How Monsanto Solicited Academics to Bolster Their Pro-GMO Propaganda — Using Taxpayer Dollars

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Yves here. Occasionally, I’ve mentioned that an old friend, a bio-medical engineer who worked at the National Institutes of Health, has long been deeply disturbed about GMOs in the food chain (as opposed to more limited uses of genetic engineering, such as to produce laboratory animals that are well suited to certain types of experiments). And mind you, this friend is not at all a food neurotic. He is of the school that most things are OK as long as you consume them in moderation and happily eats burgers, fries, and M&Ms. Yet he has long been very leery of genetically modified foods, and regards it as large-scale experiment conducted on the public with no controls and no consent. For years, he would go to some effort to avoid GM foods, but a few years back threw in the towel, concluding it had become too hard.

By Katherine Paul, the associate director of the Organic Consumers Association. Originally published at Alternet

The Monsanto public relations machine has done a stellar job in recent years of reducing the GMO debate to one that pits “pro-science advocates” against “anti-science climate-denier types” — with Monsanto portrayed as being squarely planted in the pro-science camp.

But that well-oiled machine may be starting to sputter.

Turns out that Monsanto executive solicited pro-GMO articles from university researchers, and passed the “research” off as independent science which the biotech giant then used to prop up its image and further its agenda.

We know this, thanks to thousands of pages of emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). And because a host of news outlets—including the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Bloomberg, the StarPhoenix and others — are now running with the story.

For anyone who has paid attention, this latest scandal should come as no surprise. As Steven Druker writes in his book Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, “For more than 30 years, hundreds (if not thousands) of biotech advocates within scientific institutions, government bureaus, and corporate offices throughout the world have systematically compromised science and contorted the facts to foster the growth of genetic engineering, and get the foods it produces, onto our dinner plates.”

Will Druker’s book (published this year), and this new wave of bad press be enough to finally expose Monsanto’s “science” for what it i is — nothing more than an expensive, sustained and highly orchestrated public relations campaign?

The Story Behind the Story

USRTK, a nonprofit funded almost entirely by the Organic Consumers Association, launched an investigation into “the collusion between Big Food, its front groups, and university faculty and staff to deliver industry PR to the public.”

As part of its ongoing investigation, the group filed FOIA requests to obtain the emails and documents from 43 public university faculty and staff. The requested documents included records from scientists, economists, law professors, extension specialists and communicators — all of whom, as the group points out, were conducting work in public institutions, all funded by taxpayers.

On its website, the group says, “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 promote.”

And now we do. And we know exactly how the latest plan to deceive, involving a paid PR firm posing as an independent third party, was hatched.

According to Mother Jones, in an August 2013 email to nine prominent academics, Monsanto’s strategic engagement lead Eric Sachs broached a plan: that the group would pen “short policy briefs on important topics in the agricultural biotechnology arena,” chosen “because of their influence on public policy, GM crop regulation, and consumer acceptance.”

Sachs assured the professors that the project would be handled discreetly. “I understand and appreciate that you need me to be completely transparent and I am keenly aware that your independence and reputations must be protected,” he wrote. Two outside entities — an industry-funded group called the American Council on Science and Health and a PR outfit called CMA — would “manage the process of producing the policy briefs,” “coordinate website posting and promotion,” and “merchandize” the briefs by helping turn them into “op-eds, blog postings, speaking engagements, events, webinars, etc.” This third-party management is “an important element,” the Monsanto exec added, “because Monsanto wants the authors to communicate freely without involvement by Monsanto.”

The explanation outlined by Mother Jones followed an articles by mainstream news outlets, including Bloomberg and the New York Times. Here’s a partial roundup of the coverage generated so far by USRTK’s investigation.

New York Times: ‘Helped Produce Important Payoffs’

In a September 5 article, New York Times reporter Eric Lipton credited USRTK with obtaining “thousands of pages” of emails, many of which the Times then requested on its own.

After reviewing the documents, and describing some of the email exchanges between Monsanto’s PR firm and academics who were solicited to write articles, Lipton concluded that Monsanto’s strategy was effective:

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.

Lipton singled out, among others, Kevin Folta, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida. Monsanto recruited Folta, Lipton wrote, ”to help with ‘biotechnology outreach’ and to travel around the country to defend genetically modified foods.”

Folta, who according to the Times 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, received a $25,0000 grant from Monsanto to fund his travel and “outreach.” According to Bloomberg, the University of Florida donated the $25,000 to charity — after the Times story ran.

Despite the grant, and the incriminating emails revealed by the Times, Folta has long denied any “formal connection” to Monsanto. (USRTK provides a list of Folta’s many denials).

The Times also singled out Bruce M. Chassy, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, who in 2011 received a grant for an undisclosed amount to support “biotechnology outreach and education activities.” Emails obtained by the Times reveal that Chassy and a Monsanto executive talked about efforts to persuade the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “abandon its proposal to tighten the regulation of pesticides used on insect-resistant seeds.”

Bloomberg: ‘How Monsanto Mobilized Academics’

The headline on an article posted October 2 by Bloomberg said it all: ‘How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs.’

Bloomberg reported that the “undisclosed recruitment of scientists from Harvard University, Cornell University and three other schools to write about the benefits of plant biotechnology is drawing fire from opponents.”

The Bloomberg piece focused on how the Genetic Literacy Project, a clearly pro-GMO nonprofit that says its mission is “to disentangle science from ideology,” published articles by the scientists on its website, without disclosing that the articles had been solicited by Monsanto and its PR firm.

Despite its headline, however, the Bloomberg report bends over backwards to present Monsanto and the scientists’ arguments that their articles weren’t influenced by Monsanto’s PR firm, CMA Consulting, even going so far as to infer that there exists a scientific consensus that GMOs are safe with this statement: “The challenge for the pro-GMO lobby is the yawning gulf between scientific consensus and public perception.”

The existence of a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs is widely disputed by international scientists.

Boston Globe: ‘Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose’

Taking the local angle approach, a reporter for the Boston Globe focused on a Harvard professor caught up in the scandal.

Reporter Laura Krantz wrote, “A Harvard Kennedy School professor wrote a widely disseminated policy paper last year in support of genetically modified organisms at the behest of seed giant Monsanto, without disclosing his connection, e-mails show.”

Professor Calestous Jumanot is author of an article titled “Global Risks of Rejecting Agricultural Biotechnology,” published on the Genetic Literacy website. According to the Globe, in an email to Jumanot, Monsanto’s Eric Sachs, head of regulatory policy and scientific affairs suggested a topic, a summary and a headline. Jumanot chose a different headline, but the gist of the article conformed to the PR firm’s agenda.

As the Globe, the Times and others outlined, the Jumanot was one of nine professors who received emails from Sachs.

Krantz wrote, “His e-mail lays out the agribusiness giant’s strategy. A marketing company would “merchandize” the papers online, disseminate them to the media, and schedule op-eds, blog posts, speaking engagements, and webinars.”

Jumanot told the Globe, which had also previously reported on Jumanot’s connection to Monsanto, that it was the publication’s responsibility, not his, to disclose the connection.

In the end, neither did.

StarPhoenix: ‘No Mention of Monsanto’s Involvement’

Monsanto didn’t limit its influence to U.S. academics. Zeroing in on one of its own, Canada’s StarPhoenix reported on Peter W.B. Phillips, graduate chair at the U of S Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, who was also approached by Monsanto.

According to the StarPhoenix, owned by Canada’s largest newspaper publisher, Phillips was asked to write about the “burdensome regulations” that “stifle innovation” in the biotech industry.

“Critics might lead you to believe that genetically engineered crops are not tested or regulated. That is wrong,” read the opening line of the finished article by Phillips.

In his conclusion, Phillips stated: “Increased regulatory costs and an expanding approval process stifle innovation – the innovation that is needed to secure an adequate supply and, appropriate quality of food at affordable prices.”

Like Jumanot, Phillips denied any wrongdoing, telling the StarPhoenix that he wasn’t paid for the article, and that he works with a host of corporations, governments and non-governmental agencies: “That’s part of my job,” he said. “The research world has changed.”

Indeed it has. And, we would argue, not for the better.

Other media outlets that have so far covered this story include: Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, The Intercept, Reaction Watch and PLOS Biology Community Blog.

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  1. TedWa

    Monsanto still hasn’t paid back the generational harm caused by Agent Orange in VN. The damn sh!t is an experiment on us all.

  2. jfleni

    Not at all a surprise! MONS..KO learned very quickly how to BUTTKISS and deceive the plutocrats and their simpering buddies in Dogpatch-DC.

  3. ekstase

    It’s pretty hard to keep up with what foods contain GMO’s, especially when you’re in a restaurant or grocery store. If you get one of those non-GMO lists and take it with you, that can really help. It’s like you have to have secret plans to just function in our world now.

    Here’s link to a non-GMO download:

    1. different clue

      Certain major crops are GMOed up, for the most part. If one could get a list of those crops and buy/eat precisely NOTHING made with or containing a trace of ANY of those crops, you would avoid sharing your money with the Lords of GMO. Of the top of my head I believe all commercial corn and soybeans grown in America or most other places must be assumed to be GMOd. About the only way to avoid eating anything with zero trace of corn or soy input would be to cook your own food from the very most basic scratch with non-corn non-soy ingredients.

      Of course there is still organic corn and soy and organic corn oil and soy oil available for a higher but still affordable price. But for how long? The GMO conspirators are counting on the suicidal purity-martyrdom complex of the organic movement to assure the organic movement’s own ritual suicide. How do they plan to get the organic movement to do that? By covering the whole earth with stray GMO pollen from their GMO crops. The organic movement has sensitive tests to detect the presence of tiny traces of Monsanto DNA in organic crops and if the organic buyers detect one Monsanto chromosome in a million, they refuse to buy the crop. And the organic farmers accept the validity of this purity martyrdom. The organic foodmakers like Eden Foods and etc. will bankrupt and exterminate all their suppliers one-by-one as any trace of GMO genes is discovered in these suppliers’s food. The organic foodmakers will end up by bankrupting and exterminating their own selves when they have run out of “impure” supplier-growers to exterminate in the quest for purity.
      I will offer “another” example of Monsanto’s plan for brain-leading the organic movement to exterminate itself because “purity”. Monsanto has released and is selling GMOd-up “roundup ready” alfalfa. Monsanto is counting on bees to move “roundup ready” pollen to all the alfalfa in the vicinity and then all the alfalfa in the world. The organic alfalfa growers consider this a threat to their markets, and it is . . . so long as the organic alfalfa buyers reject a load of organic alfalfa for having one single detectable Monsanto chromosome in it.

      Is there a way for the organic movement to escape the one way ratchet-and-pawl hamster wheel of doom? I believe there is. The organic movement can decide to realize that there is a difference between evidence of secret GMO use as against imposed GMO contamination. The organic movement can then decide what percent of all the chromosome pairs in a sample of product have to be GMO in order to be considered a sign of deliberate use or adulteration. Anything at or above that level can be rejected as “cheating”. Anything below that level can be accepted as the un-escapable contamination the Monsantos are showering upon every inch of the earth.

      If that principle can be accepted by the organic community, the organic community can then refine that principle and apply the refinement as a legal-combat weapon against Monsanto (or whomever). It would work like this: the “distance” between zero contamination and highest-acceptance-percent contamination could be divided from “one” to ” one hundred”. For every percent of the permitted contamination level found in the product, the buyer would pay that percentage OF the difference between organic premium price and commodity GMO price from the diminished-premium price that they pay for the product. For example, if an organic sample contained One Per Cent OF the permitted amount of contanimation, and the premium for organic product were a dollar above the mainstream commodity price, then the buyer could pay the wannabe-seller a premium of Ninety Nine Cents per unit over the mainstream price. If the sample were contaminated by Two Per Cent of the permitted contamination amount, the buyer would pay a Ninety Eight Cent premium over conventional price. All the way up to a 99%-of-threshhold contaminated sample getting a One Cent premium over the conventional price. If the sample were AT rejection threshhold, the sample would be reJECted.

      How would this create a legal battlefield and legal weapons for the organic movement to use against Monsanto? Every per cent contamination would knock a cent off the premium price differential. That knock-off would be the amount the organic grower COULD have recieved, if NOT for the forcibly-imposed Monsanto GMO contamination found in the seller’s sample. That knock-off loss-of-price could be exactly quantified. And sued for as a damage. And Monsanto would be the people to sue for the exactly quantified damage because Monsanto would be the source of the gene. And if Monsanto lost enough such lawsuits then Monsanto would become exposed to RICO suits because of its persistent pattern of contaminating non-GMO product in order to destroy non-GMO price in order to exterminate non-GMO producers.

      I used this many words to make very sure that my line of logic could be followed. This is a war of extermination. Either the GMO-free movement will exterminate the GMO industry and wipe it off the face of the earth, or the GMO industry will exterminate the GMO-free movement and wipe it off the face of the earth. If the GMO-free movement refuses to face up to the zero-sum exterminate or perish nature of the engagement it faces, then the movement is halfway to extermination by virtue of that refusal to face up. If the GMO-free movement is composed of purity martyrs who would rather die than exterminate the enemy, then the GMO-free movement will die by its own choice, which would be its perfect right. In which case historians of the future will give the GMO-free movement a Darwin Award.

  4. Jabawocky

    Of course the fact that the scientists just happen to agree with Monsanto is completely overlooked.

    The inconvenient fact is that there is an international scientific consensus that gmos are safe. The chemicals sprayed in them, well that’s another matter.

    The high level of regulation plays right into Monsanto’s hands. If I wanted to start a disruptive biotech firm there is no way i could raise the finance to get a product through regulation. Only Monsanto and a handful of others can afford this, so they have the market to themselves, and that’s the way they like it.

    1. Just Ice

      Well, if we all had a bit of land to garden or farm then we could eat what we like, plant-wise. So perhaps arable land ownership should be a fundamental human right?

      1. different clue

        If you are a suburbanite you may already have a yard which could let you grow GMO-free food. If you are an urbanite, perhaps you could join other urbanites in creating community garden programs getting urbanites access to gardenable land, however little per movement-member.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      The “safety” studies have been done on the same basis as clinical trials, generally 8 weeks duration. Thus they do not, indeed cannot pick up long term effects. There’s no one tracking that. There are plenty of serious ailments that result from long-term, repeated exposure, such as lung disease resulting from smoking and diabetes resulting from high consumption of sugars.

      1. TedWa

        Agree. Generational problems could also be involved. Thalidomide was considered safe… we know how that turned out.

        The thing that made them rich was Agent Orange, That does have generational effects that were not discovered in their “research”. And they still aren’t paying for their mistake – and you know what they say, what’s to stop them from continuing if there’s no punishment, only rewards?

        1. Unmonsantome

          Glyphosate for starters….having to spray more and more to kill the evolving tolerance of the pests.
          Terminator seeds are good for farmers?
          Why don’t troll on huffpo

          1. jabawocky

            I agree with you about glyphosate, as reading my comments would have told you. But not about GM.

    3. different clue

      I suspect a deeper level of cleverness behind your comment, Jabawocky. My tinfoil may be on too tight, but I smell a trap. You say that there is an international scientific consensus that GMOs are safe. You hope that someone will say that “consensus proves nothing” and cite a few dissident scientists here and there . . . such as Arpad Pusztai. You will then leap forth and say: ” a-HA! If you do not accept “scientific consensus” as proof enough of GMO safety, then why should I or anyone accept “scientific consensus” as proof of Global Warming?” Well played, Jabawocky. Well played.

      Such, at least, is my theory of the intent behind your comment.

      1. Jabawocky

        I was trying to make a subtle point. If you want Monsanto to have a monopoly on gmos, by all means keep opposing gm technology. It’s helps them, all the regulations. all the opposition plays right into their hands. Every time someone posts anti-gm stuff, Monsanto get a boost. A market to themselves, no competition, just fat profits.

        1. different clue

          I am afraid I have too crude and simple a mind to be able to appreciate subtle points. Even after you have pointed out to me the subtlety of the point, or the point of the subtlety, or whatever . . . I find I am failing to get the point. Perhaps if you were to be ploddingly literal, I might understand the point you wish to make.

          For example, I do not understand how opposing GMO foodgrowing will help Monsanto. Especially when I oppose Monsanto’s monopoly-seeking racketeering-flavored GMO products and processes. How does opposing the concept of “roundup ready” Monsanto corn help Monsanto make more money? Could you explain to me how that works? In small words, if you could. And please type slowly, so I can keep up.

  5. different clue

    I have read somewhere that part of the User Agreement the Lords of GMO make every seedbuyer sign
    contains a clause forbidding the User-Buyer from transferring any trace of their GMO product to any third party for any reason, including scientific research. In this way, the Lords of GMO can prevent research from even taking place, thereby making sure that the science is not even developed. Given that, it seems irreal to claim that a scientific consensus exists when in fact no science has been even allowed to be done.

    What we have are observations here and there. Since these observations are made by laymen, they are dismissed as anecdotes. If they were made by credentialed scientists, they would be accepted as scientific observations and made the basis for preliminary hypotheses. Such is the academic class-snobbery of the Scientific Community. No matter. Enough anecdotes become anecdata and create a pressure among the public to address the problem in personal freelance ways. And maybe even wage successful political warfare.

    So here is one such anecdote. Several years ago I went to an Acres USA conference. Acres USA has a conference every year. I attended a talk by Gary Zimmer, an organic farmer and agronomic consultant outstanding in his field. He told us the story that one of his clients, a huge-scale corngrower somewhere in Africa, told him. This grower reported that his operation always had an “attrition” problem of local natives around the huge corn operation stealing some of his corn for their own food-use. But one year he put in a GMO corn. And shortly into ear-growing season, the stealing stopped. And stayed stopped. Out of curiosity, he asked some of his African neighbors why they were’t taking any corn out of his fields anymore, and they told him that the corn was making them sick, so they had to stop eating it and therefor they stopped taking it. it seems to me that there is an interesting story there, and an enterprising journalist would go to Africa and Get The Story.

    What would be the first footprint along that thousand mile journey? Getting in touch with Gary Zimmer himself and asking him about it. Maybe if he were convinced of the questioner’s sincere intent and pragmatic ability to get the story, he might well put the journalist in touch with the African commercial farmer in question. Here is a link to Gary Zimmer of Otter Creek Farm.

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