An excellent investigative piece by Stacy Malkan of "U.S. Right to Know" about the misleading and deceitful practices of the Cornell Alliance for Science. We re-publish the first part here. For the full story, which includes a description of everybody involved, please click here.
Despite its academic-sounding name and affiliation with an Ivy League Institution, the Cornell Alliance for Science is a public relations campaign to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides. With $12 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science claims to be working to “restore the importance of scientific evidence in decision-making,” however, the examples in this fact sheet show that the group:
- Misleads the public with inaccurate information about science;
- Elevates unreliable messengers who make false and unscientific claims; and,
- Partners with front groups that have worked with the tobacco industry or chemical industries to manufacture doubt about science that raises health concerns.
The evidence suggests the Cornell Alliance for Science is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to promote the talking points and political agenda of the world’s largest agrichemical corporations.
The Gates Foundation helped launch the Cornell Alliance for Science in 2014 as an effort to “depolarize the charged debate” around genetically modified foods (GMOs). The Gates Foundation Deputy Director Rob Horsch, who worked for Monsanto Company for 25 years, leads the foundation’s agricultural research and development strategies, which have drawn criticism for relentlessly promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa.1 In December 2018, a group of African farmers accused Cornell Alliance for Science of using their images without authorization to make false and misleading claims, according to the African Centre for Biodiversity.
Industry-aligned mission and activities
The mission of Cornell Alliance for Science – to build a global movement of “agricultural champions” to “advocate for access” to genetically engineered crops – is strikingly similar to the mission of the main trade group that promotes the interests of the world’s largest agricultural chemical companies. The Council for Biotechnology Information, which is funded by BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta, describes its agenda to “promote acceptance” of agricultural biotechnology by getting “external voices” to “understand and accept the positive role” of genetic engineering.
The main activity of the Cornell Alliance for Science appears to be training and supporting its Global Leadership Fellows – many of whom are journalists or marketing specialists2 – to conduct public relations and political advocacy that aligns with the agrichemical industry’s agenda. Geographical areas of focus have included African countries, where Alliance members urged countries to accept GMO crops and pesticides; and the Hawaiian Islands, where Alliance members opposed community efforts to regulate pesticides.
Defending pesticides with Monsanto talking points
Cornell Alliance for Science used the same inaccurate messaging as Monsanto-funded groups to defend glyphosate in the wake of a World Health Organization cancer research agency report that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Monsanto’s messaging to combat the market effects of the cancer ruling is revealed in this February 2015 public relations document, which described plans to mobilize “industry partners” to “orchestrate outcry” against the cancer panel. Direct sales of glyphosate-based products such as Roundup account for about one third of Monsanto’s profits, and the herbicide is a key component of GMO foods with 90% of corn and soy grown in the
United States genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup products.
As an example of industry messaging, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a front group Monsanto paid to spin the cancer report, claimed the cancer report was a “scientific fraud” perpetrated by “activist scientists.” Mark Lynas, a spokesperson for the Cornell Alliance for Science, leveled similar attacks against the scientists, portraying their cancer report as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “anti-Monsanto activists” who “abused science” and committed “an obvious perversion of both science and natural justice” by reporting a cancer risk. The article on the Cornell website appeared one month after, and used the same sources, as the article by the Monsanto-funded front group ACSH.
Lynas claimed to be on the side of science but ignored evidence from the company’s own documents showing that Monsanto interfered with scientific research, manipulated regulatory agencies and used other “strong arm” tactics to interfere with the scientific process in order to protect its pesticide.
In August 2018, in the first case to go to trial of more than 40,000 lawsuits pending against Monsanto (now merged with Bayer), a jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in compensatory and punitive damages to a school groundskeeper who was diagnosed with terminal cancer after using glyphosate-based Roundup products. The jury found that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in covering up the cancer risk of Roundup.
Partners with industry, opposes transparency
The director of Cornell Alliance for Science, Sarah Evanega, PhD, has said her group is independent of industry: “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate or promote industry-owned products. As our website clearly and fully discloses, we receive no resources from industry.” However, dozens of emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show that Dr. Evanega and the Cornell Alliance for Science coordinate closely with the pesticide industry and its PR allies on public relations initiatives.
As one example, a Monsanto document made public in 2019 describes the company’s deep fears about a public records investigation into its hidden collaborations with publicly funded academics. The PR document describes Monsanto’s plans to try to discredit the investigation by U.S. Right to Know as an attack on “scientific freedom.” The Cornell Alliance for Science played a key role in advancing this industry messaging via a public petition opposing the public records investigation. The Alliance launched the petition with Biofortified, a PR group Monsanto has identified as a “partner” group.
The USRTK investigation has revealed many examples of how academics assist industry with PR and lobbying campaigns in ways that are hidden from the public and policy makers. The emails reveal that the pesticide industry recruited members of Biofortified to lobby against pesticide regulations in Hawaii. One member of the group, University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, claimed they were “independent expert scientists” traveling to Hawaii “simply to share science,” but document show the pesticide industry paid for the trip and coordinated their meetings and messaging. Dr. Folta has misled the public about science and his ties to industry on many occasions; yet emails show that Dr. Evanega invited him to teach and speak at Cornell and promoted Folta as “an amazing champion for change” and “a model for scientists.”
Dr. Evanega was a Trustee in 2017 of the food and pesticide industry-funded International Food Information Council, a group that promotes and defends sugar, artificial sweeteners, food additives, pesticides and genetically engineered foods. Emails show how this group solicited payments from food and chemical companies to produce materials in defense of processed foods. For more examples of Cornell Alliance for Science partnerships with industry groups, see footnotes.3
Fellows, partners mislead the public about science
The Cornell Alliance for Science partners with groups and people who mislead the public about science. The partnerships described below suggest that the purpose of the Cornell Alliance for Science is not to promote science but rather to promote the agrichemical industry’s political agenda of deregulation.
The most visible face of the Cornell Alliance for Science, the British writer Mark Lynas has written dozens of articles defending agrichemical industry products in the name of the Cornell Alliance for Science and recently published a book promoting GMOs and arguing for African countries to accept them.
Experts in genetic engineering, biology, agroecology and food policy have criticized Lynas for making false claims, inaccurate statements, “unscientific, illogical and absurd” arguments, “relying on authority rather than data or research,” and making a career out of demonizing and insulting critics of the agrichemical industry.4 A 2018 statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.”
Lynas has been a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University’s Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences since 2013. According to his website, he advises the Cornell Alliance for Science on their work in developing countries and teaches courses at Cornell. In 2015, Lynas described himself as the “political director” of Cornell Alliance for Science. He also serves on the advisory council of Sense About Science, a Monsanto partner group.
Read more about Mark Lynas and his background here.
For the full story, and assessment of other people involved and a rich variety of sources and resources: