Privacy anyone? Anti-GMO activists target Big Food’s science by pillaging emails of academic researchers thought friendly to industry

A group of activists “working to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know” is targeting university scientists who they suspect are paid shills for Big Food because their work buttresses industry claims that food made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is safe.

The organization, Oakland, Calif.-based U.S. Right to Know, has been using open records laws to ferret out correspondence, especially emails, in which scientists at public universities who have done research or talked publicly about GMO safety were in touch with industry representatives.

Right to Know scored with Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida, who had been on the speaking circuit defending the safety of GMOs. Folta had denied receiving industry money, but the activists determined, from the three years of emails he turned over to them, that he had gotten $25,000 from Monsanto, the agrichemical giant that is a leading GMO market force.

For his part, Folta says he never pocketed the money, and used it to cover travel costs for speeches and lobbying trips that he regards as the legitimate public extension of his work as a scientist. But he was sufficiently chastened to turn over $25,000 to a local food bank, and became the prime exhibit in a Sunday New York Times takeout titled “Food Industry Enlists Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Show.”

My interest in this affair, and in the handling of the 43 scientists whose emails the activists want, has to do with privacy, not food safety. If anything, I am a GMO skeptic, not because I know much about growing food but because I spent years covering business, and believe if Big Food is anything like its cousins it will insist its products are perfectly fine up until the third generation of babies are born with horns, and will admit otherwise only when it has lucrative horn-reduction remedies to sell, when it will say it had been working tirelessly on the problem all along.

So I’m glad to see industry assurances challenged, and the work of those who support it scrutinized rigorously.

But I’m dismayed by the cavalier way in which the privacy claims of these scientists are being dismissed.

First, conflict of interest is invoked. I buy that. It’s not even remotely ethical for scientists to conceal financial sponsorships that might induce them to skew their research.

But enforcing that shouldn’t require email sweeps. Universities generally have rules that require faculty to disclose all payments from outside entities. If Folta skirted similar rules in Florida, it’s an argument for toughening them or strengthening their enforcement—not for sweeping up years of correspondence. What’s next, demanding phone records?

Then there’s the argument that the scientists’ emails don’t really belong to them anyway, because they work for state universities. “If the public pays your salary, citizens have the right—within limits—to see what you’re doing,” as a Los Angeles Times op-ed argues.  After all, the scientists are public employees, no different from legislators or agency bureaucrats.

Now, this is an important and, in my view, pernicious doctrine. This argument was raised vigorously in 2011 in Wisconsin and Michigan, when union-busting activists tried to force state university academics to turn over emails that activists hoped would expose their pro-labor militancy.

That public records argument has support from journalists and other First Amendment zealots, but on closer examination, it’s problematic. Who’s next, high school teachers? Kevin Folta was operating as a horticulturalist, not an agent of public policy. What might it mean to “hold him accountable” as a government employee?

Besides, his employer—like other state universities—gets less and less money from the “public;” UF now relies on Florida taxpayers for a miserly 16 percent of its budget.

If it’s the public’s investment that deserves protection, then why not consider the immense taxpayer subsidy handed to the cream of the country’s elite private universities, which dwarfs state university support once the writeoffs that enable rich people to bloat private school endowments are computed.

Focusing on the spurious “public” character of state university researchers means anti-GMO activists aren’t demanding emails from Yale or Stanford, whose scientists’ role in the controversy may, as far as we know, be even more influential—and no less corruptible.

And there’s a final, perhaps more insidious, dimension to this. The scientists whose emails are being sought aren’t alone in having to talk to, and sometimes placate, strongly opinionated partisans. Journalists do that too. That’s their job. And journalists would, and often do, adamantly refuse to disclose records of their conversations with sources.

There’s a powerful, if ironic, logic to that. It’s thanks to an expectation of privacy that people talk most freely. The same journalists who clamor for scientists to give up records of online conversations would be shocked by any suggestion that they relinquish emails they exchanged with people who sought to influence them.

There are less intrusive ways to learn whether scientists are being corrupted and their research can be trusted, and those are the ones that reformers should use. Annihilating their privacy may yield some payoff, but not without powerfully destructive consequences.


3 thoughts on “Privacy anyone? Anti-GMO activists target Big Food’s science by pillaging emails of academic researchers thought friendly to industry

  1. UC Berkeley had a professor who was fired due to the close relationship of the Syngenta biotech company with that campus. Fortunately, a major effort was made by those who care about the food supply, and at least he was reinstated. But the general flow of so-called academics at universities is that they know where their bread is buttered!

    The main trait trying to be achieved through recombinant DNA modification of a crop is “herbicide tolerance” (for 80-85% of g.m. crops globally) — meaning spray even unlimited amounts of toxic herbicides (including directly on the plant) and it will still grow (unless weeds grow resistant — in which case many farmers use the more powerful and toxic 2,4-D). These so-called “scientists” have sold their souls, could care less about consumers or the environment, and not only deserve their e-mails exposed widely, but likely should be detained in, shall we say, “public housing” with no opportunity to leave!

  2. Thanks for this article, it’s one of the better ones I’ve read on this topic. It raises important issues, but I do have a few quibbles:

    1) You state Folta was “chastened” into turning money over to local food bank. He has stated the university decided to use money for a campus program to provide food for low-income students because he was receiving threats to himself, his lab and his family.

    2) You state that Folta’s work is being “scrutinized rigorously.” USRTK has made no statements challenging the quality or objectivity of Folta’s research, which is his primary job. His research is an area that is of little interest to Monsanto.

    3) You state “conflict of interest” is invoked and link to a journalism website. COI in the academic context has a different and specific legal meaning. According to U of Florida’s attorneys, Folta has not violated any COI regulations.

    4) You use the word “conceal” in a way that isn’t accurate or fair. The $25K from Monsanto was technically and “unrestricted gift.” The gift was recorded in the university accounting system and most likely could have been found via a public records request (I’m not sure how U of F regulations differ from other institutions). Universities have an incentive to make sure gifts are recorded, because they usually get a cut as a processing fee.

    5) You state that U of F gets about 16 percent of it’s budget from public sources. That sounds about right. At UC Berkeley, where I work, it’s even less than that. While it’s true that universities have turned to private sources (and federal research grants) to make up the difference, ever since their founding in the 1860s, the mission of public land grant universities has been to interact with industry.

    There is plenty of useful work that could be done to trace what sort of research big ag funds at public research institutions. This information is part of the public record. On the other hand, FOIA requests for emails are a blunt instruments at best, and at worst are attempts to intimidate and silence.

  3. I really appreciate that you write about and consider these issues. I wish more people were paying attention. The irony of journalists asking for records of conversations is really too rich.

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