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Syngenta's Paid Third Party Pundits Spin the "News" on Atrazine
Documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, recently unsealed as part of a major lawsuit against Syngenta, reveal that the global chemical company's PR team had a multi-million dollar budget to pay surrogates and others who helped advance its messages about the weed-killer "atrazine." This story is part two of a series about Syngenta's PR campaign to influence the media, potential jurors, potential plaintiffs, farmers, politicians, scientists, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the midst of reviews of the weed-killer's potential to act as an endocrine disruptor.
These documents reveal a string of money going from Syngenta to pundits, economists, scientists, and others. Below is a sample of some of the "third party" surrogates who have been financially supported by Syngenta.
ACSH's Elizabeth Whelan: "A Great Weapon"
Elizabeth Whelan is founder and President of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). ACSH is a network of scientists whose stated mission to "ensure that the coverage of health issues is based on scientific facts – not hyperbole, emotion and ideology." Whelan has used hyperbole to advance her agenda, for example, calling the New York Times reporting on atrazine "All the news that's fit to scare."
Some of ACSH's published materials have a disclaimer saying it accepts corporate donations but it "does not accept support from individual corporations for specific research projects." Documents obtained by CMD show (PDF) that Syngenta has been a long-term financial supporter of ACSH and that in the midst of reports about spikes in atrazine levels reported by the New York Times, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, ACSH sought an additional $100,000 to produce more materials about atrazine in addition to seeking increased funding in general by Syngenta.
Whelan has crafted the word "chemophobia", a term for what she tells the public is the "unfounded" fear of chemicals. Her mantra is that the public shouldn't be alarmed by the presence of chemicals at "low" levels, a claim that flies in the face of new scientific studies that indicate potential health risks from exposure to atrazine. (Even very small amounts of some man-made substances like BPA have been shown to potentially disrupt the human body's sensitive endocrine system.)
In a 2009 MSNBC interview, Whelan responded to a New York Times piece that questioned the safety of atrazine levels in drinking water, calling the claim a "bogus risk." "Atrazine has been used for 50 years, it's very, very tightly regulated," she asserted.
In response to that media appearance by Whelan, Syngenta's Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jessica Adelman called Whelan a "great weapon,"(PDF) according to documents obtained by CMD. A weapon for which the global corporation has paid a significant fee over time. The ACSH proposal unsealed by the court shows Whelan telling Syngenta's "Stewardship Manager," that Syngenta's regular financial support "is the lifeblood"(PDF) of an organization the size of ACSH and "is both deeply appreciated and much needed." Whelan's group has annual income of about $2 million a year, and she is paid over $350,000 in compensation from this non-profit group funded by Syngenta and other global corporations. ACSH does not reveal the amounts received by corporations, and Whelan did not tell viewers of her claims about atrazine that she receives major funding from the global corporation that makes the weed-killer.
Steven Milloy: "You Have Some Atrazine Talking Points For Me?"
Steven Milloy is a commentator for FOX News who runs the website called "JunkScience.com," which claims to debunk "faulty scientific data and analysis used to advance special interests and hidden agendas." But Milloy himself has been funded by special interests. Milloy, directly or through his organizational alter egos, formerly the Free Enterprise Education Institute of the Cato Institute and the "Free Enterprise Project" of the National Center for Public Policy Research, reportedly received payments from Philip Morris and ExxonMobil, among others. When the story broke a few years ago that he had received over $180,000 from Big Tobacco, Fox News said it was unaware of Milloy's connection with Philip Morris. Any affiliation he had should have been disclosed.
Documents obtained by CMD show that Milloy has also received an unknown number of checks for $25,000 each from Syngenta (PDF) to amplify its talking points on atrazine. In one e-mail to Syngenta he asks if it is too soon to ask for another $25,000 and another email notes he was receiving payments in $15,000 increments. His projects at the time were about the "free enterprise" system. His most recent payment from Syngenta and the total amount he has received from corporation is not known.
When it comes to atrazine, Milloy has helped target UC-Berkeley integrative biology professor Tyrone Hayes. The professor is a leading independent scientist investigating the potential damage to health from atrazine exposure. He has spent over a decade researching atrazine and has reported findings that the weed-killer causes gender abnormalities in frogs -- even among frogs that were exposed to the weed-killer in doses smaller than the EPA sets as the limit for the annual average amount in drinking water.
Milloy has called Hayes a "Berserkeley atrazine-hater" and has repeatedly attacked Hayes' scientific findings publicly. The Fox blogger has even gone so far as to accuse Hayes of lying about how he conducted the experiments: "We can't even be sure the concentrations of atrazine in the lab tanks are what Hayes' claims. After all, it's a lot easier to say the solution is 0.1 ppb of atrazine than it is to actually verify the assertion."
In the same blog post, called "Freaky-Frog Fraud," Milloy asserts that "Hayes seems to be determined to scare the public about atrazine." Milloy seems determined to do the opposite. Documents obtained by CMD include an 2008 email from Milloy to Sherry Duvall Ford (PDF), head of external communications for Syngenta, which reads, "Beth Carroll said that you had some Atrazine talking points for me. Would love to see them. Thanks, Steve." Milloy has not mentioned his payments from Syngenta in his tv appearances.
Alex Avery: Debunking Independent Science; Paid by Syngenta
Alex Avery is director of research and education with the Center for Global Food Issues (CGFI) at the Hudson Institute. The Hudson Institute receives funding from big agribusiness interests, including Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, and Syngenta. According to documents obtained by CMD, the Hudson Institute has received at least $68,550 (PDF) from Syngenta.
Avery has been a crusader against organic food and for "debunking" science showing the harm of chemicals to humans, including efforts to discredit science on the effects of nitrate in water. When it comes to atrazine, Avery also choses to target Dr. Hayes. In a self-made video posted by CGFI, Avery says "the problem is that while Dr. Hayes, whose latest research paper is based on a whopping 80 frogs -- only 40 of which were treated with atrazine -- is up against a large body of research showing that atrazine has no impact on amphibian development." He claims that science comes from "independent researchers, who don't work for chemical companies." However, documents obtained by CMD show that at least one of the researchers cited, Dr. Werner Kloas, Professor of Endocrinology at Humboldt University in Berlin, was in fact contracted by Syngenta (PDF) to conduct EPA-mandated studies on atrazine's effects on frogs.
Other documents obtained by CMD show that Avery and Milloy were included in a Syngenta list of "select media" (PDF), chosen because they "demonstrated a balanced approach in covering the frog issue." Avery was included in a list of Syngenta consultants in a document unsealed by the court.
Don Coursey: Crunching the Numbers for Syngenta
Don Coursey, an Ameritech-endowed Professor in the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago, has written analysis touted by Syngenta on the economic cost of banning atrazine. Documents obtained by CMD reveal that Coursey is on Syngenta's "benefits" panel, a group of scientists and academics that the corporation has paid to extol the "benefits" and "value" of atrazine and who have attacked effort to increase regulation of the weed-killer.
In a 2010 briefing sponsored by the Triazine Network at the National Press Club in Washington, Coursey discusses his research on what a ban would mean to farmers. (The Triazine Network is a coalition of agribusiness groups formed in 1995 that documents obtained by CMD show has received funding from Syngenta.) He forecasts that a ban would be "devastating" and that farmers would be faced with two options: using a more expensive herbicide or switching to GMO crops. He claims that farmers would lose $26-$58 dollars per acre if atrazine were banned. Dr. Frank Ackerman, an economist at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, has written a report debunking some of the faulty conclusions Coursey has presented over the years.
Documents obtained by CMD reveal that Coursey received $35,000 (PDF) from Syngenta for just one of his reports on the economic impact of an atrazine ban. That paper indicates that it was "prepared for" Syngenta, but subsequent videos and press quotes do not mention that.
Richard Fawcett: Atrazine Helps Farmers "Help the Environment"
Documents obtained by CMD show that Richard Fawcett, the president of Fawcett Consulting firm, is also on Syngentas's "benefits panel." Fawcett has performed studies for the Triazine Network and has publicly touted the economic and environmental "benefits" of atrazine.
On a 2011 "Atrazine Research Webcast" that was "brought to you from Syngenta," Fawcett exalted the herbicide, stating that "atrazine helps farmers by helping them help the environment." Later in the talk, he dismissed Hayes' research on the adverse effects of the weed-killer on amphibians. He also attempted to extrapolate on the benefits of atrazine in nature: "Wildlife habitat has been greatly improved -- things like conservation tillage that atrazine plays a big role in actually creating wildlife habitat.... When I was a kid growing up on a farm in Eastern Iowa, I wouldn't have dreamed to see coyotes or otters or wild turkeys or even deer on our farm. Today, wildlife is back and farmers all know that we've seen this tremendous change, and its because we've changed the management on our farms."
Documents obtained by CMD show that Fawcett's firm has been paid at least $500,000 between 1995 and 2011 for his work that promotes atrazine.
Other members of Syngenta's team who serve on the atrazine "benefits panel" are Dr. Paul Mitchell, an agricultural economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Mike Owen, a weed specialist at Iowa State University, and Dr. David Bridges, president of the Abraham Baldwin College of Agriculture. The incomplete set of documents unsealed by the court do not indicate any payments they have received from Syngenta.
About the Author and article: Sara Jerving is a writer and researcher for the Center for Media and Democracy.
About this Project: Documents obtained by CMD, recently unsealed as part of a major lawsuit against Syngenta, reveal how the global chemical company's PR team investigated the press and spent millions to spin news coverage and public perceptions in the face of growing concerns about potential health risks from the widely used weed-killer atrazine. This story is part three of a series about Syngenta's PR campaign to influence the media, potential jurors, potential plaintiffs, farmers, politicians, scientists, and the EPA in the midst of reviews of the weed-killer's potential to act as an endocrine disruptor and concerns about the persistence of the chemical and its metabolytes in drinking water.
For More Information: The U.S. Geological Survey is one resource for citizens to look at the levels of atrazine in water. Click here for an interactive map. To see a list of products containing atrazine, click here. To see the documents released as part of this investigative series, click here.