Thousands of emails reveal how the biotech giant enlisted public university academics to prop up their massive PR machine.
October 15, 2015
Photo Credit: Maryna Pleshkun/Shutterstock.com
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.
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.