Monsanto says its pesticides are safe. Now, a court wants to see the proof

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This week’s events will mark the first time that the science used to justify certain pesticides will be analyzed under oath for all to see

This article was first published in The Guardian.

By Carey Gillam

On Monday, a federal court hearing in San Francisco will turn a public spotlight on to the science surrounding the safety of one of the world’s most widely used pesticides, a weedkilling chemical called glyphosate that has been linked to cancer and is commonly found in our food and water, even in our own bodily fluids. Given the broad health and environmental implications tied to the use of this pesticide, we would be well served to pay attention.

As the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup and hundreds of other herbicides, glyphosate represents billions of dollars in annual revenues for Monsanto and other companies, and is prominently used by farmers as an aid in food production. It’s also favored by cities for keeping public parks and playgrounds weed free, and by homeowners who want a tidy lawn. But the chemical was deemed a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s cancer experts in 2015 in a finding that has since triggered waves of liability lawsuits against Monsanto.

Heated debates over the safety – or lack thereof – of this popular pesticide have spanned the globe and sparked propaganda warfare with each side claiming the other has misrepresented the scientific record. Cancer victims allege Monsanto has “ghost” written research reviews, unduly influenced regulators and created front groups to falsely claim glyphosate safety. Monsanto, meanwhile, asserts multiple studies by international scientists are flawed and politically motivated, and says industry studies demonstrate the product is safe when used as intended.

This week’s events will mark the first time that the body of research, some that has been gathering dust in stuffy scientific journals or confidential corporate files, will be analyzed under oath for all to see.

It is no idle exercise. Real lives are at stake in this and broader debates about pesticide risks to our health. One in every two men and one in every three women are now expected to develop cancer in their lifetimes and childhood cancers are on the rise.

In children, pesticide exposure is linked not just to pediatric cancers, but also to decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. In adults, pesticides are linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, brain, prostate and other cancers. More than 3,000 plaintiffs suing Monsanto allege exposure to the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup caused them or their family members to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Monsanto has tried to persuade US judge Vince Chhabria to throw out the litigation, and sought to keep secret the many internal documents it has been forced to turn over in discovery. But Chhabria has ordered that the hearing be video-recorded and shared publicly over the internet. And he has granted permission for plaintiffs to explore in open court such things as the ghostwriting of science as well as a controversial 1983 study that EPA scientists at the time said showed evidence of glyphosate’s cancer-causing potential.

The court has dubbed the 5-9 March events as “science week” because the only evidence to be presented will come from experts in cancer science, including epidemiologists, toxicologists and others called to analyze relevant research. There will be no crying cancer victims to tug on heart strings; just opposing sides presenting science to a judge who will decide if the lawsuits can move forward.

To bolster its defense, the company and chemical industry allies have been working to discredit cancer scientists and others who have been warning of danger. That effort was highlighted when members of the House committee on science, space and technology held a hearing in Washington on 6 February to air Monsanto’s complaints about the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, and to threaten to strip funding from the scientific body.

The committee effort – effectively turning a war on cancer into a war on cancer science – was applauded by the chemical industry. Monsanto, along with lobbyist CropLife America and other agricultural organizations, has also sued California to stop environmental regulators from requiring cancer warnings on glyphosate products, and on 26 February they won an injunction blocking such a warning.

The debate over glyphosate is but the latest example of how industry efforts often focus not on scrutinizing scientific evidence of harm, but on discrediting the offending science. Last year, for instance, Dow Chemical successfully lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency leadership to ignore warnings from its own scientists (and others) about extensive research tying a profitable Dow pesticide called chlorpyrifos to brain development problems in children.

The public offering of expert testimony in San Francisco about Monsanto’s pervasive pesticide presents an important opportunity to separate the science from the spin. We all should be watching.

Farmers Vs. Monsanto: The Glyphosate Trials

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“Science Week” in a federal court will decide if farmer cancer lawsuits move forward

Live updates from court hearings by Carey Gillam
Transcripts of Daubert Hearings posted here

News Release
For Immediate Release: Monday, March 5, 2018
For More Information Contact: Carey Gillam (913) 526-6190; Stacy Malkan (510) 542-9224

San Francisco, Calif.; March 5, 2018 — A federal court hearing in San Francisco this week will turn a spotlight on the science surrounding the world’s most widely used pesticide, glyphosate, and will determine whether farmers and their families will be able to proceed with legal action against Monsanto Co. over cancer concerns.

More than 365 lawsuits are pending against Monsanto in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, filed by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks.

The court has dubbed the March 5-9 events as “science week” because the only evidence to be presented will come from experts in cancer science, including epidemiologists, toxicologists, and biomedical statistical analysts called to analyze relevant research. The scientists will present their best scientific evidence to U.S. Judge Vince Chhabria, who will decide if the lawsuits move forward or are halted in their tracks.

Journalist and author Carey Gillam of U.S. Right to Know will be live blogging the event from the court house. Follow her posts here: https://usrtk.org/live-updates-monsanto-hearing/

See also: “Monsanto says its pesticides are safe: Now a court wants to see the proof,” by Carey Gillam, The Guardian.

Gillam is author of “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science” (Island Press, 2017) — “a gutsy, compelling read from beginning to end, especially for readers who enjoy the kind of hard-nosed, shoe-leather reporting that used to be the hallmark of great journalism,” according to the Society for Environmental Journalists’ BookShelf review.

Gillam is also research director of U.S. Right to Know, a consumer and public health watchdog group. USRTK is posting documents and analysis from the MDL glyphosate cancer cases on our Monsanto Papers page.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit consumer and public health organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy.  For more information, see usrtk.org.

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.

Grocery Manufacturers Association — key facts

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Summary


* GMA is the leading trade group for the junk food industry

* GMA hides list of its own corporate members

GMA was found guilty of money laundering

Opposed legislation to combat child slavery

* Out of touch: 93 percent of Americans support GMO labeling, but GMA opposes it

Opposes mandatory food labeling, supports voluntary regulation

Pure double-talk on ending childhood obesity

Supported use of rBST/rBGH in milk, an artificial hormone banned in EU/Canada

Funded fake “grassroots” anti-ethanol campaign

GMA Hides List of Own Corporate Member Companies

GMA no longer lists its member companies on its website. Here is the most recent publicly available list of the [GMA’s members. GMA website via archive.org, archived 12/23/13]

GMA’s President Makes Over $2 Million a Year

Since January 2009, Pamela Bailey has served as the President and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. As of April 2014, Bailey made $2.06 million per year. [Government Executive, 4/14] Bailey announced in 2018 she will retire after 10 years at the helm of GMA. [Progressive Grocer, 2/12/2018]

GMA Found Guilty of Money Laundering

In October 2013, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against the GMA for money laundering. The suit alleged that GMA “illegally collected and spent more than $7 million while shielding the identity of its contributors.” [Attorney General press release, 10/16/13]

In 2016, GMA was found guilty of money laundering and ordered to pay $18 million, which is believed to be the highest fine for campaign finance violations in the history of the United States. [Seattle PI, 11/2/2016]

GMA Revealed Donors Under Pressure, Showing More Than $1 Million Each from Pepsi, Nestle, and Coca-Cola

In October 2013, GMA released its list of funders under pressure, showing that Pepsi, Nestle, and Coca-Cola each gave more than $1 million.

“The Grocery Manufacturers Association on Friday revealed that PepsiCo, Nestle USA and Coca-Cola each gave hidden donations of more than $1 million to the campaign against a Washington initiative that would require the labeling of genetically engineered food. The association agreed to make public a long list of donors to its anti-labeling campaign after being sued this week by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.” [The Oregonian, 10/18/13]

GMA Accused of Hiding Millions of Dollars More Than Originally Believed

In November 2013, Attorney General Ferguson amended the original complaint to increase from $7.2 million to $10.6 million the amount that GMA allegedly concealed. [Seattle Times, 11/20/13; Attorney General press release, 11/20/13]

Filed Counter-Suit Seeking to Invalidate Campaign Finance Laws that Required Disclosure of Donors

In January 2014, GMA responded to the Washington Attorney General’s lawsuit with a countersuit seeking to invalidate the state’s campaign finance laws regarding disclosure of donors.

“After trying to secretly influence the outcome of the vote on Initiative 522, the Grocery Manufacturers Association now is challenging the state’s campaign finance laws. On Jan. 3, the GMA responded to the Washington State Attorney General’s campaign disclosure lawsuit against the GMA with a counterclaim. The GMA also filed a separate civil rights complaint against Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. The GMA claims Ferguson is unconstitutionally enforcing Washington’s laws and challenges the constitutionality of requiring the GMA to register as a political committee before requesting and receiving contributions to oppose Initiative 522, a measure would have required labeling of genetically engineered foods.” [Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1/13/14]

GMA Claimed Law Requiring Disclosure of Donors was Unconstitutional

GMA’s countersuit claimed that being required to disclose its donors was unconstitutional.

“In its counterclaim and civil rights suit, the GMA claims the following are unconstitutional as they have been applied in this case: Washington’s law requiring the GMA to file a political committee before collecting funds from its members for specific political activity in Washington; Washington’s law requiring the GMA to disclose the organizations who contributed to its special political fund and how much they donated; and Washington’s law requiring the GMA to secure $10 in donations from 10 separate registered Washington voters as part of its political committee before donating to another political committee. [Washington State Office of the Attorney General press release, 1/13/14]

Judge Rejected Effort to Dismiss Lawsuit in June 2014

In June 2014, Thurston County Judge Christine Schiller rejected a motion from GMA to dismiss the money laundering charge it was facing.

A Thurston County judge on Friday rejected efforts by the Grocery Manufacturers Association to squelch a lawsuit in which state Attorney General Bob Ferguson accuses the Washington, D.C.-based lobby of laundering millions of dollars in last fall’s campaign. … Judge Christine Schaller rejected the association’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. “Today’s ruling is an important step in our work to hold the Grocery Manufacturers Association accountable for the largest campaign finance concealment case in Washington history,” said Ferguson. [Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 6/13/14]

Attorney General Said Judge’s Ruling Meant Case Would Continue to Trial

Following Judge Schaller’s ruling, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that the GMA case would continue to trial “on its merits.”

“[Judge Christina] Schaller rejected the motion to dismiss, ruling the state’s campaign finance laws requiring the formation of a political committee and associated disclosures were constitutionally applied in this case. The case will now move forward on its merits.” [Washington State Office of the Attorney General press release, 6/13/14]

Opposed Bill That Exposed Slave-like Child Labor in Cacao Plantations

According to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, in 2001 the GMA, along with the chocolate industry, lobbied against legislation in the U.S. Congress that would have exposed slave-like child labor practices on cacao plantations in Africa. [Spokane Spokesman-Review, 8/1/01]

The proposed legislation was a response to a Knight Ridder investigation that found that some boys as young as 11 are sold or tricked into slavery to harvest cocoa beans in Ivory Coast, a West African nation that supplies 43 percent of U.S. cocoa. The State Department estimated that as many as 15,000 child slaves work on Ivory Coast’s cocoa, cotton and coffee farms. [Spokane Spokesman-Review, 8/1/01, Congressional Research Service, 7/13/05]

GMA is Out of Touch: 93 Percent of Americans Support Labeling…

According to the New York Times in 2013, “Americans overwhelmingly support labeling foods that have been genetically modified or engineered, according to a New York Times poll conducted this year, with 93 percent of respondents saying that foods containing such ingredients should be identified.” [New York Times, 7/27/13]

… But GMA Opposes Mandatory Labeling Laws

In June 2014, GMA and three other food industry organizations challenged Vermont’s law requiring food labels to identify products with GMO ingredients.

“Today, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), along with the Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers, filed a complaint in federal district court in Vermont challenging the state’s mandatory GMO labeling law. GMA issued the following statement in conjunction with the legal filing.” [GMA press release, 6/13/14]

Supported Federal Ban on State GMO Labeling Laws

In April 2014, the GMA advocated for a federal ban on state laws to require mandatory GMO labeling.

“The giants of the U.S. food industry who have spent millions fighting state-by-state efforts to mandate new labels for genetically modified organisms are taking a page from their opponents and pushing for a federal GMO law. But the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents such food and beverage leaders as ConAgra, PepsiCo and Kraft, isn’t exactly joining the anti-GMO movement. It’s advocating for an industry-friendly, law with a voluntary federal standard — a move that food activists see as a power grab by an industry that has tried to kill GMO labeling initiatives every step of the way.” [Politico, 1/7/14]

2014 Bill Introduced to Prevent States from Requiring GMO Labels

In April 2014, a bill was introduced in Congress that would ban states from enacting their own GMO labeling laws.

“A bill introduced Wednesday would put the federal government in charge of overseeing the labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients, preventing states from enacting their own requirements to regulate the controversial ingredients. … But consumer groups vowed to fight the legislation, which they see as an attempt to undermine efforts to pass state ballot initiatives mandating labeling of most products with genetically modified ingredients.” [USA Today, 4/9/14]

GMA President Called Defeating Prop 37 “Single-Highest Priority”

In 2012, GMA President Pam Bailey said that defeating Prop 37 was the GMA’s highest priority for 2012.

“In a recent speech to the American Soybean Association (most soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified), Grocery Manufacturers Association President Pamela Bailey said that defeating the initiative ‘is the single-highest priority for GMA this year.’” [Huffington Post, 7/30/12]

Supports Voluntary, Not Mandatory, Food Labeling

2014: GMA and Food Marketing Institute Launched $50 Million Voluntary Labeling Campaign

In March 2014, GMA and the Food Marketing Institute launched a $50 million marketing campaign to promote the industry’s voluntary “Facts Up Front” nutrition facts system.

“The food industry appears poised to one-up the Obama administration with the launch of a national media blitz to promote its own nutrition labels on the front of food packages. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, which represent the biggest food companies and retailers, will roll out a coordinated marketing campaign, spending as much as $50 million, on Monday to promote their ‘Facts Up Front,’ the industry’s own voluntary program for providing nutrition information on the front of food and beverage packages, POLITICO has learned.” [Politico, 3/1/14]

GMA Pressed for Voluntary Federal GMO Labeling Standard

In 2014, the GMA, along with other food industry organizations, called for a voluntary federal genetically-modified-organism labeling standard.

“The giants of the U.S. food industry who have spent millions fighting state-by-state efforts to mandate new labels for genetically modified organisms are taking a page from their opponents and pushing for a federal GMO law. But the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents such food and beverage leaders as ConAgra, PepsiCo and Kraft, isn’t exactly joining the anti-GMO movement. It’s advocating for an industry-friendly, law with a voluntary federal standard — a move that food activists see as a power grab by an industry that has tried to kill GMO labeling initiatives every step of the way.” [Politico, 1/7/14]

GMA’s Double Talk on Ending Childhood Obesity

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has boasted of its “commitment to do its part to help reduce obesity in America – especially childhood obesity.” [GMA Press Release, 12/16/09]

… But Opposes Restrictions on Sale of Junk Food, Soda in Schools

According to Michele Simon’s book Appetite for Profit, “GMA is on record opposing virtually every state bill that would restrict the sale of junk food or soda in schools.” [Appetite for Profit, page 223]

 … And Worked to Defeat California School Nutrition Guidelines, Sending Bill to Defeat with Last-Minute Lobbying

In 2004, nutrition guidelines for California schools failed narrowly following last-minute lobbying from GMA.

“Just last month, California tried to set nutrition guidelines on foods sold outside the federal meal program. But thanks to last-minute lobbying by the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), that bill failed by just five votes, despite having the support of 80 nonprofit organizations. Only five groups opposed the measure — all of whom profit from selling junk food to kids.” [Michele Simon, Pacific News Service, 9/3/04]

… And Opposed School Nutrition Guidelines in Other States

According to the book Appetite for Profit, GMA opposed school nutrition guidelines in other states, including Texas, Oregon, and Kentucky.

“A search for the word ‘schools’ on the GMA web site resulted in no fewer than 126 hits, most of which are either submitted testimony or a letter filed in opposition to a school-related nutrition policy. Here are just a few examples of document titles: GMA Letter in Opposition of Texas Food and Beverage Restrictions, GMA Letter in Opposition to Oregon School Restrictions Bills, GMA Requests Veto of Kentucky School Restrictions Bill, and GMA Letter in Opposition to California School Nutrition Bill.” [Appetite for Profit, Page 223]

… And Has Lobbyists Around the Country Aiming to Defeat Legislation

In addition to its federal lobbying (which spiked to $14 million in 2013), GMA has lobbyists around the country aiming to defeat legislation that would restrict the food industry. Below are just some of their state lobbyists. [Center for Responsive Politics, opensecrets.org, accessed 12/22/14; State sources linked below]

Lobbyist State
Louis Finkel California
Kelsey Johnson Illinois
7 lobbyists with Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver Maryland
Kelsey Johnson Minnesota
Capitol Group Inc. New York

GMA Sought to Weaken Enforcement of Labeling Rules

In December 2011, GMA asked the Food and Drug Administration to selectively enforce labeling rules regarding basic nutrition facts.

“You have requested that FDA exercise enforcement discretion with respect to certain aspects of its nutrition labeling regulations in order to facilitate implementation of the Nutrition Keys program, namely: [1] Use of the four Nutrition Keys Basic Icons (calories, saturated fat, sodium, and total sugars), alone or accompanied by up to two Nutrition Keys Optional Icons, without declaration of polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat in the Nutrition Facts panel as required by 21 CFR 101.9(c)(2)(iii) and (iv). [2] Use of the four Nutrition Keys Basic Icons, unaccompanied by any Optional Icons, without the disclosure statement required by§ 101.13(h) when the nutrient content of the food exceeds specified levels of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium. [3] Use of the four Nutrition Keys Basic Icons, alone or accompanied by up to two Nutrition Keys Optional Icons, without disclosure of the level of total fat and cholesterol in immediate proximity to the saturated fat icon as required by § 101.62(c).” [FDA letter to GMA, 12/13/11]

Supported Use of Hormone Banned in Canada, EU to Boost Milk Production in Cows

In 1995, GMA said that the Food & Drug Administration had found that the synthetic hormone rBST was “completely safe.” [GMA press release, 4/25/95]

rBST/rBGH Banned in EU, Canada

rBST/rBGH is banned from dairy products in the European Union and Canada.

“Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is a synthetic (man-made) hormone that is marketed to dairy farmers to increase milk production in cows. It has been used in the United States since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993, but its use is not permitted in the European Union, Canada, and some other countries.” [American Cancer Society website, cancer.org]

Co-Plaintiff in Vermont Lawsuit Regarding Labeling for rBST/rBGH

According to FindLaw.com, GMA was a co-plaintiff in IDFA vs. Amnestoy, a case regarding the labeling of dairy products produced from cows treated with rBST/rBGH. [FindLaw.com, accessed 12/17/14; United States Court of Appeals, International Dairy Foods Ass’n v. Amestoy, Case No. 876, Docket 95-7819, decided 8/8/96]

“‘Vermont’s mandatory labeling law flies in the face of FDA’s determination that rBST is completely safe and that mandatory labeling should not be required,’ stated John Cady, president of NFPA. ‘The law will likely convey to consumers a false and misleading impression concerning the safety and wholesomeness of milk from rBST-supplemented cows.’” [GMA press release, 4/25/95]

Opposed Labeling Dairy Produced with Growth Hormone

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in 1993-94, GMA opposed labels on dairy products derived from cows injected with Monsanto’s controversial Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). [St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3/3/94]

GMA Opposed Ohio Labeling Rule that was Struck Down

According to FoodNavigator-USA, GMA and other food industry groups opposed the Ohio labeling rule that was struck down by the appeals court. [FoodNavigator-USA, 4/25/08]

The Ohio state rule in question banned statements such as “rbGH Free,” “rbST Free” and “artificial hormone free,” aimed at providing consumers with the information needed to make informed choices. Center for Food Safety, 9/30/10

Funded Fake “Grassroots” Anti-Ethanol Campaign

In May 2008, Sen. Chuck Grassley revealed that an anti-ethanol campaign that was supposedly “grassroots,” was in reality backed by a PR firm hired by GMA.

“According to two documents posted on Sen. Charles Grassley’s, R-IA, congressional website, the ‘grassroots’ anti-ethanol media blitz that’s hitched today’s climbing food prices to farmer-backed biofuels is as fake as astro-turf. Indeed, Grassley explained to Senate colleagues during his May 15 endorsement of the new farm bill, ‘It turns out that a $300,000, six-month retainer of a Beltway public relations firm is behind the smear campaign, hired by the Grocery Manufacturers Association.’” Aberdeen News, 5/30/08

GMA Sought to Take Advantage of Rising Food Prices

In its request for proposals, GMA said that it believed rising food prices provided the organization with an opportunity to hit ethanol.

“GMA has been leading an ‘aggressive’ public relations campaign for the past two months in an effort to roll back ethanol mandates that passed in last year’s energy bill. The association hired Glover Park Group to run a six-month campaign, according to GMA’s request for proposal and Glover Park’s response. ‘GMA has concluded that rising food prices … create a window to change perceptions about the benefits of bio-fuels and the mandate,’ reads the three-page RFP, a copy of which was obtained by Roll Call.” [Roll Call, 5/14/08]

CropLife International — key facts

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Summary

CropLife International (CLI) is a trade association founded in 2001 representing the manufacturers of the world’s largest manufacturers of genetically engineered seeds and pesticides. Members include BASF, Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta, Corteva (formerly DowDuPont), Sumitomo Chemical and FMC.

The trade group also has 15 member associations: AfricaBio; AgroBio Brazil; AgroBio Mexico; ArgenBio; Biotechnology Innovation Organization, Food & Ag; CBI Japan; CIB Brazil; CropLife Africa Middle East; CropLife America; CropLife Asia, CropLife Canada; CropLife Latin America; European Crop Protection Association (ECPA); EuropaBio; and Japan Crop Protection Association.

Related USRTK posts:
May 31, 2018, “Monsanto Relied on These Partners to Attack Top Cancer Scientists

CLI Members

Open Letter to STAT: It’s Time for Stronger Transparency Standards

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Dear Rick Berke and Gideon Gil,

At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of news media – and science itself – it is important for health and science publications such as STAT to serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible. We write to ask you to step forward as leaders to address a serious problem in science coverage: readers are being hoodwinked by corporations that are pushing policy agendas through PR writers who pretend to be independent but aren’t.

On February 26, STAT failed its duty to the public to provide transparency when it published an opinion column by Henry Miller, even though Miller had previously been caught publishing Monsanto-ghostwritten work under his own name in Forbes.

After the New York Times revealed the Miller ghostwriting scandal in August 2017, Forbes dropped Miller as a columnist and deleted all his articles because he violated Forbes’ policy that requires opinion writers to disclose conflicts of interest, and to publish only their own work – a policy STAT should also adopt. (Update: STAT has a conflict of interest disclosure policy here and informs us that Miller reported no conflicts.)

Since the ghostwriting episode, Miller’s work has continued to raise serious red flags.

His recent column attacking the organic industry in Newsweek was sourced with information provided by a former Monsanto spokesman, Jay Byrne, whose relationship with Monsanto was not disclosed, and Miller’s column closely followed messaging that Byrne had worked out with Monsanto while collaborating to set up a front group of academics to attack industry critics, according to emails uncovered by US Right to Know. In his Newsweek article, Miller also tried to discredit Danny Hakim, the New York Times reporter who revealed Miller’s Monsanto ghostwriting scandal – without mentioning the scandal.

In addition to these recent failures to disclose his conflicts of interest, Miller has a long, documented history as a public relations and lobbying surrogate for corporations.

In a 1994 PR strategy memo to Phillip Morris, APCO Associates referred to Miller as “a key supporter” in the global campaign to fight tobacco regulations. In 1998, Miller pitched his PR services to corporations in a “Work Plan Promoting Sound Science in Health, Environmental and Biotechnology Policy.” A 2015 Monsanto PR plan to “orchestrate outcry” against the scientists of the World Health Organization’s IARC cancer panel listed as its first external deliverable: “Engage Henry Miller.”

Were corporate interests also behind Miller’s opinion, published this week by STAT, that the National Institutes of Health should no longer fund integrative health studies?

Praise for Miller’s STAT article from the likes of Jeff Stier, who works for the Koch-affiliated Consumer Choice Center, and Rhona Applebaum, the former Coca-Cola executive who orchestrated a front group to spin the science on obesity, makes the article seem even more like some kind of corporate front group hit piece.

It wouldn’t be the first time the pharmaceutical industry got away with using STAT to promote its political and sales agenda. Last January, STAT allowed two members of the corporate front group American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) to opine that the government should not be allowed to restrict doctors from prescribing OxyContin. But the article did not disclose that ACSH has received funding from drug companies and pitches its services to corporations in quid pro quo agreements to defend their products and policy agendas.

In September, STAT retracted an article published under the name of a doctor who praised pharmaceutical industry sales reps, after Kevin Lomangino wrote in HealthNewsReview.org that the doctor had received over $200,000 from drug companies. An investigation then revealed that a PR firm had ghostwritten the doctor’s article.

“Big pharma’s attempt to ghostwrite in STAT ended badly – but not badly enough,” pointed out journalism professor Charles Seife in Slate. “STAT retracted the story, but for the wrong reasons and without addressing the real problem.”

It’s time for STAT to address the problem, and become part of the solution in bringing truth and transparency to science reporting. The public has a right to know when corporations ghostwrite, or have their fingerprints all over the opinions of academics who claim to be independent.

“Just as medical journals started tightening rules about conflicts of interest, forcing more disclosure of the hidden motives behind certain research articles, media outlets have to have a reckoning as well,” Seife wrote in Slate.

“They must learn to stop amplifying the messages of front groups and winking at practices like ghostwriting in their editorial pages. In short, the media must realize that every time they repeat a sock puppet’s message, it directly undermines the outlet’s credibility.”

For the credibility of STAT, and for the trust of its readers, we urge you to implement a clear and strong policy to require all your writers to provide full disclosure about conflicts of interest, including payments they receive from corporations, and work they do behind the scenes with corporations or their PR firms to promote corporate agendas.

Sincerely,
Stacy Malkan
Gary Ruskin
Co-Directors, US Right to Know

Update: Note from Kevin Lomangino, managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org: “Thanks for calling attention to our work and this issue, which I agree is important. To be clear, @statnews did tighten up their COI/transparency policies in response to our reporting as we wrote here, “STAT becomes 3rd organization to revise policies after our scrutiny.” However, in this case the author has apparently failed to disclose the role of ghostwriters in his past work, so I’m not sure that STAT could/should trust any assurance he provided that the content is original.” 

USRTK response: We’re glad to see STAT tightened its COI policy but they must do better, as the Miller case demonstrates. In addition to the 2017 ghostwriting scandal, Miller has recent faulty disclosures and a long history of corporate fronting. See also our response to STAT editors about their COI disclosure policy. 

Follow the US Right to Know investigations by signing up for our newsletter here, and please consider making a donation to support our reporting.  

Corporate power, not public interest, at root of science committee hearing on IARC

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(First published in Environmental Health News)

Score another point for corporate power over protection of the public.

U.S. Rep Lamar Smith, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, has slated a full committee hearing for Feb. 6 with an agenda aimed squarely at attacking some of the world’s top cancer scientists.

Given the fact that cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, it seems obvious that our lawmakers should be supporting cancer science rather than trying to thwart it. But Smith’s action comes after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer ( IARC) angered Monsanto Co. when it declared the pesticide glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killing products, to be a probable carcinogen.

Though the hearing is titled “In Defense of Scientific Integrity: Examining the IARC Monograph Programme and Glyphosate Review,” the irony of the descriptor is not lost on those who have been following Smith’s efforts to derail and defund this cancer research agency.

In letters to IARC’s leadership, Smith has repeated false narratives and inaccurate news stories planted by Monsanto and chemical industry allies, and cited the “serious nature of these concerns related to expenditures of taxpayer dollars.”

It’s worth noting that the plan to put the International Agency for Research on Cancer on the hot seat was put into motion roughly three years ago when Monsanto predicted the international cancer scientists would find its weed killer to have carcinogenic potential. The company said as much in internal communications brought to light through recent litigation.

The documents also show that it was February 2015, a month before the IARC classification, when Monsanto executives laid out a strategic plan to discredit the cancer scientists. The plan was designed to “orchestrate outcry with IARC decision.”

The efforts to manipulate public perception about IARC ramped up last summer when Monsanto allies spoon-fed a false narrative to a Reuters reporter who produced a news story that shot around the globe and has been a key talking point for the chemical industry attack against IARC.

The story relied on the deposition of an IARC scientist named Aaron Blair and reported that Blair withheld critical information that would have altered the IARC glyphosate classification. Reuters never provided a link to the deposition, which at that point was not filed in any court and was not publicly available.

Chairman Smith ran with the story, stating that Blair “admitted to knowing that this research could have prevented” the classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.

Anyone taking time to actually read the deposition, which is now public, would see that Blair never said any such thing, and in fact protested multiple times that the data in question was not fully analyzed and not published and thus was not suitable to be considered by IARC.

A similar false narrative pushed by the chemical industry and repeated by Smith accused IARC of deleting assessments finding no connection between glyphosate and cancer from its final report. Smith and team either don’t know or don’t care that IARC’s deletions were of Monsanto assertions that the cancer scientists said could not be substantiated.

IARC officials have detailed the falsehoods perpetuated against them by the chemical industry but the defense has fallen on deaf ears.

Monsanto needs to discredit the international cancer scientists because it was the IARC finding that triggered waves of lawsuits against Monsanto, and prompted moves to ban the chemical in some European countries.

But while Monsanto and other chemical industry interests are concerned about the billions of dollars in revenues they rake in annually from glyphosate-based products, the attack on this independent science group should have all of us concerned.

Approximately 39 percent of men and women living in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.

For this year alone, the American Cancer Society has estimated there will be more than 1.68 million people newly diagnosed with cancer and more than 600,000 deaths from cancer. Worldwide, there are more that 14 million cases of cancer occurring each year, and that number is expected to hit nearly 22 million by 2030.

Cancer “affects almost everyone’s life, either directly or indirectly,” and beyond the toll on life and health it costs the United States more than $200 billion in medical costs and lost productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In order to reduce deaths from cancer we have to put more emphasis on preventing it in the first place, and a big part of that “primary prevention” according to a 2016 report by the HHS National Toxicology Program (NTP) “is to identify the carcinogens.”

Clearly, the companies that sell chemicals linked to cancer prefer to see IARC defunded and dismantled. They’ve said as much through the disingenuously named Council for Accuracy in Public Health Research (CAPHR), a nonprofit established by the American Chemistry Council a year ago with the specific goal of promoting the “reform” of IARC.

But to see our lawmakers so eagerly promoting corporate interests when such dire public safety interests are at stake marks perhaps a new low in American politics. These are literally life and death matters.

Our public servants must be held to account, to support the scientists who work to identify carcinogens, and push back against the corporate interests who want to discredit the science that threatens its profits.

Scientific integrity should mean exactly that.

Food Evolution GMO Film Serves Up Chemical Industry Agenda

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This post has been updated with reviews of Food Evolution: 

By Stacy Malkan, 6/19/2017 

Some industry messaging efforts are so heavy-handed they end up highlighting their own PR tactics more than the message they are trying to convey. That’s the problem with Food Evolution, a new documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The film, opening in theaters June 23, claims to offer an objective look at the debate over genetically engineered foods, but with its skewed presentation of science and data, it comes off looking more like a textbook case of corporate propaganda for the agrichemical industry and its GMO crops.

That the film’s intended purpose was to serve as an industry-messaging vehicle is no secret. Food Evolution was planned in 2014 and funded by the Institute for Food Technologists, a trade group, to culminate a multi-year messaging effort.

IFT is partly funded by big food corporations, and the group’s president at the time was Janet Collins, a former DuPont and Monsanto executive who now works for CropLife America, the pesticide trade association. IFT’s President-Elect Cindy Stewart works for DuPont.

IFT chose Kennedy to direct the film, but he and producer Trace Sheehan say they had complete control over the film they describe as a fully independent investigation into the topic of GMOs including all points of view.

The film’s credibility suffers from their choice to embrace only the science and scientists who side with the chemical industry players who profit from GMOs and the chemicals used on them, while ignoring science and data that doesn’t fit that agenda.

The Monsanto Science Treatment

The clearest example of the scientific dishonesty in Food Evolution is the way the film deals with glyphosate. The weed killer chemical is at the heart of the GMO story, since 80-90% of GMO crops are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate.

Food Evolution reports that the increase in glyphosate use due to GMOs is not a problem, because glyphosate is safe. Two sources establish this claim in the film: a farmer says glyphosate has “very, very low toxicity; lower than coffee, lower than salt,” and Monsanto’s Robb Fraley – in response to a woman in an audience who asks him about science linking glyphosate to birth defects and cancer – tells her that’s all bad science, “it’s pseudoscience.”

All science raising concerns about glyphosate is “pseudoscience,” says Monsanto.

There is no mention of the carcinogenicity concerns that are engulfing Monsanto in an international science scandal, or the many farmers who are suing Monsanto alleging they got cancer from the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide.

There is no mention of the 2015 report by the World Health Organization’s cancer agency that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, or California’s decision to add glyphosate to the Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, or the peer-reviewed studies that have linked various adverse health outcomes to glyphosate and Roundup.

Instead of an objective look at the evidence, Food Evolution gives viewers the full Monsanto science treatment: any science that raises concerns about the possible health risks of agrichemical products should be ignored, while studies that put those products in a favorable light is the only science worth discussing.

Double Standards in Science and Transparency

Equal treatment of interview subjects with different points of view would have helped the credibility of Food Evolution. Instead, the film paints the GMO critics it features as dishonest or out to make a buck off the organic industry, while leaving out key details about its pro-industry sources.

In one scene, the film’s main character, UC Davis professor Alison van Eenennaam, frets that appearing onstage with a Monsanto executive at a debate could sully her independent reputation. Viewers never learn that she used to work for Monsanto, or that she holds several GE patents which suggest a financial interest in the topic at hand.

Pro-industry scientist Pamela Ronald, another key science source, gets the hero treatment with no mention that two of her studies have been retracted. Yet viewers are hammered with news that a study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini – which found kidney problems and tumors in rats fed GMO corn – was “retracted, retracted, retracted!”

The film leaves out the fact that the study was subsequently republished, and was retracted in the first place after a former Monsanto employee took an editorial position with the journal where it was originally published.

The “Africa Needs GMOs” Narrative

In another neatly spun narrative, Food Evolution takes viewers on an emotional journey to the developing world, and along another favorite industry messaging track: rather than focus on how genetic engineering is used in our food system now – primarily to convey herbicide tolerance – we should focus on how it might possibly be used in the future.

With plenty of airtime and dramatic tension, the film examines the problem of banana wilt, a disease killing staple crops in Africa, and leads viewers to believe that genetic engineering will save the crop, the farmers and the community.

Maybe. But the film neglects to mention that the savior GE technology is not yet available and might not even work. According to a paper in Plant Biotechnology Journal, the resistance shown in the lab is robust but may not be durable in open fields.

The film is “fundamentally dishonest.”

Meanwhile, a low-tech solution is working well and looks like it could use some investment. According to a 2012 paper in the Journal of Development and Agricultural Economics, farmer field schools, which help growers acquire hands-on knowledge of techniques to prevent banana wilt, led to lower infection rates and high crop recovery in Uganda. Results from farmer field schools “have been remarkable,” according to the UN.

The solution doesn’t warrant a mention in Food Evolution.

“It’s fundamentally dishonest of the film to tout a GE solution that may not even work, as the scientists themselves acknowledge,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, “while failing to point out another way to control the problem that works very well, but doesn’t involve selling a product to make money.”

Did Monsanto have anything to do with Food Evolution?

Monsanto and allies were discussing plans for a documentary in late 2013, according to emails obtained by US Right to Know. The emails do not contain evidence linking those discussions to Food Evolution, but they do establish Monsanto’s desire for a film that sounds surpassingly similar to the one Kennedy created.

Monsanto’s Eric Sachs wrote in Dec. 2013 to a group of PR advisors, “there is clearly a lot of interest to pursue a documentary film. Importantly, the consensus was that Monsanto’s participation was welcome, particularly in the planning phase.”

He recommended a January 2014 planning call. Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project stepped up to take the lead, and mentioned he had “gotten a personal pledge of $100,000 from a private business person if we can get” (the rest of the line is cut off). Entine also has a connection to the Institute for Food Technologists; he spoke about “anti-food activism” at IFT’s 2012 annual meeting.

Another person mentioned in the Monsanto emails, Karl Haro von Mogel – who had discussed with Sachs “the downsides of a film funded by the ‘Big 6’” and suggested “what would matter more than their money is their participation” – was interviewed in Food Evolution, and was also involved in filming one scene, which suggests some behind the scenes coordination with the filmmakers.

In reaction to the emails, Kennedy wrote on Twitter: “@foodevomovie has had ZERO $ or INPUT from #Monsanto. We are fully transparent & happy 2 have fact-based dialogue.”

He said in an interview, “that email exchange had absolutely nothing to do with our project whatsoever … we hadn’t even committed to making the film with IFT at that date in 2013.”

The people in the email exchange were not involved in filming or advising, he said, and Karl Haro von Mogel “was a subject in the film and had no involvement or influence on any creative/editorial decisions on the film at any point in the production. Also it may be useful to point out that the email conversation you reference occurred long before we ever even knew Karl or any of these people.”

Sneak Peek Behind the Scenes

Another email exchange obtained by US Right to Know offers a peek behind the scenes at the narrative development in Food Evolution. The exchange depicts Kennedy’s search for examples to feature for “us/developing world need GMO.”

“Any other ‘us/developing world need GMO’ you can give me names of aside from oranges? Shintakus lettuce?” Kennedy asked. Producer Trace Sheehan responded with a list of GMO products including drought-tolerant rice, allergy-free peanuts, carcinogen-free potatoes … “and then button with Golden Rice.”

When Kennedy pushed for “the top GMO crops currently in use, and what countries,” Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science wrote, “Really Bt brinjal in Bangladesh is the only one that is truly GMO in and is in widespread operation.”

The film’s frame-driven reporting ignores that detail about the lack of operational GMO solutions, and doesn’t mention that the closer example, vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, still isn’t available despite huge investments and years of trials, because it doesn’t work as well in the field as existing rice strains.

What is propaganda?

In a scene that is supposed to convey scientific credibility, Food Evolution flashes the logo of the American Council on Science and Health at the very moment Neil deGrasse Tyson says there is a global consensus on the safety of GMOs. It’s a fitting slip. ASCH is a corporate front group closely aligned with Monsanto.

The ACSH logo scene also appears in the background in this 2-minute clip from a recent Climate One debate, as Kennedy pushed back against the suggestion that his film is propaganda.

“How do we determine what is propaganda?” Kennedy asked. “I say one of the ways we do it is (to ask), are results asked for, or results promised? I was not asked for results and I did not promise results. If you have a problem with the film, the problem lies with me.”

This review originally appeared in Huffington Post and has been reprinted in Alternet. 

See also: Stacy Malkan’s follow-up article, Neil deGrasse Tyson Owes Fans a More Honest Conversation About GMOs than Food Evolution. “Interviews with several other GMO critics who appear in the film, or were asked to be in it, corroborate the picture of a strange process involving sneaky filming, selective editing, misrepresentation and lack of disclosure about the film’s funding.”

Newsweek’s Bizarre Standards for Opinion Writers

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March 2019 update: Newsweek gets ad money from Bayer; publishes op-eds favorable to Bayer

By Stacy Malkan

Facts don’t matter in commentaries printed by Newsweek as long as the writer “seems genuine.” That’s the troubling implication of an email exchange I had with Nicholas Wapshott, the opinion editor at Newsweek, when I raised concerns about an op-ed attacking organic food written by an author with undisclosed pesticide industry connections.

The organic hit piece by Henry I. Miller ran in Newsweek on Jan. 9, several months after the New York Times revealed that Miller published an article in Forbes that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto. Forbes severed its ties with Miller and deleted all his articles from their site. Miller disclosed none of that in his Newsweek article even though he spent several paragraphs attacking Danny Hakim, the New York Times reporter who revealed the ghostwriting scandal.

Miller made false claims about organic farming using pesticide industry sources.

The op-ed went downhill from there, using pesticide industry sources to make false claims about organic farming and attacking people who appeared on a “target” list developed for Monsanto by Jay Byrne, the company’s former director of corporate  communications. Miller quoted Byrne directly in the piece with no mention of the Monsanto affiliation.

None of this appears to bother Wapshott, according to an on-the-record email exchange.

Miller ‘Flatly Denies’ Facts 

On Jan. 22, I emailed Wapshott to ask if he was aware that:

  • The New York Times exposed Miller for publishing an article in Forbes under his own name that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto, and that Forbes has since deleted all his articles
  • A 2015 Monsanto PR plan that discusses the company’s plans to defend glyphosate against cancer concerns lists as its first action item: “Engage Henry Miller
  • A source Miller used in his Newsweek article, Jay Byrne, is a former Monsanto employee (not identified as such). According to emails I reported here, Byrne worked with Monsanto to set up a group of “independent” academics who were secretly funded by industry. The front group called Academics Review attacked the organic industry as a “marketing scam,” the same theme in Miller’s Newsweek article.
  • Miller has a long history of partnering with – and pitching his PR services to – corporations that need help convincing the public their products aren’t dangerous and don’t need to be regulated.

Here is Wapshott’s response: “Hi Stacy, I understand that you and Miller have a long history of dispute on this topic. He flatly denies your assertions. Nicholas”

I wrote back seeking clarification.

Hi Nicholas, to clarify:

Miller denies he published a column ghostwritten by Monsanto under his own name in Forbes and that Forbes has since deleted all his articles? (NYT story, Retraction Watch story)

Miller denies the Monsanto’s PR plan to address the IARC cancer rating of glyphosate lists “Engage Henry Miller” on page 2, item 3?

Miller denies that Jay Byrne, the former Monsanto employee not identified as such in his Newsweek article, was involved with setting up Academics Review as a front group? (Byrne has not denied writing these emails.)

Miller and I have disagreed yes, but the above are facts, and provable. Do you think it’s fair to your readers to continue to publish his work without disclosing his ties to Monsanto?

Wapshott responded, “I think so. I have met Miller and he seems genuine. And I find it hard to believe that his flat denial is a lie. We would need a full trial to determine the truth and those resources are, thank goodness, beyond our means.”

Standards for COI Disclosure?  

I find it hard to believe that his flat denial is a lie.

I wrote back to Wapshott once more, pointing out that a trial is not necessary in the Miller case, since the facts have been established by reporting in the New York Times and corroborated by Forbes’ spokeswoman Mia Carbonell, who told the Times:

“All contributors to Forbes.com sign a contract requiring them to disclose any potential conflicts of interest and only publish content that is their own original writing. When it came to our attention that Mr. Miller violated these terms, we removed his blog from Forbes.com and ended our relationship with him.”

Does Newsweek have a similar policy to require writers to disclose potential conflicts of interest and use only their own writing? Wapshott did not respond to that inquiry. (Less than a week later, there was “upheaval at Newsweek” amid staff changes and financial troubles. Political editor Matthew Cooper wrote in his resignation letter, Some editors “recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness … I’ve never seen more reckless leadership.”)

A Problem Far Beyond Newsweek

Weak, confused, non-existent standards for disclosing conflicts of interest is a problem that goes far beyond Newsweek. For a 2015 article in CJR, journalist Paul Thacker asked 18 media organizations that cover science to describe their disclosure standards for both journalists and the sources they use in their stories, and 14 responded.

“The responses present a jumbled mix of policies,” Thacker wrote. “Some draw a bright line — preventing journalists from having financial ties to any outside sources. Others allow some expenses and speaking fees. To complicate matters further, some organizations have written rules, while others consider incidents on a case-by-case basis. Standards advocated by professional societies also seem to differ.”

Some outlets apply different standards to reporters and columnists, as I learned when I asked why Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel can take speaking fees from agrichemical industry groups while writing about that industry as part of her regular column beat. Reporters at Washington Post aren’t allowed to do that, but in the case of columnists, the editor decides.

It’s all very murky. And some outlets are clearly crossing a bright line by publishing the views of groups and people who work with corporations to promote pro-industry science views without telling readers about the corporate collaboration.

Henry Miller’s attack on organic food in Newsweek is one example. Another is USA Today’s regular publication of science columns from the American Council on Science and Health, a front group for the tobacco, chemical, fossil fuel, pharmaceutical and other industries seeking to discredit scientific information about the harm of their products.

USA Today Has Bizarre Standards for Opinion Writers Too 

In February 2017, two dozen health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote to the editors of USA Today asking the paper to stop publishing science columns by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), or at least provide full disclosures about who funds the group.

Leaked financial documents fro 2012 reveal that ACSH solicits money from corporations to defend and promote their products; for example, ACSH spins science on fracking, e-cigarettes, toxic cosmetics and agrichemical industry products, and solicits funding from those industries in exchange. Recent reporting establishes that ACSH works with Monsanto on messaging campaigns.

“USA Today should not be helping this group promote its false identity as a credible, independent source on science,” the two dozen groups wrote to the editors. “Your readers deserve accurate information about what and whom this group represents, as they reflect on the content of the columns.”

Nearly a year later, USA Today is still publishing columns by ACSH staff and still failing to notify its readers about ACSH’s funding from corporations whose agenda they promote.

In an email response dated March 1, 2017, USA Today Editorial Page Editor Bill Sternberg explained:

“To the best of our knowledge, all of the columns in question were authored or co-authored by Alex Berezow, a longtime member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Mr. Berezow has written some 25 op-eds for us since 2011, and we consider him to be a credible voice on scientific issues. He holds a PhD in microbiology from the University of Washington, was the founding editor of RealClearScience and has contributed to a number of mainstream outlets.”

Berezow is now a senior fellow at ACSH, and his “@USAToday contributor” status appears in his bio on Twitter, where he frequently attacks critics of the pesticide industry, for example this recent vile tweet featuring a sexually graphic illustration of a nurse giving a patient a coffee enema.

Does USA Today really want to be associated with this type of science communication?

Integrity and Transparency in Science Reporting

News outlets can do better than these examples at Newsweek and USA Today, and they must do better. They can start by refusing to publish columns by corporate front groups and PR surrogates who pose as independent science thinkers.

They can implement clear and strong policies that require all columnists and journalists to disclose potential conflicts of interest for themselves and the sources they cite in their work.

At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of the news media, it is more important than ever for all publications to follow the highest standards of journalistic ethics and serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible.

Stacy Malkan is co-director and co-founder of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit public interest, consumer and public health research group.

Monsanto’s Fingerprints All Over Newsweek’s Hit on Organic Food

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Update: Newsweek’s bizarre response

By Stacy Malkan

“The campaign for organic food is a deceitful, expensive scam,” according to a Jan. 19 Newsweek article authored by Dr. Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution.

If that name sounds familiar – Henry I. Miller – it may be because the New York Times recently revealed a scandal involving Miller: that he had been caught publishing an article ghostwritten by Monsanto under his own name in Forbes. The article, which largely mirrored a draft provided to him by Monsanto, attacked the scientists of the World Health Organization’s cancer panel (IARC) for their decision to list Monsanto’s top-selling chemical, glyphosate, as a probable human carcinogen.

Reporting on an email exchange released in litigation with Monsanto over cancer concerns, the Times’ Danny Hakim wrote:

“Monsanto asked Mr. Miller if he would be interested in writing an article on the topic, and he said, ‘I would be if I could start from a high-quality draft.’

The article appeared under Mr. Miller’s name, and with the assertion that ‘opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.’ The magazine did not mention any involvement by Monsanto in preparing the article …

Forbes removed the story from its website on Wednesday and said that it ended its relationship with Mr. Miller amid the revelations.”

The opinion wire Project Syndicate followed suit, after first adding a disclaimer to Miller’s commentaries noting that they would have been rejected if his collaboration with Monsanto had been known.

Desperate to Disparage Organic

The ghostwriting scandal has hardly slowed Miller down; he has continued to spin promotional content for the agrichemical industry from outlets such as Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, without disclosing to readers his relationship with Monsanto.

Yet Miller’s Newsweek hit on organic food has Monsanto’s fingerprints in plain sight all over it.

For starters, Miller uses pesticide industry sources to make unsubstantiated (and ludicrous) claims about organic agriculture – for example, that organic farming is “actually more harmful to the environment” than conventional agriculture, or that organic allies spent $2.5 billion in a year campaigning against genetically engineered foods in North America.

The source on the latter inaccurate claim is Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto (not identified as such in the Newsweek article), who now directs a PR firm called v-Fluence Interactive.

Email exchanges reveal how Monsanto works with people like Jay Byrne – and with Byrne specifically – to push exactly this type of attack against Monsanto’s foes while keeping corporate involvement a secret.

According to emails obtained by my group US Right to Know, Byrne played a key role in helping Monsanto set up a corporate front group called Academics Review that published a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam – the exact theme in Miller’s Newsweek article.

Jay Byrne’s hit list of Monsanto foes. 

The concept of the front group – explained in the emails I reported here – was to create a credible-sounding platform from which academics could attack critics of the agrichemical industry while claiming to be independent, yet secretly receiving funds from industry groups. Wink, wink, ha, ha.

“The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” wrote a Monsanto executive involved in the plan.

Byrne’s role, according to the emails, was to serve as a “commercial vehicle” to help obtain corporate funding. Byrne also said he was compiling an “opportunities” list of targets – critics of the agrichemical industry who could be “inoculated” from the academics’ platform.

Several people on Byrne’s “opportunities” hit list, or later attacked by Academics Review, were targets in Miller’s Newsweek article, too.

Miller’s Newsweek piece also tried to discredit the work of New York Times’ reporter Danny Hakim, without disclosing that it was Hakim who exposed Miller’s Monsanto ghostwriting scandal.

As with other recent attacks on the organic industry, all fingers point back to the agrichemical corporations that will lose the most if consumer demand continues to rise for foods free of GMOs and pesticides.

Monsanto’s “Independent Academic” Ruse

Henry Miller has a long history of partnering with – and pitching his PR services to – corporations that need help convincing the public their products aren’t dangerous and don’t need to be regulated.

And Monsanto relies heavily on people with scientific credentials or neutral-sounding groups to make those arguments – people who are willing to communicate the company script while claiming to be independent actors. This fact has been established by reporting in the New York Times, Le Monde, WBEZ, the Progressive and many other outlets in recent years.

A newly released Monsanto document provides more details about how Monsanto’s propaganda and lobbying operation works, and the key role Henry Miller plays within it.

This 2015 “preparedness plan” – released by lawyers in the glyphosate cancer lawsuits – lays out Monsanto’s PR strategy to “orchestrate outcry” against the IARC cancer scientists for their report on glyphosate. The first external deliverable: “Engage Henry Miller.”

The plan goes on to name four tiers of “industry partners” – a dozen trade groups, academic groups and independent-seeming front groups such as the Genetic Literacy Project – that could help “inoculate” against the cancer report and “protect the reputation … of Roundup.”

Miller delivered for Monsanto with a March 2015 article in Forbes – the article later revealed as Monsanto’s writing – attacking the IARC scientists. The industry partners have been pushing the same arguments through various channels again and again, ever since, to try to discredit the cancer scientists.

Much of this criticism has appeared to the public as a spontaneous uprising of concern, with no mention of Monsanto’s role as the composer and conductor of the narrative: a classic corporate PR hoodwink.

As more documents tumble into the public realm – via the Monsanto Papers and public records investigations – the “independent academic” ruse will become harder to maintain for industry surrogates like Henry I. Miller, and for media and policy makers to ignore.

For now, Newsweek is not backing down. Even after reviewing the documents that substantiate the facts in this article, Newsweek Opinion Editor Nicholas Wapshott wrote in an email, “I understand that you and Miller have a long history of dispute on this topic. He flatly denies your assertions.”

Neither Miller nor Wapshott have responded to further questions.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer watchdog and transparency group, US Right to Know. She is author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry” (New Society, 2007). Disclosure: US Right to Know is funded in part by the Organic Consumers Association which is mentioned in Miller’s article and appears on Byrne’s hit list.