By Jason Warick
The University of Saskatchewan logo can be seen in this StarPhoenix file photo
Photograph by: Greg Pender , the StarPhoenix
A University of Saskatchewan professor is one of several prominent North American academics under fire for undeclared connections to agri-business giant Monsanto.
At Monsanto’s request, the scientists wrote papers supporting the global use of genetically modified crops, which were then disseminated widely by a marketing company hired by Monsanto.
Peter W.B. Phillips, graduate chair at the U of S Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, said there was no need to declare his connections because he was not paid and Monsanto did not ask him to alter his research.
“Monsanto says ‘Jump’ and these scientists said ‘How high?'” said Gary Ruskin, co-director for US Right to Know, an advocacy group funded by American organic farm groups.
“This is not how publicly funded scientists should behave.”
According to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know, Phillips and several other top agriculture experts were solicited to write articles by a senior Monsanto executive in 2013. They were asked to write pieces to correct the overwhelming amount of negative information about geneticallymodified organisms (GMOs) in the public sphere, according to the email.
“The key to success is participation by all of you – recognized leaders with the knowledge, reputation and communication experience needed to communicate authoritatively with the target groups,” the Monsanto email stated.
Monsanto suggested topics and headlines for each scientist. Once they agreed, a Monsanto-hired public relations firm informed them of their deadlines and how their papers would be “merchandised” and promoted widely.
In the end, the papers closely mirrored the pitch by Monsanto, Ruskin said.
Phillips was asked to write about the “burdensome regulations” that “stifle innovation” in the biotech industry.
“Critics might lead you to believe that genetically engineered crops are not tested or regulated. That is wrong,” read the opening line of the finished article by Phillips.
In his conclusion, Phillips stated: “Increased regulatory costs and an expanding approval process stifle innovation – the innovation that is needed to secure an adequate supply and, appropriate quality of food at affordable prices.”
A public relations firm hired by Monsanto emailed Phillips and the others to give them proposed deadlines and inform them of efforts to disseminate the papers.
Phillips’ eventual article, entitled Economic Consequences of Regulations of GM Crops, was published on agri-food and biotechnology websites. Phillips’ titles at the University of Saskatchewan and Johnson-Shoyama are mentioned at the top of the article, but there is no mention of Monsanto’s involvement.
Phillips said the information gathered in the paper is serving as the basis for a paper he’s submitted to an academic journal.
Phillips, holder of appointments to several other schools and departments at the U of S, said there was no need to declare his collaboration with Monsanto. In an interview, Phillips said he was not paid and works with a host of corporations, governments and non-governmental agencies.
“That’s part of my job,” he said. “The research world has changed.”
Ruskin, whose group accessed thousands of pages of emails and other documents linking the scientists and Monsanto, said North Americans should be able to trust their top university scientists, and that’s not possible when significant connections to corporations such as Monsanto are not disclosed.
The University of Saskatchewan was one of several universities, including Harvard, the University of Florida and Penn State, with undisclosed links to Monsanto revealed in the documents.
“I think it shows how universities are increasingly corporately controlled, and how science is under increasing corporate control,” Ruskin said.
Phillips admitted there is tension within universities and among academics about their role. Some believe research should not be affected at all by outside organizations, governments or the public. Phillips said he believes academics should be responsive to the needs of stakeholders. He said Monsanto holds the dominant market share in its industry, so it would be foolish to not communicate with the company.
Phillips said he was free to submit whatever he concluded, and that there was “pushback” by the academics to the suggested topics. When asked to provide any emails or names of other academics who disputed the topics, Phillips replied, “It’s not worth my effort to cover my back here.”
Ernie Barber, vice-president academic at the U of S, said researchers should definitely declare financial interests and it would be unethical to let outside officials or corporations dictate any research content. However, U of S researchers are expected to “share” their research widely, he said, adding he did not know all of the details of the Phillips case, since the details have only come out relatively recently.
“There should be no attempt whatsoever to mislead the public,” Barber said.
Monsanto Canada spokesperson Trish Jordan said the company partners with community groups, academics and others. She said Monsanto often works with academics, but “We don’t have any control over their message.”