and scripted some of the “independent” experts. For example, documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Ketchum scripted posts for GMO Answers that were signed by a University of Florida professor who claimed to be independent as he worked behind the scenes with Monsanto on PR projects. A senior vice president at FleishmanHillard edited the speech of a UC Davis professor and coached her how to “win over people in the room” at an IQ2 debate to convince the public to accept GMOs. Ketchum also gave the professor talking points for a radio interview about a scientific study.

Academics were important messengers for industry lobbying efforts to oppose GMO labeling, reported the New York Times in 2015. “Professors/researchers/scientists have a big white hat in this debate and support in their states, from politicians to producers,” Bill Mashek, a vice president at Ketchum, wrote to the University of Florida professor. “Keep it up!”  The industry trade group CBI has spent over $11 million on Ketchum’s GMO Answers since 2013, according to tax records.

The spin has influenced journalists, according to the PR industry. In 2014, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award for “Crisis Management & Issue Management.” In this video, Ketchum bragged about how it nearly doubled positive media attention of GMOs and “balanced 80% of interactions”  on Twitter. Many of those online interactions are from accounts that appear independent and do not disclose their connection to industry’s PR campaign.

Although the Ketchum video claimed GMO Answers would “redefine transparency” with information from experts with “nothing filtered or censored, and no voices silenced,” a Monsanto PR plan suggests the company counted on GMO Answers to help spin its products in a positive light. The document from 2015 listed GMO Answers among the “industry partners” that could help protect Roundup from cancer concerns; in a “resources” section on page 4, the plan listed links to GMO Answers alongside Monsanto documents that could communicate the company message that “Glyphosate is not carcinogenic.”

This Ketchum video was posted to the CLIO website and removed after we called attention to it.

Omnicom’s FleishmanHillard and Ketchum: histories of deception

Why any company would put FleishmanHillard or Ketchum in front of efforts to inspire trust is difficult to understand, given their histories of documented deceptions. For example:

Until 2016, Ketchum was the PR firm for Russia and Vladimir Putin. According to documents obtained by ProPublica, Ketchum was caught placing pro-Putin op-eds under the names of “seemingly independent professionals” in various news outlets. In 2015, the embattled Honduran government hired Ketchum to try to rehabilitate its reputation after a multi-million dollar corruption scandal.

Documents leaked to Mother Jones indicate that Ketchum worked with a private security firm that “spied on Greenpeace and other environmental organizations from the late 1990s through at least 2000, pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings.” FleishmanHillard was also caught using unethical espionage tactics against public health and tobacco control advocates on behalf of the tobacco company R. J. Reynolds, according to a study by Ruth Malone in the American Journal of Public Health. The PR firm even secretly audiotaped tobacco control meetings and conferences.

FleishmanHillard was the public relations firm for The Tobacco Institute, the cigarette industry’s main lobbying organization, for seven years. In a 1996 Washington Post article, Morton Mintz recounted the story of how FleishmanHillard and the Tobacco Institute converted the Healthy Buildings Institute into a front group for the tobacco industry in its effort to spin away public concern about the dangers of second-hand smoke. Ketchum also did work for the tobacco industry.

Both firms have at times worked on both sides of an issue. FleishmanHillard has been hired for anti-smoking campaigns. In 2017, Ketchum launched a spin-off firm called Cultivate to cash in on the growing organic food market, even though Ketchum’s GMO Answers has disparaged organic food, claiming that consumers pay a “hefty premium” for food that is no better than conventionally-grown food.

FTI Consulting: climate deception and more tobacco ties

FTI Consulting, the “crisis management” PR firm that works with Bayer and whose employee was caught impersonating a journalist at the recent Roundup cancer trial in San Francisco, shares several similarities with FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, including its use of covert tactics, lack of transparency and history of working with the tobacco industry.

The firm is known as a key player in ExxonMobil’s efforts to evade responsibility for climate change. As Elana Schor and Andrew Restuccia reported in Politico in 2016:

“Aside from [Exxon] itself, the most vocal resistance to the greens has come from FTI Consulting, a firm filled with former Republican aides that has helped unify the GOP in defense of fossil fuels. Under the banner of Energy in Depth, a project it runs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, FTI has peppered reporters with emails that suggest “collusion” between green activists and state AGs, and has raised questions over InsideClimate’s Rockefeller grants.”

FTI Consulting employees have been caught impersonating journalists before. Karen Savage reported in January 2019 in Climate Liability News, “Two public relations strategists representing Exxon recently posed as journalists in an attempt to interview an attorney representing Colorado communities that are suing Exxon for climate change-related damages. The strategists—Michael Sandoval and Matt Dempsey—are employed by FTI Consulting, a firm long linked with the oil and gas industry.” According to Climate Liability News, the two men were listed as writers for Western Wire, a website run by oil interests and staffed with strategists from FTI Consulting, which also provides staff to Energy In Depth, a pro-fossil fuel “research, education and public outreach campaign.”

Energy In Depth presented itself as a “mom and pop shop” representing small energy providers but was created by major oil and gas companies to lobby for deregulation, DeSmog blog reported in 2011. The Greenpeace group uncovered a 2009 industry memo describing Energy In Depth as a “new industry-wide campaign… to combat new environmental regulations, especially with regard to hydraulic fracturing” that “would not be possible without the early financial commitments” of major oil and gas interests including BP, Halliburton, Chevron, Shell, XTO Energy (now owned by ExxonMobil).

Another feature in common with all these firms is their tobacco industry ties. FTI Consulting has “a long history of working with the tobacco industry,” according to Tobacco Tactics.org. A search of the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents library brings up over 2,400 documents relating to FTI Consulting.

More on Bayer’s recent PR scandals

Coverage in French:

Coverage in English:

Keith Kloor: How a science journalist worked behind the scenes with industry allies

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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.

Preemptive, selective release of FOIA emails

From 2015 to 2017, Kloor reported for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Issues in Science and Technology, and Slate on a public records investigation by U.S. Right to Know that revealed undisclosed ties between the agrichemical industry and publicly funded academics who promote agrichemical products, including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta. In each of these published pieces, Kloor framed the public records requests as an undue burden on academics.

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.

Timeline of coverage and collaborations:

  • March 2014: Kloor attended the Biotech Literacy Project boot camp, an industry-funded conference to train scientists and journalists how to frame the debate over GMOs and pesticides. The conference was hosted by Dr. Folta and organized by Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two groups that partner with Monsanto on public relations projects.
  • 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.”
  • March 2015: Kloor gave a presentation to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a GMO promotion group that was campaigning against the public records requests.
  • June 2015: Kloor appeared at a second industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project boot camp message-training held at UC Davis, on a panel to discuss “FOIA Challenges” with Dr. Folta and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, whom emails later revealed had also been secretly receiving funds from Monsanto.
  • August 1, 2015: Dr. Folta emailed Kloor to report that his emails had been turned over to U.S. Right to Know in response to the open records requests. “I started going through this last night and I’m thinking that a preemptive release of the materials is a good idea, but selectively,” Dr. Folta wrote. He suggested a framing that “exposes the danger of the FOIA laws.”
  • 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.
  • Dr. Folta is now suing the New York Times and Eric Lipton over the 2015 article. Kloor reported on Dr. Folta’s lawsuit for Slate in 2017 without disclosing his now-public collaborations with Dr. Folta and other industry insiders.

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.

Campaign to convert Bill Nye

In November 2014, Kloor used his Discover blog to challenge Bill Nye’s critiques about GMOs with an “Open Letter to Bill Nye from a Plant Scientist” signed by Dr. Folta. Emails indicate that Kloor asked Dr. Folta to challenge Nye, came up with the idea of the open letter and coached Dr. Folta on how to write it. He then edited Dr. Folta’s biography to avoid mentioning industry funding, according to the emails.

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.

In another email from October 2014, Kloor was the only journalist included in an email warning from Ketchum public relations firm about a possible hacking operation on corporate websites by the group Anonymous. The email was forwarded by Adrianne Massey, managing director of the Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), to a group of industry allies, including Entine.

“I have no idea what type of attack. Private sector entities may be their only targets, but I don’t want any of you to be harmed who see you as industry allies,” Massey wrote.

Kloor was looped in on the email by Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University. Also included in the email were Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Val Giddings (former vice president of the biotech trade association), Karl Haro von Mogel (media director of Biofortified), Bruce Chassy and David Tribe (co-founders of the Monsanto front group Academics Review), and other key industry allies who promote GMOs and advocate for deregulation: Kevin Folta, Henry Miller, Drew Kershen, Klaus AmmannPiet van der Meer and Martina Newell-McGloughlin.

Industry allies frequently promote Kloor’s work; see tweets by Robb Fraley of MonsantoJon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project and the agrichemical industry trade group CBI.

Further reading:

Alison Van Eenennaam: key outside spokesperson and lobbyist for the agrichemical and GMO industries

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Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a cooperative extension specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California, Davis, is a leading promoter of genetically engineered animals, crops and the pesticides that accompany them, and an advocate for deregulation.

Dr. Van Eenennaam argues GE animals should not be subject to pre-market safety reviews or labels.

Dr. Van Eenennaam is a former Monsanto employee who opposes requiring safety studies for genetically engineered animals and holds several patents involving genetic engineering. Her lab experiments include using CRISPR, a genetic engineering technique, to eliminate the horns of dairy cows and breed “all-male terminator cattle” to father only male offspring — a project she calls “Boys Only.” A proposal by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require safety and efficacy studies for genetically engineered animals is “insane,” according to Dr. Van Eenennaam.

See also: Wall Street Journal (12.14.2018),            Big Tongues and Extra Vertebrae: The Unintended Consequences of Animal Gene Editing 

Although often presented in the media as an independent scientist, Dr. Van Eenennaam coordinates with agrichemical companies and their PR firms on messaging, lobbying and PR activities, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library. Examples of collaborations include:

Monsanto edited her remarks for the Intelligence Squared debate 

Emails show that Lee Quarles, Monsanto’s global communication lead, and Tony Zagora, senior vice president and partner of the FleishmanHillard PR firm, edited Dr. Van Eenennaam’s remarks for a December 2014 Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate where she argued for public acceptance of genetically engineered foods alongside Robb Fraley of Monsanto.

Quarles also connected Dr. Van Eenennaam with higher ups at Monsanto and FleishmanHillard to discuss the core positions she and Fraley should align on, and he arranged for Zagora and the PR agency to provide her with guidance on “approach, tone, delivery and personal presentation. This will help you better understand what are the key things our team should consider as we work to win over the people in the room, as well as all of those consumers in the NPR rebroadcast of the event.”

Some of Monsanto’s edits to Professor Van Eenennaam’s remarks are shown in track changes:

 

Source documents linked here

Former Monsanto Communications Director Jay Byrne and industry PR firm Ketchum provided coaching for media interviews 

In 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam assisted the industry-funded No on Proposition 37 campaign in California to oppose GMO labeling. Emails show that the “No on 37” campaign staff arranged for Dr. Van Eenennaam to appear on the Dr. Oz Show to speak against labeling, and also arranged for her to receive media and messaging training from Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former head of corporate communications. (Emails also revealed that Jay Byrne worked with Monsanto to set up a front group to attack GMO critics and the organic industry while “keeping Monsanto in the background“.)

In 2014, the agrichemical industry’s lead public relations firm, Ketchum, pitched Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source and helped her prepare for a radio interview to debunk a study that linked genetically engineered animal feed to stomach inflammation. Ketchum provided Dr. Van Eenennaam with talking points from industry allies describing the stomach study as “junk science.”

Appeared at Hill briefing organized by climate science skeptic group 

In September 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam appeared at a Competitive Enterprise Institute congressional briefing to argue for the deregulation of genetically engineered animals. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is an industry-funded group that promotes climate science skepticism and opposes regulations for the chemical industry. In 2013, donors to the Competitive Enterprises Institute annual fundraiser included Monsanto, Syngenta, FMC Corporation, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Google, as well as oil and tobacco companies and foundations related to Koch Industries. In 2016, CEI’s Director of Energy and Environment Myron Ebell, a prominent climate science skeptic who has said the case for global warming is “silly,” was chosen by the Trump Administration’s to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Coordinated lobbying efforts; defends pesticides 

Dr. Van Eenennaam has coordinated lobbying to deregulate genetically engineered crops and animals, and keep them unlabeled. In 2012, she wrote a letter to the Obama Administration on behalf of the American Society of Animal Science public policy committee arguing for approval of the Aqua Bounty genetically engineered salmon without rigorous safety testing or labeling. In 2015, she recruited professors to support deregulating the Simplot Innate 2.0 genetically engineered potato. “Simplot is looking for some comments on their deregulation … the antis are trying to get the comment period extended as usual,” she wrote to the professors.

Dr. Van Eenennaam also defends glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide and a probable human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency. For a post on her website, she used pesticide industry sources and infographics to speculate about the market consequences of banning glyphosate, and characterized people raising concerns as the “worried wealthy.” The Monsanto (now Bayer) website promotes Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source to discredit a study that linked glyphosate to liver disease at low doses.

Some of Alison Van Eenennaam’s other industry collaborations 

  • Is a member of “AgBioChatter,” a private email listserve that pro-industry academics, senior staff of agrichemical companies and public relations consultants have used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities.

How Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post

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Tamar Haspel is a freelance journalist who has been writing monthly food columns for the Washington Post since October 2013. Haspel’s columns frequently promote and defend agrichemical industry products, while she also receives payments to speak at industry-aligned events, and sometimes from industry groups – a practice known as “buckraking” that raises questions about objectivity.

A review of Haspel’s Washington Post columns turns up further concerns: in multiple instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry connections of her sources, relied on industry-slanted studies, cherry-picked facts to back up industry positions or cited industry propaganda uncritically. See source review and other examples described below. Haspel has not yet responded to inquiries for this article.

Buckraking on the food beat: a conflict of interest?

In a 2015 online chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” She discloses her speaking engagements on her personal website, but does not disclose which companies or trade groups fund her or what amounts they give.

When asked how much money she has taken from the agrichemical industry and its front groups, Haspel tweeted, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!”

According to the Washington Post Standards and Ethics, reporters cannot accept gifts, free trips, preferential treatment or free admissions from news sources, and “should make every effort to remain in the audience, to stay off the stage, to report the news, not to make the news.” These rules do not apply to freelancers however, and the paper leaves it up to editors to decide.

Haspel describes her criteria for accepting paid speaking engagements on her personal website: that the events are constructive debates about food issues involving more voices than for-profit companies. Not all events on her roster appear to fit that criteria (see the “biotech literacy” industry-funded message training events described below). Haspel’s editor Joe Yonan has said he is comfortable with Haspel’s approach to paid speaking engagements and finds it a “reasonable balance.” 

More comments from Haspel and Yonan are reported here, “Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a Conflict of Interest?” by Stacy Malkan (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 2015). See also, “A short report on three journalists mentioned in our FOIA requests,” by Gary Ruskin (U.S. Right to Know, 2015). For perspectives from journalists and editors on buckraking, see Ken Silverstein’s reporting (Harper’s, 2008).

Taking up the GMO beat

Haspel began writing about genetically engineered foods in March 2013 in the Huffington Post (“Go Frankenfish! Why We Need GM Salmon”). Her writings about other food-related topics began appearing in the Washington Post and HuffPo in 2011 and elsewhere since the mid 1990s. Haspel’s final series of articles for Huffington Post continued on the topic of agrichemical industry products, with blogs debunking studies about possible risks of glyphosate and GMO animal feed, an argument against GMO labeling campaigns and a puff piece about the agrichemical industry’s marketing website, GMO Answers.

GMOAnswers.org was part of a multi-million-dollar public relations initiative the agrichemical industry announced in the spring of 2013 to combat consumer concerns about genetically engineered foods in the wake of campaigns to label GMOs.

HuffPo July 2013: An example of how Haspel has promoted industry sources uncritically. More examples below. 

WaPo Unearthed column: digging for industry perspectives

Haspel launched her monthly “Unearthed” food column in the Washington Post in October 2013  (“Genetically modified foods: What is and isn’t true”) with a promise to “dig deep to try and figure out what’s true and what isn’t in the debate about our food supply.” She advised readers to figure out “whom you can trust” in the GMO debate and identified several groups that did not pass her impartiality test (the Union of Concerned Scientists among them).

Haspel’s November 2013 column (“GMO common ground: Where supporters and opponents agree”) provided a broad range of perspectives from public interest as well as industry sources; however, in subsequent columns, Haspel seldom quotes public interest groups and devotes far less space to public health experts and data sources than she does to industry-connected sources or experts in risk analysis or “risk perception” who tend to downplay public health and safety concerns, and echo industry views. In several instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry ties to sources.

Industry-sourced ‘food movement’ column

An example that illustrates some of these problems is Haspel’s January 2016 column (“The surprising truth about the food movement”), in which she argues that people who care about genetic engineering or other aspects of food production – the “food movement” – are a marginal part of the population. She included no interviews with consumer, health, environmental or justice groups that consider themselves part of the food movement.

Haspel sourced the column with two industry-funded spin groups, the International Food Information Council and Ketchum, the public relations firm that runs GMO Answers. While she described Ketchum as a PR firm that “works extensively with the food industry,” Haspel did not disclose that Ketchum was hired by the agrichemical industry to change consumer views of GMO foods (nor did she mention Ketchum’s scandalous history of flacking for Russia and conducting espionage against environmental groups).

A third source for her column was a two-year old phone survey conducted by William Hallman, a public perception analyst from Rutgers who reported that most people don’t care about GMO labeling. (A year earlier, Hallman and Haspel discussed consumer perspectives about GMOs on a government-sponsored panel they shared with Eric Sachs of Monsanto.)

Collaborations with industry spin groups

Tamar Haspel’s affinity for and collaborations with key players in the agrichemical industry’s public relations efforts raise further concerns about her objectivity.

A promotional quote from Haspel appears on the homepage of STATS/Sense About Science, describing STATS as “invaluable” to her reporting. Other journalists have described STATS as a product-defense “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk and plays a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation.” A 2016 story in The Intercept described the tobacco ties of STATS and Sense About Science (which merged in 2014 under the direction of Trevor Butterworth) and the role they play in pushing industry views about science.

A 2015 public relations strategy document named Sense About Science among the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage in its campaign to “orchestrate outcry” against the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency to discredit a report about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.

Agrichemical industry spin events

In June 2014, Haspel was a “faculty” member (alongside several industry representatives) at a messaging training event called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp that was funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two industry front groups that Monsanto also identified as “industry partners” in its 2015 PR plan.

Genetic Literacy Project is a former program of STATS, and Academics Review was set up with the help of Monsanto to discredit industry critics while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden, according to emails obtained through public records requests.

The boot camp Haspel attended was aimed at “reframing the food safety and GMO debate,” according to the agenda. Paul Thacker reported about the event in The Progressive, “Industry has also secretly funded a series of conferences to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate …  In emails, organizers referred to these conferences as biotech literacy bootcamps, and journalists are described as ‘partners.'”

Academics familiar with corporate spin tactics reviewed the boot camp documents at Thacker’s request. “These are distressing materials,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University. “It is clearly intended to persuade people that GMO crops are beneficial, needed, and not sufficiently risky to justify labeling.” Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said, “If journalists attend conferences that they are paid to attend, they need to be deeply suspicious from the get-go.”

Cami Ryan, a boot camp staffer who later went on to work for Monsanto, noted in the conference evaluation that participants wanted, “More Haspel-ish, Ropeik-ish sessions.” David Ropeik is a risk perception consultant whose clients include Bayer and other chemical companies, and whom Haspel used as a source in a column she wrote about glyphosate.

2015 biotech literacy day with Kevin Folta 

In May 2015, Haspel presented at a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” at the University of Florida organized by Kevin Folta, a professor tied in with agrichemical industry public relations and lobbying efforts. Folta had included Haspel in a proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem” resulting from activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” Page 4 of the proposal described an event to feature UF professors “and several others brought in from the outside including industry representatives, journalist experts in science communication (e.g. Tamar Haskel [sic], Amy Harmon), and experts in public risk perception and psychology (e.g. Dan Kahan).”

Monsanto funded Folta’s proposal, calling it “a great 3rd-party approach to developing the kind of advocacy we’re looking to develop.” (The money was donated to a food pantry in August 2015 after the funding became public.)

In April 2015, Folta wrote to Haspel with details about the messaging training event, “We’ll cover the costs and an honorarium, whatever that takes. The audience will be scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”

Haspel responded, “I am definitely in,” and she relayed an anecdote from another recent “science communication” panel that had changed somebody’s view about Monsanto. “It is possible to make headway, but I’m convinced it’s by person-to-person interactions,” Haspel wrote to Folta.

The archived agenda for the Florida communication day listed the speakers as Haspel, Folta, three other UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe and representatives from Biofortified and Center for Food Integrity (two more groups Monsanto referred to as industry partners in its PR strategy to defend glyphosate). In another email to Folta, Haspel enthused about meeting Crowe, “Very much looking forward to this. (I’ve wanted to meet Vance Crowe – very glad he’ll be there.)”

Ethics and disclosure

In September 2015, The New York Times featured Folta in a front-page story by Eric Lipton about how industry groups relied on academics to fight the GMO labeling war. Lipton reported on Folta’s fundraising appeal to Monsanto, and that Folta had been publicly claiming he had no associations with Monsanto.

Haspel wrote to Folta a few months later, “I am very sorry for what you’ve gone through, and it’s distressing when mean-spirited, partisan attacks overshadow the real issues — both on the science and on the transparency, both of which are so important.” Haspel mentioned she was working with the National Press Foundation to develop better conflict of interest standards for freelance journalists.

Haspel was a 2015 fellow for the National Press Foundation (a group partly funded by corporations, including Bayer and DuPont). In an article she wrote for NPF about ethics for freelancers, Haspel discussed the importance of disclosure and described her criteria for speaking at events only if non-industry funders and diverse views are involved — criteria not met by either of the biotech literacy events. The disclosure page on her website does not accurately disclose the conveners and funders of the 2014 biotech literacy boot camp. Haspel has not responded to questions about the biotech literacy events.

Source review: misleading reporting about pesticides

A source review of three of Tamar Haspel’s Washington Post columns on the topic of pesticides found multiple concerning examples of undisclosed industry-connected sources, data omissions and out-of-context reporting that served to bolster pesticide industry messaging that pesticides are not a concern and organic is not much of a benefit. The source review covers these three columns:

  • “Is organic better for your health? A look at milk, meat, eggs, produce and fish” (April 7, 2014)
  • “It’s the chemical Monsanto depends on. How dangerous is it?” (October 2015)
  • “The truth about organic produce and pesticides” (May 21, 2018)

Relied on industry-connected sources; failed to disclose their industry ties

In all three of the columns cited in this source review, Haspel failed to disclose pesticide industry connections of key sources who downplayed the risk of pesticides. None of the following industry connections were mentioned in her columns as of August 2018 when this review was published.

In her 2018 report on the “truth about organic produce and pesticides,” Haspel gave readers “an idea of the magnitude of risk” from cumulative pesticide exposures by citing a study that equated the risk of consuming pesticides from food to drinking wine. Haspel did not disclose that four of five authors of that study were employed by Bayer Crop Sciences, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers. She also did not disclose that the study originally contained a glaring error that was later corrected (even though she linked to both the original and corrected study). The study originally reported the risk as equal to drinking one glass of wine every seven years; it was later corrected to one glass of wine every three months; That error and several others were pointed out in letter to the journal by several scientists who described the wine study as “overly simplistic and seriously misleading.”

To dismiss concerns about the synergistic effects of exposure to multiple pesticides, Haspel cited another study from the only non-Bayer affiliated author of the flawed wine-comparison study, and “a 2008 report” that “made the same assessment.” Authors of that 2008 report included Alan Boobis and Angelo Moretto, two academics who were caught in a conflict of interest scandal in 2016 because they chaired a UN panel that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk at the same time as they held leadership positions in the International Life Sciences Institute, a nonprofit group that received substantial donations from the pesticide industry.

In her 2015 column about the risk of glyphosate, the “chemical Monsanto depends on,” Haspel quoted two sources with pesticide industry connections she didn’t disclose: Keith Solomon, a toxicologist who wrote papers about glyphosate that were funded by Monsanto (and whom Monsanto was promoting as a source); and David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant affiliated with Harvard who also has a PR firm whose clients include Dow, DuPont and Bayer. Haspel and Ropeik spoke together at the agrichemical industry-funded messaging training boot camp at the University of Florida in 2014.

In her 2014 column about whether pesticide residues in food pose a health risk, Haspel introduced doubt about the health risks of organophosphates, a class of pesticides linked to neurological damage in children, with a review that found “the epidemiological studies did not strongly implicate any particular pesticide as being causally related to adverse neurological developmental outcomes in infants and children.” The lead author was Carol Burns, a scientist at Dow Chemical Company, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of organophosphates.

That column also used industry go-to toxicologist Carl Winter as a source vouching for the safety of pesticide residues in food based on EPA risk assessments. Monsanto was promoting Winter’s work at that time in talking points, and Winter also served on the science advisory board of the Monsanto-funded group American Council on Science and Health, which bragged in a blog post a few months earlier about anti-organic press coverage that quoted their guy, “ACSH advisor Dr. Carl Winter.”

Misled with out-of-context reporting

In her 2014 column, Haspel used a 2012 paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics out of context to reinforce her argument that eating organic might not offer health benefits, but she did not inform readers of the full scope of the study or its conclusions. The AAP paper chronicled a wide range of scientific evidence suggesting harm to children from both acute and chronic exposures to various pesticides, and concluded, “Children’s exposures to pesticides should be limited as much as possible.” The report cited evidence of a “drastic immediate decrease in urinary excretion of pesticide metabolites” in children eating an organic diet. AAP also issued policy recommendations to reduce children’s exposure to pesticides.

Haspel left out all that context and reported only that the AAP report, “noted the correlation between organophosphate exposure and neurological issues that had been found in some studies but concluded that it was still ‘unclear’ that reducing exposure by eating organic would be ‘clinically relevant.'”

In her 2018 column, Haspel misleadingly reported that the pesticide chlorpyrifos “has been the subject a battle between environmental groups, which want it banned, and the EPA, which doesn’t” — but she did not inform readers of a key point: that the EPA had recommended banning chlorpyrifos due to mounting evidence that prenatal exposure could have lasting effects on children’s brains. The agency reversed course only after the Trump EPA interfered. Haspel sourced her misleading “environmental groups vs EPA” sentence with a link to a New York Times documents page that provided little context about the EPA decision, rather than linking to the NYT story that explained the political context of corporate influence.

Relied on sources who agree with each other 

In her 2018 column, Haspel set up her argument that pesticide exposures in food are not much of a concern with a dubious reporting tactic she has used on other occasions: citing agreement among many sources she knows. In this case, Haspel reported that pesticide levels in food “are very low” and “you shouldn’t be concerned about them,” according to “the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (along with many toxicologists I’ve spoken with over the years).” Although she reported that, “Not everyone has faith in those assessments,” Haspel cited no disagreeing sources and ignored entirely the American Academy of Pediatrics report that recommended reducing children’s exposures to pesticides, which she cited out of context in her 2014 column. In her 2015 column about glyphosate she again quoted like-minded sources, reporting that “every” scientist she spoke with “noted that until recent questions arose, glyphosate had been noted for its safety.”

Missed relevant data 

Relevant data Haspel missed in her reporting about the risks or pesticides and the benefits of organic included statements by prominent health groups and recent science:

  • January 2018 study by Harvard researchers published in in JAMA Internal Medicine reporting that women who regularly consumed pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF, while women who ate organic food had better outcomes;
  • January 2018 commentary in JAMA by pediatrician Phillip Landrigan urging physicians to encourage their patients to eat organic;
  • February 2017 report prepared for the European Parliament outlining the health benefits of eating organic food and practicing organic agriculture;
  • 2016 European Parliament Science and Technology Option Assessment recommended reducing dietary intake of pesticides, especially for women and children;
  • 2012 President’s Cancer Panel report recommends reducing children’s exposure to cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures;
  • 2012 paper and policy recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending reducing children’s exposure to pesticides as much as possible;
  • 2009 statement by the American Public Health Association, “Opposition to the use of hormone growth promoters in beef and dairy cattle production”;
  • 2002 review by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Review reporting that growth-promoting hormones in beef production pose a health risk to consumers.

More perspectives on Haspel’s reporting

The misleading and deceitful ways of Dr. Kevin Folta

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Kevin Folta, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Horticulture Sciences Department at University of Florida, has provided inaccurate information and engaged in misleading activities in his efforts to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides.

His recent lawsuit against The New York Times is the latest in a long line of examples of Dr. Folta’s misleading and deceptive communications.

Dr. Folta sued NYT and Pulitzer Prize winner for reporting his ties to Monsanto; lawsuit dismissed

On Sept. 1, 2017, Dr. Folta filed a lawsuit against The New York Times and Eric Lipton, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, claiming they defamed him with a 2015 front-page article that described how Monsanto enlisted academics to oppose the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit was dismissed on February 27, 2019. A federal judge granted the defendants’ motion for final summary judgement.

Lawsuit documents:
Amended complaint (10/5/2017)
NYT motion to dismiss (10/19/2017)
Federal judge denied Dr. Folta’s motions to compel discovery, calling some of the requests “downright silly” and “laughable” (5/11/2018)
NYT and Eric Lipton motion for final summary judgment (7/25/18)
Dr. Folta’s amended opposition to motion for summary judgment (8/16/18)
Order granting defendants’ motion for final summary judgement (2/27/19)
Dr. Folta moved to dismiss the lawsuit and it was dismissed (4/9/2019)

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit claimed the defendants “misrepresented him as a covertly paid operative of one of the largest and most controversial companies in America, Monsanto,” and that they did so in order to “to further their own ‘anti GMO’ agenda.” According to Dr. Folta’s lawsuit, Lipton “has almost singlehandedly silenced the scientific community from teaching scientists how to communicate.”

The lawsuit claimed that Dr. Folta “never received” an “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto and that he “never received any form of grant, and never received support for him to ‘travel around the country and defend genetically modified foods.’” However, documents show that Monsanto provided Dr. Folta with, in their words, “an unrestricted grant in the amount of $25,000 which may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects.”

Emails indicate that Monsanto donated the money in response to a 9-page proposal from Dr. Folta, in which he asked Monsanto for $25,000 to fund his “three tiered solution” to the “biotech communications problem.” Proposed activities included traveling each month to a major domestic university to promote GMOs. The money was donated to a food bank after the documents became public.

Example of Folta discussing/defending an industry product (Monsanto’s Roundup)

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit also claimed (point 67), “Dr. Folta does not discuss industry products of any sort, he teaches broadly about technology.” Yet he has vouched for the supposed safety of Monsanto’s RoundUp, going so far as to drink the product “to demonstrate harmlessness.” He has also said he “will do it again.”

In a Sept. 29, 2015 email, Janine Sikes, University of Florida Assistant Vice President of Public Affairs, wrote to a colleague about Lipton’s NYT story: “for the record I thought the story was fair.”

Quotes from NYT and Eric Lipton’s response to Folta’s lawsuit, from July 2018 motion for final summary judgement:

Mr. Lipton relied on Plaintiff’s own email communications, which were provided to him by UF in response to a public records request. While it may be that Plaintiff, a self-described “public” scientist, would rather not have his associations with industry giants like Monsanto examined, accurate reporting on the records documenting those associations cannot form the basis for a defamation lawsuit. (Page 1)

Among other things, (Folta’s) UF records documented: (1) Plaintiff’s actions in securing a $25,000 “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto—that Plaintiff told Monsanto would not have to be publicly disclosed—to fund talks about GMO science, including the discussion of industry products; (2) Plaintiff’s testifying before governmental bodies in favor of pro-GMO policies; (3) Plaintiff’s interactions with industry, including numerous email communications with industry representatives providing his thoughts about lobbying strategy and describing his efforts to communicate GMO science to the public; (4) his posts for GMOAnswers, an industry-sponsored website; and (5) travel expenses paid by industry, including expenses related to his trip to Monsanto headquarters. (Page 7)

Dr. Folta repeatedly claimed no association with Monsanto while he closely collaborated with Monsanto  

Dr. Folta stated numerous times that he had no connection to Monsanto. Yet emails reported by The New York Times established that he was in frequent contact with Monsanto and their public relations allies to collaborate on activities to promote genetically engineered foods.

The emails indicate that Monsanto and allies set up media opportunities and lobbying activities for Dr. Folta and worked with him on messaging. In August 2014, Monsanto informed Dr. Folta that he would receive $25,000 to further his promotional activities. The email exchanges suggest a close collaboration:

  • In July 2014, a Monsanto executive praised Dr. Folta’s grant proposal and asked four other Monsanto executives to provide feedback to improve it. He wrote, “This is a great 3rd-party approach to developing the advocacy that we’re looking to develop.”
  • In August 2014, Dr. Folta responded to the acceptance letter for his grant, “I’m grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment.”
  • In October 2014, Dr. Folta wrote to a Monsanto executive, “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.”

Just weeks after the grant details were worked out, in August 2014, Dr. Folta asserted that he had “no formal connection to Monsanto.” He has also claimed he received “no research or personal funding” from “Big Ag,” had “no financial ties to any of the Big Ag companies that make transgenic crops, including Monsanto,” and had “nothing to do with MON.”

Bayer Funding

9/18 Update: Dr. Folta contracted with the law firm Clifford Chance representing Bayer AG to serve an a consultant in an arbitration hearing at a rate of $600 per hour for up to 120 hours. Those documents were made public by Biofortified, Inc., a GMO promotion group that said it severed ties with Dr. Folta over his failure to fully disclose the potential conflict of interest.

11/17 Update: Dr. Folta received and disclosed receiving research funding from Bayer AG (which is in the process of acquiring Monsanto). According to a document obtained by US Right to Know via FOIA, Bayer sent an award letter to Dr. Folta on May 23, 2017 for a grant for 50,000 Euros (approximately $58,000), for his proposal on “New Herbicide Chemistries Discovered in Functional Randomness.”

Dr. Folta proposed hiding Monsanto money from public scrutiny

“My funding is all transparent,” Dr. Folta wrote in his blog, but his proposal to Monsanto to fund his GMO promotional activities concluded with a paragraph advising Monsanto how to donate the money to avoid public disclosure:

“If funded directly to the program as a SHARE contribution (essentially unrestricted funds) it is not subject to IDC and is not in a ‘conflict-of-interest’ account. In other words, SHARE contributions are not publicly noted. This eliminates the potential concern of the funding organization influencing the message.”

Monsanto sent the $25,000 donation as an unrestricted grant for Dr. Folta.

Dr. Folta allowed an industry PR firm to ghostwrite for him, then denied it

An August 2015 story in Inside Higher Ed described allegations that the agrichemical industry’s PR firm, Ketchum, had provided Dr. Folta with “canned answers to questions about GMOs” for the agrichemical industry’s public relations website, GMO Answers.

Dr. Folta denied using the ghostwritten text, according to the story:

“Regarding the canned answers, he said he was ‘pissed off’ when he received them and never used them.”

Dr. Folta later admitted using the ghostwritten text. The New York Times reported in September 2015:

“But Ketchum did more than provide questions (for GMO Answers). On several occasions, it also gave Dr. Folta draft answers, which he then used nearly verbatim, a step that he now says was a mistake.”

In an October 2015 BuzzFeed story, Dr. Folta justified his decision to use Ketchum’s ghostwritten text:

“They gave me extremely good answers that were spot on,” Folta told me. “I’m inundated with work. Maybe it was lazy, but I don’t know that it was lazy. When someone says, ‘We’ve thought about this and here’s what we have’ — there are people who work in academia who have speechwriters who take the words of other people and present them as their own. That’s OK.”

Dr. Folta posted false information about agrichemical industry funding to the University of Florida

In October 2014, Dr. Folta posted inaccurate information about his own university’s funding on GMO Answers. When asked, “How much have the biotech companies donated to the Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida?” Dr. Folta responded:

“There are zero ‘donations.’ At least during the last five years (all I checked), there are not even any grants or research agreements between the Horticultural Sciences Department at U.F. and any company selling biotech seeds …

During the last five years, at the whole university, there were a total of $21,000 in Monsanto grants to one faculty member in the panhandle who studies weeds. That’s it for the whole university. Our records are all public, so anyone could have found this information.”

In fact, biotech companies donated more than $12 million to the University of Florida in fiscal year 2013/2014 alone, according to University of Florida Foundation documents posted by NYT. Monsanto was listed as a “Gold” donor that year, meaning the company had donated at least $1 million. Syngenta was a “Diamond” donor with “Cumulative Giving of $10 Million+” while BASF donated at least $1 million and Pioneer Hi-Bred gave at least $100,000.

University of Florida has a ‘stance’ on GMOs that is ‘harmonious’ with Monsanto, and Dr. Folta is in charge of promoting it  

Leaders at the University of Florida believe it is the university’s role to educate the masses about GMOs and they share a “stance” with Monsanto, according to an email obtained by the US Right to Know investigation.

David Clark, professor of horticultural biotechnology & genetics and director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Plant Innovation Program (UF/IFAS), wrote to Monsanto executive Robb Fraley on July 21, 2014:

“I thought your talk was excellent and very timely for our community, and it is harmonious with the stance we are taking on GMOs at the University of Florida. Also, thank you for taking a few minutes to chat with me afterward about how we should be educating the 80% of the consumer population who know very little about the technology.

After returning to Gainesville, I communicated with Drs. Kevin Folta and Jack Payne about our discussion. Kevin is our lead spokesperson at UF on the GMO topic and he has taken on the charge of doing just what we discussed – educating the masses. Jack is our Senior VP for IFAS, and just last week he released a video showing just where UF/IFAS stands on the GMO issue: http://www.floridatrend.com/article/17361/jack-payne-of-uf-on-gmos-and-climate-change Both of them are extremely passionate about this issue, and together they are ramping up their efforts to spread the good word.”

In the video, Dr. Payne claims, “there is no science that agrees with these folks that are afraid of GMOs.” In fact, many scientists and studies have raised concerns about GMOs.

Dr. Folta partnered with dishonest industry front groups groups on “Biotech Literacy” GMO spin events  

A June 2014 conference to promote GMOs called the “Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp” was billed as a partnership between University of Florida, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two front groups that work with Monsanto to promote agrichemical industry products and attack industry critics. Those two groups told scientists and journalists — inaccurately — that the events were funded by a combination of government, academia and industry.

In 2015, journalist Brooke Borel reported in Popular Science:

“The conference in question was called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp. I was invited to attend and to speak on some panels, although it wasn’t initially clear what that would involve. 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).”

In a 2016 email to scientists, Bruce Chassy of Academics Review claimed industry was “indirectly a sponsor” of the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps:

“The 3-day bootcamp is relatively expensive since we pay everyone’s travel and lodging as well as honoraria. Participants received $250 and presenters as much as $2,500 (journalists aren’t inexpensive) … 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.”

However, those government and academic sources denied giving any funds to the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Thacker wrote, “the only traceable money source is the biotech industry.”

Both Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project have a history of misleading the public about their funding and activities to defend the agrichemical industry.

  • Academics Review has claimed many times to be an independent group, yet emails obtained by US Right to Know revealed that Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, while “keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
  • The “financial transparency” note on the Genetic Literacy Project website is inaccurate, changes often and has at times contradicted itself. GLP director Jon Entine has many close ties to Monsanto.

Dr. Folta also organized what he called a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” to promote GMOs at the University of Florida in 2015. Speakers included UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe, representatives of two agrichemical industry-aligned spin groups (the Center for Food Integrity and Biofortified), and Tamar Haspel, a food columnist for the Washington Post.

Dr. Folta described his plans in the proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem” resulting from activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” In emails he sent to Haspel, Dr. Folta said the audience of the “biotechnology literacy” event would be “scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”

Dr. Folta described the food movement as a “terrorist faction”

Dr. Folta wrote the forward for a 2015 book called “Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House.” The forward describes the food movement as a terrorist faction, which Folta names “Al Quesadilla”:

“Al Quesadilla is a moniker ascribed to a modern day elite and well financed terrorist faction sworn to use fear to force political change around food. Al Quesadilla has a central mission – to impose their beliefs about food and food production on the broader society. Their beliefs are religious in nature. They are deeply heartfelt and internalized. Their beliefs are grounded in a misinterpretation of nature, a mistrust of corporate culture and a skepticism of modern science …

Al Quesadilla is an agile and sneaky terrorist group. Like all terrorists, they achieve their objectives through the implementation of fear and coercion. They plan careful strikes on vulnerable targets – American consumers…”

The book, published by Senapath Press, was authored by Mark Alsip, a blogger for Bad Science Debunked, Marc Draco, a “veteran member” of the Banned by Food Babe Facebook page, and Kavin Senapathy, a Forbes contributor who had several of her articles deleted by Forbes.

The book promotes GMOs, claims MSG and aspartame are “harmless” and purports to describe “the facts behind those pesticide scares.”

Dr. Folta promotes pesticide propaganda

Dr. Folta dismisses concerns about pesticide exposure with propaganda claims, not science. For example, he made and failed to correct his guest on many dubious statements about the safety of pesticides in this 2015 podcast interview with Yvette d’Entremont, the “SciBabe.” Folta claimed:

  • If someone is concerned about pesticide exposures, “ask them if they have symptoms of pesticide poisoning. Unless they have symptoms of pesticide poisoning, there’s probably nothing to worry about.”
  • “Your risk from any kind of, especially, pesticide exposure from consumption is probably somewhere between 10,000 and a million times lower than a car accident.”

Dr. Folta’s deceptive communication tactics

Another example of misleading communication associated with Dr. Folta is documented in a 2015 BuzzFeed story by Brooke Borel. The story recounts Borel’s discovery that Dr. Folta used a false identity to interview scientists and even himself on a podcast called the “The Vern Blazek Science Power Hour.”

For further reading:

New York Times, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton (9/6/2015)

Emails posted by The New York Times

The Progressive, “Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media,” by Paul Thacker (7/21/2017)

Huffington Post, “Keith Kloor’s Enduring Love Affair with GMOs,” by Paul Thacker (7/19/2017)

Global News, “Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby,” by Allison Vuchnich (12/22/2015)

Nature Biotechnology, “Standing up for Transparency,” by Stacy Malkan (1/2016)

Mother Jones, “These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO War,” by Tom Philpott (10/2/2015)

BuzzFeed, “Seed Money: Confessions of a GMO Defender,” by Brooke Borel (10/19/2015)

USRTK Short Report, “Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding from Monsanto”

Independent Science News, “The Puppetmasters of Academia (or What the NYT Left Out),” by Jonathan Latham (9/8/2015)

USRTK letter to Dr. Folta about our FOIA requests

The Future Of Food Needs Transparency And Integrity

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This article was originally published in Investor’s Business Daily.

By Stacy Malkan and Carey Gillam

“Food companies can’t figure out what Americans want to eat,” according to a June Wall Street Journal article.

Food industry CEOs are “rushing for the exits,” WSJ reported in October, and the food lobby is “splintering,” Politico explained, as food companies disagree about how to respond to shifting consumer tastes.

But it’s no mystery what Americans want to eat — or why the food industry is struggling.

Consumers are demanding foods free of artificial colors, faked flavors, pesticides, preservatives, growth hormones, antibiotics and GMOs, as Fortune magazine reported in 2015 — these trends led by millennials are driving an “$18 billion food revolution.”

But rather than provide what customers want, some food industry players strive to confuse rather than comply with market demands.

Among the tactics in the toolbox, they use front groups and friendly academics to push propaganda to promote their products, and denigrate those who advocate for honest information.

One recent and blatant example appeared here in Investor’s Business Daily, in two opinion articles authored by Henry I. Miller, a Hoover Institution fellow. Miller’s resume certainly makes him appear authoritative and impressive — someone consumers could trust.

But in using the IBD forum to rail against the small non-profit consumer group we work for, U.S. Right to Know, he revealed his allegiance to certain industry interests who seek to keep consumers in the dark.

Our organization advocates for truth and transparency in the food system. We spend most of our time filing information requests for data and documents from state and federal agencies and institutions to share with consumers about food policy matters.

Miller has become fairly well known for putting science and public health second to corporate interests. He was listed in a 1994 memo as a “key supporter” of Philip Morris’ campaign to fight tobacco regulations.

He was also named in an internal Monsanto Company document as a resource who could help discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel after it declared Monsanto’s key herbicide to be a “probable” human carcinogen. That weed killer, glyphosate, is widely used globally in agricultural food production.

The Monsanto plan to protect its weed killer could not have been more clear: “Engage Henry Miller” it states. Documents reported by The New York Times revealed that an article posted by Miller in Forbes criticizing the cancer panel “largely mirrored” a draft provided by a Monsanto executive. Forbes severed its relationship with Miller as a result and deleted all his articles from the site.

Miller’s move now to discredit U.S. Right to Know seems driven by the same industry forces that led him to try to discredit the global cancer science group. Offering no evidence whatsoever, he insinuated that U.S. Right to Know is somehow in cahoots with the Russian government.

The slanderous missives are ironic, considering that the public relations firm hired by the agrichemical industry to salvage the reputation of their embattled GMO and pesticide products was Ketchum – the firm that pushed Russia’s interests in the United States for a decade until 2015.

So why would certain corporate food industry interests want or need a front man to attack our little nonprofit? The answer is easy: Investigations by U.S. Right to Know have turned up hidden documents — many of them now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive — that have sparked multiple media investigations into the lobbying and propaganda operations of the food and agrichemical industries.

Articles about secretive food industry strategies to mislead consumers, lawmakers and investors have been published in the New York Times, BMJ, the Guardian, Le Monde, Bloomberg, Boston Globe, CBC, public health journals and many other outlets.

P.R. Shenanigans

Along with Miller, Monsanto tapped many other “industry partners” to try to discredit the scientists who warned about Monsanto’s herbicide, including the Genetic Literacy Project, Grocery Manufacturers Association and other food-industry funded groups.

These are the sorts of public relations shenanigans the food brands should shun if they hope to gain consumer trust.

For the record, we have no ties whatsoever to Russia. We are a food industry watchdog group. We examine how the food and agri-chemical industries operate behind the scenes to influence lawmakers, regulators, academics and others. And we share that information with the public.

Truth and transparency are scary concepts for certain corporate interests, to be sure. But these corporate players and their investors would be wise to listen to, and appreciate, consumer calls for honest advertising and open information about the risks as well as the rewards that come with a modern food system.

The articles by Dr. Henry I. Miller discussed here can be found at:

Russia Does Far Worse Than Meddle In Our Elections — It Meddles In Our Science, Part I

Russia Does Far Worse Than Meddle In Our Elections — It Meddles In Our Science: Part II

This story originally appeared in Investor’s Business Daily.

Drew Kershen: Agrichemical Industry Front Group Ringleader

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Drew Kershen, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, is a close ally of the agrichemical industry. He argues for deregulation of genetically engineered plants and animals and against transparency. Kershen has played a key role in agrichemical industry-funded promotional efforts and front groups that lobby for industry interests. Kershen does not disclose funding sources.

Agrichemical industry ties and front group leadership

Genetic Literacy Project / Science Literacy Project

Kershen is a board member of Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that partners with Monsanto to do public relations for genetically engineered foods and pesticides, and does not accurately disclose its funding. Documents reveal that the Genetic Literacy Project:

Kershen is also a board member of the Science Literacy Project, the 501(c)(3) parent organization of the Genetic Literacy Project. Both are directed by Jon Entine, a longtime PR ally of the chemical industry.

According to 2015 tax records, Jon Entine and the Science Literacy Project assumed control of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a group formerly affiliated with the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) and the Genetic Literacy Project. Operations for STATS were folded into Sense About Science USA, which shares the same address of record with Science Literacy Project.

The founders of STATS, CMPA and Sense About Science did public relations work for the tobacco industry and these groups are not independent arbiters of science, according to a 2016 investigation in The Intercept.

For more information, see USRTK fact sheets on Jon Entine and Genetic Literacy Project and Sense About Science/STATS.

Secretary of Academics Review Front Group

Kershen was the secretary of the board of directors of Academics Review, according to its 2016 tax records. Academics Review claimed to be an independent group, but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it was a front group set up with the help of Monsanto to attack critics of the agrichemical industry while appearing to be independent.

Kershen was a reviewer for a 2014 report by Academics Review that tried to discredit the organic industry; the press release for the report claimed that it was work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.

Tax records show that the primary funder of Academics Review was the Council for Biotechnology Information, a nonprofit organization funded and run by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. CBI gave a total of $600,000 to Academics Review in 2014 and 2015-2016.

Why Forbes Deleted Some Drew Kershen Articles

Kershen co-authored several articles that were deleted by Forbes and Project Syndicate after his co-author, Henry Miller, was caught using a column ghostwritten by Monsanto as his own work in Forbes. The New York Times revealed the ghostwriting scandal in 2017.

Kershen and Miller also co-wrote articles for Slate, National Review, the Hoover Institution and the American Council on Science and Health (an industry-funded front group) arguing against labeling and regulating genetically engineered foods, attacking industry critics, and claiming “the world’s poor are suffering and dying unnecessarily” due to the “gratuitous regulation demanded by activists.”

GMO Answers

Kershen is an “ambassador expert” for GMO Answers, a marketing and PR website for genetically engineered foods that is funded by the big agrichemical companies via the Council for Biotechnology Information, and run by the public relations firm Ketchum.

Intervened in Transparency Lawsuit to Suppress Public Disclosure

Several documents reported in this fact sheet, which exposed undisclosed ties between corporations and front groups, were first obtained via Freedom of Information requests by U.S. Right to Know. Kershen has intervened in lawsuits to try to stop further disclosure, as the Freedom of the Press Foundation reported in February 2018.

For more information about food industry front groups, see the USRTK investigations page.

GMO Answers is a Crisis Management PR Tool for GMOs & Pesticides

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Update May 2018: Tax records show that the Council for Biotechnology Information, a chemical industry trade group, paid Ketchum public relations firm more than $11 million from 2013-2016 to to run GMO Answers. In a 2015 Monsanto PR plan, Monsanto named GMO Answers as one of the “industry partners” it planned to engage to discredit a report about glyphosate cancer concerns from the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel, see “Monsanto Relied on These Partners to Attack Top Cancer Scientists” (5/31/18).

ketchum gmo answers

By Stacy Malkan

GMO Answers is billed as a forum where consumers can get straight answers from independent experts about genetically engineered foods, and some journalists take it seriously as an unbiased source. But the website is a straight-up industry marketing tool to spin GMOs in a positive light.

Evidence that GMO Answers is a crisis-management propaganda tool that lacks credibility:

1) GMO Answers was created as a vehicle to sway public opinion in favor of GMOs. Soon after Monsanto and its allies beat back the 2012 ballot initiative to label GMOs in California, Monsanto announced plans to launch a new public relations campaign to reshape the reputation of GMOs. They hired the public relations firm FleishmanHillard (owned by Omnicom) for a seven-figure campaign.

As part of the effort, the PR firm Ketchum (also owned by Omnicom) was hired by the Council for Biotechnology Information – funded by Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta – to create GMOAnswers.com. The site promised to clear up confusion and dispel mistrust about GMOs using the unedited voices of so-called “independent experts.”

But how independent are those experts?

The website hews to carefully crafted talking points that tell a positive story about GMOs while downplaying or ignoring the health and environmental risks. For example, when asked if GMOs are driving up the use of pesticides, the site offers a convoluted no, despite peer-reviewed data showing that, yes, in fact, they are.

“Roundup Ready” GMO crops have increased use of glyphosate, a probable human carcinogen, by hundreds of millions of pounds. A new GMO/pesticide scheme involving dicamba has led to the destruction of soybean crops across the U.S., and the FDA is bracing this year for triple the use of 2,4-D, an older toxic herbicide, due to new GMO crops that are engineered to resist it. All of this is nothing to worry about, according to GMO Answers.

Questions about safety are answered with false statements such as “every leading health organization in the world stands behind the safety of GMOs.” We found no mention of the statement signed by 300 scientists, physicians and academics who say there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety,” and we received no answers to questions we posted about the statement.

Examples have since come to light that Ketchum PR scripted some of the GMO answers that were signed by “independent experts.”

2) As further evidence the site is a spin vehicle: In 2014, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.”

3) And the PR firm that created GMO Answers boasted about its influence on journalists. In a video posted to the CLIO website, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.

Why reporters would trust a marketing vehicle designed by Ketchum as a reliable source is difficult to understand. Ketchum, which until 2016 was the PR firm for Russia, has been implicated in espionage efforts against nonprofits concerned about GMOs. Not exactly a history that lends itself to dispelling mistrust.

Given that GMO Answers is a marketing tool created and funded by companies that sell GMOs, we think it’s fair game to ask: Are the “independent experts” who lend credibility to the website – several of whom work for public universities and are paid by taxpayers – truly independent and working in the public interest? Or are they working in league with corporations and public relations firms to help sell the public a spin story?

In search of these answers, U.S. Right to Know submitted Freedom of Information Act requests seeking the correspondence of publicly funded professors who write for GMOAnswers.com or worked on other GMO promotion efforts. The FOIA’s are narrow requests that cover no personal or academic information, but rather seek to understand the connections between the professors, the agrichemical companies that sell GMOs, their trade associations and the PR and lobbying firms that have been hired to promote GMOs and fight labeling so we’re kept in the dark about what we’re eating.

Follow the results of the U.S. Right to Know investigation here.