Peeling Back the Curtain On Monsanto

05/10/2016 08:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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For nearly 30 years, Carey Gillam has worked as a business reporter covering corporate America, the last 17 of those with Reuters, where she specialized in writing about food and agriculture. In that role, she gained a reputation for her in-depth skeptical eye on issues involving GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops and the pesticides used with them. Her award-winning coverage has taken her across the country, visiting farmers and ranchers and exploring the high-tech laboratories and corporate offices of some of the largest agribusinesses corporations in the world.

But in recent years, Gillam's work has turned "controversial" in the eyes of some. Operating through sometimes murky social media channels, these critics have targeted Gillam along with others who raise question about GMO food, the chemicals used on them, and the companies that sell both. In some cases, these critics have ties linking them to the agribusiness industry. As GMO labeling efforts have taken off across the country, and become the subject of debate this month in the U.S. Senate, these attacks heightened.

She recently left Reuters to work as research director for U.S. Right to Know, a small nonprofit funded largely by the Organic Consumers Association with the mission of bringing "truth and transparency" about food policy to consumers. Over the last year, U.S. Right to Know has been making waves in the media, filing Freedom of Information Act requests at universities that have exposed cozy ties between some seemingly independent scientists and the biotech industry. Stories based on USRTK's research have appeared on the front page of the New York Times, in the Boston Globe and at Bloomberg. In March, Chicago Public Radio reported on documents USRTK made public, regarding professor Bruce Chassy at the University of Illinois, who has been failing to disclose money he has received from Monsanto.

From her home in the key farm state of Kansas, Gillam spoke with me about her coverage of these hotly debated issues and how pressure from Monsanto has gotten much uglier in recent years. Our conversation follows, condensed and edited.

You've been covering agriculture for almost two decades. When did you first start to feel pressure from Monsanto when covering GMO crops?

Pressure from Monsanto began when I first started covering them around 1999 or 2000, and it wasn't even GMO crops. At the time Monsanto was in transition from an industrial chemical company involved in litigation with PCBs to an agrichemical and biotech seed company. They had some GMO crops but they had only been out a few years. They also had the pesticide glyphosate or Roundup, and they were marketing bovine growth hormone for dairy cows. There were a lot of questions about a lot of this stuff.

Monsanto does what all companies do to reporters: They get angry; they call your boss; they ask for a retraction or a clarification. But they were more aggressive than most companies. They'd call me at home, because they had my cellphone, and accuse me of being biased. They wanted to know if I had organic milk in my refrigerator, for instance. [Laughs] What kind of food did I feed my children. It was always a little odd.

They were dubbed "Monsatan" by many back then. But things evolved as their communications team became more media savvy and began inviting people to their headquarters and working to burnish a more favorable image. Then around 2012, as GMO labeling of food was being considered in California they became much more strategic.

The beginning of the real ugliness began with the GMO labeling movement, and the California vote. A leading industry representative told me they couldn't keep fighting state by state. They had to win the issue nationally. An industry coalition was formed; the website GMO Answers was put together with the help of Ketchum P.R. to refute concerns that were mounting around the country about GMOs.

You get a lot of these websites and bloggers attacking anyone who critiques GMO technology or products. There's one called Science 2.0 and there's the Genetic Literacy Project run by Jon Entine. Who are these people?

Well, you can look up Jon Entine, and 10 or 15 years ago, he had Monsanto as a client for his P.R. operation. He's been around. Then you've got Bruce Chassy, who is a professor from Illinois who runs a website called Academics Review. They purport to be independent.

It's interesting you bring up Academics Review. If anyone Googles your name, one of the first things that pops up is criticism of you by Academics Review.

US Right to Know sent a FOIA request to Chassy's university and my jaw dropped when I read the emails. He, Monsanto and a former P.R. executive for Monsanto emailed each other about setting up Academics Review, back in 2010. They wanted to set it up to criticize individuals and the P.R. guy gave Chassy a list of these people, as suggestions. They had the domain name of the website and released it to Chassy. A Monsanto executive even said in one of the emails that they didn't want anyone to know Monsanto was behind it. [Laughs]

Academics Review even went after the New Yorker for their story about the industry assault on Tyrone Hayes at Berkeley. Anyways, Chicago Public Radio blew the lid off how the money from Monsanto to Bruce Chassy was being funneled through the university's foundation. Just follow the money.

That's interesting because Bruce Chassy has been quoted several times criticizing FOIA requests, sometimes claiming it's harassment against academics. Several times the reporter quoting him was Keith Kloor and it is never disclosed in those stories that Chassy is working for Monsanto. Keith Kloor has also written several times criticizing your reporting.

I don't know Keith Kloor and I've never met him, just like I've never met Jon Entine or Bruce Chassy. These people started coming out of the woodwork when the biotech industry was ramping up their P.R. effort a few years ago to defeat the state labeling initiatives. That's when the attacks and assaults started.

Someone, I can't even remember who, called for me to be removed from my beat. There's just been a lot of pressure. But when you pull back the curtain, you see that it's an intertwined group of individuals.

There's a funny incident where Keith Kloor wrote about giving a lecture at Harvard to a class run by Calestous Juma. During Juma's class, Kloor discussed the purported "false balance" in your reporting. The Boston Globe later wrote about emails released through FOIA showing that Juma wrote a policy paper in support of GMOs that failed to disclose his connection to Monsanto. Ironic, no?

Right. [Laughs] I'm kind of impressed, because it's very strategic by Monsanto. Brilliant of them to try and control the narrative. This business about "false balance" started about two or three years ago when Monsanto started pushing reporters with the idea that the "science was settled." Reporters are supposed to say "the science on the safety of these products is settled." That's the line industry wants, and you can find that theme repeated in several media stories.

If a story I wrote did not toe the line for the biotech industry, that created a phone call or an email to me or my editor. So I had to be extremely careful about the accuracy of every word. They couldn't get at the facts, so they countered with this idea of "false balance." They couldn't say that things were wrong, so they would complain that I should not be presenting both sides.

In February I broke a story in Time that the FDA plans to start testing foods for residues of glyphosate pesticide - a straightforward news story that outlets around the world picked up. And I was attacked by pro-GMO forces for that. They don't want anything that puts a spotlight on these chemicals or crops.

Mark Lynas at the Cornell Alliance for Science tried out that "consensus on safety" talking point in the New York Times, and a scientist who worked on the Flavr Savr tomato dressed him down in a letter to the paper. She pointed out that GMO is only a technology and each product has to be evaluated on an individual basis. I find it shocking that Lynas would even try a line like that. The pharmaceutical industry would never try to hoodwink consumers by saying, "The consensus is that pharmaceuticals are safe!" People would ask, "Well, which pharmaceutical?"

Exactly. There are different products, with different uses and impacts. Take a look at glyphosate or Roundup, which is the pesticide used with some GMO crops, like corn. There are differing opinions in the scientific community on safety and environmental impacts. The World Health Organization, for instance, came out last year with a finding that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen.

U.S. Right to Know has faced repeated criticism from the Union of Concerned Scientists for filing FOIA requests to learn about academics working with the biotech industry. They even advised your organization in an email, last February, that people should only ask about scientists' funding. You guys ignored this, and now we have emails showing that some of these scientists were helping Monsanto lobby against labeling laws, attack other scientists, and other forms of secret corporate advocacy. The list goes on.

You don't want to use this as a tool for harassment. And you want to be targeted in your approach. We don't post people's addresses or personal information. We use information that is relevant to public policy.

I think that people need to have transparency and know who is connected to whom and why certain things are being said. Then people can make up their own minds.

[Note to readers: after this interview was completed, the Boston Globe reported that the Union of Concerned Scientists is seeking to shield some scientists' information from public scrutiny.]

Along with Charles Seife at NYU, I wrote an article for a science journal about the importance of FOIA laws in protecting the public through transparency and by uncovering corrupt science. We were immediately attacked from all sides, including a co-founder of the science journal who tweeted that Seife is an "ass" and suggested that some reporters should have to disclose their emails. It was very surreal. The journal later retracted our article, but the New York Times followed up in a front page story making pretty much the same points we had. Why is there so much hostility from scientists on this?

I think this is embarrassing for some scientists. Kevin Folta at the University of Florida has accused my organization of trying to ruin his career, which we didn't. What got him in hot water and in the New York Times was the money that came from Monsanto. If there was nothing wrong with that, then why did the university decide to give that money away? We made the information public, the New York Times printed it and the public was appalled. If there's nothing there in the emails, then why are people shouting so loud?

But it's not just scientists. A journalist for Forbes has mused whether FOIA requests to scientists are harmful to academic research. I was shocked reading this, thinking, "We now have journalists criticizing a tool used by journalists to uncover corruption?" Three days later, the Associated Press broke a story, with internal emails showing that Coca-Cola had some pretty significant influence on researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Kind of killed that argument.

This is the 50th year of FOIA, and it's through this tool that we learn and uncover information to help protect the public. Sometimes regulators and lobbyists don't want us to know what is happening behind the scenes, when they aren't putting the public interest first. You find out what is really happening through FOIA.

Jon Entine's Genetic Literacy Project and Bruce Chassy's Academic Review have been co-sponsoring conferences with universities and sponsor journalists to attend and be on panels. One reporter wrote about the ethics of this, and I contacted her. She pointed out that we only recently learned about Bruce Chassy's ties to Monsanto in the last month from FOIA. In retrospect, she says she probably shouldn't have attended.

Again, you gotta give it to Monsanto, because it's a brilliant move. If you're a young reporter, or if you're not experienced in covering this industry, you're not going to know that you're being fed information that isn't necessarily valid or balanced. How can you possibly know?

The only reason I know is because I've been around, pretty much since GMOs really started taking off. I've watched the spin evolve and how it is sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected. I've seen when products don't work, or farmers object and get squashed.

It's the job of journalists to try to get beyond the spin. Some journalists are capable of this, but some aren't.

Your organization has also been repeatedly described as "anti-GMO."

We are not "anti-GMO." We are for transparency. My cupboards have several bags of Tostitos and Cheesepuffs and other foods that contain GMO ingredients. My kids love it. But there are concerns about these products and it's been my job to talk to informed scientists, regulators, farmers and the companies to explore this. I don't believe that GMOs are generally bad ... or good. Like any technology, there are risks that come with rewards.

Your organization is funded by the Organic Consumers Association, which has called for a moratorium on GMO crops.

We don't have a mandate to stay away from organic issues or to focus solely on GMO issues. We're also looking at the beverage industry and animal antibiotics. My understanding is that the Organic Consumers Association wants to help level the playing field, in terms of information.

We get calls every day with people asking questions. People care about the food they eat.

Do you think Monsanto has been effective in skewing the media?

There is a long list of industry talking points, and if you know what they are, you recognize them easily when you see them in stories. The P.R. push by industry is affecting the media. Can the public see through it at all? I don't know.