It all started with a new organization called US Right to Know (USRTK) filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests against more than a dozen scientists at public universities who work in or advocate for biotechnology. USRTK is run by Gary Ruskin, a California anti-GMO activist. It’s a small organization, funded apparently entirely by the Organic Consumers Association. A great deal of background information on this small organization run out of Ruskin’s house can be found here.
This drama that we describe below ended with the complete silencing of a public scientist.
These FOIA requests were essentially for all E-mails the scientists had sent that mentioned Monsanto and other biotech companies, and seemed to be a fishing expedition to discredit these scientists. Some of those scientists include retired biochemist and food safety expert Emeritus Professor Bruce Chassy who wrote a rebuttal here. Science Magazine discussed the FOIA in this article. Washington State University nutritionist Michelle McGuire also received an FOIA request for her Emails even though her work is on lactation, not biotechnology, because she had the temerity to run experiments showing that breast milk does not in fact contain Roundup as Moms Across America had insisted.
But the most egregious and extensive attacks were reserved for Professor Kevin Folta, the chairman of the Plant Science department at the University of Florida . Kevin Folta is a truly nice guy, who will take the time to explain science to anyone that asks, in the clearest imaginable terms. His research is in the effects of various colors of light on strawberries, but he also has created some varieties using biotechnology for these experiments. Because of his involvement in this research and his lack of connection to the biotech industry, he has been a popular speaker and teacher explaining how biotechnology (“GMOs”) works and why all science has shown that is not a safety concern. His debate with Michael Hansen of Consumer’s Union is a model of his clear speaking style.
Because of how clearly he can defuse the fear and emotion of people who are worried about biotechnology, he has been invited to give many talks to farmers on how to discuss what they do and to students at various universities. He also records a weekly podcast called Talking Biotech in which he interviews various players in the field, and writes a blog called Illumination in which he corrects misconceptions and analyzes biotech papers that have been misconstrued. Here’s a clever one, where he shows that the amount of Roundup spread on an acre of farmland is less than would fit in a 12 oz soda can.
But, this outreach work is not part of his actual job, and in order to give more talks, he needed to find a way to pay for the travel expenses and the sandwiches he often provides to the classes. Monsanto, with whom he has no professional relationship, and who does not pay him in any way, offered his university $25,000 to fund his outreach program, which Folta agreed to. In his talks, he gratefully acknowledged Monsanto’s support, but did not take a penny for himself or his research program.
It was at this point that all hell broke loose when USRTK found the E-mail offering his university that $25,000 in the E-mail dump they had requested on Folta. They immediately began attacking Folta as a “liar” and a paid “Monsanto shill,” even though they had no specific evidence of any such thing. Folta, along with dozens of others contributed to the web site GMO Answers. This site is supported by all the major biotechnology companies (including Monsanto), and anyone can contribute answers to the site.
Things began to come to a head when New York Times writer Eric Lipton wrote a piece about Folta which Folta called a “hatchet job.” Lipton managed to draw a false parallel between Folta who has never been paid by Monsanto and (then) Washington State researcher Charles Benbrook, whose pro-organic and anti-GMO articles and his entire salary were paid for by the Organic Consumer’s Association. By all reports, Chuck Benbrook is also a nice guy, but his research being wholly funded by an organization with a clear agenda makes him somewhat less transparent in his findings.
Seeing all the trouble this small donation caused, Folta told the University of Florida to return the money, and when that couldn’t be done quickly, the University donated it to a campus food pantry.
Then another piece by Brooke Borel appeared on Buzzfeed which summarized the attacks on Folta’s Email and managed to again suggest that his actions were somehow less than ethical. She suggested that Folta’s podcast alter ego “Vern Blazek” was somehow misleading, when he was clearly a satiric character used as a foil.
But now, the personal attacks on Folta had gotten completely out of hand, all claiming he was a lying Monsanto shill and the like. To see how bad it became, take a look at Mike Adam’s Natural News post calling him “the most discredited scientist in America,” and a “discredited Monsanto puppet.’ Mike Adams is, of course, not a scientist nor even a reporter. His Natural News site is recognized as a collection of completely made up conspiracies and other fantasies.
About this time, an advertisement appeared in the Gainesville Craigslist repeating these accusations and calling him “a lying Monsanto puppet.” It also published his home address, which made Folta fear for his young family.
These relentless attacks on Folta began to take their toll, as you can see as he describes them in a talk he gave at the Trottier Symposium McGill University. It was clear that these attacks could not be allowed to continue.
Yesterday, Folta published this announcement on his blog, podcast page and Facebook page:
Hi Everybody. I’ll keep it short. The attacks are relentless, I’m under a lot of pressure on many fronts. I’m taking the opportunity to disappear from public visibility and focus on my lab and my students. It has been a challenging time. I appreciate the support, I’m grateful for your wishes, but this battle is vicious and one-sided, and I think I’m well served bowing out of the public science conversation for the foreseeable future. Thank you.
In other words these shameful attacks on a highly qualified public scientist were so relentless he dropped all of his public science outreach work and went back to his lab. Of course, cranks like the Food Babe were delighted, but most of us who have spent their lives working in science were deeply saddened. It is much easier to use irrational personal attacks to silence opinions you don’t agree with than we ever could have imagined!