Revealed: How Syngenta Investigated the Press and Shaped the News About its Controversial Weed-Killer Atrazine
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"I believe Duhigg's interview on NPR represents the new line of attack on [a]trazine, and just as the other side has been getting its organizational duck in a row, they have advanced their message in a way that will require a certain amount of catching up on our part," wrote Gilder. "This advanced message is that 'new science' suggests that exposure to even infinitesimal amounts of atz, measured in ppb, at critical points in pregnancy can cause birth defects or premature birth for a few members of the population. This renders past EPA decisions less compelling, as this is 'new science.'"
WHWG recommended Syngenta enlist the aid again of allies at ACSH -- namely Ross and Whelan.
ACSH Gets "Lifeblood" Funding from “Dear Syngenta Friends”
As the e-mails uncovered in the litigation reveal, Whelan had also submitted a new financial proposal from ACSH for a special project from Syngenta. The proposal began “Dear Syngenta friends” and proposed that ACSH produce a publication on pesticide and Atrazine exposure and human health.
She was seeking $100,000 to publish and consumerize a discussion of “myths and realities” about agribusiness chemicals and health.
Her proposal concluded by noting that her request was separate from the “general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years, which we request to continue at current or increased levels. Such general operating support is the lifeblood of a small non-profit like ours, and is both deeply appreciated and much needed.”
Whelan, the president of the non-profit ASCH, is paid over $350,000 a year out of the organization’s $2 million in annual income, as of 2009. It is not clear how much "lifeblood" Syngenta pays each year as its generous contribution to ACSH budget and Whelan’s large salary.
ACSH’s published materials include a boilerplate disclaimer that it accepts grants from any source but that it is solely responsible for its research and that it “does not accept support from individual corporations for specific research projects.”
Spinning the Idea of “Chemophobia”
While aiding in attacks on Duhigg’s New York Times reporting, Whelan pushed the idea that people expressing concerns were engaged in “chemophobia,” an irrational fear of chemicals.
The e-mails contained in the court record are incomplete regarding ACSH’s project grant proposal, the total funding it has received over the years, and the subsequent funding for ACSH, WHWG, and others post-spring 2010.
Nevertheless, it is plain that Syngenta’s PR operations did not suddenly cease that spring, with the EPA’s decision on atrazine still pending along with ongoing litigation in the state and federal courts.
And just last month a long-time friend of Syngenta announced the release of a new book.
It was finalized in 2011 along with a “companion friendly” paper called “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.” The book attacks the EPA and “harmful, unnecessary regulation” as well as the precautionary principle.
It has a chapter-long “case study” defending atrazine, just as members of the Syngenta PR team had been seeking.
The publisher? ACSH, consistent with the pitch Whelan made to Syngenta.
The book? Designed to rattle the cages at the EPA, which was on the Syngenta PR team's wishlist.
The author? John Entine, described as a highly regarded science reporter from the American Enterprise Institute, a third party Syngenta’s PR team had been cultivating.
The HuffPo contributor who wrtote about the book and its attack on critics of atrazine? It was Entine, whom Syngenta trusted.
It was not the investigated investigative HuffPo reporter, Danielle Ivory.
Beau Hodai has worked with In These Times as a Staff Writer and is the founder of DBApress.com. He is a guest author for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). Lisa Graves is CMD's Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief. Previously, Graves was the Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice, among other posts.