Pursuing Truth and Transparency in America's Food System

The agrichemical industry’s key front groups and shills aren’t trustworthy

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 6, “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” by Gary Ruskin, co-director of the public watchdog group US Right to Know.

The creation and use of front groups and shills is a standard public relations tactic of the tobacco, fossil fuels, chemicals and other industries to advance their public relations, legislative, regulatory or other goals. They provide a number of PR advantages to companies and industries:

  • They multiply the number of speakers on behalf of a corporate point of view, validating it from an “independent” or academic perspective, making it seem that the company or industry is not alone or isolated.
  • They may have more credibility than the company or industry, because they may not be seen as directly profiting from corporate actions, and because their conflicts of interest may be hidden.
  • The front groups and shills may say things that, for many reasons, the company or industry wishes it could say, but cannot say directly.

The use of front groups in public relations was invented and pioneered by the legendary public relations and marketing genius Edward Bernays, in his work on behalf of the tobacco industry and many others.[1]

Following are a few of the agrichemical industry’s key front groups and shills.

Henry Miller

Henry I. Miller is perhaps the most prolific and best-known apologist for genetically engineered food and crops. He is the “the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.”[2] He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. He has written numerous articles and op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes and other news outlets in support of genetically engineered food, and against the labeling of it.[3] He was even featured in TV advertisements against Proposition 37, a ballot initiative for labeling of genetically engineered food in the State of California.[4]

Miller’s bio on the Forbes website proclaims: “I debunk junk science and flawed public policy.”[5] However, during the course of his life, Miller himself has often presented an agile defense of junk science and flawed public policy.

Defending the tobacco industry

  • In a 1994 APCO Associates PR strategy memo to help Phillip Morris organize a global campaign to fight tobacco regulations, Henry Miller was referred to as “a key supporter” of these pro-tobacco industry efforts.[6]
  • In 2012, Miller wrote that “nicotine … is not particularly bad for you in the amounts delivered by cigarettes or smokeless products.”[7]

Denying climate change

  • Miller is a member of the “scientific advisory board” of the George C. Marshall Institute,[8] which is famous for its oil and gas industry funded denials of climate change.[9]

Defending the pesticide industry

  • Miller defended the use of widely-criticized neonicotinoid pesticides and claimed that “the reality is that honeybee populations are not declining.”[10]
  • Miller has repeatedly argued for the re-introduction of DDT, a toxic pesticide banned in the United States since 1972, which has been linked to pre-term birth and fertility impairment in women.[11]


Defending exposure to radiation from nuclear power plants

  • In 2011, after the Japanese tsunami and radiation leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, Miller argued in Forbes that “those … who were exposed to low levels of radiation could have actually benefitted from it.”[12] At that time, he even penned an article titled “Can radiation be good for you?”[13]

Defending the plastics industry

  • In an article in Forbes, Miller defended the use of the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA), which is banned in Europe and Canada for use in baby bottles.[14]

Henry Miller’s other activities

  • Miller was a trustee of the infamous industry front group American Council for Science and Health, according to the ACSH website.[15]

American Council on Science and Health

The American Council on Science and Health is a frequent defender of genetically engineered foods and crops.[16] It is a front group for the tobacco, agrichemical, fossil fuel, pharmaceutical and other industries.

Personnel

  • ACSH’s “Medical/Executive Director” is Dr. Gilbert Ross.[17] In 1993, according to United Press International, Dr. Ross was “convicted of racketeering, mail fraud and conspiracy,” and was “sentenced to 47 months in jail, $40,000 in forfeiture and restitution of $612,855” in a scheme to defraud the Medicaid system.[18]
  • ACSH’s Dr. Ross was found to be a “highly untrustworthy individual” by a judge who sustained the exclusion of Dr. Ross from Medicaid for ten years.[19]

Funding

ACSH has often billed itself as an “independent” group, and has been referred to as “independent” in the press. However, according to internal ACSH financial documents obtained by Mother Jones:

  • “ACSH planned to receive a total of $338,200 from tobacco companies between July 2012 and June 2013. Reynolds American and Phillip Morris International were each listed as expected to give $100,000 in 2013, which would make them the two largest individual donations listed in the ACSH documents.”[20]
  • “ACSH donors in the second half of 2012 included Chevron ($18,500), Coca-Cola ($50,000), the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation ($15,000), Dr. Pepper/Snapple ($5,000), Bayer Cropscience ($30,000), Procter and Gamble ($6,000), agribusiness giant Syngenta ($22,500), 3M ($30,000), McDonald’s ($30,000), and tobacco conglomerate Altria ($25,000). Among the corporations and foundations that ACSH has pursued for financial support since July 2012 are Pepsi, Monsanto, British American Tobacco, DowAgro, ExxonMobil Foundation, Philip Morris International, Reynolds American, the Koch family-controlled Claude R. Lambe Foundation, the Dow-linked Gerstacker Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and the Searle Freedom Trust.”[21]
  • ACSH has received $155,000 in contributions from Koch foundations from 2005-2011, according to Greenpeace.[22]

Indefensible and incorrect statements on science

ACSH has:

  • Claimed that “There is no evidence that exposure to secondhand smoke involves heart attacks or cardiac arrest.”[23]
  • Argued that “there is no scientific consensus concerning global warming. The climate change predictions are based on computer models that have not been validated and are far from perfect.”[24]
  • Argued that fracking “doesn’t pollute water or air.”[25]
  • Claimed that “The scientific evidence is clear. There has never been a case of ill health linked to the regulated, approved use of pesticides in this country.”[26]
  • Declared that “There is no evidence that BPA [bisphenol A] in consumer products of any type, including cash register receipts, are harmful to health.”[27]
  • Argued that the exposure to mercury, a potent neurotoxin, “in conventional seafood causes no harm in humans.”[28]

Bruce M. Chassy

On the agrichemical industry PR website GMOAnswers, Bruce Chassy is identified as an “independent expert.”[29] In reality, he is nothing of the sort. He has been supported by the agrichemical and processed food industries, and defends them in the media, and on his website Academics Review, and elsewhere.[30]

Chassy has hid his ties to industry before. For example, a 2003 letter in Nature Biotechnology points out the journal’s failure to require its authors to disclose “close ties to companies that directly profit from the promotion of agricultural biotechnology.” The letter continues that “Bruce Chassy has received research grants from major food companies and has conducted seminars for Monsanto, Mills Labs (Minneapolis, MN, USA), Unilever (Gaithersburg, MD, USA), Genencor (S. San Francisco, CA, USA), Amgen (Thousand Oaks, CA, USA), Connaught Labs (now part of Aventis, Strasbourg, France) and Transgene (Strasbourg, France).”[31]

At other times, Chassy has been more forthright about where his support comes from. For example, Chassy is co-author of a 2010 study in Food and Chemical Toxicology that was “supported” by “BASF; Bayer CropScience; Dow AgroSciences; Monsanto Company; Pioneer, A Dupont Company; Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc.”[32]

Chassy also is one of the “Scientific Advisors” to the notorious American Council on Science and Health.[33]

Pamela C. Ronald

Pamela Ronald is prominent defender of genetically engineered foods and crops.[34] She is professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis.[35]

In 2013, her reputation as a scientist suffered two serious blows, following retraction of two of her scientific papers.[36]

Footnotes

[1] See, for example, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us, We’re Experts! (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001), pp. 44-5. Timothy L. O’Brien, “Spinning Frenzy: P.R.’s Bad Press.” New York Times, February 13, 2005.

[2] Hoover Institution, Henry Miller bio.

[3] See, for example, Jayson Lusk and Henry I. Miller, “We Need G.M.O. Wheat.” New York Times, February 2, 2014. Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, “General Mills Has a Soggy Idea for Cheerios.” Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “India’s GM Food Hypocrisy.” Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2012. Henry I. Miller, “Organic Farming Is Not Sustainable.” Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “More Crop for the Drop.” Project Syndicate, August 7, 2014. Henry Miller, “California’s Anti-GMO Hysteria.” National Review, March 31, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “Genetic Engineering and the Fight Against Ebola.” Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “Salmon Label Bill Should Be Thrown Back.” Orange County Register, April 4, 2011. Henry I. Miller, “GE Labels Mean Higher Costs.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 7, 2012. Gregory Conko and Henry Miller, “Labeling Of Genetically Engineered Foods Is a Losing Proposition.” Forbes, September 12, 2012. Gregory Conko and Henry I. Miller, “A Losing Proposition on Food Labeling.” Orange County Register, October 11, 2012. Henry I. Miller and Bruce Chassy, “Scientists Smell A Rat In Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study.” Forbes, September 25, 2012. Jay Byrne and Henry I. Miller, “The Roots of the Anti-Genetic Engineering Movement? Follow the Money!Forbes, October 22, 2012.

[4] See, for example, Marc Lifsher, “TV Ad Against Food Labeling Initiative Proposition 37 Is Pulled.” Los Angeles Times, October 4, 2012. Eric Van Susteren, “Stanford Demands Anti-Prop. 37 Ad Be Changed.” Palo Alto Weekly, October 17, 2012.

[5] Forbes, Henry Miller bio and articles page.

[6] Memorandum from Tom Hockaday and Neal Cohen of Apco Associates Inc. to Matt Winokur, “Thoughts on TASSC Europe.” March 25, 1994. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, University of California, San Francisco. Bates No. 2024233595-2024233602.

[7] Henry I. Miller and Jeff Stier, “The Cigarette Smokescreen.” Defining Ideas, March 21, 2012.

[8] Competitive Enterprise Institute, Henry Miller bio.

[9] See, for example, the profile of the George C. Marshall Institute in DeSmogBlog.

[10] Henry I. Miller, “Why the Buzz About a Bee-pocalypse Is a Honey Trap.” Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2014.

[11] Henry I. Miller, “Re-Booting DDT.” Project Syndicate, May 5, 2010. Henry I. Miller, “Rachel Carson’s Deadly Fantasies.” Forbes, September 5, 2012.

[12] Henry I. Miller, “Can Tiny Amounts Of Poison Actually Be Good For You?” Forbes, December 21, 2011.

[13] Henry I. Miller, “Can Radiation Be Good For You?Project Syndicate, April 8, 2011.

[14] Henry I. Miller, “BPA Is A-OK, Says FDA.” Forbes, March 12, 2014.

[15]The Buzz About a Bee-pocalyse Is a Honey Trap.” American Council on Science and Health, July 23, 2014.

[16] See, for example, the American Council on Science and Health web page on GMOs.

[17]Meet the ACSH Team,” American Council on Science and Health website.

[18] “Seven Sentenced for Medicaid Fraud.” United Press International, December 6, 1993. See also correspondence from Tyrone T. Butler, Director, Bureau of Adjudication, State of New York Department of Health to Claudia Morales Bloch, Gilbert Ross and Vivian Shevitz, “RE: In the Matter of Gilbert Ross, M.D.” March 1, 1995. Bill Hogan, “Paging Dr. Ross.” Mother Jones, November 2005. Martin Donohoe MD FACP, “Corporate Front Groups and the Abuse of Science: The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).” Spinwatch, June 25, 2010.

[19] Department of Health and Human Services, Departmental Appeals Board, Civil Remedies Division, In the Cases of Gilbert Ross, M.D. and Deborah Williams M.D., Petitioners, v. The Inspector General. June 16, 1997. Docket Nos. C-94-368 and C-94-369. Decision No. CR478.

[20] Andy Kroll and Jeremy Schulman, “Leaked Documents Reveal the Secret Finances of a Pro-Industry Science Group.” Mother Jones, October 28, 2013. “American Council on Science and Health Financial Report, FY 2013 Financial Update.” Mother Jones, October 28, 2013.

[21] Andy Kroll and Jeremy Schulman, “Leaked Documents Reveal the Secret Finances of a Pro-Industry Science Group.” Mother Jones, October 28, 2013. “American Council on Science and Health Financial Report, FY 2013 Financial Update.” Mother Jones, October 28, 2013.

[22]Koch Industries Climate Denial Front Group: American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).” Greenpeace. See also Rebekah Wilce, “Kochs and Corps Have Bankrolled American Council on Science and Health.” PR Watch, July 23, 2014.

[23] Richard Craver, “The Effects of the Smoking Ban.” Winston-Salem Journal, December 12, 2012.

[24] Elizabeth Whelan, “’Global Warming’ Not Health Threat.” PRI (Population Research Institute) Review, January 1, 1998.

[25] Elizabeth Whelan, “Fracking Doesn’t Pose Health Risks.” The Daily Caller, April 29, 2013.

[26]TASSC: The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition,” p. 9. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, University of California, San Francisco. November 21, 2001. Bates No. 2048294227-2048294237.

[27]The Top 10 Unfounded Health Scares of 2012.” American Council on Science and Health, February 22, 2013.

[28]The Biggest Unfounded Health Scares of 2010.” American Council on Science and Health, December 30, 2010.

[29]Independent Expert: Bruce M. Chassy,” GMOanswers.

[30] See, for example, Academics Review. Henry I. Miller and Bruce Chassy, “Scientists Smell A Rat In Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study.” Forbes, September 25, 2012. “Genetically Modified Crops Are Overregulated, Food Science Expert Says.” Science Daily, February 17, 2013. Andrew Pollack, “Foes of Modified Corn Find Support in a Study.” New York Times, September 19, 2012. “The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Food in the United States.” Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, Issue Paper #54, April, 2014. Elaine Watson, “Dr Chassy: ‘None of the Animals and Plants We Eat Today Exist ‘In Nature’, They Have All Been Extensively Genetically Modified.’” Food Navigator, August 6, 2013. John R. Allen Jr., “Resistance To GMOs Works Against the Hungry and Poor.” National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2019. Steve Tarter, “Hybrid Crops That Used to Offer Resistance to Rootworm No Match for Mother Nature.” Peoria Journal-Star, June 21, 2014. David Nicklaus, “GMO Labeling Drive Is Based on Fear, Not Science.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 19, 2012.

[31] Virginia A. Sharpe and Doug Gurian-Sherman, “Competing Interests.” Nature Biotechnology 21, 1131 (2003) doi:10.1038/nbt1003-1131a.

[32] Wayne Parrott, Bruce ChassyJim Ligon, Linda MeyerJay PetrickJunguo Zhou, Rod HermanBryan DelaneyMarci Levine, “Application of Food and Feed Safety Assessment Principles to Evaluate Transgenic Approaches to Gene Modulation in Crops.” Food and Chemical Toxicology, Vol. 48, Issue 7, July 2010, pp. 1773–1790. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2010.04.017.

[33] American Council on Science and Health, “Scientific Advisors.”

[34] See, for example, Pamela Ronald, “How Scare Tactics on GMO Foods Hurt Everybody.” MIT Technology Review, June 12, 2014. Pamela Ronald, “Genetically Engineered Crops—What, How and Why.” Scientific American, August 11, 2011. Pamela C. Ronald and James E. McWilliams, “Genetically Engineered Distortions.” New York Times, May 14, 2010.

Pamela Ronald, “The Truth About GMOs.” Boston Review, September 6, 2013. Pamela Ronald, “Would Rachel Carson Embrace ‘Frankenfoods’? – This Scientist Believes ‘Yes.‘” Forbes, August 12, 2012. Amanda Little, “A Journalist and a Scientist Break Ground in the G.M.O. Debate.” New Yorker, April 25, 2014. Tom Standage, “Biotechnology.” Economist, November 2, 2010.

[35] Pamela Ronald bio, Ronald Laboratory.

[36] Sang-Wook Han, Malinee Sriariyanun, Sang-Won Lee, Manoj Sharma, Ofir Bahar, Zachary Bower, Pamela C. Ronald, “Retraction: Small Protein-Mediated Quorum Sensing in a Gram-Negative Bacterium.” PLOS One, September 9, 2013. Retraction of Lee et al., Science 326 (5954) 850-853. Science, October 11, 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6155, p. 191, DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6155.191-a. See also Jonathan Latham, “Can the Scientific Reputation of Pamela Ronald, Public Face of GMOs, Be Salvaged?Independent Science News, November 12, 2013. Pamela Ronald, “Lab Life: The Anatomy of a Retraction.” Scientific American, October 10, 2013.