by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Monsanto

Sep 8 2015

Should scientists with financial ties to Monsanto be subject to FOIA requests?

Sunday’s New York Times story on academic conflicts of interest focused on scientists with financial ties to Monsanto.  The ties were revealed by open-records requests for e-mails and other information.

The Times was not the only one to make these requests.  U.S. Right to Know, a group devoted to investigating Big Food and its front groups had already done so.  U.S. Right to Know is funded primarily by the Organic Consumers Association, a national grassroots network advocating for organics, sustainability, and food safety—but against GMOs.

U.S. Right to Know rightfully takes credit for establishing the basis of the Times’ story.  It sent open-records requests to scientists working for public institutions who seemed likely to have financial ties to Monsanto.  Bingo.  Some of the e-mails revealed such ties.*

But should government-funded scientists be subjected to open records requests?  Couldn’t these requests amount to open season on academics—a modern-day version of witchhunts?  This question is now under active debate (and see comments on my previous post).

While these debates are raging, here is one aspect of this story that the New York Times did not tell.

Earlier this month, Paul Thacker and my NYU colleague Charles Seife, wrote a piece for PLoS [Public Library of Science] Blogs arguing that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests “for personal correspondence are not just appropriate, but crucial to ensuring transparency.”   They argue that the benefits of transparency outweigh the costs.

But transparency laws remain a fundamental tool for monitoring possible scientific misbehavior. And it would be a mistake to believe that scientists should not be subject to a high level of outside scrutiny. So long as scientists receive government money, they are subject to government oversight; so long as their work affects the public, journalists and other watchdogs are simply doing their jobs when they seek out possible misconduct and questionable practices that could threaten the public interest.

Thacker and Seife explain:

Last week, Nature reported that the University of Florida had provided them with emails that U.S. Right to Know had FOIA’d on one of their researchers…the [Nature] story noted that the researcher has received money from Monsanto to fund expenses incurred while giving educational talks on GMOs.  The article also noted that the PR Firm Ketchum had provided the scientist with canned answers to respond to GMO critics, although it is unclear if he used them [the Times story says he did but now regrets it].

The article does not report that the scientist has repeatedly denied having a financial relationship with Monsanto. The article also does not report on an email titled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” from the researcher to Monsanto in which the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products.

Some readers of PLoS were outraged that this online journal would publish an article supporting open-records requests of scientists (see, for example, this from the American Council on Science and Health).

Here’s where things get interesting.

PLoS responded to the criticism by, of all things, retracting the article.

Seife and Thacker explained their views in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

If the public pays your salary, citizens have the right — within limits — to see what you’re doing. That’s the principle at the core of the federal Freedom of Information Act and of the many similar state freedom of information laws… “snooping” on scientists’ inboxes by journalists, watchdogs and government officials has revealed significant problems that would never have come to light via other means.

That, of course, is the basis of the New York Times’ exposé of Monsanto’s funding of scientists to testify on the company’s behalf to reporters, Congress, and the public.

Bottom line: Because industry-funded science and scientists almost invariably provide data and testimony that favors the sponsors interests, the press and public need to know about sponsorship.

One more comment:  A substantial body of literature exists on industry sponsorship of science, particularly on the effects of pharmaceutical industry funding of medical professionals.  Conflicts-of-interest researchers conclude that such conflicts are generally unconscious, unintentional, and unrecognized by participants.  The remedy is increased government spending for research, an unlikely possibility these days.  This means journalists will be kept busy exposing the many problems that arise when scientists take industry funding.

*The documents collected by the New York Times


Mar 21 2015

WHO’s cancer working group: Roundup is “probably a human carcinogen”

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has just published a report from 17 experts from 11 countries who concluded that glyphosate (“Roundup”) is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The IARC Working Group found evidence that

Case-control studies of occupational exposure in the USA, Canada, and Sweden reported increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma that persisted after adjustment for other pesticides…In male CD-1 mice, glyphosate induced a positive trend in the incidence of a rare tumour, renal tubule carcinoma. A second study reported a positive trend for haemangiosarcoma in male mice.  Glyphosate increased pancreatic islet-cell adenoma in male rats in two studies. A glyphosate formulation promoted skin tumours in an initiation-promotion study in mice.

Glyphosate has been detected in the blood and urine of agricultural workers, indicating absorption. Soil microbes degrade glyphosate to aminomethylphosphoric acid (AMPA). Blood AMPA detection after poisonings suggests intestinal microbial metabolism in humans. Glyphosate and glyphosate formulations induced DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, and in human and animal cells in vitro. One study reported increases in blood markers of chromosomal damage (micronuclei) in residents of several communities after spraying of glyphosate formulations. Bacterial mutagenesis tests were negative. Glyphosate, glyphosate formulations, and AMPA induced oxidative stress in rodents and in vitro.

Organophosphate pesticides and herbicides have long been known to be toxic to mammals, but experts have been undecided about whether they cause cancer.

Glyphosate is the herbicide used in conjunction with glyphosate-resistant genetically modified crops.  These are widely planted in the United States (HT means herbicide tolerant).

In addition to causing widespread selection of resistant weeds, glyphosate may also cause cancer.

Add this to the list of scientific reasons for concern about widespread production of GMO crops.  Roundup is used on plants other than GMOs, but GMO corn, cotton, and soybeans use the most.

Note: The FDA has just approved new varieties of GMO apples and potatoes.  These do not use Roundup.

Next: watch Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, attempt to cast doubt on IARC’s scientific judgment.

Addition, March 22:  As an example of the level of the general discussion of GMOs and glyphosate, see this short video clip from French TV (in English) with Patrick Moore.  Mr. Moore, a former director of Greenpeace, has controversial views on climate change and GMOs.

Additions, March 23:

DTN/The Progressive Farmer quotes a Biotechnology Industry Organization representative as pointing out that IARC took the Séralini study seriously, immediately casting doubt on the quality of its literature review (but I can’t find any mention of this study in the IARC report).

Center for Science in the Public Interest urges the EPA to take this seriously.

Consumer Reports is concerned about the vast amounts of glyphosate used and thinks the government should monitor it.

Dec 20 2013

Monsanto’s PR campaign “begins with a farmer”

A week or so ago I mentioned Monsanto’s concerns about its public image problem and its new PR campaign.

In Washington, DC last week, I saw what seem to be its first components in a hard copy of Politico (the online version doesn’t seem to carry the same ads).

The December 11 issue carried two Monsanto ads, this one full page:


And this one half page:


What farmers?  Those that use Monsanto products, of course.

This is not the first time Monsanto has used ads promoting the virtues of farmers.  Here’s one from a Monsanto campaign in 2001 that I used as an illustration in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.


Will ads like these help improve Monsanto’s public image?  You tell me.

Enjoy the weekend!

Dec 6 2013

Monsanto has a public image problem? A surprise?

Thanks to Politico for alerting us to Monsanto’s sudden discovery:  it has just recognized—can you believe this?—that it has a public image problem.

In recent months the company has shaken up its senior public relations staff, upped its relationship with one of the nation’s largest public relations firms and helped launch a website designed to combat the fallacies surrounding genetically modified organisms.

Monsanto revealed its public image worries in its annual filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission.  The SEC requires companies to list societal factors that create risk to its profitability. Monsanto’s first three:

1.  Threats to patent rights

Efforts to protect our intellectual property rights and to defend claims against us can increase our costs and will not always succeed; any failures could adversely affect sales and profitability or restrict our ability to do business.

Intellectual property rights are crucial to our business, particularly our Seeds and Genomics segment. We endeavor to obtain and protect our intellectual property rights in jurisdictions in which our products are produced or used and in jurisdictions into which our products are imported.

2. Too much regulation

We are subject to extensive regulation affecting our seed biotechnology and agricultural products and our research and manufacturing processes, which affects our sales and profitability.

Regulatory and legislative requirements affect the development, manufacture and distribution of our products, including the testing and planting of seeds containing our biotechnology traits and the import of crops grown from those seeds, and non-compliance can harm our sales and profitability.

3. Bad public relations

The degree of public acceptance or perceived public acceptance of our biotechnology products can affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, regulatory requirements and customer purchase decisions.

Some opponents of our technology actively raise public concern about the potential for adverse effects of our products on human or animal health, other plants and the environment. .. Public concern can affect the timing of, and whether we are able to obtain, government approvals.

Even after approvals are granted, public concern may lead to increased regulation or legislation or litigation…which could affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, and may adversely affect sales of our products to farmers, due to their concerns about available markets for the sale of crops or other products derived from biotechnology.

Maybe if the company was less aggressive about defending itself against risks #1 and #2, public relations would be less of an issue.

Do the close calls on labeling initiatives in California and  Washington worry Monsanto?  Of course they do.  They should.

I was on the FDA food advisory committee in 1994 and witnessed Monsanto’s aggressive opposition to labeling.

If public image is a problem for the company, it has nobody to blame but itself. 

The only surprise:  Why did public demands for labeling take so long?

Jun 20 2013

World Food Prize goes to Monsanto!

A reader, Leah Pressman, left this Feedback message this morning:

She sends a link to the story in the New York Times.

The world food prize foundation awarded [this year’s prize] to several scientists on the teams working for Monsanto who figured out how to make genetically modified crops.

I am stunned by this and eagerly await your comments. The Times eventually mentions (see continuation) that “the foundation that administers the prize has received[…]a 5 million dollar contribution from Monsanto” among other corporations.

The World Food Prize is about agricultural productivity and has always favored industrial methods.  Monsanto produces by industrial methods.

As I keep saying, when it comes to food politics, you can’t make this stuff up.

Feb 28 2012

Occupy Your Food Supply

Yesterday was Occupy Your Food Supply Day, the latest food-related manifestation of the Occupy movement.  The day was organized by the Rainforest Action Network, which considers it a resounding success.

 The day included more than 100 events across the globe, united an unprecedented alliance of more than 60 Occupy groups and 30 environmental, food and corporate accountability organizations, and featured prominent voices including Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, music legend Willie Nelson, actor Woody Harrelson, authors Raj Patel, Anna Lappe, Gary Paul Nabhan, author Michael Ableman and Marion Nestle, among others.

It was a teaching day for me and I wasn’t able to do much except lend some moral support:

Marion Nestle, professor and author of What to Eat and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health: “While the food industry digs in to fight public health regulations, the food movement will continue to attract support from those willing to promote a healthier and more sustainable food system. Watch for more young people going into farming and more farmers’ markets, farm-to-school programs, school meal initiatives, and grassroots community efforts to implement food programs and legislate local reforms. There is plenty of hope for the future in local efforts to improve school meals, reduce childhood obesity, and make healthier food more available and affordable for all.”

The day was designed to highlight some of the least democratic aspects of our current food system:

Never have so few corporations been responsible for more of our food chain. Of the 40,000 food items in a typical US grocery store, more than half are now brought to us by just 10 corporations. Today, three companies process more than 70 percent of all U.S. beef, Tyson, Cargill and JBS. More than ninety percent of soybean seeds and 80 percent of corn seeds used in the United States are sold by just one company: Monsanto. Four companies are responsible for up to 90 percent of the global trade in grain. And one in four food dollars is spent at Walmart.

The overwhelming support for Occupy our Food Supply underscores the unity between farmers, parents, health care professionals, human rights activists, food justice advocates and food lovers around the world who are increasingly viewing their concerns as different manifestations of the same underlying problem: a food system structured for short term profit instead of the long term health of people and the planet.

What to do about all this?  Get to work on the farm bill, for starters.

Sep 7 2011

USDA seeks method to compensate farmers for GM contamination

I am a long-time reader of Food Chemical News, a weekly newsletter covering a huge range of food issues and invaluable for someone like me who lives outside the Beltway and does not have access to the ins and outs of Washington DC politics.

An item in the August 30 issue caught my attention:  USDA secretary Tom Vilsack’s instructions to his department’s new Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

Get this: Vilsack told AC21 to come up with a plan for compensating organic or conventional farmers whose crops become contaminated by GM genes through pollen drift.

According to Food Chemical News, Vilsack gave a three-part charge to the panel:

  1. What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate?
  2. What would be necessary to implement such mechanisms?
  3. What other actions would be appropriate to bolster or facilitate coexistence among different agricultural production systems in the United States?

Vilsack urged the committee to address the questions in order and not yield to temptation to address the third question first.

“This is a very specific charge,” Vilsack stressed. He also told the AC21 not to worry if their proposed solutions would require an act of Congress or new regulations. “Don’t worry about the mechanism. We’ll figure out how to make it happen.”

Why is Vilsack doing this?

“What motivates me is an opportunity to revitalize the rural economy,” the agriculture secretary declared. “I have no favorite [type of agriculture] here. I don’t have that luxury. I just want to find consensus. I believe that people who are smart and reasonable can find a solution.”

Responding to a question from panel member, Vilsack said the AC21’s failure to come up with solutions would result in “continuation of what we have today….If we want to revitalize rural America, we can’t do it while we’re fighting each other.”

Deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan cited the recent droughts and flooding as an “overwhelming time for agriculture.”

I wonder how we are going to prevent the loss of more farmers and encourage young people to take up farming….you have to come up with scenarios where there’s lack of data.  You don’t have to figure out the politics.  That’s my job and the secretary’s.  Just answer the questions [in the charge] and let us carry the water.

Interesting, no?

Could this possibly mean that instead of Monsanto suing organic or conventional farmers whose crops get intermingled with patented GM varieties, Monsanto might now have to pay the farmers for the damage caused by the contamination?

I can’t wait to see what AC21 comes up with.

Jan 21 2011

Eating Liberally: What about those smarmy Monsanto ads?

Every now and then, Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman, aka kat, writes an “Ask Marion,” this one titled, “Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Monsanto’s Warm & Fuzzy Farmer Campaign Just A Snow Job?”


KT: Now that the Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, too (happy birthday, Citizens United!), Monsanto is apparently out to put a friendly, slightly weatherbeaten, gently grizzled face on industrial agriculture (see above photo, taken at a DC bus stop just outside USDA headquarters.)

This guy looks an awful lot like Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, which seems only fitting since Agribiz may be helping to create a 21st century Dust Bowl.

After decades of boasting about how fossil-fuel intensive industrial agriculture has made it possible for far fewer farmers to produce way more food, Monsanto is now championing the power of farming to create jobs and preserve land. Does this attempt by a biotech behemoth to wrap itself in populist plaid flannel give you the warm and fuzzies, or just burn you up?

Dr. Nestle: This is not a new strategy for Monsanto. Half of my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (University of California Press, 2010), is devoted to the politics of food biotechnology. I illustrated it with a Monsanto advertisement (Figure 17, page 182). The caption may amuse you:

In 2001, the biotechnology industry’s public relations campaign featured the equivalent of the Marlboro Man. Rather than cigarettes, however, this advertisement promotes the industry’s view of the ecological advantages of transgenic crops (reduced pesticide use, soil conservation), and consequent benefits to society (farm preservation). In 2002, a series of elegant photographs promoted the benefits of genetically modified corn, soybeans, cotton, and papaya.

Last year, Monsanto placed ads that took its “we’re for farmers” stance to another level:

9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. NOW WHAT?
Producing more. Conserving more. Improving farmers’ lives.
That’s sustainable agriculture.
And that’s what Monsanto is all about.

That’s sustainable agriculture? I’ll bet you didn’t know that. Now take a look at the Monsanto website–really, you can’t make this stuff up:

If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers.

Billions of people depend upon what farmers do. And so will billions more. In the next few decades, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the past 10,000 years – combined.

It is our purpose to work alongside farmers to do exactly that.

To produce more food.

To produce more with less, conserving resources like soil and water.

And to improve lives.

We do this by selling seeds, traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

Face it. We have two agricultural systems in this country, both claiming to be good for farmers and both claiming to be sustainable. One focuses on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable in the sense of replenishing what gets taken out of the soil. The other is Monsanto, for which sustainable means selling seeds (and not letting farmers save them), patented traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

This is about who gets to control the food supply and who gets to choose. Too bad the Monsanto ads don’t explain that.

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