Internal documents released in August provide a rare look into the public relations machinery at Monsanto, and how the company tried to contain an investigation by U.S. Right to Know into its relationships with academics and other third parties who promote Monsanto products. USRTK, a small nonprofit research group focused on the food industry, has made numerous public records requests to taxpayer-funded universities and academics since 2015, leading to revelations about secretive industry collaborations.
The documents posted here show that Monsanto worried the “USRTK investigation will impact the entire industry” and had the “potential to be extremely damaging,” and so deployed 11 Monsanto employees, two PR firms, GMO Answers and other third-party allies to try to discredit the group. Monsanto also adopted a strategy to counter the reporting of Carey Gillam and her investigative book about the company’s herbicide business. Gillam is research director at USRTK.
“Monsanto had a ‘Carey Gillam Book’ spreadsheet, with more than 20 actions dedicated to opposing her book before its publication, including working to ‘Engage Pro-Science Third Parties’ in criticisms, and partnering with ‘SEO experts’ to spread its attacks,” reported Sam Levin in the Guardian. Monsanto also investigated singer Neil Young, the documents reveal.
- More coverage: video interviews on Democracy Now and Carey Gillam’s op-ed in The Guardian; “I’m a journalist. Monsanto built a step-by-step strategy to destroy my reputation”
Update: New documents posted August 18 reveal more details about Monsanto’s covert public relations operations, including how the company deployed allies to write letters and op-eds to criticize the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) over its classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen — materials that were intended to look like they originated outside Monsanto. Other documents discuss “media training” for farmers and others who could push Monsanto talking points as independent third parties, and communications showing FTI Consulting, which had Monsanto as a client, discussing with U.S. House of Representatives staff how to insert language into legislation that would cut funding to IARC. See coverage of the new documents in The Intercept, “Emails show Monsanto orchestrated GOP efforts to intimidate cancer researchers.”
Monsanto’s plan to discredit USRTK: internal documents and key themes
Monsanto was deeply worried about USRTK Co-director Gary Ruskin’s FOIA investigation, and had an elaborate plan to counteract it.
Monsanto was concerned that the FOIAs would uncover its influence in the regulatory and policy process, payments to academics and their universities, and collaborations with academics in support of industry public relations goals. Monsanto wanted to protect its reputation and “freedom to operate,” and to “position” the investigation as “an attack on scientific integrity and academic freedom.”
- “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry, and we will need to coordinate closely with BIO and CBI/GMOA throughout the planning process and on any eventual responses,” according to Monsanto’s “U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan” dated July 25, 2019. BIO is the biotech industry trade association and Council for Biotechnology Information/GMO Answers is a marketing program to promote GMOs run by Ketchum PR firm and funded by the largest agrichemical companies – BASF, Bayer (which now owns Monsanto), Corteva (a division of DowDuPont) and Syngenta.
The companies have pitched GMO Answers as a transparency initiative to answer questions about GMOs with the voices of “independent experts,” however the documents described here, along with a previously released Monsanto PR plan, suggest that Monsanto relies on GMO Answers as a vehicle to push the company’s messaging.
From page 2, “Monsanto Company Confidential … U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan”
- “Any situation related to this issue has the potential to be extremely damaging, regardless of how benign the information may seem,” according to a GMO Answers Communications Plan in the document (page 23).
- “*Worst case scenario*”: “Egregious email illustrates what would be the smoking gun of the industry (e.g. email shows expert/company covering up unflattering research or showing GMOs are dangerous/harmful)” (page 26)
- The plan called for triggering “emergency calls” with the GMO Answers steering committee if the reach/escalation were serious enough. (page 23)
- In some cases, Monsanto employees expected access to documents before U.S. Right to Know, even though USRTK requested the documents through state FOI. For UC Davis requests: “We will have a pre-release view of documents”. (page 3)
- 11 Monsanto employees from 5 departments; two staffers from the trade group BIO and a staffer from GMO Answers/Ketchum were listed as “key contacts” in the plan (page 4). Two employees from FleishmanHillard were involved in assembling the plan (see agenda email).
Monsanto was also concerned about Carey Gillam’s book and tried to discredit it.
Several of the newly released documents relate to Monsanto’s efforts to counteract the reporting of Carey Gillam and her book that investigates the company’s herbicide business: “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science” (Island Press, 2017). Gillam is a former reporter for Reuters and current research director of U.S. Right to Know.
The documents include Monsanto’s 20-page “Issues Management / Communication Strategy” for Gillam’s book, with eight Monsanto staffers assigned to preparing for the October 2017 release of Gillam’s book. The strategy was to “minimize media coverage and publicity of this book this summer/fall by pointing to “truths” regarding farming …”
An Excel spreadsheet titled “Project Spruce: Carey Gillam Book” describes 20 action items, with plans including paid placement for a post to appear on Google with a search for “Monsanto glyphosate Carey Gillam,” generating negative book reviews, and plans to “engage regulatory authorities” and “Pro-Science Third Parties,” including Sense About Science, Science Media Centre, the Global Farmer Network and the “Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research,” a project of the American Chemistry Council.
The documents reveal the existence of the Monsanto Corporate Engagement Fusion Center.
Monsanto planned to “Work with the Fusion Center to monitor USRTK digital properties, the volume and sentiment related to USRTK/FOIA, as well as audience engagement.” (page 9) For more about corporate fusion centers, see:
- “Revealed: how Monsanto’s ‘intelligence center’ targeted journalists and activists,” by Sam Levin, The Guardian (8.8.2019)
- “Banks Adopt Military-Style Tactics to Fight Cybercrime,” by Stacy Cowley, New York Times (5.20.2018)
Monsanto makes frequent references to working with third parties to counteract USRTK.
- Deliverables in a “Comprehensive USRTK FOIA Preparedness and Reactive Plan” dated May 15, 2016 included plans for a “Third Party Content Creation (Forbes post);” an agenda to discuss the plan refers to “Proactive Training for independent experts via GMOA [GMO Answers]” and “allergenicity materials” including an infographic and blog/op eds to be “organized by MON distributed by GMOA”.
- Action items for “industry alignment” in the 2019 plan included requesting “online positioning” from the Center for Food Integrity, International Food Information Council, Crop Life America, Crop Life International, Ketchum PR and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (page 6).
Others mentioned in the plans included:
- Genetic Literacy Project Executive Director Jon Entine (“Determine how to amplify Entine first person essays”) (page 6)
- Rob Horsch, a former Monsanto employee of 30 years and now deputy director of agricultural research and development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (“consider asking Robb [Fraley] to engage Horsch”) (page 6)
- Monsanto’s former communications director Jay Byrne (pages 5 and 6)
- Henry I. Miller (“Potential tag along piece from Henry Miller, others?” for “defending PPPs.”) (page 29 of 2016 plan) Monsanto’s ghostwriting for Henry Miller was exposed by the New York Times in 2017: “Monsanto Emails Raise Issue of Influencing Research on Roundup Weed Killer,” by Danny Hakim.
Monsanto’s campaign to counteract the U.S. Right to Know public records investigation
Monsanto U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan 2019
July 25, 2019: Monsanto’s 31-page strategy plan to counteract the FOIA investigation. “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry…. Any situation related to this issue has the potential to be extremely damaging…”
Monsanto USRTK FOIA meeting agenda
May 15, 2016: Agenda for a meeting to discuss the USRTK FOIAs with eight Monsanto and two FTI Consulting employees.
Monsanto Comprehensive USRTK FOIA Preparedness and Reactive Plan 2016
May 15, 2016: Earlier draft of the Monsanto strategy to deal with the FOIAs (35 pages).
Monsanto response to FOIA article
February 1, 2016: Monsanto employees crafted a communications plan to provide a “10,000 foot view” of how Monsanto works with public sector scientists and/or provides funding to public sector programs – but not details about which universities they fund or how much. The plan responded to an article Carey Gillam wrote for USRTK, based on documents obtained by FOIA, reporting on undisclosed Monsanto funding to University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy.
- September 2015: Discussion about “unfortunate” language used by an industry representative to communicate with academics and whether AgBioChatter, a list serve of academics and industry reps, was private or confidential. Karl Haro von Mogel of the GMO promotion group Biofortified advised AgBioChatter members to take “the Ruskin Cleanse” of their private emails to prevent damaging disclosures via FOIA.
- Bruce Chassy shared with the AgBioChatter list his responses to a fact checker for Mother Jones (“I plan to respond without providing the requested information”) and his correspondence with Carey Gillam in response to her queries for Reuters about his industry ties.
Monsanto’s plans to discredit Carey Gillam’s Book
“Monsanto Company Confidential Issues Management / Communication Strategy” for Carey Gillam’s Book (October 2017)
“Project Spruce: Carey Gillam Book” Excel spreadsheet with 20 action items (September 11, 2017)
Monsanto and FTI Consulting employees discuss the Gillam action plan (September 11, 2017)
Monsanto push back on Reuters editors
October 1, 2015: Email from Monsanto’s Sam Murphey: “We continue to push back on her editors very strongly every chance we get. And we all hope for the day she gets reassigned.”
Roundup “Reputation Management”
Reputation Management for Roundup 2014
February 2014: “L&G Reputation Management Sessions Summary, Lyon Feb. 2014” Power Point, with slides that describe what “we want to be known for / we want to avoid being linked with,” and what’s needed to win the argument about glyphosate safety. “Question… are we just managing and delaying decline (like tobacco)?”
Roundup reputation management slide 2014:
Background on U.S. Right to Know investigations
U.S. Right to Know is a non-profit investigative research group focused on the food industry. Since 2015, we have obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of corporate and regulatory documents via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), U.S. state and international public records requests, and whistleblowers. These documents shine light on how food and agrichemical companies work behind the scenes with publicly funded academics and universities, front groups, regulatory agencies and other third party allies to promote their products and lobby for deregulation.
News coverage based on documents from USRTK Co-director Gary Ruskin’s investigation of the agrichemical industry:
- New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, by Eric Lipton
- Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Connection, by Laura Krantz
- The Guardian: UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk, by Arthur Neslen
- CBC: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties, by Jason Warick
- CBC: U of S Defends Prof’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree, by Jason Warick
- Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War, by Tom Philpott
- Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby, by Allison Vuchnich
- Le Monde: La discrète influence de Monsanto, by Stéphane Foucart.
- The Progressive: Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media — and Discourages Criticism, by Paul Thacker
- Freedom of the Press Foundation: How corporations suppress disclosure of public records about themselves, by Camille Fassett
- WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding?, by Monica Eng
- Saskatoon Star Phoenix: Group Questions U of S Prof’s Monsanto Link, by Jason Warick
For more information about the U.S. Right to Know documents, see our investigations page, examples of global news coverage and academic papers based on the documents. Many of the documents are posted in the free, searchable UCSF Industry Documents Library.
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