The Inside Story of How a University Professor Quietly Collaborated With Monsanto
Former University of Illinois food science professor Bruce Chassy is known for his academic gravitas. Now retired nearly four years, Chassy still writes and speaks often about food safety issues, identifying himself with the full weight of the decades of experience earned at the public university and as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health. Chassy tells audiences that before he retired in 2012, he worked “full time” doing research and teaching.
What Chassy doesn’t talk much about is the other work he did while at the University of Illinois—promoting the interests of Monsanto Co., which has been trying to overcome mounting public concerns about the genetically engineered (GMO) crops and chemicals the company sells. He also doesn’t talk much about the hundreds of thousands of dollars Monsanto donated to the university as Chassy was helping promote GMOs or Monsanto’s secretive role in helping Chassy set up a nonprofit group and website to criticize individuals and organizations who raise questions about GMOs.
But emails released through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Chassy was an active member of a group of U.S. academics who have been quietly collaborating with Monsanto on strategies aimed at not just promoting biotech crop products, but also rolling back regulation of these products and fending off industry critics. The emails show money flowing into the university from Monsanto as Chassy collaborated on multiple projects with Monsanto to counter public concerns about genetically modified crops (GMOs)—all while representing himself as an independent academic for a public institution.
A New York Times article by Eric Lipton published last September laid bare the campaign crafted by Monsanto and other industry players to use the credibility of prominent academics to push the industry’s political agenda. That New York Times article focused primarily on University of Florida academic Kevin Folta, chairman of the university’s Horticultural Sciences Department and Folta’s work on behalf of Monsanto. But an examination of recently released email exchanges between Monsanto and Chassy show new depths to the industry efforts.
The collaborations come at a critical juncture in the U.S. regarding GMO public policy. Mandatory GMO labeling is set to take effect in Vermont on July 1; Congress is wrestling over a federal labeling law for GMOs; and several other states are seeking their own answers to rising consumer demand for transparency about this topic.
Many consumer and environmental groups want to see more restrictions and regulation on GMO crops and the glyphosate herbicide many know as Roundup, which is used on GMOs. But the companies that market the crops and chemicals argue their products are safe and there should be less regulation, not more. Monsanto’s roughly $15 billion in annual revenue comes almost exclusively from GMO crop technology and related chemicals.
Amid the furor, the revelations about corporate collaboration with public university scientists to promote GMOs have sparked a new debate about a lack of transparency in the relationships between academics and industry.
Chassy has said he did nothing unethical or improper in his work supporting Monsanto and the biotech crop industry. “As a public-sector research scientist, it was expected ... that I collaborate with and solicit the engagement of those working in my field of expertise,” Chassy said.
Still, what you find when reading through the email chains is an arrangement that allowed industry players to cloak pro-GMO messaging within a veil of independent expertise and little, if any, public disclosure of the behind-the-scenes connections.
In a November 2010 email, Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs tells Chassy that Monsanto has just sent a “gift of $10,000” to the university “so the funds should be there.” He then tells Chassy he is working on a plan for Monsanto and others in the agribusiness industry to support an “academics review” website that Chassy can use to counter concerns and allegations raised by critics of GMOs. “From my perspective the problem is one of expert engagement and that could be solved by paying experts to provide responses,” Sachs wrote. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”
In a separate 2010 exchange, Jay Byrne, president of the v-Fluence public relations firm and former head of corporate communications for Monsanto, tells Chassy he is trying to move the Academics Review project forward. He suggests “we work on the money (for all of us).” Byrne says that he has a list of GMO critics for Academics Review to target. He tells Chassy that the topic areas “mean money for a range of well-heeled corporations.”
In 2011, several emails show Chassy and Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs, along with others, discussing ways to lobby the Environmental Protection Agency against expanded regulation of biotech crops.
In one email exchange from September 2011, Chassy suggests how the biotech crop industry might “spin” a government study that found significant levels of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, in air and water samples.
In emails from 2012, Chassy and Monsanto’s Sachs and Monsanto’s John Swarthout, who leads the company’s “scientific outreach and issues management,” discuss an upcoming presentation Chassy is preparing to make in China. They discuss Monsanto’s review of and changes to, the presentation. Monsanto’s Sachs instructs Swarthout to send slide decks to Chassy as material for his presentation.
In April 2012, Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond asks in an email if short videos can be created about the “safety of GM crops.” Chassy says that he is applying for funding from the State Department and “also seeking other sources of support” and can use university equipment to make the videos. Chassy asks Monsanto’s Hammond for a list of videos that “you think would be helpful.” Chassy tells Hammond that Byrne’s group v-fluence has helped create and edit the video scenarios.
In separate emails, Monsanto’s Sachs tells Chassy that Monsanto is shooting its own videos,” but says, “Obviously, independent content from the University of Illinois and supported by U.S. government agencies is the preferred approach.” Sachs tells Chassy that Monsanto is happy to help “provide guidance or approaches for additional videos.”
Emails About Money
The emails also discuss money.
In an October 2010 email, Chassy tells colleagues at the university that Monsanto has told him it is going to make a “substantial contribution” to his biotech account at the university.
In an October 2011 exchange, Chassy asked Sachs about a contribution for the university foundation biotech fund. The Monsanto executive responded that he would "make a gift to the foundation right away" if it had not already been made. Chassy instructs Monsanto to mail the check to the head of the university’s department of food science and to enclose a letter saying the check is “an unrestricted grant … in support of the biotechnology outreach and education activities of Professor Bruce M. Chassy.”
And in April and May of 2012 Chassy asks Monsanto directly about an expected “deposit.” In one, on May 31, 2012, as he was preparing to begin his retirement on June 30, Chassy wrote Monsanto’s Sachs again asking “is there any way to find out if a check was issued to University of Illinois for me? I don’t see it in my account yet …”
Also in May 2012, Monsanto made a $250,000 grant to the university to help set up an agricultural communications endowed chair. That donation was just a drop in the bucket of the donations from Monsanto—at least $1.9 million in the last five years, according to the university—for agriculture-related projects.
Continued Close Ties
The close ties between Monsanto and Chassy continued past Chassy’s retirement in June 2012 from the university. Through 2013 and 2014 Chassy frequently appeared as an “independent expert” on the GMO Answers website, a pro-GMO site funded by Monsanto and other agribusiness giants. In that role, he answered questions and concerns about GMOs.
Chassy also has continued to operate Academics Review, publishing critical articles about individuals and organizations, including the World Health Organization’s cancer experts, that report information unfavorable for the GMO crop industry. (I was the subject of at least two such attacks in 2014. Chassy objected to my presentation of both sides of the GMO safety debate in one Reuters article and objected to a second Reuters article that detailed the findings of a USDA report that found both benefits but also concerns associated with GMOs.)
When asked about its interactions with Chassy, Monsanto has said that there is nothing improper with its “engagements” with “public sector experts” and that such collaborations help educate the public on important topics. The university also has said it sees nothing wrong with the relations. A university spokeswoman said Chassy has "strong scientific credibility." She also said that Monsanto has given the university at least $1.9 million in the last five years.
But others familiar with the issues say the lack of transparency is a problem.
“These revelations regarding the connections are very important,” George Kimbrell, senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety, said. “The basic disclosure that some academics and other ‘neutral’ commentators in the public sphere are actually paid operatives/working directly with the chemical industry rightly alarms the public, as they are being misled.”
Revelations similar to these involving University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta’s connections to Monsanto did spark a public backlash after emails showed Folta received an unrestricted $25,000 grant and told Monsanto he would “write whatever you like.” Folta said in a Jan. 18 blog that he no longer works with Monsanto because of the heated backlash.
Both Chassy and Folta have repeatedly written or been quoted in news articles that failed to disclose their connections to Monsanto and the GMO industry. In a recent example, Chassy has co-authored a series of articles that argue GMO labeling is a “disaster in waiting,” again with no disclosure of his collaboration with GMO developer Monsanto. His co-author is Jon Entine, founder of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included Monsanto, a connection Entine does not include in the article.
The revelations in the emails about Chassy, Folta and other assorted academics leave many questions about who to trust and how to trust information critical to understanding our evolving food system. With food labeling issues at the forefront of debate, it’s time for more transparency.
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Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
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