propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view
Just four corporations now control three quarters of the global supply of seeds and pesticides. Public oversight of their activities is crucial for a safe and healthy food supply. Yet all of these companies – Monsanto/Bayer, DowDuPont, Syngenta/ChemChina and BASF – have documented histories of hiding the health risks and environmental impacts of their products. Since their records do not inspire trust, they often make use of third-party allies who promote the industry’s commercial and political agenda to the public, media, regulators and policy makers, while appearing to be acting independently of industry.
The public has a right to know about groups and people who collaborate with agrichemical corporations to push industry messaging and policy agendas. U.S. Right to Know has uncovered many documents that reveal, for the first time, how companies are working behind the scenes with academics, journalists and independent-sounding groups, in ways that are not disclosed to the public, to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides and stave off regulations. The evidence is described in our fact sheets about key players in the agrichemical industry propaganda network:
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:
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Val Giddings, PhD, is a key player in agrichemical industry efforts to oppose transparency and safety regulations for genetically engineered foods and pesticides. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library indicate that Dr. Giddings helped set up a corporate front group and played a key behind-the-scenes role in other activities to push the deregulatory agenda of the world’s largest agrichemical companies.
Dr. Giddings is a former vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade group for agrichemical and biotechnology companies. He now runs the consulting firm PrometheusAB, and is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
Cooked up academic front group to discredit Monsanto critics
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Giddings played a central role in setting up Academics Review as a front group that falsely claimed to be independent while taking agrichemical industry funds and trying to keep corporate fingerprints hidden.
Other key planners were Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications at Monsanto; Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Eric Sachs, PhD, director of regulatory policy and scientific affairs at Monsanto.
Academics Review falsely claims on its website that it does not accept corporate money or solicit donations for specific activities; but according to tax forms, most of the funding for Academics Review came from the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group funded and run by the world’s largest chemical companies: BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta/ChemChina.
Timeline of key events for Academics Review:
March 11, 2010: Byrne and Dr. Chassy discussed setting up Academics Review as a front group to target critics of GMOs and pesticides with help from Dr. Giddings. Byrne said he and Dr. Giddings could serve as “commercial vehicles” to connect corporate entities to the project “in a manner which helps ensure the credibility and independence (and thus value) of the primary contributors/ owners…” Byrne noted he was developing for Monsanto a list of agrichemical industry critics to target:
March 24, 2010: Dr. Chassy launched the Academics Review website along with David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, with both men listed as cofounders.
“I bet we could generate some respectable support for it,” Dr. Giddings wrote to Dr. Chassy.
Chassy responded in part, “I bet our friends at Monsanto would be willing to write the rebuttal and pay us to post it.”
Giddings wrote, “I think the soybean guys might be willing to pony up a chunk to underwrite a rebuttal … If we do this right we can leverage the AcaRev Brand here a bit.”
A week later, Dr. Chassy asked Eric Sachs if Monsanto planned to refute the soy paper, and told Sachs: “The US Soybean Board is going to entertain a proposal from me and Graham Brookes to respond to the piece.” (Academics Review posted a response from Chassy and Brookes in 2012 with no disclosure about funders.)
November 30, 2010: In the email exchange with Dr. Chassy, Eric Sachs of Monsanto said he could help motivate the pesticide and GMO industry trade groups to support Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote.
August 2011: Dr. Giddings submitted a proposal to the agrichemical industry-funded trade group CBI for the project: “what we do over the next year is directly a function of the support we can raise,” he wrote to CBI Managing Director Ariel Gruswich, in an email copied to Drs. Chassy and Tribe. Gruswich urged the men to join a phone call with her group: “I really believe that hearing directly from you all will increase the likelihood of support among the companies,” she wrote. Tax records show the corporate-funded CBI gave Academics Review $650,000 from 2014 to 2016 for “scientific outreach.”
Industry-funded “boot camps” trained scientists, journalists how to spin GMOs and pesticides
Over $300,000 of the chemical industry funds Dr. Giddings helped raise for Academics Review went to pay for two conferences called the “Biotech Literacy Project” boot camps, held at the University of Florida in 2014 and UC Davis in 2015, according to tax records. The boot camps – organized by Academics Review and another industry front group, Genetic Literacy Project – trained journalists and scientists how to reframe the debate about GMOs and pesticides.
In emails dated February 2015, Dr. Giddings discussed with several academics a plan to write five journal papers arguing for the need to deregulate the biotech industry. Dr. Giddings wrote that the papers should capture, “what I call Henry’s ‘Blow the whole damn thing up’ argument, which is a case I do think should be made.” University of Arizona law professor Gary Marchant, who initiated the email exchange, explained, “paper 1 is intended to be the blow the whole damn thing up topic.”
Coordinated scientist sign-on letter against Seralini study
In September 2012, Dr. Giddings coordinated a scientist sign-on letter urging Wallace Hayes, editor-in-chief of Food and Chemical Toxicology, to reconsider a September 2012 paper by the French researcher Gilles-Éric Séralini that reported tumors in rats fed a diet of Roundup-tolerant GM corn. The paper was retracted a year later and later republished in another journal.
Suggested attractive “mommy farmers” should pitch GMOs
In conversations with a Monsanto lobbyist about how to defeat GMO labeling campaigns in Colorado and Oregon in 2014, Dr. Giddings suggested that good-looking “mommy farmers” would be the best messengers to allay concerns about genetically engineered foods. “What the situation requires is a suite of TV spots featuring attractive young women, preferably mommy farmers, explaining why biotech derived foods are the safest & greenest in the history of ag and worthy of support,” Dr. Giddings wrote to Lisa Drake, Monsanto’s lead for government affairs.
“In this extended email exchange, some of the scientists and academicswho have been recruited to help Monsanto push its cause question whether they are the best messengers. Two suggest that Monsanto run more television ads featuring farmers instead. The Monsanto lobbyist replies that polling shows that the public believes scientists. In fact, the company has already run TV ads featuring female farmers.”
Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist and an adjunct journalism faculty member at New York University who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Slate and dozens of articles for Discover Magazine promoting genetically engineered foods and attacking critics of the agrichemical industry, while also assisting industry allies behind the scenes.
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library, reveal instances in which Kloor coached and edited his sources, obscured the industry ties of a source, and selectively reported on information in ways that bolstered industry narratives. Kloor declined to respond to questions for this article.
The emails obtained via state records requests reveal that Kloor himself was part of the story he was reporting on; he had attended agrichemical industry-funded message-training conferences with Dr. Folta and assisted Dr. Folta with messaging. The correspondence shows that Dr. Folta reached out to Kloor to suggest a “preemptive” release of his emails “but selectively” to help mitigate the damage of the documents – which Kloor did, in the journal Nature. At the same time as Kloor was covering the story for top science publications, the documents show he participated in discussions with industry insiders about the challenges posed by the public records requests.
July 2014: Monsanto agreed fund Dr. Folta’s proposal for $25,000 for promotional events that Dr. Folta described as a “solution to the biotech communications problem” that arose from activist campaigns to label GMOs. (Folta donated the money to a food bank after the proposal became public.)
Emails show that in August and November of 2014, Kloor provided Dr. Folta with messaging advice about how to best challenge GMO critics (see examples below).
February 2015: U.S. Right to Know submitted public records requests for correspondence to and from professors at public universities, including Dr. Folta, to investigate undisclosed collaborations with the agrichemical industry.
February 2015: Kloor wrote about the USRTK investigation for Science Insider, quoting Dr. Folta and other industry allies who were “rattled” by the open records requests they described as a “fishing expedition” that could have a “chilling effect on academic freedom.”
August 6, 2015: Kloor reported on the emails in a forgiving article for Nature. The emails “do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Dr. Folta. But they do reveal his close ties to agriculture giant Monsanto,” Kloor reported.
August 8, 2015: Jon Entine, who organized the industry-funded messaging boot camps, complained to Kloor about his use of the term “close ties” to describe Dr. Folta’s relationship with Monsanto. “It’s both incorrect and inflammatory. It reflects poorly on what otherwise was first class reporting,” Entine wrote. Kloor said the term was “arguable” but backed away from it: “In my defense, I didn’t write that – it was added in the final edits.” He then tipped Entine off about the emails: “You and I should also talk. You are in the emails.” Kloor was also in the emails, which he did not mention in his reporting. (Subsequent requests turned up more emails involving Kloor.)
September 5, 2015: a front-page New York Times article by three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton reported that Monsanto recruited academics, including Dr. Folta, to fight against GMO labeling. The Times posted emails from Dr. Folta and Dr. Chassy revealing undisclosed industry payments to both men and their collaborations with agrichemical companies and their PR firms.
Kloor continued to engage in the debate as a journalist for industry events, such as a February 2016 forum hosted by GMO Answers, a marketing campaign to promote GMOs funded by Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, and DowDuPont, and managed by the public relations firm Ketchum.
Coaching, editing sources; obscuring industry ties
The emails suggest Kloor worked with his sources behind the scenes to hone their messaging in support of a key agrichemical industry cause: convincing wary consumers to accept genetically engineered foods. One of these sources was Dr. Kevin Folta, the University of Florida professor who was the key figure Kloor featured in stories he wrote for science publications about academic transparency.
The emails show that Kloor drafted a bio for Dr. Folta that included the line, “No research is sponsored by Monsanto.” Dr. Folta asked him to adjust that sentence, noting that Monsanto indirectly sponsored some of his biotech outreach efforts and that he had received research money from a small biotech firm. Kloor decided on a bio that avoided mentioning Dr. Folta’s industry funding entirely: “his research is sponsored by federal and state agencies.”
In the email below, Kloor provided guidance to Dr. Folta about how to write the letter to Nye:
Around that time, Monsanto was also lobbying Nye to change his position on GMOs, which they eventually succeeded in doing. A March 2015 Washington Post story about Nye’s conversion claimed that Nye’s criticisms of GMOs “had angered many scientists,” but linked only to Dr. Folta’s letter on Kloor’s blog.
Discover: “Not our policy to prompt sources”
Emails from August 2014 show Kloor offering messaging advice to Dr. Folta and another source, Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel, the media director of the GMO promotion group Biofortified. Kloor asked them to critique an article by Carole Bartolotto, a dietician who had written critically about GMOs. The emails show that Kloor edited the comments and suggested ways to strengthen the messaging: “My advice: keep the language as neutral and judgment-free as possible. You’re aiming for the fence-sitters, who may well be turned off by language that comes off as heavy handed.”
Kloor posted the Bartolotto critique on his Discover blog and described Drs. Folta and von Mogel as “two scientists who receive no funding from the biotech industry.” Emails later revealed that, just a few weeks earlier, Monsanto had agreed to fund Dr. Folta’s promotional efforts for GMOs; and, the previous summer, Dr. Folta planned to visit Hawaii to lobby against pesticide restrictions on a trip organized and paid for by a pesticide industry trade group (Dr. von Mogel was also included on those emails). Kloor’s article still appears on the Discover website without updates or corrections.
For a 2017 Huffington post article, journalist Paul Thacker asked Discover magazine editor Becky Lang to comment on the Bartolotto emails. Lang declined to comment on specifics, but said: “Of course, it’s not our policy now, and never has been, to prompt sources to write criticism, edit criticism, and then run it as independent. It’s also not our policy to ever help sources try to hide their industry relationships.” (Kloor’s Discover blog ended in ended in April 2015.)
Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project connection
Kloor’s prolific writings in defense of the agrichemical industry can be viewed on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a promotional website for the agrichemical industry that features dozens of articles written by Kloor or quoting his work. Genetic Literacy Project is run by Jon Entine, a longtime PR operative who promotes and defends chemical industry interests. Entine is principal of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients included Monsanto. Kloor and Entine use similar messaging and frame the issues in similar ways, and appear to have a close relationship, according to the emails.
In a July 2013 email to a pesticide industry lobby group, Entine described Kloor as a “very good friend of mine” who could help broker a meeting with another Discover blogger to write about agrichemical industry activities in Hawaii. Another email shows Entine connecting Kloor with Rebecca Goldin at George Mason University to discuss “abuse of FOIA.” Goldin works with Entine’s former employer STATS, a group journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk.
DeWayne Johnson, a 46-year-old father dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, became the first person to face Monsanto in trial this week over allegations the company hid evidence about the cancer-causing dangers of its Roundup weedkiller. Johnson is the first of some 4,000 people suing Monsanto in state and federal courts claiming their cancers were caused by glyphosate-based Roundup.The litigation, and documents coming to light because of it, are shining light on the heavy-handed tactics Monsanto (now a subsidiary of Bayer) has used to deny cancer risk and protect the chemical that is the lynchpin of its profits.
“Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science and society,” wrote Tufts University Professor Sheldon Krimsky in a June essay. The discovery documents, he said, “uncover the corporate capture of science, which puts public health and the very foundation of democracy at risk.”
This corporate war on science has major implications for all of us, considering that half of all men in the U.S. and a third of women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The documents the food industry doesn’t want you to see
For years, the food and chemical industries have set their sights on one particular target in the science world: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the independent research group that for 50 years has worked to identify cancer hazards to inform policies that can prevent cancer.
“I’ve been fighting IARC forever!!! :)” one former Kraft Foods scientist wrote to a former Syngenta scientistin an emailobtained through a state open records request. “Foods and ag are under siege since Glyphosate in March 2015. We all need to gather somehow and expose IARC, as you guys did in the paper. Next priorities are all food ingredients: aspartame, sucralose, dietary iron, B-carotene, BPA, etc. IARC is killing us!”
Monsanto’s public relations plan assigned 20 corporate staffers to prepare for the IARC carcinogenicity report on glyphosate, with objectives including “neutralize impact,” “establish public perspective on IARC,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “engage industry associations” in “outrage.”
The document identified four tiers of “industry partners” to help advance the three objectives named in the PR plan: protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies” to keep allowing the use of glyphosate.
Uncovering Monsanto’s network of “industry partners”
One set of documents revealed how Monsanto’s PR operatives organized “Academics Review” as a neutral-sounding platform from which they could launch attacks against a target list of foes, including the Sierra Club, author Michael Pollan, the movie Food, Inc. and the organic industry.
The architects of Academics Review – co-founders Bruce Chassy and David Tribe, Monsanto executive Eric Sachs, former Monsanto communications director Jay Byrne, and former VP of the biotech industry trade group Val Giddings – talked openlyin the emails about setting up Academics Review as a front group to promote industry interests and attract industry cash, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden.
Email from Jay Byrne, former director of corporate communications for Monsanto, to Bruce Chassy.
Email from Eric Sachs, Monsanto’sScience, Technology & Outreach Lead, to Bruce Chassy
Even now with their playbook exposed – and their primary funding identified as coming from a trade group funded by Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and DowDuPont – Academics Review still claims on its websiteto accept donations only from “non-corporate sources.” Academics Review also claims that the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts,” in a post sourced by the industry-funded PR website GMO Answers, the industry-funded front group American Council on Science and Health, and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.
Miller and the Academics Review organizers Chassy, Tribe, Byrne, Sachs and Giddings are all also members of AgBioChatter, a private listserv that appeared in Monsanto’s PR plan as a tier 2 industry partner.Emails from the AgBioChatter list suggest it was used as a forum to coordinate industry allies on messaging and lobbying activities to promote GMOs and pesticides. Members included senior agrichemical industry staff, PR consultants and pro-industry academics, many of whom write for industry media platforms such as GMO AnswersandGenetic Literacy Project, or play leadership roles in other Monsanto partner groups.
These groups cast themselves as honest arbiters of science even as they spread false information and level near hysterical attacks against scientists who raised concerns about the cancer risk of glyphosate.
A search for “IARC” on the Genetic Literacy Project website brings up more than 220 articles with industry messaging, maligning the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who “lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate, and arguing that the global cancer agency should be defunded and abolished.
Monsanto’s lobbying and messaging to discredit the IARC cancer panel is based on the argument that other agencies using risk-based assessments have exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk. But as many news outlets have reported, along with the two recent journalarticles based on the Monsanto Papers, evidence is piling up that the regulatory risk assessments on glyphosate, which rely heavily on industry-provided research, have been compromised by undisclosed conflicts of interest, reliance on dubious science, ghostwritten materials and other methods of corporate strong-arming that puts public health at risk, as the Tufts Professor Sheldon Krimsky wrote.
“To protect the scientific enterprise, one of the core pillars of a modern democratic society, against the forces that would turn it into the handmaiden of industry or politics, our society must support firewalls between academic science and the corporate sectors and educate young scientists and journal editors on the moral principles behind their respective professional roles,” Krimsky wrote.
Policy makers must not allow corporate-spun science to guide decisions about cancer prevention. Media must do a better job reporting and probing into conflicts of interest behind the corporate science spin. It’s time to end the corporate war on cancer science.
Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know and author of the book “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”
AgBioChatter: Where Corporations, Academics Plotted Strategy on GMOs, Pesticides
AgBioChatter is a private email listserver used by the agrichemical industry and its allies to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. List members include pro-industry academics, senior agrichemical industry staff and public relations operatives.
This internal Monsanto document identifies “Academics (AgBioChatter)” as a Tier 2 “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, IARC judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.
The AgBioChatter emails linked below – along with other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and now hosted at the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive – provide many examples of how academics and industry partner groups work together in covert ways to push industry-coordinated messaging across various platforms to manufacture doubt about the health and environmental risks of pesticides and GMOs.
U.S. Right to Know obtained some AgBioChatter emails in 2016 and 2017 via a public records request. In July 2017, U.S. Right to Know sued the University of Florida for its failure to release requested public records involving the agrichemical industry and publicly funded professors, including documents from the AgBioChatter forum.
In March 2018, a Florida judge dismissed the case, stating that the AgBioChatter emails were “purely personal activity born out of (Kevin Folta’s) own self interest” and not public university business. For more information, see the court documents.
New York Times article, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO labeling war, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton; and email archive, “A Florida Professor Works with the Biotech Industry” (9/5/2015)
Alternet, “Is something fishy going on between the University of Florida and the agrichemical industry? Consumers have a right to know,” by Daniel Ross, Alternet (2/13/18)
AgBioChatter list content
The AgBioChatter emails obtained via state public records requests (142 pages) show academics and agrichemical industry staff coordinating talking points to oppose GMO labeling, promote and defend GMOs and pesticides, discredit industry critics, and evade Freedom of Information Act requests for information about publicly funded professors.
A major theme of the emails (and in particular the role of list member Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto) was to identify critics of the agrichemical industry and opportunities to attack them. These included Mehmet Oz, Vandana Shiva, Don Huber, Consumers Union and others.
Another key theme in the AgBioChatter emails is the effort to frame scientific studies that raise concerns about risks of GMOs and pesticides as “agenda-driven,” while studies that report positively about agrichemical industry products are “pro science.”
Academic, industry collaboration
According to the emails received to date via public records requests, academics, agrichemical industry employees, consultants and PR operatives participated in the “Chatter” list.
Known participants are listed below along with their ties to other “industry partner” groups named in Monsanto’s PR plan to orchestrate an outcry against the IARC cancer panel. For more information about these groups, see our fact sheets:
The links to the Genetic Literacy Project archives provide a sense of the common, repetitive messaging these front groups and academics use to promote GMOs and pesticides, try to discredit critics, argue for deregulation and oppose transparency efforts.
AgBioChatter list members
Emails obtained via public records requests indicate that the following people were on the AgBioChatter listserver as of the dates in the emails.
For more information about the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between industry groups and academics on food issues, see our investigations page. U.S. Right to Know documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.
Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group
Academics Review, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization launched in 2012, claims to be an independent group but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it is a front group set up with the help of Monsanto and its public relations team to attack agrichemical industry critics while appearing to be independent.
The Academics Review website describes its founders as “two independent professors,” Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia. As of May 2018, the website claims, “Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.”
However, tax records show that the primary funder of Academics Review has been the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade association that is funded and run by the largest agrichemical companies: BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta.
According to CBI tax records, the industry-funded group gave Academics Review a total of $650,000 in 2014 and 2015-2016. Tax records for AcademicsReview.org report expenses of $791,064 from 2013-2016 (see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). The money was spent on organizing conferences and promoting GMOs and pesticides, according to the tax records.
Emails reveal secret origin of academic front group
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state Freedom of Information requests revealed the inner workings of how Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, its PR allies and industry funders. Key facts and emails:
Eric Sachs, a senior public relations executive at Monsanto, said he would help find industry funding for Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote to Chassy on November 30, 2010.
Academics Review was conceived as a front group that could attack critics of the agrichemical industry. According to a March 11, 2010 email chain, the group was established with the help of Monsanto executives along with Jay Byrne, former director of corporate communications at Monsanto who now runs a PR shop called v-Fluence Interactive; and Val Giddings, former VP of the biotech industry trade association BIO.
Byrne compared the concept as similar to – but better than – a front group set up by Rick Berman, a lobbyist known as “Dr. Evil” and the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda” for his work to promote tobacco and oil industry interests under the cover of neutral-sounding groups. Berman’s “’Center for Consumer Freedom’ (ActivistCash.com) has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept,” Byrne wrote to Chassy on March 11, 2010.
Byrne said he was developing an “opportunities list with targets” for Monsanto comprised of “individuals organizations, content items and topic areas” critical of ag-biotech that “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations.”
Chassy indicated he was especially keen to go after the organic industry. “I would love to find a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles,” he wrote on March 11, 2010.In 2014, Academics Review attacked the organic industry with a report it falsely claimed was the work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.
Monsanto plan names Academics Review as “industry partner”
Academics Review is an “industry partner”according to a confidential Monsanto PR document that describes the corporation’s plans to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to defend the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. On March 20, 2015, IARC announced it had classified glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Bruce Chassy’s ties to industry and its front groups
Professor Bruce Chassy, co-founder of Academics Review and president of the board, has been frequently cited in the media as an independent expert on GMOs, while he was also receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto.
Chassy had received $57,000 in undisclosed funds over a two-year period from Monsanto to travel, write and speak about GMOs, according to WBEZ. The story reported that Monsanto also sent at least $5.1 million through the University of Illinois Foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015.
WBEZ, “Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding,” by Monica Eng (3/15/2016)
US Right to Know, “Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign,” by Carey Gillam (1/29/2016)
David Tribe / Academics Review / Biofortified
David Tribe is co-founder of Academics Review, vice president of the Academics Review Board of Directors, and a reviewer on the 2014 Academics Review report attacking the organic industry. Tribe is also a member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified Inc., or Biofortified, a nonprofit group that aids the agrichemical industry with lobbying and public relations.
Industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps: training scientists and journalists to promote GMOs
The Biotech Literacy Project boot camps were a series of conferences funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project, another group that partners with Monsanto on public relations projects. The boot camps trained scientists and journalists how to present GMOs and pesticides in a more positive light, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling and prop up flagging support for agrichemical industry products.
Boot camp organizers made false claims to journalists and scientists about the source of funds for the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps; they claimed funding came from a mix of government, academic and industry sources, but the only traceable funders were the agrichemical corporations.
“I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).” (Journalist Brooke Borel, Popular Science)
“I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money so industry is indirectly a sponsor. We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.” (boot camp organizer Bruce Chassy email to scientists)
The USDA and other government and academic sources named by organizers denied funding the events, according to Paul Thacker’s reporting in The Progressive, and the only traceable source of funds was the BIO trade group offshoot, the Council for Biotechnology Information, which is funded by BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont and Monsanto Company. That group spent over $300,000 on the two boot camps held at UC Davis and University of Florida, according to tax records and Thacker’s reporting.
For more information about the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between industry groups and academics on food issues, see our investigations page. U.S. Right to Know documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.
Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack On Organic Food
When a reputable-sounding nonprofit organization released a report attacking the organic food industry in April 2014, the group went to great lengths to tout its independence.
The 30-page report by Academics Review, described as “a non-profit led by independent academic experts in agriculture and food sciences,” found that consumers were being duped into spending more money for organic food because of deceptive marketing practices by the organic industry.
Trade press headlines blared: “Organics exposed!” (Brownfield News) and “Organic Industry Booming by Deceiving Consumers” (Food Safety Tech News), touting the findings by supposedly independent experts.
The findings were “endorsed by an international panel of independent agricultural science, food science, economic and legal experts from respected international institutions,” according to the group’s press release.
In case the point about independence wasn’t clear, the press release ends on this note: “Academics Review has no conflicts-of-interest associated with this publication, and all associated costs for which were paid for using our general funds without any specific donor’ influence or direction.”
What was not mentioned in the report, the news release or on the website: Executives for Monsanto Co., the world’s leading purveyor of agrichemicals and genetically engineered seeds, along with key Monsanto allies, engaged in fund raising for Academics Review, collaborated on strategy and even discussed plans to hide industry funding, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Monsanto’s motives in attacking the organic industry are obvious: Monsanto’s seeds and chemicals are banned from use in organic farming, and a large part of Monsanto’s messaging is that its products are superior to organics as tools to boost global food production.
Academics Carry Monsanto’s Message
Academics Review was co-founded by “two independent professors … on opposite ends of the planet,” Bruce Chassy, Ph.D., professor emeritus at University of Illinois, and David Tribe, Ph.D., senior lecturer at University of Melbourne. They claim the group “only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources.”
Yet two email exchanges in 2010 reveal plans to find corporate funding for Academics Review while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden.
In a March 11, 2010 email exchange with Chassy, Jay Byrne, former head of communications at Monsanto who now runs a PR and market research firm, offered to act as a “commercial vehicle” to help find corporate funding for Academics Review.
Chassy discussed his interest in attacking the organic industry in the emails. “I would love to have a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles…” he wrote, “I sure don’t have the money.”
“Well, I suggest we work on the money (for all of us) first and quickly! I’ve proposed to Val [Giddings, former vice president of BIO, the biotech industry trade association] that he and I meet while I’m in DC next week so we can (not via e-mail) get a clear picture of options for taking the Academic Review project and other opportunities forward. The “Center for Consumer Freedom” (ActivistCash.com) has cashed in on this to the extreme.”
The Center for Consumer Freedom is directed by Rick Berman, a lobbyist who has been called “Dr. Evil“ and the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda“ for his work to promote the tobacco industry and other corporate interests under the cover of neutral-sounding groups.
“I think we have a much better concept,” Byrne told Chassy.
Byrne shared an “opportunities” list of targets comprised of people, groups and content critical of GMOs and Monsanto: Vandana Shiva, Andrew Kimbrell, Ronnie Cummins, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food,” the movies “Food, Inc” and “The World According to Monsanto,” and “topic cross-over on all the risk areas of ag-biotech (out crossing/ contamination, bees, butterflies, human safety, etc…).”
“All of these individuals, organizations, content items and topic areas mean money for a range of well heeled corporations, Byrne wrote, adding:
All of these individuals, organizations, content items and topic areas mean money for a range of well heeled corporations.
“I believe Val and I can identify and serve as the appropriate (non-academic) commercial vehicles by which we can connect these entities with the project in a manner which helps to ensure the credibility and independence (and thus value) of the primary contributors/owners… I believe our kitchen cabinet here can serve as gatekeepers (in some cases toll takers) for effective, credible responses, inoculation and proactive activities using this project platform…”
“Sounds good to me,” Chassy replied. “I’m sure that you will let me know what you discuss.”
In an email exchange with Chassy dated November 30, 2010, Eric Sachs, a senior public relations operative for Monsanto, discussed finding corporate support for Academics Review while “keeping Monsanto in the background.”
Sachs wrote to Chassy:
“You and I need to talk more about the “academics review” site and concept. I believe that there is a path to a process that would better respond to scientific concerns and allegations. I shared with Val yesterday. From my perspective the problem is one of expert engagement and that could be solved by paying experts to provide responses. You and I have discussed this in the past. Val explained that step one is establishing 501(c)3 not-for-profit status to facilitate fund raising. That makes sense but there is more. I discussed with Jerry Steiner today (Monsanto Executive Team) and can help motivate CLI/BIO/CBI and other organizations to support. The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.
CLI/BIO/CBI refers to three industry trade groups — Crop Life International, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and the Council for Biotechnology Information — that represent agrichemical corporations.
Chassy responded to Sachs, “Yes we should talk about Academics Review. I think we are on the same page.”
When asked directly about funding, Chassy replied via email: “Academics Review does not solicit or accept funds from any source for specific research or any other activities associated with any products, services or industry. Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.”
He said that Academics Review incorporated and reported no income in 2012 and he provided the IRS form 990s for 2013 and 2014 (now also posted on the website). Those documents report $419,830 in revenues but include no information about contributors. Chassy did not respond to requests to provide that information.
Press Covers “Independent” Attack on Organic
Academics Review released its organic marketing study in April 2014 to a robust round of trade press coverage describing the findings of “independent researchers”:
• “The Organic Food Industry Has Been Engaged in ‘Multi-Decade Public Disinformation Campaign’ claims report” (Food Navigator)
• “Report: Organic Industry Achieved 25 Years of Fast Growth Through Fear and Deception” (Food Safety News)
In the New York Post, Naomi Schaffer Riley built a case against “tyranny of the organic mommy mafia” who are duped by disingenuous marketing tactics of the organic industry. Her sources included the Academics Review report and Julie Gunlock, author of a book about the “culture of alarmism.”
In the Des Moines Register, John R. Block, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture who now works for a law firm that lobbies for agribusiness interests, reported on the “blockbuster report” by Academics Review and its findings that the organic industry’s secret to success is “black marketing.”
In March 2016, Monica Eng reported for WBEZ on documents showing that Monsanto paid Professor Bruce Chassy more than $57,000 over a 23-month period to travel, write and speak about GMOs — money that was not disclosed to the public.
According to Eng’s investigation, the money was part of at least $5.1 million in undisclosed money Monsanto sent through the University of Illinois Foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015.
“Chassy did not disclose his financial relationship with Monsanto on state or university forms aimed at detecting potential conflicts of interest,” Eng reported.
“Documents further show that Chassy and the university directed Monsanto to deposit the payments through the University of Illinois Foundation, a body whose records are shielded from public scrutiny. The foundation also has the ability to take in private money and disburse it to an individual as a ‘university payment’ — exempt from disclosure.”
In January 2016, Carey Gillam, research director of U.S. Right to Know, reported on emails showing that hundreds of thousands of dollars had flowed from Monsanto to the University of Illinois “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.”
“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,” Gillam wrote.
The last post on the Academics Review site, dated Sept. 2, 2015, is a blog by Chassy explaining that some of his emails would be made public due to the FOIA requests of U.S. Right to Know, which he characterized as an assault on his 40 years of public science, research and teaching.
Financial support from the private sector for public sector research and outreach is “appropriate, commonplace and needed to further the public interest,” Chassy wrote. “Such support should be, and in all my experiences has been, transparent and done under the strict ethical guidelines of the public institutions that are benefiting from private sector or individual financial contributions.”
Three days later, some of Chassy’s emails were first made public in a front-page New York Times article by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eric Lipton. Lipton reported that Monsanto gave Chassy a grant for an undisclosed sum in 2011 for “biotechnology outreach and education activities.”
Chassy told Lipton that the money he received from Monsanto “helped to elevate his voice through travel, a website he created and other means.”
Still Getting Press as an Independent Source
Despite the revelations in the emails and the disclosure of Chassy’s financial ties to Monsanto, the Academics Review website and its report attacking the organic industry are still posted online with all the descriptions claiming independence.
And Chassy still enjoys press coverage as an “independent” expert on GMOs. In May 2016, two separate Associated Pressstories quoted Chassy on that topic. Neither story mentioned Chassy’s now-public financial ties to Monsanto.
Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. She is author of the award-winning book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry” (New Society 2007).
A Short Report on Journalists Mentioned in our FOIA Requests
So far, three reporters come up in interesting ways: Amy Harmon, Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. These reporters appear in the context of Jon Entine, who is perhaps the leading PR operative working to promote the views of the agrichemical industry, and its pesticides and GMOs.
In another email, on October 18, 2014, Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University, emailsAdrianne Massey of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), along with several others, to forward an alert from Lorraine Thelian, vice chairman of the PR firm Ketchum that “the hacker community Anonymous is planning a series of attacks on biotechnology and food industry websites…Trade association and corporate websites of CBI [Council for Biotechnology Information] members are being targeted in this planned attack.” Dr. Prakash writes, “Adrianne I have copied Kevin Folta, Karl von Mogel, David Tribe and Keith Kloor here as well.”
Haspel also moderated a panelorganized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which “provides long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina through support of biotechnology research, business, education and strategic policy statewide.”
Is it appropriate for a Washington Post columnist to write glowing columns about GMOs while appearing at such pro-industry conferences? Is it a conflict of interest for Haspel to accept money from agrichemical company interests that she covers as part of her beat as a Post food columnist? How much money has Haspel received from agrichemical industry interests?
Some journalists have criticized journalists for “buckraking” on speakers’ circuits. For example, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said, “I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.”
U.S. Right to Know is a consumer advocacy group. We try to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know. We believe it is useful for the public to see how the food and agrichemical companies do their public relations work. That is one way we can help consumers to assess the claims and information they receive from the companies involved in our food production, their PR firms and operatives, and the journalists who work with them.