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

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Despite its academic-sounding name and affiliation with an Ivy League Institution, the Cornell Alliance for Science is a public relations campaign to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. With $12 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science claims to be working to “restore the importance of scientific evidence in decision-making,” however, the examples in this fact sheet show that the group:

  • Misleads the public with inaccurate information about science;
  • Elevates unreliable messengers who make false and unscientific claims; and,
  • Partners with front groups that have worked with the tobacco industry or chemical industries to manufacture doubt about science that raises health concerns.

The evidence suggests the Cornell Alliance for Science is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to promote the talking points and political agenda of the world’s largest agrichemical corporations.

The Gates Foundation helped launch the Cornell Alliance for Science in 2014 as an effort to “depolarize the charged debate” around genetically modified foods (GMOs). The Gates Foundation Deputy Director Rob Horsch, who worked for Monsanto Company for 25 years, leads the foundation’s agricultural research and development strategies, which have drawn criticism for relentlessly 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.1

Industry-aligned mission and activities

The mission of Cornell Alliance for Science – to build a global movement of “agricultural champions” to “advocate for access” to genetically engineered crops – is strikingly similar to the mission of the main trade group that promotes the interests of the world’s largest agricultural chemical companies. The Council for Biotechnology Information, which is funded by BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta, describes its agenda to “promote acceptance” of agricultural biotechnology by getting “external voices” to “understand and accept the positive role” of genetic engineering.

The main activity of the Cornell Alliance for Science appears to be training and supporting its Global Leadership Fellows – many of whom are journalists or marketing specialists2 – to conduct public relations and political advocacy that aligns with the agrichemical industry’s agenda. Geographical areas of focus have included African countries, where Alliance members urged countries to accept GMO crops and pesticides; and the Hawaiian Islands, where Alliance members opposed community efforts to regulate pesticides.

Defending pesticides with Monsanto talking points

The messaging of Cornell Alliance for Science is strikingly aligned with the agrichemical industry. One clear example is how the Cornell group echoed industry efforts to discredit the scientists of the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency in the wake of their 2015 finding that glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup weed killer, is a probable human carcinogen.

Monsanto’s messaging to combat the market effects of the cancer ruling is revealed in this February 2015 public relations document, which described plans to mobilize “partners” across the food industry to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report in order to “protect the reputation” of Roundup and ward off regulatory actions. Direct sales of glyphosate-based products such as Roundup account for about one third of Monsanto’s profits, and the herbicide is a key component of GMO foods with 90% of corn and soy grown in the United States genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup products.

The precise product-defense messaging can be seen in materials from groups Monsanto identified as “industry partners” in its plan. For example, the Genetic Literacy Project, one of the industry partner groups, and the American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto paid to spin the cancer report, claimed the report was a “scientific fraud” perpetrated by activists, and attacked the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who ‘lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate.

The Cornell Alliance for Science leveled similar attacks against the scientists, portraying their 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. The Cornell Alliance for Science article written by Mark Lynas described glyphosate as “the most benign chemical in world farming.”

Mark Lynas used false talking points straight from Monsanto’s PR playbook to attack the WHO cancer scientists.

Lynas, a writer who works with Cornell Alliance for Science, claimed to be on the side of science and yet ignored evidence that Monsanto interfered with scientific research, manipulated regulatory agencies and used other “strong arm” tactics to interfere with the scientific process in order to protect its pesticide.

In August 2018, in the first case to go to trial of more than 8,000 lawsuits pending against Monsanto (now merged with Bayer), a jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in compensatory and punitive damages to a school groundskeeper who was diagnosed with terminal cancer after using glyphosate-based Roundup products. The jury found that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in covering up the cancer risk of Roundup.

Partners with industry, opposes transparency 

The director of Cornell Alliance for Science, 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 that Dr. Evanega and the Cornell Alliance for Science coordinate closely with the agrichemical industry and their PR allies on key public relations initiatives; see some examples in the footnotes.3

The Cornell Alliance for Science led opposition to transparency efforts to uncover how the agrichemical companies work with academics in covert ways to influence policy and public perception. As one of their first campaigns, the Cornell group teamed up with the industry partner group Biofortified to launch a petition opposing the use of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to investigate corporate-academic ties. The U.S. Right to Know FOIA investigation has revealed many examples of how academics assist industry with PR and lobbying campaigns in ways that are hidden from the public and policy makers.

As one example, the emails show that the pesticide industry recruited members of Biofortified to lobby against pesticide regulations in Hawaii. One member of the group, University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, claimed they were “independent expert scientists” traveling to Hawaii “simply to share science,” even though the pesticide industry was coordinating their meetings and messaging behind the scenes. Dr. Folta has misled the public about science and his ties to industry on many occasions; yet the emails show that Dr. Evanega invited him to teach and speak at Cornell and suggested him for speaking roles, describing him as “an amazing champion for change” and “a model for scientists.”

Fellows, partners mislead the public about science 

The Cornell Alliance for Science partners with groups and people who mislead the public about science. The partnerships described below suggest that the purpose of the Cornell Alliance for Science is not to promote science but rather to promote the agrichemical industry’s political agenda of deregulation.

Mark Lynas: The most visible face of the Cornell Alliance for Science, the British writer Mark Lynas has written dozens of articles defending agrichemical industry products in the name of the Cornell Alliance for Science and recently published a book promoting GMOs and arguing for African countries to accept them.

Experts in genetic engineering, biology, agroecology and food policy have criticized Lynas for making false claims, inaccurate statements, “unscientific, illogical and absurd” arguments, “relying on authority rather than data or research,” and making a career out of demonizing and insulting critics of the agrichemical industry.4 A 2018 statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.”

Lynas has been a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University’s Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences since 2013. According to his website, he advises the Cornell Alliance for Science on their work in developing countries and teaches courses at Cornell. In 2015, Lynas described himself as the “political director” of Cornell Alliance for Science. He also serves on the advisory council of Sense About Science, a Monsanto partner group.

Read more about Mark Lynas and his background here.

Trevor Butterworth and Sense About Science/STATS: The Cornell Alliance for Science partners with Sense About Science USA to offer “statistical consultation for journalists,” and gives a platform to the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending products important to the chemical, junk food and drug industries, including phthalatesBPAvinyl plastic, fracking, formaldehyde in baby soapssugary sodasartificial sweeteners and Oxycontin.

Cornell Alliance for Science Visiting Fellow Trevor Butterworth built his career defending the chemical, junk food and drug industries.

Butterworth has been a Visiting Fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science since 2016 and also teaches a statistics course at Cornell.

Journalists have described Butterworth’s former employer STATS, which he merged with Sense About Science USA in 2014, as a “disinformation campaign” that plays a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation” and uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk. Both Sense About Science and STATS were founded by men who worked with the tobacco industry in the 1990s to downplay the risks of cigarettes.

Monsanto’s PR plan named Sense About Science as an industry partner, and suggested the group could “lead industry response” in the media. Read more about Butterworth, Sense About Science and STATS here.

Climate science skeptic Owen Paterson: In 2015, Cornell Alliance for Science hosted a visit by Owen Paterson, a British Conservative Party politician and well-known climate science skeptic who slashed funding for global warming mitigation efforts during his stint as UK Environment Minister. Paterson used the Cornell stage to promote GMOs with unscientific, inaccurate arguments and claims that environmental groups “allow millions to die.”

This post by a Monsanto-funded group shows how Cornell Alliance for Science spin echoes through industry’s messaging chamber.

The Monsanto-funded front group American Council on Science and Health promoted Paterson’s Cornell speech with an article by  Gil Ross, a doctor who spent time in jail for Medicaid fraud, claiming that “billion dollar green campaigns kill poor children.”

A week after his Cornell talk, Paterson partnered with Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science and Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science in the UK, to launch the “ecomodernism movement,” a corporate-aligned, anti-regulation strain of “environmentalism” that Lynas said he co-founded. British writer George Monbiot describes ecomodernism as “take no action to protect the natural world.”

Opposes community efforts to regulate pesticides in Hawaii

Another example of how the Cornell Alliance for Science deploys fellows and staff members to assist with agrichemical industry lobbying efforts is the group’s campaign to defend pesticides and discredit public health advocates in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for genetically engineered crops, and also ground zero for high exposures to pesticides and concerns about pesticide-related health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma.

These concerns 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. The Cornell Alliance for Science vigorously opposed those efforts, with staff members, fellows and associates writing many articles that tried to discredit elected officials and community groups in Hawaii working for reforms. Messengers of those pro-industry efforts include:

Sarah Thompson, a former employee of Dow AgroSciences, coordinates the Hawaii Alliance for Science, a “communications-based non-profit grassroots organization associated with the Cornell Alliance for Science.” The group launched in 2016, has 10 team members listed on its website, and says its purpose is to “ensure that Science can thrive in Hawaii.” Social media posts from the Hawaii Alliance for Science and its coordinator Thompson have described critics of the agrichemical industry as arrogant and ignorant people, celebrated corn and soy mono-crops and defended neonicotinoid pesticides which many studies and scientists say are harming bees.

Joan Conrow, Managing Editor and Visiting Fellow of Cornell Alliance for Science, and team member of Hawaii Alliance for Science, writes articles on her personal website, her “Kauai Eclectic” blog and for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project trying to discredit health professionals, community groups and politicians in Hawaii who advocate for stronger pesticide protections. Conrow has accused environmental groups of tax evasion, ripped apart media reports about pesticide-related health concerns and compared a food safety group to the KKK.

Conrow has not always disclosed her Cornell affiliation. In August 2016, Hawaii’s Civil Beat newspaper criticized Conrow for her lack of transparency and cited her as an example of why the paper was changing its commenting policies. Conrow “often argued the pro-GMO perspective without explicitly mentioning her occupation as a GMO sympathist,” wrote journalism professor Brett Oppegaard. “Conrow also has lost her journalistic independence (and credibility) to report fairly about GMO issues, because of the tone of her work on these issues.”

Joni Kamiya, a 2015 Global Leadership Fellow with Cornell Alliance for Science and also on the team of Hawaii Alliance for Science, argues against pesticide regulations on her website Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter, in the media and also for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project. She is an “ambassador expert” for the agrichemical industry-funded marketing website GMO Answers.

Like Conrow, Kamiya claims pesticide exposures in Hawaii aren’t a problem, and tries to discredit elected officials and “environmental extremists” who want to regulate pesticides. She promotes chemical industry front groups and industry consultants as “fearless sources” she loves on her website, and even includes the Center for Consumer Freedom, the front group started by Rick Berman, the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda” who was once profiled on 60 Minutes as “Dr. Evil” for his work as the “arch enemy” of regulations to protect health and the environment.

Cornell Alliance for Science staffers, advisors

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

The website lists 20 staff members, including the Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, and Managing Editor and Visiting Fellow Joan Conrow (it does not list Mark Lynas or other fellows who may also receive compensation). Other notable staff members listed on the website include:

The Cornell Alliance for Science advisory board includes academics who assist the agrichemical industry with their PR efforts.

More critiques of the Cornell Alliance for Science

  • 6 ways this Ivy League university is acting like a PR firm for junk food, GMOs and pesticides,” by Sophia Johnson, Salon
    • “The Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR front for the agrichemical industry.”
  • Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign?” by Stacy Malkan, The Ecologist
    • This group “is promoting GMOs using dishonest messaging and PR tactics developed by agrichemical corporations with a long history of misleading the public about science.”
  • New York Farmers call on Cornell to evict the Cornell Alliance for Science,” press release from 67 organic farmers
    • “Careful examination of the Alliance for Science website reveals not a single critical assessment of genetic engineering, none of the reasonable questions that ecological precaution suggest, and no significant evaluation or critique of the way that increased use of genetically engineered seed, Round-Up Ready corn and soy in particular, has enabled the consolidation of power over the world’s food supply by fewer and fewer chemo-biotech corporations.”
  • One student’s experience of pro-GMO propaganda at Cornell,” by Robert Schooler, Independent Science News
    • “The GMO Debate course, which ran in the fall of 2015, was a blatant display of unscientific propaganda in an academic setting.”
  • The Puppetmasters of Academia,” by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent Science News
    • “The Alliance for Science is a PR project and international training center for academics and others who want to work with the biotech industry to promote GMOs.”
  • The War on Genetically Modified Food Critics,” by Timothy Wise, director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University
    • “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.”

Footnotes with additional information 

[1] The Gates Foundation has been criticized for spending the bulk of its agricultural development grants in wealthy countries on strategies that entrench corporate power. Numerous groups across Africa have reported concerns about the disappearance of traditional and organic food crops, the higher expenses of GMO seeds and agricultural chemicals, doubts about whether genetic engineering can deliver on promises and the limitations of GMO crops to deal with the complex realities of farming in Africa. In Burkina Faso, farmers abandoned an experiment with Monsanto’s bug-resistant corn after it became clear the genetically engineered corn could not deliver the same high quality as the traditional homegrown variety. In South Africa, where more than 85% of corn and soy are genetically engineered to survive glyphosate-based Roundup weed killer, farmers are using more chemicals and doctors are raising concerns about growing rates of cancer.

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

[2] More than half the 2018 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows – 15 out of 27 – are identified in their bios as journalists or specialists in communication or marketing. Government administrators, biotechnology students and agribusiness representatives are also among the 2018 fellows chosen from seven countries: Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. According to the Cornell University press release, the fellows will attend a 12-week intensive training program to learn “strategic planning, grassroots organizing, the science of crop biotechnology and effective communications” to help them advocate for access to biotechnology in their home countries.

[3] Dozens of emails obtained via FOIA by U.S. Right to Know, and now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show Dr. Evanega and the Cornell Alliance for Science coordinating closely with the agrichemical industry and their academic allies to coordinate events and messaging:

[4] Critiques and corrections of Mark Lynas include:

Biofortified Aids Chemical Industry PR & Lobbying Efforts

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Biology Fortified Inc., known as “Biofortified,” is a nonprofit organization that works closely with the agrichemical industry and its collaborators on public relations and lobbying campaigns to defend genetically engineered foods and pesticides, and attack industry critics.

Board members and bloggers are key agrichemical industry allies

Current and former board members and blog authors listed on Biofortified’s “meet our experts” page have close ties to the agrichemical industry and industry front group efforts.

Following are examples of industry-aligned lobbying and public relations efforts involving Biofortified and its leaders.

“Biofortified boys” lobby squad defends pesticides

In 2013, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA) — a trade group representing DowDuPont, Monsanto and the Hartung Brothers — organized a lobbying trip to Kauai for industry allies to oppose a community ordinance that would have improved public disclosure of pesticide use and required pesticide buffer zones around schools, hospitals and other public areas. According to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, the HCIA executive director referred to four supporters who were invited on the lobby trip as the “Biofortified boys.” They were:

  • Karl Haro von Mogel, Biofortified science director
  • Steve Savage, Biofortified blog author and agrichemical industry consultant
  • Kevin Folta, Biofortified board member and professor at University of Florida
  • Jon Entine, director of Genetic Literacy Project, a Monsanto partner group

Emails show that Renee Kester, lead organizer of the HCIA lobby project, emailed the four men on July 11, 2013 (page 10) to thank them “for all of the support you have given us over here in Hawaii with regard to our recent legislative battles” and to set up a call to discuss their availability to attend an upcoming legislative hearing. Alicia Muluafiti, executive director of HCIA, then emailed the group (page 9) about the need to craft out short term and longer term strategies “using the Biofortified boys”:

More information:

  • New York Times, “A Florida Professor Works with the Biotech Industry: A Trip to Hawaii to Testify, Paid by Industry” (page 23) (9/5/2015)
  • GM Watch, “How the ‘Biofortified Boys’ defended the pesticide industry’s secrets in Hawaii” (9/27/2015)

Biofortified listed as “industry partner” in Monsanto PR doc  

This internal Monsanto document identifies Biofortified as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, an IARC expert panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

The Monsanto PR document identified four tiers of industry partners the corporation planned to engage in its “preparedness plan” for the IARC cancer report. Biofortified is listed in “Tier 2,” along with Academics Review, AgBioChatter academics, Genetic Literacy Project and Sense About Science. These groups are are often cited as independent sources, but as the Monsanto plan and other examples suggest, they work behind the scenes with the agrichemical industry to protect corporate interests. (Update: In October 2018, Biofortified posted a statement from Monsanto saying the company does not fund or partner with them.)

Opposed transparency and state FOIA requests

Biofortified co-sponsored, along with the Cornell Alliance for Science, a March 2015 petition opposing the use of state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to investigate links between publicly funded academics and the agrichemical industry.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state FOIA requests have since revealed numerous examples of academics working in covert ways with agrichemical companies and their PR firms to aid industry’s lobbying and messaging agenda — for example, the documents describing the origins of the front group Academics Review, and those that discussed the “Biofortified boys” lobby trip to Hawaii. Many of the emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know are now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library, USRTK Agrichemical Collection. The documents have generated worldwide media coverage about transparency in the food industry and the health and environmental risks of pesticides and GMOs.

Biofortified’s industry-aligned attacks on critics

A stuffy doll representing GMO corn named Frank N. Foode is the mascot of Biofortified.

Biofortified founding board member David Tribe co-founded Academics Review, a front group set up with the help of Monsanto to attack industry critics, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. In one email, Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto, discussed a target list of industry critics he was developing for Monsanto.

March Against Myths about Modification (MAMyths), a project of Biofortified, also targeted some of the groups and individuals named on Byrne’s target list – for example, the group participated in a protest against Vandana Shiva and reportedly led a failed attempt to derail an event featuring Vani Hari, the “Food Babe,” sponsored by the Center for Food Safety.

MAMyths co-founder Kavin Senapathy had several articles deleted by Forbes after the New York Times revealed that her co-author, Henry Miller, published a column in Forbes that was ghostwritten by Monsanto. Miller was also identified as a partner in Monsanto’s public relations plan to attack the IARC cancer panel.

Senapathy is co-author of a 2015 book about Hari, “The Fear Babe,” which features a forward written by former Biofortified board member Kevin Folta, in which he describes the food movement as a “well financed terrorist faction.”

Senapathy and Haro von Mogel also appear in the GMO propaganda film Food Evolution.

Related projects

GENERA Database is a list of studies to “show people how much research has been conducted on genetically engineered crops,” according to the FAQ on the Biofortified website. The list was first started by David Tribe, who also co-founded the Monsanto front group Academics Review. Early promotion for GENERA misleadingly claimed to show “more than 600 peer-reviewed reports in the scientific literature which document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds.” Many of those studies did not address safety issues. The inaccurate promotional language was later removed, along with about a third of the studies.

Food Evolution GMO Film Serves Up Chemical Industry Agenda

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This post was recently updated with reviews of Food Evolution: 

By Stacy Malkan, 6/19/2017 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monsanto Science Treatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double Standards in Science and Transparency

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

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

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

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

The “Africa Needs GMOs” Narrative

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

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

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

The film is “fundamentally dishonest.”

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

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

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

Did Monsanto have anything to do with Food Evolution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sneak Peek Behind the Scenes

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

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

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

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

What is propaganda?

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

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

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

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

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