Harvard Kennedy School professor wrote a widely disseminated policy paper in support of GMOs at the behest of Monsanto, without disclosing his connection
EXCERPT: Juma said he did not make a conscious effort not to disclose his connection to Monsanto.
Harvard professor failed to disclose connection
By Laura Krantz
Boston Globe, October 01, 2015
A Harvard Kennedy School professor wrote a widely disseminated policy paper last year in support of genetically modified organisms at the behest of the seed giant Monsanto, without disclosing his connection, e-mails show.
Monsanto not only assigned professor Calestous Juma the topic. It went so far as to provide a summary of what the paper should say and a suggested headline. The company then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet and attract media attention, according to the e-mails, obtained through a public records request.
Juma, an expert in international development, said he was not paid by Monsanto to extol the benefits of GMOs. He used material from his previously published book on the topic, he said, and did not perform new research for Monsanto nor change his views.
“It’s not that I was trying to hide anything,” Juma said Wednesday in an interview.
The episode offers a rare glimpse into efforts by both sides in the hotly debated issue to marshal support from academics, to whom the public looks for impartial analysis.
A spokesman for the Kennedy School declined to comment on Juma’s failure to disclose his ties to Monsanto. Harvard’s conflict of interest policy states that “faculty members should not permit outside activities and financial interests to compromise their primary commitment to the mission of the university”.
Juma said he did not make a conscious effort not to disclose his connection to Monsanto.
“It may have been bad judgment on my part, but that’s how I was thinking at the time,’’ he said.
A specialist in academic conflict of interest said corporate influence can impact professors subconsciously.
“The whole thing comes down to, in the end, a concern about whether there is inappropriate influence from the company,” said Josephine Johnston, a researcher at the Hastings Center, a nonprofit research organization in Garrison, N.Y., who primarily studies conflicts of interest in biomedical research.
Juma’s paper praised the use of “biotechnology” in Africa. The native of Kenya has long touted the benefits of GMOs to help feed Third World countries.
Proponents of genetically modified organisms say they can help solve world hunger because crops produce higher yields and need less pesticide and fertilizer. Opponents say GMOs may be harmful to human health and are responsible for creating “super weeds”, plants that have adapted to withstand the powerful herbicides used on GMO crops.
The episode involving Juma began in August 2013, when he along with eight other professors received an e-mail from Eric Sachs, head of regulatory policy and scientific affairs for Monsanto.
Sachs was blunt about Monsanto’s intentions, according to the e-mails.
“This will be an important project and is designed to lead to increased engagement on critical topics that are barriers to broader use and acceptance of [genetically modified] crops globally,” he wrote.
Sachs went on to describe a series of seven papers that he asks the professors to author. The e-mail says that the specific topics were selected because of their “influence on public policy, [genetically modified] crop regulation, and consumer acceptance”.
“I understand and appreciate that you need me to be completely transparent and I am keenly aware that your independence and reputations must be protected,” Sachs wrote.
His e-mail lays out Monsanto’s strategy in detail. A marketing company along with the American Council for Science and Health, which has been criticized for its ties to corporations, would “merchandize” the papers online, disseminate them to the media, and schedule op-eds, blog posts, speaking engagements, events, and webinars. A Google search of Juma’s paper reveals it has landed on many websites and Twitter.
The goal, Sachs said, was to change public dialogue about GMOs “toward a broader understanding of the “societal benefits of [genetically modified] crops” and change policies that are “unnecessarily limiting innovation in the biotechnology arena”.
Monsanto suggested that the research paper assigned to Juma be headlined “Consequences of Rejecting GM crops.” In December 2014, Juma published “Global Risks of Rejecting Agricultural Biotechnology”, on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group known to be pro-GMO whose slogan is “science trumps ideology”.
In the interview, Juma said he viewed the invitation to write the paper as he would an invitation to speak at a conference. He said he speaks with industry officials on all sides of the GMO debate at least once or twice a week, because they ask him for advice about investments in Africa, but he said he has never been a paid consultant.
He has also testified before Congress on the topic and worked for United Nations Council on Biological Diversity, a treaty struck in 1990s.
“I knew people from Greenpeace, I knew people from Monsanto,” he said.
He published a statement on Wednesday on his blog describing how he has long been a proponent of them, particularly for the developing world. His Harvard biography includes many pro-GMO publications, although it does not mention the Monsanto paper.
Juma said the material in the paper was pulled his book, titled “The New Harvest”, published in 2011, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a group that also funds other pro-GMO groups. The grant also paid for 30,000 copies of his book to be distributed in Africa, Juma said.
“I consider GMOs as actually a small part of what it takes an agricultural system to function,” he said.
The anti-GMO advocacy group US Right To Know first obtain the e-mails from Sachs to Juma and the other professors as part of a larger public records request to the University of Florida targeting professor Kevin Folta.
The New York Times published a front-page story last month about Folta, detailing his connections to Monsanto as well as undisclosed industry ties of other scientists across the country.
The Globe made a separate public records request to UF and obtained the same documents. The cache of 4,600 pages trace corporate influence across major universities nationwide.
Sachs, the Monsanto official, declined a request for an interview. In an e-mail statement, he said Monsanto engaged with public-sector scientists to “communicate about science to the public”. No authors were paid for the papers, he said.
“We fully stand by our professional relationships and collaborations,” Sachs said.
This news comes as Harvard Medical School told professors it is reevaluating its rigid conflict-of-interest rules, which aim to shield scientific research from corporate influence.
Harvard found itself in the midst of a similar situation earlier this year, when it was disclosed that scientist Willie Soon, a climate-change skeptic at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had relied on grants from fossil-fuel energy interests without disclosing the financial conflict, according to documents unearthed by a climate watchdog group.