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.

Fearful Food Industry Jeopardizing Public’s Right to Information

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I just don’t get it.

Over the more than 20 years I have worked as a business journalist, I’ve always been motivated by a simple premise: Knowledge is power, and that power belongs with the public. The spread of information that people can use to make decisions – what to buy, what to eat, where to invest, etc. – helps support and promote the principles of freedom and democracy, I believe.

That’s why the fear and loathing emanating from the food industry over the public’s right to information about the food they consume is so hard for me to grasp.

As we kick off 2016 the leaders of many of the nation’s largest and most powerful food companies are doubling down on their commitment to block mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered crops, and they are seeking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s help to do so. The issue has become urgent for the industry as what would be the nation’s first mandatory labeling measure is set to go into effect July 1 in Vermont. The industry has thus far failed to convince a federal court to block the law’s implementation, though the fight could go to trial this spring.

Citizens in many other states continue to try to pass similar mandatory labeling measures. A GMO label would allow a consumer to know at a glance information that many consider important. Given that knowledge, some people might shy away from GMO-labeled foods; others may not care. Some may seek out GMO-labeled foods if they feel they provide special value or are helping “feed the world,” as GMO seed developers such as Monsanto Co. claim.  But the public’s right to that knowledge – to that decision-making ability – terrifies many in an industry that generates sales of roughly $2.1 trillion annually. The fear is so strong that they have enlisted teams of legal and public relations professionals to help try to convince regulators and federal lawmakers to override Vermont’s law and prohibit any future laws like it.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose members include PepsiCo., Kellogg Co. and hundreds of other large food companies, leads the charge against GMO labeling, saying it would be too costly to implement and is unnecessary because GMOs are proven safe. The organization says it is “hopeful that compromise will establish a uniform national standard for foods made with genetically engineered crops.” The group recently put forth a proposed initiative that would add barcodes to products that consumers could scan with their smartphones to access information. But whether or not the presence of GMO ingredients would ever be required to be included in that information is unclear.

Those fighting for mandatory labeling include members of the organic and natural foods industry, but also consumer groups, environmentalists and lots of regular moms and dads who want to know what they are feeding their children. Many of these labeling supporters cite pesticide residues on GMO foods as a concern, and contradictory science on the safety of GMOs. Some opponents say they don’t want to buy products that they feel contribute to corporate control of the world’s food supply. A barcode won’t cut it, many of the leading GMO labeling proponents say.  They point to a national survey conducted in November by the Mellman Group that concluded 88 percent of people want a printed GMO label rather than having to use a smartphone app to scan a bar code.

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack looks set to sit down with representatives from both sides of the issue in January to try to forge a compromise if one can be found. Both sides say they are willing to meet in the middle. Millions of dollars have been spent lobbying for and against labeling and fighting the issue out in the courts, and both sides are weary of the war. Details of the discussions to be held are being kept confidential, according to some participants, to give the process the greatest chance of success.

As the discussions loom, we should not lose sight of the fact that this issue – and many others – come down to the power of information, and the critical nature of who controls that information.  Those companies developing and profiting from GMOs have the information they need to patent their creations and track where and how they are used. Farmers planting GMOs are provided a range of information about the seeds, their limitations and their benefits, and can easily choose non-GMO seeds because varieties are labeled and tracked. Systems are in place to allow food manufacturers to know whether or not they are purchasing ingredients made from GMO crops. It seems consumers are the only ones left out of the information pipeline.

Indeed, some advocating against GMO labeling argue that consumers aren’t smart enough to understand or use GMO labeling information effectively. They argue that consumers are being conned into fearing GMOs. In a Dec. 27 blog posting opposing GMO labeling, GMO supporters Jon Entine and retired University of Illinois professor Bruce Chassy wrote of consumers “who can’t define what a GMO is” and said that pro-labeling efforts are driven by “small groups of well-financed professional activists.” Chassy and Entine argue that these “activists” use “misinformation and fear-mongering to whip up support for their agenda.”

Such pro-GMO advocates may hope consumers also are not well informed about their connections to the corporate food industry. Chassy doesn’t mention in that blog, for instance, that for years while working as a professor of food safety at the University of Illinois, he collaborated quietly with Monsanto executives on multiple projects aimed at countering concerns about health and environmental impacts of GMOs. Monsanto has acknowledged that it provided several unrestricted grants to the biotechnology outreach program that Chassy helped lead, but said there was nothing improper about the relationship.

That is information some might want to know. But it only became public after the non-profit group U.S. Right to Know obtained emails between Chassy and several other university professors and Monsanto, and shared them with media outlets.

Another batch of emails recently disclosed shows discussions between Kevin Folta, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, and a public relations agency about how to counter a Canadian teenager who developed a website questioning the safety of genetically modified foods. Folta also received grant money from Monsanto.

I don’t know about you, but this is all information I think is important. Knowing what goes on behind the scenes helps me make decisions about who I trust and what I believe about the food I buy for myself and my family. As a journalist I’ve been fortunate enough to get behind those scenes a time or two myself: I’ve toured Monsanto’s laboratories, visited Dow AgroSciences’ test plots; and spent more time than I can calculate with farmers in their fields. I’ve also spent countless hours with scientists on both sides of this debate; waded through stacks of legal and regulatory documents; and sat down with government regulators to talk over the myriad issues.

The knowledge I have gained leaves me straddling the fence a bit. I see benefits to GMOs, and I see risks. And I know with certainty that I want more information, not less.

Whatever one’s views are about GMOs, or other aspects of the food industry, the right to information is essential, and not one to be abridged.

Carey Gillam 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, and appearing as an expert commentator on radio and television broadcasts. After a 17-year career at Reuters, one of the world’s largest news organizations, Gillam joined U.S. Right to Know as Research Director on Jan. 4.

Journalists Fail to Reveal Sources Funded by Coca-Cola: A Short Report

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During the investigation and subsequent collapse of the Coca-Cola front group Global Energy Balance Network, the New York Times and Associated Press discovered that prominent university professors working on obesity issues had been funded by The Coca-Cola Company.

This is not just a public health scandal.  It is a journalistic one as well.

Journalists have quoted two of these professors at least 30 times in news articles, after the professors had received their Coca-Cola funding, but without mentioning that funding in their articles.  Many of the news outlets that published these articles are influential, such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Boston Globe, The Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek and National Public Radio.

It is a conflict of interest for professors working on obesity issues to accept funding from Coca-Cola. There is now substantial medical evidence that soda and the soda industry – and especially Coca-Cola and PepsiCo – are in part responsible for our nation’s obesity epidemic, and increase the incidence of diabetes and heart disease.

If a professor takes money from one of these soda companies, that is crucial context for their views on obesity, and journalists disserve their readers by failing to report it. Readers need to know who pays sources to evaluate the legitimacy and biases of these sources.

The net effect of quoting these professors without disclosing their Coca-Cola funding is to unfairly enhance their credibility, while undermining the credibility of public health and consumer advocates.

This short report reviews news coverage quoting two leaders of the Coca-Cola front group Global Energy Balance Network: Professors James O. Hill and Steven N. Blair.

James O. Hill was president of the Global Energy Balance Network.  He is a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado, and director of their Center for Human Nutrition.  According to Associated Press, Professor Hill wrote privately to a Coca-Cola executive, “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”

According to the New York Times, Coca-Cola “last year gave an ‘unrestricted monetary gift’ of $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation … the university said that Coca-Cola had provided the money ‘for the purposes of funding’ the Global Energy Balance Network.”

According to Associated Press, “Since 2010, Coke said it gave $550,000 to Hill that was unrelated to the [Global Energy Balance Network] group. A big part of that was research he and others were involved with, but the figure also covers travel expenses and fees for speaking engagements and other work.”

Steven N. Blair was vice president of the Global Energy Balance Network.  He is a professor at the Arnold School of Public Health, in the departments of exercise science and epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina.  According to the New York Times, when Professor Blair was announcing the Global Energy Balance Network, he made the following incorrect claim: “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on… And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

According to the New York Times, “Dr. Blair had received more than $3.5 million in funding from Coke for research projects since 2008.”

Following is a list of 30 news articles written after Professors Hill and Blair received funding from Coca-Cola (after January 1, 2011 for Hill, and January 1, 2009 for Blair) in which journalists failed to disclose that Professors Hill and Blair were funded by Coca-Cola.

  1. Los Angeles Times: Steps, Time, Distance: However Measured, Walking Can Reach Health Goals. By Mary MacVean, September 6, 2013.
  2. Los Angeles Times: ‘Fed Up’ Documentary Lays Blame for American Obesity on Food Industry. By Mary MacVean, May 9, 2014.
  3. Los Angeles Times: Obesity Rates in U.S. Appear to Be Finally Leveling Off. By Shari Roan, January 17, 2012.
  4. Los Angeles Times: Halloween’s Dilemma: Candy vs. Healthful Treats. By Karen Ravn, October 31, 2011.
  5. Los Angeles Times: Swimming with the Fittest? By Judy Foreman, July 19, 2010.
  6. Los Angeles Times: Stay Moving, Not Still. By Jeannine Stein, July 13, 2009.
  7. Los Angeles Times: Cities Try To Cut The Fat With Weight-Loss Programs. By Karen Ravn, January 31, 2011.
  8. USA Today: Retirement: The Payoffs of an Active Lifestyle. By Nanci Hellmich, April 16, 2015.
  9. USA Today: Holiday Weight Gain Isn’t Inevitable. By Nanci Hellmich, December 2, 2013.
  10. USA Today: Flex Your Metabolism and Melt Off Pounds. By Nanci Hellmich, August 19, 2013.
  11. USA Today: Adidas MiCoach, Nike+, Sensor Devices Get People Exercising. By Janice Lloyd, January 27, 2010.
  12. USA Today: Americans Fighting Fat, But Odds Stacked Against Them. By Nanci Hellmich, November 5, 2012.
  13. National Public Radio (NPR): How We Store Food at Home Could Be Linked to How Much We Eat. By Angus Chen, May 19, 2015.
  14. National Public Radio (NPR): Exercise Studies Find Good News For the Knees. By Allison Aubrey, September 5, 2009.
  15. National Public Radio (NPR): Sitting All Day: Worse For You Than You Might Think. By Patti Neighmond, April 25, 2011.
  16. U.S. News and World Report: What Do Coloradans Know About Fitness That You Don’t? By Elisa Zied, October 8, 2013.
  17. U.S. News and World Report: How to Sit Less and Move More. By Elisa Zied, September 11, 2013.
  18. Boston Globe: Want to Get in Shape? Just Move! By Gareth Cook, January 22, 2012.
  19. Boston Globe: Healthy Steps. By Deborah Kotz, June 27, 2011.
  20. The Atlantic Monthly: How Obesity Became a Disease. By Harriet Brown, March 24, 2015.
  21. Forbes: The 6 Weight-Loss Tips That Science Actually Knows Work. By Alice G. Walton, September 4, 2013.
  22. Forbes: How A Model Figured Out Childhood Obesity. By Trevor Butterworth, August 22, 2013.
  23. Newsweek: Viagra the New Weight Loss Pill? By Trevor Butterworth, January 29, 2013.
  24. The Atlantic Monthly: The Perfected Self. By David H. Freedman, June 2012.
  25. New York Times: Tossing Out the Diet and Embracing the Fat. By Mandy Katz, July 15, 2009.
  26. Washington Post: Is It Possible To Be Fit and Fat? By Rachael Rattner and Live Science, December 16, 2013.
  27. Associated Press (AP): Study Says Even Being a Bit Overweight Is Risky. By Stephanie Nano, December 1, 2010.
  28. Denver Post: Combating Obesity on Several Fronts Helps Reverse Trend in Colorado. By Ally Marotti, August 7, 2013.
  29. Charleston Post and Courier: Study Links Obesity to Work. By David Slade, May 28, 2011.
  30. Peoria Journal-Star: Sedentary Behavior Is a Health Risk That Needs to Be Addressed at All Ages. By Steve Tarter, July 24, 2015.

Why did so many reporters and news outlets fail to disclose the conflicts of interest of these two prominent professors?

How can we prevent similar journalistic failures in the future? One answer is clear: reporters and editors must be on their guard for corporate-funded professors who pose as issue experts but are really acting as mouthpieces for food companies like Coca-Cola.

Readers, too, should be aware that some influential news outlets do not always disclose their sources’ conflicts of interest, which makes their coverage of food and agriculture issues less fair and credible.  It gives readers a legitimate reason to be skeptical of some mainstream media coverage of food and agriculture issues because of pro-industry biases sometimes contained in it.

In November, we wrote a similar report about how journalists failed to disclose sources’ ties to the agrichemical giant Monsanto. Both of these reports highlight the same problem: academics who appear in the media as independent sources when they are actually taking money from companies to promote particular views. Journalists have a responsibility to know and to reveal if their sources are working on behalf of industry.

Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding from Monsanto: A Short Report

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Following a Columbia Journalism Review article on whether science journalists should accept money from corporate interests, and whether there is adequate disclosure of sources’ corporate ties and conflicts of interest, U.S. Right to Know reviewed recent articles to assess how often journalists and columnists quote academic sources without stating that they are funded by the agrichemical giant Monsanto, which produces pesticides and GMOs.

Our review found 27 articles quoting (or authored by) university professors after they received Monsanto funding, but without disclosing that funding.

This is a collapse of journalistic standards. When reporters quote sources about food issues such as GMOs or organic food, readers deserve to know if the sources have been funded by Monsanto or have other conflicts of interest.

The principal effect of failing to reveal these conflicts of interest is to unfairly enhance the credibility of Monsanto-funded academics, and their support of GMOs and criticism of organic food, while detracting from the credibility of consumer advocates.

Our review found that many top media outlets quoted either University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta or University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy without disclosing that the professors received funding from Monsanto. According to documents published by the New York Times, Professor Folta received Monsanto funding in August 2014, and Professor Chassy in October 2011, if not before.

Many of these journalistic failures occurred at influential news outlets: newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune; science publications such as Nature, Science Insider and Discover; magazines such as the New Yorker, Wired and The Atlantic; as well as broadcast outlets like ABC and NPR.

Following is a list of news articles quoting (or authored by) Professors Folta and Chassy — after they received their Monsanto funding – but failing to disclose that they had received the Monsanto funding.

  1. New York Times: Taking on the Food Industry, One Blog Post at a Time. By Courtney Rubin, March 13, 2015. (Also ran in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.)
  2. New York Times: Foes of Modified Corn Find Support in a Study. By Andrew Pollack, September 19, 2012.
  3. Washington Post: Kraft Mac & Cheese Just Got Duller. You Can Thank (Or Blame) ‘The Food Babe.’ By Michael E. Miller, April 21, 2015. (Also ran in the Chicago Tribune.)
  4. Washington Post: Proof He’s the Science Guy: Bill Nye Is Changing His Mind About GMOs. By Puneet Kollipara, March 3, 2015.
  5. Nature: GM-Crop Opponents Expand Probe Into Ties Between Scientists and Industry. By Keith Kloor, August 6, 2015.
  6. NPR: Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out. By Maria Godoy, February 10, 2015.
  7. New Yorker: The Operator. By Michael Specter, February 4, 2013.
  8. The Atlantic: The Food Babe: Enemy of Chemicals. By James Hamblin, February 11, 2015.
  9. Wired: Anti-GMO Activist Seeks to Expose Scientists Emails with Big Ag. By Alan Levinovitz, February 23, 2015.
  10. ABC News: Scientists Developing Hypo-Allergenic Apples. By Gillian Mohney, March 22, 2013.
  11. Science Insider: Agricultural Researchers Rattled by Demands for Documents from Group Opposed to GM Foods. By Keith Kloor, February 11, 2015.
  12. Columbia Journalism Review: Why Scientists Often Hate Records Requests. By Anna Clark, February 25, 2015.
  13. Discover: Open Letter to Bill Nye from a Plant Scientist. By Keith Kloor, November 10, 2014.
  14. Discover: How to Balance Transparency with Academic Freedom? By Keith Kloor, February 27, 2015.
  15. Discover: Anti-GMO Group Seeks Emails from University Scientists. By Keith Kloor, February 11, 2015.
  16. Forbes: Zombie Retracted Séralini GMO Maize Rat Study Republished To Hostile Scientist Reactions. By Jon Entine, June 24, 2014.
  17. Forbes: Did The New Yorker Botch Puff Piece On Frog Scientist Tyrone Hayes, Turning Rogue into Beleaguered Hero? By Jon Entine, March 10, 2014.
  18. Forbes: You Can Put Lipstick On A Pig (Study), But It Still Stinks. By Bruce M. Chassy and Henry I. Miller, July 17, 2013.
  19. Forbes: Anti-GMO Scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini, Activist Jeffrey Smith Withdraw from Food Biotech Debate. By Jon Entine, May 29, 2013.
  20. Forbes: Malpractice On Dr. Oz: Pop Health Expert Hosts Anti-GM Food Rant; Scientists Push Back. By Jon Entine, October 19, 2012.
  21. Forbes: Scientists Smell a Rat In Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study. By Henry I. Miller and Bruce Chassy, September 25, 2012.
  22. Forbes: The Science of Things That Aren’t So. By Bruce Chassy and Henry I. Miller, February 22, 2012.
  23. Des Moines Register: Consumers Are Misled About Organic Safety. By John Block, October 10, 2014.
  24. Gainesville Sun: Genetically Modified Foods Face Hurdles. By Jeff Schweers, June 29, 2014.
  25. Peoria Journal Star: Hybrid Crops That Used to Offer Resistance to Rootworm No Match for Mother Nature. By Steve Tarter, June 21, 2014.
  26. Gawker: The “Food Babe” Blogger Is Full of Shit. By Yvette d’Entremont, April 6, 2015.
  27. Louis Post-Dispatch: California Labeling Fight May Raise Food Prices for All of Us. By David Nicklaus, August 19, 2012.

This is merely one example of two professors who were not identified as received funding from Monsanto, and yet these two professors received major traction in the media as “independent” experts on GMOs and organics. The only reason the professors admitted to receiving Monsanto funding was due to emails uncovered by Freedom of Information Act requests filed by U.S. Right to Know, a consumer group.

How often does it happen that journalists present other academics funded by food or agrichemical companies as “independent” sources and without disclosing their corporate funding?

One remedy for this problem is that when journalists write about food, that they carefully ask their sources whether they have any conflicts of interest, where they get their funding from, and whether they receive any funding from food or agrichemical companies like Monsanto, or their PR front groups.

That, however, may not be enough. Professor Kevin Folta received Monsanto funding, yet repeatedly denied ties to or funding from Monsanto. Reporters – and readers — should be aware that such deceit by Monsanto-funded academics has recently occurred, and be on their guard against it.

A Short Report on Journalists Mentioned in our FOIA Requests

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Also see: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a conflict of interest?  
Washington Post Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto 

On September 23rd, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel admitted to receiving “plenty” of money from pro-agrichemical industry sources.

Following her admission, I thought it might be useful to report on journalists – including Haspel — mentioned in the documents we have received from state public records requests.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation of the food and agrichemical industries, their PR firms and front groups, and the professors who speak for them.

So far, three reporters come up in interesting ways: Amy Harmon, Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. These reporters appear in the context of Jon Entine, who is perhaps the leading PR operative working to promote the views of the agrichemical industry, and its pesticides and GMOs.

Entine is founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, which, along with the PR firm Ketchum’s GMO Answers, are the agrichemical industry’s two most visible front groups. Entine is also founder and president of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included the agrichemical giant Monsanto.

Amy Harmon

Amy Harmon is a reporter for the New York Times.  She was part of a Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and in 2008 she won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.

On September 23, 2013 at 7:44pm, Jon Entine emailed Renee Kester: “FYI, I think I’ve talked Amy Harmon into doing a Hawaii Hawaii [sic] story. . .  and I gave her your and Kirby’s email information, so she may call at some point if she indeed pursues this.” Kirby Kester is president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, an agrichemical industry front group.

On January 4, 2014, the New York Times published a front-page article by Amy Harmon, titled “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.” The story is datelined from Kona, Hawaii.

In 2014, Harmon won second place for the Society of Environmental Journalists “Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market” for “The Facts About GMOs,” a series that included the article “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.”

On September 30th, Harmon is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote GMOs. The group is running a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Slate and other outlets.  Kloor has written many pro-GMO articles that have been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

Kloor is mentioned in two places in the FOIA documents.

In one email, Jon Entine refers to Keith Kloor as a “very good friend of mine”.

In another email, on October 18, 2014, Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University, emails Adrianne Massey of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), along with several others, to forward an alert from Lorraine Thelian, vice chairman of the PR firm Ketchum that “the hacker community Anonymous is planning a series of attacks on biotechnology and food industry websites…Trade association and corporate websites of CBI [Council for Biotechnology Information] members are being targeted in this planned attack.”  Dr. Prakash writes, “Adrianne I have copied Kevin Folta, Karl von Mogel, David Tribe and Keith Kloor here as well.”

Dr. Prakash cc’d the email to Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy (agrichemical industry advocate) Val Giddings (former VP of BIO), Henry Miller (agrichemical industry advocate), Drew Kershen (agrichemical industry advocate), Klaus Ammann, Piet van der Meer, Martina Newell-McGloughlin (agrichemical industry advocate), Karl Haro von Mogel (member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified, a pro-GMO website), Kevin Folta (agrichemical industry advocate), Keith Kloor and David Tribe (agrichemical industry advocate).

Keith Kloor was the only journalist who received this email.

The email implies that Kloor works closely with the agrichemical industry’s prominent advocates.

Kloor has written three articles that were critical of U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests, in Science Insider, Discover and Nature.

On March 23rd, 2015, Kloor gave a talk for the Cornell Alliance for Science, which is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Tamar Haspel

Tamar Haspel is a columnist at the Washington Post.  She has written many columns for the Post defending or praising GMOs that have later been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

In 2015, Haspel won the James Beard Foundation Award for her Post columns.

In June 2014, Haspel spoke to a pro-industry conference about “How can scientists best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public?”  The conference was coordinated by Jon Entine and Cami Ryan, who is currently social sciences lead for Monsanto.  The conference was led by two agrichemical industry front groups, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, along with the University of Florida, which receives major funding from agrichemical companies, as noted in a September 6 article in the New York Times.

Haspel also moderated a panel organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which “provides long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina through support of biotechnology research, business, education and strategic policy statewide.”

In a September 23 chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Ms. Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” Later that day, I asked Ms. Haspel on Twitter how much money she had received from the agrichemical industry and its front groups.  She replied, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!

Is it appropriate for a Washington Post columnist to write glowing columns about GMOs while appearing at such pro-industry conferences?  Is it a conflict of interest for Haspel to accept money from agrichemical company interests that she covers as part of her beat as a Post food columnist?  How much money has Haspel received from agrichemical industry interests?

Some journalists have criticized journalists for “buckraking” on speakers’ circuits. For example, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said, “I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.”

Haspel wrote in the Washington Post that she will only speak at events where “if for-profit companies are involved in the event (which they often are), they can’t be the only voice.  So, I will speak at a conference co-sponsored by, say, Monsanto and the USDA and NC State University, but not an event sponsored by Monsanto alone.”  However, at the June 2014, conference at which Haspel spoke, no consumer advocates were slated to speak, only pro-industry advocates.

On October 16, Haspel is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO group that is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Haspel has been critical of the U.S. Right to Know FOIA requests.  On August 17, on Twitter, she wrote: “The money/time/brainpower wasted on @garyruskin’s mean-spirited, self-interested attack on @kevinfolta! Can we move on to something useful?” Others did not agree with her news judgment.  On September 6th, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton wrote an article largely based on our FOIA requests – especially of University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta – which ran on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. The article revealed how Folta, who repeatedly denied ties to Monsanto, in fact had received an undisclosed $25,000 grant, as well as writing assignments from the company, and worked closely with it and its PR firm Ketchum, which ghostwrote text for him and organized media and lobbying meetings for him.

U.S. Right to Know is a consumer advocacy group.  We try to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know.  We believe it is useful for the public to see how the food and agrichemical companies do their public relations work.  That is one way we can help consumers to assess the claims and information they receive from the companies involved in our food production, their PR firms and operatives, and the journalists who work with them.

Our Investigation of Big Food and its Front Groups

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Update: This blog has been updated to include a running list of news stories and commentary generated by our ongoing investigation.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation into the collusion betwUSRTK_FOIArequestsAgroChemical_1een Big Food, its front groups, and university faculty and staff to deliver industry PR to the public. That investigation is ongoing.  Thus far, it has been fruitful, as today’s New York Times article shows.

The Times article links to emails obtained via state Freedom of Information Act requests filed by U.S. Right to Know. These emails reveal how Monsanto and its partners use so-called “independent” third-party scientists and professors to deliver their PR messaging. Since the companies themselves are not credible messengers, they use these scientists and professors as sock-puppets to shape the media narrative on food issues, particularly GMOs.

This is a key part of Big Food’s PR strategy.  The agrichemical and food industries are spending vast sums of money to convince the public that their food, crops, GMOs, additives and pesticides are safe, desirable and healthy.

U.S. Right to Know has filed state Freedom of Information Acts requests to try to obtain the emails and documents of 43 public university faculty and staff, to learn more about this public relations effort.  Thus far, we have received documents in nine of these requests.  So, most of the documents are likely still to come.  Some may arrive next week, others may perhaps take a year or even more to arrive.

We have requested records from scientists, economists, law professors, extension specialists and communicators.  All work in public institutions, funded by the taxpayers.  We believe the public deserves to know more about the flow of money and level of coordination between public university scientists and other academics, and the agrichemical and food companies whose interests they promote.

We have a right to know what’s in our food, and how companies attempt to influence our views about it. Yet some find transparency so threatening that they equate consumer campaigns with vile dictatorships – as in a recent Facebook post that featured my picture alongside that of Stalin and Hitler. Others have compared our work to “terrorism” and us to “terrorists.”

Transparency – and investigative reporting about our food – is the core of what we do here are U.S. Right to Know.

We believe in the words of James Madison, who wrote: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Finally, a brief word about University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta.  The most important findings in today’s New York Times article are about the PR efforts of Monsanto and the agrichemical industry.  But it is worth pointing out that Professor Folta repeatedly denied – falsely – having ties to Monsanto or having accepted funds from Monsanto.  For example, Professor Folta has stated:

Professor Folta has also falsely claimed he never used the text written for him by the PR firm Ketchum.

At best, these statements by Professor Folta are misleading, and some of them are untruthful. Yet, as the emails released today reveal, Folta has been in close contact with Monsanto and the industry’s PR firm Ketchum, recently received a $25,000 unrestricted grant from Monsanto, and even wrote to a Monsanto executive, “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.” (Also see our Feb. 2015 letter to Professor Folta about our FOIA requests.)

Professor Folta aside, it is also important to note that our drive for transparency is not about one or a few people. This is about the extent to which corporations such as Monsanto and their front groups are using our public universities and the scientists and academics who work there as tools to promote their agendas and their profits.

See our investigations page for up-to-date details on our findings

News articles about our investigation

2017

CBC News: University of Saskatchewan Defends Professor’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree

CBC News: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties

BMJ: Coca-Cola’s secret influence on medical and science journalists

USRTK press release: BMJ reveals secret industry funding of reporting, based on USRTK documents  

Huffington Post: Moms Exposed to Monsanto Weed Killer Means Bad Outcomes for Babies

Huffington Post: USDA Drops Plans to Test for Monsanto Weed Killer in Food 

USRTK fact sheet: Glyphosate: Health Concerns About the Most Widely Used Pesticide 

USRTK: MDL Monsanto Glyphosate Cancer Case Key Documents and Analysis 

Huffington Post: Monsanto Weed Killer Deserves Deeper Scrutiny as Scientific Manipulation Revealed

The Ecologist: ‘Pro Science’ GMO, Chemical Pushers Funded by Climate Science Deniers

USRTK: Public Interests Groups to USA Today: Ditch Columns by Corporate Front Group ACSH

USRTK: Julie Kelly Cooks Up Propaganda for the Agrichemical Industry 

Huffington Post: Monsanto’s Mind Meld; Spin Machine in High Gear 

USRTK: Questions about Monsanto, EPA Collusion Raised in Cancer Lawsuits

USRTK: Monsanto and EPA Want to Keep Talks Secret on Glyphosate Cancer Review 

2016

The Hill: Serious Scrutiny Needed a EPA Seeks Input on Cancer Ties to Monsanto Herbicide 

USRTK: New Research: GMO Bt Crops Failing

USRTK: Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry 

USRTK: New Data on Pesticides in Food Raises Safety Questions 

USRTK: FDA Suspends Testing for Glyphosate in Food 

Huffington Post: More Bad News for Honey as US Seeks to Get Handle on Glyphosate Residues in Food

Huffington Post: IARC Scientists Defend Glyphosate Cancer Link; Surprised by Industry Assault 

BMJ: Conflicts of interest compromise US public health agency’s mission, say scientists 

USRTK: Top Scientists at CDC Complain of Corporate Influence, Unethical Practices

Huffington Post: EPA Bows to Chemical Industry Pressure in Glyphosate Review

USRTK: Upcoming EPA Meetings On Glyphosate Drawing Scrutiny

USRTK: FDA Tests Confirm Oatmeal, Baby Food Contain Monsanto Weedkiller 

Huffington Post: FDA Finds Monsanto’s Weed Killer in U.S. Honey 

Davis Enterprise: Watchdog Group Sues UCD Over Public Records Request

Sacramento News & Review: Watchdog Group Alleges that Five UCD Professors Were Paid to Shill for GMOs 

Sacramento Bee: Watchdog Group Sues to Force UC Davis to Turn Over Public Records 

Politico: UC Davis Sued as Part of Industry Influence Probe 

The Hill: What is Going On at the CDC? Health Agency Needs Scrutiny

Huffington Post: More Coca-Cola Ties Seen Inside US Centers for Disease Control 

Huffington Post: CDC Official Exits After Coca-Cola Connections Come to Light 

Huffington Post: Beverage Industry Finds Friend Inside U.S. Health Agency

US RTK: ILSI Wields Stealthy Influence for the Food and Agrichemical Industries

Huffington Post: Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food 

Guardian: UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk

Die Zeit: Glyphosat: Möglicher Interessenskonflikt bei Pflanzenschutzmittel-Bewertung

Horticulture Week: Questions Raised Over Independence of Panel that Found Glyphosate Safe 

ARD: Experten werfen Fachgremium Wirtschaftsnähe vor

US RTK: Conflicts of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review

STAT News: Disney, Fearing a Scandal, Tries to Press Journal to Withdraw Research Paper

Inverse: Disney Parks Food Study Shows the Problems with Corporate Science, Not Hot Dogs

Marion Nestle: The strange story of my accepted but yet-to-be published commentary on Disney-funded study gets stranger

WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding

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

Huffington Post: Monsanto’s Media Machine Comes to Washington

Interview with Carey Gillam: Peeling Back the Curtain on Monsanto

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Washington Post’s Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto – Again

2015

New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show

Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Monsanto Connection in Paper Touting GMOs

Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War

Bloomberg: How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs

Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby

BuzzFeed: Seed Money: True Confessions of a GMO Promoter

Alternet: How Monsanto Solicited Academics to Bolster Their Pro-GMO Propaganda

Harvard Crimson: Prof Failed To Disclose Connection to Company in Paper

Saskatoon Star Phoenix: Group Questions U of S Prof’s Monsanto Link

The Intercept: Jeb Bush Campaign Manager Helped Big Pharma Beat Back Anti-Meth Lab Legislation

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When Is It a Conflict of Interest?

Commentary about freedom of information and disclosure  

The Hill: How Freedom Falls: Broken FOIA Far From Healing as US Agencies Cheat Public

Los Angeles Times: In Science, Follow the Money – If You Can 

New York Times: Scientists, Give Up Your Emails

Nature Biotechnology: Standing Up for Transparency

Ralph Nader: Monsanto and its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information

Further reading

Seedy Business: What Big Food Is Hiding With Its Slick PR Campaign on GMOs

An Open Letter to Professor Kevin Folta on FOIA Requests

Background on Ketchum, the PR firm that runs GMO Answers

GMO Answers is a Marketing and PR Website for GMO Companies

Spinning Food: How Food Industry Front Groups and Covert Communications Are Shaping the Story of Food

USRTK Short Report: Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding From Monsanto

Background on Jon Entine: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger 

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

Who’s Behind the Attacks on U.S. Right to Know?

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There have been a couple of recent attacks on U.S. Right to Know, so I thought it might be useful to sketch out who is behind them.

A March 9 article in the Guardian criticized us for sending Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover the connections between taxpayer-paid professors and the genetically engineered food industry’s PR machine. All three of the article’s authors are former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But the article failed to disclose their financial ties.

The first author, Nina Federoff is identified as “an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University” but omits that she works at OFW Law, which is a powerhouse food and agribusiness lobbying firm. OFW Law is registered as lobbying for the Council for Biotechnology Information and Syngenta.

We requested correspondence from both Syngenta and CBI — whose members include “BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta” —  so we can understand why Ms. Federoff might wish to defend them without disclosing who her firm’s clients are.

The second author, Peter Raven, is identified as Director Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is so intertwined with Monsanto that it even has a Monsanto Center and a Monsanto Hall. The Peter H. Raven Library is on the Fourth Floor of the Monsanto Center. A 2012 news release states that, “Monsanto Company and Monsanto Fund have been among the most generous benefactors of the Missouri Botanical Garden over the past 40-plus years, contributing about $10 million for numerous key capital, science and education projects during that period.”

The third author, Phillip Sharp, works at the David H. Koch Institute at MIT — yes, the same David Koch of the Koch Brothers. In their article, the authors liken us to climate change deniers. For someone connected to the Koch Institute to link us with climate change deniers is beyond ironic. Dr. Sharp also has close ties to the biotech industry, as co-founder of the company Biogen.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is acting like the American Association for the Advancement of Monsanto. That, truly, is a loss for science, and for us all.

Also, the Cornell Alliance for Science has been attacking U.S. Right to Know and organizing a petition against our FOIA requests regarding the agrichemical industry PR and political campaigns to defend GMOs.

The Cornell Alliance for Science began last year with a “$5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” the world’s largest foundation, which is a promoter of and investor in the agrichemical industry. The CEO of the Gates Foundation, Sue Desmond-Hellman, worked for fourteen years at the biotech company Genentech.

The Cornell Alliance for Science says that their “goal” is to “depolarize the GMO debate,” but attacking our consumer group is an odd way to “depolarize” the debate over the health and environmental effects of genetically engineered food and crops.

How National Geographic Got it Wrong on GMO Science

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Judging a book, or in this case a magazine article, by it’s cover, I was prepared to dislike Joel Achenbach’s “War on Science” story in National Geographic. Turns out it’s an insightful, beautifully written piece about the psychology that influences scientific belief.

Too bad Achenbach got it wrong on the science of genetic engineering, and allowed his piece to be used as PR fodder for the agrichemical industry. I’m guessing that the higher ups at Monsanto and their PR firms have already ordered up poster-sized copies of the cover image, which conflates concerns about GMOs with climate change denial – a talking point the PR gurus have been pushing hard.

Achenbach devotes just one sentence of his story to GMO science, and the sentence is at odds with international scientific agreements about genetic engineering. He writes, “We’re asked to believe, for example, that it’s safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there’s no evidence that it isn’t and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding.”

What the experts actually say, via internationally accepted agreements, is that genetic engineering is different from traditional breeding and carries different risks:

The United Nation’s Codex Alimentarius and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety agree that genetic engineering differs from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be required before GM organisms are used in food or released into the environment.

The World Health Organization states that “GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis” and “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

Unfortunately, the United States does not follow this standard for case-by-case safety assessments of GMOs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 1992 guidance on GMOs (still in effect) states that GMOs are “substantially equivalent” to regular crops, but it is not based on any science whatsoever and was introduced by then-Vice President Dan Quayle at a biotechnology conference as part of Quayle’s “regulatory relief initiative.” Here’s the background. For more details, see Gary Ruskin’s report Seedy Business.

For a more thorough explanation of the contradictory and very much unsettled science on the safety of GMOs, see the journal statement signed by over 300 scientists, MDs and scholars, “No scientific consensus on GMO safety.” This week, consumer watchdog groups, including Center for Food Safety, Consumer’s Union, Friends of the Earth and U.S. Right to Know called on journalists to do a better job of accurately reporting on the science of GMOs and to stop relying on talking points.

For the record, at U.S. Right to Know, we believe that GMOs could have some useful benefits in the future. However, genetic engineering of our food should proceed only with full transparency and robust independent science that makes an authentic attempt to understand the consequences, including impacts on health and the environment.