Vlog 21: Monsanto and the University of Saskatchewan | The Body of Evidence

Vlog 21: Monsanto and the University of Saskatchewan

The CBC recently brought forth allegations that Professor Peter Phillips of the University of Saskatchewan was Monsanto's sock puppet. How do they know? Because of emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Jonathan investigates.

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TRANSCRIPT:

Hey, this is Jonathan from The Body of Evidence.

Today, I want to talk about some fairly serious allegations made against a scientist by the CBC. The scientist in question is Peter Phillips, Ph.D., of the University of Saskatchewan, here in Canada. He directs the Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy and he is a distinguished professor at the university's graduate school of public policy. And he knows a thing or two about GMOs.

In an article posted by CBC News on May 7, reporter Jason Warick quotes an American researcher who brings proof that Peter Phillips is "a sock puppet for agri-business giant Monsanto". The CBC article goes on to make 4 allegations which look pretty damning:

1. Monsanto lobbied for Phillips to testify in front of the National Academy of Sciences on the topic of GMOs and even offered to review his slides before he did.

2. A research symposium at U of S for which Phillips served as point person had a guest list overseen by Monsanto.

3. Phillips gave advice to Monsanto on how to deal with the Environmental Protection Agency.

And finally, and most incriminating of all, Monsanto had commissioned academics from many universities, including Phillips himself, to pen articles in line with the corporation's views. Phillips' article was edited by Monsanto, but the published article made no mention of Monsanto's involvement.

Now, my question to you is, how do you feel about a powerful, well-funded interest group interfering in academia and manipulating the public's opinion on something as important as the food that we eat, all the while ignoring what the science actually tells us?

That's pretty disgusting, isn't it?

You probably think this sort of behind-the-scenes manipulation is reprehensible.

I agree.

Which is why we need to talk about the organization behind this piece: US Right To Know.

You see, the "American researcher" who called Phillips a sock puppet for Monsanto, his name is Gary Ruskin. He is the co-founder and co-director of US Right to Know which, according to its website, is "a nonprofit organization working for transparency and accountability in our nation's food system. We strive to illuminate issues important to consumers. We stand up for the right to know what is in our food, and how it affects our health."

Gary Ruskin is being portrayed by the CBC as an "American researcher". You may be forgiven for thinking he does agriculture research, or molecular biology research, or any kind of scientific research. Yet, when we take a look at his CV on LinkedIn, we see "director", "campaign manager", "co-founder", "executive director", "director", "campaign manager", "project coordinator", "adjunct lecturer in the urban studies department", and "canvass director". He holds a Bachelor's degree in Religion and a Master's in public policy. To call him a researcher is at best a stretch and most likely dishonest.

His organization, US Right to Know, is not some sort of innocent crusading body fighting to protect the public from evil corporations. According to its website, it receives the following donations, including 

over 400 000 American dollars from the Organic Consumers Association, a trade group that pushes an agenda-that people should eat organic food-while being anti-GMO, anti-pesticides, anti-chemicals and anti-vaccines. US Right to Know, with funding from this anti-GMO trade group, is known for adopting the following strategy:

They find an academic researcher who publicly says that genetically engineered food should be part of the solution when it comes to feeding every mouth on Earth.

They file a FOIA request, or Freedom of Information Act request, since "any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information". They ask the university to send them every email between the academic researcher and a company they don't like, for example, Monsanto.

The university, at their own cost, has to pull out all of that correspondence, manually redact personal and irrelevant bits of information, like student names, before sending all of that over to US Right to Know.

US Right to Know then goes through the emails, plucks out sinister-sounding sentences out of context, and hands them over to a hungry journalist, who proceeds to write a newspaper article alleging unsavoury ties between academia and Big Ag.

This "lather, rinse, repeat" procedure has been done to Henry Miller, Nina Fedoroff, Bruce Chassy, Kevin Folta, and many others.

Now, putting aside the technique by which U.S. Right to Know conducts these modern-day witch hunts, it is possible it might uncover some undue influence on the part of businesses on university professors. So, returning to the four allegations made in the CBC piece against Peter Phillips, do they hold up to scrutiny?

1. Monsanto lobbies for Phillips to talk to the National Academy of Sciences

At the bottom of this is the suggestion of a type of guilt by association, what we commonly call "playing the Nazi card". The argument goes, "Hitler was a vegetarian, Peter Phillips is a vegetarian, therefore Peter Phillips is a Nazi", only in this case, the role of Hitler is played by Monsanto. What I mean is that, since Monsanto is pro-genetically engineered food, anyone who also holds this position must do so because they are under the influence of Monsanto. Therefore, Monsanto calls for Phillips to testify, not because Phillips is independently *for* genetically engineered food, but because he is Monsanto's puppet.

"But Monsanto edited his slides!" I can hear some people scream. All right, fine, you know what, I asked Peter Phillips, and this is what he had to say:

"The 'lobbying' they did to get me in front of the NAS was only one of a number of entreaties by colleagues and others to the panel to get me invited.  I accepted any offer of assistance that came from wherever.  As always, the actual invitation was at the discretion of the SRC/NAS panel members. Monsanto just offered my name.  Once I was invited, I shared my slides with [Cami] Ryan/ [Eric] Sachs [from Monsanto] as they had been watching all the hearings-I asked for clarification of whether I was simply repeating what others were saying or whether I was making a unique contribution.  To the best of my recollection I do not think they made any suggestions at all on what I showed them."

2. Symposium guest list overseen by Monsanto

The CBC article mentions that Monsanto "oversaw" the guest list at this symposium. Dr. Phillips did not clarify this further, and I'm not sure what it means. Was the guest list simply sent to someone at Monsanto, or did the company hand-pick the guests? I don't know, so I'm going to put this one aside for now.

3. Advice from Phillips to Monsanto regarding the EPA

I don't personally find anything wrong with a university professor communicating with a company on the topic of getting regulations to improve for the thing they both believe in, i.e. genetically engineered food.

4. Monsanto ghost-edited a scientific paper written by Phillips

Now, this one, I had a problem with initially, with the way in which it was described in the CBC article. Here's a quote from that article and I want you to notice the words the reporter uses:

"Monsanto had commissioned academics from the U of S, Harvard University and other schools to pen articles in line with the corporation's views."

Once again, "in line with the corporation's views" simply means "pro-genetically engineered food". You don't need to be paid by a corporation to accept the science on GE food; plenty of university students and researchers study plant genetics and agree that GE food is a solution to many of the problems we are facing today. But of course, writing "in line with the corporation's views" injects some much needed paranoia into the text and reveals that that journalist is not reporting objectively.

So, what happened here? Once again, I asked Professor Phillips for clarifications.

"I wrote a journal article on the cost of regulation (which is still hung up in review with a journal) and then (afterward) was invited to use it as a base for a policy brief on the impact of regulations.  I jettisoned about half the article and recrafted much of the rest of it to make it more accessible to the general public.  This piece went through multiple edits with lots of people offering advice.  My wife read it, I think Eric Sachs and Cami Ryan from Monsanto read it, a few colleagues here read it and Jon Entine read it.  Each offered comments on where I was vague or confusing or could be more forthright.  As with all writing for popular use (e.g. policy briefs, op eds, magazine articles), I took whatever advice made sense and didn't change my message.  I think the main suggestion they may have made that I accepted was to do a highlights box and offer a summative statement at the front of the box that captures the main point of the piece.  Those words appropriately captured the message of my brief and were an amalgam of advice from many people. The CBC reporter seemed to have difficulty distinguishing between an academic journal and a knowledge translation piece.  Peer reviewed articles are only revised subject to peer and journal editor advice.  Writings for the popular press are usually edited for style to make them more accessible.  That is what seems to have been conflated here."

This is what happens when you go through hundreds of emails and pluck specific sentences out of context to promote your agenda.

There is a conversation to be had about the fact that university professors are being asked more and more to work with and accept funding from the private sector. Accusing said professors of being shills and sock puppets in the media, however, is not part of a grown-up conversation.

And, finally, the CBC changed the title of their hit piece. When I first saw it and typed in my notes, it was called, rather boldly, "U of S, prof under fire for Monsanto ties". Now, it says, "U of S professor says there's nothing unusual about his ties to Monsanto". Funnily enough, they never declared they updated this title. See, I clicked on the article several days after it was first published, but the "last updated" date is the same as the "posted" date. Great journalistic transparency here.

CBC, did you think I wouldn't notice? Come on, now.