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Republicans Rush To Monsanto’s Aid, Touting Industry-Biased Reuters Report

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

In their latest attempt to shield Monsanto from accountability, House Republicans have seized upon the flawed and biased reporting of a Reuters journalist whose work has emerged as a key lobbying tool for the embattled agrochemical company as it faces lawsuits, regulatory threats and a wave of awful press coverage about allegations of improper influence over research.

On Tuesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy demanded answers about “possibly withheld information” that “could change” a cancer panel’s decision to list glyphosate, the main chemical in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, as a probable human carcinogen. Gowdy’s letter was heavily referenced with one source: a June 14 Reuters article by Kate Kelland.

But the Kelland article that drove Rep. Gowdy’s lobbying was deeply flawed and contained errors Reuters has refused to correct.

What’s more, as I reported last month in FAIR, the flawed Reuters-article-turned-lobbying-tool was only the latest in a series of biased articles Kelland has written about the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) since the agency listed glyphosate as a Class 2 carcinogen.

The IARC working group of scientists—now the chief target of Monsanto’s “war on science,” as the French newspaper Le Monde reported—did not conduct new research, but reviewed years of published and peer-reviewed research before concluding there was limited evidence of cancer in humans from real-world exposures to glyphosate and “sufficient” evidence of cancer in studies on animals. IARC also concluded there was strong evidence of genotoxicity for glyphosate alone and for Roundup herbicide, whose use has skyrocketedalongside Monsanto’s genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” crops.

In her stories about the IARC decision, Kelland has ignored much of the published research backing the classification and has instead parroted industry’s criticisms of the scientists. Her reporting has relied heavily on pro-industry sources, failed to disclose their industry connections and presented cherry-picked information out of context from documents she did not provide to readers.

Raising further questions about Kelland’s objectivity as a science reporter are her close ties to the Science Media Centre, a controversial nonprofit PR agencythat connects scientists with reporters and gets its largest block of funding from industry groups.

Multiple researchers have accused SMC, which launched in 2002 partly as an effort to tamp down news stories driven by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, of downplaying the environmental and human health risks of controversial products and technologies that are important to its funders.

Kelland’s bias in favor of SMC is evident; she appears in the PR agency’s promotional video and promotional report, regularly attends SMC briefings, speaks at SMC workshops and attended meetings in India to discuss setting up an SMC office there.

Neither Kelland nor her editors at Reuters would respond to questions about her relationship with SMC or to specific criticisms about her reporting. SMC Director Fiona Fox said her group did not provide Kelland with sources for her IARC stories beyond those included in SMC’s press releases.

It is clear, however, that Kelland’s reporting on glyphosate and IARC mirrors the views put forth by SMC experts and industry groups on those topics—and also raises serious concerns about bias and fairness in science reporting.

Reuters takes on cancer scientist

On June 14, 2017, Reuters published a special report by Kelland accusing Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist from the U.S. National Cancer Institute and chair of the IARC panel on glyphosate, of withholding important data from its cancer assessment.

Kelland’s story went so far as to suggest that the information supposedly withheld could have changed IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Yet the data in question was but a small subset of epidemiology data gathered through a long-term project known as the Agricultural Health Study (AHS). An analysis of several years of data about glyphosate from the AHS had already been published and was considered by IARC, but a newer analysis of unfinished, unpublished data was not considered, because IARC rules call for relying only on published data.

Kelland’s thesis that Blair withheld crucial data was at odds with the source documents on which she based her story, but she did not provide readers with links to any of those documents, so readers could not check the veracity of the claims. Her bombshell allegations were then widely circulated, repeated by reporters at other news outlets (including Mother Jones) and immediately deployed as a lobbying tool by the agrichemical industry.

After obtaining the actual source documents, Carey Gillam, a former Reuters’ reporter and now research director of U.S. Right to Know (the nonprofit group where I also work), laid out multiple errors and omissions in Kelland’s piece.

The analysis provides examples of key claims in Kelland’s article, including a statement supposedly made by Blair, that are not supported by the 300-page deposition of Blair conducted by Monsanto’s attorneys, or by other source documents.

Kelland’s selective presentation of the Blair deposition also ignored what contradicted her thesis—for example, Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate’s connections to cancer, as Gillam wrote in a Huffington Post article.

Kelland inaccurately described Blair’s deposition and related materials as “court documents,” implying they were publicly available; in fact, they were not filed in court, and presumably were obtained from Monsanto’s attorneys or surrogates. (The documents were available only to attorneys involved in the case, and plaintiff’s attorneys have said they did not provide them to Kelland.)

Reuters has refused to correct the errors in the piece, including the false claim about the origin of the source documents and an inaccurate description of a key source, statistician Bob Tarone, as “independent of Monsanto.” In fact, Tarone had received a consultancy payment from Monsanto for his efforts to discredit IARC.

In response to a USRTK request to correct or retract the Kelland article, Reuters global enterprises editor Mike Williams wrote in a June 23 email:

We have reviewed the article and the reporting on which it was based. That reporting included the deposition to which you refer, but was not confined to it. The reporter, Kate Kelland, was also in contact with all the people mentioned in the story and many others, and studied other documents. In the light of that review, we do not consider the article to be inaccurate or to warrant retraction.

Williams declined to address the false citing of “court documents” or the inaccurate description of Tarone as an independent source.

Since then, the lobbying tool Reuters handed to Monsanto has grown legs and run wild. A June 24 editorial by the St. Louis Post Dispatch added errors on top of the already misleading reporting. By mid-July, right-wing blogs were using the Reuters story to accuse IARC of defrauding U.S. taxpayers, pro-industry news sites were predicting the story would be “the final nail in the coffin” of cancer claims about glyphosate and a fake science news group was promoting Kelland’s story on Facebook with a phony headline claiming that IARC scientists had confessed to a cover-up.

Bacon attack

This was not the first time Kelland had relied on Bob Tarone as a key source and failed to disclose his industry connections in an article attacking IARC.

An April 2016 special investigation by Kelland—“Who Says Bacon Is Bad?”—portrayed IARC as a confusing agency that is bad for science. The piece was built largely on quotes from Tarone, two other pro-industry sources whose industry connections were also not disclosed, and one anonymous observer.

IARC’s methods are “poorly understood,” “do not serve the public well,” sometimes lack scientific rigor, are “not good for science,” “not good for regulatory agencies” and do the public “a disservice,” the critics said.

The agency, Tarone said, is “naïve, if not unscientific”—an accusation emphasized with capital letters in a sub-headline.

Tarone works for the pro-industry International Epidemiology Institute and was once involved with a controversial cell phone study, funded in part by the cell phone industry, that found no cancer connection to cell phones, contrary to independently funded studies of the same issue.

The other critics in Kelland’s bacon story were Paulo Boffetta, a controversial ex-IARC scientist who wrote a paper defending asbestos while also receiving money to defend the asbestos industry in court; and Geoffrey Kabat, who once partnered with a tobacco industry-funded scientist to write a paper defending secondhand smoke.

Kabat also serves on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group.

The day the Reuters story hit, ACSH posted a blog item bragging that Kelland had used its advisor Kabat as a source to discredit IARC.

The industry connections of her sources, and their history of taking positions at odds with mainstream science, seems relevant, especially since the IARC bacon exposé was paired with a Kelland article about glyphosate that accused IARC advisor Chris Portier of bias because of his affiliation with an environmental group.

The conflict-of-interest framing served to discredit a letter, organized by Portier and signed by 94 scientists, that described “serious flaws” in a European Union risk assessment that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk.

The Portier attack, and the good science/bad science theme, echoed throughchemical industry PR channels on the same day the Kelland articles appeared.

IARC pushes back

In October 2016, in another exclusive scoop, Kelland portrayed IARC as a secretive organization that had asked its scientists to withhold documents pertaining to the glyphosate review. The article was based on correspondence provided to Kelland by a pro-industry law group.

In response, IARC took the unusual step of posting Kelland’s questions and the answers they had sent her, which provided context left out of the Reuters story.

IARC explained that Monsanto’s lawyers were asking scientists to turn over draft and deliberative documents, and in light of the ongoing lawsuits against Monsanto, “the scientists felt uncomfortable releasing these materials, and some felt that they were being intimidated.” The agency said they had faced similar pressure in the past to release draft documents to support legal actions involving asbestos and tobacco, and that there was an attempt to draw deliberative IARC documents into PCB litigation.

The story didn’t mention those examples, or the concerns about draft scientific documents ending up in lawsuits, but the piece was heavy on critiques of IARC, describing it as a group “at odds with scientists around the world,” which “has caused controversy” with cancer assessments that “can cause unnecessary health scares.”

IARC has “secret agendas” and its actions were “ridiculous,” according to a Monsanto executive quoted in the story.

IARC wrote in response (emphasis in original):

The article by Reuters follows a pattern of consistent but misleading reports about the IARC Monographs Programme in some sections of the media beginning after glyphosate was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.

IARC also pushed back on Kelland’s reporting about Blair, noting the conflict of interest with her source Tarone and explaining that IARC’s cancer evaluation program does not consider unpublished data, and “does not base its evaluations on opinions presented in media reports,” but on the “systematic assembly and review of all publicly available and pertinent scientific studies, by independent experts, free from vested interests.”

PR agency narrative

The Science Media Centre—which Kelland has said has influenced her reporting—does have vested interests, and has also been criticized for pushing pro-industry science views.Current and past funders include Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as government agencies, foundations and universities.

By all accounts, SMC is influential in shaping how the media cover certain science stories, often getting its expert reaction quotes in media stories and driving coverage with its press briefings.

As Kelland explained in the SMC promotional video, “By the end of a briefing, you understand what the story is and why it’s important.”

That is the point of the SMC effort: to signal to reporters whether stories or studies merit attention, and how they should be framed.

Sometimes, SMC experts downplay risk and offer assurances to the public about controversial products or technologies; for example, researchers have criticized SMC’s media efforts on frackingcell phone safetyChronic Fatigue Syndromeand genetically engineered foods.

SMC campaigns sometimes feed into lobbying efforts. A 2013 Nature articleexplained how SMC turned the tide on media coverage of animal/human hybrid embryos away from ethical concerns and toward their importance as a research tool—and thus stopped government regulations.

The media researcher hired by SMC to analyze the effectiveness of that campaign, Andy Williams of Cardiff University, came to see the SMC model as problematic, worrying that it stifled debate. Williams described SMC briefings as tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives.

On the topic of glyphosate cancer risk, SMC offers a clear narrative in its press releases.

The IARC cancer classification, according to SMC experts, “failed to include critical data,” was based on “a rather selective review” and on evidence that “appears a bit thin” and “overall does not support such a high-level classification.” Monsanto and other industrygroups promoted the quotes.

SMC experts had a much more favorable view of risk assessments conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which cleared glyphosate of human cancer concerns.

EFSA’s conclusion was “more scientific, pragmatic and balanced” than IARC’s, and the ECHA report was objective, independent, comprehensive and “scientifically justified.”

Kelland’s reporting in Reuters echoes those pro-industry themes, and sometimes used the same experts, such as a November 2015 story about why European-based agencies gave contradictory advice about the cancer risk of glyphosate. Her story quoted two experts directly from an SMC release, then summarized their views:

In other words, IARC is tasked with highlighting anything that might in certain conditions, however rare, be able to cause cancer in people. EFSA, on the other hand, is concerned with real life risks and whether, in the case of glyphosate, there is evidence to show that when used in normal conditions, the pesticide poses an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.

Kelland included two brief reactions from environmentalists: Greenpeace called the EFSA review “whitewash,” and Jennifer Sass from the Natural Resources Defense Council said IARC’s review was “a much more robust, scientifically defensible and public process involving an international committee of non-industry experts.” (An NRDC statement on glyphosate put it this way: “IARC Got It Right, EFSA Got It From Monsanto.”)

Kelland’s story followed up the environmental group comments with “critics of IARC…say its hazard identification approach is becoming meaningless for consumers, who struggle to apply its advice to real life,” and ends with quotes from a scientist who “declares an interest as having acted as a consultant for Monsanto.”

When asked about the criticisms of pro-industry bias of the SMC, Fox responded:

We listen carefully to any criticism from the scientific community or news journalists working for U.K. media, but we do not receive criticism of pro-industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro-industry bias, and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3,000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories, we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.

Expert conflicts

Scientific experts do not always disclose their conflicts of interest in news releases issued by SMC, nor in their high-profile roles as decision-makers about the cancer risk of chemicals like glyphosate.

Frequent SMC expert Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology at Imperial College London, offers views in SMC releases on aspartame (“not a concern”), glyphosate in urine (no concern), insecticides and birth defects(“premature to draw conclusions”), alcoholGMO corntrace metalslab rodent diets and more.

The ECHA decision that glyphosate is not a carcinogen “is to be congratulated,” according to Boobis, and the IARC decision that it is probably carcinogenic “is not a cause for undue alarm,” because it did not take into account how pesticides are used in the real world.

Boobis declared no conflicts of interest in the IARC release or any of the earlier SMC releases that carry his quotes. But he then sparked a conflict-of-interest scandal when news broke that he held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a pro-industry group, at the same time he co-chaired a U.N. panel that found glyphosate unlikely to pose a cancer riskthrough diet. (Boobis is currently chair of the ILSI Board of Trustees, and vice president ad interim of ILSI/Europe.)

ILSI has received six-figure donations from Monsanto and CropLife International, the pesticide trade association. Professor Angelo Moretto, who co-chaired the U.N. panel on glyphosate along with Boobis, also held a leadership role in ILSI. Yet the panel declaredno conflicts of interest.

Kelland did not report on those conflicts, though she did write about the findings of the “U.N. experts” who exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk, and she once recycled a Boobis quote from an SMC press release for an article about tainted Irish pork. (The risk to consumers was low.)

When asked about the SMC conflict of interest disclosure policy, and why Boobis’ ISLI connection was not disclosed in SMC releases, Fox responded:

We ask all researchers we use to provide their COIs and proactively make those available to journalists. In line with several other COI policies, we are unable to investigate every COI, though we welcome journalists doing so.

Boobis could not be reached for comment, but told the Guardian, “My role in ILSI (and two of its branches) is as a public sector member and chair of their boards of trustees, positions which are not remunerated.”

But the conflict “sparked furious condemnation from green MEPs and NGOs,” the Guardian reported, “intensified by the [U.N. panel] report’s release two days before an EU relicensing vote on glyphosate, which will be worth billions of dollars to industry.”

And so goes it with the tangled web of influence involving corporations, science experts, media coverage and the high-stakes debate about glyphosate, now playing out on the world stage as Monsanto faces lawsuits over the chemical due to cancer claims, and seeks to complete a $66 billion deal with Bayer.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., as Bloomberg reported on July 13: “Does the World’s Top Weed Killer Cause Cancer? Trump’s EPA Will Decide.”

A version of this story originally ran in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group that voluntarily discloses its funding. She is the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry and also co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Follow her on Twitter @stacymalkan.

Is Neil deGrasse Tyson Producing Pesticide Propaganda?

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

Some industry messaging efforts are so heavy-handed they end up highlighting their own PR tactics more than the message they are trying to convey. That’s the problem with Food Evolution, a new documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The film, opening in theaters June 23, claims to offer an objective look at the debate over genetically engineered foods, but with its skewed presentation of science and data, it comes off looking more like a textbook case of corporate propaganda for the agrichemical industry and its GMO crops.

That the film’s intended purpose was to serve as an industry-messaging vehicle is no secret. Food Evolution was planned in 2014 and funded by the Institute for Food Technologists, a trade group, to culminate a multi-year messaging effort.

IFT is partly funded by big food corporations, and the group’s president at the time was Janet Collins, a former DuPont and Monsanto executive who now works for CropLife America, the pesticide trade association. IFT’s President-Elect Cindy Stewart works for DuPont.

IFT chose Kennedy to direct the film, but he and producer Trace Sheehan say they had complete control over the film they describe as a fully independent investigation into the topic of GMOs including all points of view.

The film’s credibility suffers from their choice to embrace only the science and scientists who side with the chemical industry players who profit from GMOs and the chemicals used on them, while ignoring science and data that doesn’t fit that agenda.

The clearest example of the scientific dishonesty in Food Evolution is the way the film deals with glyphosate. The weedkiller chemical is at the heart of the GMO story, since 80-90 percent of GMO crops are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate.

Food Evolution reports that the increase in glyphosate use due to GMOs is not a problem, because glyphosate is safe. Two sources establish this claim in the film: A farmer says glyphosate has “very, very low toxicity; lower than coffee, lower than salt,” and Monsanto’s Robb Fraley—in response to a woman in an audience who asks him about science linking glyphosate to birth defects and cancer—tells her that’s all bad science, “it’s pseudoscience.”

There is no mention of the carcinogenicity concerns that are engulfing Monsanto in an international science scandal, or the many farmers who are suing Monsanto alleging they got cancer from the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide.

There is no mention of the 2015 report by the World Health Organization’s cancer agency that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, or California’s decision to add glyphosate to the Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, or the peer-reviewed studies that have linked various adverse health outcomes to glyphosate and Roundup.

Instead of an objective look at the evidence, Food Evolution gives viewers the full “Monsanto science treatment”: Any science that raises concerns about the possible health risks of agrichemical products should be ignored, while studies that put those products in a favorable light is the only science worth discussing.

Equal treatment of interview subjects with different points of view would have helped the credibility of Food Evolution. Instead, the film paints the GMO critics it features as dishonest or out to make a buck off the organic industry, while leaving out key details about its pro-industry sources.

In one scene, the film’s main character, UC Davis professor Alison van Eenennaam, frets that appearing onstage with a Monsanto executive at a debate could sully her independent reputation. Viewers never learn that she used to work for Monsanto, or that she holds several GE patents which suggest a financial interest in the topic at hand.

Pro-industry scientist Pamela Ronald, another key science source, gets the hero treatment with no mention that two of her studies have been retracted. Yet viewers are hammered with news that a study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini—which found kidney problems and tumors in rats fed GMO corn—was “retracted, retracted, retracted!”

The film leaves out the fact that the study was subsequently republished, and was retracted in the first place after a former Monsanto employee took an editorial position with the journal where it was originally published.

In another neatly spun narrative, Food Evolution takes viewers on an emotional journey to the developing world, and along another favorite industry messaging track: rather than focus on how genetic engineering is used in our food system now—primarily to convey herbicide tolerance—we should focus on how it might possibly be used in the future.

With plenty of airtime and dramatic tension, the film examines the problem of banana wilt, a disease killing staple crops in Africa, and leads viewers to believe that genetic engineering will save the crop, the farmers and the community.

Maybe. But the film neglects to mention that the savior GE technology is not yet available and might not even work. According to a paper in Plant Biotechnology Journal, the resistance shown in the lab is robust but may not be durable in open fields.

Meanwhile, a low-tech solution is working well and looks like it could use some investment. According to a 2012 paper in the Journal of Development and Agricultural Economics, farmer field schools, which help growers acquire hands-on knowledge of techniques to prevent banana wilt, led to lower infection rates and high crop recovery in Uganda. Results from farmer field schools “have been remarkable,” according to the United Nations.

Yet the solution doesn’t even warrant a mention in Food Evolution.

“It’s fundamentally dishonest of the film to tout a GE solution that may not even work, as the scientists themselves acknowledge,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, “while failing to point out another way to control the problem that works very well, but doesn’t involve selling a product to make money.”

Monsanto and allies were discussing plans for a documentary in late 2013, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know. The emails do not contain evidence linking those discussions to “Food Evolution,” but they do establish Monsanto’s desire for a film that sounds surprisingly similar to the one Kennedy created.

Monsanto’s Eric Sachs wrote in Dec. 2013 to a group of PR advisors: “There is clearly a lot of interest to pursue a documentary film. Importantly, the consensus was the Monsanto’s participation was welcome, particularly in the planning phase.”

He recommended a January 2014 planning call. Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project stepped up to take the lead, and mentioned he had “gotten a personal pledge of $100,000 from a private business person if we can get” (the rest of the line is cut off). Entine also has a connection to the Institute for Food Technologists; he spoke about “anti-food activism” at IFT’s 2012 annual meeting.

Another person mentioned in the Monsanto emails, Karl Haro von Mogel—who had discussed with Sachs “the downsides of a film funded by the ‘Big 6′” and suggested “what would matter more than their money is their participation”—was interviewed in “Food Evolution,” and was also involved in filming one scene, which suggests some behind the scenes coordination with the filmmakers.

In reaction to the emails, Kennedy wrote on Twitter: “@foodevomovie has had ZERO $ or INPUT from #Monsanto. We are fully transparent & happy 2 have fact-based dialogue‬.”

He said in an interview, “that email exchange had absolutely nothing to do with our project whatsoever … we hadn’t even committed to making the film with IFT at that date in 2013.”

The people in the email exchange were not involved in filming or advising, he said, and Karl Haro von Mogel “was a subject in the film and had no involvement or influence on any creative/editorial decisions on the film at any point in the production. Also it may be useful to point out that the email conversation you reference occurred long before we ever even knew Karl or any of these people.”

Another email exchange obtained by U.S. Right to Know offers a peek behind the scenes at the narrative development in Food Evolution. The exchange depicts Kennedy’s search for examples to feature for “us/developing world need GMO.”

“Any other ‘us/developing world need GMO’ you can give me names of aside from oranges? Shintikus lettuce?” Kennedy asked. Producer Trace Sheehan responded with a list of GMO products including drought-tolerant rice, allergy-free peanuts, carcinogen-free potatoes … “and then button with Golden Rice.”

When Kennedy pushed for “the top GMO crops currently in use, and what countries,” Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science wrote, “Really Bt brinjal in Bangladesh is the only one that is truly GMO in and is in widespread operation.”

The film’s frame-driven reporting ignores that detail about the lack of operational GMO solutions, and doesn’t mention that the closer example, vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, still isn’t available despite huge investments and years of trials, because it doesn’t work as well in the field as existing rice strains.

In a scene that is supposed to convey scientific credibility, Food Evolution flashes the logo of the American Council on Science and Health at the very moment Neil deGrasse Tyson says there is a global consensus on the safety of GMOs. It’s a fitting slip. ASCH is a corporate front group closely aligned with Monsanto.

The ACSH logo scene also appears in the background in this 2-minute clip from a recent Climate One debate, as Kennedy pushed back against the suggestion that his film is propaganda.

“How do we determine what is propaganda?” Kennedy asked. “I say one of the ways we do it is (to ask), are results asked for, or results promised? I was not asked for results and I did not promise results. If you have a problem with the film, the problem lies with me.”

This review originally appeared in Huffington Post.

Watch the trailer for “Food Evolution”:

Stacy Malkan is co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group that voluntarily discloses its funding. She is the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry and also co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Follow her on Twitter @stacymalkan.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.