By Stacy Malkan
DeWayne Johnson, a 46-year-old father dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, became the first person to face Monsanto in trial this week over allegations the company hid evidence about the cancer-causing dangers of its Roundup weedkiller. Johnson is the first of some 4,000 people suing Monsanto in state and federal courts claiming their cancers were caused by glyphosate-based Roundup.The litigation, and documents coming to light because of it, are shining light on the heavy-handed tactics Monsanto (now a subsidiary of Bayer) has used to deny cancer risk and protect the chemical that is the lynchpin of its profits.
“Monsanto was its own ghostwriter for some safety reviews,” Bloomberg reported, and an EPA official reportedly helped Monsanto “kill” another agency’s cancer study. An investigation in Le Monde details Monsanto’s effort “to destroy the United Nations’ cancer agency by any means possible” to save glyphosate.
Two recent journal articles, based on reviews of the Roundup trial discovery documents, reportcorporate interference in a scientific publication and a federal regulatory agency, and other examples of “poisoning the scientific well.”
“Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science and society,” wrote Tufts University Professor Sheldon Krimsky in a June essay. The discovery documents, he said, “uncover the corporate capture of science, which puts public health and the very foundation of democracy at risk.”
This corporate war on science has major implications for all of us, considering that half of all men in the U.S. and a third of women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The documents the food industry doesn’t want you to see
For years, the food and chemical industries have set their sights on one particular target in the science world: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the independent research group that for 50 years has worked to identify cancer hazards to inform policies that can prevent cancer.
“I’ve been fighting IARC forever!!! :)” one former Kraft Foods scientist wrote to a former Syngenta scientistin an emailobtained through a state open records request. “Foods and ag are under siege since Glyphosate in March 2015. We all need to gather somehow and expose IARC, as you guys did in the paper. Next priorities are all food ingredients: aspartame, sucralose, dietary iron, B-carotene, BPA, etc. IARC is killing us!”
The IARC expert panel decisionto classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” created a rallying point for the panel’s foes to gather forces. A key Monsanto document released via litigation reveals the plan of attack: discredit the cancer scientists with the help of allies across the food industry.
Monsanto’s public relations plan assigned 20 corporate staffers to prepare for the IARC carcinogenicity report on glyphosate, with objectives including “neutralize impact,” “establish public perspective on IARC,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “engage industry associations” in “outrage.”
The document identified four tiers of “industry partners” to help advance the three objectives named in the PR plan: protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies” to keep allowing the use of glyphosate.
Uncovering Monsanto’s network of “industry partners”
Theindustry partner groups Monsanto tapped to discredit the IARC scientists included the largest pesticide and food industry lobby organizations, CropLife International, BIO and the Grocery Manufacturers Association; industry-funded spin groups such as GMO Answers and the International Food Information Council;and “science-y” sounding front groups likeSense about Science,theGenetic Literacy Project and Academics Review– all using similar messaging and often referring back to each other as sources.
One set of documents revealed how Monsanto’s PR operatives organized “Academics Review” as a neutral-sounding platform from which they could launch attacks against a target list of foes, including the Sierra Club, author Michael Pollan, the movie Food, Inc. and the organic industry.
The architects of Academics Review – co-founders Bruce Chassy and David Tribe, Monsanto executive Eric Sachs, former Monsanto communications director Jay Byrne, and former VP of the biotech industry trade group Val Giddings – talked openlyin the emails about setting up Academics Review as a front group to promote industry interests and attract industry cash, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden.
Even now with their playbook exposed – and their primary funding identified as coming from a trade group funded by Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and DowDuPont – Academics Review still claims on its websiteto accept donations only from “non-corporate sources.” Academics Review also claims that the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts,” in a post sourced by the industry-funded PR website GMO Answers, the industry-funded front group American Council on Science and Health, and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.
Miller and the Academics Review organizers Chassy, Tribe, Byrne, Sachs and Giddings are all also members of AgBioChatter, a private listserv that appeared in Monsanto’s PR plan as a tier 2 industry partner.Emails from the AgBioChatter list suggest it was used as a forum to coordinate industry allies on messaging and lobbying activities to promote GMOs and pesticides. Members included senior agrichemical industry staff, PR consultants and pro-industry academics, many of whom write for industry media platforms such as GMO AnswersandGenetic Literacy Project, or play leadership roles in other Monsanto partner groups.
Genetic Literacy Project, led by longtime chemical industry PR operative Jon Entine, also partnered with Academics Review to run a series of conferences funded by the agrichemical industry to train journalists and scientists how to better promote GMOs and pesticides and argue for their deregulation. The organizers were, again,dishonest about the sources of their funding.
These groups cast themselves as honest arbiters of science even as they spread false information and level near hysterical attacks against scientists who raised concerns about the cancer risk of glyphosate.
A search for “IARC” on the Genetic Literacy Project website brings up more than 220 articles with industry messaging, maligning the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who “lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate, and arguing that the global cancer agency should be defunded and abolished.
Many of the anti-IARC articles posted on that site, or pushed by other industry surrogates, ignore the many news reports based on the Monsanto Papers documenting corporate interference in the scientific research, and focus instead on the misleading reporting of Kate Kelland, a Reuters’ reporter who has close ties to the Science Media Centre, the sister organization of Sense About Science, a group Monsanto suggested in its PR plan to “lead industry response” in the media.
The battle against IARC, based on these attacks, has now reached Capitol Hill, with Congressional Republicans led by Rep. Lamar Smithinvestigatingand trying to withhold U.S. funding from the world’s leading cancer research agency.
Who is on the side of science?
Monsanto’s lobbying and messaging to discredit the IARC cancer panel is based on the argument that other agencies using risk-based assessments have exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk. But as many news outlets have reported, along with the two recent journalarticles based on the Monsanto Papers, evidence is piling up that the regulatory risk assessments on glyphosate, which rely heavily on industry-provided research, have been compromised by undisclosed conflicts of interest, reliance on dubious science, ghostwritten materials and other methods of corporate strong-arming that puts public health at risk, as the Tufts Professor Sheldon Krimsky wrote.
“To protect the scientific enterprise, one of the core pillars of a modern democratic society, against the forces that would turn it into the handmaiden of industry or politics, our society must support firewalls between academic science and the corporate sectors and educate young scientists and journal editors on the moral principles behind their respective professional roles,” Krimsky wrote.
Policy makers must not allow corporate-spun science to guide decisions about cancer prevention. Media must do a better job reporting and probing into conflicts of interest behind the corporate science spin. It’s time to end the corporate war on cancer science.
Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know and author of the book “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”
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 Cornell Alliance for Science, a public relations campaign to promote GMOs funded by the Gates Foundation and based at Cornell University. Lynas has been called out repeatedly by scientists, farmers and food experts for spreading misinformation and using manipulative tactics to promote a pro-biotech agenda.
Scientists, food experts say Lynas is wrong on science
Scientists and food policy experts have sharply criticized Lynas for his inaccurate and unscientific promotional efforts for GMOs and pesticides. See articles by (emphases ours):
- David Schubert, PhD, Head, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory & Professor at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies (San Diego Union Tribune letter): “I can unequivocally state that there is no scientific consensus about GMO safety and that most of his statements are false.”
- Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, former senior scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists: “Here are some of the incorrect or misleading points that Lynas makes about the science or development of GE.” “Instead of debating or discussing the actual science, Lynas casts aspersions and resorts to relying on authority rather than data or research.”
- Belinda Martineau, PhD, genetic engineer who helped develop the first GMO food (NYT letter and Biotech Salon): Lynas’ claim about the certainty of GMO safety is “unscientific, illogical and absurd.”
- Glenn Davis Stone, Professor of Anthropologist and Environmental Studies at Washington University, review of Lynas book Seeds of Science: “amateurish rehash of common industry talking points”
- Eric Holt-Giménez, PhD, Director Food First/Inst. of Food Policy and Development (Huffington Post): “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.”
- Timothy A. Wise, Director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University (Food Tank): Mark Lynas has “made a career out of … demonization“
- Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (2018 statement): “The fly-in pundit’s contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakeable.”
- African Centre for Biodiversity (2018 press release): “Lynas’ narrative is demonstrably false.”
- Pete Myers, PhD, founder and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of EHN.org (on Twitter): “The peer reviewed scientific literature is replete with documentation that glyphosate does more than affect plants. Mark Lynas’ claims display deep scientific ignorance, or an active effort to manufacture doubt. You should ignore him.”
‘Manipulative, misleading and unethical’
African farmers say Lynas and the Cornell Alliance for Science used their images on the internet without their knowledge and consent and are demanding the images be removed, according to a December 2018 report published by the African Centre for Biodiversity. The report describes evidence of what the authors described as manipulative, misleading and unethical tactics Lynas used to promote a political agenda to push GMOs in Tanzania. “Mr Lynas’ manipulative communication tactics and attempts to discredit anybody who holds different views than his on GMOs and hybrid seeds have crossed an ethical red line and must cease,” the report said.
See also, “Mark Lynas slammed for exploiting African farmers’ images to promote GMOs,” African Centre for Biodiversity press release (12.7.2018)
Pesticide messaging based on industry talking points, not science
An example of how Mark Lynas promotes agrichemical industry talking points rather than honest science reporting is his article attacking the scientists of the World Health Organization’s prestigious cancer research agency after they designated glyphosate a probable human carcinogen. A Monsanto public relations document reveals the corporation’s plan to discredit the cancer scientists by engaging “industry partners” to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report. Lynas’ messaging follows right along: he described the expert panel’s cancer report as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by people overcome with “hysteria and emotion,” and claimed that glyphosate is the “most benign chemical in world farming.”
In reality, the WHO cancer panels are comprised of leading experts from multiple fields in cancer research who conduct comprehensive science reviews to identify cancer hazards to inform global policies to prevent cancer – a role that has made IARC a target of food and chemical industry propaganda campaigns. In pushing his case that “activist groups abused science and sidelined evidence-based policy in the glyphosate saga,” Lynas ignored substantial evidence, widely reported throughout the world, 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.
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 group’s co-founder (and current “patron”) is Lord Dick Taverne, an English politician whose PR firm promoted and defended the tobacco industry in the 1990s, according to The Intercept and documents from theUCSF Tobacco Industry Archive.
Sense About Science also partners with the Cornell Alliance for Science to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” via the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending toxic products for the chemical, soda and drug industries.
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 writer George Monbiot describes as “take no political action to protect the natural world.” The group promotes fracking, nuclear power, and agrichemical products as ecological solutions.According to its 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.” Nordhaus is also a board member (along with Jon Entine and Drew Kershen) of the Science Literacy Project, the parent organization of Genetic Literacy Project, a propaganda group that partners with Monsanto.
At a failed launch event for ecomodernism in September 2015, Lynas aligned himself with Owen Paterson, a prominent climate science denialist whoslashed funding for efforts to prepare the UK for global warming during his stint as environment secretary there.That 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. Paterson’s speech at Cornell won praise from the industry-funded front group American Council on Science and Health in a blog titled “Billion dollar green campaigns kill poor children,” written by ACSH’s former acting director Gil Ross, a physician who went to jail for Medicaid fraud.
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.
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. Lynas has said the industry 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 Gates Foundation– the principal funder for the Cornell Alliance for Science –has been sharply criticized for its agricultural development funding strategies, specifically for spending most of its funds “to feed the poor in Africa” on scientists in wealthy nations (see 2014 GRAIN analysis), and for colonialist strategies that are “exacerbating global inequality and entrenching corporate power globally” (see 2016 report by Global Justice Now).The Gates Foundation massively expanded its funding for agricultural projects about a decade ago, after Monsanto’s former head of international development, Rob Horsch, 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
See also: Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists, by Stacy Malkan (7/12/2018)
This fact sheet describes the contents of Monsanto’s confidential public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, the international group of experts on the IARC panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.
The Monsanto plan names more than a dozen “industry partner” groups that company executives planned to “inform / inoculate / engage” in their efforts to protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent the “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies.” Partners included academics as well as chemical and food industry front groups, trade groups and lobby groups — follow the links below to fact sheets that provide more information about the partner groups.
Together these fact sheets provide a sense of the depth and breadth of the corporate attack on the IARC cancer experts in defense of Monsanto’s top-selling herbicide.
A key document released in 2017 in legal proceedings against Monsanto describes the corporation’s “preparedness and engagement plan” for the IARC cancer classification for glyphosate, the world’s most widely used agrichemical. The internal Monsanto document — dated Feb. 23, 2015 — assigns more than 20 Monsanto staffers to objectives including “neutralize impact of decision,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “lead voice in ‘who is IARC’ plus 2B outrage.” On March 20, 2015, IARC announced its decision to classify glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
For more background, see: “How Monsanto Manufactured Outrage at Chemical Cancer Classification it Expected,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (9/19/2017)
Monsanto’s Tier 1-4 “Industry Partners”
Page 5 of the Monsanto document identifies four tiers of “industry partners” that Monsanto executives planned to engage in its IARC preparedness plan. These groups together have a broad reach and influence in pushing a narrative about cancer risk that protects corporate profits.
Tier 1 industry partners are agrichemical industry-funded lobby and PR groups.
- CropLife International / European Crop Protection Association are pesticide industry trade groups
- GMO Answers is a crisis management marketing website funded by Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta and run by Ketchum public relations firm
- Biotechnology Innovation Organization is a biotech industry trade group
Tier 2 industry partners are front groups that are often cited as independent sources, but work with the chemical industry behind the scenes on public relations and lobbying campaigns.
Tier 3 industry partners are food-industry funded nonprofit and trade groups. These groups were tapped to, “Alert food companies via Stakeholder Engagement team (IFIC, GMA, CFI) for ‘inoculation strategy’ to provide early education on glyphosate residue levels, describe science-based studies versus agenda-driven hypotheses” of the independent cancer panel.
- International Food Information Council (IFIC) is a food industry-funded spin group that leads a coalition of 130 groups that coordinate messaging about GMOs and pesticides.
- Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is the leading trade group for junk food companies.
- The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) is a food industry-funded spin group.
Tier 4 industry partners are “key grower’s associations.” These are the various trade groups representing corn, soy and other industrial growers and food manufacturers.
Plan suggests Sense About Science to “lead industry response”
The “post-IARC” section details Monsanto’s plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.” The plan suggests the front group Sense About Science (in brackets with a question mark) as the group that “leads industry response and provides platform for IARC observers and industry spokesperson.”
Sense About Science describes itself as a public charity that “promotes public understanding of science,” but that occurs in ways that “tip the scales toward industry,” as The Intercept reported in 2016. The group was founded in London in 2001 by Dick Taverne, an English politician with ties to the tobacco industry and other industries Sense About Science defends.
For more information:
- Exposé in The Intercept about Sense About Science: “Seeding Doubt: How Self Appointed Guardians of ‘Sound Science’ Tip the Scales Toward Industry,” by Liza Gross (11/15/2016)
- USRTK fact sheet about Sense About Science USA, which launched in 2014 under the direction of Trevor Butterworth, who has a long history of manufacturing doubt about science that raises health concerns about toxic chemicals.
The sister group of Sense About Science, the Science Media Centre, is a nonprofit public relations group in London that receives industry funding and has sparked controversy for pushing corporate science. The Science Media Centre has close ties to Kate Kelland, a Reuters’ reporter who has written inaccurate articles about IARC that have been heavily promoted by the “industry partner” groups named in Monsanto’s PR plan, and used as the basis for political attacks against IARC.
For more information:
- IARC responds, “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article” (3/1/18)
- USRTK, “Reuters’ Kate Kelland IARC Story Promotes False Narrative,” by Carey Gillam (7/24/2017)
- Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency,” by Stacy Malkan (7/24/2017)
- USRTK, “Reuters’ Kate Kelland Again Promotes False Narrative About IARC and Glyphosate Cancer Concerns” (10/20/2017)
“Engage Henry Miller”
Page 2 of the Monsanto PR document identifies the first external deliverable for planning and preparation: “Engage Henry Miller” to “inoculate / establish public perspective on IARC and reviews.”
“I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.”
Henry I. Miller, MD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, has a long documented history of working with corporations to defend hazardous products. The Monsanto plan identifies the “MON owner” of the task as Eric Sachs, Monsanto’s science, technology and outreach lead.
Documents later reported by The New York Times reveal that Sachs emailed Miller a week before the IARC glyphosate report to ask if Miller was interested in writing about the “controversial decision.” Miller responded, “I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.” On March 23, Miller posted an article on Forbes that “largely mirrored” the draft provided by Monsanto, according to the Times. Forbes severed its relationship with Miller in the wake of the ghostwriting scandal and deleted his articles from the site.
Follow the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between food industry groups and academics on our investigations page. U.S. Right to Know documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.
Update: Newsweek’s bizarre response
By Stacy Malkan
“The campaign for organic food is a deceitful, expensive scam,” according to a Jan. 19 Newsweek article authored by Dr. Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution.
If that name sounds familiar – Henry I. Miller – it may be because the New York Times recently revealed a scandal involving Miller: that he had been caught publishing an article ghostwritten by Monsanto under his own name in Forbes. The article, which largely mirrored a draft provided to him by Monsanto, attacked the scientists of the World Health Organization’s cancer panel (IARC) for their decision to list Monsanto’s top-selling chemical, glyphosate, as a probable human carcinogen.
Reporting on an email exchange released in litigation with Monsanto over cancer concerns, the Times’ Danny Hakim wrote:
“Monsanto asked Mr. Miller if he would be interested in writing an article on the topic, and he said, ‘I would be if I could start from a high-quality draft.’
The article appeared under Mr. Miller’s name, and with the assertion that ‘opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.’ The magazine did not mention any involvement by Monsanto in preparing the article …
Forbes removed the story from its website on Wednesday and said that it ended its relationship with Mr. Miller amid the revelations.”
The opinion wire Project Syndicate followed suit, after first adding a disclaimer to Miller’s commentaries noting that they would have been rejected if his collaboration with Monsanto had been known.
Desperate to Disparage Organic
The ghostwriting scandal has hardly slowed Miller down; he has continued to spin promotional content for the agrichemical industry from outlets such as Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, without disclosing to readers his relationship with Monsanto.
Yet Miller’s Newsweek hit on organic food has Monsanto’s fingerprints in plain sight all over it.
For starters, Miller uses pesticide industry sources to make unsubstantiated (and ludicrous) claims about organic agriculture – for example, that organic farming is “actually more harmful to the environment” than conventional agriculture, or that organic allies spent $2.5 billion in a year campaigning against genetically engineered foods in North America.
The source on the latter inaccurate claim is Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto (not identified as such in the Newsweek article), who now directs a PR firm called v-Fluence Interactive.
Email exchanges reveal how Monsanto works with people like Jay Byrne – and with Byrne specifically – to push exactly this type of attack against Monsanto’s foes while keeping corporate involvement a secret.
According to emails obtained by my group US Right to Know, Byrne played a key role in helping Monsanto set up a corporate front group called Academics Review that published a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam – the exact theme in Miller’s Newsweek article.
The concept of the front group – explained in the emails I reported here – was to create a credible-sounding platform from which academics could attack critics of the agrichemical industry while claiming to be independent, yet secretly receiving funds from industry groups. Wink, wink, ha, ha.
“The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” wrote a Monsanto executive involved in the plan.
Byrne’s role, according to the emails, was to serve as a “commercial vehicle” to help obtain corporate funding. Byrne also said he was compiling an “opportunities” list of targets – critics of the agrichemical industry who could be “inoculated” from the academics’ platform.
Several people on Byrne’s “opportunities” hit list, or later attacked by Academics Review, were targets in Miller’s Newsweek article, too.
Miller’s Newsweek piece also tried to discredit the work of New York Times’ reporter Danny Hakim, without disclosing that it was Hakim who exposed Miller’s Monsanto ghostwriting scandal.
As with other recent attacks on the organic industry, all fingers point back to the agrichemical corporations that will lose the most if consumer demand continues to rise for foods free of GMOs and pesticides.
Monsanto’s “Independent Academic” Ruse
Henry Miller has a long history of partnering with – and pitching his PR services to – corporations that need help convincing the public their products aren’t dangerous and don’t need to be regulated.
And Monsanto relies heavily on people with scientific credentials or neutral-sounding groups to make those arguments – people who are willing to communicate the company script while claiming to be independent actors. This fact has been established by reporting in the New York Times, Le Monde, WBEZ, the Progressive and many other outlets in recent years.
A newly released Monsanto document provides more details about how Monsanto’s propaganda and lobbying operation works, and the key role Henry Miller plays within it.
This 2015 “preparedness plan” – released by lawyers in the glyphosate cancer lawsuits – lays out Monsanto’s PR strategy to “orchestrate outcry” against the IARC cancer scientists for their report on glyphosate. The first external deliverable: “Engage Henry Miller.”
The plan goes on to name four tiers of “industry partners” – a dozen trade groups, academic groups and independent-seeming front groups such as the Genetic Literacy Project – that could help “inoculate” against the cancer report and “protect the reputation … of Roundup.”
Miller delivered for Monsanto with a March 2015 article in Forbes – the article later revealed as Monsanto’s writing – attacking the IARC scientists. The industry partners have been pushing the same arguments through various channels again and again, ever since, to try to discredit the cancer scientists.
Much of this criticism has appeared to the public as a spontaneous uprising of concern, with no mention of Monsanto’s role as the composer and conductor of the narrative: a classic corporate PR hoodwink.
As more documents tumble into the public realm – via the Monsanto Papers and public records investigations – the “independent academic” ruse will become harder to maintain for industry surrogates like Henry I. Miller, and for media and policy makers to ignore.
For now, Newsweek is not backing down. Even after reviewing the documents that substantiate the facts in this article, Newsweek Opinion Editor Nicholas Wapshott wrote in an email, “I understand that you and Miller have a long history of dispute on this topic. He flatly denies your assertions.”
Neither Miller nor Wapshott have responded to further questions.
Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer watchdog and transparency group, US Right to Know. She is author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry” (New Society, 2007). Disclosure: US Right to Know is funded in part by the Organic Consumers Association which is mentioned in Miller’s article and appears on Byrne’s hit list.
Update: Statement issued by IARC 10/24/2017: “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article”
Continuing her record of industry-biased reporting about the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Reuters reporter Kate Kelland again attacked the science panel with an Oct. 19 story that the panel edited a draft scientific document before issuing the final version of its assessment on glyphosate that found glyphosate a probable human carcinogen.
The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry trade group, immediately issued a press release praising Kelland’s story, claiming her story “undermines IARC’s conclusions about glyphosate” and urging policy makers to “take action against IARC over deliberate manipulation of data.”
Kelland’s story quoted a Monsanto executive claiming that “IARC members manipulated and distorted scientific data” but failed to mention the significant amount of evidence that has emerged from Monsanto’s own documents through court-ordered discovery that demonstrate the many ways the company has worked to manipulate and distort data on glyphosate over decades.
The story also failed to mention that most of the research IARC discounted was Monsanto-financed work that did not have sufficient raw data to meet IARC’s standards. And though Kelland cites a 1983 mouse study and a rat study in which IARC failed to agree with the original investigators, she failed to disclose that these were studies financed by Monsanto and the investigators IARC failed to agree with were paid by Monsanto. She also failed to mention the critical information that in the 1983 mouse study, even the EPA toxicology branch did not agree with Monsanto’s investigators because the evidence of carcinogenicity was so strong, according to EPA documents. They said in numerous memos that Monsanto’s argument was unacceptable and suspect, and they determined glyphosate to be a possible carcinogen.
By leaving out these crucial facts, and by twisting others almost inside out, Kelland has authored another article that serves Monsanto quite well, but victimized innocent members of the public and policy makers who rely on trusted news outlets for accurate information. The only encouraging point to be taken from Kelland’s story is that this time she admitted Monsanto provided her with the information.
As we have previously reported, Kelland’s earlier reporting on IARC has been deeply problematic; her stories have contained errors that Reuters refused to correct, made blatantly misleading claims about documents that were not provided to the public, and relied on industry-connected sources who were presented as independent sources. The story below by Stacy Malkan, originally published in Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, documents these examples.
See also these related stories and documents:
- This Monsanto document describes the company’s public relations plan to “orchestrate outcry with IARC decision” in anticipation of the agency’s cancer rating on glyphosate. The PR plan names Sense About Science, a London based lobbying group, as a “Tier 2” ally and suggests the group could lead media outreach efforts against IARC. Sense About Science is the sister group of Science Media Center, a corporate-funded PR firm in London with close ties to Kelland (as documented in the story below).
- “Reuters’ Kate Kelland IARC Story Promotes False Narrative,” by Carey Gillam, 6/28/2017
- “Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist in Flawed Reuters Story,” by Carey Gillam, 6/19/2017
Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?
By Stacy Malkan, July 24, 2017 in FAIR
Ever since they classified the world’s most widely used herbicide as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” a team of international scientists at the World Health Organization’s cancer research group have been under withering attack by the agrichemical industry and its surrogates.
In a front-page series titled “The Monsanto Papers,” the French newspaper Le Monde (6/1/17) described the attacks as “the pesticide giant’s war on science,” and reported, “To save glyphosate, the firm [Monsanto] undertook to harm the United Nations agency against cancer by all means.”
One key weapon in industry’s arsenal has been the reporting of Kate Kelland, a veteran Reuters reporter based in London.
With two industry-fed scoops and a special report, reinforced by her regular beat reporting, Kelland has aimed a torrent of critical reporting at the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), portraying the group and its scientists as out of touch and unethical, and leveling accusations about conflicts of interest and suppressed information in their decision-making.
The IARC working group of scientists did not conduct new research, but reviewed years of published and peer-reviewed research before concluding that there was limited evidence of cancer in humans from real-world exposures to glyphosate and “sufficient” evidence of cancer in studies on animals. IARC also concluded there was strong evidence of genotoxicity for glyphosate alone, as well as glyphosate used in formulations such as Monsanto’s Roundup brand of herbicide, whose use has increased dramatically as Monsanto has marketed crop strains genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready.”
But in writing about the IARC decision, Kelland has ignored much of the published research backing the classification, and focused on industry talking points and criticisms of the scientists in seeking to diminish their analysis. Her reporting has relied heavily on pro-industry sources, while failing to disclose their industry connections; contained errors that Reuters has refused to correct; and presented cherry-picked information out of context from documents she did not provide to her readers.
Raising further questions about her objectivity as a science reporter are Kelland’s ties to the Science Media Centre (SMC), a controversial nonprofit PR agency in the UK that connects scientists with reporters, and gets its largest block of funding from industry groups and companies, including chemical industry interests.
SMC, which has been called “science’s PR agency,” launched in 2002 partly as an effort to tamp down news stories driven by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, according to its founding report. SMC has been accused of playing down the environmental and human health risks of some controversial products and technologies, according to multiple researchers who have studied the group.
Kelland’s bias in favor of the group is evident, as she appears in the SMC promotional video and the SMC promotional report, regularly attends SMC briefings, speaks at SMC workshops and attended meetings in India to discuss setting up an SMC office there.
Neither Kelland nor her editors at Reuters would respond to questions about her relationship with SMC, or to specific criticisms about her reporting.
Fiona Fox, director of SMC, said her group did not work with Kelland on her IARC stories or provide sources beyond those included in SMC’s press releases. It is clear, however, that Kelland’s reporting on glyphosate and IARC mirrors the views put forth by SMC experts and industry groups on those topics.
Reuters takes on cancer scientist
On June 14, 2017, Reuters published a special report by Kelland accusing Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist from the US National Cancer Institute and chair of the IARC panel on glyphosate, of withholding important data from its cancer assessment.
Kelland’s story went so far as to suggest that the information supposedly withheld could have changed IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Yet the data in question was but a small subset of epidemiology data gathered through a long-term project known as the Agricultural Health Study (AHS). An analysis of several years of data about glyphosate from the AHS had already been published and was considered by IARC, but a newer analysis of unfinished, unpublished data was not considered, because IARC rules call for relying only on published data.
Kelland’s thesis that Blair withheld crucial data was at odds with the source documents on which she based her story, but she did not provide readers with links to any of those documents, so readers could not check the veracity of the claims for themselves. Her bombshell allegations were then widely circulated, repeated by reporters at other news outlets (including Mother Jones) and immediately deployed as a lobbying tool by the agrichemical industry.
After obtaining the actual source documents, Carey Gillam, a former Reuters reporter and now research director of US Right to Know (the nonprofit group where I also work), laid out multiple errors and omissions in Kelland’s piece.
The analysis provides examples of key claims in Kelland’s article, including a statement supposedly made by Blair, that are not supported by the 300-page deposition of Blair conducted by Monsanto’s attorneys, or by other source documents.
Kelland’s selective presentation of the Blair deposition also ignored what contradicted her thesis—for example, Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate’s connections to cancer, as Gillam wrote in a Huffington Post article (6/18/17).
Kelland inaccurately described Blair’s deposition and related materials as “court documents,” implying they were publicly available; in fact, they were not filed in court, and presumably were obtained from Monsanto’s attorneys or surrogates. (The documents were available only to attorneys involved in the case, and plaintiff’s attorneys have said they did not provide them to Kelland.)
Reuters has refused to correct the errors in the piece, including the false claim about the origin of the source documents and an inaccurate description of a key source, statistician Bob Tarone, as “independent of Monsanto.” In fact, Tarone had received a consultancy payment from Monsanto for his efforts to discredit IARC.
In response to a USRTK request to correct or retract the Kelland article, Reuters global enterprises editor Mike Williams wrote in a June 23 email:
We have reviewed the article and the reporting on which it was based. That reporting included the deposition to which you refer, but was not confined to it. The reporter, Kate Kelland, was also in contact with all the people mentioned in the story and many others, and studied other documents. In the light of that review, we do not consider the article to be inaccurate or to warrant retraction.
Williams declined to address the false citing of “court documents” or the inaccurate description of Tarone as an independent source.
Since then, the lobbying tool Reuters handed to Monsanto has grown legs and run wild. A June 24 editorial by the St. Louis Post Dispatch added errors on top of the already misleading reporting. By mid-July, right-wing blogs were using the Reuters story to accuse IARC of defrauding US taxpayers, pro-industry news sites were predicting the story would be “the final nail in the coffin” of cancer claims about glyphosate, and a fake science news group was promoting Kelland’s story on Facebook with a phony headline claiming that IARC scientists had confessed to a cover-up.
This was not the first time Kelland had relied on Bob Tarone as a key source, and failed to disclose his industry connections, in an article attacking IARC.
An April 2016 special investigation by Kelland, “Who Says Bacon Is Bad?,” portrayed IARC as a confusing agency that is bad for science. The piece was built largely on quotes from Tarone, two other pro-industry sources whose industry connections were also not disclosed, and one anonymous observer.
IARC’s methods are “poorly understood,” “do not serve the public well,” sometimes lack scientific rigor, are “not good for science,” “not good for regulatory agencies” and do the public “a disservice,” the critics said.
The agency, Tarone said, is “naïve, if not unscientific”—an accusation emphasized with capital letters in a sub-headline.
Tarone works for the pro-industry International Epidemiology Institute, and was once involved with a controversial cell phone study, funded in part by the cell phone industry, that found no cancer connection to cell phones, contrary to independently funded studies of the same issue.
The other critics in Kelland’s bacon story were Paulo Boffetta, a controversial ex-IARC scientist who wrote a paper defending asbestos while also receiving money to defend the asbestos industry in court; and Geoffrey Kabat, who once partnered with a tobacco industry-funded scientist to write a paper defending secondhand smoke.
Kabat also serves on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group. The day the Reuters story hit, ACSH posted a blog item (4/16/17) bragging that Kelland had used its advisor Kabat as a source to discredit IARC.
The industry connections of her sources, and their history of taking positions at odds with mainstream science, seems relevant, especially since the IARC bacon exposé was paired with a Kelland article about glyphosate that accused IARC advisor Chris Portier of bias because of his affiliation with an environmental group.
The conflict-of-interest framing served to discredit a letter, organized by Portier and signed by 94 scientists, that described “serious flaws” in a European Union risk assessment that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk.
IARC pushes back
In October 2016, in another exclusive scoop, Kelland portrayed IARC as a secretive organization that had asked its scientists to withhold documents pertaining to the glyphosate review. The article was based on correspondence provided to Kelland by a pro-industry law group.
In response, IARC took the unusual step of posting Kelland’s questions and the answers they had sent her, which provided context left out of the Reuters story.
IARC explained that Monsanto’s lawyers were asking scientists to turn over draft and deliberative documents, and in light of the ongoing lawsuits against Monsanto, “the scientists felt uncomfortable releasing these materials, and some felt that they were being intimidated.” The agency said they had faced similar pressure in the past to release draft documents to support legal actions involving asbestos and tobacco, and that there was an attempt to draw deliberative IARC documents into PCB litigation.
The story didn’t mention those examples, or the concerns about draft scientific documents ending up in lawsuits, but the piece was heavy on critiques of IARC, describing it as a group “at odds with scientists around the world,” which “has caused controversy” with cancer assessments that “can cause unnecessary health scares.”
IARC has “secret agendas” and its actions were “ridiculous,” according to a Monsanto executive quoted in the story.
IARC wrote in response (emphasis in original):
The article by Reuters follows a pattern of consistent but misleading reports about the IARC Monographs Programme in some sections of the media beginning after glyphosate was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.
IARC also pushed back on Kelland’s reporting about Blair, noting the conflict of interest with her source Tarone and explaining that IARC’s cancer evaluation program does not consider unpublished data, and “does not base its evaluations on opinions presented in media reports,” but on the “systematic assembly and review of all publicly available and pertinent scientific studies, by independent experts, free from vested interests.”
PR agency narrative
The Science Media Centre—which Kelland has said has influenced her reporting—does have vested interests, and has also been criticized for pushing pro-industry science views. Current and past funders include Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as government agencies, foundations and universities.
As Kelland explained in the SMC promotional video, “By the end of a briefing, you understand what the story is and why it’s important.”
That is the point of the SMC effort: to signal to reporters whether stories or studies merit attention, and how they should be framed.
Sometimes, SMC experts downplay risk and offer assurances to the public about controversial products or technologies; for example, researchers have criticized SMC’s media efforts on fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and genetically engineered foods.
SMC campaigns sometimes feed into lobbying efforts. A 2013 Nature article (7/10/13) explained how SMC turned the tide on media coverage of animal/human hybrid embryos away from ethical concerns and toward their importance as a research tool—and thus stopped government regulations.
The media researcher hired by SMC to analyze the effectiveness of that campaign, Andy Williams of Cardiff University, came to see the SMC model as problematic, worrying that it stifled debate. Williams described SMC briefings as tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives.
On the topic of glyphosate cancer risk, SMC offers a clear narrative in its press releases.
The IARC cancer classification, according to SMC experts, “failed to include critical data,” was based on “a rather selective review” and on evidence that “appears a bit thin” and “overall does not support such a high-level classification.” Monsanto and other industry groups promoted the quotes.
SMC experts had a much more favorable view of risk assessments conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which cleared glyphosate of human cancer concerns.
Kelland’s reporting in Reuters echoes those pro-industry themes, and sometimes used the same experts, such as a November 2015 story about why European-based agencies gave contradictory advice about the cancer risk of glyphosate. Her story quoted two experts directly from an SMC release, then summarized their views:
In other words, IARC is tasked with highlighting anything that might in certain conditions, however rare, be able to cause cancer in people. EFSA, on the other hand, is concerned with real life risks and whether, in the case of glyphosate, there is evidence to show that when used in normal conditions, the pesticide poses an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.
Kelland included two brief reactions from environmentalists: Greenpeace called the EFSA review “whitewash,” and Jennifer Sass from the Natural Resources Defense Council said IARC’s review was “a much more robust, scientifically defensible and public process involving an international committee of non-industry experts.” (An NRDC statement on glyphosate put it this way: “IARC Got It Right, EFSA Got It From Monsanto.”)
Kelland’s story followed up the environmental group comments with “critics of IARC…say its hazard identification approach is becoming meaningless for consumers, who struggle to apply its advice to real life,” and ends with quotes from a scientist who “declares an interest as having acted as a consultant for Monsanto.”
When asked about the criticisms of pro-industry bias of the SMC, Fox responded:
We listen carefully to any criticism from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media, but we do not receive criticism of pro-industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro-industry bias, and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3,000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories, we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.
Scientific experts do not always disclose their conflicts of interest in news releases issued by SMC, nor in their high-profile roles as decision-makers about the cancer risk of chemicals like glyphosate.
Frequent SMC expert Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology at Imperial College London, offers views in SMC releases on aspartame (“not a concern”), glyphosate in urine (no concern), insecticides and birth defects (“premature to draw conclusions”), alcohol, GMO corn, trace metals, lab rodent diets and more.
The ECHA decision that glyphosate is not a carcinogen “is to be congratulated,” according to Boobis, and the IARC decision that it is probably carcinogenic “is not a cause for undue alarm,” because it did not take into account how pesticides are used in the real world.
Boobis declared no conflicts of interest in the IARC release or any of the earlier SMC releases that carry his quotes. But he then sparked a conflict-of-interest scandal when news broke that he held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a pro-industry group, at the same time he co-chaired a UN panel that found glyphosate unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. (Boobis is currently chair of the ILSI Board of Trustees, and vice president ad interim of ILSI/Europe.)
ILSI has received six-figure donations from Monsanto and CropLife International, the pesticide trade association. Professor Angelo Moretto, who co-chaired the UN panel on glyphosate along with Boobis, also held a leadership role in ILSI. Yet the panel declared no conflicts of interest.
Kelland did not report on those conflicts, though she did write about the findings of the “UN experts” who exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk, and she once recycled a Boobis quote from an SMC press release for an article about tainted Irish pork. (The risk to consumers was low.)
When asked about the SMC conflict of interest disclosure policy, and why Boobis’ ISLI connection was not disclosed in SMC releases, Fox responded:
We ask all researchers we use to provide their COIs and proactively make those available to journalists. In line with several other COI policies, we are unable to investigate every COI, though we welcome journalists doing so.
Boobis could not be reached for comment, but told the Guardian, “My role in ILSI (and two of its branches) is as a public sector member and chair of their boards of trustees, positions which are not remunerated.”
But the conflict “sparked furious condemnation from green MEPs and NGOs,” the Guardian reported, “intensified by the [UN panel] report’s release two days before an EU relicensing vote on glyphosate, which will be worth billions of dollars to industry.”
And so goes it with the tangled web of influence involving corporations, science experts, media coverage and the high-stakes debate about glyphosate, now playing out on the world stage as Monsanto faces lawsuits over the chemical due to cancer claims, and seeks to complete a $66 billion deal with Bayer.
Meanwhile, in the US, as Bloomberg reported on July 13: “Does the World’s Top Weed Killer Cause Cancer? Trump’s EPA Will Decide.”
Updates and related analysis:
- Documents filed in court show that Monsanto provided Kate Kelland with the documents for her June 2017 story about Aaron Blair and gave her a slide deck of talking points the company wanted covered. See Carey Gillam’s post dated January 16 (updated Feb. 9) 2019
- July 24, 2017 article by Stacy Malkan, “Reuters Vs. UN Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?“
- June 18, 2017 article by Carey Gillam, “Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist in Flawed Reuters Story“
- October 19, 2017 Kelland story about IARC contained more misleading claims, described here. See statement from IARC, “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article”.
Post prepared by Carey Gillam originally dated June 28, 2017
A June 14, 2017 Reuters article authored by Kate Kelland, headlined “The WHO’s cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence,” wrongly accused a cancer scientist of withholding important data in the safety assessment of glyphosate conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Kelland’s story contains factual errors and states conclusions that are contradicted by a full reading of the documents she cited as primary sources. It is notable that Kelland provided no link to the documents she cited, making it impossible for readers to see for themselves how far she veered from accuracy in interpreting them. The primary source document clearly contradicts the premise of Kelland’s story. Additional documents her story referenced, but also did not link to, can be found at the end of this post.
Background: The Reuters story was one in a series of critical pieces the news agency has published about IARC that Kelland wrote after IARC classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. Glyphosate is a highly profitable chemical herbicide used as the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killing products, as well as hundreds of other products sold around the world. The IARC classification triggered mass litigation in the United States brought by people alleging their cancers were caused by Roundup, and prompted the European Union and U.S. regulators to deepen their evaluation of the chemical. In response to the IARC classification, and as a means of defending itself against the litigation and shoring up regulatory support, Monsanto has lodged multiple complaints against IARC seeking to undermine IARC’s credibility. The June 14 Kelland story, which quoted a top Monsanto “strategy” executive, furthered those strategic efforts and has been touted by Monsanto and others in the chemical industry as proof that the IARC classification was flawed.
- A deposition of scientist Aaron Blair, a draft abstract and email communication Kelland references in her story as “court documents” were not in fact court documents but were documents created and obtained as part of discovery in the multidistrict litigation brought by the cancer victims who are suing Monsanto. The documents were held in the possession of Monsanto’s legal team as well as plaintiffs’ legal team. See docket U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, lead case 3:16-md-02741-VC. If Monsanto or a surrogate provided the documents to Kelland, such sourcing should have been cited. Given that the documents were not obtained through the court, as Kelland’s story implies, it seems apparent Monsanto or surrogates planted the storyline and provided Kelland with the documents, or at least selected parts of the documents, along with its assessment of them.
- Kelland’s article provides commentary and an interpretation of the deposition from Bob Tarone, whom Kelland describes as “independent of Monsanto.” Yet information provided by IARC establishes that Tarone has acted as a paid consultant to Monsanto on its efforts to discredit IARC.
- Reuters teased the story with this statement: “The scientist leading that review knew of fresh data showing no cancer link – but he never mentioned it and the agency did not take it into account.” Kelland implied that Dr. Blair was intentionally hiding critical information. Yet the deposition shows that Blair testified that the data in question was “not ready” to submit to a journal for publication and would not be allowed for consideration by IARC because it had not been finished and published. Much of the data was gathered as part of a broad U.S. Agricultural Health Study and would have been added onto several years of previously published information from the AHS that showed no association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A Monsanto lawyer questioned Blair about why the data wasn’t published in time to be considered by IARC, saying: “You decided, for whatever reason, that that data was not going to be published at that time, and therefore was not considered by IARC, correct?” Blair replied: “No. Again you foul up the process.” “What we decided was the work that we were doing on these different studies were not yet — were not yet ready to submit to journals. Even after you decide to submit them to journals for review, you don’t decide when it gets published.” (Blair deposition transcript page 259) Blair also said to the Monsanto attorney: “What is irresponsible is to rush something out that’s not fully analyzed or thought out” (page 204).
- Blair also testified that some data from the unfinished, unpublished AHS was “not statistically significant” (page 173 of deposition). Blair also testified in that deposition about data showing strong connections between glyphosate and NHL that also was not disclosed to IARC because it was not published.
- Blair testified that some data from a North American Pooled Project study showed a very strong association with NHL and glyphosate, with a doubling and tripling of risk associated with the pesticide seen in people who used glyphosate more than twice a year. Just as the AHS data, this data was also not published or given to IARC (pages 274-283 of Blair deposition).
- Kelland’s article also states: “Blair also said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis. He said it would have made it less likely that glyphosate would meet the agency’s criteria for being classed as ‘probably carcinogenic.’” That testimony (on pages 177-189 of deposition) does not support those statements at all. Blair ultimately says “probably” to questioning from Monsanto’s attorney asking if the 2013 AHS data had been included in a meta-analysis of epidemiology data considered by IARC, if that “would have lowered the meta-relative risk for glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma even further…” Kelland’s story also leaves the impression that this unpublished epidemiology data from an unfinished study would have been a game-changer for IARC. In fact, reading the deposition in full, and comparing it to IARC’s report on glyphosate, underscores how false and misleading that notion is. Blair testified only to epidemiology data and IARC had already deemed the epidemiology evidence that it did see as “limited.” Its classification of glyphosate saw significance in the animal (toxicology) data it reviewed, deeming it “sufficient.”
- Kelland ignores important portions of the Blair deposition specific to a published 2003 study that found “there was over a doubling of the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for people who had been exposed to glyphosate” (pages 54-55 of the deposition).
- Kelland ignores testimony in the Blair deposition regarding a “300 percent increased risk” for cancer in Swedish research (page 60 of deposition).
- Reading through the entire deposition shows that Blair testified as to many examples of studies showing a positive association between glyphosate and cancer, all of which Kelland ignored.
- Kelland writes that in his legal testimony, Blair also described the AHS as “powerful” and agreed the data showed no link to cancer. She implied he was speaking of the specific unpublished 2013 data on NHL and glyphosate that is a tiny subset of information obtained from the AHS, when in fact the testimony shows he was speaking of the larger AHS umbrella of work, which has been tracking farm families and collecting data on dozens of pesticides for several years. What Blair actually said of the broad AHS was this: “ “It’s — it’s a powerful study. And it has advantages. I’m not sure I would say it is the most powerful, but it is a powerful study.” (page 286 of deposition)
- Furthermore, when speaking directly of the 2013 AHS data on glyphosate and NHL, Blair confirmed that the unpublished data needed “cautious interpretation” given the number of exposed cases in subgroups was “relatively small” (page 289).
- Kelland states “IARC told Reuters that, despite the existence of fresh data about glyphosate, it was sticking with its findings,” suggesting a cavalier attitude. Such a statement is entirely misleading. What IARC in fact said was its practice is not to consider unpublished findings and that it can re-evaluate substances when a significant body of new data is published in literature.
See also June 19, 2017 story by Carey Gillam, Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist In Flawed Reuters Story.
The Science Media Centre (SMC) is a nonprofit PR agency started in the UK that gets its largest block of funding from industry groups. Current and past funders include Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as media groups, government agencies, foundations and universities. The SMC model is spreading around the world and has been influential in shaping media coverage of science, sometimes in ways that downplay the risks of controversial products or technologies.
This fact sheet describes SMC history, philosophy, funding model, tactics and reports from critics who have said SMC offers pro-industry science views, a charge SMC denies.
- “Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency” Analysis of Kate Kelland’s biased coverage of IARC, glyphosate and cancer concerns, and Kelland’s close ties to the Science Media Centre.
- This Monsanto document describes Sense About Science (the sister organization of Science Media Centre) as a “Tier 2” ally in Monsanto’s PR plan to “orchestrate outcry” about IARC’s cancer designation of glyphosate.
- Spinning Science for Industry: Fact sheet about Trevor Butterworth and Sense About Science.
The SMC was set up in the UK in 2002 “after media frenzies over MMR, GM crops and animal research” to help the news media better represent mainstream science, according to the SMC fact sheet.
According to the group’s 2002 founding report, SMC was created to address:
- a growing “crisis of confidence ” in society’s views of science in the wake of media controversies over mad cow disease, GMOs and the MMR vaccine;
- a collapse of respect for authority and expertise;
- a risk-averse society and alarmist media coverage; and
- the “apparently superior media strategies” used by environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to get their case across.
The SMC model has been influential in shaping media coverage about science. A media analysis of UK newspapers in 2011 and 2012 found that a majority of reporters who used SMC services did not seek additional perspectives for their stories. The group sometimes wields political influence. In 2007, SMC stopped a proposed ban on human/animal hybrid embryos with its media campaign that shifted coverage away from ethical concerns to the benefits of the embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.
Several academics and researchers have criticized SMC for pushing corporate views of science, and for playing down the environmental and human health risks of controversial products and technologies. Reports have documented SMC’s tendency to push pro-industry messaging and exclude opposing perspectives on topics such as fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and GMOs.
SMC says it is “committed to reflecting the weight of scientific evidence and opinion, and one of our main aims is that the news media should better represent mainstream science.”
SMC Director Fiona Fox said her group is not biased in favor of industry: “We listen carefully to any criticism of the SMC from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media but we do not receive criticism of pro industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro industry bias and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.”
Quotes about the Science Media Centre
“Science Media Centers … have become influential, but controversial players in the world of journalism. While some reporters find them helpful, others believe they are biased toward government and industry scientists.” Columbia Journalism Review
“Depending on whom you ask, (SMC Director) Fiona Fox is either saving science journalism or destroying it,” Ewen Callway, Nature
“A decreasing pool of time-pressed UK science journalists no longer go into the field and dig for stories. They go to pre-arranged briefings at the SMC … The quality of science reporting and the integrity of information available to the public have both suffered, distorting the ability of the public to make decisions about risk.” Connie St. Louis, Senior Lecturer and Director of MA in Science Journalism, City University London
“The problem is not that they promote science, as they say they do, but that they promote pro-corporate science.” David Miller, Professor of Sociology, University of Bath, United Kingdom
“For those not blinded by the SMC’s dazzling aura, it appears that its covert purpose is to ensure that journalists and the media report scientific and medical matters only in a way that conforms to government and industry’s ‘policy’ on the issues in question.” Malcolm Hopper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK
“It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology.” Don Maisch, PhD
“The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking.” Paul Mobbs, Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
“The scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network.” George Monbiot, Guardian
SMC’s largest share of funding, roughly 30%, comes from corporations and trade groups. Funders as of August 2016 included a wide range of chemical, biotechnology, nuclear, food, medical, telecommunications and cosmetic industry interests. Agrichemical industry funders included Bayer, DuPont, BASF, CropLife International, BioIndustry Association and the Chemical Industries Association. Previous funders have included Monsanto, ExxonMobile, Shell, Coca-Cola and Kraft. SMC also receives funding from several media, government and academic groups.
SMC says it caps donations from any one company or institution to 5% of annual income in an effort to “protect from undue influence” – exceptions are made for larger donations from the Wellcome Trust and the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
SMC History: “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth”
By the late 1990s, the relationship between science and media was at a breaking point, explains the SMC promotional video. “Around the time of BSE, MMR, GM crops, there was a real sense of this gulf between scientists and the media, especially when these big controversial stories were breaking,” Fox said in the video.
SMC was created “to help renew public trust in science by working to promote more balanced, accurate and rational coverage of the controversial science stories that now regularly hit the headlines,” according to its consultation report.
SMC foundational documents include:
- February 2000 House of Lords committee report on Science and Society – describes a “crisis of trust” in society’s relationship with science, and recommended an initiative on the interface between science and the media.
- September 2000 “Code of Practice / Guidelines on Science and Health Communication,” prepared by the Royal Society and Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) – recommends guidelines for journalists and scientists to counter “the negative impact of what are viewed as unjustified ‘scare stories’ and those which offer false hopes to the seriously ill.”
- 2002 SMC Consultation Report – describes the interview process with stakeholders from government, industry and media who informed the approaches SMC would use to “take up the gauntlet thrown down by the Lords to meet the ‘great challenge’ of adapting science to frontline news.”
The SMC effort was immediately controversial. Author Tom Wakeford predicted in 2001 that SMC would become “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth of which George Orwell’s fictional rulers would be proud.” He wrote in the Guardian, “Senior figures in the Government, Royal Society and Royal Institution have decided that their much-prized Knowledge Economy necessitates the curtailment of free speech.” Wakeford quoted two politicians involved in the SMC effort:
“As (Lord Melvyn) Bragg warned, ‘if ignorance stirred to hysteria by sensationalism were to get in the driving seat, thousands of highly skilled and remarkable opportunities for self-fulfilment, wealth creation and knowledge formation would be lost.’ Advocate of GM crops, Lord (Dick) Taverne, argues that the media’s ‘sloppiness’ on issues of GM was now ‘undermining the health of our democracy.’
Before you can say ‘freedom of the press,’ a new Code of Practice has already been endorsed by Lord Wakeham’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The Code recommends that journalists consult with approved experts, a secret directory of which is to be provided to ‘registered journalists with bona fide credentials.'”
SMC’s first project – an effort to discredit a BBC fictional film that portrayed genetically engineered crops in an unfavorable light – elicited a series of critical articles in the Guardian (a Guardian editor co-authored the film). The articles described SMC as a “science lobby group backed by major pharmaceutical and chemical companies” that was operating “a sort of Mandelsonian rapid rebuttal unit” and employing “some of the clumsiest spin techniques of New Labour in trying to discredit (the film) in advance.”
Dick Taverne and Sense About Science
Sense About Science – a lobby effort to reshape perceptions of science – launched in the UK in 2002 alongside SMC under the leadership of Lord Dick Taverne and others with ties to SMC. Lord Taverne was an SMC Advisory Board member and he co-created the SIRC Code of Practice guidelines.
A 2016 story in The Intercept by Liza Gross described Sense About Science and its leaders as “self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’” who “tip the scales toward industry.”
Gross described Taverne’s tobacco industry ties and past public relations efforts:
According to internal documents released in litigation by cigarette manufacturers, Taverne’s consulting company, PRIMA Europe, helped British American Tobacco improve relations with its investors and beat European regulations on cigarettes in the 1990s. Taverne himself worked on the investors project: In an undated memo, PRIMA assured the tobacco company that “the work would be done personally by Dick Taverne,” because he was well placed to interview industry opinion leaders and “would seek to ensure that industry’s needs are foremost in people’s minds.” During the same decade, Taverne sat on the board of the British branch of the powerhouse public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which claimed Philip Morris as a client. The idea for a “sound science” group, made up of a network of scientists who would speak out against regulations that industrial spokespeople lacked the credibility to challenge, was a pitch Burson-Marsteller made to Philip Morris in a 1994 memorandum.
As its first projects, Sense About Science organized a letter from 114 scientists lobbying the British government to “contradict false claims” about GMOs, and conducted a survey highlighting the problem of vandalism against GMO crops.
Sense About Science USA opened in 2014 under the leadership of longtime chemical industry ally Trevor Butterworth, and partners with the Gates-funded Cornell Alliance for Science, a GMO promotion group.
Revolutionary Communist Roots
The founding and current directors of Science Media Centre and Sense About Science – SMC Director Fiona Fox and SAS Director Tracey Brown – and others involved with those groups, were reportedly connected through the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyist splinter party organized in the late 1970s under the leadership of sociologist Frank Ferudi, according to writers George Monbiot, Jonathan Matthews, Zac Goldsmith and Don Maisch.
Ferudi’s splinter group RCP morphed into Living Marxism, LM magazine, Spiked Magazine and the Institute of Ideas, which embraced capitalism, individualism and promoted an idealized vision of technology and disdain for environmentalists, according to Monbiot. (Ferudi responds in this piece.)
A Guardian article about an LM event in 1999 described the network as “a reaction against the Left” (in Furedi’s words) with a worldview that left-wing thinking “is not a political factor” and there is “no alternative to the market.”
“One of strangest aspects of modern politics is the dominance of former left-wingers who have swung to the right,” Monbiot wrote in a 2003 article describing the ties between Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre, the people involved with those efforts and links to the LM network:
“Is all this a coincidence? I don’t think so. But it’s not easy to understand why it is happening. Are we looking at a group which wants power for its own sake, or one following a political design, of which this is an intermediate step? What I can say is that the scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network. Far from rebuilding public trust in science and medicine, this group’s repugnant philosophy could finally destroy it.”
The SMC in the UK says it has a database with 2700 experts and more than 1200 press officers, and mailing lists with more than 300 journalists representing every major UK news outlet.
SMC uses three main tactics to influence science coverage, according to its promotional video:
- Rapid response to breaking news with opinion quotes from experts: When a science story breaks, “within minutes there are SMC emails in inboxes of every single national reporter offering experts,” said Fox.
- Getting to reporters first with new research. SMC “has privileged access to about 10-15 scientific journals in advance of the embargo lifting” so they can prepare advance comments from third-party experts signaling whether new studies merit attention and how they should be framed.
- Organizing about 100 press briefings a year that “proactively set the agenda by bringing new science or evidence to journalists” on a wide range of controversial topics such as nuclear waste, biotechnology and emerging diseases.
Examples of influence and bias
Several researchers and academics have reported what they say is SMC’s pro-industry bias on certain controversial topics, and the extent to which journalists rely on SMC expert views to frame science stories.
Lacking diverse perspectives
Journalism professor Connie St. Louis of City University, London, evaluated SMC’s impact on science reporting in 12 national newspapers in 2011 and 2012, and found:
- 60% of articles covering SMC press briefings did not use an independent source
- 54% of “expert reactions” reactions offered by SMC to breaking news during the time period covered were in the news
- Of these stories, 23% did not use an independent source
- Of those that did, only 32% of the external sources offered an opposing view to that offered by the expert in the SMC reaction.
“There are more journalists than there should be that are only using experts from the SMC and not consulting independent sources,” St. Louis concluded.
Experts aren’t always scientists
David Miller, professor of sociology from the University of Bath, UK, analyzed SMC content on the website and via Freedom of Information Act requests, and reported:
- Some 20 of the 100 most quoted SMC experts were not scientists, as defined by having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society, but were lobbyists for and CEOs of industry groups.
- Funding sources were not always completely or timely disclosed online.
- There was no evidence of SMC favoring a particular funder, but it did favor particular corporate sectors and topics it covered “reflect the priorities of their funders.”
“If you say you quote scientists and end up using lobbyists and NGOs, the question is: how do you choose which lobbyists or NGOs to have? Why don’t you have lobbyists who oppose genetic testing or members of Greenpeace expressing their view rather than bioindustry’s position? That really reveals the kind of biases that are in operation,” Miller said.
Strategic triumph on human/animal hybrid embryos
In 2006, when the UK government considered banning scientists from creating human-animal hybrid embryos, the SMC coordinated efforts to shift the focus of media coverage away from ethical concerns and toward the importance of hybrid embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.
The SMC campaign “was a strategic triumph in media relations” and was “largely responsible for turning the tide of coverage on human–animal hybrid embryos,” according to Andy Williams, a media researcher at the University of Cardiff, UK, who conducted an analysis on behalf of SMC and campaign allies.
- More than 60% of the sources in stories written by science and health reporters — the ones targeted by the SMC — supported the research, and only one-quarter of sources opposed to it.
- By contrast, journalists who had not been targeted by the SMC spoke to fewer supportive scientists and more opponents.
“Williams now worries that the SMC efforts led reporters to give too much deference to scientists, and that it stifled debate,” the Nature article reported. An interview with Williams in SciDevNet reports:
“A lot of the language used to describe [SMC media briefings] stresses that they were a chance for the scientists to explain the science in their own words, but — crucially — in a neutral and value-free way,” he said. But this ignores the fact that these were tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives, he added, and that they were set up to secure maximum media impact for the scientists involved. Specialist science journalists were fed “information subsidies” by the SMC and were far more likely than other journalists to quote pro-hybridisation sources, Williams said.
Industry views on fracking
According to a February 2015 media analysis conducted by Paul Mobbs of Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations, SMC offered numerous expert commentaries on fracking between 2012-2015, but the handful of scientists who dominated the commentary were from institutes with funding relationships with the fossil fuel industry or industry-sponsored research projects.
“The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking. These opinions are based upon the professional position of those involved, and are not supported with references to evidence to confirm their validity. In turn, these views have often been quoted in the media without question.”
“In the case of shale gas, the SMC is not providing a balanced view of the available evidence, and uncertainties, on the impacts of unconventional oil and gas. It is providing quotes from academics who mostly represent a ‘UK establishment’ viewpoint, which ignores the whole body of evidence available on this issue from the USA, Australia and Canada.”
Discrediting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
A 2013 paper by Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK, reported evidence that SMC promoted the views of certain psychiatrists while ignoring other evidence that contradicted the psychiatrists’ theory, in an effort to discredit people with ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
“For those not blinded by the SMC’s dazzling aura, it appears that its covert purpose is to ensure that journalists and the media report scientific and medical matters only in a way that conforms to government and industry’s ‘policy’ on the issues in question.”
“An organisation which behaves in such a blatantly unscientific way can have no legitimate claim to represent science.”
Cell phone safety and telecom funders
A 2006 paper by Don Maisch, PhD, “raises serious concerns over the impartiality of the SMC model in science communication when tendering expert advice on contentious issues when vested interests are part of the SMC structure.” The Maisch paper explores SMC communications on issues involving electromagnetic radiation and cell phone safety, and offers what he calls an “uncensored history of the SMC model of science communication.”
“It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology. This may explain why people with no real qualifications in science communication were able to reach positions that essentially became the public face of the British scientific establishment. It also explains why the UK scientific and medical establishment, aware that a large part of scientific funding comes from industry sources, are willing partners in allowing PR organizations with a pre-determined agenda to speak for them and champion government economic policy over the public interest.”
SMC has been critical of studies that raise concerns about GMOs. In 2016, scientists pushed back against SMC expert reactions that they said misrepresented their work on GMOs. The study led by Michael Antoniou, PhD, Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group, King’s College London School of Medicine, and published in Scientific Reports, used molecular profiling to compare GMO corn to its non-GM counterpart and reported the GM and non-GM corn were “not substantially equivalent.” SMC issued an expert reactions disparaging the study, and would not allow the authors to respond or correct inaccurate information in the SMC release, according to the study authors.
“These comments [quoted in the SMC release] are inaccurate and thus spread misinformation about our paper. We have been informed that it is not the Science Media Centre’s policy to post responses, such as ours, to commentaries that they commission/post on their website,” Antoniou said. The study authors posted their response here.
Journalist Rebekah Wilce reported in PR Watch in 2014 on several examples of pro-GMO bias in SMC communications. She wrote:
SMC calls itself an independent media briefing center for scientific issues. Critics, however, question its independence from the GMO industry — despite the group’s statement that each individual corporation or other funder may only donate up to five percent of the group’s annual income — and warn that the organization is headed across the pond to the United States to provide more GMO spin here.
The SMC spearheaded the response to a 2012 study that reporting finding tumors in lab animals fed GMOs in a long-term feeding study. The study was widely disparaged in the press, was retracted by the original journal and later republished in another journal.
Columbia Journalism Review three-part series, June 2013, “Science Media Centres and the Press”
- CJR part 1: “Does the UK Model Help Journalists?”
- CJR part 2: “How did the SMCs perform during the Fukushima nuclear crisis?”
- CJR part 3: “Can a SMC work in the US?”
Nature, by Ewen Callaway, July 2013, “Science media: Centre of attention; Fiona Fox and her Science Media Centre are determined to improve Britain’s press. Now the model is spreading around the world”
Nature, by Colin Macilwain, “Two nations divided by a common purpose: Plans to replicate Britain’s Science Media Centre in the United States are fraught with danger”
FAIR, by Stacy Malkan, July 24, 2017, “Reuters vs. Un Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?”
SciDevNet, by Mićo Tatalović, May 2014, “UK’s Science Media Centre lambasted for pushing corporate science” Centre lamb
PR Watch, by Rebekah Wilke, April 2014, “Science Media Centre Spins Pro-GMO Line”
On related group Sense About Science:
The Intercept, by Liza Gross, November 2016, “Seeding Doubt: How self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’ tip the scales toward industry.”
USRTK Fact Sheet: Sense About Science-USA Director Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry
In a well-orchestrated and highly coordinated media coup, Monsanto Co. and friends this week dropped a bombshell on opponents who are seeking to prove that the company’s beloved Roundup herbicide causes cancer.
A widely circulated story published June 14 in the global news outlet Reuters (for which I formerly worked) laid out what appeared to be a scandalous story of hidden information and a secretive scientist, “exclusive” revelations that the story said could have altered a critical 2015 classification that associated Monsanto’s Roundup to cancer and triggered waves of lawsuits against Monsanto.
It was a blockbuster of a story, and was repeated by news organizations around the globe, pushed by press releases from Monsanto-backed organizations and trumpeted by industry allies like the American Chemistry Council.
It was also flawed and misleading in a number of critical respects.
Authored by Reuters’ reporter Kate Kelland, who has a history of cozy relations with a group partly funded by agrichemical company interests, the piece accused a top epidemiologist from the U.S. National Cancer Institute of failing to share “important” scientific data with other scientists as they all worked together assessing the herbicide glyphosate for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). That group reviewed a wide body of research on glyphosate and determined in March of 2015 that the pesticide should be classified as a probable human carcinogen. Had the group known of this missing data, it’s conclusion could have been different, according to Reuters.
The story was particularly timely given glyphosate and Roundup are at the center of mass litigation in the United States and under scrutiny by U.S. and European regulators. After the IARC classification, Monsanto was sued by more than 1,000 people in the United States who claim they or their loved ones got non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup and the company and the cases could start going to trial next year. Roundup is the most widely used herbicide in the world and brings in billions of dollars a year for Monsanto. The company insists the IARC classification is meritless and the chemical is proven safe by decades of research.
So yes, it was a big story that scored big points for Monsanto in the debate over glyphosate safety. But drilling deeply into the sourcing and selective nature of the Reuters piece makes it clear the story is not only seriously flawed, but that it is part of an ongoing and carefully crafted effort by Monsanto and the pesticide industry to discredit IARC’s work.
The story contains at least two apparent factual errors that go to the credibility of its theme. First the story cites “court documents” as primary sources when in fact the documents referred to have not been filed in court and thus are not publicly available for reporters or members of the public to access. Kelland does not share links to the documents she references but makes it clear her information is largely based on a deposition from Aaron Blair, the National Cancer Institute epidemiologist who chaired the IARC working group on glyphosate, as well as related emails and other records. All were obtained by Monsanto as part of the discovery process for the Roundup litigation that is pending in federal court in San Francisco. By citing court documents, Kelland avoided addressing whether or not Monsanto or its allies spoon-fed the records to her. And because the article did not provide a link to the Blair deposition, readers are unable to see the full discussion of the unpublished study or the multiple comments by Blair of many other studies that do show evidence of links between glyphosate and cancer. I’m providing the deposition here, and disclosing that I requested and obtained it from attorneys involved in the Roundup litigation after Kelland’s story was published.
Second, the story relies in part on an anti-IARC view of a scientist named Bob Tarone and refers to him as an “independent” expert, someone “independent of Monsanto.” Kelland quotes Tarone as saying that IARC’s evaluation of glyphosate is “flawed and incomplete.” Except, according to information provided by IARC, Tarone is far from independent of Monsanto; Tarone in fact has acknowledged that he is a paid consultant to Monsanto, and a piece cited by Reuters and authored by Tarone last year in a European scientific journal is being recorrected to reflect Tarone’s conflict of interest, according to IARC, which said it has been in communication with that journal.
But much more noteworthy than the errors is how selective the story is in pulling from the Blair deposition. The story ignored Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate connections to cancer, and focused instead on Blair’s knowledge of one unpublished research study that was still in progress. The story hones in on speculation that the data perhaps could have been finished and published in time to be reviewed by IARC and further speculation by Blair, prodded by a Monsanto attorney, that had it been finished and had it been published it could have helped counter the other studies IARC viewed that showed positive cancer connections.
That research, part of a massive ongoing project by U.S. government researchers called the Agricultural Health Study, includes hundreds of studies and years of data analyzing pesticide impacts on farmers. Blair, who retired from the National Cancer Institute in 2007, was not leading that research but was part of a team of scientists who in 2013 were analyzing data about pesticide use and the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The data specific to glyphosate did not show a connection to NHL but in working to publish a paper about all the data the group had gathered, they decided to narrow the focus to insecticides and in 2014 did publish a paper on that work. The data on glyphosate and NHL has yet to be published, and some scientists who are familiar with the work say it has not tracked people long enough yet to be definitive given NHL generally takes 20 or more years to develop. A prior compilation of data by AHS researchers that also showed no connection between glyphosate and NHL was published in 2005 and was considered by IARC. But because the newer data was not published it was not considered by IARC.
Blair said the decision to limit the published work to insecticides was to make the data more manageable and was made well before IARC announced it would be looking at glyphosate in 2015.
“The rule is you only look at things that are published,” Blair told me this week after the Reuters story was published. “What would it be like if everyone on the working group whispered things they knew but weren’t published and made decisions on that?” IARC confirmed it does not consider unpublished research. In his deposition, Blair states that nothing has changed his opinion about glyphosate and NHL.
Epidemiologist and University of Toronto scientist John McLaughlin, who sat on the glyphosate working group for IARC with Blair, said to me in a note this week that the information about the unpublished work written about by Reuters did not alter his view of the validity of IARC conclusion on glyphosate either.
Also left out of the Reuters story – the deposition and a draft copy of the study in question shows that there were concerns about the AHS results due to “relatively small” subgroups of exposed cases. And notably, the Reuters report leaves out Blair’s discussion of the North American Pooled Project, in which he participated, which also contains data related to glyphosate and NHL but is not favorable to Monsanto. A synopsis of that project presented to the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology in 2015 showed that people who used glyphosate for more than five years had significantly increased odds of having NHL, and the risk was also significantly higher for people who handled glyphosate for more than two days per year. That information, like the new AHS data, was not given to IARC because it wasn’t yet published.
“When Dr. Blair’s deposition transcript is read in total, it shows that nothing was wrongfully withheld from IARC,” said Plaintiffs’ attorney Aimee Wagstaff. She said Monsanto was using pieces of the deposition to “further its agenda in the media.”
To epidemiologist Peter Infante, who spent more than 20 years leading a cancer identification unit at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and analyzed a body of epidemiology research on glyphosate in testimony to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scientific Advisory Committee in December, the attention drawn to unpublished data that supports Monsanto’s position is much ado about nothing.
“You still have other studies that show dose response,” he told me. “This Agricultural Health Study is not the gold standard. For glyphosate and NHL they haven’t been following people long enough. Even if the data had been published and had been considered by IARC it would be in the context of all the other study results.”
And finally, in an odd exclusion, the story fails to disclose that Kelland herself has at least tangential ties to Monsanto and friends. Kelland has helped promote an organization called the Science Media Centre, a group whose aim is to connect certain scientists such as Tarone with journalists like Kelland, and which gets its largest block of funding from corporations that include the agrichemical industry. Current and past funders include Monsanto, Monsanto’s proposed merger partner Bayer AG, DuPont and agrichemical industry lobbyist CropLife International. Kelland appears in a promotional video for SMC touting the group and authored an essay applauding the SMC that appeared in a SMC promotional report.
As a Reuters reporter for 17 years (1998-2015) I know the value of an “exclusive.” The more such scoops a reporter garners, the more bonus points and high praise from editors. It’s a system seen in many news agencies and it works great when it encourages dogged, investigative journalism. But powerful corporations like Monsanto also know how eager reporters are to land exclusives and know that handing favored journalists cherry-picked information with the promise of exclusivity can serve their public relations needs quite well. Follow up the hand-fed story with a press release from an industry-funded outlet and calls for an investigation from the industry group American Chemistry Council and you have propaganda gold.
What you don’t have is the truth.