Food

6 Ways This Ivy League University Is Acting Like a PR Firm for Junk Food, GMOs and Pesticides

Consumers lose when professors get their marching orders from Big Ag and Big Food.

Photo Credit: haveseen/Shutterstock

If a scientist has a relationship with a large company, how can the public fully trust the statements they are making about that company’s products? When these relationships aren’t made public, things get even murkier.

But that's exactly what's happening in the U.S. food industry, where large corporations enlist university academics to provide their imprimatur on a host of consumer products—some of which may actually be unhealthy and even unsafe.

Like so much else, it comes down to money: Big agriculture and food companies like Monsanto and Coca-Cola are able to procure influence among academics by providing research funding—and sometimes even research topics. The danger is that the resulting "research" could amount to little more than corporate-funded marketing that, to the unwitting public, has the stamp of approval from a prestigious university.

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In particular, relationships between food companies and academia has caused professors to take sides on controversial issues, swaying the “science” on issues that matter to Big Food and Ag—like junk food, GMOs and pesticides—issues that also have the potential to have a profound, and possibly negative impact on human health.

Laura Schmidt, professor of health policy at the school of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, said monetary relationships between academics and food corporations, like sugary beverage and junk food companies, are destructive to both the credibility of science and public health.

“I would go as far as to say that it is immoral,” said Schmidt, whose research focuses on addiction, poverty, obesity-related metabolic disease. “We’re talking people getting sick. And the idea that scientists are allowing themselves to be purchased by corporations … is a big problem.”

One repeat offender is Cornell University, several of whose professors have been lured into the propaganda machines of Big Ag and Big Food. One professor, Brian Wansink, the director of the university’s Food and Brand Lab, is facing allegations of self-plagiarism and possible data misrepresentation in multiple papers and studies. The Journal of Sensory Studies even retracted one of Wansink’s studies because it contained a “major overlap” with another study he published.

Cornell is a prestigious Ivy League school. So when their professors support junk food, pesticides and GMOs, it can have a damaging and potentially lasting impact worldwide.

Here are six ways Cornell has become a PR agency for Big Food and Big Ag.

1. Cornell professor Tony Shelton followed a Monsanto executive’s suggestion to write a pro-GMO paper.

Anthony Shelton, professor in the Department of Entomology at Cornell, co-wrote a paper published on a pro-GMO site, the Genetic Literacy Project, about the sustainability benefits of herbicide and insect tolerant plants as a part of a special report titled “Beyond the Science.”

It was later revealed through emails obtained through FOIA requests by U.S. Right To Know, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in the food system, that Eric Sachs, a Monsanto Outreach Lead, had contacted eight academics, including Shelton, to author the papers in this pro-GMO series. Though the professors weren’t paid to write these papers, the email provided the researchers specific topics with suggested backgrounds to keep in mind while authoring their work.

The email stated that the paper topics were chosen based upon their impact on consumer acceptance and public policy—and that the goal was to increase the public’s understanding of the benefits of GMO crops.

In the paper, Shelton and his co-author David Shaw, the vice president for Research and Economic Development at Mississippi State University, write that "GM crop technology provides farmers with advanced integrated pest management (IPM) tools to ensure a productive and safe crop."

However, Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at the Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy nonprofit, said that because the U.S. does not require safety assessments of foods before they go on the market, there’s simply no way to say all GMOs are safe. He said that companies can participate in a voluntary safety consultation with the FDA, but no conclusions are made.

“The FDA will often say we have no questions, but we remind the company that it is up to them to determine safety,” he said. “That is not a conclusion of the FDA of saying these things are safe.”

2. The Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR front for the agrichemical industry.

According to its website, the Cornell Alliance for Science is a nonprofit that aims to restore science within decision making. The nonprofit was launched in 2014 with the intention to “depolarize the GMO debate,” as stated by its director Sarah Evanega Davidson. Davidson failed to respond to comment for this article.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds CAS, is pro-GMO and Gates himself has even bought millions of dollars worth of shares in Monsanto stock.

Despite this, Davidson wrote in a blog post that CAS has no relationship with the industry. The Alliance often paints a one-sided story of GMOs, speaking only about positive aspects, ignoring issues such as GMOs have increased herbicide use, especially of glyphosate, an herbicide declared “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization. (Other scientists are debating this declaration.)

In response to U.S. Right to Know’s obtaining of emails between academics and Monsanto through FOIA requests, the CAS called on the public to “stand with science” to protect scientific freedom. The CAS asked the public to sign a letter that referred to the request for these emails as “anti-science bullying.”

The CAS features a variety of pro-GMO speakers including many journalists, like Tamar Haspel, a columnist for The Washington Post who often writes pro-gmo columns, and who admitted being paid by the industry she reports on. This activity is called "buckraking,” which TruthWiki defines as “the practice of accepting large sums of money for speaking to special interest or business groups, especially when viewed as compromising the objectivity of journalists.”

CAS also offers fellowships for journalists to promote what they euphemistically call “contextualized reporting” on biotechnology and other food security issues.

Paul Thacker, an environmental journalist who reports on GMO-related issues, said he does not understand why any journalist would want to associate with the Alliance.

“What I find most troubling about the Alliance for Science is that they're pushing to rebrand FOIA as some sort of bullying technique,” Thacker said. “Why any journalist would want to speak in front of such an organization is beyond my comprehension.”

Jonathan Latham, co-founder of the Bioscience Resource Project, a group that studies the safety of genetic engineering, said Cornell is allowing the industry to advertise in a space that appears to be independent, but in reality is not.

“So, what Cornell University is basically doing is hosting an institution that can do PR for the biotech industry,” Latham said.

3. Cornell professor David Just testified that he worries GMO labels will falsely alarm and mislead consumers.

There is no scientific consensus on GMO safety, according to a report signed by over 300 independent researchers written to challenge reports of this said consensus. While the report does not say that GMOs have been proven to be unsafe, it was made clear that the science has not yet been settled.

Yet in 2015, at a senate hearing on whether or not states can mandate labeling on GMO products, applied economics professor David R. Just said the GMO labels could. "mislead consumers into being afraid of something we know to be safe."

Just said in a later conversation that he’s not opposed to all GMO labeling, but thinks it could be misleading especially because not all production processes are required to be listed. Just also said he believes it’s not important whether or not a food contains a GMO, but why the GMO is present.

Rob Lustig, professor of pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California at San Francisco, said that because the science on GMOs is still unsettled, it would be important to for scientists to know what products contained GMOs if problems arise in the future.  

“I’m for labeling because labeling will be able to provide us the information to populate the database if it turns out there is a problem, but that’s not what the food industry wants clearly because they don’t want to find a problem.”

4. Cornell professors Brian Wansink and David Just also oppose bans on large-size sodas.

Wansink, the professor facing allegations of academic misconduct, and Just, have also spoken against bans on larger sized sodas.

The two professors wrote an article in response to a proposed ban on sodas larger than 16 ounces in New York City. The article stated bans on large sized sodas are ineffective because consumers who want larger sized sodas will always find a way to get them. The article also suggests that bans like these would disproportionately affect the less affluent.

However, alternative research suggests that large-sized soda bans would actually be effective in targeting people who are overweight and not the poor. A study headed by Columbia health policy and management professor Y. Claire Yang tracked data from over 19,000 people across the U.S. and found that the soda ban would affect the same percentage of people across all income levels.

In an interview, Just said he felt at the time people were overstating the possible impact of a soda ban, and said while it likely could reduce obesity for small, specific numbers of people, it would not have a dramatic impact of reducing obesity. He said because of this, especially in areas where the ban faced pushback, it would be harder to implement a more effective bill in the future.

In 2013, the soda ban was rejected by New York State’s highest court.

5. Cornell received $4.8 million to support a GMO eggplant.

In 2016, the U.S. Agency for International Development, a government agency aimed to end global poverty, gave Cornell University almost a $5 million grant to incorporate BT Brinjal, a GMO eggplant, in Bangladesh. This implementation project is run by Shelton.

This grant was aimed to improve food security in Bangladesh by reducing yield losses, and therefore improve livelihoods by providing a stable income for farmers.

However, the grant was given to Cornell despite reports by Bangladeshi development policy research group UBINIG of major BT Brinjal crop failures in years prior. The press release Cornell University put out about the grant stated that the crop had actually increased yields, and reduced pesticides and pest infestation.

UBINIG reported officials from the Bangladeshi Department of Agriculture primarily took care of the crops during their short lives. They also reported heavy use of pesticides, even banned pesticides, on the failing crop, despite claims that the crops would require none at all. Seventy-four percent of the farmers that grew BT Brinjal in this trial said they would never grow it again. UBINIG has also reported recent failures with the crop.

Hansen, who has been to Bangladesh and worked with UBINIG, said Cornell officials are spreading propaganda about the success of BT Brinjal.

6. Three Cornell academics write for the agrichemical industry PR site GMO Answers.

Peter Davies, professor emeritus at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Xiaohua Yang, postdoctoral associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and Shelton all write for GMO Answers. On the site, users ask questions about GMOs and hundreds of experts, including academics and officials for corporate agriculture companies, answer.

The website is funded by the Council for Biotechnology Information, whose members include Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences and BASF.

The website is run by U.S. Public Relations company Ketchum, the same company that represented the Honduran government amid a potential human rights crisis and which also represented Russia. There are also allegations that Ketchum committed espionage acts against non-profits like Greenpeace.

The website provides a one-sided view of GMOs, including saying GMOs caused a decrease in pesticides, when alternative studies say pesticide use has increased.

Davies said he has never been paid to answer questions on the website, and that his answers are put directly on the website unedited.

“So from that point of view, they do not influence what I say, and they do not censor what I say,” Davies said. “I write what I know and understand from the science.”

Yang declined to comment on the record for this article.

It is not made clear who owns or funds the website aside from its About Page, which discloses the seven agribusinesses that provide funding.

Schmidt said this lack of transparency is a problem.

“Think of the average person. Do they even know who Monsanto is and why they would care about GMOs,” Schmidt said. “Is it fair for members of the general public to be accessing information, not realizing that behind that information is a vested interest?”

Assault on academic freedom

T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus at Cornell who formerly taught a course on plant-based eating at the university (which was abruptly canceled without his knowledge), said he is disappointed with the industry taking over academic interests at the college.  

"Cornell is my home. I love the university. But in reality, what they've done is abhorrent, it's disgusting, and I'd like to label this an assault on academic freedom. That's really what it comes to."

Sophia Johnson is a writer based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter @sophjohnson26.