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

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Despite its academic-sounding name and affiliation with an Ivy League Institution, the Cornell Alliance for Science is a public relations campaign to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. With $12 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science claims to be working to “restore the importance of scientific evidence in decision-making,” however, the examples in this fact sheet show that the group:

  • Misleads the public with inaccurate information about science;
  • Elevates unreliable messengers who make false and unscientific claims; and,
  • Partners with front groups that have worked with the tobacco industry or chemical industries to manufacture doubt about science that raises health concerns.

The evidence suggests the Cornell Alliance for Science is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to promote the talking points and political agenda of the world’s largest agrichemical corporations.

The Gates Foundation helped launch the Cornell Alliance for Science in 2014 as an effort to “depolarize the charged debate” around genetically modified foods (GMOs). The Gates Foundation Deputy Director Rob Horsch, who worked for Monsanto Company for 25 years, leads the foundation’s agricultural research and development strategies, which have drawn criticism for relentlessly promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa.1

Industry-aligned mission and activities

The mission of Cornell Alliance for Science – to build a global movement of “agricultural champions” to “advocate for access” to genetically engineered crops – is strikingly similar to the mission of the main trade group that promotes the interests of the world’s largest agricultural chemical companies. The Council for Biotechnology Information, which is funded by BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta, describes its agenda to “promote acceptance” of agricultural biotechnology by getting “external voices” to “understand and accept the positive role” of genetic engineering.

The main activity of the Cornell Alliance for Science appears to be training and supporting its Global Leadership Fellows – many of whom are journalists or marketing specialists2 – to conduct public relations and political advocacy that aligns with the agrichemical industry’s agenda. Geographical areas of focus have included African countries, where Alliance members urged countries to accept GMO crops and pesticides; and the Hawaiian Islands, where Alliance members opposed community efforts to regulate pesticides.

Defending pesticides with Monsanto talking points

The messaging of Cornell Alliance for Science is strikingly aligned with the agrichemical industry. One clear example is how the Cornell group echoed industry efforts to discredit the scientists of the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency in the wake of their 2015 finding that glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup weed killer, is a probable human carcinogen.

Monsanto’s messaging to combat the market effects of the cancer ruling is revealed in this February 2015 public relations document, which described plans to mobilize “partners” across the food industry to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report in order to “protect the reputation” of Roundup and ward off regulatory actions. Direct sales of glyphosate-based products such as Roundup account for about one third of Monsanto’s profits, and the herbicide is a key component of GMO foods with 90% of corn and soy grown in the United States genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup products.

The precise product-defense messaging can be seen in materials from groups Monsanto identified as “industry partners” in its plan. For example, the Genetic Literacy Project, one of the industry partner groups, and the American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto paid to spin the cancer report, claimed the report was a “scientific fraud” perpetrated by activists, and attacked the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who ‘lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate.

The Cornell Alliance for Science leveled similar attacks against the scientists, portraying their cancer report as a  “witch hunt” orchestrated by “anti-Monsanto activists” who “abused science” and committed “an obvious perversion of both science and natural justice” by reporting a cancer risk. The Cornell Alliance for Science article written by Mark Lynas described glyphosate as “the most benign chemical in world farming.”

Mark Lynas used false talking points straight from Monsanto’s PR playbook to attack the WHO cancer scientists.

Lynas, a writer who works with Cornell Alliance for Science, claimed to be on the side of science and yet ignored evidence that Monsanto interfered with scientific research, manipulated regulatory agencies and used other “strong arm” tactics to interfere with the scientific process in order to protect its pesticide.

In August 2018, in the first case to go to trial of more than 8,000 lawsuits pending against Monsanto (now merged with Bayer), a jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in compensatory and punitive damages to a school groundskeeper who was diagnosed with terminal cancer after using glyphosate-based Roundup products. The jury found that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in covering up the cancer risk of Roundup.

Partners with industry, opposes transparency 

The director of Cornell Alliance for Science, Sarah Evanega, PhD, has said her group is independent of industry: “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate or promote industry-owned products. As our website clearly and fully discloses, we receive no resources from industry.” However, dozens of emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show that Dr. Evanega and the Cornell Alliance for Science coordinate closely with the agrichemical industry and their PR allies on key public relations initiatives; see some examples in the footnotes.3

The Cornell Alliance for Science led opposition to transparency efforts to uncover how the agrichemical companies work with academics in covert ways to influence policy and public perception. As one of their first campaigns, the Cornell group teamed up with the industry partner group Biofortified to launch a petition opposing the use of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to investigate corporate-academic ties. The U.S. Right to Know FOIA investigation has revealed many examples of how academics assist industry with PR and lobbying campaigns in ways that are hidden from the public and policy makers.

As one example, the emails show that the pesticide industry recruited members of Biofortified to lobby against pesticide regulations in Hawaii. One member of the group, University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, claimed they were “independent expert scientists” traveling to Hawaii “simply to share science,” even though the pesticide industry was coordinating their meetings and messaging behind the scenes. Dr. Folta has misled the public about science and his ties to industry on many occasions; yet the emails show that Dr. Evanega invited him to teach and speak at Cornell and suggested him for speaking roles, describing him as “an amazing champion for change” and “a model for scientists.”

Fellows, partners mislead the public about science 

The Cornell Alliance for Science partners with groups and people who mislead the public about science. The partnerships described below suggest that the purpose of the Cornell Alliance for Science is not to promote science but rather to promote the agrichemical industry’s political agenda of deregulation.

Mark Lynas: The most visible face of the Cornell Alliance for Science, the British writer Mark Lynas has written dozens of articles defending agrichemical industry products in the name of the Cornell Alliance for Science and recently published a book promoting GMOs and arguing for African countries to accept them.

Experts in genetic engineering, biology, agroecology and food policy have criticized Lynas for making false claims, inaccurate statements, “unscientific, illogical and absurd” arguments, “relying on authority rather than data or research,” and making a career out of demonizing and insulting critics of the agrichemical industry.4 A 2018 statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.”

Lynas has been a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University’s Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences since 2013. According to his website, he advises the Cornell Alliance for Science on their work in developing countries and teaches courses at Cornell. In 2015, Lynas described himself as the “political director” of Cornell Alliance for Science. He also serves on the advisory council of Sense About Science, a Monsanto partner group.

Read more about Mark Lynas and his background here.

Trevor Butterworth and Sense About Science/STATS: The Cornell Alliance for Science partners with Sense About Science USA to offer “statistical consultation for journalists,” and gives a platform to the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending products important to the chemical, junk food and drug industries, including phthalatesBPAvinyl plastic, fracking, formaldehyde in baby soapssugary sodasartificial sweeteners and Oxycontin.

Cornell Alliance for Science Visiting Fellow Trevor Butterworth built his career defending the chemical, junk food and drug industries.

Butterworth has been a Visiting Fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science since 2016 and also teaches a statistics course at Cornell.

Journalists have described Butterworth’s former employer STATS, which he merged with Sense About Science USA in 2014, as a “disinformation campaign” that plays a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation” and uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk. Both Sense About Science and STATS were founded by men who worked with the tobacco industry in the 1990s to downplay the risks of cigarettes.

Monsanto’s PR plan named Sense About Science as an industry partner, and suggested the group could “lead industry response” in the media. Read more about Butterworth, Sense About Science and STATS here.

Climate science skeptic Owen Paterson: In 2015, Cornell Alliance for Science hosted a visit by Owen Paterson, a British Conservative Party politician and well-known climate science skeptic who slashed funding for global warming mitigation efforts during his stint as UK Environment Minister. Paterson used the Cornell stage to promote GMOs with unscientific, inaccurate arguments and claims that environmental groups “allow millions to die.”

This post by a Monsanto-funded group shows how Cornell Alliance for Science spin echoes through industry’s messaging chamber.

The Monsanto-funded front group American Council on Science and Health promoted Paterson’s Cornell speech with an article by  Gil Ross, a doctor who spent time in jail for Medicaid fraud, claiming that “billion dollar green campaigns kill poor children.”

A week after his Cornell talk, Paterson partnered with Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science and Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science in the UK, to launch the “ecomodernism movement,” a corporate-aligned, anti-regulation strain of “environmentalism” that Lynas said he co-founded. British writer George Monbiot describes ecomodernism as “take no action to protect the natural world.”

Opposes community efforts to regulate pesticides in Hawaii

Another example of how the Cornell Alliance for Science deploys fellows and staff members to assist with agrichemical industry lobbying efforts is the group’s campaign to defend pesticides and discredit public health advocates in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for genetically engineered crops, and also ground zero for high exposures to pesticides and concerns about pesticide-related health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma.

These concerns led residents to organize a years-long fight to pass stronger regulations to reduce pesticide exposures and improve disclosure of the chemicals used on agricultural fields. The Cornell Alliance for Science vigorously opposed those efforts, with staff members, fellows and associates writing many articles that tried to discredit elected officials and community groups in Hawaii working for reforms. Messengers of those pro-industry efforts include:

Sarah Thompson, a former employee of Dow AgroSciences, coordinates the Hawaii Alliance for Science, a “communications-based non-profit grassroots organization associated with the Cornell Alliance for Science.” The group launched in 2016, has 10 team members listed on its website, and says its purpose is to “ensure that Science can thrive in Hawaii.” Social media posts from the Hawaii Alliance for Science and its coordinator Thompson have described critics of the agrichemical industry as arrogant and ignorant people, celebrated corn and soy mono-crops and defended neonicotinoid pesticides which many studies and scientists say are harming bees.

Joan Conrow, Managing Editor and Visiting Fellow of Cornell Alliance for Science, and team member of Hawaii Alliance for Science, writes articles on her personal website, her “Kauai Eclectic” blog and for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project trying to discredit health professionals, community groups and politicians in Hawaii who advocate for stronger pesticide protections. Conrow has accused environmental groups of tax evasion, ripped apart media reports about pesticide-related health concerns and compared a food safety group to the KKK.

Conrow has not always disclosed her Cornell affiliation. In August 2016, Hawaii’s Civil Beat newspaper criticized Conrow for her lack of transparency and cited her as an example of why the paper was changing its commenting policies. Conrow “often argued the pro-GMO perspective without explicitly mentioning her occupation as a GMO sympathist,” wrote journalism professor Brett Oppegaard. “Conrow also has lost her journalistic independence (and credibility) to report fairly about GMO issues, because of the tone of her work on these issues.”

Joni Kamiya, a 2015 Global Leadership Fellow with Cornell Alliance for Science and also on the team of Hawaii Alliance for Science, argues against pesticide regulations on her website Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter, in the media and also for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project. She is an “ambassador expert” for the agrichemical industry-funded marketing website GMO Answers.

Like Conrow, Kamiya claims pesticide exposures in Hawaii aren’t a problem, and tries to discredit elected officials and “environmental extremists” who want to regulate pesticides. She promotes chemical industry front groups and industry consultants as “fearless sources” she loves on her website, and even includes the Center for Consumer Freedom, the front group started by Rick Berman, the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda” who was once profiled on 60 Minutes as “Dr. Evil” for his work as the “arch enemy” of regulations to protect health and the environment.

Cornell Alliance for Science staffers, advisors

The Cornell Alliance for Science describes itself as “an initiative based at Cornell University, a non-profit institution.” The Alliance does not disclose its budget, expenditures or staff salaries, and Cornell University does not disclose any information about the Cornell Alliance for Science in its tax filings.

The website lists 20 staff members, including the Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, and Managing Editor and Visiting Fellow Joan Conrow (it does not list Mark Lynas or other fellows who may also receive compensation). Other notable staff members listed on the website include:

The Cornell Alliance for Science advisory board includes academics who assist the agrichemical industry with their PR efforts.

More critiques of the Cornell Alliance for Science

  • 6 ways this Ivy League university is acting like a PR firm for junk food, GMOs and pesticides,” by Sophia Johnson, Salon
    • “The Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR front for the agrichemical industry.”
  • Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign?” by Stacy Malkan, The Ecologist
    • This group “is promoting GMOs using dishonest messaging and PR tactics developed by agrichemical corporations with a long history of misleading the public about science.”
  • New York Farmers call on Cornell to evict the Cornell Alliance for Science,” press release from 67 organic farmers
    • “Careful examination of the Alliance for Science website reveals not a single critical assessment of genetic engineering, none of the reasonable questions that ecological precaution suggest, and no significant evaluation or critique of the way that increased use of genetically engineered seed, Round-Up Ready corn and soy in particular, has enabled the consolidation of power over the world’s food supply by fewer and fewer chemo-biotech corporations.”
  • One student’s experience of pro-GMO propaganda at Cornell,” by Robert Schooler, Independent Science News
    • “The GMO Debate course, which ran in the fall of 2015, was a blatant display of unscientific propaganda in an academic setting.”
  • The Puppetmasters of Academia,” by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent Science News
    • “The Alliance for Science is a PR project and international training center for academics and others who want to work with the biotech industry to promote GMOs.”
  • The War on Genetically Modified Food Critics,” by Timothy Wise, director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University
    • “What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign (to) … paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages.”

Footnotes with additional information 

[1] The Gates Foundation has been criticized for spending the bulk of its agricultural development grants in wealthy countries on strategies that entrench corporate power. Numerous groups across Africa have reported concerns about the disappearance of traditional and organic food crops, the higher expenses of GMO seeds and agricultural chemicals, doubts about whether genetic engineering can deliver on promises and the limitations of GMO crops to deal with the complex realities of farming in Africa. In Burkina Faso, farmers abandoned an experiment with Monsanto’s bug-resistant corn after it became clear the genetically engineered corn could not deliver the same high quality as the traditional homegrown variety. In South Africa, where more than 85% of corn and soy are genetically engineered to survive glyphosate-based Roundup weed killer, farmers are using more chemicals and doctors are raising concerns about growing rates of cancer.

Critiques of the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural development and funding include:

[2] More than half the 2018 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows – 15 out of 27 – are identified in their bios as journalists or specialists in communication or marketing. Government administrators, biotechnology students and agribusiness representatives are also among the 2018 fellows chosen from seven countries: Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. According to the Cornell University press release, the fellows will attend a 12-week intensive training program to learn “strategic planning, grassroots organizing, the science of crop biotechnology and effective communications” to help them advocate for access to biotechnology in their home countries.

[3] Dozens of emails obtained via FOIA by U.S. Right to Know, and now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show Dr. Evanega and the Cornell Alliance for Science coordinating closely with the agrichemical industry and their academic allies to coordinate events and messaging:

[4] Critiques and corrections of Mark Lynas include:

Alison Van Eenennaam: key outside spokesperson and lobbyist for the agrichemical and GMO industries

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Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, a cooperative extension specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California, Davis, is a leading promoter of genetically engineered animals, crops and the pesticides that accompany them, and an advocate for deregulation.

Dr. Van Eenennaam has argued that genetically engineered animals should not be subject to pre-market safety reviews or labels.

Dr. Van Eenennaam is a former Monsanto employee who opposes requiring safety studies for genetically engineered animals and holds several patents involving genetic engineering. Her lab experiments include using CRISPR, a genetic engineering technique, to eliminate the horns of dairy cows and breed “all-male terminator cattle” to father only male offspring — a project she calls “Boys Only.” A proposal by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require safety and efficacy studies for genetically engineered animals is “insane,” according to Dr. Van Eenennaam.

Although often presented in the media as an independent scientist, Dr. Van Eenennaam coordinates with agrichemical companies and their PR firms on messaging, lobbying and PR activities, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library. Examples of collaborations include:

Monsanto edited her remarks for the Intelligence Squared debate 

Emails show that Lee Quarles, Monsanto’s global communication lead, and Tony Zagora, senior vice president and partner of the FleishmanHillard PR firm, edited Dr. Van Eenennaam’s remarks for a December 2014 Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate where she argued for public acceptance of genetically engineered foods alongside Robb Fraley of Monsanto.

Quarles also connected Dr. Van Eenennaam with higher ups at Monsanto and FleishmanHillard to discuss the core positions she and Fraley should align on, and he arranged for Zagora and the PR agency to provide her with guidance on “approach, tone, delivery and personal presentation. This will help you better understand what are the key things our team should consider as we work to win over the people in the room, as well as all of those consumers in the NPR rebroadcast of the event.”

Some of Monsanto’s edits to Professor Van Eenennaam’s remarks are shown in track changes:

 

Source documents linked here

Former Monsanto Communications Director Jay Byrne and industry PR firm Ketchum provided coaching for media interviews 

In 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam assisted the industry-funded No on Proposition 37 campaign in California to oppose GMO labeling. Emails show that the “No on 37” campaign staff arranged for Dr. Van Eenennaam to appear on the Dr. Oz Show to speak against labeling, and also arranged for her to receive media and messaging training from Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former head of corporate communications. (Emails also revealed that Jay Byrne worked with Monsanto to set up a front group to attack GMO critics and the organic industry while “keeping Monsanto in the background“.)

In 2014, the agrichemical industry’s lead public relations firm, Ketchum, pitched Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source and helped her prepare for a radio interview to debunk a study that linked genetically engineered animal feed to stomach inflammation. Ketchum provided Dr. Van Eenennaam with talking points from industry allies describing the stomach study as “junk science.”

Appeared at Hill briefing organized by climate science skeptic group 

In September 2012, Dr. Van Eenennaam appeared at a Competitive Enterprise Institute congressional briefing to argue for the deregulation of genetically engineered animals. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is an industry-funded group that promotes climate science skepticism and opposes regulations for the chemical industry. In 2013, donors to the Competitive Enterprises Institute annual fundraiser included Monsanto, Syngenta, FMC Corporation, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Google, as well as oil and tobacco companies and foundations related to Koch Industries. In 2016, CEI’s Director of Energy and Environment Myron Ebell, a prominent climate science skeptic who has said the case for global warming is “silly,” was chosen by the Trump Administration’s to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Coordinated lobbying efforts; defends pesticides 

Dr. Van Eenennaam has coordinated lobbying to deregulate genetically engineered crops and animals, and keep them unlabeled. In 2012, she wrote a letter to the Obama Administration on behalf of the American Society of Animal Science public policy committee arguing for approval of the Aqua Bounty genetically engineered salmon without rigorous safety testing or labeling. In 2015, she recruited professors to support deregulating the Simplot Innate 2.0 genetically engineered potato. “Simplot is looking for some comments on their deregulation … the antis are trying to get the comment period extended as usual,” she wrote to the professors.

Dr. Van Eenennaam also defends glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide and a probable human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency. For a post on her website, she used pesticide industry sources and infographics to speculate about the market consequences of banning glyphosate, and characterized people raising concerns as the “worried wealthy.” The Monsanto (now Bayer) website promotes Dr. Van Eenennaam as a source to discredit a study that linked glyphosate to liver disease at low doses.

Some of Alison Van Eenennaam’s other industry collaborations 

  • Is a member of “AgBioChatter,”a private email listserve that pro-industry academics, senior staff of agrichemical companies and public relations consultants have used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities.