Pandemic research firm Metabiota struggled with safety and data problems

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USAID PREDICT completes sampling visit to Ratchaburi Province, Thailand, 2018; Photo: Richard Nyberg, USAID

Metabiota, one of five main partners implementing the $200 million USAID-funded PREDICT virus-hunting project that concluded in 2019, had safety and data quality lapses, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The San Francisco-based firm describes itself as a government and private industry partner specializing in pandemic prediction and mitigation. However, documents from 2017 show that its biosafety and data quality protocols in at least five countries may have been inadequate.

The documents further suggest a history of biosafety and data problems. A previous investigation by the Associated Press of the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak uncovered diagnostic errors, poor biosafety practices, and a lack of sample tracking.  As a result, Metabiota withdrew a project coordinator who reportedly disregarded standard biosafety practices, and a WHO outbreak expert recommended shutting down a diagnostic lab Metabiota shared with Tulane.  Eventually, the CDC took control of the lab.

Metabiota has also been in the news recently for receiving funding from the investment firm Rosemont Seneca Technology Partners (now called Pilot Growth Equity) where President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden appeared to work until 2015, though scientific experts say any connections to bioweapons in those reports stem from Russian disinformation campaigns. Hunter Biden is currently under investigation by the Justice Department for his international business dealings.

‘What happened with our data?’

PREDICT, a consortium between University of California, Davis, EcoHealth Alliance, Metabiota, Smithsonian Institution, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, was part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Emerging Pandemic Threats program. The program aimed to identify and prevent pandemic threats through viral surveillance at potential hotspots for spillover from wildlife to humans. Founded in 2009, it grew to include over 30 countries until its end in 2019. Metabiota staff served on PREDICT’s management team and executive board.

On April 17, 2017, Metabiota’s Chief Scientific Officer Eddy Rubin emailed PREDICT Director Jonna Mazet: “We are also working on a Sample and Data Quality Risk and Corrective Action plan which I will get to you before this Friday. I think with focus and putting in place the structures and QA [quality assurance] and QC [quality control] activities described in this document, we can correct the sample/data quality/safety…issues.”   

The email does not describe specific incidents, but Rubin proposes corrective actions or reduced operations in nine countries then managed by Metabiota.

Metabiota first suggested ending or reducing operations in China, Indonesia, and Republic of Congo, and transferring management responsibilities to UC Davis or EcoHealth Alliance. The company then proposed biosafety and data quality retraining for staff in most of the remaining countries.  

For Sierra Leone, Metabiota drafted a separate data report and suspended field work until all retraining could be completed.

The Sierra Leone data report, Rubin wrote in the email, “offers an overview of the SL [Sierra Leone] data situation and includes: What happened with our data? How is our data being corrected? How will future data problems be avoided?”   

Rubin then wrote that sampling work had been put on hold in Sierra Leone. 

“Team will immediately go through upgraded retraining, post quality control assessment and with a new supervision plan in place,” he wrote. “We have suspended field sampling work in SL until this training and recertification is complete.” 

Metabiota proposed submitting a new data quality control plan, as well as biosafety lab and field plans, to UC Davis for approval. Their staff would complete biosafety refresher training before resuming field work.  

One staff member who seemed to split their time with Guinea was to be “fully retrained in all of SOPS [standard operating procedures] training refreshers,” and appeared to require field supervision.

The biosafety and data concerns in the other countries did not require immediate attention by Metabiota.  

In Laos and Cameroon, the email proposed that staff undergo lab and data quality retraining within three months. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Metabiota planned to complete retraining within the quarter, as well as reduce its activities. In Guinea, two staff members were to complete an “intensive field sampling, data QC, and biosafety training refresher” according to a retraining schedule.

Metabiota responds 

Metabiota said in a company statement that any data problems were due to challenges in the process of encoding data from paper-based forms into PREDICT’s cloud-based management system. 

“The discrepancies were rapidly identified and subsequently corrected through data re-entry and additional data entry training to the relevant team,” the statement reads. “We additionally conducted a systematic review and found no significant or systematic issues with the underlying data collected on the paper-based forms.” 

The corrective action plan in Rubin’s email confirms that there were difficulties transferring data online and included a “Data Quality Control procedure of data from field to EIDITH [PREDICT’s database].” 

However, it also included a “lab sample quality, monitoring and analysis plan,” which was not addressed in Metabiota’s statement.

Metabiota stated that the biosafety concerns were due to the discovery of a new Ebolavirus species by the Sierra Leone animal sampling team. The unexpected discovery prompted an immediate review of biosafety protocols and refresher trainings to reinforce active biosafety protocols.

Documents obtained by US Right to Know show that PREDICT did discover a new Ebola virus strain in Sierra Leone.  Although it was first announced by the Sierra Leone government on July 26, 2018, the virus was likely discovered in early 2017.

However, a June 2017 memo during Sierra Leone’s transition to UC Davis management suggests that biosafety lapses did occur. The report notes, “Big issues revealed in biosafety practices… James was upset that his training from MB [Metabiota] was so poor… he didn’t know what he didn’t know…the need for robust BS&S [biosafety and biosecurity] training is critical.” (Emphasis in the original document).

Operations discontinued in multiple countries

Though Metabiota initially suggested ending or reducing operations in three countries, it eventually discontinued management in six countries. Operations in China, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Republic of Congo, and Guinea were transitioned to either UC Davis or EcoHealth Alliance.  

Metabiota continued to manage operations in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, and Laos. Referring to the DRC, Mazet said that no transition was planned as it was hoped that “all will remain stable with Metabiota there”. However, the PREDICT country work plan for October 2017 to September 2018 only listed Metabiota as the implementing partner for Cameroon. The remaining 13 countries were assigned to other consortium partners. 

USAID senior scientific advisor Andrew Clements suggested to other USAID staff in June 2017 that management changes were needed for the continued success of PREDICT: “I’m writing to let you know that PREDICT is undergoing some internal management changes in a few countries, including China. As a result, the role of Metabiota will be decreased and the role of EcoHealth Alliance [in China] will increase. … While changes in the middle of a project are not ideal, PREDICT felt that this change was necessary to make sure it could deliver the expected results.”  

According to Metabiota, the country transitions were necessary to “balance many competing country and programmatic needs, as well as budgetary considerations.”  

The PREDICT work plan did state that USAID had not finalized funding for the project, and that the final budget could affect implementation of any planned activities. 

Several emails also confirm that funding was limited in some of the transitioned countries.  In May 2017 Eddy Rubin told Jonna Mazet that Sierra Leone and Guinea “field sampling staff will not be going back into the field anytime soon, due to budget reductions and shift in scope.”  

In December 2017 and again in July 2018, Andrew Clements suggested that funds were running low in Sierra Leone and Guinea.  

In August 2018, Elizabeth Leasure, the Financial Operations Manager at the One Health Institute, stated that “all Ebola-funded countries are on track to spend out by Sept 2019,” and that Cameroon, the final country managed by Metabiota, had sufficient funds that could be moved to other countries.

‘Not much love’ for Metabiota  

Metabiota seems to have incurred a poor reputation that made collaborations difficult.  

A series of emails from April 2017 show that UC Davis was “sorting out major administrative issues with Metabiota at the moment,” and did not want to partner with them on future projects. 

When discussing potential data platforms for the Global Virome Project in 2019, Eddy Rubin admitted that “Joe Dirisi [co-president of Chan Zuckerberg BioHub] has had bad interactions with Metabiota in the past and does not want to work on something linked to Metabiota.”  

During the Sierra Leone transition to UC Davis management in June 2017, Brian Bird wrote that the CDC was “happy UCD is in charge” and that there was “not much love for MB [Metabiota] either” from the CDC deputy country director.

Even in 2014, the WHO Ebola coordinator suggested withdrawing WHO staff from the outbreak epicenter to avoid getting a bad reputation from Metabiota.

Metabiota replaced its CEO in April 2017 when the PREDICT country transition discussions began, and again in July 2019 with the current CEO, Nita Madhav.

Representatives from USAID and UCD involved in managing the PREDICT country transitions did not respond to requests for comment.  

These revelations come as another PREDICT partner, EcoHealth Alliance, has come under scrutiny for its relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). A number of scientists, journalists, and biosafety experts speculate that a lab accident at the WIV, which specializes in coronavirus research, could have sparked the COVID-19 pandemic. They also come after other documents obtained by US Right to Know showed that USAID funds allocated to PREDICT were used to support the establishment of the Global Virome Project (GVP), a private nonprofit organization founded by key PREDICT leaders.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the documents reported on in this article from a California Public Records Act request to the University of California at Davis. U.S. Right to Know’s documents related to the origins of Covid-19, the risks of gain-of-function research, and biolab safety are posted here.

African groups want Gates Foundation, USAID to shift agricultural funding as hunger crisis worsens 

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Billions of dollars in aid and subsidies for industrial agriculture in Africa are harming food security in one of the world’s hungriest regions, according to a network of African groups asking donors to switch their funding to African-led efforts and agroecology. 

In a letter delivered Tuesday, 200 organizations led by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa asked the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other donors to stop financing the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The billion-dollar effort has “unequivocally failed in its mission” and “harmed broader efforts to support African farmers,” the groups said. 

The groups delivered their letter as donors gathered for the African Green Revolution Forum this week in Nairobi, Kenya. The annual fundraising event established by Yara International fertilizer company says it is “designed to energize the political will” for policies and investments in sustainable agricultural transformation. The Forum, funded by chemical companies, private donors and other partners, said it will “elevate the single coordinated African voice” to the United Nations Food Systems Summit later this month. 

African Green Revolution Forum partners 

That claim rankled African groups and many others who have been calling on UN leaders for two years to champion human rights, food sovereignty and ecology at the 2021 Food Summit, and say their concerns have been ignored. 

“No, no, no. We are here to state clearly and categorically that the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa does not speak for Africans,” said Anne Maina, director of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya. Her group and hundreds of others are boycotting the UN Summit because, they say, it has been captured by corporations and donors who are pushing technological solutions for hunger while ignoring systemic changes necessary to address hunger and poverty.

That AGRA’s president, Agnes Kalibata, is leading the UN food summit is a conflict of interest, critics said, because AGRA is also fundraising for its own programs.

Failing ‘green revolution’? 

Hunger has worsened considerably since the Gates and Rockefeller foundations led a high-profile effort to bring the “green revolution” to Africa in 2006. AGRA’s main focus is transitioning farmers away from traditional seeds and crops to commercial seeds, synthetic fertilizer and other inputs to grow commodity crops for the global market. Bill Gates predicted that increasing inputs would boost agricultural productivity, alleviate hunger and lift small-scale farmers out of poverty. 

AGRA has since raised more than $1 billion, mostly from the Gates Foundation, on promises it would double yields and incomes for 30 million African farmers and cut food insecurity in half by 2020. Instead, the number of severely undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2006, according to the latest UN hunger report. The report paints an alarming picture of the ongoing food crisis in Africa worsened by the pandemic.  

The AGRA goals were removed from the group’s website in 2020 

In their letter to donors, AGRA critics said a decade of research has exposed the failures of the green revolution model. AGRA uses its leverage to encourage African governments to focus on boosting agricultural yields rather than more systemic solutions, they said, noting that African governments in AGRA target countries spend about $1 billion a year on input subsidies.

Academic research suggests AGRA and the larger green revolution effort has had little if any positive impact on Africa’s small-scale farmers. Reports published in 2020 by the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute and African and German groups found slow productivity growth for staple crops and no evidence of rising incomes for small-scale farmers. The evidence also suggests that farmers are abandoning more nutritious, climate-resilient crops, such as millet, to grow maize. 

AGRA views

AGRA disagreed with the research but has not produced comprehensive reporting of its results over 15 years. The lofty 2020 goals were removed from AGRA’s website sometime last year as the group underwent a strategy reboot with the help of McKinsey & Company, a controversial U.S.-based business management firm. AGRA has “not reduced our ambition, but (we) have learned that other more targeted indicators are appropriate,” Andrew Cox, chief of strategy, told USRTK. 

“At farmer level, AGRA focuses on creating the conditions for the smallholder farmers to have access to yield-increasing inputs (seeds, soil fertilizer, good agronomic practices to have better yields under normal conditions), and also facilitates access to storage facilities, and markets to sell their surplus production,” Cox said. “Our thinking on farmer incomes has thus moved to being more context specific and related to what we can influence directly.” He said AGRA will publish a full evaluation of results and progress at the end of its 2021 strategy period.

He also expressed frustration with the Tufts report criticizing AGRA. “The data used was years old national level data, including on Zambia, where we haven’t been operational in for many years.  The data could not possibly be extrapolated onto the kinds of regional / sub regional work that we do,” Cox wrote via email. “This has been extremely frustrating, not least as transforming (agriculture) in Africa is difficult, and we should all be trying to learn in supporting farmers who have had a pretty raw deal over the decades.”

The AFSA groups, however, said AGRA and the Gates Foundation’s efforts have been top-down and deaf to the concerns Africa’s small-scale food producers have raised. 

“We welcome investment in agriculture on our continent,”  Million Belay, PhD, and Bridget Mugambe of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), wrote in a recent Scientific American article. “But we seek it in a form that is democratic and responsive to the people at the heart of agriculture.”

Investments in agroecology

AFSA is asking donors to transition their financial and political support to African-led efforts to expand agroecology and low-input farming methods they say can provide more abundant, nutritious foods, protect the environment and create a more equitable, sustainable food system. Leading experts in food security and nutrition have also called for a paradigm shift away from chemical-dependent industrial agriculture and toward agroecology and policies that address social issues and inequality. 

However, donors such as the Gates Foundation — the leading private donor to agricultural development in Africa — are “holding back investments in agroecological research,” according to a 2020 report from sustainable food system experts. For some of the top donors, “agroecology does not fit within existing investment modalities,” the researchers said. “Like many philanthropic givers, the [Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation] looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favors targeted, technological solutions.”  

As many as 85% of Gates Foundation research grants supported industrial agriculture, the report notes, while merely 3% contained elements of agroecology. Kenyan research centers also spent heavily on industrial agriculture. “In Kenya, low awareness of alternatives to the (new) Green Revolution model emerged as the greatest barrier to supporting and implementing more agroecological projects.” 

‘Zero response’ from Gates Foundation 

AFSA wrote to all of AGRA’s donors in June asking them to provide research supporting the benefits of AGRA. The African groups said they received few responses, and no credible evidence of AGRA’s benefits to farmers or the general public. African faith groups also reached out to the Gates Foundation in June, with a letter signed by 500 faith leaders asking the foundation to stop funding industrial monoculture farming. That model, they said, is “deepening the humanitarian crisis in Africa.” 

The faith groups received “zero response” from the Gates Foundation, said Francesca de Gasparis, director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI). “We’re extremely disappointed to say the least,” she said. “We’re making a very important science-based point that this model of agriculture … is not serving the people of Africa.”

The Gates Foundation also did not respond to AFSA’s letter, nor did the U.S. government, which has spent $90 million of taxpayer money since 2006 funding AGRA. Neither the Gates Foundation nor USAID responded to requests for comment from U.S. Right to Know.  

Yara and other donors respond  

The Norwegian government told AFSA via email they are “currently not providing support to AGRA” and are encouraging “increased dialogue and research on options for agricultural development” in Africa. Two other AGRA donors, the IKEA Foundation and Canadian International Development Research Group, said they continue to fund aspects of AGRA’s work, and noted they are also funding efforts to expand agroecology. 

In response to queries about whether they have assessed the effectiveness of AGRA, a UK government official said, “a comprehensive evaluation of AGRA is currently underway.” He said the UK’s engagement with AGRA has “primarily focused on strengthening regional food trade and resilience within the continent” and collaborating with members of AGRA’s Africa-led Partnership for Inclusive Agriculture Transformation in Africa.

Yara International President and CEO Svein Tore Holsether told AFSA he hoped its members would consider the African Green Revolution Forum “as an opportunity for an honest exchange, rather than seeing it as a battleground for fixed positions.” But it was only after AFSA held a press conference last week, and aired their concerns in East Africa’s largest newspaper, that the Forum’s leaders reached out to the group.  

In a Sept. 6 email, AGRA president Agnes Kalibata invited AFSA’s Million Belay to participate on an “Insights Panel to discuss walking the path to change” on Thursday. Belay’s group declined the invitation to speak for “five or so minutes” near the end of the conference. “We disagree with the Green Revolution’s approach on a basic level. The strategy has indebted our farmers, ruined our environment, harmed our health, and undermined our seeds and culture elsewhere and in Africa. It is extremely detrimental to Africa’s future,” Belay wrote to Kalibata. 

AGRA’s work to change seed laws, biosafety standards and fertilizer rules and regulations will make Africa “far more reliant on corporate-led agriculture,” Belay said. “For us, the Green Revolution is a source of great anxiety. We are part of a burgeoning agroecology movement … That is, we believe, Africa’s future, and our mission is to focus on scientifically sound techniques which, combined with the knowledge and wisdom of African food producers, safeguard our people’s food/life sovereignty.”

Members of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa 

Praise from Rockefeller Foundation 

Roy Steiner, managing director of the food initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation, told U.S. Right to Know that his foundation did not receive AFSA’s June query until last week, and is working on its response. Like any program, AGRA has had some very successful initiatives and has its share of challenges,” Steiner said. “Overall we think it has been a successful program – in particular building the capacity of African scientists, entrepreneurs and farmers to make decisions for themselves.”

Steiner said he is “particularly proud of the hundreds of soil scientists and plant breeders (with significant representation of women) developing crops suited for the African environment that are building African self-reliance.” As evidence of AGRA’s progress, he pointed to AGRA’s most recent impact report, a report on its seed system program, and an impact report by an AGRA partner, the One Acre Fund.

“As AGRA moves forward,” Steiner said, “I have no doubt that it will continue to embrace more regenerative, circular agricultural approaches and we look forward to partnering with them in also adopting renewable energy into their programs.” 

Seed laws and the ‘800 pound gorilla’   

African groups were not impressed by AGRA’s reporting methods and said they have seen no evidence to change their minds that AGRA’s approach is harming Africa. AGRA’s work on seed laws that protect patented seeds and penalize seed trading “is particularly problematic for small-scale farmers in Africa,” SAFCEI’s de Gasparis and Gabriel Manyangadze wrote in an article that ran in several African news outlets last week.

“It’s the influence no one wants to talk about. Gates is playing a very dangerous game.”

The “corporatization of seed,” they said, undermines indigenous knowledge systems, centralizes control of production systems and disempowers small-scale farmers. “Around the globe, agribusinesses, driven by initiatives like AGRA, have been trying to convince governments and financial institutions that they hold the answer to solve the world’s hunger problems through improved production,” the faith leaders wrote.

“However, this concept has been debunked by food system research and a complete lack of success. The world does not have a food production problem, rather hunger is a result of lack of access and inequality.”

Researcher Timothy Wise, author of the 2020 Tufts report criticizing AGRA, also found fault with AGRA’s recent impact report. The report “provides some data but no convincing evidence of progress” toward AGRA’s top goals, Wise wrote in his review. He said the new report repeats the same problem as previous AGRA reports, using “vague data from undocumented sources.” 

The most objectionable thing in the AGRA reports, Wise wrote, is AGRA’s “obsessive focus” on hybrid maize seed that must be purchased every year. “In one illustrative story, Rwanda proclaims ‘self-sufficiency’ — not in food, but in hybrid maize seed production.” Wise said AGRA and the Gates Foundation are pushing seed privatization laws across Africa.

At the AFSA press conference last week, Wise referred to Bill Gates as the “800 pound gorilla” in the room of food system negotiations. “(Gates) goes where he wants and does what he wants. He is operating behind the scenes to influence policies and laws in African countries with such deep influence and no accountability,” Wise said. “It’s the influence no one wants to talk about. Gates is playing a very dangerous game.” 

For more information, see our fact sheet on the Gates Foundation’s agricultural interventions in Africa. Stacy Malkan is co-founder and managing editor of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. 

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: top agrichemical, agribusiness and drug companies 

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 American Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Rohm & Haas and the pesticide industry trade group CropLife.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which promotes genetically engineered “Golden Rice,” is also a client. Byrne played a role in PR efforts to attack Greenpeace and other critics of the GMO rice. See also the UCSF chemical industry documents library for many documents involving IRRI.

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. 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 – messaging that aligned with Monsanto’s PR plan to discredit the cancer research panel. (See also our fact sheet on Peter Phillip’s secret “right to know” symposium).

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 2016 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.)

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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.”

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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.

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