Why Is the Co-Founder of a Monsanto “Industry Partner” Advising the USDA Secretary?
Citizens pay Anastasia Bodnar’s salary to inform Secretary Tom Vilsack on public interest policy, yet she advocates for industry, once tweeting vinegar is more toxic than the pesticide glyphosate.
5 minute read
Since The DisInformation Chronicle took a hard look last week at Biology Fortified, a nonprofit for GMO activists with close ties to agrichemical interests, new questions have arisen about the group’s co-founder Anastasia Bodnar—and her dual roles as both a pro-agrichemical industry activist and a taxpayer-funded federal policy advisor on biotechnology to Secretary Tom Vilsack of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
First, a quick step back. Biology Fortified is a group that bills itself as “an independent educational tax-exempt non-profit organization.” But since its 2008 founding, Biology Fortified has had tentacles into the agrichemical industry.
Back in 2010, Ms. Bodnar’s fellow Biology Fortified founder Karl Haro von Mogel promoted genetic engineering and Biology Fortified in a video for the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a trade and lobby organization for agrichemical companies. And since then, Biology Fortified representatives such as Mr. von Mogel have repeatedly participated in events to promote corporate interests, at times alongside climate change deniers and the founder of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group the French newspaper Le Monde labeled a propaganda website for Monsanto.
During much of her time as cofounder and policy director of Biology Fortified, Ms. Bodnar has also been a federal employee with the USDA, working on biotechnology regulatory policy and risk analysis. According to her LinkedIn profile, she has worked at the USDA since 2013 and is now a biotechnology confidante to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.
In a statement to The DisInformation Chronicle, a USDA press official wrote that Ms. Bodnar left her prior USDA position for a new role this February with the Office of the Chief Economist as Agriculture Bio Tech Advisor. The official added that as part of her new position, the Office of Ethics reviewed Ms. Bodnar’s Confidential Financial Disclosure Report and she resigned her uncompensated board position with Biology Fortified.
But the potential for conflicts of interest appeared long before her current job which appears to be whispering industry’s thoughts into Secretary Vilsack’s ear.
While Ms. Bodnar was working at the USDA in 2015, her Biology Fortified nonprofit co-sponsored, a March 2015 petition opposing the use of state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to examine ties between publicly funded academics and the agrichemical industry. Why a federal employee, such as Ms. Bodnar, would involve herself in opposing freedom of information laws is unclear.
While Ms. Bodnar was working at the USDA and with Biology Fortified in 2017, the federal government was reviewing data on the toxicity of the pesticide glyphosate. That year a federal judge released documents during a lawsuit against Monsanto on glyphosate’s dangers. One document detailed Monsanto's plan to attack the World Health Organization (WHO), which was working to classify glyphosate as a possible carcinogen. To discredit the WHO, Monsanto named several "industry partners" they would work with that included Ms. Bodnar’s nonprofit “Biofortified” AKA Biology Fortified.
In addition, Ms. Bodnar continues to work with SciMoms, a project of Biology Fortified. A USDA press official characterised her work with SciMoms as a “behind-the-scenes volunteer activity” that includes “occasional editing work,” a description that stretches credulity.
“This reminds me of [Moncef] Slaoui as head of Operation Warp Speed in the Trump administration,” said Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s Capitol Hill lobbyist on ethics. “Trump pretended Slaoui was simply a private contractor and not an employee, since Slauoi did not want to forfeit conflicting interests. There is no question that she must not mix her private and public roles.”
But mixing roles is exactly what Ms. Bodnar has done.
Biology Fortified filed a 39-page complaint last year with the University of Florida alleging that professor Kevin Folta may not have reported his financial conflicts of interest on a $466,000 USDA grant. The contact information for that letter alleging USDA grant violations listed Ms. Bodnar’s personal cell phone number and email at Biology Fortified.
Despite Ms. Bodnar alleging violations on a USDA grant to the University of Florida, a USDA press official confirmed that Ms. Bodnar did not file a similar complaint with the USDA Office of Ethics. Nor did she apparently file a complaint with the USDA Office of the Inspector General.
When asked why Ms. Bodnar filed a complaint about USDA grant violations with his university, but not with her federal employer, Mr. Folta emailed, “It’s about shaming, creating a perception of impropriety with my superiors.”
Furthermore, the USDA’s characterization of Ms. Bodnar’s role at SciMoms as “behind-the-scenes volunteer activity” also seems inaccurate. In fact, Ms. Bodnar’s picture is on the group’s banner along with other SciMoms members.
Ms. Bodnar’s “behind-the-scenes volunteer activity” for SciMoms also includes a biography on the SciMoms’ website, her “origin story” with SciMoms, as well as several articles Ms. Bodnar has written for SciMoms.
In addition, last September Ms. Bodnar gave an interview on an internet program called Conversations that Matter where she spoke as "Founding Member of SciMoms." It is uncertain if she did this interview during federal work hours.
As with many cases in her role with SciMoms, Ms. Bodnar implied on that internet program that she held a prior job at the USDA, stating that “she has worked for the USDA.”
“We always allege that there are smoky backroom deals or that agencies are captured, but you don’t normally find things so directly connected,” said Zach Corrigan with Food & Water Watch. “It’s all rather scandalous.”
To get to the bottom of these issues and better understand Ms. Bodnar’s dual roles as taxpayer-funded federal policy advisor to Secretary Vilsack and industry advocate for various nonprofits, The DisInformation Chronicle has filed a freedom of information request. To read that request, click here.