A trove of internal documents from Monsanto, recently unsealed in a lawsuit against the agricultural biotech giant, has revealed the firm’s role in the knotty tale of a paper from the lab of a scientist known for his stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
That paper is “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize,” published in September 2012 in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) and retracted in January 2014. Gilles Seralini, a scientist known for an adversarial stance towards GMOs, was first author. The documents have also spurred the retraction of several pro-GMO articles on Forbes.com written by Henry Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University. Emails showed that one of the articles, which didn’t discuss Seralini’s paper, was ghostwritten by Monsanto.
The documents, posted last week by the law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman, show Monsanto engaged with a network of scientists and other commentators to spread the message that the Seralini paper was bad science and should be retracted. Seralini told Retraction Watch that this proves what he has been saying all along, that Monsanto led a concentrated effort to discredit his science and protect its bottom line. He said:
I deduced from the beginning that it was organized….
But the effort to counteract Seralini’s work was not one-sided. Bruce Chassy, at the time a professor at the University of Illinois, now retired, told us he approached Monsanto to ask if they would act as allies “in the fight against the abuse of science,” in the form of anti-GMO research that he believed to be shoddy. He said that he has been critical of Monsanto’s business practices, but thinks they hire good scientists and are thus a good source of information on GMOs:
If I can use Monsanto to get science a fair hearing, I’ll do it. Since they know more about this than anybody else, they’re the people to go to.
Monsanto tried to ensure that the campaign to retract the 2012 paper wouldn’t be linked back to the company. On Sept. 26, 2012 — a week after the paper came out, Eric Sachs, a Monsanto executive, wrote several colleagues to emphasize:
We have done our part. It is time now for the public sector and especially our network of experts to do theirs…
Monsanto must not be put in the position of providing the critical analysis that leads the editors to retract the paper… There is a difference between defending science and participating in a formal process to retract a publication that challenges the safety of our products.
To achieve this, Monsanto coordinated with the scientists mentioned in the documents on what to say in response to and how to maximize the impact of the response. Based on the documents obtained, that took the form of published articles, including letters to the editor of FCT, at least one of which called for retraction.
A contentious paper
Seralini should be no stranger to our regular readers — controversy has followed the 2012 paper at almost every turn, from the irregular methods Seralini used to promote it to the media (such as asking some journalists to sign a non-disclosure agreement to see it in advance of publication) to initial publication in FCT. Even after it was retracted, it was republished in 2014 — by a journal that didn’t subject it to peer review. The FCT version has been cited 54 times since it was retracted, and 95 in total, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, earning it Clarivate’s “highly cited paper” designation.
In a statement issued after the retraction, Seralini accused Monsanto of promoting criticisms of the paper and installing a former employee on the FCT editorial board.
While the documents highlight close ties between Monsanto and at least four people who criticized the study, plenty of scientists criticized the paper’s scientific merits in both the mainstream and academic press. Still, the decision to retract was as contentious as the decision to publish. An FCT investigation found no evidence of fraud, misconduct, or gross error, which are required by Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines for retraction; however, FCT cited COPE guidelines in their retraction notice anyway.
This whole episode has taken us farther away from knowing the truth …
This is a good example of what happens when people with hardened beliefs manipulate a system for the result they want …
“We are ‘connected’ but did not write the letter”
The documents show that Monsanto was in contact with Chassy, who wrote several pieces attacking Seralini’s paper. On Sept. 25, 2012, Chassy co-authored an article with Henry Miller, the fellow at the conservative think tank, which Miller published in his capacity as a Forbes.com contributor. The article suggested that Seralini had gone beyond “bad science” and into fraud. That article and two other posts from Miller related to GMOs have since been removed from Forbes.com, but are available through the internet archive (one, co-written with Chassy, criticized an earlier 2012 Seralini paper; the other was ghost-written by Monsanto itself in 2015).
Mia Carbonell, senior VP of global communications at Forbes, told Retraction Watch that it has pulled down all of Miller’s articles on its site, because he violated the terms of his contract:
All contributors to Forbes.com sign a contract requiring them to disclose any potential conflicts of interest and only publish content that is their own original writing. When it came to our attention that Mr. Miller violated these terms, we removed all of his posts from Forbes.com and ended our relationship with him.
Both Miller and Chassy said they weren’t involved in the decision to take down the Forbes articles and that they disagreed with the decision. Miller told us that, like Chassy, he has “sought information from [Monsanto] …on scientific issues when I thought they had information of value.” He said he does not have a financial connection to Monsanto. Chassy said that he has never personally accepted money from Monsanto, although his university did [see update].
One day after the Forbes.com article ran, Chassy sent FCT Editor-in-chief A. Wallace “Wally” Hayes a strongly-worded email in which he said the journal had an “ethical obligation” to retract the paper.
Chassy was also one of 25 co-authors of a formal letter to the editor of the FCT that called for the paper’s retraction. (The letter has not been cited.) In September 2012, as the letter was being drafted, a Monsanto staff member asked about the company’s involvement with it and expressed hesitation about whether the company should even disclose its knowledge of the letter to investors. Sachs wrote:
We are “connected” but did not write the letter or encourage anyone to sign it.
As reported by the New York Times, Hayes himself had a “contractual relationship” with Monsanto while he was editor of FCT. Hayes, now an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts, told the Times he was not under contract with Monsanto when the paper was retracted and that his relationship played “no role whatsoever” in that decision. However, Hayes was in contact with Monsanto executives soon after the paper came out, offering advice on what they might round up to submit to him as rebuttal.
The docs also reveal ties between Monsanto and Colin Berry, a British toxicologist, who published his own letter in FCT criticizing the paper. On Sept. 20, 2012, the day after FCT published the Seralini paper, Berry emailed David Saltmiras, his contact at Monsanto, to ask:
Have you seen this? I have been asked to comment asap – anything you want to say[?]
I hope scientist of your caliber and standing may consider penning a joint letter to the Editor focusing on scientific deficiencies and the flawed scientific review process.
A third scientist, Andrew Cockburn, a toxicology consultant who at the time was a visiting professor at UK’s University of Newcastle, was also on the email chain and chimed in:
…if you can provide the ammunition I’d be happy to respond …
Monsanto did not respond to Retraction Watch’s request for comment.
Sachs, the Monsanto executive, realized the risks of attacking the decision to publish the paper and call for retraction. On Sept. 26, as he insisted it should not be Monsanto to swing the axe, he wrote:
We should not provide ammunition for Seralini, [genetic modification] critics and the media to charge that Monsanto used its might to get this paper retracted.
Update 8/11/2017 UTC 14:30:
Bruce Chassy told us that he had never personally received money from Monsanto; however, several readers have pointed out that he has in fact accepted thousands of dollars from Monsanto, routed through the University of Illinois Foundation and nominally slated for “outreach” to avoid scrutiny. A Chicago Public Radio investigation from March 2016 showed:
Monsanto sent more than $140,000 in “biotech research and outreach” payments through the University of Illinois Foundation between 2006 and June 2012, the month Chassy retired. Further documents confirm that at least $57,000 was routed to Chassy over a period of 23 months.
And a New York Times article from September 2015 said that in 2011 Monsanto gave Chassy a grant for an undisclosed amount “to support ‘biotechnology outreach and education activities.’”
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