If you can’t convince them, try to just discredit them; right?
That’s the latest strategy coming from anti-GMO groups faced with a startling lack of science or research to support their positions. In order to counter the overwhelming evidence that GMOs are safe, these activists have devised a plan designed to discredit the legitimate body of scientific work, as well as threaten and intimidate any scientists thinking of conducting this research.
Earlier this year, the US Right to Know of Oakland, California, an anti-GMO group that supports mandatory labeling, sent out about 40 requests under the Freedom of Information Act to public sector scientists around the country engaged in research of biotech products and crops. The requests ask for documents that show any type of link between the scientists and any biotech companies. One of the scientists originally targeted in this witch hunt was University of Florida professor Dr. Kevin Folta. Dr. Folta has been an outspoken advocate on biotechnology, and backs up his advocacy with all the research he’s done.
Dr. Folta was the first the public scientist to respond to the FOIA request and release the requested information, and the backlash came quickly. The real agenda behind this endeavor is definitely starting to show.
Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, has been an important tool for Americans since the 1960’s. According to FOIA.gov:
It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.
Most, if not all, states have also passed similar laws which grant the public access to information and data maintained by state and local governments. The state laws tend to mirror the federal law, including the very specific and limited exemptions.
President Obama sought to embrace this availability to government when he first took office, issuing an executive directive stating:
The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.
These laws were created so that citizens can have full and unfettered access to the information obtained, kept, and stored by the government. It’s a means to opening the closed doors of government and allowing citizens to gain access. In the typical situation, this is a good thing! The government shouldn’t be able to hide things and citizens should definitely be allowed to gain access to that information.
Dr. Folta Responses and Activists Attack
That doesn’t mean that everything about FOIA is good, or that every request is reasonable or justified. For example, responding to FOIA requests submitted by radical animal rights groups, the EPA previously released the names and addresses of hundreds of family farms. The agency later decided that wasn’t necessarily the brightest idea, though it was too late then.
The same is true here. Dr. Folta’s response to the FOIA requests included almost 5,000 pages of documentation, including emails responding to student questions, correspondence with private small businesses, and information related to his non-profit work.
But the documents also showed that one of Dr. Folta’s side projects, the Talking Biotech series, which aims to teach science educators and students how to talk about biotechnology concepts, had received funding by Monsanto. As Dr. Folta explained on his blog:
This is about teaching scientists how to talk about science. While it will be spun by many to be some source of undue collusion, it is easy to see that the content is factual, based on evidence, and 100% in line with the scientific consensus.
As always, I’m glad to answer questions. You certainly are invited to contribute. No funds go to me or any personnel– they go 100% to defray travel costs, buy a tray of subs for the students, and pay fees for facility rental.
Dr. Folta also clarified that Monsanto has never sponsored his research in any way. He stated that he does not accept a payment for speaking, because as a public scientist, he sees it as part of his job to educate the public about these issues.
The attacks against Dr. Folta started immediately. As expected, the response by the anti-GMO activists was vicious, slanderous, and just plain disgusting. You can see one piece of work by Food Democracy Now here. (Out of respect for Dr. Folta and to not help spread this garbage, I’m only sharing that one post.)
However, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who considers himself some type of philosopher, tweeted a series of accusation at Dr. Folta, that were indicative of the types of responses Dr. Folta has encountered. His tweets included the following:
It turned out that Kevin Folta is paid by Monsanto to say these things and many more. A disgusting man. https://t.co/S182O8SmoU
— NassimNicholasTaleb (@nntaleb) August 7, 2015
(As a side note, Taleb has also worked as a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Stephan from We Love GMOs and Vaccines wondered if Taleb would be as forthcoming with his emails and correspondence and filed a FOIA request. I’m interested in his response….)
Threats and Intimidation Over Biotech Advocates
The motive behind these FOIA requests was obviously meant as a way to discredit these public scientists. Monsanto contributed funding to Dr. Folta’s program meant to help educators talk about biotech concepts. However, I’m willing to bet that any interaction between Dr. Folta and Monsanto would have ended in the “shill” accusation. It’s certainly one that even I have endured in the past, and activists use it as an easy response when they have nothing else legitimate to say.
If you can’t directly discredit the science and the evidence, then go ahead and accuse them all of being paid industry insiders.
We have to acknowledge that all of these endeavors – both the science and the education -are time consuming and expensive. Why shouldn’t the companies producing these products help foot the bill for the safety research and public education? Are we really so caught up in conspiracy theories that we think everyone and their brother is being bought by the industry? Are we really so daft we think these companies have enough money to even do that? And why are anti-GMO organizations the only ones that get to spend money to advocate their position?
Besides, the funding of the research doesn’t necessarily invalidate it, unless perhaps you don’t understand how science works. As I’ve said many times before, one of the best things about science is that we can look at the way a study was designed and performed and evaluate whether it was reliable or legitimate. That means the funding of the study doesn’t matter as much as the methodology of the study. Again though, Dr. Folta’s research has not been funded by Monsanto.
Unfortunately, anti-GMO activists couldn’t make the public sector scientists and researchers shut up and fall into line, so they’ve decided to bully and intimidate those professionals into submission. I gave you a taste of the backlash Dr. Folta has experienced since responding to the FOIA request. This is all being done to dissuade other scientists from researching biotechnology or speaking out on the topic. It’s a way for activists to silence their opposition. Unfortunately, that just works to limit the information we have on the technology and promotes scientific illiteracy.
I am more and more disgusted with the antics and tactics from these anti-GMO organizations. If you’re position is so strong and so noble, then out with the science and information supporting it. Stop the lies, the misinformation, and the smear campaigns. Farmers, consumers, and Dr. Folta certainly do not deserve these childish tactics.
[By the way, Dr. Folta took some time on Saturday to answer questions on Reddit. You can find the transcript here.]
Jim Harris says
Just went back over to FDN page. The “debate” is still going on, several days after the original post. Unfortunately, FDN has deleted the posts by Dr. Folta. He answered his critics in a very calm and straight-forward manner–so classy. Its not possible to say that about some of the other commenters. Thanks again, Amanda, for you advocacy.
Kim Rieck says
Love that meme at the top! Can I get that on a t-shirt?
More on topic–even if Monsanto had given Kevin $25K for research (which it did not), it would have been a rounding error in the cost of his research.
Neil Barr says
Trying hard to keep cool. Trying hard. So many idiots, so little time.
Kevin Folta says
Thanks for the nice treatment. Keep in mind also that this was always public information, it has always been, and it was freely provided here too. The fact that a reporter was given the information is what put into the activist crazysphere, and that’s why it blew up now. I never thought it was a big deal because I’m trusting that people can think a little. In retrospect you see what this is– ignore the facts to harm the scientist. That’s very sad.