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Influential Science Nonprofit ILSI Exposed as a Food Industry Lobby Group

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Kirill Kukhmar / TASS / Getty Images

By Stacy Malkan

The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a corporate-funded nonprofit group with chapters around the world that claim to conduct "science for the public good," but documents released in a new study reveal that the influential ILSI science group is a actually a lobby group that protects the interests of the food industry, not public health.


The June 2019 paper in Globalization and Health describes internal emails that were obtained by the public interest group U.S. Right to Know via state public records laws. The documents reveal clear examples of how ILSI advances the interests of the food industry, especially by promoting industry-friendly science and arguments to policymakers. "Researchers have labelled the International Life Sciences Institute an industry front group, after studying thousands of documents," reported the BMJ.

As one example, the paper quotes an email from Alex Malaspina, the former Coca-Cola executive who founded ILSI, lamenting the failure of ILSI Mexico to follow the industry position on soda taxes. Malaspina describes "the mess ILSI Mexico is in because they sponsored in September a sweeteners conference when the subject of soft drinks taxation was discussed. ILSI is now suspending ILSI Mexico, until they correct their ways. A real mess."


2015 email from Alex Malaspina, founder of ILSI.

Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola from 1969-2001, founded ILSI in 1978. Coca-Cola has kept close ties with ILSI ever since. From 2009-2011, the president of ILSI was Michael Ernest Knowles, who was also Coca-Cola's VP of global scientific and regulatory affairs from 2008–2013. In 2015, ILSI's president was Rhona Applebaum, who retired from her job as Coca-Cola's chief health and science officer (and from ILSI) in 2015 after the New York Times and Associated Press reported that Coke funded the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network to help shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and reported in a 2016 study revealed that Coke proposed and financed the Global Energy Balance Network as a "weapon" in the "growing war between the pubic health community and private industry" over obesity and the obesity epidemic.

ILSI is funded by its corporate members and company supporters, including leading food and chemical companies such as Coca-Cola, BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta, Mars, McDonalds, chemical industry trade groups, and many others. In its annual report, ILSI and its branches reported $17,481,251 in expenses for 2017 but did not disclose specific donor information. A document obtained via a state freedom of information request shows corporate contributions to ILSI Global amounting to $2.4 million in 2012. The largest donations were $500,000 from Monsanto and over $500,000 from the pesticide industry trade group, Crop Life International. ILSI's draft 2013 IRS tax returns show $337,000 in donations from Coca-Cola and over $650,000 from six agrichemical companies, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi Bred and Syngenta.

ILSI Undermined Obesity Fight in China

In January 2019, two papers by Harvard Prof. Susan Greenhalgh revealed ILSI's powerful influence on the Chinese government on issues related to obesity. Prof. Geenhalgh's articles in the Journal of Public Health Policy and the BMJ document how Coca-Cola and other corporations worked through the China branch of ILSI to influence decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

Jan. 9 article in New York Times.

ILSI is so well-placed in China that it operates from inside the government's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing. Dr. Greenhalgh's papers document how Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants "helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related diseases" by operating through ILSI to cultivate key Chinese officials "in an effort to stave off the growing movement for food regulation and soda taxes that has been sweeping the west," reported Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times.

Recent studies on ILSI's influence and approach can also be found in Critical Public Health and the Milbank Quarterly.

ILSI Sugar Study “Right Out of the Tobacco Industry’s Playbook”

In 2016, public health experts denounced an ILSI-funded sugar study published in a prominent medical journal that presented a "scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar," reported Anahad O'Connor in The New York Times. The ILSI-funded study argued that warnings to cut sugar are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.

The Times story quoted Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research, on the ILSI study: "This comes right out of the tobacco industry's playbook: cast doubt on the science," Nestle said. "This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It's shameful."

ILSI has also been accused of working directly on the tobacco industry playbook to thwart public safety measures to reduce smoking. A July 2000 report by an independent committee of the World Health Organization outlined a number of ways in which the tobacco industry attempted to undermine WHO tobacco control efforts, including using scientific groups to influence WHO's decision-making and to manipulate scientific debate surrounding the health effects of tobacco. ILSI played a key role in these efforts, according to a case study about ILSI from the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative. "Findings indicate that ILSI was used by certain tobacco companies to thwart tobacco control policies. Senior office bearers in ILSI were directly involved in these actions," according to the case study.

ILSI Leaders Played Key Role in Defending Glyphosate as Chairs of WHO Panel

In May 2016, ILSI was caught "in a conflict of interest row over glyphosate cancer risk," reported Arthur Neslen in the Guardian, after revelations that the vice president of ILSI Europe, Prof. Alan Boobis, was also chairman of the UN Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) panel that found Monsanto's chemical glyphosate was unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. The co-chair of the JMPR panel, Prof. Angelo Moretto, was a board member of ILSI's Health and Environment Services Institute. Neither of the chairs declared their ILSI leadership roles as conflicts of interest, despite the significant financial contributions ILSI has received from Monsanto and the pesticide industry trade group.

ILSI’s Cozy Ties at U.S. CDC 

In June 2016, U.S. Right to Know reported that Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control division charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, tried to help ILSI's founder Alex Malaspina influence World Health Organization officials to back off policies to reduce sugar consumption. Bowman suggested people and groups for Malaspina to talk to, and solicited his comments on some CDC summaries of reports, the emails show. (Bowman stepped down after our first article was published reporting on these ties.)

A January 2019 study in the Milbank Quarterly describes key emails of Malaspina cozying up to Dr. Bowman.

ILSI Influence in India 

ILSI has close ties to some Indian government officials and, as in China, the nonprofit has pushed similar messaging and policy proposals as Coca-Cola — downplaying the role of sugar and diet as a cause of obesity, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution, according to the India Resource Center. Members of ILSI India's board of trustees include Coca-Cola India's director of regulatory affairs and representatives from Nestlé and Ajinomoto, a food additive company, along with government officials who serve on scientific panels that are tasked with deciding about food safety issues.

Longstanding Concerns About ILSI

ILSI insists it is not an industry lobby group, but concerns and complaints are longstanding about the group's pro-industry stances and conflicts of interest among the organization's leaders.

In 2010, Nature reported on concerns about conflicts of interest between ILSI and the European Food Safety Authority, and noted that the industry ties may taint the reputation of the European regulatory body.

A 2019 book by Dr. Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros, Real Food on Trial (Columbus Publishing), recounts the "unprecedented prosecution" of Dr. Noakes "in a multimillion rand case that stretched over more than four years. All for a single tweet giving his opinion on nutrition." Russ Greene reported on the controversy in a 2017 article for Keep Fitness Legal. "The Food Industry is attempting to use Dr. Noakes in order to set an example to anyone who dares challenge its authority in nutrition," Greene wrote.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on the food industry. She is author of the book, "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry" (New Society 2007).

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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