GM-crop opponents expand probe into ties between scientists and industry

Sep 8, 2015

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty

By Keith Kloor

Michelle McGuire, a nutrition scientist at Washington State University in Pullman, was stunned last month when activists who oppose the use of genetically modified (GM) organisms asked to read her e-mail.

US Right to Know of Oakland, California, filed a request under Washington’s freedom-of-information law to see her correspondence with, or about, 36 organizations and companies. McGuire is one of 40 US researchers who have now been targeted by the group, which is probing what it sees as collusion between the agricultural biotechnology industry and academics who study science, economics and communication.

And that investigation, which began in February, has just started to yield documents. These include roughly 4,600 pages of e-mails and other records from Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a well-known advocate of GM organisms. The records, which the university gave to US Right to Know last month, do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Folta. But they do reveal his close ties to the agriculture giant Monsanto, of St Louis, Missouri, and other biotechnology-industry interests.

The documents show that Monsanto paid for Folta’s travel to speak to US students, farmers, politicians and the media. Other industry contacts occasionally sent him suggested responses to common questions about GM organisms.

“Nobody ever told me what to say,” says Folta, who considers public outreach to be a key part of his job. “There’s nothing I have ever said or done that is not consistent with the science.”

He adds that he has never accepted honoraria for outreach work, and that the University of Florida does not require him to disclose travel reimbursements. But the e-mails show that Folta did receive an unrestricted US$25,000 grant last year from Monsanto, which noted that the money “may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects”. Folta says that the funds are earmarked for a proposed University of Florida programme on communicating biotechnology.

Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord says that the company was “happy to support Dr. Folta’s proposal for an outreach program to increase understanding of biotechnology”, and that the $25,000 grant “predominately covered travel expenses”. Lord adds that Monsanto considers public-private collaborations to be “essential to the advancement of science, innovation and agriculture”.


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20 comments on “GM-crop opponents expand probe into ties between scientists and industry

  • Did he tell porkies? Fudge data? Did he misused the funds to buy jetskis? Did he finance covert operations against anti-GM activists?

    No? then piss off.



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  • US Right to Know of Oakland, California, filed a request under Washington’s freedom-of-information law to see her correspondence with, or about, 36 organizations and companies. McGuire is one of 40 US researchers who have now been targeted by the group, which is probing what it sees as collusion between the agricultural biotechnology industry and academics who study science, economics and communication.

    US Right to Know is another Nutsy-the-Clown activist group corrupted with as much special interest as any corporation ever made. Their zealots will cherry pick quotes out of context, inflate it to the level of “information,” and try to spread the alarm among their fellow inmates in the asylum. Let the debate take place in the open; in the public square where scientists on both sides can present findings and advocate rational courses of best practices.



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  • It’s been an awfully long time since Norman Borlaug carried out his ground breaking work, and by now it should be common knowledge.

    What about the idea that Monsanto are actually on the level and are attempting to dispel false notions about their motivations and activities; after all, they’re not exactly like The Templeton Foundation; are they?

    It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between change and advancement, and both can cause anxiety, but although far from being a scientist myself, I think the degree of ignorance about matters scientific is appalling, and gives rise to a lot of utter nonsense being said and written about them.

    Population explosion has been out of control for fifty years, and there really is little or no choice other than to take advantage of what science can render, and stop being neurotic about Frankensteinian myths!



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  • Stafford Gordon
    Sep 10, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    What about the idea that Monsanto are actually on the level and are attempting to dispel false notions about their motivations and activities; after all,

    That would be a change from their past history!

    Their products are potentially beneficial and increase yields and profits, but the history of false assurances on safety and environmental impacts, is on record.



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  • Their products are potentially beneficial and increase yields and profits, but the history of false assurances on safety and environmental impacts, is on record.

    People don’t care about what is on record for fat-cat worried leisure reading before nap time. They care about what is on their dinner plate.

    Population explosion has been out of control for fifty years, and there really is little or no choice other than to take advantage of what science can render, and stop being neurotic about Frankensteinian myths!

    We should start to think of the 8 billion humans on the earth as a single organism the way entomologists think of ant colonies as single organisms. Insatiably devouring the planet, there is nothing as monstrous as humankind.



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  • Melvin
    Sep 10, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    People don’t care about what is on record. They care about what is on their dinner plate.

    I know! That is the problem with the destruction of the planet!

    The people who don’t care where their food comes from, don’t care which fuel provides their energy, and don’t care what damage these services to them cause to anyone or anything else!

    The suggestion, that multinational agricultural corporations are interested in feeding the poor, is a joke in poor taste! They, in cahoots with corrupt governments, are interested in taking land from the poor subsistence farmers, to export crops AND money from profits!



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  • Multinational agricultural corporations are only interested in making profit, as are all the world’s other corporations. Human need doesn’t enter into the equation, unless they are paying customers. Some people call it the free market, – I call it capitalism.



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  • First my apologies about the gratuitous “fat-cat” wisecrack. It’s inappropriate for thoughtful caring people on all sides of this topic. First let me clarify my point of view which does not exclude the relevance of what you are saying.

    I know! That is the problem with the destruction of the planet!
    The people who don’t care where their food comes from, don’t care which fuel provides their energy, and don’t care what damage these services to them cause to anyone or anything else!

    Human beings like all animals will put their needs and wants first demoting concerns for the long-term good of the planet or abstract “others” far down the list. The starving Antarctic explorers will slit the throats of their beloved sled dogs for meat that supplies a few decent meals. Further up from desperation, humans have sacrificed the “environment” for myriad creature comforts. We are the only “consumer” animal in the history of evolution whose giant brain has poured forth a cornucopia of consumer goods and services at an appalling cost of energy consumption, resource depletion, and pollution. Alas, there are too many of us and to that “too many,’ billions more will be piled on in coming decades. Granted, that directed science, technological innovation, and collective altruism may mitigate the damage, it’s still not a wise strategy to bet on human ingenuity anymore than human virtue to save the planet unless we get our numbers down. Way down.

    Multinational agricultural corporations are only interested in making profit, as are all the world’s other corporations. Human need doesn’t enter into the equation, unless they are paying customers.

    Everyone on this thread is interested in making a profit -a salary subject to healthy raises, a good return on investments, and a generous pension the heftier the better. All of us are paying customers. “Capitalism” is not an “ideology” anymore than “Socialism.” Both terms are used today either for polemical purposes, or more pragmatically to describe the ratio of the distribution of material and financial resources between the private and public sectors of an economy.



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  • Human beings like all animals will put their needs and wants first demoting concerns for the long-term good

    This is the main problem Melvin. We’re the product of millions of years of evolution and we are superbly adapted nomadic stone age hunter gatherers. That requires tribalism and blind loyalty. Today that means nationalism, war and xenophobia. Altruism to near genetic relatives and persons in power was a good survival strategy in the past. Now it’s selfishness, Tragedy of the Commons and sucking up to bosses, politicians and god. Lots of other evolutionary traits which ironically were the means by which our species prospered, are now the very same traits that will lead to our extinction. Kind of ironic, don’t you think.

    We need to evolve over night into a world wide unified species prepared to make personal sacrifice for the greater good. We need to evolve over night into a rational evidenced based homo sapiens capable of making decisions on the prevailing evidence, not some thought bubble ideology. This won’t happen so…..

    Sadly evolution is very, very slow, so all 7.5 billion of us, heading to 9-12 billion are on track to become the first self aware intelligent species in the universe to commit voluntary self extinction and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it, because a superb nomadic stone age hunter gatherer is incapable of doing what’s required.

    If there was only 1 billion humans on the planet, GM wouldn’t have been needed. Another example of the collateral damage of over population.



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  • Yes, US Right To Know is situated in the center of la la land, but I can not find much on them as they seem to be quite new.

    Can you show any debunking articles on this typical Bay Area insanity. I lived there for almost 30 years and never heard of these people, though they may have been lost among the ideological white noise of the area.



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  • David: Very thoughtful comment. The same medical advances that virtually eliminated the threats of predators even at the microbial level causing death rates to plummet have held out the promise of bringing birthrates down to replacement or sub-replacement fertility in many countries, while leaving much work to be done elsewhere. Perhaps a glimmer of hope for our future but still only a glimmer.



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  • I live in Pittsburgh, PA, not the Left Coast. I know a thing or two about science, including that correlation does not imply causation.

    Nonetheless, I have doubts about the safety of GMO products for everyone. I have Celiac disease, so if I don’t stay on a gluten-free diet I get sick. I pay close attention to what is in my food. In my food allergy magazines there are more and more articles about corn allergies in children. I had never heard of that.

    It might not be a coincidence that in the years since 1995, the incidence of food allergies including corn allergies has increased. Last I checked, 88% of corn grown in the US is GMO.

    True, correlation does not imply causation, but I seriously doubt that Monsanto has done enough research to be sure that their GMO’s are safe for everyone, although it’s probably safe for most people. There has certainly not been enough truly independent research that we can accuse anyone who is in favor of GMO labeling of being anti-science.

    All I ask is that GMO’s be labeled. It is wrong to deny parents of children with food allergies the knowledge of what is in the food they serve their children.

    Monsanto, grocery associations and other agricultural businesses have been fighting GMO labeling because after GMO’s were labeled in the EU, sales plummeted. I would have more sympathy for Monsanto if they were developing wheat that could be grown in the Sahara or some such thing, but no, they have created corn that can tolerate high doses of Monsanto herbicide. They have a lot of money invested in the product, so naturally they want it to stay under cover.

    I am all in favor of science, but the science is not clear enough at this point that Monsanto should be allowed to sneak the product into peoples’ food without labeling.

    All “science” is not alike.



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  • Melvin
    Sep 10, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    Let the debate take place in the open; in the public square where scientists on both sides can present findings and advocate rational courses of best practices.

    Anyone who thinks that commercial, political, or environmental issues, are understood in the dichotomy of two sides, has no understanding of the complexities of the science and the muddy waters of the politics involved!



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  • I am all in favor of science, but the science is not clear enough at this point that Monsanto should be allowed to sneak the product into peoples’ food without labeling.

    I agree. People with diagnosed Celiac disease, lactose intolerance, peanut allergies and other significant food-related health issues should be warned off by proper labeling on food products. Dilemmas arise when charlatans and health nuts use media to disseminate alarmist views and create mass hysteria about alleged harms of ingesting this or that food which in moderation is perfectly safe and nourishing for 99.9% of the population. Especially deplorable are widespread propaganda campaigns expounding unevidenced claims that certain foods will make people sick or highly susceptible to disease. For anyone concerned about dietary issues, the sound practice is to consult his or her medical doctor(s) working in cooperation with a qualified nutritionist rather than taking the latest craze at face value.



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  • Melvin
    Sep 10, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    Their products are potentially beneficial and increase yields and profits, but the history of false assurances on safety and environmental impacts, is on record.

    People don’t care about what is on record for fat-cat worried leisure reading before nap time. They care about what is on their dinner plate.

    The gullible don’t know or care if the salesman has a long record of fraud! He has just made them a “too good to be true” offer, so they rush to accept it because it is promised to be wonderful!!



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  • Very good points, Miriam. Growing up, I don’t remember so many instances where allergies were an issue. Now allergy alerts seem to be everywhere. I often wonder how methods of production/consumption will–or do–effect offspring.



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  • 19
    fadeordraw says:

    So who’s Norman Borlaug and what was his ground breaking work? You know, just in case it aint common knowledge for all of us and for those who might have something to say otherwise.



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  • 20
    fadeordraw says:

    We must fault on the side of transparency; even in the face of those with agendas against our purpose or at the cost of dealing with time-wasting nuisances. The alternative of hidden agendas (e.g., not being up front about Monsanto funding my GM research, and there are other examples in other disciplines), only begets real hidden agendas (self-interest and corruption). Be prepared to put everything on the table and let the science and research do the talking.



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