Last Modified: Friday, August 21, 2015 at 5:53 p.m.
For 15 years, Kevin Folta has preached the gospel of GMOs, promoting genetic research and biotechnology and their benefits to farming, food and medicine and how they help protect the environment, solve world hunger and promote public health.
A well-respected researcher in plant genomics and the director of the University of Florida horticultural sciences department,, Folta has built a reputation as a credible explainer of biotechnology. He is frequently invited to attend conferences and participate in panels discussing the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms.
But his outspokenness and his ties to the biotech industry have put Folta in the eye of the GMO storm.
U.S. Right to Know, a non-profit anti-GMO group out of Oakland, California that seeks mandatory labeling of all genetically modified foods, has released a batch of emails that indicate a close relationship between Folta and the biotech industry, including a $25,000 grant for a biotech communications project and providing content for an industry website.
“The curtain has been lifted and the truth has been revealed,” said Gary Ruskin, co-founder and co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “His credibility is shot for good.”
Folta said he was targeted because he's a teacher who understands genetically modified organism, or transgenic, technology very well after studying it for the past 30 years.
“I take time to answer questions for the public that is really concerned. I talk about the science,” Folta said. “That really works against the people that fund U.S. Right to Know.”
Since January, the group has requested the emails of 43 researchers around the country going back to 2012 to examine their communications with about three dozen biotech companies and organizations. The scientific community has pushed back, calling the massive public records request a fishing expedition and a form of harassment — and something researchers aren't used to dealing with.
“You see this coming from the left and the right,” said Michael Halpern, program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. “Ultimately these are invasive and extensive requests that take up a great chunk of researchers' time, and have a chilling effect on what they say publicly.”
UCS advocates transparency and uses the Freedom of Information Act for its own research but has pushed back against instances of what it sees as bullying or overreach. “We need to figure out that balance between legitimate transparency and protecting research from harassment,” Halpern said.
Ultimately, transparency is good for science, he said, and any scientist who has a funding relationship that could constitute a conflict of interest or be perceived as one should have that information disclosed.
Also, he said, any scientist who works in a controversial field such as genetics or climate change should “be prepared for additional scrutiny of their work and be ready to articulate why what they are doing has merit and contributes to public understanding of science.”
Folta's data was the first to be dumped, with articles running in Nature, PLOS One and Inside Higher Education over the last few weeks. The University of Florida charged U.S. Right to Know $1,147 for almost 4,600 pages of email.
Founded in 2014, U.S. Right to Know is backed primarily by the Organic Consumers Association, a public interest group founded in 1998 in response to USDA regulations on organic food.
Jack Payne, senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources at UF, said Folta has done nothing wrong, that communicating science is a big part of what Folta teaches his graduate students.
“He understands the literature around the public controversy in biotechnology, and donates his time teaching public audiences about this topic. He is raising scientific literacy,” Payne said. “That is why companies, including Monsanto, are interested in providing funding to cover workshop costs and travel. It is also why anti-GMO activists need to marginalize him and destroy his reputation.”
Many of the scientists, including Folta, were targeted because they wrote for the biotech industry's website, GMO Answers. The site was set up by New York-based public relations firm Ketchum Inc. (the same firm Vladimir Putin uses) in 2012, when California's Prop 37 mandatory GMO-labeling initiative was on the ballot. Voters rejected the ballot referendum.
“The ag chem industry knew it had a major problem on its hands, and focused strongly on the consumer,” said Ruskin, who was campaign manager for Prop 37. “They had to find some puppet to trot out in front of them with their message and polling shows that independent-looking scientists polled very well with the public.”
Folta's emails reveal a close coordination with Monsanto and Ketchum “in accomplishing Monsanto's PR goals,” Ruskin said.
Among them is an exchange from last year that details Folta's proposal for Monsanto to set up a $25,000 unrestricted grant for him to use for biotech outreach and travel.
It also covered the Biotech Literacy Conference in May, which served more than 225 students, postdoctoral candidates and faculty.
Monsanto was “happy to support Dr. Folta's proposal for an outreach program to increase understanding of biotechnology,” company spokeswoman Charla Lord was quoted as saying in an Aug. 6 article in Nature magazine.
Other emails show Folta receiving questions from Ketchum to answer for the GMO Answers website and even suggesting how he could answer those questions. Folta said he doesn't let anyone influence his answers.
The emails also document trips to Arizona, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, and other states at the invitation of biotech companies and related organizations. In one instance, he went to Colorado at the request of Monsanto to talk to farmers and business leaders prior to a vote on that state's GMO-labeling ballot referendum.
Another series of emails chronicles how Folta agreed to send notes from his debate with Charles Benbrook, a pro-organic farming professor at Washington State University, to Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto.
Folta said being compensated for travel and setting up a fund to help finance Talking Biotech hasn't changed his position on the science. “If you compare how I answered questions before and after that funding, it's identical,” he said. “The facts didn't change and my desire to communicate facts didn't change.”
Bottom line, Folta said, is nobody has refuted his answers or his presentations. “Nobody has questioned anything I've ever said,” Folta said. “Nobody has questioned my research. What they've done is gone after me because I do it.”