How academics promoted GMO propaganda & perverted science

Politics and the perversion of science:
In 2003, a congressional committee report, documented political interference and manipulation of scientific research at federal agencies charged with developing science-based public health policies.

The Administration’s political interference with science has led to misleading statements by the President, inaccurate responses to Congress, altered web sites, suppressed agency reports, erroneous international communications, and the gagging of scientists.”

When President Obama took office in 2008, he pledged to restore a scientific integrity corroded during the Bush Administration. The evidence, however, demonstrates that under the Obama administration the scientific integrity and basis for US food policies have suffered further corrosion. The agrochemical industry, its hired academics, and government officials who set public policies regard scientists who challenge the mantra that “GMOs are safe” as posing an intolerable threat to industry’s financial interests and to the policies that promote these interests.

Science or propaganda?
When asked about the points of criticism of his company’s aggressive marketing of GMOs, Monsanto’s chairman of the board, Hugh Grant responded: “We are a science-based company. I feel very strongly that you need to be grounded in the science or you lose the drift.” That “grounded in the science” claim is a myth propagated by proponents of GMOs and the media. By invoking “science” Monsanto’s CEO plays to preconception of liberals who tend to embrace anything purporting to be “science” lest they be discredited as “anti-science” quacks – as are those who deny evolution, global warming and climate change.

The problem with that claim is that most genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have not been subjected to scientifically valid safety tests. GMOs entered into the US food supply in 1996 without meeting proper safety test requirements mandated by the 1962 Kefauver-Harris Amendments to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. These safety requirements were enacted in the wake of the thalidomide wake-up call. GMOs infiltrated supermarkets without fanfare and without public knowledge or discussion. The public policy that facilitated their infiltration was the false claim that GMOs are “substantially equivalent” to conventionally grown crops which have a safety record spanning thousands of years.

Internal FDA documents confirm that GMOs entered the U.S. food supply through the perversion of science and the corruption of government, by politically appointed bureaucrats who colluded with industry. The public was systematically deceived about the safety of GMOs, and the public continues to remain largely ignorant about the subversion of science because the mainstream media has largely failed to adequately report the nature and magnitude of fraud committed by FDA officials as documented in the internal FDA memos.

the subversion of science has been much deeper than most people could imagine. There has been a consistent degradation of science and twisting of the truth on the part of numerous eminent scientists and scientific institutions on behalf of genetically engineered foods. The aggregate fraud to promote genetically engineered foods is by far the biggest fraud in the history of science. The corruption of government has also been very deep and multifaceted.”

“A policy was adopted to promote the biotech industry without any new regulations. It was reported to be science-based, but scholars who studied it concluded it was not science based. It was framed and motivated by economic and political considerations. The FDA broke the [sic] law and lied about the facts in order to get GMOs on the market.” (Steven Druker interview, National Geographic, 2015)

Until the documentary “Food Inc.” was aired in 2008, few Americans, including scientists and doctors knew anything about GMOs. Europeans and certain Asians by contrast, knew about some of the shortcomings of GMO industrial technology, and were concerned about the long-term consequences. European countries, India, and other nations either banned GM food under the precautionary principle or placed restrictions on their production.

In our previous post, Weapons of mass deception, we focused on the myths –i.e., lies propagated by industry and its partners; among them, “charitable foundations,” and the media. In this post we will focus on their academic partners –“upbeat scientists”—the purveyors of good news favorable to industry who legitimize industry-influenced public health policies. Downbeat scientists raise inconvenient truths about risks and uncertainties that emerged in their independent research. Downbeat scientists include toxicologists and entomologists whose research findings contradict the upbeat claims passed off as “science” question the safety of GMOs. Their negative views are not tolerated; indeed their views – and the scientists themselves – are regarded as enemies who pose a threat to the agrochemical industry.

“Recent disclosed documents have [ ] exposed numerous scientific experts enlisted in Monsanto’s messaging. But what is most pernicious is that a whole new rhetorical talking point has come to the forefront, which threatens anyone – particularly scientists – who speak out against their “tent pole” technology: If you are anti-GMOs you are anti-science.” (Counter Punch, October 2015)

Following the Bayh-Dole Act of 1982, which encouraged partnerships between industry and academia, corporate grants (by 2010) provided nearly 25% of the funding for agricultural research at land-grant universities. These grants steer the university’s research toward industry’s interests. Corporate donors expect and get “scientific” findings that meet their business interests and discourage independent research that is in any way critical of their agenda. The dependence of universities on money from industry has largely corrupted the independence of scientists; diverted research resources from the public good; and distorted science that informs regulators who formulate public policies.

A major problem is that the field is overrun by scientists who pretend they are neutral and independent, but are concealing the fact that they are paid by industry directly or indirectly.

 “Researchers who take food industry funding do not believe that it affects their study design or interpretation and are outraged at the suggestion. Research, however, shows strong correlations between funding and research outcome.” (“Before You Read Another Health Study, Check Who’s Funding the Research,” The UK Guardian, Dec. 2016)

A report by Food & Water Watch (2012) found that;

“Donors can and do influence the outcomes of research to meet their business needs. More than 15 percent of university scientists acknowledge having “changed the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source.”

Individual examples of pro-industry research abound… [A] study found that around half of authors of peer-reviewed journal articles about the safety of genetically engineered (GE) foods had an identifiable affiliation with industry. All of these produced favorable results to industry sponsors, while very few acknowledged having received industry funding.” (“Public Research, Private Gain,” April, 2012

Academics in the service of GMO industry promulgate propaganda not science
Scientists who protest that they do not receive money from Monsanto or other biotech companies, while they spout GMO propaganda, are disingenuous, at best. Corporate donors’ money is laundered through universities; so scientists don’t receive the cash directly from Monsanto, or Dow, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta, Pfizer, Phillip Morris, etc. They receive their grants in paychecks from the university that employs them — and the university takes a percentage for “overhead expenses.”

$$Land Grant Universities

Food and Water Watch.org documents 

A major problem is that the field is overrun by scientists under the influence of industry which funds them directly or indirectly.

 “Researchers who take food industry funding do not believe that it affects their study design or interpretation and are outraged at the suggestion. Research, however, shows strong correlations between funding and research outcome.” (“Before You Read Another Health Study, Check Who’s Funding the Research,” The UK Guardian, Dec. 2016)

Academics who secretly colluded in Monsanto’s massive propaganda campaign
In 2010, Monsanto mounted a $100 million public relations and lobbying campaign to offset the gathering storm of protests and critical scientific reports. The campaign was aimed at convincing Americans that GMOs are safe and Monsanto is consumer friendly company: “eager to share facts and information about how your food is grown and why it is grown the way it is” Monsanto hired the PR companies, Ketchum and Fleishman Hillard both of which had a history of engaging in deceptive tactics, including espionage on behalf of RJ Reynolds, the tobacco giant. (“Seedy Business,” U.S. Right to Know, 2015) A roster of industry-funded academics were recruited; but their industry ties were carefully concealed.

In 2015, US Right to Know (USRTK) set in motion Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests directed at first, at 14 (now 43) prominent public university scientists it suspected of being paid collaborators of the biotech industry and/or its PR intermediaries. The USRTK investigation laid bare how academic scientists at public universities have been recruited with cash to lobby on industry’s behalf.

All work in public institutions, funded by the taxpayers.  We believe the public deserves to know more about the flow of money and level of coordination between public university scientists and other academics, and the agrichemical and food companies whose interests they promoteThis is about the extent to which corporations such as Monsanto and their front groups are using our public universities and the scientists and academics who work there as tools to promote their agendas and their profits.”

The FOIA requests triggered an indignant outcry from GMO industry “indentured scientists” who claimed FOIA requests were a form of “harassment” of scientists. A commentary “The Fight Over Transparency” by Paul Thacker and Charles Seife, posted on a scientific blog PLos Biologue, defended USRTK’s scrutiny of scientists’ financial conflicts of interest within the context of an excellent overview of academics in the service of the pharmaceutical industry, in which they briefly mentioned Professor Kevin Folta’s conflicts of interest. Prof. Folta objected and claimed that transparency had become “weaponized against science” which he likened to “a smear campaign not unlike Climategate.”  Among his spurious arguments was Prof. Folta’s assertion: “I never received money from [Monsanto] personally.” This assertion prompted PLoS to remove the commentary from the blog. As will become clear from the New York Times report based on Prof. Folta’s email correspondence, he most certainly received money from Monsanto and that he enthusiastically provided the service the company sought and paid for.

The emails revealed how Monsanto and its industry partners use academics to deliver their propaganda as “science-backed.” The GMO industry – much like the pharmaceutical industry – uses academic scientists “as sock-puppets” to shape the media narrative on GMOs and to support public policies that promote its interests . (Read more “Our Investigation of Big Food and its Front Groups,” USRTK, 2015)

Eric Lipton, NYT

Eric Lipton, The New York Times

The first to report about the content of the emails was an article by two-time Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Eric Lipton  in The New York Times:Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War” (Sept. 2015). After examining more than 4,500 emails between Monsanto and academics, he noted that “the debate over bioengineered foods has escalated into a billion-dollar food industry war.”

 Monsanto has spent an undisclosed sum of money to engage academics with “unrestricted grants” and paid for their trips to bring their authority in defense of the safety of GMO crops. And most importantly, academics were used to lobby Congress and federal regulatory agencies – the FDA, EPA and USDA, providing the authority of their “scientific expertise” in support of Monsanto’s effort to block mandatory GMO labeling.

The emails identify numerous respected scientists who had penned their names to “dozens of articles” that included scripted answers provided by industry advisers. Some of the articles had even been drafted by PR consultants and signed by scientists who concealed their collaboration and financial ties to Monsanto and maintained a public façade of unbiased science-based evaluations.  (NY Times posted the emails here)

“Monsanto [ ] and its industry partners retooled their lobbying and public relations strategy to spotlight a rarefied group of advocates: academics, brought in for the gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.

The emails provide a rare view into the strategy and tactics of a lobbying campaign that has transformed ivory tower elites into powerful players…[who] shifted from researchers to actors in lobbying and corporate public relations campaigns.”

Lipton reported that the emails identify a coterie of respected scientists who maintained a public façade of unbiased science-based evaluations, but were recruited by Monsanto with “unrestricted grants” and paid for trips to lend their authority in defense of the safety of herbicides and herbicide infused GE crops. And most importantly, academics have been used to lobby Congress and federal agencies – the FDA, EPA and USDA, providing the authority of their “scientific expertise” in support of Monsanto’s effort to block mandatory GMO labeling.

These “indentured academics” penned their names to “dozens of articles” that included scripted answers provided by industry PR advisers. Some of the articles, he noted, had been drafted by PR consultants and signed by so- called independent scientists. He quotes Bill Mashek, a vice president at Ketchum, a public relations firm hired by the biotechnology industry said:

“Professors/researchers/scientists have a big white hat in this debate and support in their states, from politicians to producers…The efforts have helped produce important payoffs, including the approval by federal regulators of new genetically modified seeds after academic experts intervened with the United States Department of Agriculture on the industry’s behalf, the emails show.”

The American Council on Science and Health and a PR outfit called CMA— both industry-funded groups were engaged to “manage the process of producing the policy briefs,” “coordinate website posting and promotion,” and “merchandize” the briefs to help turn them into “op-eds, blog postings, speaking engagements, events, webinars, etc.” Monsanto officials considered “this third-party management an important element because Monsanto wants the authors to communicate freely without involvement by Monsanto.”  The strategy was deemed “a great 3rd-party approach to developing the advocacy.”  (Mother Jones (2015)

Academics who pretend to be neutral independent scientists are concealing industry ties
Lipton focuses on two of “the most aggressive and prolific biotech proponents” who were recruited to engage in “biotechnology outreach” to defend GMOs and counter critics. Kevin Folta, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, who was recruited by Monsanto in 2013; and Bruce Chassy a professor at the University of Illinois until his retirement in 2012, who was recruited by Monsanto in 2011.  They were among an army of academics who were recruited to initiate academic publications and other articles and to firefight legislative, media and scientific threats to the GMO and pesticide industries under the euphemism “biotechnology outreach.”

NYT Expose_Kevin Folta “Dr. Folta said that he had joined the campaign to publicly defend genetically modified technologies because he believes they are safe, and that it is his job to share his expertise… the Council for Biotechnology Information — controlled by BASF, Bayer, Dow Chemical, DuPont and Monsanto — asked Dr. Folta and other prominent academics if they would participate in a new website, GMO Answers, which was established to combat perceived misinformation about their products…

On several occasions, [Ketchum, the PR firm] gave Dr. Folta draft answers, which he then used nearly verbatim, a step that he now says was a mistake…Dr. Folta, the emails show, soon became part of an inner circle of industry consultants, lobbyists and executives who devised strategy on how to block state efforts to mandate G.M.O. labeling and, most recently, on how to get Congress to pass legislation that would pre-empt any state from taking such a step.”

In an email dated Oct. 2014, addressed to a Monsanto official, Dr. Folta wrote: I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.”  

“He routinely reported to industry executives who were funding his efforts about his travels — and his face-to-face encounters with opponents of genetically modified crops “Your email made my day!” wrote Cathleen Enright, an executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, after Dr. Folta gave her a written update on the October 2014 legislative hearing in Pennsylvania. “Please send all receipts to us whenever you get around to it. No rush.”

This is a new way to build trust, dialogue and support for biotech in agriculture that will help explain in an independent voice what GMOs are,” an executive at Ketchum wrote to Dr. Folta. But Ketchum did more than provide questions. On several occasions, it also gave Dr. Folta draft answers, which he then used nearly verbatim, a step that he now says was a mistake.”

In August 2014, Monsanto approved Dr. Folta’s grant for $25,000 to travel and give talks about GMO products, he wrote: “I am grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment,” 

Lipton reported that: “until his emails were released last month, [Dr. Folta] had not publicly acknowledged the extent of his ties to Monsanto.” 

Indeed, in press interviews and social media, Dr. Folta repeatedly stated that he had no personal financial relationship with Monsanto.  At a public hearing in Hawaii – the trip paid by Monsanto – he testified:

“I should state upfront that I have not been compensated for any testimony,” before adding, “The technology is safe and is used because it helps farmers compete.” Just months before the Times exposed the content of his email correspondence with Monsanto officials, Dr. Folta indignantly declared to reporter James Hamlin:

“I didn’t work for 30 years in this business as a public scientist, at half the salary of what I could earn working for industry, so that I could sell out for some company…She [Vani Hari] has called me a professor who works for Monsanto, which is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard. I work for the state of Florida.”(The Atlantic, Feb. 2015

His own emails clearly and indisputably refute Dr. Folta’s claims of independence from industry. He fulfilled his “promise” to Monsanto of “a solid return on investment” by his aggressive use of his twitter account, blog, podcast and OpEds to shamelessly attack and ridicule GMO critics and dissenting scientists.

In 2015, he jumped on the Monsanto disinformation bandwagon in a concerted effort to denounce, trivialize, and trash, the scientific report issued by a highly respected international panel of cancer research experts, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an intergovernmental independent agency within the World Health Organization. The panel conducted a rigorous scientific review of the scientific body of evidence and concluded that the evidence was sufficient to classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” (Read AHRP post: Scientific review of pesticide cancer risk ignites war against scientists)

Glyphosate is the primary ingredient of Monsanto’s flagship herbicide Roundup and the linchpin of GE seeds; the IARC conclusion posed a significant threat to Monsanto’s $15.9 billion GMO global revenues annually. Folta was accused of gross misrepresentation of the IARC determination, included statements such as “glyphosate (which you can drink a glass of and nothing will happen other than getting acutely sick for a few hours)” led Professor Chris Portier, a co-author of the IARC report concluded that:

Folta fails to get the most basic of facts right – and his ‘mistakes’ appear always to be in the direction of letting industry’s poisons off the hook. No wonder Monsanto was happy to pay $25,000 to support his “science communication”. (GM Watch, 2015)

His actions on behalf of the GMOs and his persistent false claims of having no financial ties to Monsanto, undermine his standing as an honest and credible scientist.

Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy

Prof. Chassy: in his writings and public speeches, on behalf of the GMO industry – such as a recent screed he penned against the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which he called “a rogue agency” and accused it of “quackery,” published in The Hill (2016) – Professor Chassy continues to identify himself with the full weight of decades of experience as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health for 21 years and as “department head and assistant dean, now professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Read AHRP post: Scientific review of pesticide cancer risk ignites war against scientists)

Subsequent reviews of the email correspondence by US Right to Know (2016); by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones (2015); and by Dr. Jonathan Latham, provide much additional information about Monsanto’s aggressive academic “foot soldiers.” Prof. Chassy established a website — Academics Review — that described itself as :

a non-profit led by independent academic experts in agriculture and food sciences.” His email response to a question about funding: “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.

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. (Mother Jones, 2015)

Right to Know describes the content of numerous email exchanges between professor Chassy and Monsanto officials who discuss: 

plans to find corporate funding for Academics Review while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden… Eric Sachs, a senior public relations operative for Monsanto, discussed finding corporate support for Academics Review while ‘keeping Monsanto in the background.’ … Chassy discussed his interest in attacking the organic industry in the email exchange with Jay Byrne, former head of communications at Monsanto. ‘I would love to have a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles…’ Chassy wrote. “

The emails reveal that the professor’s statement claiming he did not accept corporate funding was false. Mother Jones (2015)  revealed that Prof. Chassy led a lobbying effort “to persuade the Environmental Protection Agency to abandon its proposal to tighten the regulation of pesticides used on insect-resistant seeds. Chassy describes working with Nina” for a month on revisions for an Op-Ed that ran in The New York Times (Aug. 2011). It was crafted to persuade the public and government that GMOs were proven safe and “above all the government needs to stop regulating genetic modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm.”

The Op Ed was penned by Nina Federoff, an emeritus professor of biology at Penn State; a professor of biosciences at the King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia; and former chief science and technology adviser to US Secretaries of State — Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. She penned another article, its tone far less restrained,  in Scientific AmericanCan We Trust Monsanto with Our Food?”(2013)

In his writings and public speeches, on behalf of the GMO industry, Professor Chassy continues to “identify [ ] 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. He tells audiences that before he retired in 2012, he worked “full time” doing research and teaching.” (Right to Know, 2016)

In his review of the same email cache –“The Puppetmasters of Academia — Dr. Jonathan Latham, the co-founder and executive director of Bioscience Resource Project, identifies far more damaging documented evidence of collusion by prominent academics and institutions that receive millions of dollars for their promotional services to industry. Indeed, the $25,000 that Dr. Folta received from Monsanto is insignificant when one considers the tens of millions of dollars his university received – $10 million from Syngenta, $10 million from Monsanto and $1 million from BASF. Dr. Latham critiques the Times for burying the real story by focusing on the perfidy of a handful of individual academics, while failing to identify the prominent academics who used their influential positions while engaging in elaborate subterfuge to defeat a pesticide regulatory effort. What’s missing from the Times article is:

a sense of the extensive and intricate networking of a small army of academics furthering the interests of Monsanto and other parts of the chemical, agribusiness and biotech industries. Folta  rarely acted alone. His networks are filled with economists, molecular biologists, plant pathologists, development specialists, and agronomists, many of them much more celebrated than Kevin Folta, but all of them in a knowing loop with industry and the PR firms. Their job was acknowledged openly in emails (“We are all bad-ass shills for the truth. It’s a pleasure shilling with you.”

nowhere does the Times note that one of the chief colluders was none other than [Prof. Nina Fedoroff] the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). During her Presidency, Fedoroff, who is also a contributor to the NY Times, used her position to coordinate and sign a letter on behalf of 60 prominent scientists. This letter was sent to EPA as part of an effort to defeat a pesticide regulatory effort.” (Independent Science News, Sept. 2015)

Dr. Latham identifies a list of prominent senior academics who were included in the email loop: among them senior Cornell officials whom the Times chose not to identify. These include the director of the Bill Gates funded Cornell Alliance for Science; among the invited speakers at a recent Alliance for Science program included Amy Harmon from the New York Times and Tamar Haspel of The Washington Post, and Prof. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School.

Journalistic failure
U.S. Right to Know, “(2015) identified 27 articles quoting or authored by professors Kevin Folta or Bruce Chassy that failed to disclose the fact that they had received money from Monsanto.

These journalistic failures occurred in highly influential news outlets including: the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, science publications such as, Nature, Science Insider and Discover; magazines such as Forbes, The New Yorker, Wired and The Atlantic and broadcast outlets including, ABC and NPR 

“This is a collapse of journalistic standards. When reporters quote sources about food issues such as GMOs or organic food, readers deserve to know if the sources have been funded by Monsanto or have other conflicts of interest.” 

A most troubling and disappointing example of journalistic failure is an article in the Columbia Journalism Review (Feb. 25, 2015) by by Anna Clark. Non only does she fail to disclose to readers that Kevin Folta had lied repeatedly by claiming he had not received any money from Monsanto; the Columbia Journal Review provided a credible platform for him to insinuate that New York Times‘ journalist Kevin Lipton, who reported the lie documented in a cache of emails, had made “retaliatory record requests.” Clark even attempted to elicit sympathy for Folta as the aggrieved party: “by detailing his experience—both the emotion and the introspection of it—he has drawn the anti-GMO group into a public debate about record requests.”  [The Columbia Journal Review did not even see fit to correct the record as of Jan. 26, 2017]

The principal effect of the media’s failure to reveal financial conflicts of interest is to tilt the debate by providing credibility to academics who serve as GMO industry “foot soldiers.” By shielding their conflicts of interest, reporters become accessories to the dissemination of biased science which is disinformation –“fake news.”

Read AHRP GMO-related posts:
How Monsanto Rigged the System through politics and propaganda;
GMO Crops Have Failed to Lift Yields and Ease Pesticide Use;
How American consumers became de facto guinea pigs;
A GMO Debacle: Growth Hormone Contaminated Milk;
Scientific review of pesticide cancer risk ignites war against scientists
Weapons of mass deception: false claims, corrupted science