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 (CAS) is a public relations campaign funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that trains fellows around the world to promote and defend genetically engineered crops and agrichemicals in their home countries. Numerous academics, food policy experts, food and farming groups have called out the inaccurate messaging and deceptive tactics CAS associates have used to try to discredit concerns about and alternatives to industrial agriculture.

In September, CAS announced $10 million in new funding from the Gates Foundation, bringing total Gates funding to $22 million since 2014. The new funding comes as Gates Foundation is facing pushback from African farming, food and faith groups for spending billions of dollars on agricultural development schemes in Africa that evidence shows are failing to alleviate hunger or lift up small farmers, as they entrench farming methods that benefit corporations over people. 

This fact sheet documents many examples of misinformation from CAS and people affiliated with the group.  The examples described here provide evidence that CAS is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to advance the PR and political agenda 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.

Pesticide industry group promotes CAS 

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 public relations initiative that has partnered with CAS. The industry group worked to build alliances across the food chain and train third-parties, particularly academics and farmers, to persuade the public to accept GMOs.

CAS messaging aligns closely with pesticide industry PR: a myopic focus on  touting the possible future benefits of genetically engineered foods while downplaying, ignoring or denying risks and problems. Like industry PR efforts, CAS also focuses heavily on attacking and trying to discredit critics of agrichemical products, including scientists and journalists 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:

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.

For detailed critiques of Lynas’ work, see articles at the end of this post and our Mark Lynas fact sheet.

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

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.

Monsanto’s PR playbook: attacking cancer experts as ‘activists’

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.

Lobbying for pesticides and GMOs in Hawaii

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:

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

Elevating front groups and 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.

Trevor Butterworth and Sense About Science/STATS: CAS partners with Sense About Science/STATS to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” and gave a fellowship to the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending products important to the chemical, fracking, junk food and drug industries. Butterworth is founding director of Sense About Science USA, which he merged with his former platform, Statistical Assessment Service (STATS).

Journalists have described STATs and Butterworth as key players in chemical and pharmaceutical industry product defense campaigns (see Stat News, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Intercept and The Atlantic).  Monsanto documents identify Sense About Science among the “industry partner” it counted on to defend Roundup against cancer concerns.

Climate science skeptic Owen Paterson: In 2015, CAS hosted 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 claim that environmental groups raising concerns about GMOs “allow millions to die.” Pesticide industry groups used similar messaging 50 years ago to try to discredit Rachel Carson for raising concerns about DDT.

Lynas and Sense About Science: Lynas of CAS is also affiliated with Sense About Science as a longtime advisory board member. In 2015, Lynas partnered with climate science skeptic Owen Paterson Paterson also Sense About Science Director Tracey Brown to launch what he called the “ecomodernism movement,” a corporate-aligned, anti-regulation strain of “environmentalism.”

Hawaii Alliance for Science messengers

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:

Sarah Thompson, a former employee of Dow AgroSciences, coordinated the Hawaii Alliance for Science, which described itself as a “communications-based non-profit grassroots organization associated with the Cornell Alliance for Science.” (The website no longer appears active, but the group maintains a Facebook page.)

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 of CAS, 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, and journalists who write about pesticide concerns. Conrow has accused environmental groups of tax evasion and compared a food safety group to the KKK.

Conrow has not always disclosed her Cornell affiliation. Hawaii’s Civil Beat newspaper criticized Conrow for her lack of transparency and cited her in 2016 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 CAS Global Leadership Fellow 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.

Cornell Alliance for Science 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.

The website lists 20 staff members, including Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, and Managing Editor 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 CAS advisory board includes academics who regularly assist the agrichemical industry with their PR efforts.

Gates Foundation: critiques of agricultural development strategies 

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 

Mark Lynas’ inaccurate, deceptive promotions for the agrichemical agenda

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Mark Lynas is a former journalist turned promotional advocate for genetically engineered foods and pesticides who makes inaccurate claims about those products from his perch at the Gates Foundation-funded Cornell Alliance for Science. Housed at Cornell University since 2014, the Cornell Alliance for Science is a public relations campaign that trains spokespeople and creates networks of influence, particularly in African countries, to promote acceptance of GMOs and agrichemicals. 

Scientists, food experts say Lynas is wrong on science

Scientists and food policy experts have criticized Lynas for making inaccurate and unscientific statements in his efforts to promote agribusiness interests. As one example, academics panned a July 2020 article Lynas wrote for Cornell Alliance for Science claiming agroecology “risks harming the poor.” Critics described Lynas’ article as a “demagogic and non-scientific interpretation of a scientific paper” and a “really flawed analysis” that “erroneously conflates conservation ag with agroecology and then makes wild conclusions.”

The agronomist Marc Corbeels, whose paper Lynas purported to describe in the article, said Lynas made “sweeping generalizations.” Marcus Taylor, a political ecologist at Queen’s University, called for a retraction; “the right thing to do would be to withdraw your very flawed piece that confuses basic elements of agricultural strategies,” Taylor tweeted to Lynas. He described the article as “pure ideology” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be ‘scientific’.”  

More critiques from scientists and policy experts about Lynas’ work (emphases ours):

  • “I can unequivocally state that there is no scientific consensus about GMO safety and that most of (Lynas’) statements are false,” wrote David Schubert, PhD, Head, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory & Professor at The Salk Institute, in a letter to the San Diego Union Tribune.
  • “Here are some of the incorrect or misleading points that Lynas makes about the science or development of GE,” wrote Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, former senior scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists. “Instead of debating or discussing the actual science, Lynas casts aspersions and resorts to relying on authority rather than data or research.” 
  • Lynas’ claims about the certainty of GMO safety are “unscientific, illogical and absurd,” according to Belinda Martineau, PhD, a genetic engineer who helped develop the first GMO food (see letter to NYT and Biotech Salon).
  • In a review of Lynas’ book Seeds of Science, the anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone described the book as an “amateurish rehash of common industry talking points.” 
  • “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, PhD, former director Food First, in the Huffington Post.
  • Mark Lynas has “made a career out of … demonization,wrote Timothy A. Wise, former director of research at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.
  • Lynas’ narrative is demonstrably false,” according to a 2018 press release from the African Centre for Biodiversity, a South-Africa based group. 
  • “Mark Lynas’ claims display deep scientific ignorance, or an active effort to manufacture doubt. You should ignore him,” tweeted Pete Myers, PhD, chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of EHN.org.

‘Manipulative, misleading and unethical’ tactics 

Africa-based groups say Lynas has repeatedly misrepresented facts to promote a political agenda. According to a December 2018 report by the African Center for Biodiversity, Lynas and the Cornell Alliance for Science used the images of African farmers without their knowledge and consent, exploiting the images in misleading ways to claim farmers need GMOs.

Lynas used this image of a Tanzanian farmer, Mrs. R, out of context and without her permission.

As one example, Lynas posted this image of a Tanzanian farmer, Mrs. R, without permission and out of context, suggesting she is a victim of “global injustice.” Mrs. R is in fact a successful farmer who champions agroecological practices and makes a good living, according to the ACBio report. She asked Lynas to remove her image, but it remains on his twitter feed. ACBio said in its report that Lynas’ tactics “crossed an ethical red line and must cease.”  

The food sovereignty group also said in a press release that Lynas has a “history of mischief-making in Tanzania” for the agricultural biotech industry lobby. “His visits to the country are well organized by the lobby, using platforms such as the regular meetings of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), where the media are in attendance to report on his talks. His attacks have principally been directed at the country’s biosafety regulations, particularly its precautionary approach and strict liability provisions.”

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty (AFSA), a coalition representing 35 farmer and consumer groups across Africa, has also accused Lynas of promoting “false promises, misrepresentation, and alternative facts.” In a 2018 article, they described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.”

Pesticide messaging based on industry talking points, not science

Another example of inaccurate reporting by Lynas is his 2017 article for the Cornell Alliance for Science attacking the World Health Organization’s cancer agency for reporting glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Lynas claimed the expert panel report was a “witch hunt” and an “obvious perversion of both science and natural justice,” orchestrated by people overcome with “hysteria and emotion.” He claimed glyphosate is the “most benign chemical in world farming.” 

A fact check by U.S. Right to Know found that Lynas made the same misleading and erroneous arguments and relied on the same two flawed sources as a blog posted a month earlier by the American Council on Science and Health, a group Monsanto was paying to help defend glyphosate and other agrichemical products. 

In pushing his case that “activist groups abused science and sidelined evidence-based policy in the glyphosate saga,” Lynas not only relied on industry arguments and sources, but also ignored substantial evidence, widely reported in the media, that Monsanto manipulated the science and regulatory reviews on glyphosate for decades using covert tactics including ghostwriting studies and articles, killing studies, pushing dubious science, attacking scientists and strong-arming regulatory agencies in order to protect its profits from glyphosate-based products. 

Promoted by, tied to pesticide industry propaganda network

Agrichemical companies and their public relations operatives frequently promote Mark Lynas and his work. See for example Monsanto’s website, many promotional tweets by pesticide industry trade groups, lobby groups, pro-industry academics and writers, and various Monsanto employees, and the dozens of Lynas’ articles promoted by Genetic Literacy Project, a propaganda group that partners with Monsanto.

Lynas and Cornell Alliance for Science also collaborate with other key players in the agrichemical industry’s lobbying and propaganda network.

Advises Monsanto partner group Sense About Science

A confidential Monsanto PR plan dated February 2015 suggested Sense About Science as a group that could help lead the industry’s response in the media to discredit the WHO cancer report about glyphosate. Lynas serves on the advisory council of Sense About Science. The Intercept has reported in 2016 that “Sense About Science does not always disclose when its sources on controversial matters are scientists with ties to the industries under examination,” and “is known to take positions that buck scientific consensus or dismiss emerging evidence of harm.” Sense About Science partners with the Cornell Alliance for Science to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” via the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who has been described by journalists as a “chemical industry public relations writer.” 

Related: Monsanto relied on these “partners” to attack top cancer scientists

Aligned with climate science skeptic to launch pro-fracking, pro-nuke, GMO “movement”

Lynas calls himself a co-founder of the “movement” of “ecomodernism,” a corporate-aligned strain of “environmentalism” that the British writer George Monbiot describes as “take no political action to protect the natural world.” The eco-modernists promote fracking, nuclear power and agrichemical products as ecological solutions. According to eco-modernist leaders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, energy technologies favored by the oil billionaire Koch brothers “are doing far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the ones favored by the climate-apocalyptic Left.” 

At a failed launch event for ecomodernism in September 2015, Lynas aligned himself with Owen Paterson, a prominent climate science denialist in the UK who slashed funding for efforts to prepare the country for global warming when he was the environment secretary. The same month, Paterson spoke at Cornell Alliance for Science, where he promoted GMOs in a hyperbolic speech filled with unsupportable claims, and accused environmentalists of allowing children to die in Africa. “Billion dollar green campaigns kill poor children,” touted a headline reporting on Paterson’s Cornell speech from the  American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto was paying to defend its products. 

Mark Lynas background

Lynas authored several books on climate change (one of which was recognized by the Royal Society) before he attracted worldwide attention with his “conversion” from an anti-GMO activist to a promoter of the technology with a widely-promoted 2013 speech at Oxford that critics have described as misleading. Later that year Lynas became a fellow at Cornell University Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and began working for the Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications campaign developed in 2014 to promote GMOs with funding from the Gates Foundation.

See: Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign?

Lynas identified himself as the “political director” for Cornell Alliance for Science in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. The Cornell Alliance for Science does not explain what its political agenda is, but the group’s messaging and goals closely track the agrichemical industry’s commercial agenda: to increase acceptance of genetically engineered crops and pesticides around the world, particularly in Africa.

Mysterious Lynas PR push, and leaked EuropaBio memo

The massive media coverage of Lynas’ pro-GMO conversion in 2013 raised suspicions that an industry PR campaign was helping to elevate him behind the scenes. A leaked 2011 memo from an industry PR firm – describing plans to recruit high profile “ambassadors” to lobby for GMO acceptance – heightened suspicions of industry backing because the document specifically named Lynas. He has said the group never approached him.

According to a Guardian report, EuropaBio, a trade group whose members include Monsanto and Bayer, planned to recruit PR ambassadors to help decision makers “rethink Europe’s position on GM crops.” The ambassadors would not be paid directly but would receive travel expenses and “dedicated communications support” from industry funding. The PR firm’s operative rep claimed to “have interest from” Lynas, among others, in the ambassador role. Lynas denied having any contact with them. “I have not been asked to be an ambassador, nor would I accept such a request if asked,” he told the Guardian.

Gates Foundation, GMOs & Monsanto

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the principal funder for the Cornell Alliance for Science with $12 million in grants, has been criticized for its agricultural development funding strategies that favor corporate agribusiness agendas. A 2014 analysis from the research group GRAIN found that the Gates Foundation spent most of its agricultural development funds “to feed the poor in Africa” — nearly $3 billion spent over a decade — to fund scientists and researchers in wealthy nations. The money also helps buy political influence across Africa, GRAIN reported. A 2016 report by the advocacy group Global Justice Now concluded that the Gates Foundation’s agricultural development strategies are “exacerbating global inequality and entrenching corporate power globally.”

The Gates Foundation massively expanded its funding for agricultural projects about a decade ago when Rob Horsch, Monsanto’s former head of international development joined the foundation’s agricultural development leadership team. Lynas’ new book “Seeds of Science” spends a chapter (“The True History of Monsanto”) trying to explain some of the corporation’s past sins and lauding Rob Horsch at length. It spends another chapter (“Africa: Let Them Eat Organic Baby Corn”) arguing that Africans need agrichemical industry products to feed themselves.

Criticisms of the Gates Foundation’s colonialist approach to Africa

  • Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why the GMO Promoters Get it So Wrong About Africa, statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, 5/7/2018
  • Are Gates and Rockefeller using their influence to set agenda in poor states?“Study identifies Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations among rich donors that are close to government and may be skewing priorities,” by John Vidal, The Guardian, 1/15/2016
  • Philanthropic Power and Development. Who shapes the agenda? by Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz, 2015 report (page 48).
  • Philanthrocapitalism: The Gates Foundation’s African programmes are not charity, by Philip L Bereano, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Third World Resurgence, 2017
  • How Bill Gates is Helping KFC Take Over Africa, by Alex Park, Mother Jones, 1/10/2014
  • Gates Foundation’s Seed Agenda in Africa ‘Another Form of Colonialism,’ Warns Protesters, by Lauren McCauley, Common Dreams, 3/23/2015
  • Gates Foundation is spearheading neoliberal plunder of African agriculture, by Colin Todhunter, The Ecologist, 1/21/2016
  • How does the Gates Foundation spend its money to feed the world?GRAIN report, 2014
  • Bill Gates is on a mission to sell GMOs to Africa, but he’s not telling the whole truth, by Stacy Malkan, Alternet, 3/24/2016

Why is Cornell University Hosting a GMO Propaganda Campaign?

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Standing up for science - or propaganda?

Standing up for science – or propaganda?

This article by Stacy Malkan original appeared in The Ecologist

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

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

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

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

Communicating science or propaganda?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messaging for corporate interests

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working from industry’s PR playbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the group’s FAQ:

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

In fact, it is propaganda.

Battling transparency in science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aligning with industry PR writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depolarizing the GMO debate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arming the conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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