A Harvard Kennedy School professor wrote a widely disseminated policy paper last year in support of genetically modified organisms at the behest of seed giant Monsanto, without disclosing his connection, e-mails show.
Monsanto not only suggested the topic to professor Calestous Juma. It went so far as to provide a summary of what the paper could say and a suggested headline. The company then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet as part of Monsanto’s strategy to win over the public and lawmakers, according to e-mails obtained through a public records request.
Juma, an international development specialist, said he was not paid by Monsanto. He used material from his previously published book on the topic, he said, and did not perform new research for the company nor change his views.
“It’s not that I was trying to hide anything,” Juma said Wednesday in an interview.
The episode offers a rare glimpse into efforts by both sides in the hotly debated issue to marshal support from academics, to whom the public looks for impartial analysis.
A spokesman for the Kennedy School declined to comment on Juma’s failure to disclose his ties to Monsanto. Harvard’s conflict of interest policy states “faculty members should not permit outside activities and financial interests to compromise their primary commitment to the mission of the university.”
Juma said he did not make a conscious effort not to disclose his connection to Monsanto.
“It may have been bad judgment on my part, but that’s how I was thinking at the time,’’ he said.
“The whole thing comes down to, in the end, a concern about whether there is inappropriate influence from the company,” said Josephine Johnston, a researcher at the Hastings Center, a nonprofit research organization in Garrison, N.Y.
Proponents of genetically modified organisms say they can help solve world hunger because crops produce higher yields and need less pesticide and fertilizer. Opponents say GMOs may be harmful to human health and are responsible for creating “super weeds” that adapt to withstand the powerful herbicides used on GMO crops.
The episode involving Juma began in August 2013, when he along with eight other professors received an e-mail from Eric Sachs, head of regulatory policy and scientific affairs for Monsanto.
“This will be an important project and is designed to lead to increased engagement on critical topics that are barriers to broader use and acceptance of [genetically modified] crops globally,” Sachs wrote.
He went on to describe a series of seven papers he asked the professors to author.
“I understand and appreciate that you need me to be completely transparent and I am keenly aware that your independence and reputations must be protected,” Sachs wrote.
His e-mail lays out the agribusiness giant’s strategy. A marketing company would “merchandize” the papers online, disseminate them to the media, and schedule op-eds, blog posts, speaking engagements, and webinars.
Monsanto suggested the research paper assigned to Juma be headlined “Consequences of Rejecting GM crops.” In December 2014, Juma published “Global Risks of Rejecting Agricultural Biotechnology,” on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project.
Juma said he viewed the invitation to write the paper as he would an invitation to speak at a conference. The Kenya native said he often speaks with industry officials on all sides of the GMO debate but has never been a paid consultant.
“I consider GMOs as actually a small part of what it takes an agricultural system to function,” he said.