Research contract gave Bayer control of neonics study methods, but university researchers claim full credit

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A research contract gave multinational pesticide manufacturers ample influence over pesticide research conducted at a state university.

Experts in research ethics found fault with the influence the contract gave the funders, and linked the situation to broader transparency failures in corporate-funded research.

Resulting scientific studies only acknowledged the funds the pesticide manufacturers contributed to the project, despite the contract granting them influence over the study methods. University researchers say this is because the pesticide manufacturers’ involvement was less than what was outlined in the contract.

In 2017, Bayer and Syngenta, two companies that manufacture neonicotinoid insecticides, gave $301,671 to Iowa State University (ISU) researchers for a project titled “Estimating the exposure to neonicotinoid residues in pollinator-attractive habitat adjacent to corn and soybean fields.”

Start of the 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are one of the most commonly used insecticides in the world, and are toxic to bees and other pollinators. They are systemic insecticides, which means a plant can absorb and distribute them throughout all its parts.

When the ISU researchers proposed this research, they cited existing evidence that neonics from crop fields wind up in nearby flowers, whether they are weeds or intentionally-planted pollinator refuges.

Excerpt from the problem statement of the 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU.

The research contract sought to answer whether the neonic levels in pollinator plantings, or “prairie strips”, next to crop fields were high enough to hurt pollinators. One impetus for the study was to determine whether those plantings could harm bees and butterflies by luring them to pesticide-contaminated food. Another was to assess whether it was necessary to maintain a 125-foot pesticide-free buffer around monarch butterfly breeding habitat, according to the contract.

The contract was prepared after the funders and ISU faculty discussed their shared study interests during the 2016 International Congress of Entomology, ISU News Service Director Angie Hunt said. Hunt said she was speaking on behalf of Matthew O’Neal, Joel Coats, and Steve Bradbury, all ISU faculty listed as study personnel funded by the contract.

“Those conversations led to Iowa State’s development of a research proposal to measure exposure in prairie strips, as the strips provided a location where neonics and bees would likely be found,” Hunt said. Bayer and Syngenta didn’t write the contract’s statement of work, she said:

“Iowa State University researchers drafted the statement of work; it was not a collaborative effort [with the funders].”

What the research contract allows Bayer to do

The contract let Bayer advise on the study’s methods and for its employee to assist on the “design, conduct, and interpretation of the study.”

“Specific methods from Bayer will be utilized to extract samples of pollen, nectar, leaves, water, and soil from the field sites,” the contract stated. “Samples will be stored before extraction and after extraction according to best practices provided by Bayer CropScience.”

“Extraction Procedures” section of 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU.

The methods also said that “ISU and Bayer will work together” prior to analyzing neonicotinoid residues on any samples “to select standards and receive training for the Toxicology graduate student regarding analytical methods.”

The contract empowered Bayer scientist Dan Schmehl to assist with the “design, conduct, and interpretation of the study.” Bayer employee Michael McCarville was slated to “interface with growers participating in the study.”

The contract also said that Bayer may sample farmer participant seeds, provide transit stability samples to ensure the stability of relevant analytes and metabolites in pollen and nectar samples, and train two “team members” at their North American headquarters.

Furthermore, the contract required ISU to give Bayer and Syngenta 30 days to review and comment on all prospective publications or presentations to determine if they contained any confidential information.

“If Bayer and Syngenta raise no objection within the notification period above,” then ISU could proceed, according to the contract. It also required ISU to obtain the funders’ permission before accepting federal funding or otherwise involving a federal agency in the project.

Experts flag Bayer’s control over the research 

“This isn’t really an independent university study,” -Lisa Bero

Experts say the contract gave Bayer a level of control over the research that they expected to be disclosed in the final publication. “What’s interesting here to me is, this isn’t really an independent university study because we’ve got two Bayer employees who are actually on the project. So, this is really just a joint company project that involves some university researchers,” Lisa Bero said of the contract. Bero is a professor of medicine and public health, and a chief scientist for the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at University of Colorado.

Paul Thacker, an investigative journalist specializing in research conflicts of interest, agreed. He noted the contract puts Bayer in charge of setting the standards and methods, as well as the null values for the sampling.

“[The contract] makes these guys look like they’re a lab for hire… Bayer could have hired a contract research lab to do this exact kind of research, but then it would’ve been a Bayer study. But they didn’t want it to be a Bayer study,” he said.

Although it’s common for funders to have the right to review manuscripts prior to publication, Thacker said he interprets the contract to mean that the funders could also stop publication, quoting this provision: “If Bayer and Syngenta raise no objection within the notification period above, then University has the right to proceed with public disclosure.”

“That was very worrisome,” Thacker said. He also took issue with the clause concerning federal funding. “What if [ISU] found a problem and wanted to notify the EPA? … They can’t. It’s just weird.”

Bayer’s level of influence, as outlined in the contract, ought to justify authorship or acknowledgements in resulting publications, experts said.

“Given that Bayer scientist Dan Schmehl was listed as assisting with the ‘design, conduct, and interpretation of the study’ in the contract, I think that should have been declared in the published paper. He should probably have been listed as an author for that reason, even if he did not write any of the sentences in the final paper,” Erik Millstone said. Millstone, a professor emeritus at the University of Sussex, researches the causes and consequences of scientific and technological change in the food and agricultural sectors and has studied corporate influence on science and policy.

Bero agreed.

“They have very significant roles in the project,” she said of Bayer’s Schmehl and McCarville.

McCarville’s stated role, although smaller, is significant, she said.

“If this is analogous to a clinical trial, he’s kind of like the person enrolling patients in the trial,” Bero said. “Maybe he wouldn’t appear as an author, but he would certainly be acknowledged, as he interfaces with the growers.”

Studies referred to Bayer and Syngenta only as funders

So far, the ISU team has produced two scientific publications related to the contract. Both say the work was funded by a grant from Bayer and Syngenta.

The 2020 paper in Molecules, a MDPI publication, describes a method the ISU researchers used to analyze pollen and leaf tissue samples for neonics. The paper explicitly says, “The authors declare no conflict of interest. The funders had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results.”

The Conflict of Interest statement on the ISU team’s 2020 paper

It mentions that Bayer provided the analytical chemical standards for the analysis.

The 2022 paper, in Agriculture, Ecosystems, and the Environment, an Elsevier publication, describes the levels of various neonics they found in cropland-adjacent soil and leaf tissue, including milkweed, and determines that the levels were not high enough to hurt monarch butterfly larvae. It says the authors have “no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.”

The Funding, Conflict of Interest, and Acknowledgements sections of the ISU team’s 2022 paper.

Neither publication names Schmehl, McCarville, or any other contributions Bayer made besides funding and the analytical standards.

ISU describes Bayer’s contributions to the study

According to ISU, Bayer’s methodological and logistical contributions were less than what’s described in the contract, and that’s why neither publication mentions Bayer in any context other than funding and providing analytical samples.

“The grant lists a limited range of methodological options that could be used if considered necessary. Bayer’s contributions were limited to technical advice to ensure methods were within industry standards,” Hunt said.

What parts of the contract that cited Bayer’s involvement were utilized?

“While the Iowa State University team was informed of Bayer’s analytical chemistry and sampling techniques, the analytical method published by Hall et al. 2020 was developed solely by Hall and others at Iowa State. Sample collection and storage followed generally accepted practices,” Hunt said. “Dan Schmehl provided training on how to extract pollen and nectar from individual bees.”

Hunt said ISU was not aware of Michael McCarville interacting with any growers, despite his mention in the contract.

Bayer also provided analytical standard samples for ISU’s chemical analysis, she confirmed. But Bayer did not conduct their own analyses of farmer participants’ treated seeds, nor did ISU use the transit stability samples that Bayer provided for them, Hunt said. ISU researchers did visit Bayer’s headquarters in 2017 to present their study proposal and tour Bayer’s bee research facility, she said.

ISU said Schmehl provided training to extract pollen and nectar from bees, and advised on industry standards expected by the EPA. But U.S. Right to Know obtained an email thread from April 2018 in which O’Neal asked Schmehl whether they should include a certain site in the second year of their study, since it was using chlorantraniliprole, a non-neonic seed treatment.

Schmehl responded: “You are correct that we will not use chlorantraniliprole since this is not within scope for the methods developed to screen for the neonics.”

Schmehl then asked for the scope of the second year’s project scope and budget so Bayer could work on extending the funding agreement for another year.

“As soon as sites and scope are confirmed, I want to get our team in contact with your contract department so that we can extend our agreement from last year to a second year and get this project officially funded for you. What is the latest on corn planting? Are the sites proposed for the continuation of our study prepared for our use?” Schmehl asked the researchers.

“The email you referenced was a conversation about the scope of future work, not a request for technical contribution to the research,” Hunt said when asked why the researchers sought Schmehl’s advice on sampling sites, and what other matters he advised on.

Bayer spokesperson Kyel Richard did not respond when asked to name Schmehl’s and Bayer’s specific contributions to the methodology.

“University researchers play an invaluable role in ensuring growers can use agriculture technologies safely, sustainably, and effectively. We have a long history of working alongside and supporting university researchers – this kind of university/company collaboration is very common and important across science-based industries,” he said in a statement.

“We stand behind our work with university researchers, and as a science-based company we are committed to transparency and independence of science.

“Depending on the research project, companies can contribute to the work of university researchers in a variety of ways, including by providing resources (e.g., funding, products, equipment) or with more involved support (e.g., making nonbinding proposals for study design, data collection, data analysis). Importantly, the researchers remain in control of the project at all times, including any results. According to good scientific publication practice, it is important to us that researchers properly acknowledge our contributions in scientific publications just as they appropriately acknowledge the contributions of every other participant.”

Richard referred to Bayer’s statements on transparency. Under “Transparency for our Scientific Collaborations,” the company says they “publicly disclose new contract-based scientific collaborations with universities, public research institutions and individuals in Germany via the Bayer Science Collaboration Explorer (BSCE).”

That database “has successfully piloted in Germany, and we will include data on scientific collaborations in the United States in the near future,” Richard said.

However, there have been cases when the chemical industry has obscured the full extent of its role in scientific studies. For example, internal Monsanto documents released during litigation over the human health impacts of the glyphosate-based herbicide called Roundup, showed the company engaged in ghostwriting, or secretly authoring journal articles that were supposedly authored by academic researchers. Bayer acquired Monsanto in 2018.

Did Bayer’s role in methodology merit disclosure?

There is a discrepancy between what Bayer was contractually bound to provide, and the acknowledgement of their role in the published studies, Thacker said. “Either [ISU] violated the contract or they violated the acknowledgements. Those two things don’t match,” he said.

“No one who would pick up the studies would have any clue of Bayer’s legally acknowledged involvement.”

The contract itself, Thacker said, is a legally binding document, quoting: “University will conduct the testing in strict compliance with the Project and agrees not to deviate from the Project unless agreed by all parties. University will strictly conform to all regulations which may apply to its activities in the framework of the Project.” If ISU didn’t plan to follow the contract’s work designations, Thacker said, “why put it in there?”

MDPI conflict of interest guidelines state that authors must disclose “any personal circumstances or interest that may be perceived as influencing the representation or interpretation of reported research results,” and “Any role of the funding sponsors in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results must be declared in this section.”

MDPI’s authorship guidelines state that authorship should be granted to someone who substantially contributes to the study concept or design, or data collection, analysis or interpretation, drafts or revises the publication, approves the final version of the publication, and accepts accountability for all aspects of the work. “Those who contributed to the work but do not qualify for authorship should be listed in the acknowledgments.”

Elsevier’s guidelines require a statement on the role of the publication’s sponsors in study design, data collection, analysis, or interpretation, report writing, and decision to submit the article for publication. “If the funding source(s) had no such involvement, it is recommended to state this.”

Editors for Molecules and Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment, as well as the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) did not return requests for comment about their conflict of interest standards.

“ISU seems to be indicating… that Bayer had a much lesser role than indicated in the contract,” Bero said. She said that it could be hard for an editor of a publication to determine whether ISU’s disclosure was adequate based on the available information.

“It is very difficult to know what the truth is,” she said.

No disclosure of concurrent grants from the same companies

Aside from the question of disclosing Bayer’s methodological contributions, the ISU researchers apparently did not disclose the other funding they were receiving concurrently from Bayer and Syngenta.

Elsevier recommends that authors declare any financial interests or relationships within the last three years related to the subject matter but not directly to the manuscript.

According to O’Neal’s CV, he received a separate $8,000 grant from Syngenta in 2019. O’Neal was also part of a Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) grant (2018-2021) that received matching funds from agrichemical companies, including Bayer and Syngenta. Although outside of the Elsevier publication’s three-year window, O’Neal and two colleagues also received a $539,913 grant from Monsanto between 2015 and 2018.

According to Bradbury’s CV, he was a part of the same 2018-2021 FFAR grant with matching agrichemical industry funds as O’Neal. He received $45,000 from Bayer, Syngenta, and Dupont between 2017 and 2018 to fund an IPM conference, and accepted $98,850 from Monsanto from 2018-2021 for a monarch butterfly study.

Dr. Coats has not publicly updated his CV since 2014, but Bradbury’s CV lists him on the $98,950 Monsanto grant from 2018-2021.

The grants that fell within the three year window of publication should have been disclosed, Bero said.

Millstone said the authors may have provided “all the information that was formally required by that journal, but not all the information that could be relevant, and maybe not all the information that Elsevier asserts authors should declare.”

“If they had agreed and signed other contracts, that should have been disclosed under Elsevier’s rules,” he added.

ISU said that “the authors provided the appropriate disclosures applicable to the research” when asked why they didn’t disclose Bayer’s “technical advice” contributions, or whether they notified the publishers of the other grants they received from the funders within the three-year window.

Other conflicts of interest

The potential benefits of this research to Bayer and Syngenta are visible to Thacker.

“It’s Bayer. Their job is to sell pesticides, it’s not to save butterflies,” he said.

The research questions could be interpreted as motivated by a concern for potential litigation or regulation, he said.

“Is [the research out of] concern that you’re harming butterflies, or is it concern that you’re going to get an expanded buffer or pesticide ban,” he said.

Pesticide-free buffers mean less land available for pesticide application, he noted.

Dr. Millstone said he’s observed a pattern in his work, in which industry-sponsored studies “purporting to put some industrial product or process in the clear are cunningly contrived to produce as favorable results as possible while also cunningly concealing the fact that it’s so contrived.”

“You decide what answers you want and you contrive a methodology to give you the answer you want, then you report your methodology as if that is the only sensical thing to do in the first place,” he said.

When asked whether Bayer’s role in the study constituted a conflict of interest, Hunt said that all ISU participants in the study complied with the university’s conflict of interest and commitment policy.

Further grants

Bayer awarded the ISU researchers $96,302 in April 2018, a year after the first grant was signed, to continue the sample collection and chemical analysis started in 2017. The 2018 grant had all the same stipulations involving Bayer as the 2017 grant, except it no longer referred to Bayer’s transit stability samples, or funding for training opportunities at Bayer headquarters.

In 2019, the team received a third yearlong grant of $90,000 from Syngenta and BASF to focus further on pollen and nectar collection. The 2019 grant does not mention any methodological contributions from the funders.

A future manuscript from the ISU team will analyze “pollen and nectar collected by bees (A. mellifera and Bombus spp.) within these prairie strips” for neonics, according to the group’s 2022 Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment paper.

This work’s relation to broader patterns of corporate-funded research

“Why on earth did the companies bother to go to the university academics and ask them to do the work rather than simply doing it themselves?” Millstone asked. “They’ve got the technological capability, in fact, in some respects they’ve got more technology and resources than the academics have.”

“I think the companies Bayer and Syngenta were funding this to try to give an illusion of independence and objectivity to the study.” – Erik Millstone

“I think the companies Bayer and Syngenta were funding this to try to give an illusion of independence and objectivity to the study,” Millstone said.

What does it mean for academic literature when corporate influence or conflicts of interest are not adequately disclosed?

“Corporate sponsors want to guide the selection of questions that researchers study, and then they try to influence which data are collected, how those data are interpreted, and which conclusions are reached,” Millstone said.

“Having invested in generating reassuring narratives about their products, those studies are fed into policy-making institutions, like the FDA and EPA,” he said, while corporations are also influencing those agencies’ scientists, as well as the policymakers regulating their products.

“The net result is a regime in which the protection of public and environmental health is compromised and undermined to benefit corporate and commercial interests.”

U.S. Right to Know obtained the documents for this report through an Iowa Open Records Law request to Iowa State University.

Abbe Hamilton is an investigative reporter covering neonicotinoid science and policy for U.S. Right to Know.

Documents referenced in this piece include:

The 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU

ISU’s 2020 paper in Molecules

ISU’s 2022 Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment paper

Matching funds documents from a Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research grant to researchers including O’Neal and Bradbury that ran 2018-2021

A 2018 email thread between Bayer’s Dan Schmehl and Matt O’Neal

Nina Fedoroff: Mobilizing the authority of American science to back Monsanto

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  • As a president and board chair of AAAS from 2011-2013, Dr. Fedoroff advanced agrichemical industry policy objectives. She now works for a lobbying firm.
  • Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show how public relations and lobbying efforts are coordinated behind the scenes among the agrichemical industry, front groups and academics who appear independent.

Nina Fedoroff, PhD, is one of the most influential scientists advocating for the proliferation and deregulation of genetically engineered foods. She is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011-2012) and former chair of the AAAS Board of Directors (2012-2013). She is a senior science advisor since 2015 at OFW Law, a lobbying firm whose clients have included Syngenta and the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group representing Bayer (which owns Monsanto), BASF, Corteva (a division of DowDuPont) and Syngenta.

From 2007-2010, Dr. Fedoroff served as science and technology advisor to the Secretary of State and the Administrator of USAID under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Prior to that, she was a board member of the Sigma-Aldrich Corporation, a multinational chemical and biotech firm; and an advisory board member of Evogene, a biotechnology company that partnered with DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto.

A 2017 event to promote the American Council on Science and Health’s “junk science” book featured Dr. Fedoroff and two scientists affiliated with groups that deny climate science.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “science czar,” Dr. Fedoroff served as diplomat for the “GMO all the way” thrust of U.S. foreign policy, Tom Philpott reported in Grist in 2008 and 2009. Pesticide Action Network of North America has described Dr. Fedoroff as “literally the U.S. ambassador” for genetic engineering. According to Greenpeace, Dr. Fedoroff has been “a fervent advocate for the global proliferation of GM (genetically modified) foods throughout her career.”

During her tenure as president and chairman of AAAS, the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society, Dr. Fedoroff leveraged those roles to provide political aid to the agrichemical industry: for example, the AAAS Board of Directors under her chairmanship issued a politically timed statement to oppose GMO labeling in 2012. While president of the scientific organization in 2011, Dr. Fedoroff helped defeat a U.S. EPA proposal that would have required additional health and safety data for GMO crops, according to emails described below. See, Nina Fedoroff, AAAS and the agrichemical industry lobby. Dr. Fedoroff and AAAS have not responded to requests for response.

Affiliations with deceptive industry front groups and PR efforts

Dr. Fedoroff has promoted and helped to legitimize groups that claim to be independent voices for science but work behind the scenes with the agrichemical industry in ways that mislead the public − including two groups that helped Monsanto try to discredit the scientists who served on the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) expert panel that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is funded by chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, according to leaked internal documents that document how the group pitches its services to corporations for product-defense campaigns. Emails released via court proceedings show that Monsanto agreed to fund ACSH in 2015, and asked the group to write about the IARC cancer report on glyphosate; ACSH later claimed the cancer report was a “scientific fraud.”     

Dr. Fedoroff helped promote this group as a legitimate science source in a 2017 National Press Club event to launch the ACSH’s “Little Black Book of Junk Science.” Appearing alongside Dr. Fedoroff at the press event were two scientists affiliated with groups that deny climate science and lobby for tobacco products:

Genetic Literacy Project: Dr. Fedoroff is listed as a board member on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group that claims to be independent but partners with Monsanto on PR and lobbying projects, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. Documents released in court filings show that Monsanto listed this group among the “industry partners” it planned to engage in a strategy to “orchestrate outcry” against IARC’s glyphosate assessment in order to “protect the reputation and FTO of Roundup.” Genetic Literacy Project has since posted more than 200 articles critical of the cancer research agency, including numerous personal attacks on the scientists involved in the glyphosate report, accusing them of conspiracy, fraud, lying, corruption, secrecy, and being motivated by “profit and vanity.”

In an award-winning series in Le Monde about Monsanto’s “effort to destroy the UN cancer agency by any means possible,” journalists Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel described Genetic Literacy Project and ACSH as “well-known propaganda websites” and said GLP is “fed by PR people linked to the pesticides and biotechnology industries.” GLP was launched in 2011 by Jon Entine, who owns a public relations firm that had Monsanto as a client at that time.

Attacks on cancer researchers on the Genetic Literacy Project website that lists Dr. Fedoroff as a “board member”:

Academics Review: Dr. Fedoroff promoted Academics Review as a trustworthy science source in a 2012 article in Trends in Genetics and a 2016 interview with the Washington Examiner about poor science journalism. Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto to discredit critics of genetic engineering and pesticides, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden. The group, which claimed to be independent but was funded by agrichemical companies, attacked the organic industry as a “marketing scam.”

Biotech Literacy Boot Camp: Dr. Fedoroff was listed as a core faculty member of a Biotech Literacy Project “boot camp” held at UC Davis in 2015. The event was organized by two PR groups, Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, and secretly funded by agrichemical companies to “train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate,” reported Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Speakers included a familiar list of industry PR allies including Jay Byrne, Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy, David Tribe, Hank Campbell of ACSH and a keynote by the “Sci Babe.”

AgBioWorld: In her 2012 Trends and Genetics article, Dr. Fedoroff promoted the website AgBioWorld as “another invaluable resource” to learn about science. In a 2002 article in the Guardian, George Monbiot described how Monsanto’s PR team used the AgBioWorld website and fake social media accounts to discredit scientists and environmentalists who raised concerns about GM crops. Monbiot reported: 

“At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly [Monsanto’s] director of internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of them established by Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings). He told them to ‘think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed.’

While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow that he ‘spends his time and effort participating’ in web discussions about biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he ‘ensures his company gets proper play.’ AgBioWorld is the site on which [fake online personality Mary] Smetacek launched her campaign.”

Attack on Greenpeace: Dr. Fedoroff spoke at a 2016 press event for a group calling itself “Support Precision Agriculture,” which presented a letter signed by over 100 Nobel laureates criticizing Greenpeace for their opposition to GMOs. Agrichemical industry allies helped out with the campaign, including Monsanto’s former Communications Director Jay Byrne; former biotech trade group VP Val Giddings; and Matt Winkler, who funds the PR group Genetic Literacy Project and is listed as a board member along with Dr. Fedoroff on the group’s website. The .com version of the supposedly independent “Support Precision Agriculture” website redirected to the Genetic Literacy Project for years (it was delinked after we called attention to it in 2019). In emails from 2011, Byrne identified Greenpeace on a “targets” list he was developing for Monsanto with names of industry critics they could confront from behind the cover of an industry-funded academic group that appeared independent.

Friend of GMO Answers: Dr. Fedoroff is an independent expert for GMO Answers, a PR campaign developed by Ketchum public relations, which has a history of using deceptive tactics to influence the public. Although Ketchum claimed the GMO Answers campaign would “redefine transparency,” the group scripted answers for an “independent” expert and was listed among the “industry partners” in Monsanto’s PR plan to protect Roundup from cancer concerns. A “resources” section (page 4) pointed to GMO Answers and Monsanto links that communicate the company message that “Glyphosate is not carcinogenic.” In 2016, Dr. Fedoroff spoke on a panel sponsored by GMO Answers, Scientific American and the Cornell Alliance for Science about media coverage of science featuring industry-friendly journalists Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. See “Monsanto’s Media Machine Comes to Washington,” by Paul Thacker.

Opposed investigation to uncover industry-academic ties

In 2015, Dr. Fedoroff and two other former AAAS presidents, Peter Raven and Phillip Sharp, promoted their AAAS leadership roles, but failed to disclose any of their industry ties, in a Guardian op-ed opposing a public records investigation that sought to uncover undisclosed partnerships and financial arrangements between agrichemical companies, their PR groups and publicly funded professors. The investigation by U.S. Right to Know uncovered some of the key documents described in this fact sheet.

Although the Guardian later added a disclosure that Dr. Fedoroff works at the lobby firm OFW Law, it did not disclose that OFW Law’s client at the time was the agrichemical industry trade group, whose member companies were a focus of the public records investigation. The former AAAS presidents argued in their op-ed that the investigation to uncover undisclosed industry-academic conflicts of interest was “taking a page out of the Climategate playbook” and involved “science denialism,” the same claims made by industry PR groups described in this fact sheet.

Using the AAAS to advance agrichemical industry policy objectives

During her tenure as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) from 2011-2012 and as Chair of the Board of Directors from 2012-2013, Dr. Fedoroff worked with agrichemical industry allies to advance key policy objectives: keeping genetically engineered foods unlabeled and defeating a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would have required additional data on the health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops that are classified as pesticides.

AAAS helped persuade voters to oppose GMO labeling

In 2012, the AAAS Board of Directors under Dr. Fedoroff’s chairmanship took the unusual step of taking a position on a contentious political issue just two weeks before voters in California went to the polls to decide on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative to label GMOs. A review of the many political statements made by AAAS found no other examples of the organization attempting to influence voters ahead of a state election. (The AAAS and Dr. Fedoroff did not respond to requests for comment. Also disclosure: the USRTK co-directors worked on the pro-labeling campaign.)

The AAAS board’s statement opposing GMO labeling was controversial. It contained inaccuracies, according to longtime AAAS members, several of whom denounced the anti-labeling statement as a “paternalistic” attack on consumer rights that misled the public by omitting important scientific and regulatory context. An AAAS spokeswoman at the time, Ginger Pinholster, called the criticisms “unfair and without merit.” She told a reporter she was in the room when the board passed the statement: “We are not an advocacy group. We make our statements based on scientific evidence,” Pinholster said. “I can tell you that our statement is not the work of nor was it influenced by any outside organization.”

Some observers noted the similarities in language used by the AAAS and the industry-funded campaign to defeat Proposition 37. “Is a major science group stumping for Monsanto?” Michele Simon asked in Grist. Simon described the board’s statement as “non-scientific but very quote-worthy,” and noted that the accompanying AAAS press release contained “talking points” that matched No on 37 campaign literature.

“appearing to be less than transparent is a really bad idea for the scientific community”

In a 2013 letter to Science magazine, another group of 11 scientists raised concerns that the AAAS board’s statement on GMO foods “could backfire.” They wrote, “we are concerned that AAA’s position represents a poorly informed approach to communicating science …  appearing to be less than transparent is a really bad idea for the scientific community.”

Dr. Fedoroff was an early supporter of the industry-backed No on 37 campaign, which listed her on its website in June 2012 as one of four scientists representing the “scientific and academic community” who opposed GMO labeling. The campaign later asked Dr. Fedoroff to help recruit more academics to their cause, which she did according to an October 1, 2012 email to Meghan Callahan of BCF Public Affairs, “I’ve forwarded your [request for academic supporters] to an international group of biotechnology supporting academics. I suspect you’ll be hearing from many corners of the world,” Dr. Fedoroff wrote.

Helped kill data requirements for pesticide-producing plants

In 2011 while serving as AAAS president, Dr. Fedoroff worked with agrichemical industry allies and an industry lobbyist to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from requiring companies to provide additional health and safety data for genetically engineered foods that are classified as pesticides, according to emails described below.

The EPA proposal stemmed from a 2009 EPA Scientific Advisory Panel discussion about ways to improve the agency’s ability to make regulatory decisions about plants that are genetically engineered to produce or contain pesticides, which EPA refers to as “plant-incorporated protectants” (PIPs). Panel members were asked to evaluate current and proposed EPA data requirements for PIPs in the following areas:

  • data to assess potential similarities between PIPs and allergens, toxins, anti-nutrients and other hazardous proteins;
  • testing for synergistic effects on health and non-target organisms, when two or more GMO traits are combined (stacked trait GMOs);
  • potential impacts on microbial populations in soil ecosystems; and
  • data to better address the impacts of gene flow.

According to notes from an October 2009 EPA meeting, the proposed rules would “mostly codify existing data requirements that are currently applied on a case-by-case basis,” and would encompass five categories of data and information: product characterization, human health, non-target effects, environmental fate and resistance management. EPA announced the proposed rules in the Federal Register in March 2011.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via public records requests show how industry allies mobilized to defeat the proposal.

The emails show conversations between Bruce Chassy, a University of Illinois professor at the time, Eric Sachs of Monsanto and other industry reps discussing activities and meetings that involved Dr. Fedoroff. Chassy described himself in the emails (page 66) as the liaison between industry and academics in the effort to oppose the EPA data requirements. Interspersed in his emails to Sachs were queries about whether Monsanto had sent a check to the University of Illinois Foundation in support of Chassy’s “biotechnology outreach and education activities.” (For more details about the undisclosed funds Chassy received from Monsanto for years as he promoted biotechnology, see reporting by Monica Eng in WBEZ and emails posted by the New York Times.)

On July 5, Dr. Chassy emailed Eric Sachs of Monsanto to report that Dr. Fedoroff had sent a letter to EPA over her signature co-signed by 60 members of the National Academy of Sciences. “Nina really picked up the ball and moved it down the field,” Chassy wrote. He described the EPA proposal as a “train wreck.”

The emails show that on August 19, industry trade group representatives were surprised and pleased (page 19) to see a New York Times op-ed from Dr. Fedoroff arguing against regulations for genetic engineering; “who got Nina’s op ed placed?” Adrienne Massey of BIO asked Dr. Chassy and two other industry allies, Henry Miller and Val Giddings. Chassy responded:

Massey forwarded Dr. Chassy the letter BIO sent to the EPA “hoping to build on the academics’ letter and short-circuit any dismissive response of EPA to that letter.” Their efforts did not succeed as they hoped. On August 24, Dr. Chassy wrote to Eric Sachs (page 14) that Dr. Fedoroff “got a response from EPA that is an insult.” He described plans to ratchet up the pressure.


In September, Chassy organized a conference call with Fedoroff, Monsanto’s Eric Sachs, Adrienne Massey of BIO and their lobbyist Stanley Abramson, among others. According to Chassy’s notes from the call, “Finding a way to ensure that the EPA proposal never sees the light of day would be the best possible outcome we could hope for. Next best would be to make sure it is DOA, but if needs be we must be willing to continue the fight.”

He also shared the problem that, “The EPA does not believe that the academic community can mount a sustained opposition to their proposed rule making; they believe that only a small handful are behind the petition and that most of the signatories are not committed to the issue.” The group decided they needed to “build a core of leading scientists who are in fact willing to speak out and devote time to this issue.”

By October, the group was more hopeful. Chassy emailed Sachs to report on a “surprisingly productive” meeting he and Dr. Fedoroff attended with Steve Bradbury of EPA. The meeting had been set up by Massey and the lobbyist Abramson. The EPA proposal to require data for GMO PIPs never did see the light of day, according to Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union, who participated in the public meetings with the agency.

Full email chains, via the UCSF Industry Documents Library:

Related reporting 

I Was Barred from a Nobel Laureate Press Conference by a PR Consultant with Monsanto Ties,” by Tim Schwab, Food & Water Watch (2016)

The Puppetmasters of Academia,” by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent Science News (2015)

20 years later: the biotech brigade marches on,” Pesticide Action Network (2012)

Engineering food for whom?” by Marcia Ishii-Eitemann, PhD, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America (2011)

Sorry, NY Times: GMOs still won’t save the world,” by Anna Lappe, Grist (2011)

In which I go toe to toe with H. Clinton’s science czar over GMOs,” by Tom Philpott, Grist (2009)

Genetically Modified Diplomat: U.S. Foreign Policy GMO All the Way,” by Tom Philpott, Grist (2008)