A watchdog group alleges that five UC Davis researchers were paid to shill for GMOs
Those who do some web research about genetically modified foods may happen across an industry promotional website called GMO Answers. Here, respected—and presumably unbiased—experts provide answers to frequently asked questions about genetically modified foods. The answers almost invariably downplay public concerns about genetic engineering’s potential threats to human and ecological health.
Five UC Davis researchers have contributed to the website, which is funded by Monsanto, Syngenta and other biotechnology companies.
Gary Ruskin wants to know why the professors are doing what he calls “public relations work for a very controversial industry.”
“Why is that an appropriate role for taxpayer-paid professors?” said Ruskin, the executive director of U.S. Right to Know, an Oakland-based watchdog group. “Why is that ethical? Those professors are supposed to work for us, not for some private corporations. We pay their salaries.”
Ruskin wonders if the researchers are receiving any financial incentives to write for GMO Answers, or if they’re receiving specific directions from website editors on how to answer questions posed by readers of GMO Answers.
The researchers, who corresponded with SN&R via email, said that they aren’t—that they’re contributing to GMO Answers voluntarily and without undisclosed incentives, reimbursement or editorial advice from the website’s editors.
But Ruskin says he isn’t convinced. To learn more about the professors’ relations with the biotech industry, he filed a series of California Public Records Act requests about a year-and-a-half ago. Specifically, Ruskin wanted to see email and letter correspondences between six employees of the university and more than a dozen companies and agencies associated with genetically modified foods, including Monsanto and the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
He’s still waiting. UC Davis, he says, has responded to only one request—and that one pertained to the soda industry, not the biotech industry, which is Ruskin’s chief interest.
The five UC Davis employees who have written for GMO Answers are Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal genomics specialist; Kent Bradford, a professor of plant sciences; Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the university’s international biotechnology program; Denneal Jamison-McClung, a doctor of genetics and biotechnology; and professor of plant pathology Neal Van Alfen.
Van Alfen, for one, told SN&R he believes in genetic engineering as a valuable tool in food production—and one not well understood by the public. His objective in writing for GMO Answers, he explained, is simply to educate the public.
“There are some justified environmental concerns about the use of [agricultural biotechnology] under some circumstances, but the fears of health risks often used by those opposed to GMOs are totally unfounded by any credible research data,” Van Alfen said.
Bradford objects to Ruskin’s allegation that he and his colleagues are doing publicity work for the biotech industry. He said he is “a scientist who respects the value of facts and data.” If he happens to agree with a corporation on a particular point, he said, “that is not a conspiracy.”
“When our findings and analyses align with those of the biotech industry, that does not mean that we are doing their public relations work,” he explained. “We are simply fulfilling our responsibility as public scientists and academics to report reality as we see it.”
Van Eenennaam also defended her contributions to GMO Answers. In fact, far from seeing her contributions to the website as creating a conflict of interest, she feels doing so is part of her duty.
“I routinely answer questions about my research area,” she said. “That is part of my job—to provide evidence-based information to the public.”
But Ruskin’s other records requests, filed with numerous universities and institutions around the world, have turned up information that seems to legitimize his suspicions that academics and policy makers are deep in the pockets of biotech corporations. For instance, a recent United Nations report that deemed the key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed-killing spray Roundup to be safe for human use may have been influenced by cash contributions from the biotechnology industry. In May, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization stated in a report that glyphosate, Roundup’s main active ingredient, is probably not carcinogenic to humans. It was a conclusion that could potentially be a huge financial boon to Monsanto.
But for the controversial genetic engineering giant, the United Nations’ conclusion may have been too good to be true. Emails acquired through Right to Know’s records request showed that Monsanto donated $500,000 in 2012 to an organization led by two of the scientists who helped make the determination on glyphosate. A biotech industry group donated another half-million dollars to the same scientists—a total of a million bucks, which could be interpreted as a bribe.
The records also showed that a number of distinguished professors appear to have been secretly hired as biotech industry advocates. These revelations led to exposés in major newspapers, sheepish apologies from shamed academics at Harvard University, Washington State University and other institutions, and overall less reason to trust the companies that genetically modify our food.
For instance, it was discovered that Kevin Folta, chairman of the University of Florida’s horticultural sciences department, had received financial assistance from Monsanto, which submitted a grant to an agricultural communications program at Folta’s university. Folta used the money to travel and teach students about principles of biotechnology. Folta has also contributed to the GMO Answers website. But Folta didn’t simply write his own answers to questions submitted by readers. In some cases, he was provided with answers by the company hosting the website, and Folta published them after minor editing. He told SNR that the answers have since been entirely rewritten from scratch.’
After the media caught wind of the travel support and editorial consulting Folta received from the biotech industry, Folta told The New York Times last September that he would donate the grant money he received to a food pantry. That same article described how Folta, and others similarly supported by biotech firms, “devised strategy on how to block state efforts to mandate G.M.O. labeling.”
These findings seem to lend some legitimacy to Ruskin’s pursuit of UC Davis’ internal email records.
But Van Eenennaam doesn’t think so. In a lengthy post, titled “[Freedom of Information Act] Attacks Get Personal,” published last September on the web journal Science 2.0, she firmly defended Folta as a colleague and friend who “deeply … cares about science.” Van Eenennaam alleged that the media had grossly overstated and misinterpreted the significance of Folta’s association with the biotechnology industry.
Since January 28, 2015, U.S. Right to Know has filed 17 records requests with UC Davis. In a response letter to Ruskin dated February 20, 2015, UC Davis’ information practices analyst Michele McCuen said the university would send Ruskin the requested documents by April 20 of that year.
But it didn’t. While most other universities that Ruskin contacted complied with similar requests by promptly furnishing thousands of pages of emails for each one, according to Ruskin, UC Davis turned over just 751 pages of emails.
“And there was very little of substance,” he said. “The [UC] professors had to be talking to GMO Answers somehow. It’s possible they were all talking exclusively by phone, but that seems very unlikely.”
On August 18, U.S. Right to Know filed a lawsuit in Yolo Superior Court against the Regents of the University of California. The suit demands the requested documents as well as reimbursement for the cost of the litigation.
Kimberly Hale, a UC Davis spokeswoman, says Ruskin’s records requests are complex. That, she says, is the only reason that 18 months have passed with Ruskin’s organization waiting to see the requested email exchanges.
“We have been working diligently to produce records in response to the multiple requests USRTK has submitted on a regular basis over the past year,” Hale told SN&R via email.
Ruskin also requested communications between a long list of biotech firms and industry groups and Jon Entine, a senior fellow at UC Davis’ World Food Center. Much of Entine’s work and research has focused on biotechnology, and U.S. Right to Know’s website alleges “he is actually a longtime public relations operative with deep ties to the chemical industry.” For example, Entine founded ESG MediaMetrics, a communications firm that has done public relations work for Monsanto.
Bradford says his work for GMO Answers was conducted on a voluntary basis. He describes it as “part of my role as a public sector scientist.”
“I occasionally get questions from [GMO Answers] asking whether I can write a response,” Bradford explained in an email. “If I have time, I compose a short response and send it back. I do not recall ever getting suggestions from them about what my response should be, nor any follow up from them afterward suggesting any changes.”
Van Alfen said much the same thing.
Still, Ruskin suspects serious conflicts of interest could be at play.
“It looks awful for UC Davis to refuse to comply with the request,” Ruskin said. “Why would they? Why would they refuse for so long? What collusion and cooperation with the agrichemical industry are they hiding?”
Editor’s note This story has been updated for clarification, based on new information provided by one of its sources.