California Supreme Court denies review of Monsanto Roundup trial loss

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The California Supreme Court will not review a California man’s trial win over Monsanto, dealing another blow to Monsanto’s German owner, Bayer AG.

The decision to deny a review in the case of Dewayne “Lee” Johnson marks the latest in a string of court losses for Bayer as it tries to complete settlements with close to 100,000 plaintiffs who each claim they or their loved ones developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma from exposure to Roundup and other Monsanto weed killers. Juries in each of three trials held to date have found not only that the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides cause cancer but also that Monsanto spent decades hiding the risks.

“We are disappointed with the Court’s decision not to review the intermediate appeals court’s decision in Johnson and will consider our legal options for further review of this case,” Bayer said in a statement.  

The Miller Firm, Johnson’s Virginia-based law firm, said the California Supreme Court’s decision denied “Monsanto’s latest attempt to skirt responsibility” for causing Johnson’s cancer.

“Multiple judges have now affirmed the jury’s unanimous finding that Monsanto maliciously  concealed Roundup’s cancer risk and caused Mr. Johnson to develop a deadly form of cancer. The time has come for Monsanto to end its baseless appeals and pay Mr. Johnson the money it owes him,” the firm said.

A unanimous jury found in August 2018 that exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides  caused Johnson to develop a deadly form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The jury further found that Monsanto acted to hide the risks of its products in conduct so egregious that the company should pay Johnson $250 million in punitive damages on top of $39 million in past and future compensatory damages.

Upon appeal from Monsanto, the trial judge reduced the $289 million to $78 million. An appeals court then cut the award to $20.5 million, citing the fact that Johnson was expected to live only a short time.

The appeals court said it reduced the damages award despite finding there was “abundant” evidence that glyphosate, together with the other ingredients in Roundup products, caused Johnson’s cancer and that “there was overwhelming evidence that Johnson has suffered, and will continue to suffer for the rest of his life, significant pain and suffering.”

Both Monsanto and Johnson sought review by the California Supreme Court, with Johnson asking for restoration of a higher damage award and Monsanto seeking to reverse the trial judgment.

Bayer has reached settlements with several of the leading law firms who collectively represent a significant share of the claims brought against Monsanto. In June, Bayer said it would provide $8.8 billion to $9.6 billion to resolve the litigation.

Genetic Literacy Project: PR Front for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry

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Jon Entine is the founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, a key partner in Monsanto’s public relations efforts to protect and defend agrichemical products. Entine is a former journalist who portrays himself as an objective authority on science, but the evidence described in this fact sheet shows that he is a longtime PR operative with deep ties to the chemical industry and undisclosed industry funding.

Origins as Monsanto PR firm

Entine is founder and principal of ESG MediaMetrics, a public relations firm that had Monsanto as a client in 2011 when the firm registered the GeneticLiteracyProject.org domain.

Entine was employed at that time by Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a nonprofit group that journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that aligns with industry positions of downplaying health harms. Genetic Literacy Project was developed as a “cross disciplinary program with STATS,” according to web archives. In 2015, Genetic Literacy Project moved under the umbrella of a new group, the Science Literacy Project, which inherited the STATS tax ID number.

STATS was a “major player in the public relations campaign to discredit concerns about bisphenol A,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Its parent organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), was paid by tobacco giant Phillip Morris in the 1990s “to pick apart stories critical of smoking.” Entine was a director of the CMPA in 2014/2015, according to tax forms.

Monsanto was a client of Entine’s PR firm when it registered the domain for Genetic Literacy Project.

Monsanto’s attack dog 

The Genetic Literacy Project frequently attacks scientists, science, journalists and others who criticize Monsanto or its products. Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and via litigation establish that Monsanto partners with Entine and GLP on PR projects to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides. These collaborations were not disclosed.

A 2015 Monsanto PR plan names Genetic Literacy Project among the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage in its efforts to “orchestrate outcry” about a cancer report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Monsanto’s goal, according to the PR plan: “protect the reputation” of Roundup. GLP has since posted over 200 articles about IARC, several of them attacking the scientists as frauds and liars who are driven by profit and vanity.

An award-winning Le Monde investigation about the “Monsanto Papers” described Genetic Literacy Project as a “well-known propaganda website” that is “fed by PR people linked to the pesticides and biotechnology industries.” Genetic Literacy Project played a key role in Monsanto’s efforts “to destroy the United Nations cancer agency by any means possible,” Le Monde reported.

In a 2017 court filing, plaintiffs’ attorneys suing Monsanto over glyphosate cancer concerns described Genetic Literacy Project and the American Council on Science and Health as “organizations intended to shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers.”

Pro GMO papers by professors

In 2014 and 2015, Genetic Literacy Project worked with Monsanto and their PR firm to publish and promote a series of pro-GMO papers written by professors. Monsanto assigned and edited the papers, and set Genetic Literacy Project up to publish them. The corporation’s role was not disclosed.

According to a Sept. 2014 email, Monsanto executives chose Genetic Literacy Project as the “the primary outlet” to publish the professors’ papers, and to build a “merchandising plan” with the PR firm CMA to promote the papers. The PR firm CMA, now renamed Look East, is directed by Charlie Arnot. He also runs the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit that receives funding from Monsanto, and also donates to Genetic Literacy Project.

Ties to Syngenta and industry front group

Syngenta was funding ACSH when it published Entine’s book defending Syngenta’s pesticide.

Jon Entine is closely tied in with the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group that receives funding from Monsanto and other chemical companies. ACSH published Entine’s 2011 book, which defends atrazine, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta. Reporting by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones and the Center for Media and Democracy establish that Syngenta was funding ACSH at the time, and that ACSH asked Syngenta to provide extra funding for a project that included a book that sounds like Entine’ book. Syngenta was seeking third-party allies to help the company defend atrazine.

In 2009, ACSH staff asked Syngenta for a $100,000 grant, “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years,” to produce a paper and “consumer-friendly booklet” about atrazine. In 2011, ACSH announced Entine’s new book along with a “companion friendly, abbreviated position paper,” both defending atrazine. Entine told Philpott he had “no idea” Syngenta was funding ACSH.

Key theme: attacks on scientists and journalists

A key theme in Entine’s work is attacking scientists and journalists who report critically about the chemical industry, the oil industry or health problems associated with them. Some examples:

  • Attacked New Yorker reporter Rachel Aviv in attempt to discredit her reporting about internal Syngenta documents that reveal how the chemical company tried to destroy the reputation of UC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes due to his research connecting the herbicide atrazine to birth defects in frogs. Entine’s chief source was Bruce Chassy,  a professor who was quietly receiving money from Monsanto and helped start a Monsanto front group to attack industry critics.
  • Attacked Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt, as “a populist Luddite, the intellectual Rottweiler of in-your-face, environmentalism, unduly wary of modern technology.”
  • Accused Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll and journalist Susanne Rust of “smearing Exxon” for reporting that Exxon knew for years that climate change was real but hid the science to keep revenues flowing.
  • In a follow-up attack (since removed from the Huffington Post website), Entine accused Rust of ethics violations for her reporting in an award-winning series on BPA that was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize; Entine did not disclose that her reporting identified his former employer STATS as a major player in industry’s PR efforts.

Murky Funding Trail to Entine and GLP

Entine’s funding history is complex and opaque, but tax documents and his own disclosures reveal a pattern of funding from anonymous sources and right-wing foundations that push deregulation and climate science denial, as well as undisclosed funding from the biotechnology industry.

Inaccurate, ever-changing “transparency” note

The “financial transparency” note on the Genetic Literacy Project website is inaccurate, changes often and at times contradicts itself. For 2017 and 2018, the Genetic Literacy Project claimed it received funding from a handful of foundations including the Templeton and Searle foundations, which are leading funders of climate science denial efforts. GLP also notes funding from the Center for Food Integrity, a food-industry front group that receives money from Monsanto and also partners with Monsanto and Genetic Literacy Project to promote agrichemical industry PR.

In September 2016, the “disclosure” note said GLP received no funding from corporations, but disclosed a $27,500 “pass through” from “Academics Review Charitable Association,” which appears not to exist. That group is apparently AcademicsReview.org, a front group that received most of its funding from the pesticide industry trade group, but claimed to be independent of industry.

In March 2016, GLP made no financial disclosures and Entine tried to distance GLP from his former employer STATS, claiming that STATS provided accounting services only and that the groups weren’t involved with each other’s activities. But in 2012, GLP said it was “developed as a cross disciplinary program with STATS.”

Center for Media and Public Affairs/George Mason University

For the fiscal year 2014/2015, according to tax records, Entine received $173,100 for his work as “director” at Center for Media and Public Affairs, a group based at George Mason University and founded by GMU Professor Robert Lichter. CMPA was paid by Phillip Morris in the 1990s to deflect concerns about tobacco, according to documents in the UCSF Tobacco Industry Library.

CMPA does not disclose its funders but has received funding from George Mason University Foundation, the leading recipient of donations affiliated with Charles Koch and Koch Industries. GMUF also received $5.3 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund between 2011-13, according to the Guardian. These funds channel money from anonymous donors including corporations to campaigns and academics who push industry interests, as Greenpeace demonstrated in an undercover investigation.

STATS Payments and Loans

CMPA’s sister group, also founded by Lichter and based at GMU, was Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a nonprofit group that played a key role in chemical industry PR efforts to defend toxic products, according to reporting in The Intercept, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Atlantic and Consumer Reports.

According to IRS forms:

  • STATS paid Entine $140,600 in 2012/2013 and $152,500 in 2013/2014 as a “research consultant”
  • STATS and Center for Media and Public Affairs both listed Entine as Director in 2014/2015 with compensation of $173,100. Tax records for both groups also listed President Trevor Butterworth for $95,512 and Director Tracey Brown with no compensation. Tracey Brown is director of Sense About Science, a group that also spins science to defend chemical industry interests; Butterworth founded Sense About Science USA in 2014 and merged STATS into that group.
  • Science Literacy Project took over the tax ID of STATS in 2015 and listed Entine as Executive Director with compensation of $188,800.
  • In 2018, ESG MediaMetrics, Entine’s PR firm, reported $176,420 in income.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs has also loaned money to STATS, which “due to inadequate funding” has “not been reimbursed.” George Mason University Foundation, which does not disclose its funding, gave CMPA grants in those years. Tax records show:

Biotechnology industry funding to train scientists and journalists

In 2014 and 2015, the top pesticide firms spent over $300,000 on two events organized by Genetic Literacy Project and the front group Academics Review to “train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate,” according to tax records and reporting in The Progressive. The events, called the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps, were held at the University of Florida in 2014 and UC Davis in 2015.

The agendas describe the events as “communication skills training” for scientists and journalists to help reframe the food safety and GMO debate, and promised to provide scientists with the “tools and support resources necessary to effectively engage the media and appear as experts in legislative and local government hearings, and other policy making and related outreach opportunities.”

Faculty at the first first boot camp included representatives from the agrichemical industry, food industry front groups and trade groups, and pro-GMO academics including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, both of whom have accepted undisclosed funding from Monsanto and promote the GMOs and pesticides that Monsanto sales rely upon. Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel, who also accepts money from agribusiness interests, was the journalist on faculty.

Climate science denier funders

Major financial supporters of Entine’s former employer STATS and his current group Genetic Literacy Project include right-wing foundations – primarily Scaife Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust and Templeton Foundation – that are leading funders of climate science denial, according to a 2013 Drexel University study. See USRTK investigation: Climate Science Denial Network Funds Toxic Chemical Propaganda.

Chemical industry defense guy

For many years, Entine has been a prominent defender of chemical industry interests, following the industry playbook: he defends the chemicals as safe; argues against regulation; and attacks science, scientists journalists and others raising concerns.

Defending neonicotinoids

Growing scientific evidence suggests that neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of pesticides, are a key factor in bee die-offs. The European Union has restricted neonics due to concerns about impact on bees. A February 2020 article in The Intercept by Lee Fang reported on the “sophisticated information war” pesticide companies are waging to keep the chemicals on the market in the U.S. Entine has been a key pro-industry messenger; he has argued that neonics are not key driver of bee deaths (American Enterprise Institute), that “The bee apocalypse was never real,” (American Council on Science and Health) and claimed neonics may actually help bee health (American Enterprise Institute and Forbes). Entine also attacked a Harvard professor’s study on bee Colony Collapse Disorder (American Enterprise Institute) and accused European politicians of trying to kill bees by restricting neonics (Forbes).

Defending phthalates

Phthalates are a class of chemicals long linked to hormone disruption, reproductive harm, fertility problems and links to childhood obesity, asthma, neurological problems and cardiovascular issues. The U.S. government began restricting the chemicals in children’s toys in 2013 due to health concerns. Entine has defended children’s products containing the chemicals. “Few chemicals on the market today have undergone as much scientific scrutiny as phthalate esters,” Entine wrote (Forbes) — but he did not mention the significant body of scientific evidence compiled over two decades that links phthalate exposures to abnormal reproductive development in baby boys. The messaging included attacks on reporters; Entine accused an NBC reporter who raised questions about safety of “shoddy journalism.” (Forbes). Entine’s communications firm, ESG MediaMetrics, did PR for the Vinyl Institute; vinyl plastic is a key source of exposure to phthalates. Entine did not disclose the industry connection in his Forbes articles.

Defending fracking

Entine defends hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the pumping of high-pressure chemical-laced water into the ground to crack shale and extract natural gas. As in his many other messaging campaigns, Entine blasts science and scientists who raise concerns, framing them as “activists,” while making sweeping and indefensible statements about “scrupulous” science conducted over many years that defend its safety. For example, Entine claimed: “From a scientific perspective, no reason exists to even suspect unknown health or environmental issues will turn up” from fracking (New York Post).

Again, attacks were a key part of the messaging. Entine accused New York Times reporters of misleading children about the potential environmental dangers of fracking (Forbes), attacked two Cornell University scientists for their study suggesting that fracking operations leak methane (Forbes), and attacked the Park Foundation, claiming that it has “almost single-handedly derailed shale-gas development in methane-rich New York State, and put its imprint on public opinion and policy decisions around the country.” (Philanthropy Roundtable)

Defending BPA

Entine writes in defense of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), despite a large body of scientific evidence raising concerns about its endocrine disrupting potential and other health problems associated with it. Canada declared the chemical to be toxic in 2010, and the EU banned BPA in baby bottles in 2011.

Entine attacked university researchers, NGOs and journalists raising concerns about BPA (Forbes), suggested that women who can’t get pregnant should not to blame it on plastics (Forbes), and challenged scientists who linked BPA to heart disease (Forbes).

Defending Nuclear Power

Entine also defends the nuclear power industry; he has claimed that nuclear power plants are environmentally benign and that “nothing as bad as Chernobyl is likely to occur in the West.” He accused Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes of science “denialism,” for, among other things, pointing out the economic and environmental risks of nuclear power.

Fellowships

Entine was an unpaid fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University (GMU) from 2011-2014.Entine is also a former senior fellow at the UC Davis World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, which does not disclose its donors, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a DC think tank funded in part by corporate and dark money contributions.

See also, Greenpeace Polluter Watch page on Jon Entine and “the hidden story of the Genetic Literacy Project.”

Related groups and people

American Council on Science and Health
Geoffrey Kabat
Jay Byrne
Academics Review
Pamela Ronald and UC Davis
Biotech Literacy Projects 

Bayer’s Monsanto headache persists

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The migraine that is Monsanto doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon for Bayer AG.

Efforts at settling the mass of lawsuits brought in the United States by tens of thousands of people who claim Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides gave them cancer continue to inch forward, but are not addressing all outstanding cases, nor are all plaintiffs offered settlements agreeing to them.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, Arizona attorney David Diamond said that representations made by the lawyers leading settlement talks with Bayer on behalf of plaintiffs did not accurately reflect the situation for his own clients. He cited a “lack” of “settlement-related experiences” with Bayer and he requested that Judge Chhabria advance several of Diamond’s cases forward for trials.

“Leadership’s representations regarding settlement do not represent my clients’ settlement
related experiences, interests or position,” Diamond told the judge.

Diamond wrote in the letter that he has 423 Roundup clients, including 345 who have cases pending before Chhabria in the multidistrict litigation (MDL) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Alongside the MDL are thousands of plaintiffs whose cases are pending in state courts.

Diamond’s outreach to the judge followed a hearing late last month in which several of the leading firms in the litigation and lawyers for Bayer told Chhabria they were close to resolving most, if not all, of the cases before the judge.

Bayer has reached important settlements with several of the leading law firms who collectively represent a significant share of the claims brought against Monsanto. In June, Bayer said it would provide $8.8 billion to $9.6 billion to resolve the litigation.

But controversy and conflict have dogged the overall settlement offers.

Several plaintiffs represented by the large firms and who spoke on condition that their names not be used, said they are not agreeing to the terms of the settlements, meaning their cases will be directed into mediation and, if that fails, to trials.

After buying Monsanto in 2018, Bayer has been struggling to figure out how to put an end to the litigation that includes more than 100,000 plaintiffs. The company lost all three of the three trials held to date and has lost the early rounds of appeals seeking to overturn the trial losses. Juries in each of the trials found that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, such as Roundup, do cause cancer and that Monsanto spent decades hiding the risks.

The company’s efforts to resolve the litigation have been stymied in part by the challenge of how to head off claims that could be brought in the future by people who develop cancer after using the company’s herbicides.

Problems Just Keep Mounting

Bayer has threatened to file for bankruptcy if it cannot quell the Roundup litigation and on Wednesday the company issued a profit warning and announced billions in cost cuts, citing a “lower than expected outlook in the agricultural market” amid other factors. The news sent shares in the company tumbling.

In reporting Bayer’s troubles Barron’s noted: “The problems just keep mounting for Bayer and its investors, who by now must be used to regular bouts of disappointing news. The stock has now fallen more than 50% since the Monsanto deal was closed in June 2018. “This latest update only adds to the case for the Monsanto deal being one of the worst in corporate history.”

Roundup cancer trials still a threat to Bayer, but settlement talks progressing

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Lawyers for Monsanto owner Bayer AG and for plaintiffs suing Monsanto told a federal judge on Thursday that they were continuing to make progress in settling sweeping nationwide litigation brought by people who claim Monsanto’s Roundup caused them to develop cancer.

In a video hearing, Bayer lawyer William Hoffman told U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria the company had reached deals – or was close to reaching deals – to resolve more than 3,000 lawsuits that are grouped together in multidistrict litigation (MDL) filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The company separately has already settled thousands of cases outside the MDL, cases that have been proceeding through state courts. But controversy and conflict have dogged the overall settlement offers, with allegations from some plaintiffs’ firms that Bayer reneged on agreements reached months ago, and some plaintiffs’ firms unwilling to agree to what they consider inadequate offers from Bayer.

There was no discussion of those complaints, however,  in Thursday’s hearing, with both sides expressing optimistic views.

“The company has moved forward and finalized several agreements with firms…. we’re also hopefully going to finalize additional agreements in the next several days,” Hoffman told the judge.

“Where we are right now… these figures are somewhat estimates but I think they are reasonably close: There are approximately 1,750 cases that are subject to agreements between the company and law firms and another approximately 1,850 to 1,900 cases that are in various stages of discussion right now,” Hoffman said. “We are working to put in place a program to accelerate discussions and hopefully bring agreements to fruition with those firms.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Brent Wisner told the judge it was important to note that there remain a “handful of cases” within the MDL that are not settled yet. But, he said – “We anticipate they will be shortly.”

Judge Chhabria said that given the progress he will continue a stay of the Roundup litigation until November 2 but that he will start moving cases to trial if they are not resolved by that point.

Bayer Bad Dealing Alleged

The cooperative tone expressed in Thursday’s hearing was a far cry from a hearing held last month when plaintiffs’ attorney Aimee Wagstaff  told Judge Chhabria that Bayer was not honoring tentative settlement agreements made in March and intended for finalization in July.

Bayer announced in June that it had reached a $10 billion settlement with U.S. law firms to resolve most of more than 100,000 Roundup cancer claims. But at that time the only major law firms leading the litigation that had final signed agreements with Bayer were The Miller Firm and Weitz & Luxenburg.

The Miller Firm’s deal alone totaled $849 million to cover the claims of more than 5,000 Roundup clients, according to settlement documents.

The  California-based Baum Hedlund Aristei &  Goldman law firm; the Andrus Wagstaff firm from Colorado; and the Moore Law Group of Kentucky had tentative deals but not final agreements.

According to a letter written by Wagstaff filed with the court, Bayer requested repeated extensions until the deal with her firm fell apart in mid-August. After reporting the issues to Judge Chhabria, the settlement talks resumed and were ultimately resolved with the three firms this month.

Some details of how the settlements will be administered were filed earlier this week in a court in Missouri. The Garretson Resolution Group, Inc., doing business as Epiq Mass Tort, will act as the
Lien Resolution Administrator,” for instance, for clients of Andrus Wagstaff whose settlement dollars will need to be used in part or in whole to repay cancer treatment expenses paid by Medicare.

Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018 just as the first Roundup cancer trial was getting underway. It has since lost all three of the three trials held to date and has lost the early rounds of appeals seeking to overturn the trial losses. Juries in each of the trials found that Monsanto’s herbicides do cause cancer and that Monsanto spent decades hiding the risks.

The jury awards totaled well over $2 billion, though the judgments have been ordered reduced by trial and appellate court judges.

Bayer had threatened to file for bankruptcy if no nationwide settlement was reached, according to communications from the plaintiffs’ firms to their clients.

Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR Campaign for the Agrichemical Industry

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The Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) is a public relations campaign funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that works to increase acceptance of genetically engineered foods around the world. Its primary focus is to train fellows in many countries, especially in Africa, to promote and defend genetically engineered crops and agrichemicals in their home countries.

The group is based at the Boyce Thompson Institute, an independent nonprofit research institute that is affiliated with Cornell University. This fact sheet documents inaccuracies, deceptive tactics and corporate partnerships of CAS and its fellows. The examples described here provide evidence that CAS is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to promote false and misleading messaging and to advance the PR and political agendas of the world’s largest chemical and seed corporations.

Industry-aligned mission and messaging

CAS launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million Gates Foundation grant and promises to “depolarize” the debate around GMOs. The group says its mission is to “promote access” to GMO crops and foods by training “science allies” around the world to educate their communities about the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. A key part of the CAS strategy is to recruit and train Global Leadership Fellows in communications and promotional tactics, focusing on regions where there is public opposition to the biotech industry, particularly African countries that have resisted GMO crops.

The CAS mission is strikingly similar to the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a pesticide-industry funded group that has partnered with CAS. The industry group formed to build alliances across the food chain and train third-parties to persuade the public to accept GMOs.

The messaging of CAS also aligns closely with pesticide industry messaging: a myopic focus on touting possible future benefits of GMOs while downplaying, ignoring or denying risks and problems. Like industry PR efforts, CAS members have attacked and tried to discredit critics of pesticide industry products, including scientists who raise health or environmental concerns.

Widespread criticism

CAS and its writers have drawn criticism from academics, farmers, students, community groups and food sovereignty movements who say the group promotes inaccurate and misleading messaging and uses unethical tactics. See for example:

Related reporting from U.S. Right to Know:

Examples of misleading messaging

Experts in genetic engineering, biology, agroecology and food policy have documented many examples of inaccurate claims made by Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell who has written dozens of articles defending agrichemical products in the name of CAS; see for example his many articles promoted by the Genetic Literacy Project, a PR group that works with Monsanto. Lynas’ 2018 book argues for African countries to accept GMOs, and devotes a chapter to defending Monsanto.

Inaccurate claims about GMOs

Numerous scientists have criticized Lynas for making false statements, “unscientific, illogical and absurd” arguments, promoting dogma over data and research on GMOs, rehashing industry talking points, and making inaccurate claims about pesticides that “display a deep scientific ignorance, or an active effort to manufacture doubt.”

“The laundry list of what Mark Lynas got wrong about both GMOs and science is extensive, and has been refuted point by point by some of the world’s leading agroecologists and biologists,” wrote Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First, in April 2013 (Lynas joined Cornell as a visiting fellow later that year).  

“disingenuous and untruthful”

Africa-based groups have critiqued Lynas at length. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a coalition of more than 40 food and farming groups across Africa, has described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.” Million Belay, director of AFSA, described Lynas as “a racist who is pushing a narrative that only industrial agriculture can save Africa.”

In a 2018 press release, the South Africa-based African Centre for Biodiversity described unethical tactics Lynas has used to promote the biotech lobby agenda in Tanzania. “There is an issue definitely about accountability and [need for] reigning the Cornell Alliance for Science in, because of the misinformation and the way that they are extremely disingenuous and untruthful,” Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, said in a July 2020 webinar.

Attacking agroecology

A recent example of inaccurate messaging is a widely panned article on the CAS website by Lynas claiming, “agro-ecology risks harming the poor.” Academics described the article as a “demagogic and non-scientific interpretation of a scientific paper,” “deeply unserious,” “pure ideology” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be scientific,” a “really flawed analysis“ that makes “sweeping generalizations“ and “wild conclusions.” Some critics called for a retraction.

2019 article by CAS fellow Nassib Mugwanya provides another example of misleading content on the topic of agroecology. The article, “Why traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture,” reflects the typical messaging pattern in CAS materials: presenting GMO crops as the “pro-science” position while painting “alternative forms of agricultural development as ‘anti-science,’ groundless and harmful,” according to an analysis by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice.

“Particularly notable in the article are strong usages of metaphors (e.g., agroecology likened to handcuffs), generalizations, omissions of information and a number of factual inaccuracies,” the group said.

Using Monsanto playbook to defend pesticides

Attacking cancer experts as ‘activists’

Another example of misleading industry-aligned CAS messaging can be found in the group’s defense of glyphosate-based Roundup. The herbicides are a key component of GMO crops with 90% of corn and soy grown in the United States genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup. In 2015, after the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel said glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, Monsanto organized allies to “orchestrate outcry” against the independent science panel to “protect the reputation” of Roundup, according to internal Monsanto documents.

Mark Lynas used the CAS platform to amplify the Monsanto messaging, describing the cancer report as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “anti-Monsanto activists” who “abused science” and committed “an obvious perversion of both science and natural justice” by reporting a cancer risk for glyphosate. Lynas used the same flawed arguments and industry sources as the American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto paid to help spin the cancer report.

While claiming to be on the side of science, Lynas ignored ample evidence from Monsanto documents, widely reported in the press, that Monsanto interfered with scientific research, manipulated regulatory agencies and used other heavy-handed tactics to manipulate the scientific process in order to protect Roundup. In 2018, a jury found the that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in covering up the cancer risk of Roundup.

Elevating front groups, unreliable messengers

In its efforts to promote GMOs as a “science-based” solution for agriculture, Cornell Alliance for Science has lent its platform to industry front groups and even a notorious climate science skeptic.

Lobbying for pesticides and GMOs

Although its main geographical focus is Africa, CAS also aids pesticide industry efforts to defend pesticides and discredit public health advocates in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for GMO crops and also an area that reports high exposures to pesticides and concerns about pesticide-related health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma. These problems led residents to organize a years-long fight to pass stronger regulations to reduce pesticide exposures and improve disclosure of the chemicals used on agricultural fields.

“launched vicious attacks”

As these efforts gained traction, CAS engaged in a “massive public relations disinformation campaign designed to silence community concerns” about the health risks of pesticides, according to Fern Anuenue Holland, a community organizer for Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. In the Cornell Daily Sun, Holland described how “paid Cornell Alliance for Science fellows — under the guise of scientific expertise — launched vicious attacks. They used social media and wrote dozens of blog posts condemning impacted community members and other leaders who had the courage to speak up.”

Holland said she and other members of her organization were subjected to “character assassinations, misrepresentations and attacks on personal and professional credibility” by CAS affiliates. “I have personally witnessed families and lifelong friendships torn apart,” she wrote.

Opposing the public’s right to know     

CAS Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, has said her group is independent of industry: “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate or promote industry-owned products. As our website clearly and fully discloses, we receive no resources from industry.” However, dozens of emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show CAS and Evanega coordinating closely with the pesticide industry and its front groups on public relations initiatives. Examples include:

  • CAS played a key role in trying to discredit a public records investigation by U.S. Right to Know to obtain information about the pesticide industry’s partnerships with academics. According to Monsanto documents released in 2019, Monsanto was deeply worried about the USRTK investigation and planned to try to discredit it as an attack on “scientific freedom” — the same messaging CAS used in a in a public petition opposing the investigation.
  • The Monsanto PR document suggests having Monsanto executive “Robb (Fraley) engage Horsch” for help with discrediting the FOIA investigation — referring to Rob Horsch, a longtime Monsanto veteran hired by the Gates Foundation in 2006 to lead the foundation’s agricultural development team.

More examples of CAS partnerships with industry groups are described at the bottom of this fact sheet.  

Defending the agrichemical industry in Hawaii

In 2016, CAS launched an affiliate group called the Hawaii Alliance for Science, which said its purpose was to “support evidence-based decision-making and agricultural innovation in the Islands.” Its messengers include:

Staffers, advisors

CAS describes itself as “an initiative based at Cornell University, a non-profit institution.” The group does not disclose its budget, expenditures or staff salaries, and Cornell University does not disclose any information about CAS in its tax filings.

Back row: Mike Naig (Iowa Secretary of Agriculture); Ryan Locke (FMC Corporation), Kent Schescke (CAST). Front row: Tricia Beal (Farm Journal Foundation), Sarah Evanega (director of Cornell Alliance for Science), Jay Vroom (retired President and CEO of CropLife America pesticide trade group).

The website lists 20 staff members, including the following notable staffers (the staff roster does not list Mark Lynas or other fellows who may also receive compensation):

The CAS advisory board includes academics who regularly assist the agrichemical industry with their PR efforts.

Gates Foundation critiques  

Since 2016, the Gates Foundation has spent over $4 billion on agricultural development strategies, much of that focused on Africa. The foundation’s agricultural development strategies were led by Rob Horsch (recently retired), a Monsanto veteran of 25 years. The strategies have drawn criticism for promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa.

Critiques of the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural development and funding include:

More CAS-industry collaborations 

Dozens of emails obtained via FOIA by U.S. Right to Know, and now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show CAS coordinating closely with the agrichemical industry and its public relations groups to coordinate events and messaging:

More critiques of Mark Lynas 

Thailand’s reversal on glyphosate ban came after Bayer scripted U.S. intervention, documents show

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A year ago Thailand was set to ban the widely used weed killing chemical glyphosate, a move applauded by public health advocates because of evidence the chemical causes cancer, along with other harms to people and the environment.

But under heavy pressure from U.S. officials, Thailand’s government reversed the planned ban on glyphosate last November and delayed imposing bans on two other agricultural pesticides despite the fact that the country’s National Hazardous Substances Committee said a ban was necessary to protect consumers.

A ban, particularly on glyphosate, would “severely impact” Thai imports of soybeans, wheat and other agricultural commodities, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Ted McKinney warned Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha in pushing for the reversal. Imports could be impacted because those commodities, and many others, typically are laced with residues of glyphosate.

Now, newly revealed emails between government officials and Monsanto parent Bayer AG show that McKinney’s actions, and those taken by other U.S. government officials to convince Thailand not to ban glyphosate, were largely scripted and pushed by Bayer.

The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation organization. The group sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Commerce on Wednesday seeking additional public records regarding the actions of the departments of trade and agriculture in pressuring Thailand on the glyphosate issue. There are several documents the government has thus far refused to release regarding communications with Bayer and other companies, the organization said.

“It’s bad enough that this administration has ignored independent science to blindly support Bayer’s self-serving assertions of glyphosate’s safety,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But to then act as Bayer’s agent to pressure other countries to adopt that position is outrageous.”

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup herbicides and other brands developed by Monsanto, which are worth billions of dollars in annual sales. Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018 and has been struggling ever since to suppress mounting global concerns about scientific research showing that glyphosate herbicides can cause a blood cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The company is also fighting off lawsuits involving more than 100,000 plaintiffs who claim their development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma was caused by exposure to Roundup and other Monsanto glyphosate-based herbicides.

Glyphosate weed killers are the most widely used herbicides in the world, in large part because Monsanto developed genetically engineered crops that tolerate being sprayed directly with the chemical. Though useful to farmers in keeping fields free of weeds, the practice of spraying herbicide over the tops of growing crops leaves varying levels of the pesticide in both raw grain and finished foods. Monsanto and U.S. regulators maintain pesticide levels in food and livestock feed are not harmful to humans or livestock, but many scientists disagree and say even trace amounts can be dangerous.

Different countries set different legal levels for what they determine to be safe amounts of the weed killer in food and raw commodities. Those “maximum residue levels” are referred to as MRLs. The U.S. allows the highest MRLs of glyphosate in food when compared to other countries.

If Thailand banned glyphosate, the allowed level of glyphosate in food likely would be zero, Bayer warned U.S. officials.

High-level help

The emails show that in September 2019 and again in early October of 2019 James Travis, senior director for Bayer international government affairs and trade, sought assistance in reversing the glyphosate ban from multiple high-level officials from the USDA and the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).

Among those Bayer sought aid from was Zhulieta Willbrand, who at that time was chief of staff of trade and foreign agricultural affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  After Thailand’s decision to reverse the ban on glyphosate, Willbrand was hired to work directly for Bayer on international trade matters.

When asked if the assistance from Willbrand while she was a government official helped her get a job at Bayer, the company said that it “ethically strives” to hire people from “all backgrounds” and any inference that she was hired for any reason other than the immense talent she brings to Bayer is false.”

In an email to Willbrand dated Sept. 18, 2019, Travis told her Bayer thought there was “real value” for U.S. government engagement on the glyphosate ban, and he noted that Bayer was organizing other groups to protest the ban as well.

“On our end, we are educating farmer groups, plantations and business partners so that they too can articulate concerns and the need for a rigorous, science based process,” Travis wrote to Willbrand. Willbrand then forwarded the email to McKinney, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.

In an Oct. 8, 2019, email string with the subject line “Summary of Thailand Ban – Developments Moving Quickly,” Travis wrote to Marta Prado, deputy assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, copying Willbrand and others, to update them on the situation.

Travis wrote that Thailand looked poised to ban glyphosate at a “dramatically” accelerated pace, by December 1, 2019. Along with glyphosate, the country was planning to also ban chlorpyrifos, an insecticide made popular by Dow Chemical that is known to damage babies’ brains; and paraquat, a herbicide scientists say causes the nervous system disease known as Parkinson’s.

Travis pointed out the risk a glyphosate ban would pose to sales of U.S. commodities because of the MRL issue and provided other background material the officials could use to engage with Thailand.

“In light of recent developments, we are growing more concerned that some policymakers and lawmakers are rushing the process and will not thoroughly consult all farming stakeholders nor fully consider the economic and environmental impact of banning glyphosate,” Travis wrote to the U.S. officials.

The email exchanges show that Bayer and U.S. officials discussed potential personal motivations of Thai officials and how such intelligence could be useful. “Knowing what motivates her may help with USG counter arguments,” one U.S. official wrote to Bayer about one Thai leader.

Travis suggested that U.S. officials engage much as they had with Vietnam when that country moved in April 2019 to ban glyphosate.

Shortly after the appeal from Bayer, McKinney wrote to the Thailand Prime Minister about the matter. In an Oct. 17, 2019 letter McKinney, who previously worked for Dow Agrosciences, invited Thailand officials to Washington for an in-person discussion about glyphosate safety and the Environmental Protection Agency’s determination that glyphosate “poses no meaningful risk to human health when used as authorized.”

“Should a ban be implemented it would severely impact Thailand’s imports of agricultural commodities such as soybean and wheat,” McKinney wrote. “I urge you to delay a decision on glyphosate until we can arrange an opportunity for U.S. technical experts to share the most relevant information to address Thailand’s concerns.”

A little more than a month later, on Nov. 27, Thailand reversed the planned glyphosate ban. It also said it would delay bans on paraquat and chlorpyrifos for several months.

Thailand did finalize bans of paraquat and chlorpyrifos on June 1, of this year. But glyphosate remains in use. 

When asked about its engagement with U.S. officials on the issue, Bayer issued the following statement:

Like many companies and organizations operating in highly regulated industries, we provide information and contribute to science-based policymaking and regulatory processes. Our engagements with all those in the public sector are routine, professional, and consistent with all laws and regulations.

The Thai authorities’ reversal of the ban on glyphosate is consistent with the science-based determinations by regulatory bodies around the world, including in the United StatesEuropeGermanyAustraliaKoreaCanadaNew ZealandJapan and elsewhere that have repeatedly concluded that our glyphosate-based products can be used safely as directed.

 Thai farmers have used glyphosate safely and successfully for decades to produce essential crops including cassava, corn, sugar cane, fruits, oil palm, and rubber. Glyphosate has helped farmers to improve their livelihoods and meet community expectations of safe, affordable food that is produced sustainably.”

 

Bayer inks deals with three Roundup cancer law firms as settlement progresses

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Bayer AG has reached final settlement terms with three major law firms representing thousands of plaintiffs who claim exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The new deals have been  made with California-based Baum Hedlund Aristei &  Goldman law firm; the Andrus Wagstaff firm from Colorado; and the Moore Law Group of Kentucky. The firms each filed notification of the deals with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Monday.

The deals come after allegations by the three law firms that Bayer was reneging on terms of agreements already made months earlier. The firms told the court Monday that they each now have a “fully-executed and binding Master Settlement Agreement with Monsanto.”

Notably, the deals mark a critical step toward bringing closure to the five-year-old mass tort litigation that now tallies more than 100,000 claims brought by people from around the United States who used Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides made by Monsanto before they developed cancer.

Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018 just as the first Roundup cancer trial was getting underway. It has since lost all three of the three trials held to date and has lost the early rounds of appeals seeking to overturn the trial losses. Juries in each of the trials found that Monsanto’s herbicides do cause cancer and that Monsanto spent decades hiding the risks.

The jury awards totaled well over $2 billion, though the judgments have been ordered reduced by trial and appellate court judges.

Bayer had threatened to file for bankruptcy if no nationwide settlement was reached, according to communications from the plaintiffs’ firms to their clients.

Bayer announced in June that it had reached a $10 billion settlement with U.S. law firms to resolve most of more than 100,000 Roundup cancer claims. But at that time only two of the major law firms in the sweeping litigation had final signed agreements with Bayer – The Miller Firm and Weitz & Luxenburg, according to sources close to the negotiations. The Baum firm, the Andrus Wagstaff firm and the Moore firm had memorandums of understanding but not final agreements, sources said.

The company’s efforts to resolve the litigation have been stymied in part by the challenge of how to head off claims that could be brought in the future by people who develop cancer after using the company’s herbicides. Bayer tried to get court approval for a plan that would have delayed the filing of new Roundup cancer cases for four years, and would have established a five-member “science panel” to determine whether Roundup can cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and if so, at what minimum exposure levels.  If the panel determined there was no causal connection between Roundup and non-Hodgkin lymphoma then the class members would be barred from future such claims.

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria rejected the plan,  sending Bayer back to the drawing board.

Bayer had said Thursday that it was making progress in the development of a “revised” plan to resolve potential future Roundup litigation. The details of the revised class plan will be finalized over the coming weeks, according to Bayer.

Several plaintiffs have been unhappy with the settlement, saying they will not receive very much money despite years of expensive cancer treatments and ongoing pain and suffering. Indeed, many plaintiffs have died while waiting for a resolution.

On September 9, lawyers for Marie Bernice Dinner and her husband Bruce Dinner filed notice with the court that 73-year-old Marie died on June 2 from the non-Hodgkin lymphoma she and her husband alleged was caused by her exposure to Monsanto’s weed killers.

Lawyers for Bruce Dinner asked the court to allow them to amend the complaint against Monsanto to add a claim for wrongful death. The couple was married 53 years and have two children and four grandchildren.

“Marie Bernice was an extraordinary person.  Her death should have been prevented,” said lawyer Beth Klein, who is representing the family.

Glyphosate in chicken poop used as fertilizer is hurting food production, researchers say

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Scientists brought more bad news to light regarding the widely used herbicide glyphosate, better known as Roundup, in a new research paper published this month.

Researchers from the University of Turku in Finland revealed in a paper published in the journal  Science of The Total Environment that manure from poultry used as fertilizer can decrease crop yields when the manure contains residues of glyphosate-based herbicides, such as Roundup. Fertilizers are meant to increase crop production, so the evidence that glyphosate residues can have the opposite effect is significant.

Poultry litter, as the manure is called, is often used as a fertilizer, including in organic agriculture, because it is considered rich in essential nutrients. Use of the poultry litter as fertilizer has been growing both in farming and in horticulture and home gardens.

While use is growing, the “possible risks associated with the accumulation of agrochemicals in poultry manure are still largely ignored,” the Finland researchers warned.

Organic farmers have been growing increasingly worried about traces of glyphosate in manure fertilizer that is allowed in organic production, but many in the industry are reluctant to publicize the issue.

Farmers spray glyphosate directly onto a number of crops grown around the world, including soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and other crops genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate treatments. They also often directly spray such crops as wheat and oats, which are not genetically engineered – shortly before harvest to dry the crops out.

Given the amount of glyphosate-based herbicides used to treat crops that are used in animal feed, as well as the amount of manure used as fertilizer, “we should definitely be aware that this kind of a risk exists,” said one of the authors of study, Anne Muola.

“Nobody seems very eager to talk too loudly about it.” Muola noted.

The heavy use of glyphosate herbicides directly onto food crops has been promoted by Monsanto – now a unit of Bayer AG – since the 1990s, and glyphosate use is so ubiquitous that residues are commonly found in food, water and even air samples.

Because there are glyphosate residues in human and animal food, detectable glyphosate levels are commonly found in human urine and animal manure.

These glyphosate residues in fertilizer are a problem for growers for many reasons, according to the Finland researchers.

“We found that poultry manure can accumulate high residues of (glyphosate-based herbicides), decrease plant growth and reproduction, and thus inhibit the growth-promoting effects of manure when applied as fertilizer,” the paper states. “These results demonstrate that the residues pass through the digestive process of birds, and more importantly, they persist in the manure fertilizer over long periods.”

The researchers said the glyphosate residues can persist in ecological systems, affecting several non-target organisms over many years.

The consequences, they said, include decreased efficiency of manure as fertilizer; long-lasting glyphosate-based herbicide contamination of agricultural cycles; “uncontrolled” glyphosate contamination of non-target areas; increased threat to “vulnerable non-target organisms,” and an increased risk of emerging resistances to glyphosate.

The researchers said more studies should be done to reveal the extent of glyphosate contamination in organic fertilizers and how that impacts sustainability.

The Finland research adds to evidence of the dangers of glyphosate residues in fertilizer, according to agricultural experts.

“The impacts of glyphosate residue that have accumulated in poultry excrements is a largely overlooked area of research,”  said Rodale Institute soil scientist, Dr. Yichao Rui. “But what research does exist has shown that those residues can have a negative effect on crops, if poultry manure was used as a fertilizer. Glyphosate residues in fertilizers have been shown to have negative effects on plants, soil microbiomes, and microbes associated with plants and animals including humans through the food chain. When this contamination is unintentionally spread through fertilizer, it places a severe strain on biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services.”

Worldwide 9.4 million tons of glyphosate have been sprayed on fields – enough to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world.

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” after reviewing years of published and peer-reviewed scientific studies. The team of international scientists found there was a particular association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Tens of thousands of people in the United States suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma have sued Monsanto, and in three trials held to date, juries have found that the company’s glyphosate herbicides were to blame for causing the cancers.

Additionally, an assortment of animal studies released this summer indicate that glyphosate exposures impact reproductive organs and could threaten fertility, adding fresh evidence that the weed killing agent might be an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disrupting chemicals may mimic or interfere with the body’s hormones and are linked with developmental and reproductive problems as well as brain and immune system dysfunction.

Key pesticide industry PR group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife

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The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a major public relations initiative launched two decades ago by leading agrichemical companies to persuade the public to accept GMOs and pesticides, has shut down. A spokesperson confirmed via email that CBI “dissolved at the end of 2019, and its assets, including the GMO Answers platform, were transferred to Belgian-based CropLife International.”

Previous disclosure from GMOAnswers.com

CBI is still promoting industry views and front groups via its Facebook page. Its flagship project GMO Answers, a marketing campaign that amplifies the voices of academics to promote GMOs and pesticides, now says its funding comes from CropLife, the international trade group for pesticide companies.

GMOAnswers.com website now explains, “As of 2020, GMO Answers is a program of CropLife International.” The website also notes the group’s history “as a campaign produced by The Council for Biotechnology Information, whose members included BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta.”

See our new fact sheet with more details on the activities of the Council for Biotechnology Information and GMO Answers

“Training third party spokespeople”

CBI spent over $28 million on its product defense efforts from 2014-2019, according to tax records. (Tax forms and more supporting documents are posted here.)

The tax forms highlight the crucial role “third party” allies – especially academics, dieticians and farmers – play in the product defense efforts of the world’s largest pesticide and seed companies. A line item in CBI’s 2015 tax form for $1.4 million spent in North America notes: “Canada focused on training third party spokespeople (farmers, academics, dieticians) to educate media and public about the benefits of ag biotech.” In Mexico, the tax form notes, CBI “hosted media training and conferences for students, farmers, and academics” and “partnered with grower groups, academia, and the food chain to enhance acceptance” of GMOs. CBI also “created policy briefs for regulators.”

CBI’s largest expense, over $14 million since 2013, was for Ketchum public relations firm to run GMO Answers, which promotes the voices and content of  “independent” experts, many of whom have ties to the pesticide industry. Although GMO Answers discloses its industry funding, its activities have been less than transparent.

Other groups funded by CBI included the Global Farmer’s Network and Academics Review, a nonprofit that organized a series of “boot camps” at top universities to train scientists and journalists to promote and lobby for GMOs and pesticides.

CBI also produced a children’s coloring and activity book promoting industry viewpoints on biotechnology. The link for the book, and also a WhyBiotech.com website created by CBI, now redirect to a trade group for manufacturers and distributors of hemp-derived cannabinoids.

Backstory: Shaping public opinion on GMOs

The backstory of CBI was described in 2001 by public relations industry analyst Paul Holmes, founder of PRovoke (formerly the Holmes Report): In 1999, seven leading pesticide/seed companies and their trade groups “came together as a coalition and developed an industry-led public information program” to “shape public opinion and public policy formation on food biotechnology.” CBI would “develop alliances across the entire food ‘chain’ … to focus on promoting the benefits of food biotechnology,” Holmes reported.

“The campaign would counter criticism that biotech foods were unsafe, by emphasizing the extensive testing of biotech foods,” and “would be structured so as to answer questions and concerns from the public and respond to misinformation and ‘scare-tactics’ by biotechnology opponents,” Holmes noted. He explained that the information would be made available to the public “not only by the biotechnology industry, but through a variety of academic, scientific, government and independent, third-party sources.”

The two-decade evolution of CBI also highlights the consolidation of power in the pesticide/GMO industry. Founding members of CBI were BASF, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, Zeneca Ag products, Aventis CropScience, the American Crop Protection Association (now CropLife) and BIO.

The seven companies have since merged into four: Aventis and Monsanto were absorbed by Bayer; Dow Chemical and DuPont became Dow/DuPont and spun off agricultural business operations to Corteva Agriscience; Novartis and Zenica (which later merged with Astra) came together under the banner of Syngenta (which later also acquired ChemChina); while BASF acquired significant assets from Bayer.

More information

CBI fact sheet

GMO Answers fact sheet

Academics Review fact sheet

More fact sheets from U.S. Right to Know: Tracking the pesticide industry propaganda network

U.S. Right to Know is a non-profit investigative research group producing groundbreaking investigations to expose how powerful food and chemical industry interests impact the food we eat and feed our children. 

Council for Biotechnology Information, GMO Answers, CropLife: pesticide industry PR initiatives 

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The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) was a public relations campaign launched in April 2000 by seven leading chemical/seed companies and their trade groups to persuade the public to accept genetically engineered foods. The initiative was created in response to public concerns about the health and environmental risks of genetically engineered foods, and said its focus would be developing alliances across the food chain to promote GMO crops (“ag biotech”) as beneficial.

CBI closed shop in 2019 and shifted its assets — including the marketing campaign GMO Answers, run by Ketchum PR firm — over to CropLife International, the international trade group for pesticide companies. See, Key pesticide industry propaganda group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife, USRTK (2020)

CBI tax form: focused on third parties

CBI spent over $28 million from 2014-2019, according to tax records (see 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) on projects promoting genetically engineered foods. As noted in its 2015 tax form, CBI had an explicit focus on developing and training third-party spokespeople – particularly academics, farmers and dieticians – to promote industry views about the benefits of GMOs.

Projects funded by CBI included GMO Answers (via Ketchum public relations firm); Academics Review, a group that claimed to be independent of industry; Biotech Literacy Project boot camps held at top universities (via Academics Review) and the Global Farmer Network.

GMO Answers/Ketchum

GMO Answers is a marketing website and public relations campaign that uses the voices of academics and others to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. CBI spent $14.4 million on Ketchum public relations firm between 2014-2019 to run the PR salvo, according to tax forms.

GMO Answers discloses its industry funding on its website and says it promotes the views of independent experts. However, examples have come to light that Ketchum PR scripted some of the GMO answers offered by “independent experts” (see coverage in New York Times and Forbes). GMO Answers also appears in Monsanto PR documents as partners in industry’s efforts to defend glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides from cancer concerns, and to try to discredit a public interest research investigation by U.S. Right to Know to uncover hidden ties between pesticide companies and academics who promote agrichemical products.

An an example of how GMO Answers builds influence with key reporters, see reporting in Huffington Post about how Ketchum cultivated ties with Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel. Haspel was an early promoter of GMO Answers, and later participated in CBI-funded Biotech Literacy Project messaging events. A source review of Haspel’s columns conducted by USRTK found several examples of undisclosed industry sources and misleading information in her articles about pesticides.

GMO Answers was recognized as a successful spin effort in 2014 when it was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis Management & Issue Management.” In a video produced for the award, Ketchum bragged that GMO Answers “nearly doubled positive media coverage of GMOs,” and noted they “closely monitor the conversation” on Twitter where they “successfully balanced 80% of interactions with detractors.” The video was removed after U.S. Right to Know called attention to it, but we saved it here.

Related reporting:

Monsanto document released in 2019 show how Monsanto partnered with GMO Answers.

When USRTK submitted FOIAs to investigate industry ties with academics, Monsanto fought back.

Academics Review

CBI provided $650,000 in funding to Academics Review, a nonprofit that claimed it received no corporate funding. The group was co-founded by Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed Academics Review was set up explicitly as a front group with the help of Monsanto executives and the company’s former director of communications Jay Byrne. The group discussed using Academics Review as a vehicle to discredit critics of GMOs and agrichemicals, finding corporate contributions and hiding Monsanto’s fingerprints.

Related reporting: Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food, by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (2017)

Biotech Literacy Project spin events

CBI spent over $300,000 on two “Biotech Literacy Project boot camps” held at the University of Florida in 2014 and the University of California, Davis in 2015, according to tax records. The money was routed through Academics Review, which co-organized the conferences with the Genetic Literacy Project, another group that helps Monsanto with PR projects while claiming to be independent.

The three-day boot camp events trained students, scientists and journalists in communication and lobbying techniques to  promote and defend GMOs and pesticides, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling in the U.S.

Related reporting:  Flacking for GMOs: How the biotech industry cultivates positive media – and discourages criticism, by Paul Thacker, The Progressive (2017)

Monsanto ‘partner’ groups defend Roundup

Although GMO Answers, Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project all claimed to be independent of the influence of industry, all three groups appeared in a Monsanto PR documents as “industry partners” the company engaged in its efforts to defend glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides from cancer concerns.

Monsanto PR document discusses plans to defend Roundup from cancer concerns

Kids’ coloring book for GMOs

CBI also produced a children’s coloring and activity book to promote GMOs. The link for the book, and also the WhyBiotech.com website created by CBI, now redirect to a trade group for manufacturers and distributors of hemp-derived cannabinoids.

Related U.S. Right to Know posts

GMO Answers is a crisis management PR tool for GMOs and pesticides (updated 2020)

Key pesticide industry propaganda group CBI closes; GMO Answers moves to CropLife (2020)

Monsanto’s campaign against U.S. Right to Know (2019)

Monsanto relied on these ‘partners’ to attack top cancer scientists (2019)

Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group (2018)

Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project: PR Messengers for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry (2018)

How Tamar Haspel misleads readers of the Washington Post and source review of Haspel’s pesticide columns (2018)

Russia’s former PR firm Ketchum runs the chemical industry’s PR salvo on GMO (2015)