By Dr. Mercola
Conflicts of interest are nothing new, but these days they have become more or less routine — an integral part of how entire industries operate.
The industries making the heaviest use of the "third-party approach," in which front groups, academics, and "independent" researchers are used to promote an agenda, tend to be industries that are more inherently harmful to the public.
Notorious examples include the tobacco, chemical, food additives, and biotechnology industries.
A previous article1 in Take Part lists nine industry-funded groups that promote an industry's selfish agenda, even though you'd be hard-pressed to realize it based on names like Center for Food Integrity, and the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
Monsanto, lobbies for and shapes public opinion through an entire network of front groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the American Council on Science and Health, and the Center for Consumer Freedom, just to name a few.
Kevin Folta — Poster Boy for Industry-Funded Third-Party Experts
One of the most recent conflict-of-interest scandals involving Monsanto and University of Florida professor Kevin Folta, a vocal advocate of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), was recently highlighted by Nature2 and The New York Times.3,4
Folta, who has vehemently denied ever receiving any money from Monsanto, was caught having been less than forthright about his connections to the company when his email correspondence was released in response to a freedom of information (FOIA) request by US Right to Know.5
In August of last year, Folta did in fact receive a $25,000 unrestricted grant from Monsanto, and Folta wrote back to a Monsanto executive saying: "I am grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment."
However, despite a rare flurry of media attention, none of the mainstream media outlets have addressed the most flagrant piece of evidence against Folta, showing that not only did he solicit these funds from Monsanto, he appeared to do so with intent to hide the financial connection between them.
Keith Kloor, who initially broke the story about Folta’s connections to Monsanto in Nature,6 may in fact have been trying to soften the scandal.
As revealed by US Right to Know,7 Kloor is looked upon as an ally of Monsanto’s propaganda machine, and it appears Folta or the University of Florida were the ones who released the emails to Kloor in the first place, likely as a form of media preemption.
They probably did so because they knew it would soften the blow to have an industry advocate break the story.
The New York Times8 posted a long list of emails between Folta and Monsanto, obtained through the FOIA request. I encourage you to read these emails to see for yourself how Monsanto's PR firms use "independent" scientists to further the industry's version of science.
Folta's Emails Show Intent to Hide Financial Ties to Monsanto
In a July 15, 2014 email9 to Keith Reding,10 the Biotech Regulatory Policy Lead at Monsanto, Folta writes:
"Keith, this is a real winner. It will take a huge amount of time, but I think it will have a lot of impact... Thank you for this opportunity. It was a good time to think about how to solve the problem and devise a clever solution."
To solve the "biotech communications problem," Folta lays out a three-tiered program that includes training the trainers, engaging the public, and on-campus training at the University of Florida.
The total budget proposed by Folta for the implementation of this pro-industry agenda was $25,000 — a budget that was indeed approved.
However, while his public defense for his lack of transparency has been spun in a number of ways, no one has pinned him down on the following point: Why did he propose the funds be given in such a way as to remain UNDISCLOSED?
The very last paragraph in his proposal for this program (page 104 in the emails published by The New York Times), Folta writes:
"The total budget is $25,000. If funded directly to the program as a SHARE contribution (essentially unrestricted funds) it is not subject to IDC and is not in a 'conflict-of-interest' account.
In other words, SHARE contributions are not publicly noted. This eliminates the potential concern of the funding organization influencing the message."
Financial Ties Are Hidden to Hide Message Source
That last paragraph clearly shows that Folta is the one offering the suggestion to hide the funds. He had no intention of disclosing his financial ties to Monsanto. It would appear he purposely solicited the funds with intent to hide the source.
While it may not legally qualify as money laundering, the effect is essentially the same. This email shows how the shell game works, and it reveals a disturbing reality: simply by moving money around via certain channels, it allows the "third-party" to appear as independent and not funded by industry.
It reminds me a bit of the situation with the Grocery Manufacturers Association,11 which in 2013 was sued by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson for money laundering after it illegally collected and spent more than $7 million in donations from its members to fight GMO labeling in Washington, all while hiding the identity of its big business contributors.
Folta's incriminating email needs to be addressed and answered, because it shows a premeditated attempt to hide a financial contribution from the industry.
Why hide it at all? Because everyone knows that with the money comes influence. Folta himself promised a "return on investment" in writing.
The influence of the funding source is not an assumption — it's been scientifically investigated, and studies show that "gifts" from drug companies indeed influence the prescribing behavior of physicians, for example. And this influence was generated on amounts far smaller than Folta's grant. The benefits of industry relationships in science are quite similar to those in politics.
Studies have also shown that the funding source has a significant influence on the outcome of research.
Not only did Folta tell Monsanto12 he would "write whatever you like," he also apparently used the answers written by Monsanto's PR firm Ketchum to answer questions posed on the GMO Answers website, in which he was featured as a non-biased independent scientist.
Nature,13 which broke the Folta story, made it seem as though he'd ignored the canned answers provided for him by Ketchum. However, according to The New York Times,14 Folta often did use the Ketchum's answers, nearly verbatim, noting he now says that doing so was "a mistake," and "absolutely not the right thing."
As noted by The New York Times, "... the emails show how academics have shifted from researchers to actors in lobbying and corporate public relations campaigns."
Indeed, Folta's emails show that industry moguls like Monsanto can (and do) dump money into public universities without ever having to disclose it. And scientists are in on the game, allowing and even recommending the money be "laundered" in such a way as to keep the fake veil of "independence" needed to maintain public trust.
Mainstream Media Finally Taking Notice of the Problem
The undisclosed recruitment of academics and scientists from universities such as Harvard, Cornell, the University of Florida, Penn State, and others is finally starting to gain some serious attention by the media, with critical articles being published not just by the New York Times, but also by Bloomberg,15 Chicago Tribune,16 The StarPhoenix,17 and The Boston Globe.18
"The company's role isn't noted in the series of articles published in December by the Genetic Literacy Project, a nonprofit group that says its mission is 'to disentangle science from ideology.' The group said that such a disclosure isn't necessary because the the company didn't pay the authors and wasn't involved in writing or editing the articles," Bloomberg writes.
As reported by both Bloomberg and Mother Jones19 — the latter of which includes an informative summary of the released emails so far — two years ago Monsanto's head of strategic engagement, Eric Sachs, asked a number of scientists to write a series of "policy briefs" relating to biotechnology. The topics were chosen based on "their influence on public policy, GM crop regulation, and consumer acceptance." According to one of Monsanto's emails:
"The key to success is participation by all of you - recognized leaders with the knowledge, reputation, and communication experience needed to communicate authoritatively with the target groups."
Less than a year later, the Genetic Literacy Project's website ran a series of articles that, according to Mother Jones "look remarkably like the ones proposed by Sachs, though no involvement with Monsanto is disclosed in any of them." The articles in question were written by Kevin Folta, Anthony Shelton, an entomologist and professor at Cornell; Calestous Juma, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government; Peter W.B. Phillips, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan; and David Shaw, chief research officer at Mississippi State University.
Undisclosed Recruitment of Scientists Suggests Monsanto Cannot Defend Its Own Science
As in Folta's case, email exchanges suggest that the papers ultimately penned by these academics were less than independently conceived... As noted by The Boston Globe:20
"A Harvard Kennedy School professor wrote a widely disseminated policy paper last year in support of genetically modified organisms at the behest of seed giant Monsanto, without disclosing his connection, e-mails show. Monsanto not only suggested the topic to professor Calestous Juma. It went so far as to provide a summary of what the paper could say and a suggested headline. The company then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet as part of Monsanto's strategy to win over the public and lawmakers..."
Like Folta, Juma defends his actions saying he was not paid by Monsanto, and that he used material from a book he wrote on the topic of his article. Yet one has to ask, if these scientists are indeed independent experts, why are they being spoon-fed by Monsanto and their PR machines? It just doesn't look good, and it's really difficult to defend your independence when you've been given exact parameters to follow by a company's public relations outfit...
In response to these findings, Bloomberg quotes Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It as saying:
"It says something that Monsanto can't defend the safety of their own products, that they have to resort to hiring a PR consultant and get academics to spin the science."
And, as noted by The StarPhoenix:21
"[Gary] Ruskin, whose group [US Right to Know] accessed thousands of pages of emails and other documents linking the scientists and Monsanto, said North Americans should be able to trust their top university scientists, and that's not possible when significant connections to corporations such as Monsanto are not disclosed."
The Questionable History of Monsanto's PR Firm Ketchum
In one email,22 Folta refers to Monsanto's PR firm Ketchum as his "friends." But Ketchum is a PR group with a questionable history; they're not exactly the people you want partnered with university academics teaching your kids. According to Ketchum, it was hired by the Council for Biotechnology Information (a biotech front group) to improve GMOs' public image and "balance" the online conversation.
US Right to Know previously called attention to a video ad in which the firm spoke about doubling positive GMO coverage using online social media monitoring — a tactic that smacks of internet "sockpuppets" — fake internet personas who interject themselves into social media conversations to steer the debate.
Ketchum also created the GMO Answers website, in which professors at public universities (including Folta) answer GMO questions from the public — supposedly without remuneration from the industry, although the email exchanges between Ketchum and Folta reveal the firm supplies prewritten answers to the questions they ask these "independent experts" to address.
In 2008, Mother Jones23 implicated Ketchum in an espionage effort against nonprofit organizations, including the Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth, and in 2010 Greenpeace sued the firm "for hiring former executives at a private security firm to spy on the environmental group from 1998 to 2000, and to perform a range of 'clandestine and unlawful' actions, including trespassing and stealing documents, in order to undermine the group's anti-pollution efforts against the chemical industry," Telesur TV reports.24
Ketchum is also a "disaster PR expert" that does work for a number of politicians and world leaders with image problems, including Russian President Vladimir Putin,25 as well as corrupt governments around the world. As recently reported by Telesur TV:26
"The Honduran government will pay controversial U.S.-based public relations firm Ketchum close to US$500,000 over the next year to give its embattled government a makeover after a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal sparked months of popular protests calling for the president's resignation. Ketchum will provide crisis management and reputation improvement services and report to President Juan Hernandez's sister Hilda Hernandez, who currently serves as Honduras' minister of strategy communications..."
FP1 Strategies — Monsanto PR Firm Lobbying to Put an End to GMO Labeling Efforts
FP1 Strategies — another Monsanto PR firm — was co-founded by Danny Diaz, who was recently brought on to manage Jeb Bush's presidential bid. One of Diaz's previous victories include a successful campaign to prevent the restriction of over-the-counter sale of cough medicine used in meth labs.27
The firm has also been accused of using sneaky tactics against farm workers pushing for wage increases. FP1 is involved in the Grocery Manufacturers Association's (GMA) lobbying efforts for the Pompeo bill, HR 1599, which preempts states' rights to create their own GMO food labeling laws.
Efforts to Educate Senators About the DARK Act Appears to Be Working
With regards to HR 1599, congratulations are in order, although we're certainly not out of the woods yet. In previous articles, I've urged you to speak to your Senators about HR 1599, and your donations have also allowed the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) to travel across the country to meet with Senators about the contents of this horrendous bill.
Not only does Pompeo's bill bar states from introducing their own GMO labeling, it also preempts the FDA or any other federal agency from requiring labels on GMO foods. It even goes so far as to preventing the FDA from allowing voluntary GMO labeling! This bill has all the bases covered to make sure you will not know if and when a food is genetically engineered.
All of this outreach has been effective, as a Senate bill has not yet been introduced. However, as OCA pointed out in a recent newsletter, the absence of a Senate bill is not going to stop Monsanto, and this is not the time to sit back and take a breather. You can bet the industry, spearheaded by the GMA, will come out swinging. A hearing will take place in the Agriculture Committee on October 21 - please make an effort to contact your senator.
Folta's Irresponsible Defense of Roundup
In addition to being pro-GMO in general, Kevin Folta is also a staunch defender of Monsanto's flagship product Roundup. The active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, which in late March was reclassified as a "probable human carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization (WHO).
For a review of the published studies28 questioning the safety of glyphosate in terms of its effects on human and animal health, check out this compilation by Dr. Alex Vasquez, containing 220-pages' worth of research. Recent follow-up research29,30 by Gilles-Éric Séralini — whose initial lifetime feeding study revealed massive tumor growth and early death — shows that long-term exposure to even ultra-low amounts of Roundup may cause tumors, along with liver and kidney damage in rats. Another heavily referenced 80-page report31 is "Banishing Glyphosate," authored by Drs. Eva Sirinathsinghji and Mae-Wan Ho.
Despite such well-documented concerns, Folta claims to have demonstrated glyphosate's harmlessness by drinking it, apparently more than once, judging by his Twitter posts.32 There are no photos or videos of these stunts however, so there's no telling if he actually did so, or how much of this registered poison he may have imbibed.
But regardless of the purity of his intentions, there's no scientific basis for drinking Roundup, and it's hard to imagine that a university professor charged with teaching students about safe handling of pesticides would actually do something that irresponsible. Glyphosate alone has been scientifically demonstrated to be toxic and Roundup even more so, courtesy of the synergistic chemical interactions with surfactants and other additives. Drinking a registered poison to "prove" harmlessness is a stunt — it's clearly NOT a scientific way to prove safety in an educational setting.
Should You Be Concerned About Corporate Influence Over University Research?
In the end, the case of Kevin Folta has brought to the fore the problems inherent with allowing corporations to influence public land-grant universities. These concerns are laid out in some detail in a Food and Water Watch report33 titled, "Public Research, Private Gain." Land-grant universities first came about in 1862, at which time they revolutionized agriculture by devising improved seeds, hybrid plant varieties, and scientific breakthroughs that bolstered productivity. They initially partnered with farmers, and the research generally improved both food safety and availability.
Back then, the innovations coming out of these research facilities were primarily funded by public investments. That changed when, in the 1980s, federal policies began to encourage land-grant universities to partner with private corporations to further agricultural research. The patented seed business is an outgrowth of the research performed at these institutions in partnership with the private sector. As noted in this report:
"By 2010, private donations provided nearly a quarter of the funding for agricultural research at land-grant universities. This funding steers land-grant research toward the goals of industry. It also discourages independent research that might be critical of the industrial model of agriculture, and diverts public research capacity away from important issues such as rural economies, environmental quality, and the public health implications of agriculture.
Private-sector funding not only corrupts the public research mission of land-grant universities, but also distorts the science that is supposed to help farmers improve their practices and livelihoods. Industry funded academic research routinely produces favorable results for industry sponsors...
Congress should restore the public agricultural research mission at land-grant schools... Reprioritizing research at land-grant universities... could play a vital role in developing the science and solutions needed to create a viable alternative to our industrialized, consolidated food system."
Labeling GMOs Is Necessary to Protect Public Health
The food industry has spent $51.6 million on a series of efforts to defeat GMO labeling laws,34 including lobbing for HR 1599, which would bar states from implementing their own GMO labeling laws. As of July 21, Monsanto alone had spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress.35 International trade agreements also threaten to restrict transparency about food — how it's produced, and where it comes from.
Why are these industries spending so much money and going to such great lengths to eliminate transparency about toxic exposures and potentially harmful substances in our food supply? Could it be because they realize how bad the situation really is, and that if public knowledge continues to grow, they won't be able to continue running business as usual?
Anyone who has taken the time to look at the available information on GMOs, Roundup, and other pesticides, and the damaging effects of modern industrialized agriculture as a whole will recognize that the situation is unsustainable and nearing a breaking point — both in terms of environmental harm and public health. We need to turn this situation around, and at the present moment, the most urgent action item is still to make sure our US Senators reject HR 1599, so that efforts to label GE foods can move forward.