“Reading the emails make(s) me want to throw up” tweeted the Food Babe after reading a lengthy series of them posted online by the NY Times on Sept 5th. The emails in question result from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and are posted in the side bars of a front-page article by Times reporter Eric Lipton (“Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show”). The article is highly disturbing, but, as the Food Babe implied, the Times buried the real story. The real scoop was not the perfidy and deceit of a handful of individual professors. Buried in the emails is proof positive of active collusion between the agribusiness and chemical industries, numerous and often prominent academics, PR companies, and key administrators of land grant universities for the purpose of promoting GMOs and pesticides. In particular, nowhere does the Times note that one of the chief colluders was none other than the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
All this is omitted entirely, or buried in hard-to-notice side bars, which are anyway unavailable to print readers. So, here is the article Eric Lipton should have written.
First, The Lipton Story
The Lipton article seems, at first sight, to be impressive reporting. Lipton describes how Kevin Folta, Chair of the Dept. of Horticulture at the University of Florida secretly took expenses and $25,000 of unrestricted money from Monsanto to promote GMO crops. On behalf of the biotech industry, or via the PR firm Ketchum, Folta wrote on websites and attended public events, trainings, lobbying efforts and special missions.
Parts of this were already known, but Lipton digs up further damning evidence and quotes from Folta. They include an email to Monsanto that solidly contradicts Folta’s previous denials of a relationship with Monsanto and the biotech industry: “I am grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment,” Folta wrote after receiving the $25,000 check, thereby showing both a clear understanding of his role and the purpose of the money. The article goes on to similarly expose Bruce Chassy (Prof Emeritus, University of Illinois) and David Shaw (Mississippi State University). It also discussses, presumably for “balance”, agronomist and GMO critic Charles Benbrook, then at Washington State University, who unlike the others openly acknowledged his funding.
What Lipton Missed
But readers of the emails can find facts that are much more damaging to perceptions of academic independence than that contained in the main article. For one thing, the money Folta received is insignificant besides the tens of millions his university was taking from Syngenta (>$10million), Monsanto(>$1million), Pioneer (>$10million), and BASF (>$1million). Money that it’s hard to believe did not have a role in protecting Kevin Folta as he roamed zealously (and often offensively) over the internet, via his twitter account, blog, podcast, and OpEds, squelching dissent and ridiculing GMO critics wherever he went.
Also missing from the main Times article is a sense of the extensive and intricate networking of a small army of academics furthering the interests of Monsanto and other parts of the chemical, agribusiness and biotech industries. Folta rarely acted alone. His networks are filled with economists, molecular biologists, plant pathologists, development specialists, and agronomists, many of them much more celebrated than Kevin Folta, but all of them in a knowing loop with industry and the PR firms. Their job was acknowledged openly in emails (“We are all bad-ass shills for the truth. It’s a pleasure shilling with you.” Or, as Folta himself put it: “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.”). More generally, the group’s role was to initiate academic publications and other articles and to firefight legislative, media and scientific threats to the GMO and pesticide industries, all the while keeping their industry links hidden.
The academics identified by these emails as cooperating with industry and PR firms include:
Profs. Bruce Chassy (University of Illinois) and Alan McHughen (University of California, Riverside) who worked together to destroy the credibility of Russian scientist and GMO critic Irina Ermakova. They persuaded the journal Nature Biotechnology to interview Ermakova about her research and describe it. This interview was followed by a detailed critique of her research (about which none of the authors were expert). Ermakova was neither told of the critique nor given a chance to answer it. This whole elaborate subterfuge required her to be sent a dummy proof of the article she thought she was publishing in the journal. …
Cooperation among academics is not a crime. But these emails show, as in the EPA letter example, that a company (usually Monsanto, but also Dow and Syngenta and a PR firm, often several of them, plus sometimes the biotech lobbyists BIO or CropLife America) were invariably looped in to these emails, and further, that initiatives usually began with one of these non-academic entities, and were shepherded by them. Only rarely is there even a suggestion from the emails that the various academics were out in front, though that was always the intended impression of the result.
But perhaps the biggest of all revelations within these emails is the connivance of senior university administrators, especially at Cornell University. The NY Times article focuses on the misdeeds of Mississippi State University Vice President David Shaw. But, looped into one email string, along with the PR firm Ketchum and Jon Entine are various Cornell email addresses and names. These are ignored by Lipton, but the email addresses belong to very senior members of the Cornell administration. They include Ronnie Coffman (Director of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Science) and Sarah Evanega Davidson (now director of the Gates-funded Cornell Alliance for Science).
The Alliance for Science is a PR project and international training center for academics and others who want to work with the biotech industry to promote GMOs. It is funded ($5.6 million) by the Gates Foundation. Its upcoming program of speakers at Cornell for September include Tamar Haspel (Washington Post reporter), Amy Harmon (New York Times reporter) and Prof. Dan Kahan (Yale Law School). These speakers are the exact ones mentioned in a proposal worked out between Kevin Folta and Monsanto in a series of email exchanges intended to enhance biotech outreach. These email exchanges also propose setting up “Ask Me Anything” events to be held at universities around the country with Kevin Folta as of the panelists. …
Is it such a stretch to think that a similar corporate network operates to promote the global warming agenda? But evidence for such a network has already been uncovered. The climategate hack showed an organized effort to manipulate data to fit the agenda, although the actual corporate money trail remained hidden. It’s hard to guess which scientific scam could have worse consequences for the planet (gmo or gw) if left unchallenged.