Monsanto's Tobacco Files: University Scientists Caught Conspiring With Biotech Industry to Manipulate Public Opinion on GMOs
What happens when a private company with a long history of producing some of the most toxic chemicals on the planet and now produces our food starts facing public pressure from a growing national grassroots movement to label their products to conform with basic principles of democracy and transparency?
Well, if the company in question is Monsanto, then you take a page out of Big Tobacco’s playbook and hatch a secret plan to enlist public university scientists to bury the potential harm of your genetically engineered crops by whitewashing negative studies and systematically demonizing your opponents in the media to mislead elected officials and the American public about the safety of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and their accompanying toxic pesticides.
Here’s a little history lesson, in the 1940s, tobacco companies ran ads with doctors proclaiming smoking cigarettes were perfectly safe. In 1946, the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company ran a now infamous campaign called “More Doctors” recommend Camels after “surveying” more than 113,597 doctors “from every branch of medicine.” In reality, the tobacco company’s advertising agency employees questioned doctors at medical conferences and their offices and used these fake results to deceive a generation of smokers.
Today, Monsanto and the biotech industry are copying the same tactics, this time hiding behind the façade of public university scientists and hiring major PR firms to promote GMOs and the toxic weedkiller glyphosate, the main chemical ingredient in Roundup, which some scientists are offering to drink on Twitter and in front of classrooms of students to “prove” its safety and hide the fact that it is harmful to humans and the environment.
Last weekend, the New York Times released a stunning expose of how Monsanto and the biotech industry enlisted allegedly independent public university scientists in a deceptive campaign to lobby state legislators in Pennsylvania, interfere with ballot initiatives in Oregon and Colorado and paper over risks of high pesticide usage on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
According to New York Times investigative reporter Eric Lipton, as the GMO labeling debate was coming to a boil in America in the past three years, Monsanto and their “industry partners retooled their lobbying and public relations strategy to spotlight a rarefied group of advocates: academics, brought in for the gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”
And why would Monsanto want to do this? Because independent scientist from public university come with a major halo effect, something that Monsanto’s top lobbyists mention repeatedly in the recently released emails to public university scientists.
Shining a Light on Monsanto and the Corruption of Public University Scientists
Lipton’s story details how a University of Illinois professor and longtime GMO promoter Bruce Chassy used his Monsanto connections to lobby the Environmental Protection Agency to abandon its efforts to tighten regulations on insecticidal GMO seeds. If you take a dive into the emails, you can see how Chassy enlisted the help of former advisor to George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton, Nina Federoff in his efforts to influence the EPA’s policies.
In the emails, Chassy’s efforts to lobby the EPA for looser regulations were encouraged by a Monsanto lobbyist even as Chassy was negotiating the release of his grant from the company.
For background on how this current story originally broke, you have to go back to Aug. 6, when the international science journal Nature reported that more than 4,600 pages of emails from University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta “reveal his close ties to the agriculture giant Monsanto … and other biotechnology-industry interests.”
The Nature article set off a minor firestorm on social media, when University of Florida professor and Monsanto promoter Kevin Folta’s emails were leaked to Nature’s Keith Kloor for damage control.
While Folta has not yet been charged with scientific misconduct or wrongdoing, these emails reveal a close relationship and financial ties to Monsanto for the first time publicly. The new reports of financial ties and Folta’s regular communication with Monsanto executives and lobbyists contradict Folta’s previous repeated denials of any relationship or conflict of interest with the St. Louis, Missouri based biotech seed and chemical giant responsible for mass producing such toxic cancer-causing chemicals as PCBs, Agent Orange, dioxin and now 80 percent of the genetically engineered crops that appear in our food supply.
“The documents show that Monsanto paid for Folta's travel to speak to U.S. students, farmers, politicians and the media,” according to Nature’s Keith Kloor. As reported, Folta received a $25,000 “unrestricted” grant from Monsanto in 2014, which a Monsanto representative stated could be used by Folta at his “discretion in support of your research and outreach projects.”
The information regarding Monsanto’s $25,000 donation only became public as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the public advocacy group U.S. Right to Know, who made the request after noticing Folta’s frequent responses on a pro-GMO industry run website, which is funded by the members of The Council for Biotechnology Information and includes BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta.
According to the emails released by the New York Times, Kevin Folta appears eager to please Monsanto’s executives, telling them, “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like” and, in order to get his $25,000 check cleared Folta claims, “I am grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment.” What kind of investment was Monsanto really making?
Two days later, Monsanto confirmed payment to Kevin Folta in an official letter.
In addition, the emails reveal a near constant communication between Kevin Folta, Monsanto’s top lobbyists, the crisis public relations firm Ketchum and a handful of U.S. scientists working behind the scenes to manipulate public perception on the safety of GMOs and Monsanto’s flagship herbicide Roundup dating back to at least 2013.
The emails between Folta, Monsanto and Ketchum PR are especially damning as they indicate that agents from the New York crisis management PR firm wrote answers specifically for Folta that he then cut and paste and posted on the GMO Answers website under his own name. A quick search of Folta’s public responses on the industry run website show that he began responding to questions about GMO technology on the website in July of 2013.
GMO Answers, lists Folta as an “Independent Expert” and a professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. One wonders what Professor Folta or the University of Florida would do if they caught Monsanto and Ketchum PR agents writing papers or scientific studies for their students which they submitted under their own names. In most cases this would result in plagiarism charges for the students and a potential dismissal from the university, but for Kevin Folta posting canned PR responses resulted in Monsanto writing a $25,000 check for what Folta claims is for his personal “science communication” fund.
For the past several years, Kevin Folta has made repeated claims that he was not linked, in any way, to Monsanto and he has made vicious attacks on anyone who insinuated otherwise on social media. But the content of these emails reveals otherwise.
Folta’s Deceptive Claims of No Relationship with Monsanto Do Not Add Up
In a recent June 4 interview with actor/comedian Joe Rogan, Folta was so bold as to claim “I have nothing to do with Monsanto” and “I am not a shill,” which produced a hearty chuckle from Rogan and a knowing grin from Folta himself.
By this time, Folta had been in close communication with Monsanto’s top lobbyists and executives for more than 3 years and had already started spending the $25,000 “unrestricted grant” from Monsanto. So why the cover-up?
Why Monsanto’s Hidden Conflict of Interest with Public University Scientists Harms Science and Open Discourse
While Folta proclaims independence, his public comments exactly mirror Monsanto talking points. This past spring, when the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared glyphosate, the main chemical ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, to be “probably carcinogenic to humans,” Monsanto immediately called this new report “junk science”.
Rather than look at the new report objectively, Kevin Folta sneeringly dismissed it and then offered to drink a pint of glyphosate in front of a class of students at Iowa State University that he was supposedly educating with his “science communication” skills. As an Iowan, I’m pretty sure that the ISU students were too smart to fall for this stupid stunt.
This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Folta was just another self-promoting blowhard on the Internet, but with Monsanto’s backing and close ties to a PR firm like Ketchum, these compromised public university scientists now have big media access and are being used as pawns to promote the safety of Monsanto and the biotechnology industry’s products.
For the first time now, with these public records requests, Americans concerned about how their food is produced are getting a firsthand look at the secret tactics of how corporations like Monsanto use PR firms and public university scientists to put a deceptive spin on potential safety issues of GMOs and pesticides.
In reality, this recently revealed collusion between Monsanto and public university scientists poisons the public dialogue and puts the health and safety of the American public at risk by using tobacco industry tactics.
In 1994, seven tobacco executives testified in front of Congress denying they manipulated their brand’s formula to make cigarettes addicting and mislead members of Congress about the scientific evidence linking their products to cancer. Exactly twenty years later, on December 10, 2014, a group of biotech industry apologists followed the same script while testifying in Congress to try to block reasonable and common sense GMO labeling laws, which more than 90 percent of Americans regularly support in public opinion polls.
Make no doubt about it, Monsanto’s current efforts to recruit public university scientists are not about communicating science, but to manipulate public opinion just like the tobacco industry.
The tragedy of this scenario is that taxpayers are indirectly helping fund a public disinformation campaign that is ultimately bent on denying them their basic right to know what’s in their food and derail the national movement to label genetically engineered foods. One wonders how much longer Big Tobacco would have been able to deceive Congress and the American public with a few more “independent scientists” like Chassy and Folta on hand.
Dave Murphy is the founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots movement of more than 650,000 American farmers and citizens dedicated to reforming policies relating to food, agriculture and the environment.
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By Kang-Chun Cheng
Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
The History of Horse Management<p>Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise <a href="http://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/WHB-Report-2020-NewCover-051920-508.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">managed by local inhabitants</a> as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."</p><p>Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."</p><p><a href="http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/847.full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">This act</a> has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.</p><p>The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's <a href="https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml" target="_blank">Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory</a> epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.</p><p>The presence of wild horses has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X" target="_blank">decrease native wildlife species diversity</a> for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of <a href="http://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pronghorn migration routes</a> have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">monopolizing watering holes</a>, thus preventing native species from drinking.</p>
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance<p>Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.</p><p>When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."</p>
A Willingness to Try New Things<p>"Americans don't know what's happening on these lands," says Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy organization. The Bureau of Land Management, she says, "is run by and for the livestock industry. They come from a ranching background. The term 'rangeland' management itself illustrates how livestock management is the dominant perspective."</p><p>Roy is particularly concerned about how resources are being allocated: "Policies of land management agencies don't reflect the desires and interests of the public." To illustrate, most Americans associate public lands with national parks and environmental conservation; only 29% of respondents to a recent poll considered livestock grazing an acceptable use of those lands.</p><p>Grazing on public lands certainly aligns with the financial interests of cattle ranchers and helps explain why they insist on increased wild horse management. Cattle can <a href="http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21232.pdf" target="_blank">graze on public lands</a> for $1.35 per animal per month, while grazing on comparable private land costs ranchers $23 per animal per month (American taxpayer dollars make up the difference). To be fair, though, small-scale ranching would not be viable without public lands.</p><p>The campaign hopes to work toward more equitable resource allocation and improvements to overall habitats for horses and wildlife generally. "There are workable solutions to this issue," Roy says. "Common pushback from rangers is that new conservation strategies will 'destroy our way of life,' but change doesn't have to be bad."</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0362331994900264" target="_blank">social conservatism</a> intrinsic to human cultures makes change seem daunting and people reluctant to try new tactics even in the face of suboptimal systems. Roy uses a case in adjacent Marin County to illustrate: Until 2001, the county ran a USDA program focused on killing apex predators (e.g. coyotes, mountain lions, and cougars) in defense of livestock. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to take into account the science of predators. Killing one mountain lion, for example, creates a vacuum and will eventually lead to increased competition for this newly available territory. In 2001, Marin introduced a country-run program that promoted nonlethal methods such as fox lights, guard dogs, and fladry to deal with predator incidents while compensating ranchers for sheep and lambs lost to predation.</p><p>Ranchers were initially livid, concerned that bans on shooting and trapping hindered their rights, making them defenseless against livestock predation. But 15 years later, a majority agreed that this form of humane <a href="http://www.projectcoyote.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Camilla-Fox-Thesis-FINAL-January-2008.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">adaptive management </a>has successfully reduced both livestock losses and the total number of predators. Ensuring its continued success, the program requires active participation on behalf of all stakeholders and long-term commitment from the local government for support.</p><p>As one fifth-generation sheepherder, Gowan Batiste, explained in an interview to the <a href="https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/mendocino-county-rancher-and-others-calling-for-non-lethal-wildlife-management/ar-BB16CJ8g" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ukiah Daily Journal,</a> "Livestock is a food of desperation for predators; the more you harass them and make life difficult for them, the more likely they are going to come into conflict with humans."</p>
Keeping Wild Horses in Check<p>When it comes to wild horses, many solutions are already in the works. Through annual autumn wild horse roundups, known as gathers, the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals has become one of the U.S.'s most successful adoption sites. The California Cattlemen's Association, a nonprofit trade association and organization popular among ranchers in Modoc, urges its members to support the wild horse gathers in Devils Garden, saying they are humane, good for the horses themselves (since competition for scarce water and forage resources may instigate aggression and <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1439-0310.1981.tb01930.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">herd violence</a>), and necessary to support local ranchers and Modoc's agriculture-reliant economy.</p><p>Another popular solution for controlling wild horse populations is a fertility-control vaccine called PZP, given to female horses on the range <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur7w3UPTCsk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">using dart guns</a>. Mares are tracked on foot or with game cameras while drones are used to locate more elusive herds. The PZP vaccine has been endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign as the "<a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/fertility-control" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">most promising strategy</a>" for managing wild horses in their habitats and is also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, a dose of the vaccine only costs $30.</p><p>Lastly, land acquisition and <a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/equitable-share-resources" target="_blank">grazing lease buyouts</a> can promote equitable sharing of public lands and available forage. Acquiring key pieces of land adjacent to or within federally designated wild horse habitat areas can reduce conflicts over resource allocation.</p>
A Global Search for Solutions<p>Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.</p><p>Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The <a href="https://savory.global/holistic-management/" target="_blank">amount of time</a> animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/food-everyone/2019/02/04/restoring-the-range-can-beef-be-earth-friendly/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, </a>as well as efficient carbon sequestration.</p><p>Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.</p><p>"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."</p><p>But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."</p>
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Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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