Corporate influence at the University of Saskatchewan: Professor Peter Phillips and his secret “right to know symposium”

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Tens of thousands of pages of internal documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via public records requests reveal the close – and often secret – ties between Monsanto, its PR groups, and a group of professors who promote GMOs and pesticides. In one example, the investigation turned up details about Monsanto’s work with Peter W. B. Phillips, Distinguished Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.

The revelations included evidence that Monsanto employees assigned and edited a paper Phillips wrote, and participated in a closed-to-the-public “symposium” Phillips organized at the U of S to discuss transparency challenges around industry partnerships. The events raised concerns about industry influence at the publicly funded university, and prompted some fellow faculty members and others to launch a legal challenge to try to obtain the “right to know symposium” transcript.

This fact sheet provides background on these events, and documents from the legal challenge and public records investigation. The U of S has said it reviewed Phillips’ work in the context of the university’s research ethics policies. As a result, Phillips was “absolved of any wrongdoing,” according to CBC News.

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Monsanto collaborations lacked transparency  

Documents obtained via public records requests uncovered emails describing some of Phillips’ work with Monsanto. Following is an overview of findings and activities related to the documents.

In 2014, Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs recruited Phillips and six other professors to write policy briefs about GMOs. The emails show that Monsanto employees suggested titles and outlines for the papers, edited Phillips’ work, engaged a PR firm, and arranged to have the papers published and promoted via the Genetic Literacy Project website, which made no mention of Monsanto’s role. Phillips told the CBC he has never taken payment from Monsanto and stands behind any writing with his name on it.

In 2015, Phillips invited Monsanto employees, key industry PR allies, select faculty and university employees to a “Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know” at the U of S to discuss freedom of information laws and the implications for industry-academic partnerships. The invitation list was drawn up in consultation with Cami Ryan of Monsanto. The event was closed to the public and the university has refused to release details about it.

In 2017, a group calling itself the Academic Integrity Legal Group, comprising faculty members and others affiliated with U of S, tried to obtain the transcript but said they were “stymied by the university.”  Heavy redactions, with about 85% of the transcript blacked out, “indicate an intentional cover-up,” the group wrote in a public petition that gathered more than 1,800 signatures.

Portion of redacted transcript from the “Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know”

The case of the redacted transcript was reviewed by Ron Kruzeniski, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Saskatchewan. In a June 2018 report, Kruzeniski said the university did not appropriately apply the public records law and he recommended the release of a larger portion of the transcript. The university declined to provide it, prompting a legal challenge from D’Arcy Hande, a retired archivist at U of S, on behalf of the Academic Integrity group. The legal challenge, which U.S. Right to Know helped to fund, was unsuccessful, with the court ruling that “there was a ground rule for the symposium which established an environment of confidentiality.”

Hande said in an interview that the symposium appeared to be a frank discussion about how to control the narrative, rather than respond to concerns, about pesticide industry collaborations with the university. Because U of S is publicly funded, he believes the public has a right to know what was discussed.

“It’s like an old boys club.”

The court ruling is concerning, Hande said, because of its emphasis on the use of the Chatham House Rule (an informal agreement used to aid free discussions of sensitive topics) as a reason the information should remain private. “The fact that the judge thought it was appropriate for a public university to come together with industry representatives on the public dime to talk freely without transparency requirements under the Chatham House Rule, it’s shocking actually,” Hande said. “It’s like an old boys club.” 

Documents 

Redacted transcript of the U of S “Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know” 

Review Report 298-2017 Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner Saskatchewan

Public petition from Academic Integrity Legal Group

Court of Queen’s Bench Judgment, Hande vs U of S

Emails relating to symposium

Inviting industry PR partners to U of S (October 2015). Phillips described his intent to organize the symposium around the visit of Jon Entine (Genetic Literacy Project) and University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta (two key defenders of GMOs and pesticides who have worked closely with industry groups while claiming to be independent). Phillips wrote to Entine and Folta: “When I heard both of you would be in town, it seemed a perfect opportunity to convene a small research symposium to discuss the RTK [right to know] movement and its potential effect on industry-academic partnerships.”

Background, agenda, attendees (November 2015). Phillips emailed Entine, Folta, two Monsanto employees and others describing the need to gather to discuss increased scrutiny of industry-academic partnerships. The names of most of the non-U of S invitees and attendees are blacked out.

Monsanto suggests invitees (November 2015). Monsanto’s Cami Ryan made suggestions for the invite list.

Emails relating to Monsanto/Genetic Literacy Project papers 

Monsanto assigned papers (August 2013). Monsanto’s Eric Sachs wrote to a group of professors including Phillips, “I have started an important project to produce a series of short policy briefs on important topics in the agricultural biotechnology arena … the topics were selected because of their influence on public policy, GM crop regulation and consumer acceptance.” He asked Phillips to write about how “over burdensome regulation” of GMOs “stifles the innovation … important for helping support global food security.”

Monsanto’s urgent request to move forward (September 9, 2014). Sachs emailed Phillips to urge him to review proposed edits to his paper. The “project is on a stronger path now,” Sachs wrote. He explained the strategy “to connect the author’s ‘perspectives’ from this series of briefs to the controversy about GM crops and food that we believe will be triggered in the coming weeks by the new NRC Panel report on GM crops. Next week is the first of two public hearings at the US NAS [National Academy of Sciences] in Washington and a virtual who’s who of the GM crop critics will be testifying.” Sachs noted that Genetic Literacy Project “is now the primary outlet” for the papers and was “building a merchandizing plan” with the help of a PR firm.

Monsanto suggested edits (September 18, 2014). Phillips discussed his progress incorporating edits and changes from Monsanto’s Cami Ryan into his policy brief.

PR firm assigned schedules (August 2013). Beth Ann Mumford of CMA Consulting, a PR firm working with Monsanto, discussed schedules and deadlines with the professors. (CMA, which has since been renamed Look East, is owned by Charlie Arnot, CEO of the food industry-funded spin group Center for Food Integrity.)

No disclosure of Monsanto’s role (December 11, 2014). Phillips paper, titled “Economic Consequences of Regulations of GM Crops” is published by Genetic Literacy Project with no disclosure of Monsanto’s role.

Corporate funding

Although Phillips has said he receives no direct funding from corporations, his research appears to receive some corporate support. The Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), a research institute funded by the Government of Saskatchewan, the University of Saskatchewan and Nutrien, a fertilizer company, lists Phillips among its affiliated researchers. According to Phillips faculty page, his most recent research funding involves partnerships with Stuart Smyth, an associate professor at U of S who holds the Industry Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation. That position is funded by Bayer CropScience Canada, CropLife Canada, Monsanto Canada, the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission and Syngenta Canada.

Phillips’ funding notes two partnerships with Smyth: $675,000 for a “GIFSCSIP Strategic Partnership” and “renewed funding for Maintenance Project for social sciences as part of the Designing Crops for Global Food Security, $37.5 million” from Canada First Research Excellence Fund Program (with a budget of $1.31 million). The latter is a publicly funded project run through the GIFS, the public-private partnership involving U of S, local government and the fertilizer company Nutrien (formerly Potash Corp), which advertises its products as necessary for food security.

Related information  

Quotes  

“Our university should not function as a shilling station for corporate interests and as an almost contemptuous antagonist of the provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner … whose recommendations it contested so arrogantly in court.”

Len Findlay, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, U of S (LTE, The Sheaf)

The court’s judgment “strengthens the protection of academic freedom and privacy. Academic freedom enables members of our university to pursue research and ideas — even those that are controversial or unpopular — without fear of interference.”

Karen Chad, the U of S vice-president of research (The Sheaf)

“I think most academic ethicists would be queasy about [Phillips’] tight relationship with Monsanto.”

Saskatoon consultant Steven Lewis, co-author of a widely-cited
Canadian Medical Association Journal article about
university-industry relationships (CBC)

“I’m horrified because [corporate influence at public universities] does seem to be getting worse. There is a real problem here.”

U of S education professor Howard Woodhouse,
author of Selling Out: Academic Freedom and the Corporate Market (CBC)

“We encourage our faculty to translate their knowledge into policy arenas. That’s exactly what Prof. Phillips has done.”

Jeremy Rayner, former director, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (CBC)

Stuart Smyth’s agrichemical industry ties and funding

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Stuart Smyth, PhD, promotes and defends genetically engineered foods and pesticides as an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2014, he has held the Industry Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation.

Industry funding

Funders (described as “investing partners”) of Smyth’s research chair position include Bayer CropScience Canada, CropLife Canada, Monsanto Canada, the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission (SaskCanola) and Syngenta Canada. According to the U of S website, “The objective of this Chair is to address the problems regarding the use of regulations as international trade barriers that have the very real probability of negatively impacting food security by restricting developing country farmers from accessing the full variety of tools possible. The research undertaken in the Chair will provide the industry with research from a neutral perspective, but one that will hold industry interests as a priority.” Funding companies hold a seat on a “Stakeholder Advisory Committee” established “to provide a two-way flow of information, insights and feedback between the chairholder and the investing partners.”

Public-private research

Dr. Smyth’s research focuses on “sustainability, agriculture, innovation and food.” In 2015, he was part of a large group of scientists at U of S who received $37 million from the Canada First Research Fund, a federal grant program, targeted toward designing crops to “improve global food security.” The research teams operate under the leadership of the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), a public-private partnership involving the University of Saskatchewan, the Government of Saskatchewan and Nutrien, one of the largest producers of fertilizer products. Under the slogan “feeding the future,” Nutrien markets its chemical products as critical for food security.

Annual contribution from Monsanto

In a May 13, 2016 email, Monsanto Canada’s Public and Industry Affairs Director asked Dr. Smyth to send an invoice for “this year’s contribution” for “program support.”

Industry collaborations

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show how Dr. Smyth has collaborated on messaging with agrichemical companies and industry allies.

Discrediting IARC: In a May 2016 email, Dr. Smyth notified Monsanto employees that he had filed an information request with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to obtain a presentation given by Chris Portier, a scientist in the IARC working group that found glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen. Internal documents and industry communications show that Monsanto’s key strategy to defend glyphosate was to foment attacks against IARC, and specifically Dr. Portier.

In the email to Monsanto, Dr. Smyth said he expected the information he was trying to obtain could provide “clear grounds for a conflict of interest and lack of transparency.” He linked to a blog by the “Risk Monger” (David Zaruk, a former pesticide industry lobbyist) alleging misconduct at IARC and demanding retraction of its glyphosate report. On Twitter, Dr. Smyth called for federal governments to stop funding the WHO’s cancer research agency.

Offering slides to Monsanto for editing: In a November 2016 email, Dr. Smyth asked Monsanto employees if they had suggestions for improvements on his draft slides for a presentation to the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture meeting. IICA is a partnership of Microsoft, Bayer, Corteva Agrisciences (DowDuPont) and the Costa Rica Ministry of Science to promote technology as the solution for agricultural development in rural areas.

BASF/CropLife project offer: In February 2016 emails, BASF’s Business Director of Crop Protection reached out to Dr. Smyth to discuss a “small project we are working on within CropLife Canada that I would like to explore with you.” Dr. Smyth agreed to set up a meeting and noted he was “in Berlin to speak at a food safety conference about the dangers of eating organic food and how the organic industry needs to be honest with consumers about how organic food is produced.”

Promoting GMOs to food buyers: In August 2016, Monsanto’s Cami Ryan notified Dr. Smyth that she suggested him for a speaking slot at a conference to discuss the implications of removing or using less GMOs to a crowd of food producers, major food buyers and investment bankers.

Opting out of biosafety: In a July 2016 email exchange with a writer from the American Council on Science and Health (an industry-funded front group), Dr. Smyth discussed a presentation he had given on global food security “saying that Canada and the US need to help countries opt out of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and that we need to fence Europe out of global ag commodity trade.”

Undeclared conflicts

Dr. Smyth and the University of Saskatchewan disclose on the website that Dr. Smyth’s chair position receives agrichemical industry funding, but Dr. Smyth does not always disclose his industry funding in his academic papers and public communications.

From a 2020 paper he co-authored about biotechnology regulations: “We wish to confirm that there are no known conflicts of interest associated with this publication”

Another 2020 paper he co-authored about food safety and risk assessment: “The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.”

In a 2019 paper titled, “The human health benefits from GM crops,” Dr. Smyth wrote, “I declare no conflict of interest.”

A 2018 paper in New Phytologist Trust declared that “No potential conflicts of interest were disclosed.”

A 2018 paper in Frontiers in Plant Science states, “The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.”

Media outlets have not always disclosed Dr. Smyth’s industry funding. In March 2019, soon after a federal jury awarded $80 million to a cancer victim exposed to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide, Dr. Smyth argued in Newsweek that glyphosate should not be restricted. Newsweek failed to disclose the industry connections of Smyth and his co-author, Henry I. Miller, but later acknowledged that their “ties to the agrochemical industry and Monsanto should have been disclosed.”

Industry messaging

Dr. Smyth produces a steady stream of blogs, media appearances and social media posts promoting and defending agrichemical products and arguing against regulations.  On his SaiFood blog, Dr. Smyth touts the theoretical benefits of GMO crops and promotes glyphosate as necessary and safe, sometimes using student surveys as the frame for promoting industry views.

The blog is the main communication vehicle Dr. Smyth established for his industry research chair position, according to a thank you note he sent to Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer in November 2016, notifying them that his blog had been voted one of the top 50 ag blogs in North America. “Without your support for this research, none of this would have been possible,” Dr. Smyth wrote.

On Twitter, Dr. Smyth promotes industry PR writers and industry front groups such as the Genetic Literacy Project and American Council on Science and Health and regularly attacks environmental NGOs and the organic industry. He has claimed, for example, that the “environmental toxicity of organic chemicals is far higher than industrial ones,” and that, “Organic food can’t be trusted anywhere, it is the food most likely to kill those who eat it.”

More information on corporate public relations

For more information on how agrichemical companies are funding various programs in Canada to promote public acceptance of genetically engineered seeds and agrichemicals, see this post by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network on Corporate Public Relations.

Newsweek Gets Ad Money from Bayer, Prints Op-Eds That Help Bayer

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Newsweek failed to disclose the chemical industry connections of two opinion writers who argued today in an op-ed that glyphosate can’t be regulated. The commentary by Henry I. Miller and Stuart Smyth, both of whom have ties to Monsanto that were not disclosed in the piece, appeared soon after a federal jury handed cancer victim Edwin Hardeman an $80 million verdict against Monsanto (now Bayer), and said the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide was a “substantial factor” in causing Hardeman’s cancer.

Last year, we complained to Newsweek’s opinion editor about an op-ed Dr. Miller wrote attacking the organic industry that was based on pesticide industry sources and didn’t disclose Miller’s Monsanto ties. See our bizarre email exchange with the editor, Nicholas Wapshott, in which he declined to inform readers about the conflicts of interest. Wapshott is no longer at Newsweek, but Miller’s organic food attack still appears there, and today it was surrounded by Bayer advertisements promoting glyphosate.

Bayer ads surrounding Dr. Miller’s 2018 attack on organic food – March 28, 2019

Today’s op-ed in Newsweek, in which Miller and Smyth defended Monsanto and Roundup, provided these bios: Stuart J. Smyth is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and holds the Industry Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Here’s what Newsweek did not disclose to its readers about the authors:

Henry Miller’s Monsanto ties:

Stuart Smyth’s Monsanto ties:

  • Dr. Smyth also collaborates with the agrichemical industry on PR projects, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and published in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive.
  • Emails from 2016 indicate that Dr. Smyth receives “program support” from Monsanto. The email from Monsanto Canada’s Public and Industry Affairs Director asks Dr. Smyth to send the “invoice for this year’s contribution.”

Newsweek has a duty to inform its readers about the chemical industry connections of writers and sources who argue in Newsweek for the safety and necessity of pesticides linked to cancer.

For more information: