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.