Buckraking on the Food Beat: When Is It a Conflict of Interest?

In an age of shrinking newspaper budgets, it’s common for editors to rely on freelance writers – and for freelancers to add to their incomes with side projects. But is it a conflict of interest for a columnist who covers food and agriculture to take money from agrichemical industry interest groups?

The issue arose in a September 23 Washington Post chat, when a reader noted an article about the funding of GMO experts, and asked Post food columnist Tamar Haspel to speak to the issue of who pays what for her services.

Haspel replied:

I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for. I have two criteria. First is that the event has to be consistent with my public mission, which is to have more constructive debates about food issues. Second is that, if for-profit companies are involved in the event (which they often are), they can’t be the only voice. I try to get people with very different views in the same room. And so I was able to moderate a panel on GMO labeling that included a Monsanto scientist and a representative from Just Label It, and a debate between GMO Answers and Ben & Jerry’s.

But I would encourage you to consider the source of the piece you quoted. Its author, Jonathan Latham, is very invested in the idea that GMOs are bad, and ideology can warp perception just as reliably as money can. Transparency is critical to public discourse, but labeling anyone who believes biotech has something to offer agriculture as an arm of the industry is advocacy run amok.

Then came this Twitter exchange between Haspel and Gary Ruskin, my fellow co-director of US Right to Know, a nonprofit that promotes transparency in the food system:

Haspel had previously criticized Ruskin for filing Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) requests to investigate the ties between the agrichemical companies, their PR firms, and academics at public universities.

But the FOIAs turned up newsworthy information, prompted a front-page New York Times story (9/5/15) by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Lipton, and generated an ongoing national discussion about transparency and the public’s right to know how industry groups and public university professors work together to promote genetically engineered foods.

Lipton’s story described how Monsanto, under fire from critics of GMO foods, “retooled their lobbying and public relations strategy to spotlight a rarefied group of advocates: academics, brought in for the gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”

As one PR professional explained in an email, “Professors/researchers/scientists have a big white hat in this debate and support in their states, from politicians to producers.”

The story revealed an undisclosed grant from Monsanto to University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, who promised the company “a solid return on the investment,” while repeatedly claiming he had no association with Monsanto. In addition, the public relations firm Ketchum organized lobby and media tours for Folta, even ghostwriting text for him that he used nearly verbatim–all while presenting Folta as an independent expert.

The US Right to Know FOIA requests focused on publicly funded professors, agrichemical companies, PR firms and front groups (groups established to covertly represent the interests of a corporation or industry), and did not include journalists. But the names of a few journalists, including Haspel, turned up in the documents.

One document describes the June 2014 Biotechnology Literacy Project conference called “Risk and the Future of Food: How Can Scientists Best Engage the GMO Debate with a Skeptical Public?” The conference was described as a “pilot boot camp” to provide communications skill training and follow-up communications assistance to scientists and other credible influencers to help them play a role in “reframing the food safety and GMO debate to focus on science and connect emotionally with skeptical parents”- a project that sounds remarkably in line with Monsanto’s PR effort to get “white hat” experts promoting GMOs.

Lead organizers of the event were Jon Entine, who has a long history of spinning science to deny or downplay the risks of chemicals, and Cami Ryan, now employed by Monsanto. It was sponsored by two agrichemical industry front groups, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, along with the University of Florida, which, as the Times article noted, receives major funding from agrichemical companies.

Haspel is listed as a “faculty” member of BLP, along with an array of prominent GMO promoters, including Entine, Folta, Val Giddings, Bruce Chassy and representatives of the companies producing the first GE salmon and GE apple.

This event is listed on Haspel’s website with vague “hosted by” language that doesn’t reveal who paid for the events or Haspel’s participation. Other speaking engagements on her list include:

  • A panel organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which “provides long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina through support of biotechnology research, business, education and strategic policy statewide.”
  • The North American Strategy Conference on Animal Agriculture, hosted by the industry front group Center for Food Integrity (slogan: “Building Trust & Confidence in Today’s Food System”).
  • A conference in Nairobi, Kenya, co-hosted by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Operations (ISAAA), an industry-funded nonprofit that “shares the benefits of biotechnology.”

In a Post chat on October 7, I asked Haspel to explain which companies or groups pay her and how much, and whether it was a conflict of interest to get paid by agricultural interest groups and also to write about these issues as part of her regular beat. Haspel answered:

You can find a complete list of the places I speak, and the criteria that I use to decide whether to speak, at tamarhaspel.com. In short, though, if you believe that any group involved in agriculture, with interest in or an opinion on biotechnology, is a group that no journalist should be associated with, there’s not much to talk about here.

Food editor Joe Yonan added, “Tamar’s not a beat reporter covering agriculture; she’s a columnist, and therefore the result is more pointed and even opinionated, even though she anchors everything she writes in much, much research.”

Yonan pointed out that, as a freelancer, Haspel

is not subject to quite the same level of restrictions on travel as a staffer – we can’t accept travel expenses or payment from almost anybody – although I can impose whatever rules on freelancers I deem necessary. I support Tamar’s way of approaching these things – I find it a reasonable balance.

So what about Haspel’s writing in the Post? Her monthly column, “Unearthed,” launched in October 2013 with a promise to “dig deep to try and figure out what’s true and what isn’t in the debate about our food supply.” In 2015, Haspel won the prestigious James Beard Award for her efforts to “cut through divisive food-policy debates and illuminate the facts and the middle ground.”

One early column was a good example of that approach: For “GMO Common Ground: Where Supporters and Opponents Agree” (11/12/13), Haspel spoke to “dozens of organizations across the ideological spectrum,” and described three areas of agreement.

Later columns, however, share a troubling pattern: many of her sources seem to agree with each other, leading to conclusions that don’t so much illuminate a middle ground as present an echo chamber of ideas from one side of the ideological spectrum – the side that promotes agrichemical industry interests.

For example, “It’s the Chemical Monsanto Depends On. How Dangerous Is It?” (10/4/15) looked at glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, whose use has greatly increased thanks to Monsanto’s various genetically modified “Roundup Ready” crops.

Haspel’s column relied on sources who downplay risk (including fellow BLP faculty member David Ropeik, author of “How Risky Is It, Really?”), used chemical industry talking points (salt fish is carcinogenic, too), and ignored the most pressing health concerns about glyphosate – farmworker exposures and community exposures in heavily sprayed areas – to cast doubt on concerns arising from the recent listing of glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen by the world’s cancer experts.

Haspel concluded, “The most destructive consequence of herbicide tolerance, though, is consumer hostility in a conversation about GMOs that is dominated by that trait.” Her column ran in the Post just as the US Senate was poised to consider a bill that would make it illegal for states to label GMOs.

Many of Haspel’s columns similarly rely on industry-friendly sources or data that support industry positions:

  • In “Is Organic Better for Your Health?” (4/7/14), Haspel concludes there is little difference between conventional and organic produce. (The Organic Center rebuts the column here.)
  • In “Are Patents the Problem?” (9/29/14), she finds, “The story of Big Ag forcing GMOs down the throats of unsuspecting farmers…is largely fiction. And it’s a story that lots of farmers find really irritating, because it makes them out to be dupes or patsies.”
  • On GMO labeling (1/14/14), Haspel is for it in theory, but “we already know if we’re eating GMOs, most people don’t care, and the labeling issue is using up important resources.”

(For more of Haspel’s Post columns that are viewed favorably from an industry perspective, see the Genetic Literacy Project page of her work. Note that GLP changed the headlines and excerpted the pieces to make them more promotional.)

On October 20, journalist Brooke Borel wrote in Popular Science that she attended the Bioliteracy Project Boot Camp in 2015, and accepted travel funds but declined the $2,000 honorarium that was to be paid by funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money and the Biotechnology Industry Organization trade group. In her piece, Borel called on fellow journalists, especially columnists, to ask where money is coming from, and to “disclose, disclose, disclose” to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest.

I reached out to Haspel again by email and phone to ask again if she would disclose who pays her for what work activities outside the Post. She replied:

I disclose every event I speak at, and all the sponsors of those events (unless I’ve overlooked one, in which case I welcome a correction). Should I decide to change my policy, any new information will go up on my website, for all the world to see.

But Haspel doesn’t disclose who pays her, or how much. She also declined to explain how the Biotechnology Literacy Project fits with her criteria for having more constructive debates about food issues.

So, is it a conflict of interest for a columnist who covers food and agriculture to take money from agrichemical industry interest groups?

Former Post editor Ben Bradlee was clear about his view of reporters “buckraking” on the speaking circuit (AJR, 3/95):

I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.

In my correspondence with Yonan, I asked if the Post could at least add another food columnist who writes from the perspective of consumers and the public interest.

His response: “I believe that Tamar’s column does serve the public interest, so I don’t feel the need for another columnist, but you are certainly welcome to submit one-off op/ed columns to the Opinions team at the Post.”