How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs

A researcher collects leaf samples at a Monsanto facility in Chesterfield, Missouri.

A researcher collects leaf samples at a Monsanto facility in Chesterfield, Missouri.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
  • Monsanto proposed series of articles in e-mail to scientists
  • Articles appeared on website of nonprofit group in December

Monsanto Co.’s 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 company’s role isn’t noted in the series of articles published in December by the Genetic Literacy Project, a nonprofit group that says its mission is “to disentangle science from ideology.” The group said that such a disclosure isn’t necessary because the the company didn’t pay the authors and wasn’t involved in writing or editing the articles.

Monsanto says it’s in regular contact with public-sector scientists as it tries to “elevate” public dialog on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit group funded by the Organic Consumers Association that obtained e-mails under the Freedom of Information Act, says correspondence revealing Monsanto’s actions shows the “corporate control of science and how compliant some academics are.”

The articles have become the latest flashpoint in an information war being waged over plant biotechnology by its supporters, who sometimes have corporate funding, and its opponents, some of whom are funded by the fast-growing organic food industry. The challenge for the pro-GMO lobby is the yawning gulf between scientific consensus and public perception. A Pew Research Center poll in January found 88 percent of scientists believed GMOs to be “generally safe” versus 37 percent of U.S. adults. That gap was the widest among 13 questions asked by Pew, surpassing divides on climate change and evolution.

Monsanto E-mail

The articles in question appeared on the Genetic Literacy Project’s website in a series called “GMO - Beyond the Science.” Eric Sachs, who leads Monsanto’s scientific outreach, wrote to eight scientists to pen a series of briefs aimed at influencing “public policy, GM crop regulation and consumer acceptance.” Five of them obliged.

“I need to step aside so I don’t compromise the project,” Sachs said in an Aug. 8, 2013, e-mail obtained by U.S. Right to Know. He suggested specific topics for each scientist before turning the project over to CMA Consulting, a public relations firm paid by Monsanto.

“I am keenly aware that your independence and reputations must be protected,” Sachs wrote.

Political Lobbying

“It says something that Monsanto can’t defend the safety of their own products, that they have to resort to hiring a PR consultant and get academics to spin the science,” said Scott Faber, a Washington-based lobbyist at the Environmental Working Group and executive director of Just Label It, which advocates for mandatory labels identifying GMO foods.

St. Louis-based Monsanto has been at the center of the GMO debate ever since it first commercialized modified crop seeds in 1996. The company operates a sophisticated public relations operation, and while it carries out behind-the-scenes political lobbying, it also responds to critics on its website and on blogs. Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley has defended GMOs both on Twitter and in public debates.

Monsanto routinely exchanges information with dozens of public-sector scientists and flags ideas, said Charla Lord, a company spokeswoman. While the scientists sometimes co-operate, Monsanto’s suggestions often are ignored or rejected, she said.

Public Dialog

“Our goal is to elevate the public dialog and public policy discussion from its over-emphasis on perceived risks toward a broader understanding of the societal benefits of GM crops and needed improvement in policies,” Lord said in an e-mail. “There is a lot of misinformation generated by groups who are opposed to agriculture and biotechnology.”

Once the topic of the articles was identified, the academics alone were responsible for the content, said Jim Fallon, a vice president at CMA, the PR firm working with Monsanto. John Entine, the executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, also defended the handling of the articles.

Sharing Knowledge

“I got independent articles written by independent professors,” Entine said Tuesday by phone. “I ended up working with the professors to edit their pieces and I had total control over the final product. There is nothing to disclose.”

Two of the authors, Peter W.B. Phillips, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and David Shaw, chief research officer at Mississippi State University, didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Calestous Juma, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said in an interview he contributed a paper entitled “Global Risks of Rejecting Agricultural Biotechnology” to the project because it’s a topic he’s studied, written about and spoken on for decades. Juma said his main requirement is that the publications he writes for must be freely available to the public. Disclosing Monsanto’s role is a matter for the publication, he said. Juma’s Monsanto connection was previously reported by the Boston Globe.

“It’s part of my mission as a public scholar to share knowledge,” Juma said in an interview, a point also made by another two authors of the series articles. Anthony Shelton, an entomologist and professor at Cornell, said he stands by and takes full ownership of what he wrote. “I strongly support openness and transparency,” he said in an e-mail.

‘Rabid Activism’

University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta said he agreed to write “Anti-GMO Activism and Its Impact on Food Security” because communicating science to the public is his job. Folta said he has no problem were the Genetic Literacy Project to disclose Monsanto’s role in the series. And he lamented what he called the “rabid activism and religion” of an organic movement that vilifies scientists who support plant biotechnology.

Folta has faced public criticism since the New York Times, citing other e-mails provided by U.S. Right to Know, reported last month about his communications with Monsanto and a $25,000 donation to the science communication program he runs. Folta said in an interview he wasn’t the recipient of the money and didn’t benefit financially. The university donated the $25,000 to charity following the Times story, he said.

“It makes me really sad because I just want technology to help people,” Folta said. “I don’t even care about these companies. I want people to understand the science.”

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