Monsanto Gets Facts Wrong in Blog Claiming Honest Dealings with Media

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By Stacy Malkan

Today Monsanto posted a blog by its global communications lead Sara Miller making the case that the company deals only in facts with reporters. Unfortunately, Miller’s blog itself is sorely lacking when it comes to facts.

Miller’s blog was a reaction to an interview posted Tuesday in the Huffington Post, by freelance journalist Paul Thacker with former Reuters reporter Carey Gillam, who is now research director at the nonprofit consumer group U.S. Right to Know.

In her blog, Miller states incorrectly that U.S. Right to Know is an “anti-GMO organization.” USRTK’s position on GMOs is stated clearly on our website: We are not opposed to GMOs; we advocate for transparency and precaution for genetic engineering and all new food technologies. Monsanto and Miller “very much disagree with this perspective,” according to her blog.

Miller states incorrectly that U.S. Right to Know is funded by the organic industry. Our major donors are listed on our website, and do not include any companies or trade associations. Indeed, our Board of Directors prohibits U.S. Right to Know from taking any funding at all from for-profit corporations.

Miller accuses Gillam, who covered agricultural issues for more than 17 years at Reuters, of being a biased reporter, and admits that Monsanto scrutinized Gillam’s stories and contacted her editors to pressure them to alter coverage – yet she provides no evidence of inaccuracies in Gillam’s reporting.

Miller asserts that Monsanto provides reporters only with accurate information. In fact, U.S. Right to Know and many other groups, historians, academics and reporters have documented that the company has a long history of misleading the public, regulators and the media. Documentation and examples are provided below, along with Gillam’s response to the Monsanto blog.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit consumer group standing up for truth and transparency in our food system. We invite you to sign up for our free newsletter and join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

Further reading on Monsanto deceptions:

As Monsanto’s own documents show, the company went to extraordinary efforts to keep the public in the dark about PCBs, and even manipulated scientific studies by urging scientists to change their conclusions to downplay the risks of PCB exposure.

In a Vanity Fair exposé entitled “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear,” Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele describe the heavy-handed tactics used by Monsanto and allies to push the company’s agenda.

Monsanto was the leading contributor, with over $22 million in donations, to deceptive campaigns to defeat GMO labeling ballot initiatives in four states. Dishonest tactics used by the anti-labeling campaigns to mislead voters and the media included fake front groupsinaccurate ads and false affiliations.

“Lies, Dirty Tricks and $45 million kill GMO labeling in California,” by Michele R. Simon

“Agrichemical companies have a long history of concealing health risks from the public,” by Gary Ruskin, U.S. Right to Know

Seedy Business: What Big Food is Hiding with its Slick PR Campaigns on GMOs – report by Gary Ruskin

Spinning Food: How Food Industry Front Groups and Covert Communications are Shaping the Story of Food – report by Friends of the Earth

Carey Gillam’s response to Sara Miller’s Monsanto blog on May 11, 2016:

“Again, Monsanto can point to nothing in what I have said that is inaccurate, so the effort is to smear the messenger. Perhaps I went to work for a consumer organization because after 17 years of covering the agrichemical industry I saw the extent of the intentional dis-information spread by corporate PR agents through media outlets, and hoped I could in some small way add more balance to the conversation. Monsanto is filled with super-smart people who get demonized often for things they don’t deserve. I am more than aware of that, and don’t want to contribute to that. But the company also has a self-interest that doesn’t always coincide with consumer interests. Surely no one would argue otherwise. It’s the job of journalists/researchers/writers to ask the questions and seek the answers that enlighten and educate — even if that doesn’t help sell product or pad profits.”

Carey Gillam

What Is Going On With Glyphosate? EPA’s Odd Handling of Controversial Chemical

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By Carey Gillam

The Environmental Protection Agency’s ongoing risk assessment of the world’s most widely used herbicide is starting to generate more questions than answers. On Monday, it also generated a giant “oops” from the EPA.

On Friday, April 29, the EPA posted on its website a series of documents related to its long-awaited risk assessment for glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and other weed-killing products sold around the world. The risk assessment started in 2009 and was supposed to conclude in 2015. But questions about whether or not glyphosate may cause cancer are dogging the agency’s review, and have slowed the process.

On Monday, after the contents of the documents started to generate questions from media, EPA yanked those documents from its website:

An agency spokeswoman said this:

“Glyphosate documents were inadvertently posted to the Agency’s docket. These documents have now been taken down because our assessment is not final. EPA has not completed our cancer review. We will look at the work of other governments as well as work by HHS’s Agricultural Health Study as we move to make a decision on glyphosate. Our assessment will be peer reviewed and completed by end of 2016.”

The EPA said it was “working through some important science issues on glyphosate, including residues of the chemical in human breast milk;” an “in-depth human incidents and epidemiology evaluation;” and a preliminary analysis of glyphosate toxicity to milkweed, a critical resource for the monarch butterfly.

Inadvertent or not, one of those documents posted and then withdrawn was a doozy, a heavy hammer that seeks to knock down worries about glyphosate ties to cancer. The agency released an Oct. 1, 2015 internal EPA memorandum from its cancer assessment review committee (CARC) that contradicts the March 2015 finding by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifying glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. EPA found instead that glyphosate is “Not Likely to be Carcinogenic to Humans.”

The memorandum stated that the classification was based on “weight-of-evidence considerations.”

CARC said this:

“The epidemiological evidence at this time does not support a causal relationship between glyphosate exposure and solid tumors. There is also no evidence to support a causal relationship between glyphosate exposure and the following non-solid tumors: leukemia, multiple myeloma, or Hodgkin lymphoma. The epidemiological evidence at this time is inconclusive for a causal or clear associative relationship between glyphosate and NHL. Multiple case-control studies and one prospective cohort study found no association; whereas, results from a small number of case-control studies (mostly in Sweden) did suggest an association.”

Monsanto touted and tweeted the release of the document, which follows the release by EPA of a different memorandum supporting the safety of glyphosate last June. The newest memo gives the company added evidence to defend itself against a mounting stack of lawsuits filed by agricultural workers and others alleging Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide gave them cancer.

“This is the EPA’s highest ranking for product safety—they also do nice job of explaining all of IARC’s mistakes,” Monsanto Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley said in a twitter posting.

Monsanto has been calling on EPA to defend glyphosate against the cancer claims since the IARC classification came out in March 2015. A March 23, 2015 EPA email string released as part of a Freedom of Information request details Monsanto’s efforts to get EPA to “correct” the record on glyphosate “as it relates to carcinogenicity.”

Another document newly released by EPA – which was also then withdrawn – illustrates just why EPA’s risk assessment about the safety of glyphosate matters so much. In a memorandum dated Oct. 22, 2015, EPA detailed how extensively glyphosate is being used on food items.

That memo updates estimates of glyphosate use on crops in top agricultural states, and provides annual average use estimates for the decade 2004-2013. Seventy crops are on the EPA list, ranging alphabetically from alfalfa and almonds to watermelons and wheat. Glyphosate used on soybean fields, on an annual basis, is pegged at 101.2 million pounds; with corn-related use at 63.5 million pounds. Both those crops are genetically engineered so they can be sprayed directly with glyphosate as farmers treat fields for weeds. Cotton and canola, also genetically engineered to be glyphosate tolerant, also have high use numbers. But notable glyphosate use is also seen with oranges (3.2 million lbs); sorghum (3 million lbs); almonds (2.1 million lbs); grapes, (1.5 million lbs); grapefruit and apples (400,000 lbs each); and a variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the delays in issuing a final regulatory risk assessment on glyphosate, questions about the impact of the chemical on human health and the environment have been mounting. In addition to the lawsuits alleging glyphosate caused cancer in farm workers and others, private groups are scrambling to test a variety of food products for glyphosate residues.

On Friday a lawsuit with a new twist on glyphosate concerns was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. That suit, which seeks class action status, alleges that glyphosate residues found in Quaker Oats invalidates claims by the Quaker Oats Co. that its product is wholly natural. “Glyphosate is a synthetic biocide and probable human carcinogen, with additional health dangers rapidly becoming known,” the lawsuit states. “When a product purports to be ‘100% Natural,’ consumers not only are willing to pay more for the product, they expect it to be pesticide-free,” the lawsuit states.

Questions about glyphosate have become so prevalent that U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu wrote a letter to EPA officials in December requesting EPA scientists meet with a group of independent scientists to go over “troubling information” related to glyphosate. Lieu cited concerns that EPA is relying on Monsanto-backed data rather than independent, peer-reviewed research in assessing glyphosate. Sources close to the situation say that meeting has been scheduled for June 14, though both EPA and Lieu’s office declined to comment.

The EPA’s diligence on digging into glyphosate questions and concerns is encouraging to those who want to see a thorough risk assessment done. But the delay and the questionable actions with releasing documents and then withdrawing them from the public eye does not inspire confidence.

Indeed, in another curious move, the EPA on May 2 also issued a newly updated “registration review schedule.“ But while three dozen other chemical draft risk assessments are listed on the EPA website for release by the end of 2016, glyphosate was not included.

Oops?

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist, current freelance writer/editor and research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group. Follow her on Twitter @CareyGillam

What Killed Jack McCall? A Farmer Dies; A Case Against Monsanto Takes Root

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By Carey Gillam

CAMBRIA, Calif.- Standing on the ridge overlooking her central California farm, new widow Teri McCall sees her husband Jack nearly everywhere. There, atop the highest hill, is where the couple married in 1975- two self-described “hippies’ who knew more about how to surf than farm. And over there, surrounded by the lemon, avocado and orange trees Jjack mccall copyack planted, sits the 800-square-foot house the young Vietnam veteran built for his bride and a family that grew to include two sons and a daughter. Solar panels Jack set up in a sun-drenched stretch of grass power the farm’s irrigation system.

And down there, clasped in the cusp of the velvet green valley sits the century-old farmhouse Jack and Teri eventually made their permanent home. Jack installed a stained glass window featuring a heart and flowers over the front door.

“Literally hundreds of times a day, something reminds me of him,” McCall says, as she and a visitor strolled through the orchards on a recent sunny spring morning. “That’s part of why it’s so hard to believe… I can never see him again.”

Anthony ‘Jack’ McCall, 69, died Dec. 26 after a painful and perplexing battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The loss is certain, fixed forever into his family’s heartbreak. But questions about why and how he was stricken – a man who never smoked, stayed fit and had no history of cancer in his family – are part of what some legal experts see as a potential landmark legal claim against one of the world’s largest agrichemical companies, Monsanto Co.

McCall shunned pesticide use on his farm, except for the herbicide called Roundup – marketed by Monsanto as having extremely low toxicity. He used Roundup regularly, spraying it himself around the farm to drive back worrisome weeds. He even recommended Roundup to friends, telling them it was supposed to be much safer than alternatives on the market, and touting its effectiveness.

But now in his death, McCall is one of several plaintiffs in more than a dozen lawsuits that claim the active ingredient in Roundup – a chemical called glyphosate – gave them cancer, and that Monsanto has long known glyphosate poses “significant risks to human health, including a risk of causing cancer.”

The lawsuits, brought by plaintiffs in California, Florida, MissouriDelaware, Hawaii,and elsewhere over the last several months, claim Monsanto has hidden evidence, and manipulated regulators and the public into believing in the safety of glyphosate, which annually brings in about $5 billion, or a third of total sales, for the agribusiness giant. Like McCall, many farmed, or worked in agricultural jobs in which they regularly were using or exposed to glyphosate.

The claims come at a critical time for Monsanto and its signature product as regulators in the United States and other countries evaluate whether or not to continue to allow glyphosate herbicides. Last year the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. That team, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), said glyphosate shows a “positive association” for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 

The outcomes of the legal battle and the regulatory reviews could have broad implications. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide on the planet, sprayed on fields for row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat, as well as a variety of fruits, nuts and vegetable crops such as almonds, apples, cherries and oranges.

That ubiquitous role played by glyphosate means the litigation, plaintiffs’ lawyers say, marks the beginning of a potential wave of legal actions against Monsanto. Teams of attorneys have been criss-crossing the country lining up potential plaintiffs who they say will likely number in the hundreds and possibly thousands. It’s a time-tested practice by plaintiffs’ attorneys who have brought similar mass actions in the past against tobacco, pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

“Monsanto has deliberately concealed or suppressed information about the dangers of its product,” said environmental and chemical pollution attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is assisting in litigating glyphosate cases. “This is big. It’s on every farm in the world.”

Kennedy predicts glyphosate liability litigation will become as widespread as has been decades of litigation over asbestos, which is seen in legal circles as the longest-running mass tort action in U.S. history. Asbestos was used for years as a safe and effective flame retardant in the construction industry but has been tied to lung diseases and cancers, and spawned hundreds of millions of dollars in legal claims.

The glyphosate litigation partly mirrors courtroom battles Monsanto has been fighting for years involving the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs it once manufactured. Plaintiffs in those cases also claim PCBs caused them to fall ill while Monsanto hid the risks. Monsanto claims plaintiffs cannot definitively link illnesses to PCB exposure.

AMONG THE SAFEST OPTIONS
Patented by Monsanto and commercialized in 1974, glyphosate herbicide has long been considered among the safest pesticide options on the market. The weed-killer came off patent in 2000 and is now used in more than 700 products around the world, beloved by farmers, homeowners, and groundskeepers. The chemical is the world’s most widely used herbicide with an estimated 1.8 billion pounds applied in 2014, up 12-fold from 1994, according to recently published research.

But as use has grown, concerns about safety have also mounted. Residues have been documented by public and private researchers in waterways, air, food and in human bodily fluids. Several scientific studies tied the chemical to cancers and other health problems before the March 2015 classification by IARC.

Lawyers for plaintiffs in the glyphosate cases say that among the evidence that glyphosate’s toxicity has long been known is an EPA memo detailing how glyphosate was classified by agency scientists as a possible human carcinogen in 1985 before classified in 1991 as a having “evidence of non-carcinogenicity” for humans. The classification was changed despite the fact that some peer review members did not concur. The lawsuits also cite evidence of fraud at laboratories used by Monsanto to perform toxicology studies of glyphosate, and point to fraud convictions of executives at those labs.

St. Louis-based Monsanto, a global agrichemical and seed powerhouse, cites its own evidence to counter both the validity of the allegations in the lawsuits, as well as the IARC findings. Last year, the company hired a team of experts to review the safety of glyphosate, and said that team found no cancer links. 

“Comprehensive long-term toxicological studies repeated over the last 30 years have time and again demonstrated that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a cancer risk in humans,” Monsanto states on its website. ‘Regulatory authorities and independent experts around the world have reviewed numerous long-term/carcinogenicity and genotoxicity studies and agree that there is no evidence that glyphosate… causes cancer, even at very high doses.”

Monsanto attorneys have been seeking to dismiss and/or delay several cases thus far filed, asserting that federal law and approvals by the Environmental Protection Agency for labels on Roundup herbicide products protect Monsanto from the claims in the lawsuits. In recent arguments in U.S. District Court in Northern California, for example, lawyers for Monsanto argued that “EPA repeatedly has concluded that glyphosate is not a carcinogen.” But in April a federal judge in California ruled that Monsanto was not protected from liability by the EPA registration and approved labels.

In a Missouri case that Monsanto also was unable to get dismissed, discovery is starting, and plaintiffs’ lawyers are eagerly awaiting what they hope will be a treasure trove of evidence for their clients.

The legal claims come at the same time that European and U.S. regulators are conducting their own assessments of the safety of glyphosate and considering restrictions, processes that have become fraught with infighting and accusations of bias from both fans and foes of glyphosate. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said in November that evidence shows glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic. But the European Parliament has said the herbicide use should be reined in with a ban on non-professional use and around parks and playgrounds because of the health worries.

The EPA was due to release a fresh risk assessment on glyphosate nearly a year ago, but has stalled the process amid the uproar. And in an odd twist to the saga, on April 29, the agency posted an internal document to its website, showing that the EPA’s cancer assessment experts have determined that glyphosate is “Not Likely to be Carcinogenic to Humans.”

On May 2, EPA withdrew the memo from its website and said it was not supposed to have been released because the cancer assessment is ongoing. But Monsanto heralded the release of the document as proof of what it has been saying about glyphosate’s safety.

Wall Street is keeping a wary eye on the litigation. But generally market watchers care less about Monsanto’s risk from potential liability payouts and more about any potential long-term revenue hit if regulators were to restrict or ban glyphosate, said Piper Jaffray analyst Brett Wong, who tracks Monsanto’s business strategies and financial health. The courtroom battles could influence regulators, he said.

“There are obviously a lot of lawsuits,” Wong said. “They aren’t intrinsic to impacting their business but there is always some sentiment pressure on investors. If it were to impact the regulatory structure and glyphosate was banned… that could obviously have an impact.”

Legal experts with experience defending the chemical industry are watching the cases with interest, and many say given a lack of regulatory support for the cancer linkage, plaintiffs’ attorneys have an uphill climb to make such claims stick.

“The evidence to support the claims isn’t there, said one prominent lawyer, declining to be quoted by name. “It’s not mothers’ milk by any means. I wouldn’t mix it in my drink, but it’s one of the safest chemicals out there,” he said.

Attorney Brent Wisner, who is representing the McCall family, said he is confident in the strength of the evidence against Monsanto. “It’s going to be a fairly large litigation when it’s all said and done. We’re confident we’ll be able to show that Monsanto controlled research and suppressed science,” he said.

Back in Cambria, Jack McCall’s son Paul McCall is running the farm in his father’s place. His eyes tear quickly when asked about his father’s diagnosis in September 2015 and death only three months later, the day after Christmas. He doesn’t want to talk about the lawsuit, other than to say he has no use for glyphosate now, and wants to warn others away from it.

“This is a battle that has to be fought,” he said.

How big and how bloody the litigation becomes is still an open question. The shouting from both sides of the issues is getting louder with each passing day. But the deep questions about the safety of this herbicide deserve serious and scientific review as the answers hold implications for our food production, our environment and the health of our families well into the future.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist, current freelance writer/editor and research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group

Not Just For Corn and Soy: A Look at Glyphosate Use in Food Crops

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By Carey Gillam

As the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup weed killer, along with hundreds of other weed-killing products, the chemical called glyphosate spells billions of dollars in sales for Monsanto and other companies each year as farmers around the world use it in their fields and orchards.  Ubiquitous in food production, glyphosate is used not just with row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat but also a range of fruits, nuts and veggies. Even spinach growers use glyphosate.

Though considered for years as among the safest of agrichemicals, concerns about glyphosate have been growing after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts last year classified it as a probable human carcinogen, based on a series of scientific studies.  There are other concerns as well – mounting weed resistance to glyphosate; negative impacts on soil health; and a demise in the monarch butterfly population tied to glyphosate use on forage that young monarchs feed on. The EPA is currently finishing a risk assessment for glyphosate that examines the range of issues.

The EPA is still trying to determine just how worrisome glyphosate is, or isn’t. In the meantime it’s worth a look at how widespread the use of glyphosate is in our food supply. A document released by EPA on April 29 gives us a peek.

In a memorandum dated Oct. 22, 2015, EPA analysts reported an “updated Screening Level Usage Analysis”for glyphosate use on food items. That memo updates estimates of glyphosate use on crops in top agricultural states, and provides annual average use estimates for the decade 2004-2013. Seventy crops are on the EPA list, ranging alphabetically from alfalfa and almonds to watermelons and wheat. And, when compared to a prior analysis that ran through 2011, it shows that glyphosate use has been growing in production of most of the key food crops on the list. Here’s a snapshot:

Glyphosate used on U.S. soybean fields, on an average annual basis, was pegged at 101.2 million pounds; with corn-related use at 63.5 million pounds. Both estimates are up from a prior analysis that ran through 2011, which pegged average annual soybean use at 86.4 million pounds and corn at 54.6 million pounds. Both those crops are genetically engineered so they can be sprayed directly with glyphosate as farmers treat fields for weeds. Use with sugar beets, also genetically engineered as glyphosate-tolerant, was estimated at 1.3 million pounds, compared to 1 million pounds.

Notably, glyphosate use is also seen with a variety of crops not engineered to be sprayed directly. Looking at the period ending in 2013 compared to 2011, glyphosate use in wheat production was pegged at 8.6 million pounds, up from 8.1 million pounds; use in almonds was pegged at 2.1 million pounds, unchanged from the prior analysis;  grape use was pegged at 1.5 million pounds, up from 1.4 million pounds; and rice use was estimated at 800,000 pounds, compared to 700,000 pounds in the prior analysis.

You can check out your own favorite food here, and compare it to the prior analysis here. Some on the list may surprise you, including cherries, avocados, apples, lemons, grapefruit, peanuts, pecans and walnuts.

The growing use of glyphosate on food crops has prompted calls for regulators to start testing levels of such residues on food to determine if they are within levels regulators deem safe. They’ve been doing such testing for years for residues of other agrichemicals. The Food and Drug Administration said in February it would start doing that type of testing for glyphosate residues this year on a limited basis.

In the meantime, the EPA, which sets the “tolerance” levels that deem what is safe regarding pesticide residue,  announced May 3 that it was finalizing a new rule that will expand the numbers of crops that can have tolerances established. The EPA said this will “allow minor use growers a wider choice of pest control tools including lower-risk pesticides, to be used on minor crops, both domestically and in countries that import food to the United States.”

 Yummy.

What Bill Gates Isn’t Saying About GMOs

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Also see:
Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign? And why is Gates Foundation funding it?

As the big food companies announce plans to label genetically engineered foods in the United States, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the stories we hear from proponents and people who are raising concerns about the controversial food technology. Two recent videos illuminate the divide over GMOs.

In January, Bill Gates explained his support for genetic engineering in an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Blumenstein:

“What are called GMOs are done by changing the genes of the plant, and it’s done in a way where there’s a very thorough safety procedure, and it’s pretty incredible because it reduces the amount of pesticide you need, raises productivity (and) can help with malnutrition by getting vitamin fortification. And so I think, for Africa, this is going to make a huge difference, particularly as they face climate change …

The US, China, Brazil, are using these things and if you want farmers in Africa to improve nutrition and be competitive on the world market, you know, as long as the right safety things are done, that’s really beneficial. It’s kind of a second round of the green revolution. And so the Africans I think will choose to let their people have enough to eat.”

If Gates is right, that’s great news. That means the key to solving the hunger problem is lowering barriers for companies to get their climate-resilient, nutrition-improved genetically engineered crops to market.

Is Gates right?  

Another video released the same week as Gates’ WSJ interview provides a different perspective.

The short film by the Center for Food Safety describes how the state of Hawaii, which hosts more open-air fields of experimental genetically engineered crops than any other state, has become contaminated with high volumes of toxic pesticides.

The film and report explain that five multinational agrichemical companies run 97% of GE field tests on Hawaii, and the large majority of the crops are engineered to survive herbicides. According to the video:

“With so many GE field tests in such a small state, many people in Hawaii live, work and go to school near intensively sprayed test sites. Pesticides often drift so it’s no wonder that children and school and entire communities are getting sick. To make matters even worse, in most cases, these companies are not even required to disclose what they’re spraying.”

If the Center for Food Safety is right, that’s a big problem. Both these stories can’t be right at the same time, can they?

Facts on the ground

Following the thread of the Gates’ narrative, one would expect the agricultural fields of Hawaii – the leading testing grounds for genetically engineered crops in the U.S. – to be bustling with low-pesticide, climate-resilient, vitamin-enhanced crops.

Instead, the large majority of GMO crops being grown on Hawaii and in the US are herbicide-tolerant crops that are driving up the use of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and a chemical the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classify as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In the 20 years since Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” GMO corn and soy, glyphosate use has increased 15-fold and it is now “the most heavily-used agricultural chemical in the history of the world”, reported Douglas Main in Newsweek.

The heavy herbicide use has accelerated weed resistance on millions of acres of farmland. To deal with this problem, Monsanto is rolling out new genetically engineered soybeans designed to survive a combination of weed-killing chemicals, glyphosate and dicamba. EPA has yet to approve the new herbicide mix.

But Dow Chemical just got the green light from a federal judge for its new weed-killer combo of 2,4D and glyphosate, called Enlist Duo, designed for Dow’s Enlist GMO seeds. EPA tossed aside its own safety data to approve Enlist Duo, reported Patricia Callahan in Chicago Tribune.

The agency then reversed course and asked the court to vacate its own approval – a request the judge denied without giving reason.

All of this raises questions about the claims Bill Gates made in his Wall Street Journal interview about thorough safety procedures and reduced use of pesticides.

 Concerns grow in Hawaii, Argentina, Iowa

Instead of bustling with promising new types of resilient adaptive GMO crops, Hawaii is bustling with grassroots efforts to protect communities from pesticide drift, require chemical companies to disclose the pesticides they are using, and restrict GMO crop-growing in areas near schools and nursing homes.

Schools near farms in Kauai have been evacuated due to pesticide drift, and doctors in Hawaii say they are observing increases in birth defects and other illnesses they suspect may be related to pesticides, reported Christopher Pala in the Guardian and The Ecologist.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, prenatal and early-life pesticide exposures are linked to childhood cancers, decreased cognitive function, behavioral problems and birth defects.

In Argentina – the world’s third largest producer of GMO crops – doctors are also raising concerns about higher than average rates of cancer and birth defects they suspect are related to pesticides, reported Michael Warren in The Associated Press.

Warren’s story from 2013 cited evidence of “uncontrolled pesticide applications”:

“The Associated Press documented dozens of cases around the country where poisons are applied in ways unanticipated by regulatory science or specifically banned by existing law. The spray drifts into schools and homes and settles over water sources; farmworkers mix poisons with no protective gear; villagers store water in pesticide containers that should have been destroyed.”

In a follow-up story, Monsanto defended glyphosate as safe and called for more controls to stop the misuse of agricultural chemicals, and Warren reported:

“Argentine doctors interviewed by the AP said their caseloads – not laboratory experiments – show an apparent correlation between the arrival of intensive industrial agriculture and rising rates of cancer and birth defects in rural communities, and they’re calling for broader, longer-term studies to rule out agrochemical exposure as a cause of these and other illnesses.”

Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher responded, “the absence of reliable data makes it very difficult to establish trends in disease incidence and even more difficult to establish causal relationships. To our knowledge there are no established causal relationships.”

The absence of reliable data is compounded by the fact that most chemicals are assessed for safety on an individual basis, yet exposures typically involve chemical combinations.

 ‘We are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals’

A recent UCLA study found that California regulators are failing to assess the health risks of pesticide mixtures, even though farm communities – including areas near schools, day care centers and parks – are exposed to multiple pesticides, which can have larger-than-anticipated health impacts.

Exposures also occur by multiple routes. Reporting on health problems and community concerns in Avia Teria, a rural town in Argentina surrounded by soybean fields, Elizabeth Grossman wrote in National Geographic:

“Because so many pesticides are used in Argentina’s farm towns, the challenges of understanding what may be causing the health problems are considerable, says Nicolas Loyacono, a University of Buenos Aires environmental health scientist and physician. In these communities, Loyacono says, “we are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals.”

In Iowa, which grows more genetically engineered corn than any other state in the U.S., water supplies have been polluted by chemical run off from corn and animal farms, reported Richard Manning in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine:

“Scientists from the state’s agricultural department and Iowa State University have penciled out and tested a program of such low-tech solutions. If 40% of the cropland claimed by corn were planted with other crops and permanent pasture, the whole litany of problems caused by industrial agriculture – certainly the nitrate pollution of drinking water – would begin to evaporate.”

These experiences in three areas leading the world in GMO crop production are obviously relevant to the question of whether Africa should embrace GMOs as the best solution for future food security. So why isn’t Bill Gates discussing these issues?

Propaganda watch

GMO proponents like to focus on possible future uses of genetic engineering technology, while downplaying, ignoring or denying the risks. They often try to marginalize critics who raise concerns as uninformed or anti-science; or, as Gates did, they suggest a false choice that countries must accept GMOs if they want “to let their people have enough to eat.”

This logic leaps over the fact that, after decades of development, most GMO crops are still engineered to withstand herbicides or produce insecticides (or both) while more complicated (and much hyped) traits, such as vitamin-enhancement, have failed to get off the ground.

“Like the hover boards of the Back to the Future franchise, golden rice is an old idea that looms just beyond the grasp of reality,” reported Tom Philpott in Mother Jones.

Meanwhile, the multinational agrichemical companies that also own a large portion of the seed business are profiting from both the herbicide-resistant seeds and the herbicides they are designed to resist, and many new GMO applications in the pipeline follow this same vein.

These corporations have also spent hundreds of million dollars on public relations efforts to promote industrial-scale, chemical-intensive, GMO agriculture as the answer to world hunger – using similar talking points that Gates put forth in his Wall Street Journal interview, and that Gates-funded groups also echo.

For a recent article in The Ecologist, I analyzed the messaging of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO communications program launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

My analysis found that the group provides little information about possible risks or downsides of GMOs, and instead amplifies the agrichemical industry’s PR mantra that the science is settled on the safety and necessity of GMOs.

For example, the group’s FAQ states,

“You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than be hurt by GE food – and that’s not an exaggeration.”

This contradicts the World Health Organization, which states, “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” Over 300 scientists, MDs and academics have said there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”

The concerns scientists are raising about the glyphosate-based herbicides that go with GMOs are also obviously relevant to the safety discussion.

Yet rather than raising these issues as part of a robust science discussion, the Cornell Alliance for Science deploys fellows and associates to downplay concerns about pesticides in Hawaii and attack journalists who report on these concerns.

It’s difficult to understand how these sorts of shenanigans are helping to solve hunger in Africa.

Public science for sale

The Cornell Alliance for Science is the latest example of a larger troubling pattern of universities and academics serving corporate interests over science.

Recent scandals relating to this trend include Coca-Cola funded professors who downplayed the link between diet and obesity, a climate-skeptic professor who described his scientific papers as “deliverables” for corporate funders, and documents obtained by my group U.S. Right to Know that reveal professors working closely with Monsanto to promote GMOs without revealing their ties to Monsanto.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped expose the Flint water crisis, warned that public science is in grave danger.

“I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill – pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index – and the idea of science as a public good is being lost … People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.”

As the world’s wealthiest foundation and as major funders of academic research, especially in the realm of agriculture, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is in a position to support science in the public interest.

Gates Foundation strategies, however, often align with corporate interests. A 2014 analysis by the Barcelona-based research group Grain found that about 90% of the $3 billion the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent to benefit hungry people in the world’s poorest countries went to wealthy nations, mostly for high-tech research.

A January 2016 report by the UK advocacy group Global Justice Now argues that Gates Foundation spending, especially on agricultural projects, is exacerbating inequality and entrenching corporate power globally.

“Perhaps what is most striking about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is that despite its aggressive corporate strategy and extraordinary influence across governments, academics and the media, there is an absence of critical voices,” the group said.

But corporate voices are close at hand. The head of the Gates Foundation agricultural research and development team is Rob Horsch, who spent decades of his career at Monsanto.

 The case for an honest conversation

Rather than making the propaganda case for GMOs, Bill Gates and Gates-funded groups could play an important role in elevating the scientific integrity of the GMO debate, and ensuring that new food technologies truly benefit communities.

Technology isn’t inherently good or bad; it all depends on the context. As Gates put it, “as long as the right safety things are done.” But those safety things aren’t being done.

Protecting children from toxic pesticide exposures in Hawaii and Argentina and cleaning up water supplies in Iowa doesn’t have to prevent genetic engineering from moving forward. But those issues certainly highlight the need to take a precautionary approach with GMOs and pesticides.

That would require robust and independent assessments of health and environmental impacts, and protections for farmworkers and communities.

That would require transparency, including labeling GMO foods as well as open access to scientific data, public notification of pesticide spraying, and full disclosure of industry influence over academic and science organizations.

It would require having a more honest conversation about GMOs and pesticides so that all nations can use the full breadth of scientific knowledge as they consider whether or not to adopt agrichemical industry technologies for their food supply.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. Sign up for our newsletter here. Stacy is author of the book, ‘Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,’ (New Society Publishing, 2007) and co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Follow Stacy on Twitter: @stacymalkan.

Big Campaign Cash for Clinton from Monsanto Lobbyist

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A Monsanto Co. lobbyist, who is seen as Hillary Clinton’s “main man” in Iowa, was among the top financial bundlers of contributions to benefit Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House in the most recent quarter, new Federal Election Commission reports show.

Jerry Crawford of the Crawford & Mauro Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa, bundled $151,727 for the campaign over the quarter ending Dec. 31, FEC documents show. Crawford is senior adviser to Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and was the Midwest Co-Chair of the Hillary Clinton for President Campaign in 2007-08. His firm listed Monsanto as a client in the most recent quarter, reporting $60,000 in lobbying income from Monsanto. Monsanto is known as one of the nation’s most powerful corporations, and is currently engaged in a range of public policy debates over regulation of its genetically modified crops and top herbicide product, Roundup.

Another Monsanto lobbyist, Steve Elmendorf, bundled $20,295 in contributions for the Hillary for America organization during the quarter, FEC documents show.  Elmendorf also does work for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has been battling against mandatory labeling laws for foods made with GMOs.

The total of all bundlers for Clinton campaign over the quarter was $716,981, according to the FEC documents.

Clinton is widely seen as a friend to genetically engineered crop technology and agrichemical interests, while her chief competitor for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, has been a supporter of mandatory GMO labeling.

Big Week for Big Ag Players Monsanto and Dow

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Monsanto Shareholders Meeting Draws Fire 

An array of GMO and pesticide critics spoke out at Monsanto Co.’s annual meeting of shareholders on Friday, Jan. 29  in the company’s hometown of Creve Coeur, Missouri, calling on the company to address concerns about the company’s genetically engineered crop products and the glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide used on those crops.

Shareholder representatives, as well as others from outside organizations, told Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant that the company should take several steps, including reporting on any plans to  mitigate risks to human health and the environment tied to Roundup and its main ingredient, glyphosate.  In March 2015, the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” And Monsanto is facing numerous lawsuits filed by farmworkers and others who say Roundup caused their cancers.

“Given that about half of Monsanto’s revenue comes from Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides, the labeling of the company’s core product as ‘probably carcinogenic’ is not a healthy boost for the company’s prospects,” John Harrington, CEO of Harrington Investments, said in a statement.  Harrington Investments provide investment advisory services with a focus on environmental and social objectives, and has an active shareholder advocacy program.

Along with Harrington Investments,  representatives from the Organic Consumers Association, Moms Across America, SumofUs, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and GMO Free Midwest attended the meeting to protest the company’s promotion of Roundup, which the protesters say is tied to a range of diseases.

The group told Monsanto’s Grant that there are an increasing number of independent studies associating glyphosate with cancer, birth defects, kidney disease, and hormone disruption.

Grant deflected the criticisms and said that both glyphosate and GMOs are proven safe: “This is the 20th year of planting GMOs,” said Grant. “Four billion acres have been planted on the planet… without a single health issue. These are the most widely tested products that the food industry has ever seen.”

Monsanto brings in roughly $5 billion a year in revenues from sales of Roundup and related products.

Doctors and scientists have raised concerns about health trends in areas where farm workers and communities, such as Hawaii and Argentina, have high exposures to the chemicals used on Roundup Ready crops, which have been genetically engineered to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate.

An audio replay of the meeting is available on Monsanto’s website at www.monsanto.com/investors.

Dow Gets Court Go-Ahead on Controversial New Herbicide

A federal appellate court has awarded a victory to Dow AgroSciences in the company’s controversial bid to bring a new weedkiller to U.S. farmlands. The new herbicide, branded Enlist Duo, combines glyphosate and 2,4-D, both of which have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s request to vacate its own scientists’ 2014 approval  of the Dow weedkiller without detailing the reason behind the order.

Dow’s new herbicide is designed to address widespread herbicide resistance that has taken hold on roughly 60 million acres of U.S. farmland after widespread use of glyphosate. Glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s Roundup, became pervasive in production of corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops after Monsanto genetically engineered crops to withstand direct dousing of the chemical.

Enlist Duo is designed to be used on genetically engineered corn, cotton and soybeans developed by Dow to be immune to the glyphosate-2,4D  mix.  In December, the Chicago Tribune revealed that the EPA approved Enlist Duo after the agency discounted evidence of kidney problems that Dow’s own researchers said were caused by 2,4-D.

Dow has said it sees the Enlist line of crops and chemicals as a $1 billion market opportunity.

Read more here http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/ct-dow-enlist-duo-court-ruling-20160127-story.html

Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign

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By Carey Gillam

Former University of Illinois food science professor Bruce Chassy is known for his academic gravitas. Now retired nearly four years, Chassy still writes and speaks often about food safety issues, identifying himself with the full weight of the decades of experience earned at the public university and as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health. Chassy tells audiences that before he retired in 2012, he worked “full time” doing research and teaching.

What Chassy doesn’t talk much about is the other work he did while at the University of Illinois – promoting the interests of Monsanto Co., which has been trying to overcome mounting public concerns about the genetically engineered crops and chemicals the company sells. He also doesn’t talk much about the hundreds of thousands of dollars Monsanto donated to the university as Chassy was helping promote GMOs, or Monsanto’s secretive role in helping Chassy set up a nonprofit group and website to criticize individuals and organizations who raise questions about GMOs.

But emails released through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Chassy was an active member of a group of U.S. academics who have been quietly collaborating with Monsanto on strategies aimed at not just promoting biotech crop products, but also rolling back regulation of these products and fending off industry critics. The emails show money flowing into the university from Monsanto as Chassy collaborated on multiple projects with Monsanto to counter public concerns about genetically modified crops (GMOs) – all while representing himself as an independent academic for a public institution.

A New York Times article by Eric Lipton published last September laid bare the campaign crafted by Monsanto and other industry players to use the credibility of prominent academics to push the industry’s political agenda. That Times article focused primarily on University of Florida academic Kevin Folta, chairman of the university’s Horticultural Sciences Department, and Folta’s work on behalf of Monsanto. But an examination of recently released email exchanges between Monsanto and Chassy show new depths to the industry efforts.

The collaborations come at a critical juncture in the United States regarding GMO public policy. Mandatory GMO labeling is set to take effect in Vermont on July 1; Congress is wrestling over a federal labeling law for GMOs; and several other states are seeking their own answers to rising consumer demand for transparency about this topic.

Many consumer and environmental groups want to see more restrictions and regulation on GMO crops and the glyphosate herbicide many know as Roundup, which is used on GMOs. But the companies that market the crops and chemicals argue their products are safe and there should be less regulation, not more. Monsanto’s roughly $15 billion in annual revenue comes almost exclusively from GMO crop technology and related chemicals.

Amid the furor, the revelations about corporate collaboration with public university scientists to promote GMOs have sparked a new debate about a lack of transparency in the relationships between academics and industry.

Chassy has said he did nothing unethical or improper in his work supporting Monsanto and the biotech crop industry. “As a public-sector research scientist, it was expected… that I collaborate with and solicit the engagement of those working in my field of expertise,” Chassy has stated.

Still, what you find when reading through the email chains is an arrangement that allowed industry players to cloak pro-GMO messaging within a veil of independent expertise, and little, if any, public disclosure of the behind-the-scenes connections.

CRITICAL COLLABORATIONS

  • In a November 2010 email, Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs tells Chassy that Monsanto has just sent a “gift of $10,000” to the university “so the funds should be there.”  He then tells Chassy he is working on a plan for Monsanto and others in the agribusiness industry to support an “academics review” website that Chassy can use to counter concerns and allegations raised by critics of GMOs.  “From my perspective the problem is one of expert engagement and that could be solved by paying experts to provide responses,” Sachs wrote. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
  • In a separate 2010 exchange, Jay Byrne, president of the v-Fluence public relations firm and former head of corporate communications for Monsanto, tells Chassy he is trying to move the Academics Review project forward. He suggests “we work on the money (for all of us).” Byrne says that he has a list of GMO critics for Academics Review to target. He tells Chassy that the topic areas “mean money for a range of well-heeled corporations.”
  • In one email exchange from September 2011, Chassy suggests how the biotech crop industry might “spin” a government study that found significant levels of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, in air and water samples.
  • In emails from 2012, Chassy and Monsanto’s Sachs and Monsanto’s John Swarthout, who leads the company’s “scientific outreach and issues management,” discuss an upcoming presentation Chassy is preparing to make in China. They discuss Monsanto’s review of, and changes to, the presentation.  Monsanto’s Sachs instructs Swarthout to send slide decks to Chassy as material for his presentation.
  • In April 2012, Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond asks in an email if short videos can be created about the “safety of GM crops.” Chassy says that he is applying for funding from the State Department and “also seeking other sources of support” and can use university equipment to make the videos. Chassy asks Monsanto’s Hammond for a list of videos that “you think would be helpful.” Chassy tells Hammond that Byrne’s group V-fluence has helped create and edit the video scenarios.

EMAILS ABOUT MONEY 

The emails also discuss money.

  • In an October 2010 email, Chassy tells colleagues at the university that Monsanto has told him it is going to make a “substantial contribution” to his biotech account at the university.
  • In an October 2011 exchange, Chassy asked Sachs about a contribution for the university foundation biotech fund. The Monsanto executive responded that he would “make a gift to the foundation right away” if it had not already been made. Chassy instructs Monsanto to mail the check to the head of the university’s department of food science and to enclose a letter saying the check is “an unrestricted grant… in support of the biotechnology outreach and education activities of Professor Bruce M. Chassy.”
  • Also in May 2012, Monsanto made a $250,000 grant to the university to help set up an agricultural communications endowed chair. That donation was just a drop in the bucket of the donations from Monsanto – at least $1.9 million in the last five years, according to the university, – for agriculture-related projects.

CONTINUED CLOSE TIES

The close ties between Monsanto and Chassy continued past Chassy’s retirement in June 2012 from the university. Through 2013 and 2014 Chassy frequently appeared as an “independent expert” on the GMO Answers website, a pro-GMO site funded by Monsanto and other agribusiness giants. In that role, he answered questions and concerns about GMOs.

Chassy also has continued to operate Academics Review, publishing critical articles about individuals and organizations, including the World Health Organization’s cancer experts, that report information unfavorable for the GMO crop industry.  (I was the subject of at least two such attacks in 2014. Chassy objected to my presentation of both sides of the GMO safety debate in one Reuters article and objected to a second Reuters article that detailed the findings of a USDA report that found both benefits but also concerns associated with GMOs.)

When asked about its interactions with Chassy, Monsanto has said that there is nothing improper with its “engagements” with “public sector experts,” and that such collaborations help educate the public on important topics.  The university also has said it sees nothing wrong with the relations. A university spokeswoman said Chassy has “strong scientific credibility.”  She also said that Monsanto has given the university at least $1.9 million in the last five years.

But others familiar with the issues say the lack of transparency is a problem.

“These revelations regarding the connections are very important,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “The basic disclosure that some academics and other ‘neutral’ commentators in the public sphere are actually paid operatives/working directly with the chemical industry rightly alarms the public, as they are being misled.”

Revelations similar to these involving University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta’s connections to Monsanto did spark a public backlash after emails showed Folta received an unrestricted $25,000 grant and told Monsanto he would “write whatever you like.”  Folta said in a Jan. 18 blog that he no longer works with Monsanto because of the heated backlash.

Both Chassy and Folta have repeatedly written or been quoted in news articles that failed to disclose their connections to Monsanto and the GMO industry. In a recent example, Chassy has co-authored a series of articles that argue GMO labeling is a “disaster in waiting,” again with no disclosure of his collaboration with GMO developer Monsanto. His co-author is Jon Entine, founder of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included Monsanto, a connection Entine does not include in the article.

The revelations in the emails about Chassy, Folta and other assorted academics, leave many questions about who to trust, and how to trust, information critical to understanding our evolving food system. With food labeling issues at the forefront of debate, it’s time for more transparency.

Carey Gillam has worked as a journalist, researcher and writer specializing in the food and agriculture industry for nearly 20 years and has been recognized as one of the top food and agriculture journalists in the United States, winning several awards for her coverage of the industry. She recently left a career as senior correspondent for the Reuters international news service to become  Research Director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit public interest group that works to inform the public about the U.S.  food industry and its often-hidden role in public policy. 

Why is Cornell University Hosting a GMO Propaganda Campaign?

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Standing up for science - or propaganda?

Standing up for science – or propaganda?

This article by Stacy Malkan original appeared in The Ecologist

The founders of Cornell University, Andrew D. White and Ezra Cornell, dreamed of creating a great university that took a radical approach to learning. Their revolutionary spirit, and the promise to pursue knowledge for the greater good, is said to be at the heart of the Ivy League school their dream became.

It is difficult to understand how these ideals are served by a unit of Cornell operating as a public relations arm for the agrichemical industry.

Yet that is what seems to be going on at the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS), a program launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a goal to “depolarize the charged debate” about GMOs.

A review of the group’s materials and programs suggests that beneath its promise to “restore the importance of scientific evidence in decision making,” CAS is promoting GMOs using dishonest messaging and PR tactics developed by agrichemical corporations with a long history of misleading the public about science.

Communicating science or propaganda?

CAS is a communications campaign devoted to promoting genetically engineered foods (also known as GMOs) around the world. This is made clear in the group’s promotional video.

CAS Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, describes her group as a “communications-based nonprofit organization represented by scientists, farmers, NGOs, journalists and concerned citizens” who will use “interactive online platforms, multimedia resources and communication training programs to build a global movement to advocate for access to biotechnology.”

In this way, they say they will help alleviate malnourishment and hunger in developing countries, according to the video.

Dr. Evanega said her group has no connections to industry and receives no resources from industry. “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate for or promote industry-owned products,” she wrote in a blog post titled “A Right to Be Known (Accurately) in which she pushed back against criticisms from my group, U.S. Right to Know.

Yet the flagship programs of CAS – a 12-week course for Global Leadership Fellows and two-day intensive communications courses – teach communication skills to people who are “committed to advocating for increased access to biotechnology” specifically so they can “lead advocacy efforts in their local contexts.”

The group also has unusual dealings with journalists. What does it mean, as the CAS video states, that it is “represented by” journalists?

CAS offers journalism fellowships with cash awards for select journalists to “promote in-depth contextualized reporting” about issues related to food security, crop production, biotechnology and sustainable agricultural.

Are these journalists also GMO advocates? How ethical is it for journalists to represent the policy positions of a pro-agrichemical-industry group?

Messaging for corporate interests

One thing is clear from the publicly available CAS messaging: the context they offer on the topic of genetically engineered foods is not in depth and comprehensive but rather highly selective and geared toward advancing the interests of the agrichemical industry.

For example, the video: Brimming with hope about the possibilities of GMOs to solve world hunger in the future, it ignores a large body of scientific research that has documented problems connected with GMOs – that herbicide-tolerant GMO crops have driven up the use of glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer by the world’s leading cancer experts; and accelerated weed resistance on millions of acres of U.S. farmland, which makes crop production harder for farmers, not easier.

There is no mention of the failure of GMO crops designed to ward off harmful insects, or the rising concerns of medical doctors about patterns of illness in places like Hawaii and Argentina where exposures are heaviest to the chemicals associated with GMOs.

There is no recognition that many scientists and food leaders have said GMOs are not a priority for feeding the world, a debate that is a key reason GMO crops have not been widely embraced outside of the United States and Latin America.

All these factors are relevant to the discussion about whether or not developing countries should embrace genetically engineered crops and foods. But CAS leaves aside these details and amplifies the false idea that the science is settled on the safety and necessity of GMOs.

Disseminating selective information of a biased or misleading nature to promote a particular agenda is known as the practice of propaganda.

Working from industry’s PR playbook

 The Cornell Alliance for Science was supposed to present “a new vision for biotechnology communications,” yet the group relies on an established set of messages and communication tactics that are familiar to anyone who follows the PR campaigns of the agribusiness industry.

The report Spinning Food, which I co-authored with Kari Hamerschlag and Anna Lappé, documents how agribusiness and food industry funded groups are spending tens of millions of dollars a year to promote misleading messages about the safety and necessity of industrial-scale, chemical-intensive, genetically engineered agriculture.

The companies that profit most from this system – Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and other agrichemical giants – have repeatedly violated trust by misleading the public about science, as Gary Ruskin showed in his report Seedy Business. So they rely on front groups and third-party allies such as scientists and professors to spread their messaging for them.

A core industry narrative is that the science on GMO safety is settled. Pro-industry messengers focus on possible future uses of the technology while downplaying, ignoring or denying the risks; make inaccurate claims about the level of scientific agreement on GMOs; and attack critics who raise concerns as “anti-science.”

As one example, Mark Lynas, political director of CAS, wrote a New York Times op-ed accusing 17 European Union countries that banned GMO crop cultivation of “turning against science.” He dubbed them the “coalition of the ignorant.”

The article is heavy on attack and light on science, brushing over the topic with an inaccurate claim about a safety consensus that many scientists have disputed.

As molecular geneticist Belinda Martineau, PhD, wrote in response to Lynas, “Making general claims about the safety of genetic engineering … (is) unscientific, illogical and absurd.”

The World Health Organization states, “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

Yet, while claiming to stand up for science, CAS routinely makes general – even outlandish – claims about GMO safety.

From the group’s FAQ:

  • “You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than be hurt by GE food – and that’s not an exaggeration.”
  • “GE crops currently available to the public pose no greater health risks or environmental concerns than their non-engineered counterparts. This is not opinion.”

In fact, it is propaganda.

Battling transparency in science

In the spring of 2014, CAS launched a petition attacking my group U.S. Right to Know for filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain the emails of publicly funded professors as part of our investigation into the food and agrichemical industries and their PR operations.

CAS called the FOIA requests a “witch hunt,” yet documents obtained via these FOIA requests generated news stories in several top media outlets about academics who were working with industry PR operatives on campaigns to promote GMOs without disclosing those ties to the public.

The story broke in a front-page New York Times article by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton, who explained how Monsanto, facing consumer skepticism about GMOs, “retooled their lobbying and public relations strategy to spotlight a rarefied group of advocates: academics, brought in for the gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”

In one case, reported by Laura Krantz in the Boston Globe, a Monsanto executive told Harvard professor Calestous Juma to write a paper about how GMOs are needed to feed Africa.

“Monsanto not only suggested the topic to professor Calestous Juma. It went so far as to provide a summary of what the paper could say and a suggested headline. The company then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet as part of Monsanto’s strategy to win over the public and lawmakers,” Krantz wrote.

Juma said he took no money from Monsanto but noted he has received funding from the Gates Foundation, which has been partnering with Monsanto for years on pro-GMO projects after Rob Horsch, Monsanto’s veteran top executive for international development, joined the Foundation in 2006. Horsch now leads Gates’ agricultural research and development team. (A 2014 analysis by the research group Grain found that about 90% of $3 billion the Gates Foundation has spent to feed the poor in Africa has gone to wealthy nations, primarily universities and research centers.)

The public has a right to know if academics posing as independent sources are working behind the scenes with corporations and their PR firms on coordinated messaging campaigns to push a corporate agenda.

CAS takes the position in its petition that the public doesn’t have a right to know about the ties between industry PR operatives and 14 public scientists who have “contributed to the scientific consensus about the safety of GMOs.”

The Cornell petition is accompanied by a photo montage featuring Carl Sagan, Madame Curie, Albert Einstein and other deceased scientists who have not signed the petition, stamped with the slogan, “I stand with the #Science14” – a bit of PR flair that mirrors the dishonest propaganda used to oppose GMO labeling.

Aligning with industry PR writers

At an esteemed institution like Cornell, you might expect to find experts in science or ethics teaching communication courses that promise to restore scientific integrity to public discourse. Instead, at CAS, you will find experts in crisis management communication who specialize in opposing public health regulations.

For example, Trevor Butterworth, a visiting fellow at Cornell and director of Sense About Science (a “non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for sense about science!”) is partnering with CAS to teach students and scientists how to communicate with journalists about GMOs.

Butterworth has a long history of communicating science for the benefit of corporations wishing to keep their products unregulated. A 2009 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article by Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust about industry lobbying efforts on bisphenol A (BPA) identified him as a “chemical industry public relations writer.”

As an editor of STATS at George Mason University, Butterworth was a prolific defender of BPA who “regularly combs the Internet for stories about BPA and offers comments without revealing his ties to industry,” Kissinger and Rust wrote.

“STATS claims to be independent and nonpartisan. But a review of its financial reports shows it is a branch of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. That group was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco.” (The tobacco industry, they noted, was lobbying alongside the chemical industry to keep BPA unregulated.)

Butterworth has also promoted industry positions arguing against regulations for vinyl plastic and phthalates, fracking, high fructose corn syrup and sugary sodas.

He now partners with CAS to teach students how to communicate about GMOs, and CAS political director Lynas sits on the advisory board of Sense About Science.

Lynas’ work raises more questions: Why does a science group need a political director? And why would CAS choose Lynas for the role? Lynas is not a scientist but an environmental writer who rose to sudden fame after embracing GMOs, and his science has been critiqued at length by scientists, reporters and professors.

Depolarizing the GMO debate?

Corporations have been known to deploy outrageous messaging when their products run into trouble; examples include “DDT is good for me,” “More doctors smoke Camels” and the Dutch Boy campaign to promote lead paint to children.

A low point for chemical industry messaging was its PR campaign to paint “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson (and environmentalists in general) as murderers of millions of children in Africa for raising concerns about DDT.

That sort of messaging is making a comeback in the GMO debate.

In September 2015, the CAS Speakers Series hosted Owen Paterson, Member of Parliament from the UK, for a talk titled, “Check Your Green Privilege: It’s Not Environmentally Friendly to Allow Millions to Die.”

Paterson’s speech was filled with hyperbolic claims about GMOs that lack scientific rigor (GMOs “are in fact safer than conventionally bred crops … one of the most environmentally friendly advances this world has ever seen … can save millions of lives that today are squandered by the ideology of massively supported environmental campaign groups.”)

The speech garnered praise from the American Council on Science and Health, a well-known industry front group, in a blog by Dr. Gil Ross titled, “Billion Dollar Green Campaigns Kill Poor Children.”

Ross explained in the blog that the CAS Speakers Series was created, “to use facts to counter the perceived tendency of college students to follow the environmentalist mantra without too much thought… the concept of being afraid of genetic engineering is akin to looking under the bed for hobgoblins such as Godzilla, awakened by the atomic tests of the Cold War.”

Paterson and Ross are unhelpful to the image of scientific integrity CAS is trying to project. Ross is a convicted felon who spent time in jail for Medicaid fraud. Paterson, the former UK environment secretary, is widely seen as a climate change skeptic whose views are incompatible with science.

How are bloggers in Hawaii helping feed the poor in Africa?

 With its year round growing season, the Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for GMOs. They are also ground zero for concerns about pesticides associated with GMOs, and a key focus of industry’s pro-GMO propaganda campaigns and allies such as CAS.

Elif Bealle, executive director of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, has been active in grassroots efforts for pesticide reporting, bans and pesticide buffer zones around GMO crops. She has also been keeping an eye on CAS, which she said has been recruiting local bloggers and has associates on several of the Islands.

“They present themselves as ‘just concerned local residents’ or ‘neutral journalists.’ They are almost full time commenting on online newspaper articles, submitting, Community Voice Op-Eds, etc. Their blog posts are regularly picked up and disseminated by the biotech trade group website in Hawaii, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association,” Bealle said.

For example, Joni Kamiya, a CAS Global Leadership Fellow, uses her blog, Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter, to promote the “safety and science” of GMOs with messaging that glosses over science and disparages GMO critics.

Kamiya is also an “independent expert” for GMO Answers, a GMO PR website created by Ketchum PR firm and funded by agrichemical companies. Her articles are posted on Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project, which was also tapped to publish the GMO promotion papers assigned by Monsanto and written by professors.

Kamiya’s writing also appears on the home page of Kauai Farming and Jobs Coalition, a group with unknown funding that claims to “represent a wide range of individuals and organizations in our community” and promotes articles by Monsanto, Genetic Literacy Project and other food industry front groups such as the Center for Consumer Freedom.

Other CAS allies in the Islands include Lorie Farrell, a CAS associate who writes for GMO Answers and helped coordinate opposition to the GMO cultivation ban on the Big Island for Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United; and Joan Conrow, who has a consulting contract with Cornell and writes the confrontational blog Kauai Eclectic.

Their messaging follows a typical pattern: they claim a scientific consensus on GMO safety and attack people calling for transparency and safety as outsiders who are killing the “Aloha spirit” of the Islands.

Arming the conflict

In his article, “The War on Genetically Modified Food Critics,” Tufts Professor Timothy Wise takes the media to task for falling for industry PR tactics and incorrectly reporting the science on GMO as “settled.”

“What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign to … paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages,” Wise wrote.

One indicator of that campaign, he said, was the Gates Foundation award to Cornell to “depolarize” the debate over GM foods.

“The Gates Foundation is paying biotech scientists and advocates at Cornell to help them convince the ignorant and brainwashed public, who ‘may not be well informed,’ that they are ignorant and brainwashed … It’s kind of like depolarizing an armed conflict by giving one side more weapons,” Wise wrote.

Instead of arming the PR wars in service of industry, Cornell University should stand up for science by convening a more honest discussion about GMOs – one that acknowledges the risks as well as the benefits of genetically engineered foods.

One that refrains from attacking and instead seeks common ground with groups calling for transparency and health and safety standards.

CAS Director Dr. Evanega said her group does share common values around right to know and access to information, and she disputes the notion that CAS was formed to promote GMOs.

“So-called ‘GMOs’ are not a monolithic thing,” Dr. Evanega wrote in her blog. “For example, it makes no sense to cluster together such diverse technologies as bacteria engineered to produce insulin and papaya engineered to resist a virus. We support access — to innovation and the information that will help people make sound decisions based on science and evidence — not fear, emotions.”

Certainly GMOs are not a monolithic thing. That’s exactly why it is inaccurate and dishonest to claim that people are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than to be harmed by GMOs.

A science alliance that truly is about restoring integrity to science should illuminate a comprehensive record of research, not parrot the talking points of PR firms and corporate players.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. She is author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” (New Society Publishing, 2007). Stacy is a former reporter and newspaper publisher and longtime advocate for environmental health. She co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2002 and worked as communications director of Health Care Without Harm for eight years.

USDA Shirking Obligation to Give Consumers Clarity Over Herbicide Residues on Food

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When microbiologist Bruce Hemming was hired two years ago to test breast milk samples for residues of the key ingredient in the popular weed-killer Roundup, Hemming at first scoffed at the possibility. Hemming, the founder of St. Louis-based Microbe Inotech Laboratories, knew that the herbicidal ingredient called glyphosate was not supposed to accumulate in the human body. Hemming, who previously worked as a scientist for Roundup maker Monsanto Co., now operates a commercial testing facility located just a few miles from Monsanto’s headquarters.

But Hemming said his lab’s testing did find residues of glyphosate in the samples of breast milk he received from a small group of mothers who were worried that traces of the world’s most popular herbicide might be invading their bodies. Food companies, consumer groups, academics and others have also solicited testing for glyphosate residues, fueled by fears that prevalent use of the pesticide on genetically engineered food crops may be contributing to health problems as people eat foods containing glyphosate residues.

Those fears have been growing, stoked by some scientific studies that have shown health concerns tied to glyphosate, as well as data from the U.S. Department of Interior finding glyphosate in water and air samples. The concern surged last year after the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit said it had found enough scientific evidence to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Consumers groups have been calling on the U.S. government to test foods for glyphosate residues on behalf of the public, to try to determine what levels may be found and if those levels are dangerous. But so far those requests have fallen on deaf ears.

It would seem that would be an easy request to meet. After all, since 1991, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has conducted a “Pesticide Data Program” (PDP) that annually collects pesticide residue data for hundreds of pesticides. The testing looks for residues on a range of food products, including infant formula and other baby foods, and also looks for residues in drinking water. The purpose of the program is to “assure consumers that the food they feed their families is safe,” according to the USDA.

But while the USDA looks for residues of other herbicides, as well as fungicides and insecticides, the agency routinely does not test for glyphosate. It did one “special project” in  2011, testing 300 soybean samples for glyphosate, and found that 271 of the samples had residues. (The agency said all fell within the range deemed safe by the EPA.)  The agency has said testing for glyphosate is “not a high priority.”

In the latest annual PDP report — issued Jan. 11 — once again, glyphosate data is absent. Testing was done to look for residues of more than 400 different herbicides, insecticides and other pesticides on food products. But no tests reported for glyphosate.

The USDA says it is too expensive to test for glyphosate residues; much costlier than tests for the other 400+ pesticides that are part of the analysis, the agency says. The agency also echoes the position held by Monsanto that glyphosate is safe enough that trace amounts in food are nothing to worry about. (This begs the question: But how do we know there are only trace amounts, without the testing?) And all that World Health Organization talk of cancer connections to glyphosate? Monsanto hired its own experts who concluded that finding was wrong.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which sets the tolerance levels allowed for glyphosate and other pesticides has said glyphosate is safe at certain defined tolerance levels, and has actually raised those tolerance levels in recent years. At the same time, the EPA has been conducting a multi-year re-evaluation of glyphosate, its usage and impacts. The agency was due to release a risk assessment last year. In fact, EPA’s chief pesticide regulator Jim Jones said in May that assessment was nearly completed then and should be released by July 2015. But this week an EPA spokeswoman said the report would likely be made public “sometime later this year.”

The government pegged glyphosate use in the United States at nearly 300 million pounds for 2013, the most recent year the estimate is available. That was up from less than 20 million pounds in 1992. The rise in usage parallels the rise of crops genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant, meaning farmers can spray the herbicide directly on their fields and kill weeds but not their crops. Many key food crops are sprayed directly with glyphosate, including corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and even in some cases, wheat, though wheat has not been genetically engineered as glyphosate-tolerant.

“It is a scandal that USDA tests for hundreds of pesticide residues but not glyphosate, which is among the most widely used chemicals on our food crops,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer group. “Consumers want to know how much glyphosate is in our food.  Why won’t the USDA tell us? “

In a statement that accompanied the annual pesticide residue report, the EPA’s Jones lauded the data as an “important part of… our work to evaluate pesticide exposure from residues in food,” and said that “EPA is committed to a rigorous, science-based, and transparent regulatory program for pesticides that continues to protect people’s health and the environment.”

But given the health concerns raised by the World Health Organization and the rising use of this pesticide, consumers deserve better. It seems reasonable for the USDA to respect consumer concerns and make glyphosate residue testing a priority.

Carey Gillam is Research Director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and promotes transparency regarding the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. She has worked as a journalist, researcher and writer specializing in the food and agriculture for more than 20 years.