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  • Scientific American recently hosted a panel discussion about GMOs, co-sponsored by GMO Answers—a site caught using academics as “independent fronts” to promote GMOs
  • Three years ago, Scientific American editors wrote an article explicitly supporting GMOs and arguing against labeling, so it would seem the magazine is yet another shill for the chemical biotechnology industry
  • While still being heavily influenced by the drug industry, WebMD has virtually eliminated Monsanto’s presence on its site
 

Scientific American—Another Monsanto Bedfellow

April 19, 2016 | 217,131 views

By Dr. Mercola

Who can you trust to give you accurate, objective information about science and health these days? That's a question that keeps surfacing again and again, as mainstream sources for this type of information are being increasingly infiltrated by special interest groups.

A recent article in The Huffington Post1 discusses "Monsanto's media machine," noting the many ways in which it has tried to manipulate and dominate the conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In March, the media and partnerships division of Scientific American hosted a panel discussion about GMOs. The event was co-sponsored by GMO Answers, an organization created by the PR firm Ketchum, which works on behalf of the Council for Biotechnology Information to improve the public image of GMOs. US Right to Know has previously called attention to a video ad in which the firm talks about how it doubled positive GMO coverage using online social media monitoring.

This is a tactic that smacks of internet "sockpuppets" — fake internet personas who interject themselves into social media conversations to steer the debate.

Is Scientific American Now in Bed With Monsanto?

Jeremy Abatte, vice president and publisher of Scientific American, insisted the event was not a Ketchum event but a Scientific American event. Not everyone's buying it though.

As noted by Lisa Graves, head of the Center for Media and Democracy, "Quite frankly, after Ketchum's documented role with black ops-type spying on public interest groups like Greenpeace, it is astonishing that any legitimate scientific magazine would partner with them."

She's referring to Ketchum's 2008 debacle, when Mother Jones2 implicated the firm in an espionage effort against a number of nonprofit organizations critical of GMOs. Besides Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, Public Citizen, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Friends of the Earth were also targeted.

Ketchum is also a "disaster PR expert" that has done work for a number of politicians and world leaders with image problems,3 as well as corrupt governments around the world.4

With a track record like that, it does make one wonder why Scientific American would be so willing to risk its reputation by being in any way associated with Ketchum. GMO Answers — one of Ketchum's creations — also has a shady reputation to say the least.

The site is set up to allow professors at public universities answer GMO questions from the public — supposedly without remuneration from the industry. But there are many questions about the "independence" of these academics.

Many 'Independent' Academics Are In Fact 'On the Take'

In January 2015, US Right to Know filed state public records requests5 to obtain correspondence to and from professors at public universities who wrote for the GMO Answer's website. By early September, the truth began to be unveiled.

One of the most widely publicized conflict-of-interest scandals involved Monsanto and University of Florida professor Kevin Folta, a vocal advocate of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The story received extensive coverage in Nature magazine 6  and The New York Times,7,8,9 which posted a long list of emails between Folta and Monsanto, obtained through the FOIA request.

Folta was a contributor to GMO Answers, and while he vehemently denied ever receiving any money from Monsanto, emails showed otherwise. He had in fact received a $25,000 unrestricted grant from Monsanto — monies he specifically instructed the company to donate in such a way as to remain undisclosed.

The emails between Folta and Monsanto reveal how, simply by moving money around via certain channels, it allows the academic to appear as independent and not funded by industry, when in fact they're actually engaged in a very close, coordinated communications effort.

Fortunately, the undisclosed recruitment of academics and scientists from universities such as Harvard, Cornell, the University of Florida, Penn State and others actually gained serious attention by the mainstream media.

Critical articles were penned not just by The New York Times, but also by Bloomberg,10 Chicago Tribune,11 The Saskatoon StarPhonenix,12 and The Boston Globe.13 

Academics Routinely Used to 'Front' Opaque Industry Lobbying Efforts

This year, two other university professors with links to Monsanto have been outed for writing pro-GMO material without disclosing their ties to the company. 

An investigation by Chicago WBEZ news14 discovered that Monsanto paid the now retired University of Illinois' professor Bruce Chassy more than $57,000 over two years for travel, writing, and speaking expenses, yet Chassy never disclosed his financial ties to the company on state and university conflict of interest disclosure forms.

Chassy even lobbied federal officials on Monsanto's behalf to prevent further regulations on GMOs. While Chassy claims he did this of his own volition, emails15 show Monsanto's Eric Sachs urged Chassy to get involved.

They also reveal that this was in fact part of an industry lobbying effort, "with academics out in front," basically pretending to be acting independently. Moreover, just as in Folta's case, the money Chassy received from Monsanto was funneled in such a way as to circumvent rules of public disclosure.

WBEZ's investigation also revealed that the disclosure policies of the University of Illinois — a public land grant university — not only fail to prevent conflicts of interest between academia and private companies like Monsanto, they actually facilitate it.

By allowing companies to donate money to university foundations, even though they're "earmarked" for a specific person, the transactions remain completely hidden from public scrutiny — including FOIA requests. 

Internet's Most Trusted Health Site Still Rife With Conflicts of Interest

Then there's WebMD, the most visited health site on the web, which promises to provide you with "objective, trustworthy, and accurate health information," despite its deep connections to the pharmaceutical industry. Such ties, and the conflicts of interest they engender, have raised red flags for a number of years now. 16,17

Partnerships and sponsorships18 color WebMD's recommendations across the board, and the use of sneaky "passive" promotion, where advertisements are designed to look like editorials, have become increasingly common.

In essence, you think you're reading a regular content article written and vetted by WebMD's editorial staff, when in fact you're reading a marketing piece created by the advertiser's PR department.

In January of this year, I wrote an article pointing out how Monsanto had suddenly established a clear presence on WebMD. At the time, almost every WebMD article flaunted a Monsanto sponsored ad saying, "It's time for a bigger discussion about food," with links to Monsanto's biased take on soil, water, and honey bee issues, with no other contributors to the discussion in sight.

Fast-forward a few months to today, and all of those Monsanto-sponsored videos and pages are now gone. In their stead, you'll find articles that at least have some semblance of balance, presenting voices from both sides of the issue.

When searching for the term "GMO" you even end up getting an old article detailing the health concerns brought forth in Jeffrey Smith's "Genetic Roulette," noting that Americans are ill informed about GMOs and the studies showing potential harm.19 

Whether my criticism — which reached well over 270,000 readers — had anything to do with this turn of events, I don't know, but it's interesting to note nonetheless. Sometimes when an actor's wrongdoing is exposed, they self-correct, and this is precisely why open conversation about the current pattern of financing by special interest groups is so important.

Can WebMD Be Unbiased, and Sell Drugs at the Same Time?

WebMD may have ditched Monsanto after what amounted to a one-night stand, but they're still in bed with the pharmaceutical industry. A recent "Dear Julia" column20 on Vox.com addresses WebMD's symbiotic relationship with the pharmaceutical industry. The question is, is it possible to provide "objective, trustworthy, and accurate health information" while simultaneously being in the business of helping your advertisers sell drugs?

According to a 2013 study21 published in JAMA, WebMD and its sister site Medscape were the top recipients of Big Pharma cash of all the medical communication companies targeting doctors. In second place was the Postgraduate Institute for Medicine, followed by Research to Practice,

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and Medical Education Resources. Overall, WebMD/Medscape received nearly double the funds of the second-place receiver — a grand total of $20.3 million. Julia also noted the dizzying array of drug ads covering every page, no matter what you're looking for, and the fear-based tone of many of their pages.

She writes:

"Some parts of the site seem to be designed to turn users into patients. The site's popular symptom checker, which allows users to insert basic information about their age, sex, and symptoms, is a hypochondriac's worst nightmare. A search for bloating in the lower abdomen suggested one could have anything from menstrual cramps to ovarian or colon cancers...No context — just a list of scary diagnoses."

She also reminds her readers about WebMD's free online depression test,22 which was rigged in such a way that no matter how you responded, you were told you were at risk for major depression and should discuss your options with your doctor. An investigation revealed the test was entirely fake. Sponsored by Eli Lilly, the maker of Cymbalta, it served just one function: to get you to talk to your doctor about antidepressants.

This sneaky form of direct-to-consumer advertising masquerading as a legitimate health test sparked enough furor to spur Senator Charles Grassley to launch an investigation. After all, no one expects to be directed to seek help, let alone drugs, when you have no symptoms of a problem whatsoever.

Scientific American Has Been Pro-GMO for Years

Getting back to where I started, as much as I like Scientific American, I cannot let them slide on the GMO issue. Three years ago, the magazine's editors wrote an article23 in explicit support of GMOs. It was also explicitly anti-labeling. Just last year they published an article24 headlined: "Why People Oppose GMOs Even Though Science Says They Are Safe." Clearly, Scientific American is not entirely unbiased, which means it doesn't really matter who was in charge of the GMO panel discussion; Scientific American or Ketchum, they're already on the same side.

The 2015 article was written by Stefan Blancke, a doctoral researcher in the department of philosophy and moral science at Ghent University in Belgium. He's published a paper in which he and his colleagues argue: "that negative representations of GMOs are widespread and compelling because they are intuitively appealing.

By tapping into intuitions and emotions that mostly work under the radar of conscious awareness, but are constituent of any normally functioning human mind, such representations become easy to think. They capture our attention, they are easily processed and remembered and thus stand a greater chance of being transmitted and becoming popular, even if they are untrue. Thus, many people oppose GMOs, in part, because it just makes sense that they would pose a threat."

Personally, I'd be curious to know whether Blancke's situation is similar to Folta and Chassy. Both denied financial ties to Monsanto, yet both were caught having received tens of thousands of dollars in undisclosed funds. The idea that people would have concerns about GMOs because it's "easier" to process the idea that they might be harmful than to actually understand the science sounds just like the kind of propaganda the biotech industry would embrace and support. Needless to say, Blancke's article did nothing to enlighten people about the actual science, and this tends to be typical for industry-biased propaganda.

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