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Merchants of Spin: Monsanto’s Astroturfing of Glyphosate in the EU

Photograph Source: Anztowa – CC BY 2.0

In a previous article, I discussed pending legal cases against Monsanto and the legal precedent that may be created if Monsanto were to succeed with a favorable ruling from the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June. When this case is heard, Monsanto will certainly argue that the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) pre-empts states from imposing label requirements “in addition to or different from” those imposed under FIFRA. If Monsanto succeeds, this would create a split in the circuit courts which means a Supreme Court challenge would be the next judicial step. In this piece I ironized how many states such have tighter regulations around gambling and online casinos than do they for mitigating environmental damage. And I wasn’t exaggerating an iota. The reason for this is simple: the agrochemical sector is flanked by PR and astroturfing firms that have set up elaborate stages upon which they give the illusion that grassroots movements oppose proposed bans of glyphosate.

Big Tobacco left in its tracks a legacy of marketing and public relations for future having successfully recruited the participation of physicians who, in the first half of the twentieth century, recommended smoking to their patients, many suggesting that smoking was healthy. This lesson in grift has been taken up today by public relations companies that have pushed glyphosate onto farmers and governments. The PR firms have even pressured the European Union not to ban glyphosate in the wake of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) 2015 cancer report.

The effects of glyphosate on farmers and gardeners who come into contact with it have been litigious, especially since the World Health Organisation’s agency on cancer labelled the glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” in 2015. This “probably” is where Monsanto dances about using its wealth to buy the “maybe not” version of this tale.

In 2018, American agrochemical behemoth Monsanto paid an Irish PR consultancy firm, Red Flag Consulting, up to €200,000 to set up a “grassroots farmers” operation across Europe to oppose a prospective EU ban on glyphosate. They called their campaign “Freedom to Farm” and this is a maneuver that is today called “astroturfing”: a political movement that appears to be autochthonous and led by grassroots groups when it is, in fact, an PR vehicle created to serve and financed by a specific industry. Astroturfing usually gives the image to outside viewers and politicians that the participants of these groups are genuinely created by well-meaning, earnest citizens, who support or reject a certain proposed law or policy in order to demonstrate to those with vested economic interests and politicians themselves that there is genuine discontent in favor of the astroturfing funder.

Of course, when these operations in France were discovered, Red Flag Consulting’s CEO, Karl Brophy, claimed that theirs was not lobbying claiming that Red Flag provided “factual information about the science on glyphosate” to farmers and other individuals who “elected to be educated” and who then “made their concerns known in their own voices and by their own volition.” When approached by journalists for Unearthed, Monsanto defended the firm it hired to instigate the astroturfing stating, “Thousands of farmers across Europe have supported this initiative and made their voices heard in support of maintaining access to this vital for modern and sustainable agriculture.”  These operations which took place in at least six other EU countries.

But Red Flag Consulting is in good company with FleishmanHillard which was hired by Monsanto in 2016 and 2017 to compile for it a list of Monsanto’s opponents. It was dubbed the “stakeholder list.” This activity was part of a wider lobbying campaign that Monsanto had farmed out to various PR firms to secure a new licence for glyphosate, the principle ingredient of it controversial weedkiller Roundup.

In 2019 French media discovered that FleishmanHillard created and kept lists of influential people in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom on behalf of Monsanto. In February 2019, French prosecutors stated that they had opened an inquiry into Monsanto after newspaper Le Monde filed a complaint alleging that Monsanto had stored a file of 200 names, to include journalists and lawmakers in hopes of influencing their positions on pesticides. Along with Monsanto, public relations firm FleishmanHillard, was placed into the prosecutors’ crosshairs. By May of 2019 Bayer, which had bought Monsanto the year prior, apologized for both Monsanto and FleishmanHillard.

From 2018, Freedom to Farm began attending agricultural events and farmers’ markets across Europe and aside from marketing itself as a grassroots effort led by farmers, the group had the audacity to warn of the “threat to farming” posed by restricting the use of glyphosate. Read that again.

The Freedom to Farm campaign was spread across seven EU nations: Free to Farm in the UK, Liberta di coltivare in Italy, Raum für Landwirtschaft in Germany, Libertad para consultar in Spain, Rolnictwo Dobrej Praktyki in Poland and Vrijheid om te Boeren in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, nowhere in Freedom to Farm’s materials did Monsanto’s name appear, the entire operation was fully staffed and supported by PR firms working for Monsanto. It was the agro-chemical’s version of The Producers, only the flop they were to produce—the failure of EU nations to ban glyphosate—would reap Monsanto billions.

In 2016, FleishmanHillard authored a report for Monsanto evidencing the scope of the operation which included 39.5 full-time equivalent staff from four PR firms who promoted “Freedom to Farm” across seven countries. The report also states that there were “56 trained operatives are supporting the on-site recruiting process for grassroots” in addition to the campaign team. It also notes “370 decision makers and influencer (targets) identified in France, Germany, Italy, UK, Poland and Spain. This increased by four targets from last week due to additions in Italy and Spain. Targets for the Netherlands and Brussels/EU will be added in December.”

The PR machinery driving campaigns meant to appear like they are coming from independent bodies like Red Flag’s fictional set up Freedom to farm is one of many examples of how Monsanto astroturfs its way around bans and legal setbacks. When you study Monsanto’s internal documents—and I urge everyone to read this document—it is clear that Monsanto uses third-parties and fake third-parties to disseminate its messaging on glyphosate. And while many of these industry allies present themselves to the public and to governments as independent authorities on pesticides and GMOs, there are definitive links that can tie the pro-glyphosate messaging of these third parties—and in many cases their funding—back to Monsanto.

Whether glyphosate can be classed as a carcinogen—whether it is a driver for cancer in humans—is the primary point of contention around the herbicide that is contested between stakeholders but also within the scientific community and between public agencies. How many of these scientists and public agencies have been bought by Monsanto is still unclear.

What we do know is that Monsanto has already astroturfed the “academic” field. Air quotes are necessary when discussing these fake enterprises such as the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). The ACSH is an organization that purports to be independent of industry but it has published over 5,000 articles attacking journalists and scientists whose work contradicts Monsanto’s agenda. Articles written by ACSH writers have appeared in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes.

Academics Review is another astroturfing group whose website is no longer in existence but which was set up in 2010. Monsanto has paid off academics in return for their favorably reviewing Roundup (glyphosate) and for collaborating in the creation of an astroturfing operation such as Academics Review. The Academics Review website describes its founders:

Academics Review was founded by two independent professors of food-related microbiology, nutritional, and safety issues on opposite ends of the planet: in rural central Illinois, and in urban Melbourne, Australia. Bruce M. Chassy, Ph.D., and David Tribe, Ph.D., are two of the most widely recognized experts in the world on how plants grow, and the resulting effects plants, as foods, can have on human health.

The website also claims, “Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.” All of the above is patently untrue. Both Cassy and Tribe were paid to set up this front organisation and were paid handsomely for their services to Monsanto. Or, as Monsanto president Eric Sachs put it in his 2010 emailto Chassy, the money was paid, “in support of biotechnology outreach.” This email details how Monsanto directed the creation of Academics Review.

The European Commission officially approved a temporary extension of the widely-used herbicide glyphosate on 2 December 2022. At the end of this year we can only hope that glyphosate is finally banned in the EU.