Tracking the Agrichemical Industry Propaganda Network

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propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view

Just four corporations now control three quarters of the global supply of seeds and pesticides. Public oversight of their activities is crucial for a safe and healthy food supply. Yet all of these companies – Monsanto/Bayer, DowDuPont, Syngenta/ChemChina and BASF – have documented histories of hiding the health risks and environmental impacts of their products. Since their records do not inspire trust, they often make use of third-party allies who promote the industry’s commercial and political agenda to the public, media, regulators and policy makers, while appearing to be acting independently of industry.

The public has a right to know about groups and people who collaborate with agrichemical corporations to push industry messaging and policy agendas. U.S. Right to Know has uncovered many documents that reveal, for the first time, how companies are working behind the scenes with academics, journalists and independent-sounding groups, in ways that are not disclosed to the public, to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides and stave off regulations. The evidence is described in our fact sheets about key players in the agrichemical industry propaganda network:

Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group

AgBioChatter: Where Corporations, Academics Plotted Strategy on GMOs, Pesticides

Alison Van Eenennaam: Key Outside Spokesperson and Lobbyist for the Agrichemical and GMO Industries

American Council on Science and Health is a Corporate Front Group

Biofortified Aids Chemical Industry PR & Lobbying Efforts

Center for Food Integrity Partners with Monsanto

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

Drew Kershen: Agrichemical Industry Front Group Ringleader

Food Evolution GMO Documentary is a Propaganda Film

Geoffrey Kabat: Ties to Tobacco and Chemical Industry Groups

GMO Answers is a Crisis Management PR Tool for GMOs & Pesticides

Hank Campbell’s Maze of Monsanto-Loving Science Blogs

Henry I. Miller Dropped by Forbes for Monsanto Ghostwriting Scandal

Independent Women’s Forum: Koch-Funded Group Defends Pesticide, Oil, Tobacco Industries

International Food Information Council: How Big Food Spins Bad News

Jay Byrne: Meet the Man Behind the Monsanto PR Machine

Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project: Key Messengers for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry

Keith Kloor: The Agrichemical Industry’s Favorite Writer

Kevin Folta’s Misleading and Deceptive Claims

Mark Lynas Promotes the Agrichemical Industry’s Commercial Agenda

Monsanto named these “industry partners” in 2015 PR Plan to Confront Glyphosate Cancer Ruling

Pamela Ronald’s ties to chemical industry front groups

SciBabe Says Eat Your Pesticides. But Who is Paying Her?

Science Media Centre Promotes Corporate Views of Science

Sense About Science/STATS Spin Science for Industry

Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post

Val Giddings: Top Operative for the Agrichemical Industry

More fact sheets about key front groups, trade groups and PR writers:

BIO: biotech industry trade group

Calorie Control Council

Center for Consumer Freedom

Crop Life International

International Life Sciences Institute

International Dairy Association

Julie Kelly

Kavin Senapathy/MAMMyths

Ketchum PR

International Farmers and Ranchers Alliance

Science fact sheets:

Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks

Aspartame Tied to Weight Gain, Increased Appetite, Obesity

Glyphosate: Health Concerns About Most Widely Used Pesticide

You can learn more about the findings of the U.S. Right to Know investigation here and see here for a list of global news coverage about our top findings. If you like our work, please consider donating here to keep the USRTK investigation cooking.

Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project: PR Messengers for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry

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Jon Entine is executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project and principal of the public relations firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients included Monsanto. Entine portrays himself as an objective authority on science, but the evidence indicates he is a longtime PR operative with deep ties to the chemical industry and undisclosed industry funding. Entine plays a central role in the chemical industry’s efforts to promote GMOs and pesticides and keep their products unregulated.

A 2015 Monsanto PR document named the Genetic Literacy Project as an “industry partner” that could help “protect the reputation of Roundup” from a cancer agency’s report that the weed killer’s key ingredient, glyphosate, is a probable human carcinogen.

See also Entine’s ties to: Geoffrey Kabat, Pamela Ronald, Jay Byrne, the American Council on Science and Health and Academics Review 

Genetic Literacy Project origins: a Monsanto PR firm and a nonprofit with tobacco ties

Jon Entine is founder and principal of ESG MediaMetrics, a public relations firm that had Monsanto as a client from 2010 – 2013, along with the Vinyl Institute and Merisant, a Monsanto spin-off that manufactures artificial sweeteners. In 2011, ESG MediaMetrics registered the web domain for GeneticLiteracyProject.org.

Entine was at that time employed by Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a nonprofit group that journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that is “known for its defense of the chemical industry.” Genetic Literacy Project was developed as a “cross disciplinary program with STATS,” according to web archives. In 2015, Genetic Literacy Project moved under the umbrella of a new group, the Science Literacy Project, which inherited the STATS tax ID number.

An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that STATS was a “major player in the public relations campaign to discredit concerns about bisphenol A” and that its parent organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), “was paid in the 1990s by Philip Morris, the tobacco company, to pick apart stories critical of smoking.” Entine was a director of the CMPA in fiscal year 2014/2015, according to tax forms.

Monsanto was a client of Entine’s PR firm when it registered the domain for Genetic Literacy Project.

Ongoing partnership with Monsanto 

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and from litigation against Monsanto show that Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project have continued to partner with Monsanto to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides, without disclosing their collaborations:

  • A 2015 Monsanto PR plan identified Genetic Literacy Project as one of the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage in its efforts to “neutralize [the] impact” of the International Agency for Research on Cancer report on glyphosate. GLP has since posted dozens of articles attacking the cancer agency.
  • An award-winning June 2017 Le Monde investigation into Monsanto’s “effort to destroy” the cancer agency “by any means possible” describes the Genetic Literacy Project and the American Council on Science and Health as “well-known propaganda websites” and key players in Monsanto’s communication networks.
  • Plaintiffs’ attorneys suing Monsanto over glyphosate cancer concerns stated in a May 2017 filing that: “Monsanto quietly funnels money to ‘think tanks’ such as the ‘Genetic Literacy Project’ and the ‘American Council on Science and Health,’ organizations intended to shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers.”
  • In 2014 and 2015, Genetic Literacy Project worked with Monsanto and their PR firm to publish and promote a series of pro-GMO papers written by professors, but assigned and promoted by Monsanto with no disclosure of the corporation’s role. See Boston Globe report, “Harvard professor failed to disclose Monsanto connection.”
  • According to a Sept. 2014 email, Monsanto executives chose Genetic Literacy Project as the “the primary outlet” to publish the professors’ papers, and to build a “merchandising plan” with the PR firm CMA to promote the papers.
  • The PR firm CMA, which has since been renamed Look East, is directed by Charlie Arnot, who also runs the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit that receives funding from Monsanto — and also donates to Genetic Literacy Project.
  • In 2014 and 2015, Genetic Literacy Project partnered with Academics Review, a Monsanto front group, to organize industry-funded conferences at the University of Florida and UC Davis “to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate,” as Paul Thacker reported in The Progressive.

Ties to Syngenta / American Council on Science and Health

Syngenta was funding ACSH when it published Entine’s book defending Syngenta’s pesticide.

Jon Entine is closely tied in with the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group that receives funding from Monsanto and other chemical companies. ACSH published Entine’s 2011 book, which defends atrazine, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta. Reporting by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones and the Center for Media and Democracy establish that Syngenta was funding ACSH at the time, and that ACSH had asked Syngenta to provide extra funding for a project that included a book that sounds like Entine’ book.

Philpott’s article in Mother Jones described the circumstances leading up to the publication of Entine’s book, based on documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy that describe Syngenta’s PR campaign to get third-party allies to defend atrazine.

In 2009, ACSH staff asked Syngenta for a $100,000 grant — “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years” — to produce a paper and “consumer-friendly booklet” about atrazine. In 2011, ACSH announced Entine’s new book along with a “companion friendly, abbreviated position paper,” both defending atrazine. Entine told Philpott he had “no idea” Syngenta was funding ACSH.

Attacks on Scientists and Journalists

A key theme in Entine’s work is attacking scientists and journalists who report critically about the chemical industry, the oil industry or health problems associated with them. Some examples:

  • Attacked New Yorker reporter Rachel Aviv and UC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes in attempt to discredit Aviv’s reporting, based on internal Syngenta documents, that Syngenta’s public relations team tried to destroy Hayes’ reputation to discredit his research connecting the herbicide atrazine to birth defects in frogs. Entine’s chief source was Bruce Chassy,  a professor who was quietly receiving money from Monsanto and helped start a Monsanto front group to attack industry critics.
  • Attacked Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt, as “a populist Luddite, the intellectual Rottweiler of in-your-face, environmentalism, unduly wary of modern technology.”
  • Attacked Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll and journalist Susanne Rust for reporting that Exxon knew for years that climate change was real but hid the science to keep revenues flowing.
  • In a follow-up attack (since removed from the Huffington Post website), Entine accused Rust of having a “journalistic history” that raises “ethical and science questions.” He cited her award-winning investigative series on BPA that was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize — but did not disclose that her reporting identified his former employer STATS as a major player in industry’s PR efforts.

The Murky Funding Trail to Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project

Entine’s funding history is complex and opaque, but tax documents and his own disclosures reveal a pattern of funding from anonymous sources and right-wing foundations that push deregulation and climate science denial, as well as undisclosed funding from the biotechnology industry.

Inaccurate, ever-changing “transparency” note

The “financial transparency” note on the Genetic Literacy Project website is inaccurate, changes often and at times contradicts itself. For 2017 and 2018, the Genetic Literacy Project claimed it received funding from a handful of foundations including the Templeton and Searle foundations, which are leading funders of climate science denial efforts. GLP also notes funding from the Center for Food Integrity, a food-industry front group that receives money from Monsanto and also partners with Monsanto and Genetic Literacy Project to promote agrichemical industry PR.

In September 2016, the “disclosure” note said GLP received no funding from corporations, but disclosed a $27,500 “pass through” from “Academics Review Charitable Association,” which appears not to exist. That group is apparently AcademicsReview.org, a front group that received its funding from the agrichemical industry trade group.

In March 2016, GLP made no financial disclosures and Entine tried to distance GLP from his former employer STATS, claiming that STATS provided accounting services only and that the groups weren’t involved with each other’s activities. But in 2012, GLP said it was “developed as a cross disciplinary program with STATS.”

Center for Media and Public Affairs/George Mason University

For the fiscal year 2014/2015, according to tax records, Entine received $173,100 for his work as “director” at Center for Media and Public Affairs, a group based at George Mason University and founded by GMU Professor Robert Lichter. CMPA was paid by Phillip Morris in the 1990s to deflect concerns about tobacco, according to documents in the UCSF Tobacco Industry Library.

CMPA does not disclose its funders but has received funding from George Mason University Foundation, the leading recipient of donations affiliated with Charles Koch and Koch Industries. GMUF also received $5.3 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund between 2011-13, according to the Guardian. These funds channel money from anonymous donors including corporations to campaigns and academics who push industry interests, as Greenpeace demonstrated in an undercover investigation.

STATS Payments and Loans

CMPA’s sister group, also founded by Lichter and based at GMU, was Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a nonprofit group that played a key role in chemical industry PR efforts to defend toxic products, according to reporting in The Intercept, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Atlantic and Consumer Reports.

According to IRS forms:

  • STATS paid Entine $140,600 in 2012/2013 and $152,500 in 2013/2014 as a “research consultant”
  • STATS and Center for Media and Public Affairs both listed Entine as Director in 2014/2015 with compensation of $173,100. Tax records for both groups also listed President Trevor Butterworth for $95,512 and Director Tracey Brown with no compensation. Tracey Brown is director of Sense About Science, a group that also spins science to defend chemical industry interests; Butterworth founded Sense About Science USA in 2014 and merged STATS into that group.
  • Science Literacy Project took over the tax ID of STATS in 2015 and listed Entine as Executive Director with compensation of $188,800.
  • In 2018, ESG MediaMetrics, Entine’s PR firm, reported $176,420 in income.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs has also loaned money to STATS, which “due to inadequate funding” has “not been reimbursed.” George Mason University Foundation, which does not disclose its funding, gave CMPA grants in those years. Tax records show:

Biotechnology industry funding to train scientists and journalists

In 2014 and 2015, the Council for Biotechnology Information, which is funded by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont and Monsanto Company, spent over $300,000 on two events organized by Genetic Literacy Project and the front group Academics Review to “train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate,” according to tax records and reporting in The Progressive. The events, called the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps, were held at the University of Florida in 2014 and UC Davis in 2015. The agendas describe the events as “communication skills training” for scientists and journalists to help reframe the food safety and GMO debate, and promised to provide scientists with the “tools and support resources necessary to effectively engage the media and appear as experts in legislative and local government hearings, and other policy making and related outreach opportunities.”

Faculty at the first first boot camp included representatives from the agrichemical industry, food industry front groups and trade groups, and pro-GMO academics including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, both of whom have accepted undisclosed funding from Monsanto and promote the GMOs and pesticides that Monsanto sales rely upon. Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel, who also accepts money from agribusiness interests, was the journalist on faculty.

Climate science denier funders

Major financial supporters of Entine’s former employer STATS and his current group Genetic Literacy Project include right-wing foundations – primarily Scaife Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust and Templeton Foundation – that are leading funders of climate science denial, according to a 2013 Drexel University study. See USRTK investigation: Climate Science Denial Network Funds Toxic Chemical Propaganda.

Chemical Industry Defense Guy

For many years, Entine has been a prominent defender of chemical industry interests, following the industry playbook: he defends the chemicals as safe; argues against regulation; and attacks science, scientists journalists and others raising concerns.

Defending Neonicotinoids

Growing scientific evidence suggests that neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of pesticides, are a key factor in bee die-offs. The European Union has restricted neonics due to concerns about impact on bees.

Entine:

  • Accused European politicians of trying to kill bees by restricting neonics (Forbes).

Defending Phthalates

In August of 2012, Entine defended vinyl plastic backpacks that were found to be exposing children to phthalates.

  • Entine criticized an NBC reporter for “shoddy journalism” for raising questions about the safety of phthalates (Forbes).

Defending Fracking

Entine defends hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the pumping of high-pressure chemical-laced water into the ground to crack shale and extract natural gas. As in his many other messaging campaigns, Entine blasts science and scientists who raise concerns, framing them as “activists,” while making sweeping and indefensible statements about “scrupulous” science conducted over many years that defend its safety.

For example, Entine claimed: “From a scientific perspective, no reason exists to even suspect unknown health or environmental issues will turn up” from fracking (New York Post).

Entine also:

  • Accused New York Times reporters of misleading children about the potential environmental dangers of fracking (Forbes).
  • Attacked two Cornell University scientists for their study suggesting that fracking operations leak methane (Forbes).
  • Attacked the Park Foundation, claiming that it has “almost single-handedly derailed shale-gas development in methane-rich New York State, and put its imprint on public opinion and policy decisions around the country.” (Philanthropy Roundtable)

Defending BPA

Entine writes in defense of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), despite a large body of scientific evidence raising concerns about its endocrine disrupting potential and other health problems associated with it. Canada declared the chemical to be toxic in 2010, and the EUbanned BPA in baby bottles in 2011.

Entine:

  • Attacked “a small but determined group of university researchers, activist NGOs and journalists” raising concerns about BPA (Forbes).
  • Tells women who can’t get pregnant not to blame it on plastics (Forbes).
  • Challenged scientists linking BPA to heart disease (Forbes).

Defending Nuclear Power

Entine:

  • Criticized Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes for pointing out the economic and environmental risks of nuclear power (Huffington Post).
  • Claims that nuclear power plants are environmentally benign and that “Nothing as bad as Chernobyl is likely to occur in the West” (Jon Entine).
  • Argued that Germany is “taking a gamble” by transitioning away from nuclear power (Ethical Corporation)

Fellowships

Entine was an unpaid fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University (GMU) from 2011-2014.Entine is also a former senior fellow at the UC Davis World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, which does not disclose its donors, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a DC think tank funded in part by corporate and dark money contributions.

See also, Greenpeace Polluter Watch page on Jon Entine and “the hidden story of the Genetic Literacy Project.”

How Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post

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Tamar Haspel is a freelance journalist who has been writing monthly food columns for the Washington Post since October 2013. Haspel’s columns frequently promote and defend agrichemical industry products, while she also receives payments to speak at industry-aligned events, and sometimes from industry groups – a practice known as “buckraking” that raises questions about objectivity.

A review of Haspel’s Washington Post columns turns up further concerns: in multiple instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry connections of her sources, relied on industry-slanted studies, cherry-picked facts to back up industry positions or cited industry propaganda uncritically. See source review and other examples described below. Haspel has not yet responded to inquiries for this article.

Buckraking on the food beat: a conflict of interest?

In a 2015 online chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” She discloses her speaking engagements on her personal website, but does not disclose which companies or trade groups fund her or what amounts they give.

When asked how much money she has taken from the agrichemical industry and its front groups, Haspel tweeted, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!”

According to the Washington Post Standards and Ethics, reporters cannot accept gifts, free trips, preferential treatment or free admissions from news sources, and “should make every effort to remain in the audience, to stay off the stage, to report the news, not to make the news.” These rules do not apply to freelancers however, and the paper leaves it up to editors to decide.

Haspel describes her criteria for accepting paid speaking engagements on her personal website: that the events are constructive debates about food issues involving more voices than for-profit companies. Not all events on her roster appear to fit that criteria (see the “biotech literacy” industry-funded message training events described below). Haspel’s editor Joe Yonan has said he is comfortable with Haspel’s approach to paid speaking engagements and finds it a “reasonable balance.” 

More comments from Haspel and Yonan are reported here, “Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a Conflict of Interest?” by Stacy Malkan (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 2015). See also, “A short report on three journalists mentioned in our FOIA requests,” by Gary Ruskin (U.S. Right to Know, 2015). For perspectives from journalists and editors on buckraking, see Ken Silverstein’s reporting (Harper’s, 2008).

Taking up the GMO beat

Haspel began writing about genetically engineered foods in March 2013 in the Huffington Post (“Go Frankenfish! Why We Need GM Salmon”). Her writings about other food-related topics began appearing in the Washington Post and HuffPo in 2011 and elsewhere since the mid 1990s. Haspel’s final series of articles for Huffington Post continued on the topic of agrichemical industry products, with blogs debunking studies about possible risks of glyphosate and GMO animal feed, an argument against GMO labeling campaigns and a puff piece about the agrichemical industry’s marketing website, GMO Answers.

GMOAnswers.org was part of a multi-million-dollar public relations initiative the agrichemical industry announced in the spring of 2013 to combat consumer concerns about genetically engineered foods in the wake of campaigns to label GMOs.

HuffPo July 2013: An example of how Haspel has promoted industry sources uncritically. More examples below. 

WaPo Unearthed column: digging for industry perspectives

Haspel launched her monthly “Unearthed” food column in the Washington Post in October 2013  (“Genetically modified foods: What is and isn’t true”) with a promise to “dig deep to try and figure out what’s true and what isn’t in the debate about our food supply.” She advised readers to figure out “whom you can trust” in the GMO debate and identified several groups that did not pass her impartiality test (the Union of Concerned Scientists among them).

Haspel’s November 2013 column (“GMO common ground: Where supporters and opponents agree”) provided a broad range of perspectives from public interest as well as industry sources; however, in subsequent columns, Haspel seldom quotes public interest groups and devotes far less space to public health experts and data sources than she does to industry-connected sources or experts in risk analysis or “risk perception” who tend to downplay public health and safety concerns, and echo industry views. In several instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry ties to sources.

Industry-sourced ‘food movement’ column

An example that illustrates some of these problems is Haspel’s January 2016 column (“The surprising truth about the food movement”), in which she argues that people who care about genetic engineering or other aspects of food production – the “food movement” – are a marginal part of the population. She included no interviews with consumer, health, environmental or justice groups that consider themselves part of the food movement.

Haspel sourced the column with two industry-funded spin groups, the International Food Information Council and Ketchum, the public relations firm that runs GMO Answers. While she described Ketchum as a PR firm that “works extensively with the food industry,” Haspel did not disclose that Ketchum was hired by the agrichemical industry to change consumer views of GMO foods (nor did she mention Ketchum’s scandalous history of flacking for Russia and conducting espionage against environmental groups).

A third source for her column was a two-year old phone survey conducted by William Hallman, a public perception analyst from Rutgers who reported that most people don’t care about GMO labeling. (A year earlier, Hallman and Haspel discussed consumer perspectives about GMOs on a government-sponsored panel they shared with Eric Sachs of Monsanto.)

Collaborations with industry spin groups

Tamar Haspel’s affinity for and collaborations with key players in the agrichemical industry’s public relations efforts raise further concerns about her objectivity.

A promotional quote from Haspel appears on the homepage of STATS/Sense About Science, describing STATS as “invaluable” to her reporting. Other journalists have described STATS as a product-defense “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk and plays a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation.” A 2016 story in The Intercept described the tobacco ties of STATS and Sense About Science (which merged in 2014 under the direction of Trevor Butterworth) and the role they play in pushing industry views about science.

A 2015 public relations strategy document named Sense About Science among the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage in its campaign to “orchestrate outcry” against the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency to discredit a report about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.

Agrichemical industry spin events

In June 2014, Haspel was a “faculty” member (alongside several industry representatives) at a messaging training event called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp that was funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two industry front groups that Monsanto also identified as “industry partners” in its 2015 PR plan.

Genetic Literacy Project is a former program of STATS, and Academics Review was set up with the help of Monsanto to discredit industry critics while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden, according to emails obtained through public records requests.

The boot camp Haspel attended was aimed at “reframing the food safety and GMO debate,” according to the agenda. Paul Thacker reported about the event in The Progressive, “Industry has also secretly funded a series of conferences to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate …  In emails, organizers referred to these conferences as biotech literacy bootcamps, and journalists are described as ‘partners.'”

Academics familiar with corporate spin tactics reviewed the boot camp documents at Thacker’s request. “These are distressing materials,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University. “It is clearly intended to persuade people that GMO crops are beneficial, needed, and not sufficiently risky to justify labeling.” Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said, “If journalists attend conferences that they are paid to attend, they need to be deeply suspicious from the get-go.”

Cami Ryan, a boot camp staffer who later went on to work for Monsanto, noted in the conference evaluation that participants wanted, “More Haspel-ish, Ropeik-ish sessions.” (David Ropeik is a risk perception consultant whom Haspel quoted in a 2015 Washington Post column that questioned concerns about glyphosate and herbicide-resistant GMO crops.)

2015 biotech literacy day 

In May 2015, Haspel presented at a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” at the University of Florida organized by Kevin Folta, a professor tied in with agrichemical industry public relations and lobbying efforts. Folta had included Haspel in a proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem” resulting from activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” Page 4 of the proposal described an event to feature UF professors “and several others brought in from the outside including industry representatives, journalist experts in science communication (e.g. Tamar Haskel [sic], Amy Harmon), and experts in public risk perception and psychology (e.g. Dan Kahan).”

Monsanto funded Folta’s proposal, calling it “a great 3rd-party approach to developing the kind of advocacy we’re looking to develop.” (The money was donated to a food pantry in August 2015 after the funding became public.)

In April 2015, Folta wrote to Haspel with details about the messaging training event, “We’ll cover the costs and an honorarium, whatever that takes. The audience will be scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”

Haspel responded, “I am definitely in,” and she relayed an anecdote from another recent “science communication” panel that had changed somebody’s view about Monsanto. “It is possible to make headway, but I’m convinced it’s by person-to-person interactions,” Haspel wrote to Folta.

The archived agenda for the Florida communication day listed the speakers as Haspel, Folta, three other UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe and representatives from Biofortified and Center for Food Integrity (two more groups Monsanto referred to as industry partners in its PR strategy to defend glyphosate). In another email to Folta, Haspel enthused about meeting Crowe, “Very much looking forward to this. (I’ve wanted to meet Vance Crowe – very glad he’ll be there.)”

Ethics and disclosure

In September 2015, The New York Times featured Folta in a front-page story by Eric Lipton about how industry groups relied on academics to fight the GMO labeling war. Lipton reported on Folta’s fundraising appeal to Monsanto, and that Folta had been publicly claiming he had no associations with Monsanto.

Haspel wrote to Folta a few months later, “I am very sorry for what you’ve gone through, and it’s distressing when mean-spirited, partisan attacks overshadow the real issues — both on the science and on the transparency, both of which are so important.” Haspel mentioned she was working with the National Press Foundation to develop better conflict of interest standards for freelance journalists.

Haspel was a 2015 fellow for the National Press Foundation (a group partly funded by corporations, including Bayer and DuPont). In an article she wrote for NPF about ethics for freelancers, Haspel discussed the importance of disclosure and described her criteria for speaking at events only if non-industry funders and diverse views are involved — criteria not met by either of the biotech literacy events. The disclosure page on her website does not accurately disclose the conveners and funders of the 2014 biotech literacy boot camp. Haspel has not responded to questions about the biotech literacy events.

Misleading reporting on pesticides

A source review of three of Tamar Haspel’s Washington Post columns on the topic of pesticides turned up examples of undisclosed industry-connected sources, data omissions and out of context reporting that served to bolster industry messaging that pesticides are not a concern and organic is not much of a benefit. The review covers these three columns (referred to below by the year in which they were published).

  • “Is organic better for your health? A look at milk, meat, eggs, produce and fish” (April 7, 2014)
  • “It’s the chemical Monsanto depends on. How dangerous is it?” (October 2015)
  • “The truth about organic produce and pesticides” (May 21, 2018)

Failed to disclose industry connections to sources

In her 2018 column, Haspel gave readers “an idea of the magnitude of risk” from cumulative pesticide exposures by citing a study that equated the risk of consuming pesticides from food to drinking one glass of wine every three months. Haspel did not disclose that four of five authors of that study were employed by Bayer Crop Sciences, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers. The study had originally reported the risk as equal to drinking one glass of wine every seven years; a group of scientists pointed out the problem, along with undisclosed author conflicts and other flaws in this letter to the journal that described the study as “overly simplistic and seriously misleading.” (Haspel linked to both the original study and the corrected version but did not disclose the error to readers.)

To dismiss concerns about the synergistic effects of exposure to multiple pesticides, Haspel cited another study from the only non-Bayer affiliated author of the flawed pesticide-and-wine comparison study, and “a 2008 report” that “made the same assessment.” That report was co-authored by Alan Boobis and Angelo Moretto, two scientists who were caught in a “conflict of interest row,” as the Guardian reported in 2016, because they held leadership positions in a group that received substantial donations from the pesticide industry at the same time as they chaired a UN panel that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk.

Haspel also failed to disclose an industry connection to a data source in her 2014 column that reported disagreement about whether pesticide residues in food pose a health risk. Here she introduced doubt about the health risks of organophosphates, a class of pesticides linked to neurological damage in children, with a review that found “the epidemiological studies did not strongly implicate any particular pesticide as being causally related to adverse neurological developmental outcomes in infants and children.” The lead author of that review was Carol Burns, a scientist at Dow Chemical Company, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of organophosphates — but Haspel did not inform readers of the corporate connection.

Misled with out-of-context reporting

In her 2014 column, Haspel used a 2012 paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics out of context to reinforce her argument that eating organic might not offer health benefits, but she did not inform readers of the full scope of the study or its conclusions. The AAP paper chronicled a wide range of scientific evidence suggesting harm to children from both acute and chronic exposures to various pesticides, and concluded, “Children’s exposures to pesticides should be limited as much as possible.” The report cited evidence of a “drastic immediate decrease in urinary excretion of pesticide metabolites” in children eating an organic diet. AAP also issued policy recommendations to reduce children’s exposure to pesticides.

Haspel left out all that context and reported only that the AAP report, “noted the correlation between organophosphate exposure and neurological issues that had been found in some studies but concluded that it was still ‘unclear’ that reducing exposure by eating organic would be ‘clinically relevant.'”

In her 2018 column, Haspel misleadingly reported that the pesticide chlorpyrifos “has been the subject a battle between environmental groups, which want it banned, and the EPA, which doesn’t” — but she did not inform readers that the EPA had recommended banning chlorpyrifos due to mounting evidence that prenatal exposure could have lasting effects on children’s brains. The agency reversed course only after the Trump EPA interfered. Haspel sourced her misleading “environmental groups vs EPA” sentence with a link to a New York Times documents page that provided little context about the EPA decision, rather than linking to the NYT story that explained the political context of corporate influence.

Relied on industry go-to sources and sources who agree

In her 2018 column, Haspel set up her argument that pesticide exposures in food are not much of a concern with a dubious reporting tactic she has used on other occasions: citing agreement among many sources she knows. In this case, Haspel reported that pesticide levels in food “are very low” and “you shouldn’t be concerned about them,” according to “the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (along with many toxicologists I’ve spoken with over the years).”

Although she reported that, “Not everyone has faith in those assessments,” Haspel cited no disagreeing sources and ignored entirely the American Academy of Pediatrics report that recommended reducing children’s exposures to pesticides, which she cited out of context in her 2014 column.

In her 2015 column about glyphosate, Haspel again quoted like-minded sources, reporting that every scientist she spoke with “noted that until recent questions arose, glyphosate had been noted for its safety.” She quoted Keith Solomon, a toxicologist that Monsanto was promoting as a source on glyphosate, and David Ropeik, the risk perception consultant who presented with Haspel at the industry-funded messaging training boot camp in 2014.

In her 2014 column, Haspel’s source vouching for the safety of pesticide residues in food based on EPA risk assessments was Carl Winter, a toxicologist at the University of California at Davis. Winter was then a member of the science advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group that works with Monsanto. A few months earlier, ACSH had bragged in a blog post about other “organic doesn’t equal better” news coverage quoting “ACSH advisor Dr. Carl Winter.” Monsanto was also promoting Winter’s work in talking points at that time, according to documents obtained via public records requests (see science analysis circulated to academic allies by Eric Sachs).

Missed relevant data 

Relevant data Haspel missed in her reporting about the risks or pesticides and the benefits of organic included statements by prominent health groups and recent science:

  • January 2018 study by Harvard researchers published in in JAMA Internal Medicine reporting that women who regularly consumed pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF, while women who ate organic food had better outcomes;
  • January 2018 commentary in JAMA by pediatrician Phillip Landrigan urging physicians to encourage their patients to eat organic;
  • February 2017 report prepared for the European Parliament outlining the health benefits of eating organic food and practicing organic agriculture;
  • 2016 European Parliament Science and Technology Option Assessment recommended reducing dietary intake of pesticides, especially for women and children;
  • 2012 President’s Cancer Panel report recommends reducing children’s exposure to cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures;
  • 2012 paper and policy recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending reducing children’s exposure to pesticides as much as possible;
  • 2009 statement by the American Public Health Association, “Opposition to the use of hormone growth promoters in beef and dairy cattle production”;
  • 2002 review by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Review reporting that growth-promoting hormones in beef production pose a health risk to consumers.

More perspectives on Haspel’s reporting

The Misleading and Deceitful Ways of Dr. Kevin Folta

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Kevin Folta, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Horticulture Sciences Department at University of Florida, has provided inaccurate information and engaged in misleading activities in his efforts to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides.

His recent lawsuit against The New York Times is the latest in a long line of examples of Dr. Folta’s misleading and deceptive communications.

Dr. Folta sued NYT and Pulitzer Prize winner for reporting his ties to Monsanto; lawsuit dismissed

On Sept. 1, 2017, Dr. Folta filed a lawsuit against The New York Times and Eric Lipton, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, claiming they defamed him with a 2015 front-page article that described how Monsanto enlisted academics to oppose the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit was dismissed on February 27, 2019. A federal judge granted the defendants’ motion for final summary judgement.

Lawsuit documents:
Amended complaint (10/5/2017)
NYT motion to dismiss (10/19/2017)
Federal judge denied Dr. Folta’s motions to compel discovery, calling some of the requests “downright silly” and “laughable” (5/11/2018)
NYT and Eric Lipton motion for final summary judgment (7/25/18)
Dr. Folta’s amended opposition to motion for summary judgment (8/16/18)
Order granting defendants’ motion for final summary judgement (2/27/19)

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit claimed the defendants “misrepresented him as a covertly paid operative of one of the largest and most controversial companies in America, Monsanto,” and that they did so in order to “to further their own ‘anti GMO’ agenda.” According to Dr. Folta’s lawsuit, Lipton “has almost singlehandedly silenced the scientific community from teaching scientists how to communicate.”

The lawsuit claimed that Dr. Folta “never received” an “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto and that he “never received any form of grant, and never received support for him to ‘travel around the country and defend genetically modified foods.’” However, documents show that Monsanto provided Dr. Folta with, in their words, “an unrestricted grant in the amount of $25,000 which may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects.”

Emails indicate that Monsanto donated the money in response to a 9-page proposal from Dr. Folta, in which he asked Monsanto for $25,000 to fund his “three tiered solution” to the “biotech communications problem.” Proposed activities included traveling each month to a major domestic university to promote GMOs. The money was donated to a food bank after the documents became public.

Example of Folta discussing/defending an industry product (Monsanto’s Roundup)

Dr. Folta’s lawsuit also claimed (point 67), “Dr. Folta does not discuss industry products of any sort, he teaches broadly about technology.” Yet he has vouched for the supposed safety of Monsanto’s RoundUp, going so far as to drink the product “to demonstrate harmlessness.” He has also said he “will do it again.”

In a Sept. 29, 2015 email, Janine Sikes, University of Florida Assistant Vice President of Public Affairs, wrote to a colleague about Lipton’s NYT story: “for the record I thought the story was fair.”

Quotes from NYT and Eric Lipton’s response to Folta’s lawsuit, from July 2018 motion for final summary judgement:

Mr. Lipton relied on Plaintiff’s own email communications, which were provided to him by UF in response to a public records request. While it may be that Plaintiff, a self-described “public” scientist, would rather not have his associations with industry giants like Monsanto examined, accurate reporting on the records documenting those associations cannot form the basis for a defamation lawsuit. (Page 1)

Among other things, (Folta’s) UF records documented: (1) Plaintiff’s actions in securing a $25,000 “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto—that Plaintiff told Monsanto would not have to be publicly disclosed—to fund talks about GMO science, including the discussion of industry products; (2) Plaintiff’s testifying before governmental bodies in favor of pro-GMO policies; (3) Plaintiff’s interactions with industry, including numerous email communications with industry representatives providing his thoughts about lobbying strategy and describing his efforts to communicate GMO science to the public; (4) his posts for GMOAnswers, an industry-sponsored website; and (5) travel expenses paid by industry, including expenses related to his trip to Monsanto headquarters. (Page 7)

Dr. Folta has repeatedly claimed no association with Monsanto despite his close collaboration with Monsanto  

Dr. Folta stated numerous times that he had no connection to Monsanto. Yet emails reported by The New York Times established that he was in frequent contact with Monsanto and their public relations allies to collaborate on activities to promote genetically engineered foods.

The emails indicate that Monsanto and allies set up media opportunities and lobbying activities for Dr. Folta and worked with him on messaging. In August 2014, Monsanto informed Dr. Folta that he would receive $25,000 to further his promotional activities. The email exchanges suggest a close collaboration:

  • In July 2014, a Monsanto executive praised Dr. Folta’s grant proposal and asked four other Monsanto executives to provide feedback to improve it. He wrote, “This is a great 3rd-party approach to developing the advocacy that we’re looking to develop.”
  • In August 2014, Dr. Folta responded to the acceptance letter for his grant, “I’m grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment.”
  • In October 2014, Dr. Folta wrote to a Monsanto executive, “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.”

Just weeks after the grant details were worked out, in August 2014, Dr. Folta asserted that he had “no formal connection to Monsanto.” He has also claimed he received “no research or personal funding” from “Big Ag,” had “no financial ties to any of the Big Ag companies that make transgenic crops, including Monsanto,” and had “nothing to do with MON.”

Bayer Funding

9/18 Update: Dr. Folta contracted with the law firm Clifford Chance representing Bayer AG to serve an a consultant in an arbitration hearing at a rate of $600 per hour for up to 120 hours. Those documents were made public by Biofortified, Inc., a GMO promotion group that said it severed ties with Dr. Folta over his failure to fully disclose the potential conflict of interest.

11/17 Update: Dr. Folta received and disclosed receiving research funding from Bayer AG (which is in the process of acquiring Monsanto). According to a document obtained by US Right to Know via FOIA, Bayer sent an award letter to Dr. Folta on May 23, 2017 for a grant for 50,000 Euros (approximately $58,000), for his proposal on “New Herbicide Chemistries Discovered in Functional Randomness.”

Dr. Folta proposed hiding Monsanto money from public scrutiny

“My funding is all transparent,” Dr. Folta wrote in his blog, but his proposal to Monsanto to fund his GMO promotional activities concluded with a paragraph advising Monsanto how to donate the money to avoid public disclosure:

“If funded directly to the program as a SHARE contribution (essentially unrestricted funds) it is not subject to IDC and is not in a ‘conflict-of-interest’ account. In other words, SHARE contributions are not publicly noted. This eliminates the potential concern of the funding organization influencing the message.”

Monsanto sent the $25,000 donation as an unrestricted grant for Dr. Folta.

Dr. Folta allowed an industry PR firm to ghostwrite for him, then denied it

An August 2015 story in Inside Higher Ed described allegations that the agrichemical industry’s PR firm, Ketchum, had provided Dr. Folta with “canned answers to questions about GMOs” for the agrichemical industry’s public relations website, GMO Answers.

Dr. Folta denied using the ghostwritten text, according to the story:

“Regarding the canned answers, he said he was ‘pissed off’ when he received them and never used them.”

Dr. Folta later admitted using the ghostwritten text. The New York Times reported in September 2015:

“But Ketchum did more than provide questions (for GMO Answers). On several occasions, it also gave Dr. Folta draft answers, which he then used nearly verbatim, a step that he now says was a mistake.”

In an October 2015 BuzzFeed story, Dr. Folta justified his decision to use Ketchum’s ghostwritten text:

“They gave me extremely good answers that were spot on,” Folta told me. “I’m inundated with work. Maybe it was lazy, but I don’t know that it was lazy. When someone says, ‘We’ve thought about this and here’s what we have’ — there are people who work in academia who have speechwriters who take the words of other people and present them as their own. That’s OK.”

Dr. Folta posted false information about agrichemical industry funding to the University of Florida

In October 2014, Dr. Folta posted inaccurate information about his own university’s funding on GMO Answers. When asked, “How much have the biotech companies donated to the Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida?” Dr. Folta responded:

“There are zero ‘donations.’ At least during the last five years (all I checked), there are not even any grants or research agreements between the Horticultural Sciences Department at U.F. and any company selling biotech seeds …

During the last five years, at the whole university, there were a total of $21,000 in Monsanto grants to one faculty member in the panhandle who studies weeds. That’s it for the whole university. Our records are all public, so anyone could have found this information.”

In fact, biotech companies donated more than $12 million to the University of Florida in fiscal year 2013/2014 alone, according to University of Florida Foundation documents posted by NYT. Monsanto was listed as a “Gold” donor that year, meaning the company had donated at least $1 million. Syngenta was a “Diamond” donor with “Cumulative Giving of $10 Million+” while BASF donated at least $1 million and Pioneer Hi-Bred gave at least $100,000.

University of Florida has a ‘stance’ on GMOs that is ‘harmonious’ with Monsanto, and Dr. Folta is in charge of promoting it  

Leaders at the University of Florida believe it is the university’s role to educate the masses about GMOs and they share a “stance” with Monsanto, according to an email obtained by the US Right to Know investigation.

David Clark, professor of horticultural biotechnology & genetics and director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Plant Innovation Program (UF/IFAS), wrote to Monsanto executive Robb Fraley on July 21, 2014:

“I thought your talk was excellent and very timely for our community, and it is harmonious with the stance we are taking on GMOs at the University of Florida. Also, thank you for taking a few minutes to chat with me afterward about how we should be educating the 80% of the consumer population who know very little about the technology.

After returning to Gainesville, I communicated with Drs. Kevin Folta and Jack Payne about our discussion. Kevin is our lead spokesperson at UF on the GMO topic and he has taken on the charge of doing just what we discussed – educating the masses. Jack is our Senior VP for IFAS, and just last week he released a video showing just where UF/IFAS stands on the GMO issue: http://www.floridatrend.com/article/17361/jack-payne-of-uf-on-gmos-and-climate-change Both of them are extremely passionate about this issue, and together they are ramping up their efforts to spread the good word.”

In the video, Dr. Payne claims, “there is no science that agrees with these folks that are afraid of GMOs.” In fact, many scientists and studies have raised concerns about GMOs.

Dr. Folta partnered with dishonest industry front groups groups on “Biotech Literacy” GMO spin events  

A June 2014 conference to promote GMOs called the “Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp” was billed as a partnership between University of Florida, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two front groups that work with Monsanto to promote agrichemical industry products and attack industry critics. Those two groups told scientists and journalists — inaccurately — that the events were funded by a combination of government, academia and industry.

In 2015, journalist Brooke Borel reported in Popular Science:

“The conference in question was called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp. I was invited to attend and to speak on some panels, although it wasn’t initially clear what that would involve. I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).”

In a 2016 email to scientists, Bruce Chassy of Academics Review claimed industry was “indirectly a sponsor” of the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps:

“The 3-day bootcamp is relatively expensive since we pay everyone’s travel and lodging as well as honoraria. Participants received $250 and presenters as much as $2,500 (journalists aren’t inexpensive) … I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money, so industry is indirectly a sponsor. We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.”

However, those government and academic sources denied giving any funds to the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive. Thacker wrote, “the only traceable money source is the biotech industry.”

Both Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project have a history of misleading the public about their funding and activities to defend the agrichemical industry.

  • Academics Review has claimed many times to be an independent group, yet emails obtained by US Right to Know revealed that Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, while “keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
  • The “financial transparency” note on the Genetic Literacy Project website is inaccurate, changes often and has at times contradicted itself. GLP director Jon Entine has many close ties to Monsanto.

Dr. Folta also organized what he called a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” to promote GMOs at the University of Florida in 2015. Speakers included UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe, representatives of two agrichemical industry-aligned spin groups (the Center for Food Integrity and Biofortified), and Tamar Haspel, a food columnist for the Washington Post.

Dr. Folta described his plans in the proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem” resulting from activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” In emails he sent to Haspel, Dr. Folta said the audience of the “biotechnology literacy” event would be “scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”

Dr. Folta described the food movement as a “terrorist faction”

Dr. Folta wrote the forward for a 2015 book called “Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House.” The forward describes the food movement as a terrorist faction, which Folta names “Al Quesadilla”:

“Al Quesadilla is a moniker ascribed to a modern day elite and well financed terrorist faction sworn to use fear to force political change around food. Al Quesadilla has a central mission – to impose their beliefs about food and food production on the broader society. Their beliefs are religious in nature. They are deeply heartfelt and internalized. Their beliefs are grounded in a misinterpretation of nature, a mistrust of corporate culture and a skepticism of modern science …

Al Quesadilla is an agile and sneaky terrorist group. Like all terrorists, they achieve their objectives through the implementation of fear and coercion. They plan careful strikes on vulnerable targets – American consumers…”

The book, published by Senapath Press, was authored by Mark Alsip, a blogger for Bad Science Debunked, Marc Draco, a “veteran member” of the Banned by Food Babe Facebook page, and Kavin Senapathy, a Forbes contributor who had several of her articles deleted by Forbes.

The book promotes GMOs, claims MSG and aspartame are “harmless” and purports to describe “the facts behind those pesticide scares.”

Dr. Folta promotes pesticide propaganda

Dr. Folta dismisses concerns about pesticide exposure with propaganda claims, not science. For example, he made and failed to correct his guest on many dubious statements about the safety of pesticides in this 2015 podcast interview with Yvette d’Entremont, the “SciBabe.” Folta claimed:

  • If someone is concerned about pesticide exposures, “ask them if they have symptoms of pesticide poisoning. Unless they have symptoms of pesticide poisoning, there’s probably nothing to worry about.”
  • “Your risk from any kind of, especially, pesticide exposure from consumption is probably somewhere between 10,000 and a million times lower than a car accident.”

Dr. Folta’s deceptive communication tactics

Another example of misleading communication associated with Dr. Folta is documented in a 2015 BuzzFeed story by Brooke Borel. The story recounts Borel’s discovery that Dr. Folta used a false identity to interview scientists and even himself on a podcast called the “The Vern Blazek Science Power Hour.”

For further reading:

New York Times, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton (9/6/2015)

Emails posted by The New York Times

The Progressive, “Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media,” by Paul Thacker (7/21/2017)

Huffington Post, “Keith Kloor’s Enduring Love Affair with GMOs,” by Paul Thacker (7/19/2017)

Global News, “Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby,” by Allison Vuchnich (12/22/2015)

Nature Biotechnology, “Standing up for Transparency,” by Stacy Malkan (1/2016)

Mother Jones, “These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO War,” by Tom Philpott (10/2/2015)

BuzzFeed, “Seed Money: Confessions of a GMO Defender,” by Brooke Borel (10/19/2015)

USRTK Short Report, “Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding from Monsanto”

Independent Science News, “The Puppetmasters of Academia (or What the NYT Left Out),” by Jonathan Latham (9/8/2015)

USRTK letter to Dr. Folta about our FOIA requests

Newsweek’s Bizarre Standards for Opinion Writers

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March 2019 update: Newsweek gets ad money from Bayer; publishes op-eds favorable to Bayer

By Stacy Malkan

Facts don’t matter in commentaries printed by Newsweek as long as the writer “seems genuine.” That’s the troubling implication of an email exchange I had with Nicholas Wapshott, the opinion editor at Newsweek, when I raised concerns about an op-ed attacking organic food written by an author with undisclosed pesticide industry connections.

The organic hit piece by Henry I. Miller ran in Newsweek on Jan. 9, several months after the New York Times revealed that Miller published an article in Forbes that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto. Forbes severed its ties with Miller and deleted all his articles from their site. Miller disclosed none of that in his Newsweek article even though he spent several paragraphs attacking Danny Hakim, the New York Times reporter who revealed the ghostwriting scandal.

Miller made false claims about organic farming using pesticide industry sources.

The op-ed went downhill from there, using pesticide industry sources to make false claims about organic farming and attacking people who appeared on a “target” list developed for Monsanto by Jay Byrne, the company’s former director of corporate  communications. Miller quoted Byrne directly in the piece with no mention of the Monsanto affiliation.

None of this appears to bother Wapshott, according to an on-the-record email exchange.

Miller ‘Flatly Denies’ Facts 

On Jan. 22, I emailed Wapshott to ask if he was aware that:

  • The New York Times exposed Miller for publishing an article in Forbes under his own name that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto, and that Forbes has since deleted all his articles
  • A 2015 Monsanto PR plan that discusses the company’s plans to defend glyphosate against cancer concerns lists as its first action item: “Engage Henry Miller
  • A source Miller used in his Newsweek article, Jay Byrne, is a former Monsanto employee (not identified as such). According to emails I reported here, Byrne worked with Monsanto to set up a group of “independent” academics who were secretly funded by industry. The front group called Academics Review attacked the organic industry as a “marketing scam,” the same theme in Miller’s Newsweek article.
  • 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.

Here is Wapshott’s response: “Hi Stacy, I understand that you and Miller have a long history of dispute on this topic. He flatly denies your assertions. Nicholas”

I wrote back seeking clarification.

Hi Nicholas, to clarify:

Miller denies he published a column ghostwritten by Monsanto under his own name in Forbes and that Forbes has since deleted all his articles? (NYT story, Retraction Watch story)

Miller denies the Monsanto’s PR plan to address the IARC cancer rating of glyphosate lists “Engage Henry Miller” on page 2, item 3?

Miller denies that Jay Byrne, the former Monsanto employee not identified as such in his Newsweek article, was involved with setting up Academics Review as a front group? (Byrne has not denied writing these emails.)

Miller and I have disagreed yes, but the above are facts, and provable. Do you think it’s fair to your readers to continue to publish his work without disclosing his ties to Monsanto?

Wapshott responded, “I think so. I have met Miller and he seems genuine. And I find it hard to believe that his flat denial is a lie. We would need a full trial to determine the truth and those resources are, thank goodness, beyond our means.”

Standards for COI Disclosure?  

I find it hard to believe that his flat denial is a lie.

I wrote back to Wapshott once more, pointing out that a trial is not necessary in the Miller case, since the facts have been established by reporting in the New York Times and corroborated by Forbes’ spokeswoman Mia Carbonell, who told the Times:

“All contributors to Forbes.com sign a contract requiring them to disclose any potential conflicts of interest and only publish content that is their own original writing. When it came to our attention that Mr. Miller violated these terms, we removed his blog from Forbes.com and ended our relationship with him.”

Does Newsweek have a similar policy to require writers to disclose potential conflicts of interest and use only their own writing? Wapshott did not respond to that inquiry. (Less than a week later, there was “upheaval at Newsweek” amid staff changes and financial troubles. Political editor Matthew Cooper wrote in his resignation letter, Some editors “recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness … I’ve never seen more reckless leadership.”)

A Problem Far Beyond Newsweek

Weak, confused, non-existent standards for disclosing conflicts of interest is a problem that goes far beyond Newsweek. For a 2015 article in CJR, journalist Paul Thacker asked 18 media organizations that cover science to describe their disclosure standards for both journalists and the sources they use in their stories, and 14 responded.

“The responses present a jumbled mix of policies,” Thacker wrote. “Some draw a bright line — preventing journalists from having financial ties to any outside sources. Others allow some expenses and speaking fees. To complicate matters further, some organizations have written rules, while others consider incidents on a case-by-case basis. Standards advocated by professional societies also seem to differ.”

Some outlets apply different standards to reporters and columnists, as I learned when I asked why Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel can take speaking fees from agrichemical industry groups while writing about that industry as part of her regular column beat. Reporters at Washington Post aren’t allowed to do that, but in the case of columnists, the editor decides.

It’s all very murky. And some outlets are clearly crossing a bright line by publishing the views of groups and people who work with corporations to promote pro-industry science views without telling readers about the corporate collaboration.

Henry Miller’s attack on organic food in Newsweek is one example. Another is USA Today’s regular publication of science columns from the American Council on Science and Health, a front group for the tobacco, chemical, fossil fuel, pharmaceutical and other industries seeking to discredit scientific information about the harm of their products.

USA Today Has Bizarre Standards for Opinion Writers Too 

In February 2017, two dozen health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote to the editors of USA Today asking the paper to stop publishing science columns by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), or at least provide full disclosures about who funds the group.

Leaked financial documents fro 2012 reveal that ACSH solicits money from corporations to defend and promote their products; for example, ACSH spins science on fracking, e-cigarettes, toxic cosmetics and agrichemical industry products, and solicits funding from those industries in exchange. Recent reporting establishes that ACSH works with Monsanto on messaging campaigns.

“USA Today should not be helping this group promote its false identity as a credible, independent source on science,” the two dozen groups wrote to the editors. “Your readers deserve accurate information about what and whom this group represents, as they reflect on the content of the columns.”

Nearly a year later, USA Today is still publishing columns by ACSH staff and still failing to notify its readers about ACSH’s funding from corporations whose agenda they promote.

In an email response dated March 1, 2017, USA Today Editorial Page Editor Bill Sternberg explained:

“To the best of our knowledge, all of the columns in question were authored or co-authored by Alex Berezow, a longtime member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Mr. Berezow has written some 25 op-eds for us since 2011, and we consider him to be a credible voice on scientific issues. He holds a PhD in microbiology from the University of Washington, was the founding editor of RealClearScience and has contributed to a number of mainstream outlets.”

Berezow is now a senior fellow at ACSH, and his “@USAToday contributor” status appears in his bio on Twitter, where he frequently attacks critics of the pesticide industry, for example this recent vile tweet featuring a sexually graphic illustration of a nurse giving a patient a coffee enema.

Does USA Today really want to be associated with this type of science communication?

Integrity and Transparency in Science Reporting

News outlets can do better than these examples at Newsweek and USA Today, and they must do better. They can start by refusing to publish columns by corporate front groups and PR surrogates who pose as independent science thinkers.

They can implement clear and strong policies that require all columnists and journalists to disclose potential conflicts of interest for themselves and the sources they cite in their work.

At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of the news media, it is more important than ever for all publications to follow the highest standards of journalistic ethics and serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible.

Stacy Malkan is co-director and co-founder of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit public interest, consumer and public health research group.

A Short Report on Journalists Mentioned in our FOIA Requests

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Also see: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a conflict of interest?  
Washington Post Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto 

On September 23rd, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel admitted to receiving “plenty” of money from pro-agrichemical industry sources.

Following her admission, I thought it might be useful to report on journalists – including Haspel — mentioned in the documents we have received from state public records requests.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation of the food and agrichemical industries, their PR firms and front groups, and the professors who speak for them.

So far, three reporters come up in interesting ways: Amy Harmon, Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. These reporters appear in the context of Jon Entine, who is perhaps the leading PR operative working to promote the views of the agrichemical industry, and its pesticides and GMOs.

Entine is founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, which, along with the PR firm Ketchum’s GMO Answers, are the agrichemical industry’s two most visible front groups. Entine is also founder and president of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included the agrichemical giant Monsanto.

Amy Harmon

Amy Harmon is a reporter for the New York Times.  She was part of a Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and in 2008 she won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.

On September 23, 2013 at 7:44pm, Jon Entine emailed Renee Kester: “FYI, I think I’ve talked Amy Harmon into doing a Hawaii Hawaii [sic] story. . .  and I gave her your and Kirby’s email information, so she may call at some point if she indeed pursues this.” Kirby Kester is president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, an agrichemical industry front group.

On January 4, 2014, the New York Times published a front-page article by Amy Harmon, titled “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.” The story is datelined from Kona, Hawaii.

In 2014, Harmon won second place for the Society of Environmental Journalists “Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market” for “The Facts About GMOs,” a series that included the article “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.”

On September 30th, Harmon is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote GMOs. The group is running a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Slate and other outlets.  Kloor has written many pro-GMO articles that have been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

Kloor is mentioned in two places in the FOIA documents.

In one email, Jon Entine refers to Keith Kloor as a “very good friend of mine”.

In another email, on October 18, 2014, Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University, emails Adrianne Massey of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), along with several others, to forward an alert from Lorraine Thelian, vice chairman of the PR firm Ketchum that “the hacker community Anonymous is planning a series of attacks on biotechnology and food industry websites…Trade association and corporate websites of CBI [Council for Biotechnology Information] members are being targeted in this planned attack.”  Dr. Prakash writes, “Adrianne I have copied Kevin Folta, Karl von Mogel, David Tribe and Keith Kloor here as well.”

Dr. Prakash cc’d the email to Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy (agrichemical industry advocate) Val Giddings (former VP of BIO), Henry Miller (agrichemical industry advocate), Drew Kershen (agrichemical industry advocate), Klaus Ammann, Piet van der Meer, Martina Newell-McGloughlin (agrichemical industry advocate), Karl Haro von Mogel (member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified, a pro-GMO website), Kevin Folta (agrichemical industry advocate), Keith Kloor and David Tribe (agrichemical industry advocate).

Keith Kloor was the only journalist who received this email.

The email implies that Kloor works closely with the agrichemical industry’s prominent advocates.

Kloor has written three articles that were critical of U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests, in Science Insider, Discover and Nature.

On March 23rd, 2015, Kloor gave a talk for the Cornell Alliance for Science, which is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Tamar Haspel

Tamar Haspel is a columnist at the Washington Post.  She has written many columns for the Post defending or praising GMOs that have later been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

In 2015, Haspel won the James Beard Foundation Award for her Post columns.

In June 2014, Haspel spoke to a pro-industry conference about “How can scientists best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public?”  The conference was coordinated by Jon Entine and Cami Ryan, who is currently social sciences lead for Monsanto.  The conference was led by two agrichemical industry front groups, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, along with the University of Florida, which receives major funding from agrichemical companies, as noted in a September 6 article in the New York Times.

Haspel also moderated a panel organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which “provides long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina through support of biotechnology research, business, education and strategic policy statewide.”

In a September 23 chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Ms. Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” Later that day, I asked Ms. Haspel on Twitter how much money she had received from the agrichemical industry and its front groups.  She replied, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!

Is it appropriate for a Washington Post columnist to write glowing columns about GMOs while appearing at such pro-industry conferences?  Is it a conflict of interest for Haspel to accept money from agrichemical company interests that she covers as part of her beat as a Post food columnist?  How much money has Haspel received from agrichemical industry interests?

Some journalists have criticized journalists for “buckraking” on speakers’ circuits. For example, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said, “I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.”

Haspel wrote in the Washington Post that she will only speak at events where “if for-profit companies are involved in the event (which they often are), they can’t be the only voice.  So, I will speak at a conference co-sponsored by, say, Monsanto and the USDA and NC State University, but not an event sponsored by Monsanto alone.”  However, at the June 2014, conference at which Haspel spoke, no consumer advocates were slated to speak, only pro-industry advocates.

On October 16, Haspel is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO group that is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Haspel has been critical of the U.S. Right to Know FOIA requests.  On August 17, on Twitter, she wrote: “The money/time/brainpower wasted on @garyruskin’s mean-spirited, self-interested attack on @kevinfolta! Can we move on to something useful?” Others did not agree with her news judgment.  On September 6th, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton wrote an article largely based on our FOIA requests – especially of University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta – which ran on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. The article revealed how Folta, who repeatedly denied ties to Monsanto, in fact had received an undisclosed $25,000 grant, as well as writing assignments from the company, and worked closely with it and its PR firm Ketchum, which ghostwrote text for him and organized media and lobbying meetings for him.

U.S. Right to Know is a consumer advocacy group.  We try to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know.  We believe it is useful for the public to see how the food and agrichemical companies do their public relations work.  That is one way we can help consumers to assess the claims and information they receive from the companies involved in our food production, their PR firms and operatives, and the journalists who work with them.