Industry Documents confirm Biofortified’s Independence

posted in: Commentary | 3

As the Biofortified Blog approaches its 10th anniversary, it is a good time to reflect on our mission, our work, and our commitment to upholding our values. When I proposed Biofortified.org to be the home of a new group blog on plant genetics, I didn’t quite know where it would go, but I knew one thing: If it was to be a hub for reliable scientific information and commentary it would need to be transparent and independent. We’ve weathered our share of empty accusations as our influence on the discussion grew, and raised curious eyebrows at corporate PR from both the biotech industry and its non-biotech competitors. For the past year we’ve been on the receiving end of one particularly puzzling accusation – that we’re an “industry partner” – as stated on an internal Monsanto document that was obtained in a court case. It was puzzling not only because our organization has never partnered with industry on PR, but I had spoken with one Monsanto PR rep who explicitly understood our policy of independence. After enduring a year of accusations from competing-industry-funded groups, and near silence from the originators of the document itself, I have now obtained an industry document that confirms our independence.

A Unique Mission

We wanted to get discussions started about the science and issues surrounding plant genetics and biotechnology. The solution was to create a group blog where we could bring varying perspectives together, which later evolved to become a platform for developing resources, conducting our own research, and training scientists how to be better communicators. I’m quite proud of the work that we have done, and we want to keep doing more. We’ve always had a unique way of doing things.

We understood, early in the founding of our blog, that if we built up trust with our audience, members of industries would want to take advantage of that, or conversely, try to tar us with accusations of working for their competitors. We wrote this FAQ about our blog many years ago, anticipating that fact, and maintain a degree of skepticism toward all claims made by those with conflicts of interest. Recently, we took some flak from our own allies for holding to our principles and removing a collaborator for an undisclosed conflict of interest that was relevant to a research project we are conducting. These are the hard decisions that principled organizations have to make.

Partners and chance meetings in Mexico

In 2014, we were approached by some representatives of CIMMYT, the Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement, wanting to partner with us to raise the profile of the Borlaug Year and the work they are doing with wheat. From that collaboration, we produced a fun auto-tuned music video of Norman Borlaug that I got to present for the first time on Borlaug’s 100th birthday, at a wheat breeder’s meeting in Ciudad Obregon in Mexico. As a partnership, it involved mutual agreements, discussion, and co-branding of the final video, published both on our YouTube account as well as theirs. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet more people in the field, and help popularize their work. And watching it never seems to get old!

Janice Person, holding the original Frank N. Foode plushie

On one of the evenings of the conference, I wandered the street of the hotel, looking for a good place to get a bite. When I found a place that looked good, got my food and sat down, I was joined by an entourage of students, and one individual who I recognized and had only briefly met in passing before – Janice Person. She worked for Monsanto (now Bayer), and we talked for a bit about the work we each do, and I remember one very specific story she told me after I talked about our organization and its independence. She said that people in her office had once brought up this “Biofortified” site, and “hey, maybe we can support them” to which she snapped back “No, you stay away from them!” To whatever degree it was true, I knew she understood our position and perspective, and to me that established a mutual understanding.

Monsanto’s PR proposal unearthed

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) was reviewing glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide RoundUp, off-patent but initially owned by Monsanto. The published literature is clear that glyphosate does not cause cancer to any reasonable degree. But should IARC say anything otherwise, you would expect that any decently-sized company would have a PR plan in place to defend their position. In 2015, IARC surprised many scientists by saying that glyphosate is a “probable” carcinogen, a determination that has been very controversial. While we have written about glyphosate in the past, we generally write about topics related to biotechnology, so IARC had only a passing mention in a couple blog posts, and we didn’t specifically write about this news.

Gary Ruskin’s opening salvo

Fast forward to 2017, when I was surprised to find tweets claiming that Monsanto had referred to us as “industry partners” in a document uncovered from a subpoena in a glyphosate & cancer lawsuit. The tweets originated from Gary Ruskin at US Right to Know, an organization funded largely by the Organic Consumer’s Association, an industry-funded fringe organization that campaigns against non-organic agriculture and more recently, vaccines. For the past year, USRTK employees Gary Ruskin, Stacy Malkan, and Carey Gillam (and a few associated twitter trolls) have each pushed claims that our organization partnered with Monsanto on PR projects, or lobbying, none of which were true or even indicated by the document in question. No representatives of the organization contacted us for information about it, and despite firm statements to the contrary, they continued to push that narrative during key political events related to glyphosate, such as the re-authorization of the herbicide in the EU. This has all the hallmarks of a political campaign, not journalism, and it wasn’t until a journalist took a look that we finally got some clarity.

Did Biofortified partner with Monsanto to attack IARC?

Let’s take a look at Exhiibit A: the document itself. What does it say? First, this appears to be a draft PR plan, with edits, comments, and a boilerplate format. It outlines what they see as a potential issue – IARC determining that glyphosate could cause cancer, as they did with cell phones and coffee. They wanted to publish the data that they had before IARC’s deadline, but be prepared in case the agency claims the opposite of what their data shows. After this preamble, they outlined a plan to contact organizations to get their message out. They begin by proposing to prepare and distribute a media toolkit to “inoculate” organizations with information before the IARC decision. They organize this into tiers, starting with industry associations, then a tier of academics and independent groups, followed by manufacturers, and lastly grower associations. Finally, there is an additional section where they propose to “orchestrate outcry” and publish their views using their various channels.

Let’s compare the document to what is being said about it. USRTK claimed that we partnered with the industry on PR – but this document does not even say that contact had been made, a toolkit sent, nor partnership discussed. They are making claims about what we do, but we did not draft this document. It is claimed that “Monsanto PR plan to attack @IARCWHO names four tiers of “industry partners” to help “orchestrate outcry” against the scientists, including Sense About Science, Genetic Literacy Project, Academics Review, Biofortified” – except that is also not what the document says. It says that they were proposing to send a media toolkit to those various organizations, and in a different section proposes to “orchestrate outcry” with a different organization. “Yes Monsanto enlisted Biofortified as a Tier 2 Industry Partner to orchestrate outrage against @IARCWHO Again, the document does not indicate that we were contacted or “enlisted.” They are misrepresenting what the document actually says in order to both smear our organization and raise doubts about other independent voices (as well as the PR strategies of their competing industry). They are either incompetent, lying, or both.

USRTK puts out false claims, but can’t even accurately quote the document they base it on.

Maybe I’m lying. Maybe we secretly partnered with Monsanto and I’m trying to cover up our tracks. The fact is, you can tell that we didn’t partner with Monsanto to attack IARC because we clearly did not publish articles doing so. Take a look for yourself: you’ll find two articles mentioning IARC but not about glyphosate, one article that doesn’t mention it but comes up in the search, and one very excellent book review published this year. There is only one “orchestrated outcry” – the one being orchestrated by USRTK. To go further, I have observed that some organizations have called for IARC to be defunded (in response to the glyphosate issue) and we’ve steered clear of any such campaign. Not only is that getting way beyond our wheelhouse, but I don’t even think such a discussion would be very productive either. Note that criticizing IARC does not in and of itself mean that any other organization partnered with them, either.

Biofortified was never contacted by Monsanto about IARC. We received no media toolkit, no position statements or lists of links or analyses of the IARC decision either before or after it was released. Had we received any, we would have treated it like any other news tip. If you believe that we did in fact partner with Monsanto, then we clearly didn’t do what they wanted. If, like me, you believe we did not partner with Monsanto, then you can see that someone there considered us an important independent voice to include in the conversation. Either way you look at it, without looking at anything else you can clearly see that the answer to the question of whether Biofortified “partnered” with the industry is an emphatic, resounding, no.

Was Carey Gillam a “Tier Two” industry partner?

Carey Gillam works for USRTK, an organization funded indirectly by industry, criticizes “front groups” that use backchannels to receive funding from industry.

Corporate PR is not without a sense of irony. Ever since we published a detailed and scathing review of Carey Gillam’s book Whitewash, Gillam, a former journalist who now works for USRTK, has become a primary pusher of the false claim that we partnered with industry on their PR. However, there are many documents that give better evidence that while she was working at Reuters that she could be counted on to publish the perspectives of the organic industry. Meet Exhibit B: The PR plan for Charles Benbrook’s study on fatty acids in organic milk, funded by Organic Valley, as revealed by the NY Times (beginning on page 30).

In what looks to be a pattern for PR people, they named tiers of people and groups who they intended to contact to promote their industry position, and put Carey Gillam in Tier Two. (Hey, that’s the same tier we were put in by Monsanto!) Perhaps it was because she previously wrote a puff piece for Organic Valley’s product announcements, or as documents uncovered from anti-biotech activists indicate – she was fighting her editor over her coverage of the biotech debate. They called it a “delicate” situation. In any case, the Organic Valley PR document not only listed Gillam but also indicated that contact had already been made by the study author: “Chuck, DONE.” So did Carey Gillam “partner” with Chuck Benbrook to promote his study?

This Organic Valley PR strategy indicated that Charles Benbrook had contacted her about his upcoming publication.

Not so fast. For one thing, it is dangerous to over-interpret these documents. This was written by the Organic Valley PR team, not by Gillam. Seasoned journalists are aware that they may be included in contact lists, particularly if they are believed to provide favorable coverage, but could still make their own decisions. Here’s a key point about these industry documents where they are trying to get people who they view as influencers to promote their narratives: they believe, often wrongly and arrogantly, that they can manipulate people to get their message out. Carey Gillam did not end up publishing a piece about the Benbrook study, so either she decided not to, or her editor did not agree, even though the document indicated that the contact was done. We did not join in the IARC plan that some people at Monsanto’s PR thought they could do even if they had contacted us.

There’s better evidence that Gillam was believed to be reliable to push out industry messages than Biology Fortified: The documents indicate that she was actually contacted as part of a PR plan, and she went to work for an industry-funded advocacy organization, while we remain small and independent. But we’re the “industry partners,” wrongly accused, by those funded by a competing industry.

A Saga for a Statement

When the IARC document first surfaced, I responded on twitter, and immediately contacted Janice Person at Monsanto. I’m publishing both my full email and hers so everyone can see the interaction. Here is my initial email, and here is her response. I was concerned that someone at Monsanto was misrepresenting us to their colleagues, reminded her of our discussion, and asked for a statement from the company clarifying it. She was gracious in her response, and offered to help. Here is what she said:

Finally back at the office and heard from a couple of people who were working with this – first sorry to hear they may sling mud your way. My colleagues, like me, use “industry partners” in a broad way, one that doesn’t denote any financial, strategic, or other way but working alongside each other in agriculture and science. I would assume they would back off because you guys have been clearly independent, running on wit and creativity not many dollars and it would really get a response from the science community.

At the time, we decided not to push for the statement. It seemed more like an effort on the part of USRTK to advertise their claims on our site through us defending ourselves. Then it came up again, and again. I sent emails on February 2 and April 16 this year, asking for the statement. It didn’t come. Everyone’s busy, sure, and this was after all, just one of a thousand things going around on Twitter. Then USRTK used it to defame us on their site, and the document showed up in the arguments of the glyphosate cancer lawsuit, and referred to in further defamatory presentations by Carey Gillam in connection to her book. Finally, when an article published at EE News by Corbin Hiar referenced Mary Mangan’s review of Whitewash, saying Gillam dismissed us as industry partners, I got in touch with Hiar on twitter and later by email.

Corbin Hiar, EE News

In a cordial, and somewhat lengthy discussion with Hiar and his editor, I laid out these arguments and evidence, but they set a high bar for correcting the piece, even if the reporting was incomplete. Hiar said that since the piece was not really about us we didn’t need to be contacted, however, from my perspective it was partly about us since Gillam made claims about us in it. He did say that Gillam did not give them convincing evidence that any such partnership existed. Frustrated, I emailed Janice one more time:

Can I get that statement from your company that says there was no partnership?
I will be publishing a blog post soon about the ordeal resulting from that ill-fated PR strategy.

To my delight, an official statement was produced on October 11, and its authenticity was confirmed by EE News. The story now stands corrected:

A week after the publication of this article, the St. Louis-headquartered company said in a statement that “Monsanto has not and does not partner with nor fund the efforts of Biology Fortified.”

Industry documents confirm Biofortified’s Independence

We now have two clear statements from Monsanto, both an email from last year explaining that they meant no funding nor strategic partnership, and a PDF statement confirming that Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) “has not and does not partner with nor fund the efforts of Biology Fortified.” Journalists of integrity correct the record and take responsibility, and those who stick to the same false claims even as the evidence contradicts it are not journalists, but advocates, whether it be for their own beliefs or the profit-seeking positions of the industries who sponsor them. I encourage you to read Hiar’s article, Meet the crusading reporter brawling with Big Ag, because it deftly deals with the issue of journalists acting as advocates and how those two are very different things. I do not expect that Gillam will voluntarily correct the record, but I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised.

We must be suspicious of the motives of industry, and also the motives of industry-funded and aligned front groups, whether we are talking about members of the biotech industry and their PR companies, or members of competing industries like Organic Valley and front groups like USRTK who clothe themselves in red, white, and blue while taking money funneled through the Organic Consumer’s Association. Their perspectives are a part of the discussion, but it is a mistake to assume that everyone else who takes a position on an issue is secretly working with the industry. Working with industry is not in and of itself bad, many people in industry do great work – otherwise they couldn’t keep their jobs – but people need to know when that is going on so that they know where you are coming from. As Biology Fortified steps through a threshold and enters its second decade, we’ll continue to uphold our values of transparency, accountability, and editorial independence, and push for others both within the industry and without, to do the same.

Better give Hogwash a second read.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.