In what Democracy Now!1 refers to as an “explosive report” by The Guardian,2 documents obtained during the discovery process of lawsuits against Monsanto reveal the company has been engaged in a coordinated campaign to discredit critics of the company.
Among them are journalist Carey Gillam, the nonprofit U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) and singer-songwriter Neil Young, whose 2015 album, “The Monsanto Years,” was an artistic critique of the company.
“The records … show Monsanto adopted a multi-pronged strategy to target Carey Gillam, a Reuters journalist who investigated the company’s weedkiller and its links to cancer,” The Guardian writes.3
“Monsanto, now owned by the German pharmaceutical corporation Bayer, also monitored a not-for-profit food research organization through its ‘intelligence fusion center,’ a term that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies use for operations focused on surveillance and terrorism.
The documents, mostly from 2015 to 2017, were disclosed as part of an ongoing court battle on the health hazards of the company’s Roundup weedkiller.”
Monsanto records show organized plan to silence journalist
According to The Guardian,4 the records obtained reveal how Monsanto planned to discredit Gillam’s book, “White Wash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science,”5 ahead of its release in 2017 by instructing “industry and farmer customers” to post negative reviews and paying Google to promote search results critical of Gillam and her work.
In all, the attack on Gillam’s book, dubbed “Project Spruce,”6 (an internal code name for Monsanto’s defense directive to protect the company against all perceived threats to its business7) had more than 20 activity points, including the engagement of regulatory authorities and providing “pro-science third parties” with talking points.
Gillam told The Guardian the documents are “just one more example of how the company works behind the scenes to try to manipulate what the public knows about its products and practices.”
According to The Guardian, staff at Monsanto’s PR firm also appear to have pressured Reuters to prevent Gillam from reporting on Monsanto and its products, saying they “continue to push back on [Gillam’s] editors very strongly every chance we get.”
In an August 9, 2019, article in The Guardian, Gillam is more forthcoming with her sentiments, stating that:8
“As a journalist who has covered corporate America for more than 30 years, very little shocks me about the propaganda tactics companies often deploy. I know the pressure companies can and do bring to bear when trying to effect positive coverage and limit reporting they deem negative about their business practices and products.
But when I recently received close to 50 pages of internal Monsanto communications about the company’s plans to target me and my reputation, I was shocked … I never dreamed I would warrant my own Monsanto action plan …
One Monsanto plan involved paying for web placement of a blogpost about me so that Monsanto-written information would pop up at the top of certain internet searches involving my name … In addition, Monsanto produced a video to help it amplify company-engineered propaganda about me and my work …
The documents show that Monsanto enlisted Washington DC-based FTI Consulting to help it with its plans. FTI was in the news earlier this year after one of its employees posed as a reporter at the Roundup cancer trial held this March in San Francisco.
The woman pretended to be reporting on the Hardeman v Monsanto trial, while suggesting to real reporters covering the trial certain storylines that were favorable to Monsanto.”
USRTK targeted by Monsanto’s surveillance center
Monsanto’s surveillance center also produced written reports on Young’s anti-Monsanto advocacy efforts and USRTK’s activities, along with a detailed plan9 for how to deal with USRTK’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
“Monsanto officials were repeatedly worried about the release of documents on their financial relationships with scientists that could support the allegations they were ‘covering up unflattering research,'” The Guardian writes. 10
Indeed, among the many action steps listed in Monsanto’s USRTK response plan11 are “Edit existing copy” to “Bolster language on transparency and collaboration,” and “Write post that tells the story about the impact of a project (one that resonates well with a societal audience) that was made possible through the collaboration of Monsanto and Academia … ” The Guardian adds:12
“Government fusion centers have increasingly raised privacy concerns surrounding the way law enforcement agencies collect data, surveil citizens and share information.
Private companies might have intelligence centers that monitor legitimate criminal threats, such as cyberattacks, but ‘it becomes troubling when you see corporations leveraging their money to investigate people who are engaging in their first amendment rights,’ said Dave Maass, the senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation …
Michael Baum, one of the attorneys involved in the Roundup trials that uncovered the records, said the records were further ‘evidence of the reprehensible and conscious disregard of the rights and safety of others’ … ‘It shows an abuse of their power that they have gained by having achieved such large sales,’ he added.”
In an August 9, 2019, press release, USRTK comments on the documented campaign against the organization:13
“USRTK has made public records requests to taxpayer-funded universities since 2015, leading to multiple revelations about secretive industry collaborations with academics …
The documents, which were made available through discovery in the Roundup cancer litigation, show that Monsanto was worried that the public records requests had the “potential to be extremely damaging” and so crafted a plan to counter the USRTK investigation …
‘The story of the Monsanto Papers is that the company acts like it has an awful lot to hide,’ said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, who led the investigation. ‘Whenever scientists, journalists and others raise questions about their business, they attack. We are just the latest example. This has been going on for years.'”
The press release goes on to list several key findings from the documents, detailing how Monsanto intended to safeguard its “freedom to operate.” One way of doing that was to “position” USRTK’s investigation into its dealings as “an attack on scientific integrity and academic freedom.”
The documents also show Monsanto would have the right to review any documents released by FOIA before their release to USRTK, “even though USRTK requested the documents by state FOI,” the press release notes. Monsanto’s campaign plan also specified the use of third parties to counteract USRTK.
Again, this tactic is purposely used to make it appear as though Monsanto has nothing to do with the critique against USRTK, when in fact it’s the driving and coordinating force behind it.
Third parties to be employed include Forbes and other third party content creators, GMO Answers contributors, Sense About Science, the Science Media Center, Center for Food Integrity, International Food Information Council, various farmers groups, Jon Entine with the Genetic Literacy Project, Henry Miller (previously caught publishing articles ghostwritten by Monsanto, which led to Forbes firing him and deleting his articles).
AgBioChatter member advises deleting emails
That USRTK is seen as a threat to industry’s business as usual is also made clear in a September 2015 email exchange14,15 between several Monsanto employees, including Monsanto scientist Eric Sachs.
The discussion centered around “unfortunate” language used by an unnamed individual associated with GMO Answers in his or her correspondence with academics on AgBioChatter — described by USRTK as “a private email listserver used by the agrichemical industry and its allies to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities.”16
There was some question about whether AgBioChatter was confidential or private. In an email to AgBioChatter members (forwarded in the email exchange), Karl Haro von Mogel,17 media director of Biofortified, a GMO promotion group, advised:18
“It seems that there has been a leak of mentioning AgBioChatter, and it is inevitable that it will become a target for future FOIAs. It sounds like Ruskin did not include it in his last round of FOIAs but likely will in the future. If anyone here has not taken the Ruskin Cleanse of these private emails it will mean more content for them to twist and string into a false narrative.”
In other words, it appears as though Haro von Mogel was advising people to delete their emails — to get rid of the evidence — to prevent the behind-the-scenes truths from being known, were USRTK to file a FOIA request for AgBioChatter correspondence.
Monsanto accused of mishandling personal data in Europe
The information about Monsanto’s targeted attacks on Gillam and USRTK comes on the heels of Bayer’s admission that Monsanto kept lists of hundreds of lawmakers, scientists and journalists and their views on GMOs in France and other European countries.19,20
According to Reuters,21 the files were kept “in hopes of influencing positions on pesticides.” And, while Bayer denied that Monsanto’s procurement of the lists violated any laws, Reuters reported that:22
“French public-sector research institutes Inra and CNRS … said they would file criminal complaints over mishandling of personal data, after finding that some of their researchers and executives featured on the Monsanto stakeholder lists.”
Reuters’ report23 also included a quote from Matthias Berninger, head of public affairs at Bayer, saying “When you collect nonpublicly available data about individuals a Rubicon is clearly crossed, regardless of whether data privacy laws were actually violated.”
Documents shed light on GMO Answers
Yet another cache of documents released to HuffPost shed light on GMO Answers, a front group created by Monsanto’s PR company, Ketcum PR, in an effort to polish Monsanto’s tarnished image. As reported by Paul Thacker:24
“To reboot the national dialogue, Ketchum created a campaign called GMO Answers, and used social media and third-party scientists to offer a counternarrative to allay concern about Monsanto’s products.
HuffPost has acquired 130 pages of internal documents from an anonymous source that detail the campaign and its tactics for enhancing Monsanto’s public image …”
By answering any and all basic questions about GMOs and perfecting their SEO strategy, GMO Answers is now among the top results of most GMO-related web searches. The problem, again, is that the “experts” answering the questions are not independent experts. They work for Monsanto and are defenders of the biotech industry. You cannot tell that this is the case, however, as those relationships are purposely hidden.
Captured journalists help shape public opinion
Thacker also details the influence of Tamar Haspel, “an oyster farmer living on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod,” who writes blogs and articles favoring the GMO industry and chemical agriculture, who became a strong voice for GMO Answers.
“Behind the scenes, Ketchum’s documents show a reporter eager to collaborate with the firm and promote its new [GMO Answers] campaign ― and Ketchum happy to foster that relationship,” Thacker writes.25
“Another page discusses … a plan for ‘ongoing development of relationships’ with Haspel — the only media person mentioned by name — as well as outlets The Motley Fool and Politico …
Haspel began her [Washington] Post columns in October 2013, promising to ‘negotiate the schism and nail down the hard, cold facts’ about GMOs. These columns have been sympathetic to the agrichemical industry, promoting GMO products and commodity crops, downplaying the dangers of toxic substances and pesticides, and finding fault with organic agriculture.”
Thacker goes on to list examples of Haspel’s biased reporting, which includes downplaying the hazards of glyphosate and failing to disclose that one of her sources was a Monsanto consultant, and minimizing the risks of synthetic food additives to children, quoting a professor of religion as an expert source.
“For many who have been suspicious of Haspel’s relationship with agrichemical giants, the documents are further evidence that she’s too close to the industry she writes about and that her prominent column at The Washington Post provides a perch to spread misleading information about agriculture and the food we eat.
At the very least, they offer a behind-the-scenes look at how public relations specialists work to shape public perception through their interactions with journalists …” Thacker writes.26
“Pages of Ketchum PR documents that discuss Haspel are labeled, ‘Success! A Strategy That Embraces Skepticism.’ For Monsanto, any story that muddies the water on the science critical of its products is a win, and Haspel’s have been arguably the most prominent in national media.
The company’s touting of those articles is part of a mutually beneficial loop — she promotes its science; it promotes her on industry sites and social media.”
Who are Monsanto’s emissaries?
As Thacker points out, Monsanto has perfected several of the strategies initiated by the tobacco industry decades ago to hide the dangers of smoking. One key strategy is to undermine the public’s confidence in science showing there are problems.
This is done in two parts: First, create your own science that contradicts findings showing a problem. Next, influence and shape public discussion by maligning the critics and emphasizing the lack of scientific consensus. This engineered doubt is what keeps the public from turning their back on the products and prevents regulatory interventions.
Another tobacco tactic employed by Monsanto is the development of relationships with scientists and nonprofit organizations who, while maintaining an aura of independence, act as “corporate emissaries to the press,” to use Thacker’s term. Who are some of Monsanto’s most well-known emissaries? Aside from Haskel, Thacker’s article names:
Nina Federoff, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of biology at Penn state27
Jon Entine, founding director of the Genetic Literacy Project28 — another front group that, despite having been repeatedly exposed as such, continues to be promoted to the top of internet search results for GMO topics
Bruce Chassy, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois29,30
Kevin Folta, University of Florida professor
The American Council on Science and Health
What’s particularly disturbing is the idea that academics working for publicly funded universities have been captured by industry and are promoting an industry agenda on the taxpayers’ dime, while simultaneously benefiting financially from their corporate masters.
Help USRTK unearth the truth — Donate today!
One of the key take-home messages from all this that the organized silencing of critics using immoral tactics is standard practice, and has been standard practice for a long time.
In fact, these underhanded strategies are precisely what have allowed Monsanto (now Bayer, as well as many other dangerous companies operating with a similar playbook) to continue selling toxic products for so long.
Using third-parties pretending to be independent to publicize the corporate agenda is grossly misleading to the public. What Monsanto has been doing is social engineering — making you think a certain viewpoint predominates among the general population and among journalists, scientists and academia when in fact this “consensus” is a wholly engineered artifice, bought and paid for by corporate interests.
USRTK has done a tremendous job bringing these kinds of industry conspiracies into broad daylight. They’re a tiny operation with just four employees, and depend on donations to keep this work going. So, please, consider making a tax-deductible donation to USRTK today. Your help is urgently needed and your donation will ensure USRTK can continue unearthing the truth, one document at a time.
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