Kavin Senapathy is a freelance journalist who was drawn to the field of science blogging nine years ago. It was just after her first child was born and she found herself obsessed with and terrified about her daughter’s health.
“Long story short, I had a pretty severe case of postpartum OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and I was kind of scared of everything,” said Senapathy. “Pretty much that everything was going to hurt my daughter.”
Stories on the Internet stoked fears that a wide range of chemicals in food might harm her child, and that vaccinations and even genetically modified organisms – or GMO’s – could be a risk.
“There’s a whole lot of fear and misinformation targeted at parents and mothers especially,” Senapathy said. “And so because I had the opportunity and freedom to stay at home for a little while, I spent a couple years studying scientific literature.”
She concluded that GMO’s and vaccinations were perfectly safe – and that someone had to push back against all the anti-scientific fearmongering. And so with a group of like-minded parents who later called themselves the “Science Moms” or “SciMoms,” they blogged and made a popular YouTube video to – in their mind -- set the record straight.
Their blogging caught the attention of Monsanto, a global manufacturer of genetically modified crops and the world’s most popular weed killer, glyphosate. Also known as RoundUp, glyphosate is increasingly controversial because the World Health Organization in 2015 labelled the herbicide a “probable human carcinogen.” That triggered tens of thousands of cancer lawsuits and three jury verdicts against Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer. Biologists have also concluded that glyphosate has contributed to an 80 percent decline in Monarch butterflies.
A pesticide manufacturing trade group called Crop Life International, funded in part by Bayer, praised Kavin Senapathy on its website as a “female food hero” for her blogging and speaking in favor of genetically modified crops.
Senapathy said she often communicated with a Monsanto public relations official, Vance Crowe, the Director of Millennial Engagement at Monsanto.
Senapathy co-authored a series of articles in Forbes with headlines that included “The Dirt on Earth Day: Chemophobia Masquerading as Environmentalism,” and “Beware The Attack Of The Green Blob!” which attacked “radical environmental activists.”
Forbes later took eight of these articles down off their website when court documents and The New York Times revealed that Senapathy’s co-author, Professor Henry I. Miller, had used material that had been ghost-written by Monsanto in a different Forbes article downplaying the cancer risks of glyphosate.
A book about Monsanto, titled Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, was featured on this radio program last month. The program portrayed the Science Moms as part of Monsanto’s public relations campaign.
Senapathy and the other Science Moms object to this characterization, saying that they are not a front group for Monsanto or Bayer and are not paid by them. They also note that they blog and write on a wide variety of subjects that have nothing to do with herbicides.
In fact, Senapathy said she has become increasingly and publicly critical of Monsanto and Bayer since the ghostwriting scandal, which she said she had no part in and knew nothing about.
“There is sneakiness in general by companies like Monsanto and now Bayer, and I think it’s completely counter-productive,” Senapathy said. “I always say that companies should be as transparent as possible. But not only be as transparent as possible, but to truly care about minimizing the risk for people across all levels of society.”
Another of the SciMoms, Layla Katiraee, a molecular geneticist who works as staff scientist for a biotechnology company called 10XGenomics, said: “We are not spokespeople or voice pieces for Monsanto in the least bit.”
I asked Bayer whether the Science Moms or SciMoms were part of a Monsanto public relations effort. A spokeswoman for the company, Charla Lord, replied: “We engage with a wide array of groups and individuals to maintain a dialogue around modern agriculture and the challenges ahead. Such interactions are never meant to be a sweeping endorsement of all views, including our own.”
Were the Science Moms ideological allies of Monsanto at one point, yes. Paid flacks for the company? No.