Jay Byrne: Meet the Man Behind the Monsanto PR Machine

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Monsanto’s former Director of Corporate Communications Jay Byrne, president of the public relations firm v-Fluence, is a key player in the covert propaganda and lobbying campaigns of the world’s largest agrichemical companies. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive, reveal a range of deceptive tactics Byrne and other industry allies are using to promote and defend GMO foods and pesticides.

The examples here showcase some of the ways companies are moving their messaging into the public arena from behind the cover of neutral-sounding front groups, government helpers and academics who appear to be independent as they work with corporations or their PR consultants.

Clients are top agrichemical, agribusiness and drug companies and tradegroups

Byrne’s client list has included a range of the largest agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies and business groups, including the American Chemistry Council, Syngenta, AstraZeneca, Monsanto, Pfizer, the International Rice Research Institute, the American Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Rohm & Haas and the pesticide industry trade group CropLife.

Cooked up academic front group to attack Monsanto critics

A key strategy of the agrichemical industry, as the New York Times reported, is to deploy “white hat” professors to fight the industry’s PR and lobbying battles from behind the cover of the “gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”

In March 2010, Byrne and University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy discussed setting up a front group called “Academics Review” that could attract donations from corporations while appearing to be independent. Byrne compared the idea to the Center for Consumer Freedom (a front group run by infamous corporate propaganda front-man Rick Berman), which “has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept.” Byrne described an “‘opportunities’ list with targets” they could go after. Byrne wrote to Dr. Chassy:

All those groups, people and topic areas “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations,” Byrne wrote. He said he and Val Giddings, PhD, a former vice president for the biotech trade group BIO, could serve as “commercial vehicles” for the academics.

In November 2010, Byrne wrote to Chassy again, “It will be good to get the next phase of work on Academics Review going – we’ve got a relative slow first quarter coming up in 2011 if business remains the same.” Byrne offered to “schedule some pro bono search engine optimization time” for his team to counter a GMO critic’s online influence. Byrne concluded the email, “As always, would love to find the next topic (and sponsor) to broaden this while we are able.”

In 2014, Academics Review released a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam; in its own marketing materials for the report, Academics Review claimed to be independent and did not disclose its agrichemical industry funding.

For more information:

“US government-GLP-Byrne projects” to sway journalists

Byrne’s lobbying and PR operations for the GMO and pesticide industry intersect at many points with the work of Jon Entine, another key figure in agrichemical industry defense campaigns. Entine directs the Genetic Literacy Project, which he launched in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his PR firm. (Entine’s PR firm ESG MediaMetrics listed Monsanto as a client on its website in 2010, 2011, 2012 and up to January 2013, according to internet archives still available online.)

In December 2013, Entine wrote to Max T. Holtzman, who was then acting deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to propose collaborating on a series of what he described as “US government-GLP-Byrne projects” to promote GMOs. Entine wrote to Holtzman:

Entine’s proposed “US government-GLP-Byrne” projects included a “Boot Camp and Response Swat Team” to prepare third-party academics for “potential legislative engagement on [GMO] labeling and related issues,” a “journalism conclave” to bolster media coverage about food security challenges and “provide coaching to younger journalists,” a global media outreach campaign to promote acceptance of biotechnology, and “multi-media content and placements from credible sources” reinforcing key themes “with segments and footage made available on U.S. government websites, GLP and other platforms.”

Holtzman responded, “Thanks Jon. It was great meeting you as well. I think your outline below provides natural intersection points where usda/USG messaging and your efforts intersect well. I’d like to engage further and loop other folks here at usda not only from the technical/trade areas but from our communications shop as well.”

Taxpayer-funded, Monsanto-aligned videos to promote GMOs

A series of taxpayer-funded videos produced in 2012 to promote genetically engineered foods provide another example of how academics and universities push corporate-aligned messaging. Byrne’s PR firm v-Fluence helped create the videos that were “designed to appear a little low budget and amateurish,” according to an email from University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy.

Dr. Chassy wrote to Monsanto employees on April 27, 2012:

Monsanto’s Eric Sachs responded:

Sachs offered to assist with messaging of future videos by sharing the results of focus group tests Monsanto was conducting. Dr. Chassy invited Sachs to offer suggestions for future video topics and asked him to send along the Monsanto focus group results.

Training scientists and journalists to frame the debate about GMOs and pesticides

In 2014 and 2015, Byrne helped Jon Entine organize the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps funded by agrichemical companies and co-hosted by two industry front groups, Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project and Bruce Chassy’s Academics Review. Organizers misleadingly described the funding for the events as coming from a mix of academic, government and industry sources, but the only traceable source of funding was the agrichemical industry, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive. The purpose of the boot camps, Thacker reported, was “to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate.”

Byrne was on the organizing team, along with Cami Ryan (who now works for Monsanto) and Bruce Chassy (who was receiving funds from Monsanto that weren’t publicly disclosed), according to emails from Entine and Ryan.

For more information:

Bonus Eventus: the agrichemical industry’s social media echo chamber

A key service Byrne provides to agrichemical promotional efforts is his “Bonus Eventus community” that supplies academics and other industry allies with talking points and promotional opportunities. Internal documents (page 9) describe Bonus Eventus as “a private social networking portal that serves as a communication cooperative for agriculture-minded scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders.” Members receive Byrne’s newsletter, plus access to his reference library of agribusiness topics, “stakeholder database” of influential people in the GMO debate, and trainings and support for social media engagement.

Examples of the newsletter can be found in this cache of emails from Byrne to Peter Phillips, a University of Saskatchewan professor who has been criticized by colleagues for his close ties to Monsanto. In the Nov. 7, 2016 newsletter, Byrne urged Phillips and other recipients to share content about the “flaws and omissions” in a New York Times story that reported on the failure of GMO crops to increase yields and reduce pesticides, and the “mounting questions” facing an international group of cancer scientists who reported glyphosate is a probably human carcinogen (see our reporting about documents describing how Monsanto coordinated attacks on the cancer panel via their “industry partners”).

Byrne urged the Bonus Eventus community to share content on these themes from industry-connected writers, such as Julie Kelly, Dr. Henry Miller, Kavin Senapathy, The Sci Babe and Hank Campbell of the American Council on Science and Health, a group Monsanto was paying to help discredit the cancer scientists. In 2017, Forbes deleted dozens of articles by Dr. Miller – including several he co-authored with Kelly, Senapathy and Byrne – after the New York Times reported that Dr. Miller had published an article in Forbes under his own name that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Gatekeeper for attack on Greenpeace

When a group of Nobel laureates called on Greenpeace to stop opposing genetically engineered rice, it looked like an independent effort. But behind the curtain of impressive credentials were the helping hands of two key players in the agrichemical industry’s PR lobby: Jay Byrne and a board member of the Genetic Literacy Project. Byrne was posted at the door at a National Press Club event promoting a group called Support Precision Agriculture. The .com version of that website redirected for years to the Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that works with Monsanto on PR projects without disclosing those ties. 

So who paid for the anti-Greenpeace press event? Sir Richard Roberts, a biochemist who said he organized the Nobel laureate letter, explained the backstory in an FAQ on the website: the “campaign has been pretty inexpensive so far,” he wrote, consisting mostly of his salary paid by his employer New England Biolabs and “out-of-pocket expenses” paid by Matt Winkler. Winkler, founder and chairman of the biotech company Asuragen, is also a funder and board member of Genetic Literacy Project, according to the group’s website. Roberts explained that Winkler “enlisted a friend, Val Giddings,” (the former biotech trade group VP) who “suggested Jay Byrne” (Monsanto’s former communications director) who offered pro bono logistical support for the press event.

Byrne and Giddings also helped orchestrate the industry-funded Academics Review, a front group they set up to appear independent while serving as a vehicle to attract corporate cash in exchange for attacking critics of ag-biotech products, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know. In the emails, Byrne named Greenpeace on the “targets” list he was compiling for Monsanto. Another of Byrne’s clients is the International Rice Research Institute, the main industry group trying to commercialize GMO Golden Rice, which was the focus of the Greenpeace critique. Research by Glenn Davis Stone of Washington University in St. Louis has found that low yields and technical difficulties have held up Golden Rice, not opposition from environmental groups.

In his FAQ, Dr. Roberts dismissed Dr. Stone’s independent research as “not an accurate representation of the state of affairs,” and instead pointed to industry-connected PR sources who will be familiar to readers of Byrne’s Bonus Eventus newsletter: Julie Kelly, Henry Miller and Academics Review. The press event took place at a critical political moment, and generated a helpful story in the Washington Post, a week before Congress voted to prohibit states from labeling GMOs.

As of January 2019, the .com version of Support Precision Agriculture redirected to the Genetic Literacy Project. In his FAQ, Roberts said he has no relationship with GLP and claimed that “an unknown person” had purchased the similar domain in an “apparent attempt” to link it to GLP. He said this is an example that “the dirty tricks of the opposition are without limits.”
(The redirect was deactivated sometime after this post went live.)

For more information:

Weaponizing the web with fake people and websites

Reporting for The Guardian in 2002, George Monbiot described a covert tactic that agrichemical corporations and their PR operatives have been using for decades to promote and defend their products: creating fake personalities and fake websites to silence critics and influence online search results.

Monbiot reported that “fake citizens” (people who did not actually exist) “had been bombarding internet listservers with messages denouncing the scientists and environmentalists who were critical of GM crops” – and the fake citizens had been traced back to Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings.

Monbiot described Jay Byrne’s connection to Bivings:

“think of the internet as a weapon on the table … somebody is going to get killed.”

“At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly [Monsanto’s] director of internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of them established by Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings). He told them to ‘think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed.’ While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow that he ‘spends his time and effort participating’ in web discussions about biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he ‘ensures his company gets proper play’. AgBioWorld is the site on which [fake citizen] Smetacek launched her campaign.”

For more information:

More from Jay Byrne

A 2013 Power Point presentation showcases the role Byrne plays for his clients in the agrichemical industry. Here he explains his theories about eco-advocates, ranks their influence online and urges companies to pool their resources to confront them, in order to avoid “regulatory and market constraints.”

The 2006 book “Let Them Eat Precaution,” published by the American Enterprise Institute and edited by agrichemical industry PR operative Jon Entine, contains a chapter by Byrne titled, “Deconstructing the Agricultural Biotechnology Protest Industry.”

Byrne is a member of “AgBioChatter,” a private email listserve that agrichemical industry senior staffers, consultants and academics used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show Byrne encouraging members of AgBioChatter to try to discredit people and groups that were critical of GMOs and pesticides. A 2015 Monsanto PR plan named AgBioChatter as one of the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage to help discredit cancer concerns about glyphosate.

For more information:

Pamela Ronald’s Ties to Chemical Industry Front Groups

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Updated in June 2019

Pamela Ronald, PhD, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis and author of the 2008 book “Tomorrow’s Table,” is a well-known advocate for genetically engineered foods. Less known is Dr. Ronald’s role in organizations that portray themselves as acting independently of industry, but in fact are collaborating with chemical corporations to promote and lobby for GMOs and pesticides, in arrangements that are not transparent to the public. 

Ties to key agrichemical industry front group

Pamela Ronald has multiple ties to a leading agrichemical industry front group, the Genetic Literacy Project, and its executive director, Jon Entine. She assisted them in many ways. For example, documents show that in 2015, Dr. Ronald appointed Entine as a senior fellow and instructor of science communications at UC Davis, and collaborated with Genetic Literacy Project to host an agrichemical industry-funded messaging event that trained participants how to promote agrichemical products. 

The Genetic Literacy Project is described in an award-winning Le Monde investigation as a “well-known propaganda website” that played a key role in Monsanto’s campaign to discredit the World Health Organization cancer research agency’s report on glyphosate. In a 2015 PR document, Monsanto identified Genetic Literacy Project among the  “industry partners” the company planned to engage to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report. GLP has since published many articles attacking the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who lied and engaged in corruption, distortion, secrecy and fraud.

Entine has longtime ties to the chemical industry; his body of work includes defending pesticides, industrial chemicals, plastics, fracking, and the oil industry, often with attacks on scientists, journalists and academics.  Entine launched the Genetic Literacy Project in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his public relations firm. The GLP was originally associated with STATS, a nonprofit group journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that seeds doubt about science and is “known for its defense of the chemical industry.” 

In 2015, the Genetic Literacy Project moved to a new parent organization, the Science Literacy Project. IRS tax filings for that year indicated that Dr. Ronald was a founding board member of the Science Literacy Project, but emails from August 2018 show that Dr. Ronald convinced Entine to retroactively remove her name from the tax form after it became known she was listed there (the amended tax form is now available here). Dr. Ronald wrote to Entine, “I did not serve on this board and did not give permission for my name to be listed. Please take immediate action to notify the IRS that my name was listed without consent.” Entine wrote that he had a different recollection. “I clearly recall you agreeing to be part of the board and head the initial board … You were enthusiastic and supportive in fact. There is no question in my mind that you agreed to this.” Nevertheless he agreed to try to get her name removed from the tax document.

The two discussed the tax form again in December 2018 after this fact sheet was posted. Entine wrote, “I listed you in the original 990 based on a telephone conversation in which you agreed to be on the board. When you represented to me that you disagreed, I purged the record as you requested.” In another email that day, he reminded Dr. Ronald that “in fact you were associated with ‘that organization: as we worked together, seamlessly and constructively, in making the boot camp at your university a great success.”  

Science Literacy Project tax forms now list three board members: Entine; Drew Kershen, a former law professor who was also on the board of “Academics Review,” a group that claimed to be independent while receiving its funds from agrichemical companies; and Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist who serves on the board of scientific advisors for the American Council on Science and Health, a group that received money from Monsanto for its work defending pesticides and GMOs.

Founded, led UC Davis group that elevated industry PR efforts

Dr. Ronald was the founding director of the World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL), a group launched in 2014 at UC Davis to train faculty and students to promote genetically engineered foods, crops and pesticides. The group does not fully disclose its funding.

Documents show that Dr. Ronald gave Jon Entine and his industry front group Genetic Literacy Project a platform at UC Davis, appointing Entine as an unpaid senior fellow of IFAL and an instructor and mentor in a science communications graduate program. Entine is no longer a fellow at UC Davis. See our 2016 letter to the World Food Center inquiring about funding for Entine and IFAL and their obscure explanation about where their funding comes from.

In July 2014, Dr. Ronald indicated in an email to a colleague that Entine was an important collaborator who could give them good suggestions on who to contact to raise additional funds for the first IFAL event. In June 2015, IFAL co-hosted the “Biotech Literacy Project boot camp” with Genetic Literacy Project and the Monsanto-backed group Academics Review. Organizers claimed the event was funded by academic, government and industry sources, but non-industry sources denied funding the events and the only traceable source of money came from industry, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive.

Tax records show that Academics Review, which received its funding from the agrichemical industry trade group, spent $162,000 for the three-day conference at UC Davis. The purpose of the boot camp, according to the agenda, was to train and support scientists, journalists and academic researchers to persuade the public and policy makers about the benefits of GMOs and pesticides.

Speakers at the UC Davis boot camp included Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former director of corporate communications; Hank Campbell of the Monsanto-funded American Council on Science and Health; professors with undisclosed industry ties such as University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy and University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta; Cami Ryan, who now works for Monsanto; David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant who has a PR firm with clients including Dow and Bayer; and other agrichemical industry allies.

Keynote speakers were Dr. Ronald, Yvette d’Entremont the Sci Babe, a “science communicator” who defends pesticides and artificial sweeteners while taking money from companies that sell those products, and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute. (Nordhaus was also listed as a Science Literacy Project board member on the original 2015/2016 tax form, but his name was removed along with Dr. Ronald’s in the amended form Entine filed in 2018; Nordhaus said he never served on the board.)

Cooking up a Chipotle boycott

Emails indicate that Dr. Ronald and Jon Entine collaborated on messaging to discredit critics of genetically engineered foods. In one case, Dr. Ronald proposed to organize a boycott against the Chipotle restaurant chain over its decision to offer and promote non-GMO foods.

In April 2015, Dr. Ronald emailed Entine and Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a former Monsanto employee and cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, to suggest they find a student to write about farmers using more toxic pesticides to grow non-GMO corn. “I suggest we publicize this fact (once we get the details) and then organize a chipotle boycott,” Dr. Ronald wrote. Entine directed an associate to write an article for Genetic Literacy Project on the theme that “pesticide use often soars” when farmers switch to a non-GMO model to supply restaurants like Chipotle. The article, co-authored by Entine and touting his UC Davis affiliation, fails to substantiate that claim with data.

Co-founded biotech spin group BioFortified

Dr. Ronald co-founded and served as board member (2012-2015) of Biology Fortified, Inc. (Biofortified), a group that promotes GMOs and has a partner activist group that organizes protests to confront Monsanto critics. Other leaders of Biofortified include founding board member David Tribe, a geneticist at University of Melbourne who co-founded Academics Review, the group that claimed to be independent while receiving industry funds, and collaborated with IFAL to host the Biotech Literacy Project “boot camp” at UC Davis.

Former board member Kevin Folta (2015-2018), a plant scientist at the University of Florida, was the subject of a New York Times story reporting that he misled the public about undisclosed industry collaborations. Biofortified bloggers include Steve Savage, a former DuPont employee turned industry consultant; Joe Ballanger, a consultant for Monsanto; and Andrew Kniss, who has received money from Monsanto. Documents suggest that members of Biofortified coordinated with the pesticide industry on a lobbying campaign to oppose pesticide restrictions in Hawaii.

Played leading role in industry-funded propaganda movie

Dr. Ronald featured prominently in Food Evolution, a documentary film about genetically engineered foods funded by the trade group Institute for Food Technologists. Dozens of academics have called the film propaganda, and several people interviewed for the film described a deceptive filming process and said their views were taken out of context.

https://www.foodpolitics.com/2017/06/gmo-industry-propaganda-film-food-evolution/

Advisor for Cornell-based GMO public relations campaign

Dr. Ronald is on the advisory board of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a PR campaign based at Cornell University that promotes the GMOs and pesticides using agrichemical industry messaging. Funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has opposed the use of Freedom of Information Act to investigate public institutions, misled the public with inaccurate information and elevated unreliable messengers; see documentation in our fact sheet.

Receives money from the agrichemical industry

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Ronald receives compensation from agrichemical companies to speak at events where she promotes GMOs to key audiences that companies seek to influence, such as dieticians. Emails from November 2012 provide an example of how Dr. Ronald works with companies.

Monsanto staffer Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, a dietician who formerly worked for the food-industry spin group IFIC, invited Ronald to speak at two conferences in 2013, Food 3000 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. Emails show that the two discussed fees and book purchases and agreed Dr. Ronald would speak at Food 3000, a conference organized by the PR firm Porter Novelli that Kapsak said would reach “90 high media impact food and nutrition professionals/influencers.” (Dr. Ronald invoiced $3,000 for the event). Kapsak asked to review Dr. Ronald’s slides and set up a call to discuss messaging. Also on the panel were moderator Mary Chin (a dietician who consults with Monsanto), and representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto, with Kapsak giving opening remarks. Kapsak later reported that the panel got rave reviews with participants saying they would share the idea that, “We have to have biotech to help feed the world.”

Other industry-funded speaking engagements for Dr. Ronald included a 2014 speech at Monsanto for $3,500 plus 100 copies of her book which she declined to tweet about; and a 2013 speaking engagement for which she invoiced Bayer AG for $10,000.

Retracted papers

Retraction Watch reported that, “2013 was a rough year for biologist Pamela Ronald. After discovering the protein that appears to trigger rice’s immune system to fend off a common bacterial disease – suggesting a new way to engineer disease-resistant crops – she and her team had to retract two papers in 2013 after they were unable to replicate their findings. The culprits: a mislabeled bacterial strain and a highly variable assay. However, the care and transparency she exhibited earned her a ‘doing the right thing’ nod from us at the time.”

See coverage:

What do you do about painful retractions? Q&A with Pamela Ronald and Benjamin Swessinger,” Retraction Watch (7.24.2015)

Can the scientific reputation of Pamala Ronald, the public face of GMOs, be salvaged?” by Jonathan Latham, Independent Science News (11.12.2013)

Pamela Ronald does the right thing again, retracting a Science paper,” Retraction Watch (10.10.2013)

Doing the right thing: Researchers retract quorum sensing paper after public process,” Retraction Watch (9.11.2013)