The biotech industry’s web of attempts to buy credibility, by laundering its messages through supposedly independent academic scientists, is unraveling and beginning to reveal the influence of a huge amount of industry money on the independence of academic agricultural science. Some of this process was revealed recently in The New York Times. Many of these efforts to influence policy or public opinion start with industry staff emails, including suggested topics, points, and themes, which are then laundered through the credibility of academic scientists. It is a matter of academic scientists promoting positions and arguments of the industry, not merely a sharing of positions that each party already held and were acting on.
The emails from several academic scientists linked in the NYT article show numerous instances of industry personnel, such as Eric Sachs of Monsanto, in ongoing dialogue with academic scientists, including strategizing about how to influence policy and how academic scientists can carry out industry desires.
A deeper dive into the emails coming forward through this article and from U.S. Right to Know public disclosure efforts shows a broader and more troubling picture of influence peddling in the agricultural sciences.
The overriding issue is the huge amount of money from the biotech and industrial agriculture industries pouring into public universities, and the corrosive effect all that money is having on the independence of science. Evidence suggests that biotech industry influence is a pervasive problem, corrupting science and distorting public discussion. It extends much farther than the specific examples provided by the New York Times article. As with the climate change debate, where a powerful fossil fuel industry is slowing response to an environmental and social disaster, the biotech industry and industrial agriculture more broadly is delaying choices that would move us toward an urgently needed sustainable and just food and agriculture system.
The emails linked to the New York Times article also reveals some of the many other academic scientists, who have vocally supported biotech or panned biotech critics, and were copied on industry emails. We should not implicate scientists in greenwashing or collusion with the biotech industry simply for being copied on emails, or even some communication with companies. It is not clear from these emails whether those other scientists have also engaged in collaboration with the industry, or accepted industry money. But the efforts of many of these scientists to vigorously defend biotechnology or even attack critics have been documented elsewhere.
There is no reason to think this money buys less influence in academia than the widely recognized corrupting influence that money has on politics. Unlike academic science though, no one has illusions that our political process is objective. The perceived objectivity of academic scientists presents a huge opportunity for the biotech industry to influence public opinion in ways it could not accomplish otherwise.
A Tangled Web
Since the NYT article was published, several of these scientists have doubled down, saying that they have been proud to serve a cause they believe in. And I have no reason to doubt their sincerity. These scientists are effective in their spokesperson roles in part because of their backgrounds in molecular biology, the deep interest in which preceded their involvement with the ag biotech industry.
But this misses the point, which is that the collaboration with industry, its public relations machines, such as Ketchum, and access to industry dollars, allows these scientists to amplify their voices with the journalists and the media, the public, and policymakers way beyond what could otherwise occur.
As one small example, Bruce Chassy, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois, bemoans the challenges of flying economy class (all he can afford, he says) to participate as an invited speaker at a biotech conference in New Delhi. He strongly implies he would not endure such tribulations, and would skip the meeting without industry support. In an August 29, 2011 email to Eric Sachs of Monsanto, he suggests that the ag industry trade group CropLife, of which Monsanto and other biotech companies are members, pay his way (Chassy was listed as a speaker at the event). In a separate email, Monsanto’s Sachs also suggests to Chassy that he participate in an American Medical Association meeting to try to dissuade the AMA from supporting mandatory labeling of GE foods.
That academic scientists recognize the value of their perceived independence is suggested in an email from University of Florida Scientist Kevin Folta to Monsanto’s Keith Reding, Regulatory Policy Lead, on April 17, 2013: “keep me in mind if you ever need a good public interface with no corporate ties. That knows the subject inside out and can think on his feet [emphasis added].”
In another example from the NYT article, Dow reminds David Shaw, a Mississippi State University weed scientist, of its generosity. And an email to Shaw on Jan 17, 2012 from John Jachetta, Government affairs leader at Dow AgroSciences, urges Shaw to submit comments to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve Dow’s Enlist soybeans, and provides three pages of helpful suggestions about topics and arguments. The Enlist crops are resistant to glyphosate and 2,4-D herbicides, and are the industry’s response to the epidemic of glyphosate resistant weeds caused by the first generation of glyphosate resistant crops. This strategy has been criticized as futile and one that will lead to greatly increased herbicide use and more herbicide resistance.
In a February 20, 2012 email from Shaw back to Jachetta, Shaw supplies his draft comments and asks for feedback from Dow.
In several emails in the spring of 2013, John Sorteres of Monsanto coordinates activities with both Shaw and, apparently, Prof. Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, on how to counter public comments to APHIS that argue against approval of Monsanto’s dicamba resistant crops, including detailed arguments and analyses. Dicamba is an herbicide similar to 2,4-D.
An August 30, 2013 email from Mississippi State acknowledges unrestricted gifts from Monsanto to Dr. Shaw and four other faculty members.
I go to some length to describe these interactions because, in addition to their collaboration with the biotech industry, both Shaw and Owens were on the steering committee of the so-called second “weed summit,” held in the spring of 2012, and sponsored by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The summit was called to address the crisis in weed control caused by glyphosate herbicide resistant weeds that arose from the use of genetically engineered herbicide resistant crops.
Dr. Shaw contacted the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I was formerly a senior scientist, for input into the meeting. One of our highest priority recommendations was that Penn State University weed scientist David Mortensen be included as a speaker and participant at the meeting.
Mortensen’s research focuses on ecologically-based weed control, and he has been a critic of the reliance on herbicide resistant crops that characterize current weed control in corn and soybeans in the US. He is also one of the best-versed scientists on ecological practices as alternatives to herbicide resistant crops and over-reliance on herbicides. Our request to include Mortensen was not accepted. As a consequence, the critique of the failing herbicide resistant crop strategy at the weed summit, and support for feasible non-herbicide, ecologically-based alternatives, was weakened to the point of ineffectiveness.
Since that time, the USDA has unconditionally approved these new GE crops, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (U.S. EPA) stewardship plan does not require any alternatives to the use of herbicides on these crops. Serious efforts to implement agroecological alternatives to GE herbicide resistant crops would be a threat to the industry’s bottom line, because these approaches require much lower use of herbicides and expensive herbicide resistant seeds.
While not proof of collusion between the industry and academics, it is part of a bigger pattern of exclusion and intimidation that has been linked to industry influence.
Greatly Increased Flow of “Big Ag” Money is Going to Universities
Even a quick internet search shows numerous “generous” donations from Monsanto to universities, such US$1 million from Monsanto to Iowa State University for the “Monsanto Student Services Wing,” in 2012, Monsanto Student Travel awards, or US$1 million for a community center at the University of Missouri in 2012, among many examples of industry funding of academia.
If these were isolated situations, their overall impact on academic independence and integrity might be negligible. But that is far from the case. The particular situations detailed in the NYT article are undoubtedly the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Since the beginnings of the assault on government funding for public institutions in the 1980s, public, independent research funding of agriculture science has stagnated or fallen. Meanwhile, private sector funding, previously a minority of research dollars, is now the majority. This was documented in the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report on agricultural preparedness and research, in late 2012. PCAST noted that 61 percent of research funding is from the private sector, with 11 percent of that, or about US$957 million, going to universities and other state institutions. And this does not include millions of dollars in gifts for non-research purposes, such as student centers.
It was also revealing, as I noted at the time, that the PCAST report seems to consider private sector funding only as a positive, calling it by the favorable and innocuous sounding term, “Public-Private Partnerships,” with virtually no caution about the possible cost to scientific independence that may accompany these funds. But when we examine the participants or advisors for this report, we find it replete with biotech industry representation.
Some of the many connections, and millions of dollars provided by the ag industry to academia, was also documented in the 2012 Food and Water Watch report, “Public Research Private Gain.” It would stretch credulity to suggest that the biotech industry would provide these funds without the expectation of quid pro quos. And the emails revealed by the NYT strongly suggest this.
The organic industry is also implicated by the New York Times article. And of course, influence from the private sector can come from any industry.
However, as the New York Times article notes, the research contributions of the organics industry is miniscule compared to those of the biotech and industrial ag industries. Unfortunately, the extensive highlighting of Charles Benbrook, who performs research on organics supported by the industry, gives the appearance of an equivalence between biotech and organic that isn’t credible. This comparison, in practical terms, is a distraction from the real world issue, which is the corruption of independent agricultural science by biotech, and more broadly, industrial agriculture industries.