By Stacy Malkan
British writer George Monbiot has a warning for those of us trying to grasp the new political realities in the U.S. and the UK: "We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates," he wrote in the Guardian.
Corporate America may have been slow to warm up to President Trump, but once Trump secured the nomination, "the big money began to recognize an unprecedented opportunity," Monbiot wrote. "His incoherence was not a liability, but an opening: his agenda could be shaped. And the dark money network already developed by some American corporations was perfectly positioned to shape it."
This network, or dark money ATM as Mother Jones described it, refers to the vast amount of hard-to-trace money flowing from arch-conservative billionaires, such as Charles and David Koch and allies, and corporations into front groups that promote extreme free-market ideas—for example, fights against public schools, unions, environmental protection, climate change policies and science that threatens corporate profits.
Investigative writers Jane Mayer, Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway and others have exposed how "the story of dark money and the story of climate change denial are the same story: two sides of the same coin," as U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse described it last year in a speech.
The strategies of the "Koch-led, influence-buying operation"—including propaganda operations that spin science with no regard for the truth—"are probably the major reason we don't have a comprehensive climate bill in Congress," Whitehouse said.
While these strategies have been well-tracked in the climate sphere, less reported is the fact that the funders behind climate-science denial also bankroll a network of PR operatives who have built careers spinning science to deny the health risks of toxic chemicals in the food we eat and products we use every day.
The stakes are high for our nation's health. Rates of childhood cancer are now 50 percent higher than when the "war on cancer" began decades ago and the best weapon is one we are hardly using: policies to limit exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.
"If we want to win the war on cancer, we need to start with the thousand physical and chemical agents evaluated as possible, probable or known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization," wrote scientist and author Devra Lee Davis, PhD, MPH, in The Hill.
Reducing known agents of harm has had "less to do with science and more to do with the power of highly profitable industries that rely on public relations to counteract scientific reports of risks," Davis noted.
Chemical Industry Propagandists
When products important to the chemical and junk food industries run into trouble with science, a predictable cast of characters and groups appear on the scene, using well-worn media strategies to bail out corporations in need of a PR boost.
Their names and the tactics they use—lengthy adversarial articles, often framed by personal attacks—will be familiar to many scientists, journalists and consumer advocates who have raised concerns about toxic products over the past 15 years.
Public records requests by U.S. Right to Know that have unearthed thousands of documents, along with recent reports by Greenpeace, the Intercept and others, are shining new light on this propaganda network.
Key players include Jon Entine, Trevor Butterworth, Henry I. Miller and groups connected with them: STATS, Center for Media and Public Affairs, Genetic Literacy Project, Sense About Science and the Hoover Institute.
Despite well-documented histories as PR operatives, Entine, Butterworth and Miller are presented as serious science sources on many media platforms, appearing in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Philadelphia Enquirer, Harvard Business Review and, most often, Forbes—without disclosure of their funding sources or agenda to deregulate the polluting industries that promote them.
Their articles rank high in Google searches for many of the chemical and junk food industry's top messaging priorities—pushing the narratives that GMOs, pesticides, plastic chemicals, sugar and sugar substitutes are safe and anyone who says otherwise is "anti-science."
In some cases, they are even gaining in influence as they align with establishment institutions such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cornell University and the University of California, Davis.
Yet their funding sources trace back to the same "ultra free market" ideologues from oil, pharmaceutical and chemical fortunes who are financing climate science denial—Searle Freedom Trust, Scaife Foundations, John Templeton Foundation and others identified as among the largest and most consistent funders of climate-change-denial groups, according to a 2013 study by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, PhD.
Those seeking to understand the dark money network's policy goals for dismantling health protections for our food system would do well to keep an eye on these modern propagandists and their messaging.
Jon Entine—Genetic Literacy Project / STATS
Jon Entine, a former journalist, presents himself as an objective authority on science. Yet ample evidence suggests he is a longtime public relations operative with deep ties to chemical companies plagued with questions about health risks.
Over the years, Entine has attacked scientists, professors, funders, lawmakers and journalists who have raised concerns about fracking, nuclear power, pesticides and industrial chemicals used in baby bottles and children's toys. A 2012 Mother Jones story by Tom Philpott describes Entine as an "agribusiness apologist" and Greenpeace details his history on their Polluter Watch website.
Entine is now director of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group that promotes genetically engineered foods and pesticides. The site claims to be neutral, but "it's clearly designed to promote a pro-industry position and doesn't try to look neutrally at the issues," said Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union.
"The message is that genetic engineering is good and anybody who criticizes it is a horrible ideologue, but that's just not indicative of where the scientific debate actually is."
Entine claims, for example, that the "scientific consensus on GMO safety is stronger than for global warming"—a claim contradicted by the World Health Organization, which states it is not possible to make general statements about GMO safety and by hundreds of scientists who have said there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety.
The Genetic Literacy Project also has not been transparent about its connections to Monsanto. As one example, the site published several pro-GMO academic papers that emails later revealed were assigned to professors by a Monsanto executive who provided talking points for the papers and promised to pump them out all over the internet.
Another example: Genetic Literacy Project partners with Academics Review on the Biotechnology Literacy Project, pro-industry conferences that train scientists and journalists on how to "best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public."
Academics Review, which published a report in 2014 attacking the organic industry, presents itself as an independent group, but emails revealed it was set up with the help of a Monsanto executive who promised to find funding "while keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information." Emails also showed that Academics Review co-founder Bruce Chassy had been receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto via the University of Illinois Foundation.