On transparency, intimidation, and being called a shill

A while back, a group of scientists involved in research or communication about various aspects of biotechnology (GMOs) were the subjects of freedom of information requests. Keith Kloor, who broke the story in Science, also posted one of the letters sent to the University of Illinois. The request asks for all emails in the last 2+ years between the scientists and a long list of companies. Gary Ruskin, an activist funded by the Organic Consumers Association, is making these requests while suggesting the targeted university scientists “have been appropriated into the industry PR machine” and are “front[ing] for private corporations.”

These types of sweeping information requests of academics are often used as an intimidation technique; if scientists think every email they send on a topic may be scrutinized to find negative sounding information, they may be less likely to speak out on controversial topics. Or worse, they may stop pursuing that particular line of research or communication altogether. Even for someone who has nothing to hide, the public release of all of one’s correspondence can seem pretty intimidating. Just think about how you would feel if a team of lawyers went reading through all of your email from the last 2 years, with the intent to make public anything that might seem unflattering (especially if taken out of context). Keith Kloor wrote in an update to the FOI story at Nature News:

And that investigation, which began in February, has just started to yield documents. These include roughly 4,600 pages of e-mails and other records from Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a well-known advocate of GM organisms. The records, which the university gave to US Right to Know last month, do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Folta. But they do reveal his close ties to the agriculture giant Monsanto, of St Louis, Missouri, and other biotechnology-industry interests.

In Kloor’s first article on this FOI request, he explained how these broad requests can be used to silence researchers:

USRTK says its requests are designed to promote transparency in a controversial research arena. But some researchers worry they will also have a chilling effect on academic freedom. “Your first inclination … is to stop talking about the subject.” Van Eenennaam says.

I’m in full agreement with Dr. Van Eenennaam. Even though I’m not a target of the FOI request, I’ve become a little apprehensive to continue to write publicly about this topic. I was asked to consider another post for the GMO Answers website a while ago, and dragged my feet for almost a month deciding whether I wanted to continue answering questions on this topic. I have working relationships with many of the companies on the FOI request list (like Monsanto and DuPont). I also have friends and former students who work for these companies. I’ve never tried to hide any of that, but it is uncomfortable for me to think about every word I’ve written to them being scrutinized to find some little nugget that could sound damaging when taken out of context. I don’t want to become a target. And the easiest way to avoid this scrutiny, I suppose, would be to just shut up.

But I’ve realized over the last few weeks that instead of being silent, perhaps this is a good opportunity to explain a little bit about my relationships with the organizations who fund my weed science program. There’s nothing nefarious going on. And this is, understandably, a common question people have. Am I part of the “industry PR machine” or a “front for private corporations” as Gary Ruskin claims? Does the fact that “Big Ag” funds part of my applied research program have the potential to bias the research I do or influence my opinions? Am I a “shill” for the GMO or pesticide industry? Over the next week or so, I will be posting some thoughts on these issues. I hope you’ll keep reading.

Next: Who funds my weed science program?

Comments

  1. Well Andrew I would certainly be interested in the answer to your last question, ‘Am I a shill…?’ It looks like it to me considering you have a lot of education (maybe funded by ‘Big Ag and/or ‘Big Pest’). And you teach at a college that must be funded in part by the same. It looks to me (after perusing your articles) that there isn’t a pesticide or herbicide that you don’t love. But I am most interested in your opinions regarding GMOs and their lack of labeling.
    This is what I know: I became gluten intolerant in 1995.
    I also know that in the beginning of my career as a special needs teacher I had an autistic student once every three or four years but by the end of my career I had three or four autistic students EVERY year. Here is what I found that shows the rate skyrocketing after birth year 1995: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
    And isn’t it interesting that the same thing happened with diabetes after 1995:
    http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics/prev/national/figage.htm
    And I could go on. But this is what I’d like you to address: Why is Big Corporate afraid to label? It is utter nonsense about the cost being too high and every other argument they have. The American public has a right to know.
    Thank you

    1. Debra-Lou. Periodically, I’ve had pretty unpleasant experiences defending scientific findings in controversial topics, including climate change and GMO crops. Normally I don’t even engage in discussions like this. However, your questions seem sincere, so I am moved to provide a brief answer, with an invitation to call me sometime. I might prefer a more human interaction. You can find my email address in the University of Kentucky directory. Email me and we can set up a time.

      You have asked about two complex topics. Re: autism, I think scientists are scrambling to understand the increase. Scientists want to be careful to identify the true causes of such things. If you look at the increased consumption of organic food over time, you might conclude that that is the true cause of autism. I really don’t think it is, but this is the danger of trying to distinguish causes from spurious correlations. If autism were clearly due to GMOs, I would immediately and forevermore stop all programming on GMOs, except to inform people of these new findings. However, I see a wealth of robust data showing safety of GMO crops, and frankly, our diet is absolutely *full* of recombinant DNA made by Nature herself. Please reread the previous sentence, because it is a huge and important fact. We can talk more by phone. Also, take a look at https://kentuckypestnews.wordpress.com/2015/03/31/consumption-of-genetically-engineered-gmo-crops-examples-of-quotes-from-position-papers-of-scientific-organizations/. Scientists are really being thorough on this issue. We have kids too, and friends, and family, and consciences, and morals.

      If we label, I am in favor of a federal label, but I have to get back to my regular responsibilities, so we can talk by phone on this too.

      Before departing, it occurs to me to ask, why do I even bother with this, since I have no funding stream related to GMO crops? Why do I stick my head up, knowing I could suffer a lot of unpleasantness? While recognizing the legitimate risks of GMO crops, I see a huge potential for GE technologies to improve human lives and to enhance food security and nutrition while reducing the impact of food production on the environment. It isn’t just about herbicide tolerance. There are many, many emerging GE traits that will really help producers of all scales, and help humans in so many ways. GE isn’t the only tool to address agricultural challenges, but why throw away any good tool, given the challenges we face? The possibility of so many foregone benefits really scares me. That is why I do this.

      With respect,
      Paul Vincelli
      University of Kentucky

      1. Thanks for your comment. I read your vitae and as you have much more education on the subject I can’t argue the finer points. I can only go by my own research and experience. I do know that hybridization is different from GMO and has been naturally occurring forever. So here’s a good question: Did you ever here about gluten intolerance before 1995? I had never even heard of it, have no family history of it. So why, since 1995, has this issue been growing and growing and growing?
        My basic point through all of this, because I don’t believe that near enough research has been done, is this: Let’s label GMO foods. Don’t we have a right to know? And this is what makes me so angry, because the people who fund your work are also the people who pour millions and millions of dollars into fighting the labeling. You said you had no funding stream, but I mean Big Ag in general and Monsanto et al.
        And as to why you even bother…I think it’s because you are an intelligent human being and we humans are very curious. If we can all reason together we can solve problems. I sincerely hope so.
        And thank you for your invitation to extend this conversation.
        Debra-Lou

        1. Hi Debra-Lou, perhaps you didn’t see my earlier question, but I’ll ask again since it applies to your comment here as well. Twice now you’ve mentioned your gluten intolerance. Can you explain to us why you bring that up in a conversation about GMOs? There is no GMO wheat, so how is it relevant?

          1. The GMO tomato was the first to be introduced in 1994-5 and then an avalanche of other foods followed. Since I had no digestive complaints before this time, and literally had never heard of gluten intolerance, I was completely bewildered for years. Why was I, and now literally millions of people, gluten intolerant? My research shows me much of it is the GMOs in our food stream…since 94-95. Is that just a coincidence? And then I recently learned about Bt plants. Yikes.
            To maintain my health I have to eat organic as much as possible, so I’m lucky organic is available.

            1. Thanks for replying. I must admit I’m still rather confused.

              Which GMO do you think causes your gluten intolerance? As there is no GMO wheat, it’s very confusing to me. Are you saying there are GMO crops that have gluten? Please help us understand why you’re making this connection.

              I would gently suggest that reading on the internet can be rather misleading. Certain things have come to your attention, and you put 2 + 2 together, but wouldn’t you like to know if your conclusion is actually true? After all, correlations can lead us to thinking all sorts of things – here’s an example https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/autism-organic2.jpg

              You mentioned being concerned about Bt. As you try to eat organic as much as possible, are you concerned about the Bt insecticide that is commonly used on organic crops?

            2. “Did you ever here about gluten intolerance before 1995?”

              Although the ancient Romans described the symptoms of celiac disease, its actual connection with gluten was not discovered until after the second world war. Until the 1990s the US medical profession was trained to treat gluten intolerance as a disorder of extremely low incidence and the only reliable diagnostic test was to take a sample of bowel lining. Since that time, simple to administer blood tests and increased awareness from the medical profession has uncovered a wide-spread problem with gluten sensitivity.

              My abstinence from gluten since the late 1990s has been life-changing for me, and in my case I can list a number of symptoms and signs going back to the early 1960s which were eliminated by avoiding it. If the “GMO tomato was the first to be introduced in 1994-5 and then an avalanche of other foods followed” then I do not see how GMO products could have any relation to the 30 or so years of issues I dealt with prior to 1994.

              We should both celebrate the fact that we live in a time where gluten intolerance is finally understood and where we and our children can easily recognize the issue and plot strategies for living our lives to the fullest.

        2. HI Debra-Lou –

          As everyone else has, I thank you for engaging in this conversation in a respectful and honest way. My thoughts below are directed specifically at your labeling thoughts.

          First, given that you currently appear to buy organic, and you also have the opportunity to use the voluntary ‘Non-GMO Certified’ label, why do you think a mandatory label is necessary? GMO-sourced ingredients are specifically excluded for food labeled in either way, so, you can avoid GMOs if you wish – and so can anyone else.

          As to why we shouldn’t label, I would note that: 1) mandatory labels are not simple to implement (e.g., defining the threshold of GMO ingredients for getting the GMO label, and then approved testing for that has to be established) and 2) mandatory labels add cost & hassle (e.g., GMO vs non-GMO products will have to be sorted, stored, tracked differentially). Furthermore, adding a label that only says ‘GMO’ would provide little useful information, given that genetically engineered (GE) crops are associated with many different traits – some herbicide tolerant, some insect resistant, some disease resistant, some ‘biofortified’. For example, the new Innate potato has no connection to Roundup or Bt – it has no gene from another species – ” it merely reduces the action of two potato genes that (among other things) promote browning and bruising .” A consumer who sees ‘GMO’ on such a potato is likely to be misled into thinking it has something to do with herbicides or Bt…

          It seems to me that there is some bar where a label has to convey useful information to the consumer, otherwise a mandatory imposition is unreasonable. We use scientific approaches to assess safety as the primary such bar. At this time, the clear consensus of scientific studies strongly supports the contention that GMOs are NOT less safe than conventional crops – http://tinyurl.com/nbvdqjr. Furthermore, as I noted above, folks who really wish to can avoid GE ingredients NOW – choose organic or the voluntary non-GMO label – easy! No need to go through all the hassle that mandatory labeling would involve.

          As to why industry fights against mandatory labeling, a simple thought experiment can provide insight, I think. Imagine a couple of comparisons, wherein there is a demand for mandatory, specialized labeling of organic produce. Labels could be proposed based on fears that have some grounding in actual observations: 1) an outbreak of E. coli contamination in Germany originated at an organic farm (22 dead, thousands sick), likely due to using manure as fertilizer – http://tinyurl.com/6l3xjzb Can someone demand a “Manure-fertilized” label on all such organic produce? 2) Copper sulfate is used as a pesticide in organic farming – e.g. http://tinyurl.com/qg7dm7v . It is also potentially toxic to other organisms, and it could be a meaningful water pollutant – http://tinyurl.com/p6kzcgp . Can someone demand a “Copper sulfate treated” label? I strongly suspect that the organic food industry would be against such labels, and would use financial resources to try to defeat legislation imposing such labels.

          Thank you for continuing this conversation with an open mind. I hope my answer provides some useful information to you.

    2. Hi Debra-Lou, can I ask why you mentioned your gluten intolerance? How is that related to the topic of GMOs?

    3. Ms. Hoffman:

      Though you seem to be sincerely concerned, I’m not sure I understand your leading assumption that someone who has a lot of education and teaches at the college level on a complex subject is automatically a “shill.”

      Here is one definition of the word “an accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice or encourage others.”

      Large companies selling expensive products to other companies are quite motivated to make sure those products both work and are safe. They depend on the work of a lot of smart, well educated people to help them accomplish that task. They are not “hawkers” in the sense of selling snake oil to unsuspecting people. They certainly are not gamblers or swindlers.

      While there are occasionally highly publicized examples of companies selling lousy products, considering the number of products in the market and transactions that occur on a daily basis, there is far more reason to trust than to distrust.

      College professors generally deserve respect, not automatic condemnation simply because they are educated and employed. If you have specific evidence of malfeasance, that is another story, but please check your premises.

      Rod Adams
      Publisher, Atomic Insights

      1. It was his word, not mine. But I agree with you about respect. It is important to have it for everyone we meet, not just college professors.
        As to trust, no, I lost my trust in corporate America. I think many of them have lost their way. They don’t care about my health.
        Debra-Lou

  2. I expect that any of us who work with industry representatives have a relationship with them, meaning we know more that just packets of seed, data sets, and final reports, but also know them as people. If the attacks are on that level that we “know” company representatives, then we are all guilty. My question then is, where are they going to get that work done?

  3. Hello Debra-Lou, What education and academic qualifications do you have in epidemiology and genetics?

  4. Andrew, well put. The sad part is the assumption of working in coordination with companies makes you part of a “PR machine”. Your article is spot on.

    Here’s the flip side. As FOIAs now make us all change the way we use email (one colleague said he answers email in one of three ways, “yes, no, or call me”), it also changes the way others interact with us. People are hesitant to make scientific inquiries because they don’t want their words, or a cherry-picked statement, blasted across the internet.

    That severely changes the dynamics of public interaction, one of the most important parts of my job.

    And the damn phone does not stop ringing when it used to never start.

    I’m not changing a thing. I’m doing what’s right and telling the truth, and if they lift my words from context then I’ll deal with it then. But I’m a an exception. I cannot see why anyone would ever want to go through what I’m going through right now, and if I had the chance to put all of this away, skip the public interaction, and just focus on my lab’s work, I probably would do that. That’s sad, because it means abandoning a public discussion on an important technology.

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