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Internal Monsanto documents released in August provide a rare inside look at how pesticide and food companies try to discredit public interest groups and journalists who report critical information about their products. The documents (posted here) show that Monsanto and its new owner, Bayer, were especially worried about U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), a nonprofit research group that began investigating the food industry in 2015. According to Monsanto’s response plan, “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry,” and “has the potential to be extremely damaging.” Read about it in The Guardian.
Four years ago, we began filing public records requests to try to understand how pesticide and food companies influence science, policy and public opinion about our food. We quickly turned up documents that became a front-page New York Times story, and contributed to news coverage around the world about the health risks of our food system and activities the big companies want to keep hidden, particularly their influence over academics and public institutions. Here are some of our top findings so far.
1. Monsanto funds “independent” academics to promote and lobby for agrichemical products — and hides these collaborations from the public
The USRTK investigations have documented numerous examples of how pesticide companies rely heavily on publicly funded academics to assist with PR and lobbying. A September 2015 front-page New York Times article revealed that Monsanto enlisted academics, and paid them secretly, to oppose GMO labeling laws. An example later detailed by WBEZ described how a University of Illinois professor received $57,000 from Monsanto over two years to promote and lobby for GMOs, and his university received millions in undisclosed funds. The professor appeared frequently in the press as an “independent” expert.
Documents reported in the Boston Globe, Bloomberg and Mother Jones describe how Monsanto assigned, scripted and promoted pro-GMO papers from professors at Harvard, Cornell and other universities, which were published with no mention of Monsanto’s role. At the University of Saskatchewan, Monsanto coached a professor and edited his academic articles, according to documents reported by the CBC. At the request of the pesticide industry’s PR firm, a University of Florida professor produced a video that aimed to discredit a Canadian teenager who criticized GMOs, according to documents reported by Global News.
2. The influential nonprofit ILSI is a lobby group for food and pesticide companies
In September 2019, the New York Times reported on the “shadowy industry group” International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) that is shaping food policy around the world. The Times article cites a recent study co-authored by Gary Ruskin of USRTK reporting how ILSI operates as a lobby group that promotes the interest of its food and pesticide industry funders. See coverage of our study in the BMJ and The Guardian, and read more about the organization the Times described as “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of” in our ILSI fact sheet.
In 2017, Ruskin co-authored a journal article reporting on emails showing food industry leaders discussing how they “have to use external organizations” when dealing with controversies over the health risks of their products. The emails show senior leaders in the food industry advocating for a coordinated approach to influencing scientific evidence, expert opinion and regulators across the world. See Bloomberg coverage, “Emails show how the food industry uses ‘science’ to push soda.”
The USRTK investigation also spurred a 2016 story in The Guardian reporting that the leaders of a Joint FAO/WHO panel that cleared glyphosate of cancer concerns also held leadership positions at ILSI, which received large donations from the pesticide industry.
3. Top CDC officials collaborated with Coca-Cola to shape the obesity debate, and advised Coca-Cola on how to stop WHO from cracking down on added sugars
Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know led to another front-page New York Times story in 2017 reporting that the newly appointed director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Brenda Fitzgerald, saw Coca-Cola as an ally on obesity issues (Fitzgerald has since resigned).
USRTK was also first to report in 2016 that another high-ranking CDC official had cozy ties to Coke, and tried to assist the company in steering the World Health Organization away from its efforts to discourage consumption of added sugars; see reporting by Carey Gillam, research director of U.S. Right to Know. Our work also contributed to a study in the Milbank Quarterly co-authored by Gary Ruskin detailing conversations between the CDC and Coca-Cola executives. Two articles in the BMJ based on USRTK documents, and articles in the Washington Post, Atlanta Journal Constitution, San Diego Union Tribune, Forbes, CNN, Politico and The Intercept provide more details about Coke’s influence at the U.S. public health agency that is supposed to help prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes and other diseases.
4. The U.S. FDA found glyphosate residues in honey, infant cereals, and other common foods, and then stopped testing for the chemical
FDA did not release the information, so USRTK did.
Carey Gillam broke news in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and USRTK about internal government documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests showing that the U.S. FDA conducted tests that found the weed-killer glyphosate in an array of commonly consumed foods including granola, crackers, infant cereal and in very high levels in honey. The FDA did not release the information, so USRTK did. The government then suspended its testing program for glyphosate residues in food, Gillam reported.
FDA did resume testing and in late 2018 and issued a report that showed very limited testing and reported no worrisome levels of glyphosate. The report did not include any of the information USRTK turned up through FOIAs.
If you value this type of investigative reporting, please contribute to our fall fundraising drive.
5. Breaking news about the Monsanto Roundup cancer trials
U.S. Right to Know frequently breaks news about the Roundup cancer trials via Carey Gillam’s Roundup Trial Tracker, which provides a first look at discovery documents, interviews and news tips about the trials. More than 18,400 people have filed suit against the Monsanto Company (now owned by Bayer) alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks.
As part of the discovery process, Monsanto has turned over millions of pages of its internal records. USRTK is posting many of these documents and court records free of charge on our Monsanto Papers pages.
6. Pesticide companies secretly funded an academic group that attacked the organic industry
A group calling itself Academics Review made headlines in 2014 with a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam. The group claimed it was run by independent academics, and accepted no corporate contributions; however, documents obtained by USRTK and reported in the Huffington Post revealed the group was set up with the help of Monsanto to be an industry-funded front group that could discredit critics of GMOs and pesticides.
Tax records show that Academics Review received most of its funding from the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a trade group funded by the world’s largest pesticide companies.
7. Universities hosted conferences funded by the pesticide industry to train scientists and journalists how to promote GMOs and pesticides
Pesticide-industry funded “boot camps” held at the University of Florida and the University of California, Davis brought together scientists, journalists and industry PR allies to discuss how to “connect emotionally with skeptical parents” in their messaging to promote GMOs and pesticides, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know.
Two industry front groups, Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, organized the messaging-training events, and claimed the funding came from government, academic and industry sources; however, according to reporting in The Progressive, non-industry sources denied funding the events and the only traceable source of funds was the pesticide industry trade group CBI, which spent more than $300,000 on the two conferences.
8. Coca-Cola secretly tried to influence medical and science journalists
Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and reported in the BMJ show how Coca-Cola funded journalism conferences at a U.S. university in an attempt to create favorable press coverage of sugar-sweetened drinks. When challenged about funding of the series of conferences, the academics involved weren’t truthful about industry involvement.
9. Coca Cola saw itself at “war” with the public health community over obesity
Another journal article co-authored by USRTK’s Gary Ruskin in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health revealed how Coca-Cola saw itself at “war” with the “public health community.” The emails also reveal the company’s thoughts on how to deal with issues surrounding obesity and responsibility for this public health crisis; for more see Ruskin’s article in Environmental Health News and more journal articles co-authored by USRTK on our Academic Work page.
10. Dozens of academics and other industry allies coordinate their messaging with agrichemical companies and their PR operatives
Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know reveal never-before-reported facts about the front groups, academics, and other third party allies the pesticide and food companies rely on to promote their public relations and lobbying agendas. USRTK provides detailed fact sheets about more than two dozen leading third party allies who appear to be independent, but work closely with companies and their PR firms on coordinated pro-industry messages. See our fact sheet, Tracking the Agrichemical Industry Propaganda Network.
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