“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” –Arthur C. Clarke
About a decade ago when I was living in northeast Massachusetts, I rushed out and bought the extended cut of the first Lord of the Rings movie. I was treated to an extra half hour of magic, monsters, and that dreamy blond elf (only to find that I’d been deceived, Orlando Bloom was a brunette). But it was still the same hobbit and monster enriched acid trip through Middle Earth. As happens in most cases, cut footage is fun, but serves very little to alter the plot.
Frequently in writing a science article, I find a paragraph I was in love with is gone at the whim of an editor. The final piece flows better for it. Going back through the virtual cutting room floor of my notes, you’ll rarely find a cut paragraph or a lost prepositional phrase, that changes the content of a piece.
However, when multiple Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eric Lipton released a piece in the New York Times stating in the title that the Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, what he left on the cutting room floor was crucial. Lipton possessed, and omitted, evidence of payoffs, collusion, and backroom deals between professors and the organic industry.
Lipton has made a career off of covering “lobbying and corporate agendas” according to his twitter account. Given that it’s only served him two Pulitzer Prizes to illustrate unethical corporate agendas, he took the easy gamble and threw rocks only at Monsanto HQ.
Quite unfortunately for Lipton, FOIA requests are public. In the wave of damage that’s been done to Dr. Folta’s life, from death threats to a recent break in at his office, light can only dispel where Lipton and his ilk bred contempt. Leaving his readers with more questions than answers about this magical new technology of GMOs, here’s the mountain of evidence he left to collect dust on the cutting room floor when he lunged, labored, swinging, and factless, for Folta’s reputation.
Dr. Kevin Folta and the Science Forty
Dr. Folta is the head of the horticultural department at the University of Florida. He researches strawberries one gene at a time in search of ways to make them healthier for consumers and farmers alike. As scientists are not known for an overwhelming ability or desire to be in the spotlight, Folta has become quite popular within academia and industry for his ability to explain the relatively new technology of GMOs. We need more academics who can explain technology to non-scientists, and Folta kindly donates his time to the cause. He never personally accepts honorariums for his speaking engagements, instead turning them over to his biotechnology outreach program.
Unfortunately, whenever history presents us with the beacon of a new technology, instead of curiosity to learn, it’s greeted with fear and anger.
Earlier this year, Kevin Folta was one of forty-some scientists hit with FOIA requests from US Right To Know (USRTK), looking to find any nefarious accusations they can conjure. They couldn’t fry them based on their research (other than “we don’t like GMOs because we can’t be bothered to learn science”), so they had to go digging through emails at a cost to the American taxpayer. The results from these attacks, for just Folta alone, have included doxing, his family being threatened, and his graduate students’ names being published for harassment. Some scientists targeted do research on genetically modified crops, and all participate in public discussion of science. They all work specifically at public universities, and hence were subject to a FOIA request.
Your children are having their education disrupted, possibly being doxed, because some mommy bloggers who don’t understand science arbitrarily decided to yell on the internet.
Dr. Folta has now been hit with one FOIA requests from USRTK and two from Vani Hari, aka the Food Babe. One of the FOIA requests included the search term “Yvette d’Entremont,” because clearly any emails including my name must include a smoking gun hiding all the information about why GMOs are really evil. Along with FOIA requests, they’ve also put out…. memes.
Such clever. Many meme. So wow.
One of the other researchers to deal with this has been Dr. Shelley McGuire. She was not the outspoken critic of the anti-GMO movement that Folta is; conversely, she didn’t know this world of internet activism existed. She read a rumor online that there was glyphosate in breast milk, and since her career was spent researching lactation she opted to conduct a study on the claims. The research was verified by an outside lab, and it debunked the claims made by the group of mommy bloggers.
Within four days of releasing the results of the study, she was hit with a FOIA request, and is being constantly harassed at work at a cost to taxpayers and her research. Because if you say something scientifically provable but out of line with USRTK’s ideology, you must be silenced.
The bullshit “fairness” of false balance.
The statements within Lipton’s article, with short examination, debunked themselves. He readily admits that “there is no evidence that (Folta’s) academic work was compromised.”
Lipton, tattoo that backwards on your ass and stare into a mirror until the ink really sinks in.
This would have been the end of a piece with integrity, but instead Lipton artfully cherry picks about a dozen passages out of context from nearly five-thousands emails sequestered in the FOIA request from the group USRTK. If you’re going to only use about a dozen quotes, at least don’t admit the source material is five-thousand pages long, it’ll make it a lot harder for me to demonstrate that you took passages a few miles out of context. Working with that much material, a thousand monkeys with a thousand piles of poo to fling could eventually compose the Mona Lisa, and Lipton opted to fling this non-existent nefarious relationship between Folta and executives at Monsanto.
In terms of funding, Dr. Folta’s outreach program received a relatively small donation from Monsanto, $25k, specifically to fund the cost of travel for his biotech communications program. Zero dollars were to pay Folta for his work. Sometimes it paid for a room to host the events and, heaven forbid, coffee and sandwiches.
In a landscape of misinformation about GMOs, having a world class researcher speaking about his results to the public is incredibly valuable, and universities are always scraping for funding for research, never mind an outreach program. Though that $25k would be a small impact in terms of research, it would have been surprising if a university science department could pull it out of their very tight budget; they can pay a PhD student for a year for that much, why would they give it to a professor to go speak elsewhere? It’s also comparatively a drop in the bucket compared to the total size of a research budget, upwards of tens or hundreds of millions per year, depending on the university; it’s laughable to think it would pay for meaningful research, let alone buy out a researcher. But if anybody is still of the impression that this minor $25k grant “paid off” Folta’s research results, they’re either the sort whose career integrity is personally for sale for a fraction of a year’s salary, or they do not understand how much scientific research costs.
The kicker? By the time the article ran, that money had already been reallocated from Folta’s program over to a campus charity. Lipton knew this and failed to disclose it in his article.
“I spoke to him for two hours before that article came out. He knew the $25k had been diverted.” Dr. Folta told me over the phone. “What’s the agenda?”
Charles Benbrook Whole $128k Paycheck
Dr. Charles Benbrook is cited by Lipton as an industry expert, a professor from Washington State University. He says “if you spend enough time with skunks, you start to smell like one.” Stock up on Skunk-Off, because something is rotten here, Chuck.
Oh, can I call you Chuck? Because that’s what your lobbyist friends in the organic industry call you.
Documents that Lipton requested and had access to bit barely mentioned clearly show that Benbrook didn’t directly receive a dime from Washington State University. His program was funded entirely by the organic industry with a $250k grant. This includes funds from Clif Bar, United Natural Foods, Whole Foods, Organic Valley/CROPP, Stonyfield, and Annie’s. Whether or not you like the products from any of these companies, if you don’t think they have an agenda to get sales up, you’re sadly mistaken. They’re publicly traded and, in some cases, owned by larger companies. These are not small pastoral farms. These are big businesses, with the asparagus-water toting, price gouging Whole Foods net sales alone at $14.2b in 2014, setting it almost at equal footing with Monsanto.
One of the people collecting a piece of that organic pie? Benbrook. I’ve confirmed with the university that Benbrook’s salary was $128k per year, entirely funded from the organic industry. I now understand why Whole Foods is referred to as Whole Paycheck: it’s an homage to where a certain skunk picks up his organic stench… and his stipend.
And as for if that researcher was a good investment for the organic companies, it doesn’t appear so. Benbrook spent the time placing an opinion piece in the New England Journal of Medicine on GMOs, Herbicides, and Public Health. His piece did little except claim we need more oversight on GMOs, but the oversight he demands is already in place and is being followed. Moreover, he complains that herbicide sales have risen since their first year. The herbicide he complains about, Roundup, is less toxic than table salt. And somehow he missed that everything goes up in sales years after it first hits the market. We sell more iPhones than the first year they were on the market; where’s your outrage about iPhones, Benbrook?
Furthermore, in submitting a piece to the NEJM, one has to submit a form with potential conflicts of interest. Benbrook initially declared no potential conflicts of interest. He later declared some potential conflicts, leaving off the list that he was currently the Chief Scientist at a place called The Organic Center. Must have slipped his mind while he was picking up his paycheck.
But if you’re still not convinced that he’s not looking for money in targeting GMOs, reconsider the email between him and Robyn O’Brien. A lobbyist and a pseudoscience crank endorsed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr and Dr. Bob Sears (two of the anti-vaccine doctors of the apocalypse), O’Brien is quite excited about prices going up on non-GMO products. It’s disturbing that they celebrate this privately because, reading this post on O’Brien’s facebook page, that’s the exact opposite of what she tells her 89k followers. Sure sounds like they’re in this for the money.
The rabbit hole goes deeper. Benbrook has acted as an expert witness in court, claiming that there are no studies demonstrating the safety of GE food. One has to remember that his degrees are in economics, so maybe he didn’t lie in court; maybe he didn’t understand big words like “safety” or “testing.” GMO crops are tested more thoroughly for safety before hitting market than conventionally grown crops, down through the very last gene, so it’s incredible that he’s gotten away with saying this in court. And as Will Saletan demonstrated in this widely applauded piece for Slate, the alleged case against the safety of GMOs is an atrocity filled with scientific inaccuracies.
It’s telling of Lipton’s integrity, intelligence, or ability to research that he chose to focus on a scientist with a diverted $25k grant.
“We were fortunate to pick a media window after the crash of the Malaysian Airlines jet.”
After the NYT article was released, a complete and damning picture developed when the FOIA request for all of Benbrook’s emails was released. The request, issued by Stephan Neidenbach of the GMO FAQ Blog, made clear why they constantly accused everyone in the conventional food industry of shady tactics. They’d employed every single one of those tactics themselves, to much more extreme extents.
An attachment to the email titled “Now Task” outlines the full plan of the M2M program.
In making the move of Dr. Benbrook’s research program from The Organic Center (TOC) to Washington State University (WSU), the hope was that:
- The M2M program would be more successful than TOC in publishing research results and reports in respected, peer-reviewed journals.
Translation: If we fund this and make it look like he’s doing research at WSU, people will be more likely to believe it.
- Media interest and willingness to cover scientific findings would be increased when coming from M2M/WSU, in contrast to The Organic Center.
Translation: We cannot buy this press for our shitty little Organic Center, but we can at a University.
- M2M would be better able to attract talented staff and collaborators, to broader the scope of work underway.
Translation: For some strange reason no respectable scientist will work at The Organic Center, but maybe if we pretend this is a WSU operation they’ll work there.
- A program within a major land grant university would be more successful in seeking and winning competitively awarded grant funds from the USDA and other government agencies.
Translation: We want government money and they won’t give it to a place called The Organic Center for some reason.
Without any uncertainty, it demonstrates that Benbrook’s research at WSU with funding solely from the organic industry was to get more respectability for his cause. Furthermore, their constant attempt to put their small pieces of research into the media were shameless, as is demonstrated from the same email:
“TOC’s Jessica Shade and other OTA staff members also helped support and expand the media outreach effort. We were fortunate to pick a media window after the crash of the Malaysian Airlines jet and before the invasion of Gaza by the Israel army. The coverage was, frankly, off the charts…”
So glad that people dying didn’t infringe on your press coverage.
Lipton: “I don’t know the answer.”
“I’m a lobbying reporter, I write about corporations trying to move agendas in Washington,” Lipton said on NPR after the article started making waves. Whether or not there are agendas at play with each of these corporations, if you hand this story to a reporter whose job it is to write about it, he’ll see an agenda.
“The organic industry has funded a non-profit group which has gone around and asked for email correspondence between professors who are known with the biotech groups, and the biotech companies,” he continued in the NPR interview. “One of those groups they came to me and said we’ve started to collect a lot of these emails, would you like to see them? I said sure, I’d love to see them.” Who slipped this lobbying reporter the information?
The group is undoubtedly US Right To Know, the only group who has been issuing FOIA requests to this group of professors. The sole funder of USRTK is the Organic Consumer’s Association, and they’re targeting professors who work at public universities and write about science for the public. Gary Ruskin, head of USRTK, has found a way to search and seize private thoughts without a warrant. He’s weaponized FOIA, and is using a New York Times reporter to sell the public on his agenda.
The motive is simple; disparage biotechnology at any cost. Because when you make lifesaving technology indistinguishable from magic, lives are maimed, and good scientists pay the price.
This week Dr. Folta’s office was broken into. They didn’t find anything damning enough in the FOIA requests it seems, so they broke into the office and tried to take files off his computer. To every journalist who covered this story and couldn’t be bothered to do their due diligence on the organic industry, this is on you. The months of harassment that Kevin Folta’s department, family, and students received? This is on Eric Lipton, Brooke Borel, Vani Hari, and the rest of their ilk for pouring gasoline on a tire fire.
The sad thing is that I’m sure at least Vani Hari is genuinely happy.
Everybody’s encouraged to ask questions, but when they don’t like the answers and resort to constructing false narratives about the scientists in order to discredit the science? They need to be stopped. Dr. Folta and the other scientists who are going to continue to receive these attacks have earned the full scientific community’s support right now. It’s not enough for these people that they don’t want to eat GMOs, they want to stop scientists from working or speaking on GMOs. These are the type of activists who first say that a genetically modified crop needs more testing and when they get near the facilities? They burn the test fields. Because fire is the appropriate treatment for something you only understand as dangerous magic.
If, as I have come to understand, Lipton was aware of both halves of the emails uncovered in the FOIA requests and chose to publish only the side of the information depicted in his article, then it’s reasonable to conclude that Lipton’s actions were not in line with that of a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning NYT journalist. Either the incredibly clever Lipton was duped and used as a blunt instrument by USRTK, or it was the writing of a biased hack who sees a conspiracy wherever he can find one to float his brand, scientific accuracy and consumer be damned.
There’s a small village in north east Massachusetts with a penchant for witch trials with some proud traditions being upheld here. As for Lipton, Benbrook, and the members of USRTK? I found monsters here, but some are best left on the cutting room floor.