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.

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“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.

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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 redirects to the Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that works with Monsanto on PR projects without disclosing those ties.

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

Byrne and Giddings also helped orchestrate the industry-funded Academics Review; in those emails, Byrne named Greenpeace on the “targets” list he was compiling for Monsanto. Another of Byrne’s clients, the International Rice Research Institute, is the main industry group trying to commercialize GMO Golden Rice, the product at the center 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 research as “not an accurate representation of the state of affairs,” and instead pointed to industry-connected 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 moment for industry, and generated a helpful story in the Washington Post, a week before Congress voted to prohibit states from labeling GMOs.

The .com version of Support Precision Agriculture redirects to a Genetic Literacy Project post promoting GMOs. 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.”

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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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Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign

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By Carey Gillam

Former University of Illinois food science professor Bruce Chassy is known for his academic gravitas. Now retired nearly four years, Chassy still writes and speaks often about food safety issues, identifying himself with the full weight of the decades of experience earned at the public university and as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health. Chassy tells audiences that before he retired in 2012, he worked “full time” doing research and teaching.

What Chassy doesn’t talk much about is the other work he did while at the University of Illinois – promoting the interests of Monsanto Co., which has been trying to overcome mounting public concerns about the genetically engineered crops and chemicals the company sells. He also doesn’t talk much about the hundreds of thousands of dollars Monsanto donated to the university as Chassy was helping promote GMOs, or Monsanto’s secretive role in helping Chassy set up a nonprofit group and website to criticize individuals and organizations who raise questions about GMOs.

But emails released through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Chassy was an active member of a group of U.S. academics who have been quietly collaborating with Monsanto on strategies aimed at not just promoting biotech crop products, but also rolling back regulation of these products and fending off industry critics. The emails show money flowing into the university from Monsanto as Chassy collaborated on multiple projects with Monsanto to counter public concerns about genetically modified crops (GMOs) – all while representing himself as an independent academic for a public institution.

A New York Times article by Eric Lipton published last September laid bare the campaign crafted by Monsanto and other industry players to use the credibility of prominent academics to push the industry’s political agenda. That Times article focused primarily on University of Florida academic Kevin Folta, chairman of the university’s Horticultural Sciences Department, and Folta’s work on behalf of Monsanto. But an examination of recently released email exchanges between Monsanto and Chassy show new depths to the industry efforts.

The collaborations come at a critical juncture in the United States regarding GMO public policy. Mandatory GMO labeling is set to take effect in Vermont on July 1; Congress is wrestling over a federal labeling law for GMOs; and several other states are seeking their own answers to rising consumer demand for transparency about this topic.

Many consumer and environmental groups want to see more restrictions and regulation on GMO crops and the glyphosate herbicide many know as Roundup, which is used on GMOs. But the companies that market the crops and chemicals argue their products are safe and there should be less regulation, not more. Monsanto’s roughly $15 billion in annual revenue comes almost exclusively from GMO crop technology and related chemicals.

Amid the furor, the revelations about corporate collaboration with public university scientists to promote GMOs have sparked a new debate about a lack of transparency in the relationships between academics and industry.

Chassy has said he did nothing unethical or improper in his work supporting Monsanto and the biotech crop industry. “As a public-sector research scientist, it was expected… that I collaborate with and solicit the engagement of those working in my field of expertise,” Chassy has stated.

Still, what you find when reading through the email chains is an arrangement that allowed industry players to cloak pro-GMO messaging within a veil of independent expertise, and little, if any, public disclosure of the behind-the-scenes connections.

CRITICAL COLLABORATIONS

  • In a November 2010 email, Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs tells Chassy that Monsanto has just sent a “gift of $10,000” to the university “so the funds should be there.”  He then tells Chassy he is working on a plan for Monsanto and others in the agribusiness industry to support an “academics review” website that Chassy can use to counter concerns and allegations raised by critics of GMOs.  “From my perspective the problem is one of expert engagement and that could be solved by paying experts to provide responses,” Sachs wrote. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
  • In a separate 2010 exchange, Jay Byrne, president of the v-Fluence public relations firm and former head of corporate communications for Monsanto, tells Chassy he is trying to move the Academics Review project forward. He suggests “we work on the money (for all of us).” Byrne says that he has a list of GMO critics for Academics Review to target. He tells Chassy that the topic areas “mean money for a range of well-heeled corporations.”
  • In one email exchange from September 2011, Chassy suggests how the biotech crop industry might “spin” a government study that found significant levels of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, in air and water samples.
  • In emails from 2012, Chassy and Monsanto’s Sachs and Monsanto’s John Swarthout, who leads the company’s “scientific outreach and issues management,” discuss an upcoming presentation Chassy is preparing to make in China. They discuss Monsanto’s review of, and changes to, the presentation.  Monsanto’s Sachs instructs Swarthout to send slide decks to Chassy as material for his presentation.
  • In April 2012, Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond asks in an email if short videos can be created about the “safety of GM crops.” Chassy says that he is applying for funding from the State Department and “also seeking other sources of support” and can use university equipment to make the videos. Chassy asks Monsanto’s Hammond for a list of videos that “you think would be helpful.” Chassy tells Hammond that Byrne’s group V-fluence has helped create and edit the video scenarios.

EMAILS ABOUT MONEY 

The emails also discuss money.

  • In an October 2010 email, Chassy tells colleagues at the university that Monsanto has told him it is going to make a “substantial contribution” to his biotech account at the university.
  • In an October 2011 exchange, Chassy asked Sachs about a contribution for the university foundation biotech fund. The Monsanto executive responded that he would “make a gift to the foundation right away” if it had not already been made. Chassy instructs Monsanto to mail the check to the head of the university’s department of food science and to enclose a letter saying the check is “an unrestricted grant… in support of the biotechnology outreach and education activities of Professor Bruce M. Chassy.”
  • Also in May 2012, Monsanto made a $250,000 grant to the university to help set up an agricultural communications endowed chair. That donation was just a drop in the bucket of the donations from Monsanto – at least $1.9 million in the last five years, according to the university, – for agriculture-related projects.

CONTINUED CLOSE TIES

The close ties between Monsanto and Chassy continued past Chassy’s retirement in June 2012 from the university. Through 2013 and 2014 Chassy frequently appeared as an “independent expert” on the GMO Answers website, a pro-GMO site funded by Monsanto and other agribusiness giants. In that role, he answered questions and concerns about GMOs.

Chassy also has continued to operate Academics Review, publishing critical articles about individuals and organizations, including the World Health Organization’s cancer experts, that report information unfavorable for the GMO crop industry.  (I was the subject of at least two such attacks in 2014. Chassy objected to my presentation of both sides of the GMO safety debate in one Reuters article and objected to a second Reuters article that detailed the findings of a USDA report that found both benefits but also concerns associated with GMOs.)

When asked about its interactions with Chassy, Monsanto has said that there is nothing improper with its “engagements” with “public sector experts,” and that such collaborations help educate the public on important topics.  The university also has said it sees nothing wrong with the relations. A university spokeswoman said Chassy has “strong scientific credibility.”  She also said that Monsanto has given the university at least $1.9 million in the last five years.

But others familiar with the issues say the lack of transparency is a problem.

“These revelations regarding the connections are very important,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “The basic disclosure that some academics and other ‘neutral’ commentators in the public sphere are actually paid operatives/working directly with the chemical industry rightly alarms the public, as they are being misled.”

Revelations similar to these involving University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta’s connections to Monsanto did spark a public backlash after emails showed Folta received an unrestricted $25,000 grant and told Monsanto he would “write whatever you like.”  Folta said in a Jan. 18 blog that he no longer works with Monsanto because of the heated backlash.

Both Chassy and Folta have repeatedly written or been quoted in news articles that failed to disclose their connections to Monsanto and the GMO industry. In a recent example, Chassy has co-authored a series of articles that argue GMO labeling is a “disaster in waiting,” again with no disclosure of his collaboration with GMO developer Monsanto. His co-author is Jon Entine, founder of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included Monsanto, a connection Entine does not include in the article.

The revelations in the emails about Chassy, Folta and other assorted academics, leave many questions about who to trust, and how to trust, information critical to understanding our evolving food system. With food labeling issues at the forefront of debate, it’s time for more transparency.

Carey Gillam has worked as a journalist, researcher and writer specializing in the food and agriculture industry for nearly 20 years and has been recognized as one of the top food and agriculture journalists in the United States, winning several awards for her coverage of the industry. She recently left a career as senior correspondent for the Reuters international news service to become  Research Director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit public interest group that works to inform the public about the U.S.  food industry and its often-hidden role in public policy.