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February 11th, 2014

Intimidation and Bullying: How Industry Steamrolls the Scientific Debate

By Tim Schwab

For anyone who’s ever wondered why the “science-based” rules and regulations coming out of Washington are so consistently industry friendly, Tyrone Hayes’ story recently in the New Yorker, but told first by 100Reporters and Environmental Health News last June, is enlightening.

A biology professor at the University of California, Hayes took research funding from Syngenta to study its herbicide atrazine. When his study found environmental and health problems with the widely used herbicide in the late 1990s, Sygenta balked and stalled his findings. Hayes ended the funding relationship, feeling that his peers may eventually think that he was “part of a plan to bury important data” and that his reputation might be injured. Little did Hayes know.

As he continued his research on atrazine independently – and found more evidence of serious problems, including hermaphroditic frogs – government regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sat on their hands, allowing atrazine to became the second most heavily applied herbicide in the United States.

Hayes started to speak out about his findings, and Syngenta started bullying him. According to documents made public through a court case (Syngenta recently agreed to pay $105 million in a settlement agreement to filter atrazine from hundreds of municipal water supplies), the company’s public relations department devised a smear campaign to intimidate Hayes and challenge his scientific credibility. The documents from the court case include a written list of the company’s public relations’ goals, including to “discredit Hayes.” Syngenta’s communications manager aimed to prevent scientists from citing Hayes’ data by “revealing him as non-credible.” Syngenta even started compiling a detailed profile of Hayes’ behavior (clothing, speaking style) and then commissioned a professional psychological profile.

Syngenta’s communications manager listed methods to attack Hayes, both personally and professionally: “systematic rebuttals of all TH appearances,” “have his work audited by 3rd party,” “ask journals to retract,” and “investigate wife.”

The full extent of this kind of industry intimidation is unknown (we only get a glimpse when court cases make documents public or academics are brave enough to challenge industrial sponsors and speak out), but Syngenta’s tactics appear to derive from a well-worn industry playbook. When consumer advocate Ralph Nader found safety problems with General Motors’ vehicles in the 1960s, the company tried to discredit him by tapping his phones, hiring a private detective and attempting to use sex workers to entrap him.

When University of California professor, Ignacio Chapela, found problems with genetically engineered seeds cross-pollinating native maize species in Mexico, he found his research – and his career – came under attack by industry. Just a few months ago, a damning study on the safety of Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops by a French researcher, came under intense fire from industry and friendly third-parties, which lead to its retraction – a tactic mentioned in Syngenta’s playbook to discredit Hayes.

Hayes was by no means the only academic finding problems with atrazine, nor was he alone in finding his reputation under attack. When a medical doctor published a paper linking genital defects in humans to atrazine, Syngenta subpoenaed his research and organized talking points to discredit his study.

And when the New York Times and others reported on some of these negative findings, Syngenta sought to engage friendly third parties to refute the bad press. Atrazine defenders with links to Syngenta abound. The non-profit American Council of Science and Health, which defended atrazine on MSNBC, stridently defends its independence despite the fact that it receives money from Syngenta. As the New Yorker article also points out, the self-described green consultant Jon Entine, listed in Syngenta documents as a potential, friendly “third-party,” weighed in at Forbes in apparent lockstep with Syngenta’s campaign to discredit Hayes, although Entine also claims he is independent and says Syngenta has never been his client.

So, where are our government regulators in all of this? The EPA, unlike Hayes, continues to be buffaloed by Syngenta. Industry has seemingly unlimited resources not only to overwhelm regulators and the scientific database with pro-industry studies, but also to influence rules and regulations through lobbying and campaign contributions. Syngenta has spent more than $17.5 million in lobbying and campaign contributions since 1998, and the larger biotech industry has spend close to a half-billion dollars in the last decade.

Should we really leave public policy and risk assessment to the agribusiness lobby? Should we allow agribusiness corporations to bulldoze the scientific debate over their controversial products? Food & Water Watch has investigated the extent of this problem and offered some common sense solutions. Read our report here.

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