If you’ve read about biotechnology and the several ways that plant breeders can make new plant varieties, you may have heard the fairly shrill accusations coming from the organic food lobby that plants that are genetically modified using scientific techniques are somehow untested and dangerous. (They have no evidence for these claims, however.) Surprisingly, despite the amount of noise that these “anti-GMO” activists make, most citizens really don’t care much about this.
In 2012, two studies, one in the US and one in the UK found that only about 2% of survey respondents suggested that food products should have a “contains GMOs” label, when they are asked an open-ended question about changes in food labeling. And estimates this year from a talk given at the National Academy of Sciences suggest that that number may have reach 7%. Further, a recent study by Kolodinsky reported that products labeled as containing GM ingredients are not considered negatively by most consumers.
Given the overall consumer disinterest in an issue dear to the hearts of the organic lobby, who want to scare people into buying organic-labeled products, new organizations are ramping up the intensity of their anti-GMO activism, despite the overall scientific consensus that GM crops are no more harmful than conventional crops.
One such new group, formed in January of 2015 is called US Right to Know, and is led by Gary Ruskin, a former activist in California’s anti-GMO labeling campaign, and staffed by 3 other activists. Rather than just creating web sites and demonstrations, USRTK filed Freedom of Information requests (FOIA) for all the E-mails of some 40 scientists working in biotechnology at public universities. Some universities refused and a few complied, notably the University of Florida, where Kevin M. Folta is the chairman of the department of Horticultural Sciences.
Kevin Folta is well known for his research on the influence of different light wavelengths on small fruits such as strawberries, and the breeding of new strawberries using both conventional and GM techniques for this research. He is also a well-known speaker on the advantages of biotechnology, with a weekly podcast called Talking Biotech. Folta funds his research as do most university scientists by a combination of federal and state grants, but has not taken any money from any biotechnology company for his research or his salary.
But, in addition to his formal academic research program, Folta has engaged in science outreach to farmers and the overall public to explain the advantages of biotechnology, and has organized a number of presentations involving several scientists for the public. To cover the travel expenses of himself and the other presenters, and to pay for sandwiches for lunches, Folta sought support from several biotechnology companies, including Monsanto, who donated $25,000 to this outreach. Again, it neither paid Folta’s salary nor funded his research.
But when Ruskin and his staff at USRTK found this information in Folta’s E-mails, they launched a full-fledged attempt at character assassination, calling him a “liar” and a “shill,” even though the source of the funding for these outreach program was publicly known and far from secret. This was reported in Wired last February. Meanwhile, USRTK’s website shows a donation of $114,500 from the Organic Consumers Association, an organic industry lobbying group.
Things began to spiral down so that this harassment got closer and closer to terrorism.
- A page on Craigslist (Gainesville) told Folta that his deceased mother would be ashamed of him.
- Attacks on Craigslist called Folta “scum and a whore.”
- And attacks from Columbia’s Nassim Taleb were particularly vicious.
- An article by two ideologues was briefly published in PLOS One attacking Folta (among others) but was removed after a number of complaints. Folta commented on it in his blog.
Finally, when attackers published Folta’s home address on Facebook along with obscene comments, he begin to fear for the safety of his family, and talked to the University about returning the money. The university found there was no easy way to return it to Monsanto, so they donated it to the campus food bank. This entire saga is also summarized in Nature.
In one sense, Folta won by defusing these personal attacks, but in another sense all of science lost, when a scientist who is a superior educator is silenced by hostile crazies. This is what I meant by “terrorism,” and if it worked once, they might try It again. Ruskin and the people following him are despicable.