Interview with Carey Gillam on the conflicts of interest of a supposedly independent academic
EXCERPT: What the emails… show is that this particular professor [Bruce Chassy]… has a long track record, highly esteemed, and he and Monsanto company in particular became very close and collaborated on a regular basis about a range of things, presentations that Chassy would make supporting genetically modified crop technology that Monsanto relies on, that Monsanto makes its $15 billion a year in revenues on.
“This ‘independent’ academic is promoting public policy issues for a private corporation”
By Janine Jackson
FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting)
[links to sources are at the URL above]
* Janine Jackson interviewed Carey Gillam on the conflicts of interest of food science experts for the February 5, 2016, CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript
Janine Jackson: On many issues, Americans are happy to leave it to the experts. But when it comes to food, many people care very deeply. But wanting to make informed choices about what they eat and how it’s produced sometimes leads people to ask questions that food industries would rather not answer. That’s why journalism is so important, and why it matters so much who appears in stories as an authority that we should listen to and believe. Our next guest brings a case study that shows why we are right to be mindful. A longtime food and agriculture journalist, Carey Gillam is now research director at US Right to Know. She joins us by phone from Kansas.
Welcome to CounterSpin, Carey Gillam.
Carey Gillam: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
JJ: First of all, the Freedom of Information Act turns 50 this year, and I think it’s hard to overstate its value to journalists and to the public. And I understand that FOIA played a role in the story that we’re going to talk about. So before we get into what was revealed about former food science professor and media source Bruce Chassy, what do we know about how the information came to light?
CG: Yeah. What we did at US Right to Know was do Freedom of Information Act requests, and actually at several different universities. And it’s been a bit of a struggle to actually get those returned, but we have thousands of them. And we’ve been going through them to find out just exactly how closely are certain academics at publicly funded universities, how are they really working and aligning themselves, if they are, with private corporations that are trying to push certain political agendas and lobby for public policy matters. We wanted to see, really, what that relationship is, where’s the money flowing, what are the connections. Because we’re getting the information that things weren’t being revealed to the public that we thought were pretty important.
JJ: Well, when we talk about conflicts of interest between, for example, an academic and an industry with a particular set of ideas and policies that they want to promote and other ideas that they want to discourage, sometimes we’re talking about maybe expensive dinners, or perhaps travel that was covered to go to a conference. And these are things that, even if they might seem to point to a kind of unseemly culture, they don’t really, for many people, constitute a smoking gun. They don’t seem like evidence of a quid pro quo. But when we talk about Bruce Chassy, who was a food science professor at the University of Illinois and at NIH for many years, that situation which you’ve written about just recently, it seems much more stark than that.
CG: Well, yeah, now I would agree with that. I have to admit that my jaw was dropped and hanging open most of the time I was reading these emails. It seems unbelievable to me that this is OK, that what we found doesn’t seem to violate specific policies or ethics rules at the university. But it doesn’t.
But what the emails do show is that this particular professor — and he’s one of many, but he’s a very good example — this particular professor has a long track record, highly esteemed, and he and Monsanto company in particular became very close and collaborated on a regular basis about a range of things, presentations that Chassy would make supporting genetically modified crop technology that Monsanto relies on, that Monsanto makes its $15 billion a year in revenues on.
As you probably know, GMOs are pretty controversial right now. GMO labeling is at the forefront in Washington, DC, for new legislation. Mandatory labeling is set to take effect in Vermont in July. The food industry is fighting that desperately. Monsanto has spent millions of dollars lobbying against state mandatory labeling measures across the country. So to have an academic who appears to be independent coming out and writing reports and making presentations and speeches, and saying that consumers are wrong and GMOs are safe and we need them to feed the world and it’s very sustainable and there’s no safety issue and the pesticides that go with them are not a problem, you know, to have an independent academic standing up and saying all this, is a wonderful thing for Monsanto.
But what you see through these emails is that it was all very coordinated and very crafted by Monsanto and Monsanto PR operatives. Public relations firms are helping Chassy edit videos that he can put out, you know, giving him slides for presentations; they’re helping him set up a website where he can write negative, critical articles about people who are raising concerns about GMOs. And there’s a lot of money flowing back and forth — or actually one way, a lot of money flowing into accounts at the university for Chassy to use.
JJ: Yeah, and I would direct people to the web site, to USRTK.org, to see examples from the emails that we’re talking about. But we’re talking about real direct stuff. You mentioned that presentation: Chassy is going to make a presentation in China, and there are emails that show him basically submitting what he’s going to say to Monsanto, and them making changes to it. And him saying, all right, Monsanto will shape what I’m going to say about this set of issues. And then, also, on the other side there’s the money. There are the emails that connect it to a financial relationship between, in this case, the University of Illinois and, in this case, Monsanto?
CG: Right. Yeah, there are accounts set up where unrestricted funds, grants, donations, gifts, can be sent from Monsanto, and Chassy can then access those funds and use them in different ways and for different projects. And there’s no real problem with that, I guess, from the university.
Now, Chassy, on his behalf, he says, hey, I believe GMOs are safe, you know? I’m a fan of GMOs, and so I’m not doing anything unethical, I’m not being bought, I’m not selling my integrity. But what you see in the emails is something that goes much deeper, I think. He’s not going to Monsanto and saying, hey, I’m going to make a presentation, I want to check the science on this and make sure I’m accurate. This is an active back-and-forth: How do we promote this?
They talk about how to spin some information that’s come out of the US Geological Survey. Chassy’s offering how Monsanto might spin that, because it doesn’t, on its face, necessarily look too good. He’s helping them figure out how to lobby the EPA to try to roll back regulations on biotech crops. He’s asking for help getting first class plane fare to go to India, because he sure doesn’t want to fly coach. I mean, there’s a lot that we weren’t able to put into our article, but it certainly shows a very hand-in-glove situation, where this “independent” academic is very much promoting public policy issues for a private corporation.
JJ: Hiding the strings is important, and I think that’s kind of where journalists come in. Because there’s a quote that you have from Monsanto’s chief of global scientific affairs, Eric Sachs, in which he says, “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.” In other words, they’re explicit about the fact that they want these views to get out into the media and to public opinion, but to not seem to be tied to Monsanto.
JJ: So, again, that’s where journalism comes in. And, unfortunately, you find that journalists quoting Bruce Chassy in this case don’t often do a great job of illuminating those connections.
CG: Journalists don’t. He’s been quoted widely in many reputable newspapers, very large news outlets. And so are several others, there are several others around the country who journalists reach out to, to ask for quotes on these very timely, hot-button political issues. And I don’t think it occurs to journalists — you know, I’ve been a journalist 25 years — it doesn’t often occur to you, if you’re calling up to say, hey, talk to me about weed resistance and what’s going on with glyphosate, let’s talk about the safety of GMOs. It doesn’t often occur to you to say, hey, by the way, have you been emailing with Monsanto for the last two years and getting tens of thousands of dollars and unrestricted grants from them, as I ask you your opinion on this subject?
You know, it’s not something you typically do as a journalist. You will do that if you’re writing about a particular study per se; you want to know who funded the study or who funded the research. But I think to me, what all of this that we’re seeing and we’re finding tells me as a journalist is that we just need to be a lot more diligent.
We need to really think about, is there something going on behind the scenes here? And even if we don’t know, or even if we don’t think they’re going to tell us, we need to ask the question and get them on the record — yes, there is a connection, [or] no. Because we had Kevin Folta, emails from him, [he’s at] the University of Florida; he specifically said he had no relationship with Monsanto, wasn’t taking money from Monsanto. And, in fact, he got a $25,000 unrestricted grant and told Monsanto he was willing to write whatever they wanted him to write. But he sure wasn’t telling the public that.
JJ: Exactly. It really is about the right to know. I mean, just as people want labels on GMO foods because different people feel differently about eating them, we need, if you will, labels on our experts, not so that we can denounce them but just so that we can know.
CG: Exactly. You know, there may be some people who think that Bruce Chassy is that much more of an authority because he is so close with Monsanto. Maybe they would respect his opinion more. Granted, there are a lot of people in this society who probably wouldn’t trust the information. But without knowing those connections, without the disclosure and the transparency—and, again, this is a man who is working for a public university, a taxpayer-funded university. We’re all paying for that university, we’re paying for these professors, and we should know the connections to private corporations, and we should be able to understand those collaborations. There should be transparency.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Carey Gillam of US Right to Know. You can find them and their work online at USRTK.org. Carey Gillam, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
CG: Thank you for having me.