Monsanto’s campaign against U.S. Right to Know: key themes and documents

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Internal Monsanto documents released in August 2019 via litigation describe Monsanto’s campaign to counter a U.S. Right to Know investigation into its business and ties between the company and public university professors. USRTK has made public records requests to taxpayer-funded universities since 2015, leading to revelations about secretive industry collaborations with academics. (See USRTK Investigations.)

The documents show that Monsanto was worried the public records requests had the “potential to be extremely damaging” and so crafted plans to counter the USRTK investigation that involved 11 Monsanto employees, three industry staffers and two PR firms. The documents also show that Monsanto adopted a strategy to counter the reporting of Carey Gillam and her investigative book about the company’s herbicide business. Gillam is the research director of U.S. Right to Know.  

“Monsanto had a ‘Carey Gillam Book’ spreadsheet, with more than 20 actions dedicated to opposing her book before its publication, including working to ‘Engage Pro-Science Third Parties’ in criticisms, and partnering with ‘SEO experts’ to spread its attacks,” reported Sam Levin in the Guardian. See:

The newly released documents provide a rare look into the public relations machinery at Monsanto, and how it tried to contain an investigation into its relationships with academics and third parties who have promoted the company’s agenda.

Key themes in the newly released Monsanto documents

Monsanto was deeply worried about USRTK Co-director Gary Ruskin’s FOIA investigation, and had an elaborate plan to counteract it. 

Monsanto was concerned that the FOIAs would uncover its influence in the regulatory and policy process, payments to academics and their universities, and collaborations with academics in support of industry public relations goals. Monsanto wanted to protect its reputation and “freedom to operate,” and to “position” the investigation as “an attack on scientific integrity and academic freedom.”

  • “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry, and we will need to coordinate closely with BIO and CBI/GMOA throughout the planning process and on any eventual responses,” according to Monsanto’s “U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan” dated July 25, 2019. BIO is the biotech industry trade association and Council for Biotechnology Information/GMO Answers is a marketing program to promote GMOs run by Ketchum PR firm and funded by the largest agrichemical companies – BASF, Bayer (which now owns Monsanto), Corteva (a division of DowDuPont) and Syngenta.

The companies have pitched GMO Answers as a transparency initiative  to answer questions about GMOs with the voices of “independent experts,” however the documents described here, along with a previously released Monsanto PR plan, suggest that Monsanto relies on GMO Answers as a vehicle to push the company’s messaging.

From page 2, “Monsanto Company Confidential … U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan

  • “Any situation related to this issue has the potential to be extremely damaging, regardless of how benign the information may seem,” according to a GMO Answers Communications Plan in the document (page 23).

  • “*Worst case scenario*”: “Egregious email illustrates what would be the smoking gun of the industry (e.g. email shows expert/company covering up unflattering research or showing GMOs are dangerous/harmful)” (page 26)

  • The plan called for triggering “emergency calls” with the GMO Answers steering committee if the reach/escalation were serious enough. (page 23)
  • In some cases, Monsanto employees expected access to documents before U.S. Right to Know, even though USRTK requested the documents through state FOI. For UC Davis requests: “We will have a pre-release view of documents”. (page 3)
  • 11 Monsanto employees from 5 departments; two staffers from the trade group BIO and a staffer from GMO Answers/Ketchum were listed as “key contacts” in the plan (page 4). Two employees from FleishmanHillard were involved in assembling the plan (see agenda email).

Monsanto was also concerned about Carey Gillam’s book and tried to discredit it.

Several of the newly released documents relate to Monsanto’s efforts to counteract the reporting of Carey Gillam and her book that investigates the company’s herbicide business: “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science” (Island Press, 2017). Gillam is a former reporter for Reuters and current research director of U.S. Right to Know.

The documents include Monsanto’s  20-page “Issues Management / Communication Strategy” for Gillam’s book, with eight Monsanto staffers assigned to preparing for the October 2017 release of Gillam’s book. The strategy was to “minimize media coverage and publicity of this book this summer/fall by pointing to “truths” regarding farming …” 

An Excel spreadsheet titled “Project Spruce: Carey Gillam Book” describes 20 action items, with plans including paid placement for a post to appear on Google with a search for “Monsanto glyphosate Carey Gillam,” generating negative book reviews, and plans to “engage regulatory authorities” and “Pro-Science Third Parties,” including Sense About Science, Science Media Centre, the Global Farmer Network and the “Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research,” a project of the American Chemistry Council.

The documents reveal the existence of the Monsanto Corporate Engagement Fusion Center. 

Monsanto planned to “Work with the Fusion Center to monitor USRTK digital properties, the volume and sentiment related to USRTK/FOIA, as well as audience engagement.” (page 9) For more about corporate fusion centers, see:

Monsanto makes frequent references to working with third parties to counteract USRTK.

Others mentioned in the plans included:

Newly released documents list

Monsanto’s campaign to counteract the U.S. Right to Know public records investigation

Monsanto U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan 2019
July 25, 2019: Monsanto’s 31-page strategy plan to counteract the FOIA investigation. “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry…. Any situation related to this issue has the potential to be extremely damaging…”

Monsanto USRTK FOIA meeting agenda
May 15, 2016: Agenda for a meeting to discuss the USRTK FOIAs with eight Monsanto and two FTI Consulting employees.

Monsanto Comprehensive USRTK FOIA Preparedness and Reactive Plan 2016
May 15, 2016: Earlier draft of the Monsanto strategy to deal with the FOIAs (35 pages).

Monsanto response to FOIA article
February 1, 2016: Monsanto employees crafted a communications plan to provide a “10,000 foot view” of how Monsanto works with public sector scientists and/or provides funding to public sector programs – but not details about which universities they fund or how much. The plan responded to an article Carey Gillam wrote for USRTK, based on documents obtained by FOIA, reporting on undisclosed Monsanto funding to University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy.

Unfortunate language AgBioChatter Biofortified boys

  • September 2015: Discussion about “unfortunate” language used by an industry representative to communicate with academics and whether AgBioChatter, a list serve of academics and industry reps, was private or confidential. Karl Haro von Mogel of the GMO promotion group Biofortified advised AgBioChatter members to take “the Ruskin Cleanse” of their private emails to prevent damaging disclosures via FOIA.
  • Bruce Chassy shared with the AgBioChatter list his responses to a fact checker for Mother Jones (“I plan to respond without providing the requested information”) and his correspondence with Carey Gillam in response to her queries for Reuters about his industry ties.

Monsanto’s plans to discredit Carey Gillam’s Book

“Monsanto Company Confidential Issues Management / Communication Strategy” for Carey Gillam’s Book (October 2017)

“Project Spruce: Carey Gillam Book” Excel spreadsheet with 20 action items (September 11, 2017)

Monsanto and FTI Consulting employees discuss the Gillam action plan (September 11, 2017)

Monsanto video prep plans for Gillam book

Monsanto push back on Reuters editors
October 1, 2015: Email from Monsanto’s Sam Murphey: “We continue to push back on her editors very strongly every chance we get. And we all hope for the day she gets reassigned.”

Roundup “Reputation Management”

Reputation Management for Roundup 2014
February 2014: “L&G Reputation Management Sessions Summary, Lyon Feb. 2014” Power Point, with slides that describe what “we want to be known for / we want to avoid being linked with,” and what’s needed to win the argument about glyphosate safety.  “Question… are we just managing and delaying decline (like tobacco)?”

Roundup reputation management slide 2014:

Background on U.S. Right to Know investigations

U.S. Right to Know is a non-profit investigative research group focused on the food industry. Since 2015, we have obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of corporate and regulatory documents via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), U.S. state and international public records requests, and whistleblowers. These documents shine light on how food and agrichemical companies work behind the scenes with publicly funded academics and universities, front groups, regulatory agencies and other third party allies to promote their products and lobby for deregulation.

News coverage based on documents from USRTK Co-director Gary Ruskin’s investigation of the agrichemical industry:

    • New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, by Eric Lipton
    • Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Connection, by Laura Krantz
    • The Guardian: UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk, by Arthur Neslen
    • CBC: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties, by Jason Warick
    • CBC: U of S Defends Prof’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree, by Jason Warick
    • Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War, by Tom Philpott
    • Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby, by Allison Vuchnich
    • Le Monde: La discrète influence de Monsanto, by Stéphane Foucart.
    • The Progressive: Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media — and Discourages Criticism, by Paul Thacker
    • Freedom of the Press Foundation: How corporations suppress disclosure of public records about themselves, by Camille Fassett
    • WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding?, by Monica Eng
    • Saskatoon Star Phoenix: Group Questions U of S Prof’s Monsanto Link, by Jason Warick

For more information about the U.S. Right to Know documents, see our investigations page, examples of global news coverage and academic papers based on the documents. Many of the documents are posted in the free, searchable UCSF Industry Documents Library.

Donate to USRTK to help us expand our investigations and keep bringing you this crucial information about our food system. USRTK.org/donate

Top Findings of the U.S. Right To Know Investigations

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U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative group, has obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of documents revealing – for the first time – how food and pesticide corporations are working behind the scenes to undermine our nation’s scientific, academic, political and regulatory institutions. Many of these documents are now posted in the free, searchable industry document archives hosted by the University of California, San Francisco. See the USRTK Agrichemical Industry Collection and Food Industry Collection.

U.S. Right to Know provides documents free of charge to journalists, researchers, policymakers and the public around the world. Our work has contributed to two front-page New York Times investigations; six articles in the BMJ, one of the world’s leading medical journals, and many stories in other top news outlets and journals. Our own reporting has been published in the Guardian and Time magazine, among other outlets. See highlights below. For a fuller list of our investigative work and reporting about it, see our investigations page.

New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, by Eric Lipton

New York Times: New C.D.C. Chief Saw Coca-Cola as Ally in Obesity Fight, by Sheila Kaplan

New York Times: Scientists, Give Up Your Emails, by Paul Thacker

New York Times: Traces of Controversial Herbicide Are Found in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, by Stephanie Strom

Washington Post: Coca-Cola emails reveal how soda industry tries to influence health officials, by Paige Winfield Cunningham

BMJ: Coca-Cola and obesity: study shows efforts to influence US Centers for Disease Control, by Gareth Iocabucci

BMJ: International Life Sciences Institute is Advocate for Food and Drink Industry, Say Researchers

BMJ: Coca-Cola Contracts Could Allow it to “Quash” Unfavourable Research, by Elisabeth Mahase

BMJ: Coca-Cola’s Influence on Medical and Science Journalists, by Paul Thacker

BMJ: Conflicts of interest compromise US public health agency’s mission, say scientists, by Jeanne Lenzer

BMJ: US public health agency sued over failure to release emails from Coca-Cola, by Martha Rosenberg

TIME: FDA to Start Testing for Chemicals in Food, by Carey Gillam

TIME: I Won a Historic Lawsuit, But May Not Live to See the Money, by Carey Gillam

Island Press: Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, by Carey Gillam

Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Monsanto Connection in Paper Touting GMOs, by Laura Krantz

The Guardian: Science Institute That Advised EU and UN ‘Actually Industry Lobby Group’, by Arthur Neslen

The Guardian: How Monsanto Manipulates Journalists and Academics, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: The EPA Is Meant to Protect Us.  The Monsanto Trials Suggest It Isn’t Doing That, by Nathan Donley and Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Who Is Paying for Monsanto’s Crimes?  We Are.  By Carey Gillam.

The Guardian: Weedkiller ‘Raises Risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma by 41%’, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: ‘The World Is Against Them’: New Era of Cancer Lawsuits Threaten Monsanto, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: One Man’s Suffering Exposed Monsanto’s Secrets to the World, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Landmark Lawsuit Claims Monsanto Hid Cancer Danger of Weedkiller for Decades, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Weedkiller Products More Toxic Than Their Active Ingredients, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Weedkiller Found in Granola and Crackers, Internal FDA Emails Show, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Monsanto says its pesticides are safe. Now, a court wants to see the proof, by Carey Gillam

The GuardianUN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk, by Arthur Neslen

The Guardian: Before you read another health study, check who’s funding the research, by Alison Moodie

Associated Press: Reports: Limit food industry sway on public health matters, by Candice Choi

Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: Science organisations and Coca-Cola’s ‘war’ with the public health community: insights from an internal industry document, by Pepita Barlow, Paulo Serôdio, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Milbank Quarterly: Public Meets Private: Conversations Between Coca-Cola and the CDC.  By Nason Maani Hessari, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Journal of Public Health Policy: “Always read the small print”: a case study of commercial research funding, disclosure and agreements with Coca-Cola, by Sarah Steele, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Journal of Public Health Policy: Roundup litigation discovery documents: implications for public health and journal ethics, by Sheldon Krimsky and Carey Gillam

Journal of Public Health Policy: Case-study of emails exchanged between Coca-Cola and the principal investigators of the ISCOLE, by David Stuckler, Gary Ruskin and Martin McKee

Globalization and Health: Are Industry-Funded Charities Promoting “Advocacy-Led Studies” or “Evidence-Based Science”? A Case Study of the International Life Sciences Institute.  By Sarah Steele, Gary Ruskin, Lejla Sarjevic, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Nature Biotechnology: Standing Up for Transparency, by Stacy Malkan

The Intercept: Trump’s New CDC Chief Championed Partnership with Coca-Cola to Solve Childhood Obesity, by Lee Fang

Los Angeles Times: In Science, Follow the Money If You Can, by Paul Thacker and Curt Furberg

San Francisco Chronicle: Major Brands Reverse Course on Genetically Modified Food Labels, by Tara Duggan

Undark: Corporate-Spun Science Should Not Be Guiding Policy, by Carey Gillam

WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding?, by Monica Eng

San Diego Union TribuneUCSD hires Coke-funded health researcher, by Morgan Cook

Bloomberg: Emails Show How Food Industry Uses ‘Science’ to Push Soda, by Deena Shanker

Bloomberg: How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs, by Jack Kaskey

CBC: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties, by Jason Warick

CBC: U of S Defends Prof’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree, by Jason Warick

ABC Australia: Leaked Email Exchange Reveals Food Industry Tactics, byLexi Metherell

ABC Australia: The Monsanto Papers broadcast

Le Monde: Comment Coca-Cola a bafoué ses promesses de transparence dans les contrats de recherche, by Stéphane Horel

Le Monde: Monsanto Papers series, by Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel

The Nation: Did Monsanto Ignore Evidence Linking its Weed Killer to Cancer? by Rene Ebersole

Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War, by Tom Philpott

Politico: Coca-Cola gained control over health research in return for funding, health journal says, by Jesse Chase-Lubitz

The Progressive: Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media — and Discourages Criticism, by Paul Thacker

Freedom of the Press Foundation: How corporations suppress disclosure of public records about themselves, by Camille Fassett

Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby, by Allison Vuchnich

Forbes: The Coca-Cola Network: Soda Giant Mines Connections with Officials and Scientists to Wield Influence, by Rob Waters

STAT: Study pulls back curtain on contracts between Coca-Cola and the researchers it funds, by Andrew Joseph

STAT: Disney, Fearing a Scandal, Tries to Press Journal to Withdraw Research Paper, by Sheila Kaplan

Environmental Health News: Coca cola war with public health science over obesity, by Gary Ruskin

Environmental Health News: Essay: Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science — and society, by Sheldon Krimsky

Salon: Two Congresswomen Want an Investigation into CDC’s Relationship with Coca-Cola, by Nicole Karlis

Critical Public Health: How food companies influence evidence and opinion – straight from the horse’s mouth, by Gary Sacks, Boyd Swinburn, Adrian Cameron and Gary Ruskin

TruthOut: Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists

Huffington Post: articles by Carey Gillam

Huffington Post: articles by Stacy Malkan

Philadelphia Inquirer: Coca-Cola’s research contracts allowed for quashing negative health findings, study finds, by Mari A. Shaefer

Common Ground magazine: Are you ready for the new wave of genetically engineered foods?, by Stacy Malkan

EcoWatch: articles by U.S. Right to Know

Ralph Nader: Monsanto and its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information

Gizmodo: Coca-Cola Can Terminate Health Research It Funds, Investigation Finds, by Ed Cara

Inverse: University Records Reveal Coca-Cola’s Immense Power Over Health Research, by Peter Hess

USRTK: Tracking the agrichemical industry propaganda network

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UCSF Food + Chemical Industry Libraries Host USRTK Documents

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Update 1/29/19: The University of California, San Francisco added the USRTK Food Industry Collection of emails to its Food Industry Documents Library. The first batch of USRTK emails posted to the database contain emails between the Coca-Cola Company and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including those reported in January 2019 study in the Milbank Quarterly, Public Meets Private: Conversations Between Coca-Cola and the CDC, by Nason Maani Hessari, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler. See our Coca-Cola and CDC Resources Page for more information.

UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library Now Hosts U.S. Right to Know Collection

News Release
For Immediate Release: Thursday, April 19, 2018
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

The University of California, San Francisco Industry Documents Library today placed online several collections of agrichemical industry documents, including some acquired and donated by U.S. Right to Know, a consumer and public health watchdog group.

The documents shine light on the public relations, scientific, legislative and regulatory tactics the industry has used to defend its products and profits.

“These documents offer an inside view of agrichemical industry communications about the health and environmental risks of its products,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “We hope they will prove to be a valuable resource for policymakers, investigative journalists and the public at large.”

The documents will be housed in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive, which is affiliated with the UCSF Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, an archive of 14 million documents created by tobacco companies and their allies.

The documents donated by U.S. Right to Know will be known in the archive as the USRTK Agrichemical Collection. Many of these documents were obtained via federal and state public records requests. In February, the Freedom of the Press Foundation documented growing opposition to the use of public records requests for documents related to the agrichemical industry.

“We want to make these documents available so that others don’t have to go through the trouble and expense of obtaining them,” Ruskin said.

Many of the documents known the “Monsanto Papers” will also be made available.These documents are surfacing in litigation over whether Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

During the last year, these documents have been the subject of dozens of news stories worldwide. In March, two journalists at the French daily Le Monde, Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel, won a European Press Prize Investigative Reporting Award for their work with the Monsanto Papers.

The documents are catalogued, indexed, fully searchable and downloadable so they will be easy to use for policymakers, journalists, academics and the general public. They are available free of charge.

Documents in the USRTK Agrichemical Collection at UCSF have been reported on in many news articles, including:

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit consumer and public health organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. For more information, see usrtk.org.

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