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The non-profit U.S. Right to Know released new documents Thursday showing that the agrochemical company Monsanto assembled elaborate plans to counter findings about its relationships with scientists and universities, to discredit journalists, and to monitor critics. (Photo: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Critics Say Monsanto's Spying and Intimidation Operation Exposes Company's 'Toxic Corporate Culture' and Threatens Journalists' Rights

New documents reveal Monsanto's 'fusion center' aimed at targeting and discrediting journalists and critics

Julia Conley

A non-profit food safety watchdog on Thursday revealed the lengths the agrochemical company Monsanto has gone to in order to keep the dangers of its products secret—monitoring journalists and attempting to discredit them, identifying a progressive musician and activist as a threat, and crafting a plan to counter the watchdog's public information requests about the company.

Monsanto's so-called "fusion center" targeted U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), which investigates safety and transparency issues within the U.S. food system. When USRTK filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests beginning in 2015 regarding Monsanto's relationship's with publicly-funded universities, the multinational corporation assembled a plan to counter the group's findings, according to newly-released documents.

Journalists and critics of the company applauded USRTK's release of the documents and said they only bolstered the case, long made by environmental and public health advocates, that Monsanto must be stopped from profiting off dangerous chemicals and covering up their harms.

Charlie Stross, a San Francisco-based writer and critic of the biotech company—which merged with former industry rival Bayer last year—said the revelations are just another reason the company should be abolished.

USRTK's FOIA requests from public universities sent panic through Monsanto's upper ranks, according to the documents released Thursday. The group has spent years investigating Monsanto's secret collaborations with academics to ensure that studies and papers would be favorable to the company and its products—including the carcinogenic weedkiller Roundup.

The company said the information uncovered at universities had the "potential to be extremely damaging" and could "impact the entire industry."

In more than 30 pages of internal documents detailing its plan to counter USRTK, Monsanto acknowledged that the "worst case scenario" resulting from the FOIA request would be an "egregious email [illustrating] what would be the smoking gun of the industry (e.g. email shows expert/company covering up unflattering research or showing GMOs are dangerous/harmful)."

"The company acts like it has an awful lot to hide," said Gary Ruskin, co-director of USRTK, in a statement. "Whenever scientists, journalists, and others raise questions about their business, they attack. We are just the latest example. This has been going on for years."

In addition to fighting critics' legal investigations into their actions, Monsanto monitored Neil Young, the musician and longtime progressive activist, when he released an album in 2015 called The Monsanto Years. The company analyzed Young's song lyrics and social media activity in order to "proactively produce content and response preparedness."

"Tactics like Monsanto's against Neil Young and others are used against human rights defenders across the world," tweeted Ana Zbona, a project manager for the Business and Human Rights Resource Center.

Carey Gillam, now the research director for USRTK, was the target of Monsanto's efforts to discredit and muzzle journalists. Gillam is the author of Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, published in 2017. After the book was released, Monsanto's fusion center compiled "talking points" for third parties who could make critical statements about the book.

Gillam told The Guardian that despite positive reviews from critics, Whitewash's Amazon page quickly filled up with negative comments from people who claimed to have read the book.

"They were saying horrible things about me," Gillam said. "It was very upsetting but I knew it was fake and it was engineered by the industry. But I don't know that other people knew that."

Based on documents disclosed as part of ongoing litigation against the company, the Guardian also reported that after the book's release Monsanto paid Google to direct users who searched for the terms "Monsanto glyphosate Carey Gillam" to pages that were critical of the writer.

During her earlier reporting for Reuters on Monsanto and Roundup, which is the subject of more than 18,000 lawsuits alleging the herbicide caused many cancer diagnoses around the world, Gillam's editors were approached by Monsanto representatives pressuring them to "reassign" her, as the company regularly monitored her activities.

"I've always known that Monsanto didn't like my work," Gillam told the Guardian. "But I never imagined a multi-billion dollar company would actually spend so much time and energy and personnel on me. It's astonishing."

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