New York Times slanders academic scientists with sloppy reporting

stalks in sunIn today’s New York Times, reporter Eric Lipton reports that the “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Show.” This article is based partly on the Email fishing expedition conducted by PR flack Gary Ruskin and his industry-supported US Right to Know web site. We wrote of that slanderous campaign last week. Lipton takes the Emails released  by USRTK and some additional ones he requested and attempts to paint all biotechnology academic researchers as corrupt.

The article as printed starts on page 1, column 3, above the fold and continues on page 20. Before the page jump, it asserts that “The use by both sides of third-party scientists, and their supposedly unbiased research, helps explain why the American public is often confused as it processes the conflicting information.”

However, while it slanders scientists and claims their research is questionable on the front page, the rest of the article provides not a single instance of any scientist’s research being influenced or corrupted.

After the page jump, the first actual quote is from Charles Benbrook, who has had all of his “research” funded by the organic foods industry and is scarcely unbiased, who suggests that academics who have accepted travel funds to lecture or testify about science start to smell like the skunks they are associated with.

Benbrook, has been an unrelenting opponent of GMOs, but in fact is an agricultural economist, not a biologist or scientist. His most recent scientific paper which suggests that herbicide use has increased after GMOs were introduced has been widely criticized for failing to include calculations on the reduced toxicity and environmental impact of more recent herbicides such as Roundup. This is one of Lipton’s “experts.” Benbrook’s position at Washington State University was paid for by the organic industry and was “recently severed.

Lipton then goes on to suggest that “the biotech industry has published dozens of articles, under the names of prominent academics, that in some cases were drafted by industry consultants,” without citing a single such article or explaining how such articles could have circumvented the rigorous peer-review process scientific journals impose. In other words, this seems to be hogwash.

In fact Lipton even admits that “there is no evidence that academic work was compromised.”

But, he suggests, without proof, that academics have shifted from [being] researchers to actors in lobbying and corporate PR campaigns. Of course, if academics really had abandoned their research to become “industry lobbyists,” they would be out of jobs in short order.

Lipton suggests that there is a “fight between competing academics” about GMOs and about the safety of various herbicides, when there is no such disagreement going on. Science has firmly established the safety of  herbicides like Roundup, and the only disagreement is with the organic industry lobbyists like Benbrook.

Much of the remainder of the article seems to be a smear campaign about Professor Kevin Folta, chairman of the department of horticulture at the University of Florida, who donates his time in scientific outreach to explain science and biotechnology to farmers and the public. Lipton is determined to paint Folta as a Monsanto-paid lobbyist, when in fact he accepted one $25,000 grant to pay for his outreach travel, and following excessive threats on Facebook got the University to donate the money to a campus food bank. Folta has called Lipton’s article a “hatchet job” on social media, and has published two rebuttals, one on his public speaking and one on his non-relationship with Monsanto.

Lipton also criticizes retired Professor Bruce Chassy of the University of Illinois for receiving a grant for biotechnology outreach. Chassy has published an extensive rebuttal already, titled “Forty years of public science, research and teaching under assault.”

The only other academic Lipton mentions is David  R Shaw, the vice-president of research and economic development at Mississippi State University.  Among his hundreds of research papers and students shown on his extensive vita, he did one piece of Monsanto funded research on Roundup used in a cropping system, for $880,000. Considering the many millions of dollars of grants shown on this vita and his extensive academic career, this is simply insignificant, and if he were asked to testify before a Congressional committee, it would be because of that extensive expertise.

Finally, Lipton suggests that the amount the organic industry spends on lobbying is a tiny fraction of that spent by biosciences companies. This may not be true, as Henry Miller showed in Forbes, that the amount the organic industry spends is upwards of $2.5 billion a year!

In summary, Lipton’s article gets his facts wrong and fails to prove any of his points. It’s clearly not one of the Time’s better articles on biotechnology.


2 thoughts on “New York Times slanders academic scientists with sloppy reporting

  1. I’m definitely in agreement with this piece. I did my Ph.D. at UF and have long appreciated Dr. Folta’s efforts.

    One very small critique though – Written defamation is actually libel, not slander. Sorry, just the journo professor in me coming out. Otherwise, very well said.


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