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The Puppetmasters of Academia (or What the NY Times Left out)

September 8, 2015 Biotechnology, Commentaries, Science Media 42 Comments

by Jonathan Latham, PhD

“Reading the emails make(s) me want to throw up” tweeted the Food Babe after reading a lengthy series of them posted online by the NY Times on Sept 5th. The emails in question result from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and are posted in the side bars of a front-page article by Times reporter Eric Lipton (“Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show”). The article is highly disturbing, but, as the Food Babe implied, the Times buried the real story. The real scoop was not the perfidy and deceit of a handful of individual professors. Buried in the emails is proof positive of active collusion between the agribusiness and chemical industries, numerous and often prominent academics, PR companies, and key administrators of land grant universities for the purpose of promoting GMOs and pesticides. In particular, nowhere does the Times note that one of the chief colluders was none other than the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

All this is omitted entirely, or buried in hard-to-notice side bars, which are anyway unavailable to print readers. So, here is the article Eric Lipton should have written.

First, The Lipton Story

The Lipton article seems, at first sight, to be impressive reporting. Lipton describes how Kevin Folta, Chair of the Dept. of Horticulture at the University of Florida secretly took expenses and $25,000 of unrestricted money from Monsanto to promote GMO crops. On behalf of the biotech industry, or via the PR firm Ketchum, Folta wrote on websites and attended public events, trainings, lobbying efforts and special missions.

Food Industry Enlisted Academics

Food Industry Enlisted Academics

Parts of this were already known, but Lipton digs up further damning evidence and quotes from Folta. They include an email to Monsanto that solidly contradicts Folta’s previous denials of a relationship with Monsanto and the biotech industry: “I am grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment,” Folta wrote after receiving the $25,000 check, thereby showing both a clear understanding of his role and the purpose of the money. The article goes on to similarly expose Bruce Chassy (Prof Emeritus, University of Illinois) and David Shaw (Mississippi State University). It also discussses, presumably for “balance”, agronomist and GMO critic Charles Benbrook, then at Washington State University, who unlike the others openly acknowledged his funding.

What Lipton Missed

But readers of the emails can find facts that are much more damaging to perceptions of academic independence than that contained in the main article.  For one thing, the money Folta received is insignificant besides the tens of millions his university was taking from Syngenta (>$10million), Monsanto(>$1million), Pioneer (>$10million), and BASF (>$1million). Money that it’s hard to believe did not have a role in protecting Kevin Folta as he roamed zealously (and often offensively) over the internet, via his twitter account, blog, podcast, and OpEds, squelching dissent and ridiculing GMO critics wherever he went.

Also missing from the main Times article is a sense of the extensive and intricate networking of a small army of academics furthering the interests of Monsanto and other parts of the chemical, agribusiness and biotech industries. Folta rarely acted alone. His networks are filled with economists, molecular biologists, plant pathologists, development specialists, and agronomists, many of them much more celebrated than Kevin Folta, but all of them in a knowing loop with industry and the PR firms. Their job was acknowledged openly in emails (“We are all bad-ass shills for the truth. It’s a pleasure shilling with you.” Or, as Folta himself put it: “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.”). More generally, the group’s role was to initiate academic publications and other articles and to firefight legislative, media and scientific threats to the GMO and pesticide industries, all the while keeping their industry links hidden.

The academics identified by these emails as cooperating with industry and PR firms include:

Profs. Bruce Chassy (University of Illinois) and Alan McHughen (University of California, Riverside) who worked together to destroy the credibility of Russian scientist and GMO critic Irina Ermakova. They persuaded the journal Nature Biotechnology to interview Ermakova about her research and describe it. This interview was followed by a detailed critique of her research (about which none of the authors were expert). Ermakova was neither told of the critique nor given a chance to answer it. This whole elaborate subterfuge required her to be sent a dummy proof of the article she thought she was publishing in the journal.

Prof. Calestuous Juma (Harvard University) longtime advocate of GMOs for Africa.

Prof. Wayne Parrott (University of Georgia) a serial intervener in academic GMO debates.

Prof. Roger Beachy (Danforth Center, formerly USAID). Beachy is the principal living exponent of a classic biotech strategy: to respond rapidly to a report or publication critical of some aspect of the technology with a multi-author “rebuttal” [Disclaimer: the inaugural report of the Bioscience Resource Project (on the genome damage caused by genetic engineering) was met, even before formal publication, with both barrels from 23 professors, including Roger Beachy (Altpeter et al 2005)].(2)

Prof. Ron Herring (Cornell) who has helped to promote GMOs in India and fought to defuse the farmer suicide debate in India.

Prof. CS Prakash (Tuskegee University) is the convener of the influential listserv AgBioWorld. AgBioWorld was the all-important conduit for a petition signed by three thousand scientists calling for the retraction of a 2001 scientific paper showing GMO contamination of Mexican corn (Quist and Chapela 2001). As detailed in an article called The Fake Persuaders, the scientists who initiated the petition, and made inaccurate and inflammatory statements about the authors, were not real people. However, their emails could be traced back to servers belonging to Monsanto or Bivings, a PR company that was working with Monsanto at the time.

Prof. Nina Fedoroff (Penn State) is the most prominent of all of the scientists looped into all of the Times emails. Nina Fedoroff was the 2011-2012 President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS is the foremost scientific body in the US. During her Presidency, Fedoroff, who is also a contributor to the NY Times, used her position to coordinate and sign a letter on behalf of 60 prominent scientists. This letter was sent to EPA as part of an effort to defeat a pesticide regulatory effort. The real coordinator was Monsanto but Fedoroff participated in phone conferences and email exchanges with them (including with the prominent lobbyist Stanley Abramson) and gets credit in the emails for “moving the ball far down the field”. Yet Nina Fedoroff is not once named in the main article and nowhere at all is her position noted.

So the story that academia’s most vocal GMO defenders, and some of its most prominent scientists, are copied into these emails is missing. The focus on individuals like Folta occludes a demonstration, for the first time ever, of long-suspected and intricate coordination and cooperation among them.

Also looped in to various of the emails are supposedly independent individuals and organisations who speak in favour of biotechnology, self-reportedly out of personal passion. These include Dr Steve Savage, Karl Haro von Mogel of Biofortified, Mischa Popoff (of the Heartland Institute) and Jon Entine (then affiliated with George Mason University and now head of the Genetic Literacy Project and a Forbes Magazine columnist). All are revealed, by the emails but not the article, as biotech insiders.

Cooperation among academics is not a crime. But these emails show, as in the EPA letter example, that a company (usually Monsanto, but also Dow and Syngenta and a PR firm, often several of them, plus sometimes the biotech lobbyists BIO or CropLife America) were invariably looped in to these emails, and further, that initiatives usually began with one of these non-academic entities, and were shepherded by them. Only rarely is there even a suggestion from the emails that the various academics were out in front, though that was always the intended impression of the result.

But perhaps the biggest of all revelations within these emails is the connivance of senior university administrators, especially at Cornell University. The NY Times article focuses on the misdeeds of Mississippi State University Vice President David Shaw. But, looped into one email string, along with the PR firm Ketchum and Jon Entine are various Cornell email addresses and names. These are ignored by Lipton, but the email addresses belong to very senior members of the Cornell administration. They include Ronnie Coffman (Director of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Science) and Sarah Evanega Davidson (now director of the Gates-funded Cornell Alliance for Science).

The Alliance for Science is a PR project and international training center for academics and others who want to work with the biotech industry to promote GMOs. It is funded ($5.6 million) by the Gates Foundation. Its upcoming program of speakers at Cornell for September include Tamar Haspel (Washington Post reporter), Amy Harmon (New York Times reporter) and Prof. Dan Kahan (Yale Law School). These speakers are the exact ones mentioned in a proposal worked out between Kevin Folta and Monsanto in a series of email exchanges intended to enhance biotech outreach. These email exchanges also propose setting up “Ask Me Anything” events to be held at universities around the country with Kevin Folta as of the panelists.

On Sept 10th the Cornell Alliance for Science is hosting an event in downtown Ithaca (home town of Cornell). It is called “Ask Me Anything About GMOs” and Kevin Folta is a panelist. Somehow or other Davidson’s Cornell Alliance for Science read Monsanto’s lips, perfectly.

Your right to know

Let me speculate at what is really going on behind the scenes of Lipton’s article.

Earlier this year, a newly-formed US group called US Right to Know (USRTK) set in motion Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests directed at 14 (now 43) prominent public university scientists it suspected of working with (and being paid by) the biotech industry and/or its PR intermediaries. Now, if these 43 academics had nothing to hide, this request would not have attracted much attention and hardly any emails would have been forthcoming. However, the USRTK FOIA requests triggered a huge outcry in various quarters about the “harassment” of public scientists. The outcry has led to OpEds in the LA Times and the controversial removal of scientific blog posts defending USRTK, and much else besides, as reputedly tens of thousands of emails (from these FOIA requests) have landed on the desks of USRTK.

What would a good PR company recommend to its clients in such a situation? In order to preempt the likely upcoming firestorm, it might recommend that various media outlets run ahead of USRTK to publish a version of events in which academic small-fry like Kevin Folta, Bruce Chassy and David Shaw (of Mississippi State) are the villains. Making them the fall guys lets others off the hook: high-profile scientists like Nina Fedoroff and Roger Beachy; the pro-biotech academic community in general; and prestigious Ivy League institutions like Cornell University.

These much bigger fish are who the NY Times should have harpooned. Since they did not, or perhaps would not, let us hope that USRTK will make better use of those emails, ideally by posting all of them online.

Footnotes

(1) Others Professors cc’d into emails include : Peter Davies (Cornell), Carl Pray (Rutgers), Tony Shelton (Cornell), Peter Phillips (University of Saskatchewan), Prabhu Pingali (Cornell), Elizabeth Earle (Cornell), Peter Hobbs (Cornell), Janice Thies (Cornell) and Ann Grodzins Gold (Syracuse), Martina Newell-McGloughlin (UC Davis).
(2) Later published as  A. K. Wilson, J. R. Latham and R. A. Steinbrecher (2006) Transformation-induced Mutations in Transgenic Plants: Analysis and Biosafety Implications. Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews  23: 209-237

References

Altpeter F. et al (2005) Particle bombardment and the genetic enhancement of crops: myths and realities. Molecular Breeding 15: 305–327.
David Quist and Ignacio H. Chapela (2001) Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico. Nature 414: 541-543

Currently there are "42 comments" on this Article:

  1. I also thought the original article tried to muddy the water, by stating organic food groups were as guilty lobbying politicians. Despite the fact organic food groups do not have the financial clout of the likes of Monsanto, Bayer, Dow and Syngenta.

    • Mischa Popoff says:

      When three-quarters of all organic food is imported from countries like China, and a whopping 43% of it tests positive for prohibited pesticide residue, it’s pretty clear that the organic industry is nothing but a glorified lobbying effort.

  2. You imply in this article that I have been influenced in some way by Monsanto. To the contrary, I have never taken any money from any GMO corporation, and am, in fact, highly critical of companies like Monsanto that have given up innovating in the field of biotechnology, and which are in the business of consolidating their monopolies. Please get your facts straight.

    • Ken says:

      Popoff is a well know Big-GMO shill who works for Heartland Institute – the same back alley folks who shill for Big Tobacco and Big Fossil.
      https://www.heartland.org/mischa-popoff

      • Mischa Popoff says:

        I do not work for Heartland. I am a volunteer, and proudly so.

        • Ken says:

          Yeah yeah sure you do…..

        • Christine says:

          you lie Mr. Popoff… Who is Mischa Popoff?

          June 14th, 2011
          Reigniting Organic Attack by Corporate Agribusiness Interests

          CORNUCOPIA, WIS: When The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, officially launched in April 2004, one of its primary issue areas was what it referred to as “The Corporate Attack on Organic Agriculture.” At the time, Cornucopia’s focus was on the father and son team of Dennis and Alex Avery at the ultra-conservative Hudson Institute’s campaign to discredit organics. Now, in 2011, after seven years of successfully exposing the genesis of Hudson’s ire, and greatly diminishing its effectiveness, a new generation of “Trojan horse” naysayers has emerged.

          The latest attacks come from Mischa Popoff, a Canadian who purports to be an advocate for organics and is publicizing his self-published book entitled Is It Organic? The author misses few opportunities to impugn the integrity of the organic label, or USDA oversight, while simultaneously defending biotechnology and the industrial agriculture system that organics seeks to replace……http://www.cornucopia.org/2011/06/who-is-mischa-popoff/

          • Mischa Popoff says:

            If I lied, where’s the evidence I’m being paid to say what I say?

            And while we’re on the subject, where’s the evidence that I’m not pro-organic as well as pro-GMO?

    • Russ says:

      Also a climate change denier, even to the point of berating other pro-GM activists for not being firm on this.

      http://news.heartland.org/editorial/2015/04/07/huge-split-pro-gmo-community

      Of course he’s right, climate change denial goes logically with pro-GM activism, since both involve systematic lying on behalf of the corporate cartels. And sure enough, that’s how it always is in practice in spite of the “hypothetical” media attempts to equate AGW denial with GMO criticism.

      • Mischa Popoff says:

        I don’t deny that the climate is changing. I deny the charge that farmers are contributing to global warming simply by using modern mechanical equipment.

        • Russ says:

          On the contrary, industrial agriculture is the worst GHG emitter and by far the worst destroyer of carbon sinks.

          https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5102-food-sovereignty-5-steps-to-cool-the-planet-and-feed-its-people

          • Mischa Popoff says:

            So, basically, you would have people believe that by being MORE efficient, modern farmers are destroying the environment?

            Modern, large-scale, min-till GMO farming releases uses far less fossil fuel per-acre and per-bushel of food than small-scale, “organic” farming. The smaller your tractor and harvester, the more fuel you’ll use to produce food; it’s that simple.

            Meanwhile, going all the way back to using horses cuts land-use efficiency by more than half, and results in more GHG emissions… an order of magnitude more.

          • Russ says:

            Typical. Nothing but lies.

            Even system agronomists admit that industrial agriculture, which of course doesn’t seek to produce food at all but commodities, is the least efficient from any point of view but that of commodification itself.

            BTW the USDA itself admits chemical no-till is a fraud.

  3. TS2015 says:

    Great piece and horrifying — but unsurprising — news.
    Those of us in the anti-GMO trenches have long known that we are up against an army of shills and sockpuppets.
    We’re currently losing the PR battle but hopefully the truth will prevail eventually.

  4. Jonathan,

    I have to admit that I find your conspiracy theory quite comical. So Kevin Folta was told to ‘be a fall guy’ to protect these high-profile individuals you (for no other reason than your gut feeling) suspect are part of some grand plot to… I’m not really sure what you think they are plotting to do at this point. Now you’ve got to grapple with the fact that in order for your “NY Times is protecting the real puppetmasters” argument to work,then GM Watch, Gary Ruskin, and by extension, you must be in on it as well. I thought I saw you in the back of the smoke-filled room at the Shilluminati headquarters in Barad-Dur.

    You have an impressive ability to read into things that aren’t there. I suppose by now you have noticed that Mischa Popoff is spamming your comment section – much as he spams the inbox of just about everyone who he feels like. For the past year and a half, it has been non-stop blocking new email addresses of his and telling him to go away, as he spams hundreds of people at a time. His presence in Kevin Folta’s email stream is exactly that – the result of his relentless email spamming. Yet, you quite clumsily identify this as proof that he is a “biotech insider” which means you really don’t know what you are talking about.

    Similarly, you claim I’m a “biotech insider” with the same flimsy logic. Alas, I am not an industry insider, because if I was I would be telling these companies not to do some of the silly things they have been doing.

    Thanks for taking the attention off of Kevin for a day, and for being a part of the Monsauron Shrillbucks program. Your time spent contriving this awesome conspiracy will be well rewarded! Don’t forget to send enter your hours at the Black Gate on your way home.

    • Mischa Popoff says:

      Karl my friend… is the academic world really so sacrosanct that I can’t send emails to you and Kevin Folta?

      I grew up on an organic grain farm and worked for 5 years as a USDA-organic inspector. I now work as a consultant and public speaker in defense of modern, science-based farming. When academics are no longer willing to hear from people on the front line, they lose touch with reality.

      A sensible first step: stop blocking me from commenting on your Biofortified website.

      • Russ, you appear to have me confused with Mischa.

        • Wow, ok, the threaded replies on this site appear to be broken. My reply to Russ was meant to go under his comment, not Mischa’s. Which means that he was probably not replying to mine but to Mischa’s as well.

          • Russ says:

            No, I was replying to you. I want to know if you agree with endorsement of Moore by Montagu and Potrykus , or do you disavow him?

          • Russ says:

            Because you implied that Popoff is somehow disreputable compared to other pro-GM activists. But he looks perfectly typical to me.

      • Mischa, you know why you are banned, and you continue to lie about those circumstances. Thank you for continuing to demonstrate through your willful obtuseness why you are both continually blocked from the civil discussions on our site, and how Jonathan Latham is again wrong about how finding an email from someone makes them a nefarious ‘biotech insider.’

      • Steve Olsen says:

        If you are a Shill for modern science based farming, then why are we not discussing Elaine Ingham’s methods? She has the highest yield in several states and crops with low or no fertilizers or chemicals, using a simple microscope. would this not be the most modern method which increases yields without the use of chemicals and fertilizers? her approaches are 100% sustainable, result in the best yields, use the least inputs, and the plants have the highest nutrition.

  5. Jonathan,

    You have an impressive ability to read into things that aren’t there. I suppose by now you have noticed that Mischa Popoff is spamming your comment section – much as he spams the inbox of just about everyone who he feels like. For the past year and a half, it has been non-stop blocking new email addresses of his and telling him to go away, as he spams hundreds of people at a time. His presence in Kevin Folta’s email stream is exactly that – the result of his relentless email spamming. Yet, you take this as proof that he is a “biotech insider” which means you really don’t know what you are talking about.

    Similarly, you claim I’m a “biotech insider” with the same flimsy logic. Alas, I am not an industry insider, because if I was I would be telling these companies not to do some of the silly things they have been doing.

    • Russ says:

      Denying you have an ideological affinity with Heartland and climate change denial, are you? What about Montagu and Potrykus officially endorsing Patrick Moore?

      http://www.freedomofresearch.org/article/2014-10-15-120000/patrick-moore-ambassador-expo-2015

      Are they bottom-feeders as well?

      • Hi Russ,

        I’ve got nothing to to with the Heartland Institute, their climate change denial is repugnant, and I have criticized Moore for the same thing on twitter. I do not support nor agree with Moore and his tactics or climate denial. He and I may agree about the beneficial potential of Golden Rice, but it pretty much stops there.

        Try not to confuse having a positive opinion of certain applications of genetic engineering with climate denial. Would it be right for me to assume that you are anti-vaccine? Think about that before you whip out the tar and feathers.

        • Mischa Popoff says:

          But Karl, who are you to decide what’s “repugnant”? Isn’t Patrick Moore entitled to his beliefs on the human role in climate change? Aren’t we all?

          Surely you’re not God… are you?

        • Russ says:

          And why do you consider climate change denial “repugnant”? Since you claim to have faith in the long-debunked golden rice hoax, not to mention the pure junk science which makes up genetic engineering ideology, your objection to climate change denial can’t be based on any lack of truth value. All varieties of technology idolator and intellectual property mystic are religious zealots, not rationalists, and demonstrably none of you care the slightest bit about the actual truth or falsity of a word you say.

          So even if climate change denial isn’t part of your religious beliefs, surely you must see it as a sincere, well-meant viewpoint. Surely you don’t claim that climate change deniers are merely ExxonMobil shills. After all, that’s exactly what you deny in the case of Folta and the rest of your ilk, that paid or not you’re nothing but Monsanto operatives. On the contrary, you claim your idolatry of a particular technology is purely idealistic. So what do you think is the idealistic basis of climate change denial, which motivates Popoff, Moore, Owen Patterson, Matt Ridley, Montagu and Potrykus and the long list of signers of their petition, just to name a few of the many pro-GM activists who are also climate change deniers?

  6. tal says:

    “”I am living proof of what happens when biotech buys a university. The first thing that goes is independent research. The university is a delicate organism. When its mission and orientation are compromised, it dies. Corporate biotechnology is killing this university.” – Ignacio Chapela

    http://theava.com/04/0218-chapela.html

  7. Steve Johnston says:

    The monarch butterfly migration to Canada from Mexico and back is almost surely doomed by the use of GMO’s and Roundup, which has decimated the only plants on which Monarchs lay their eggs (milkweeds).

    • Mischa Popoff says:

      If that’s true, why don’t anti-GMO organic activists go out and plant mile-long strips of milkweed all up-and-down the Monarch butterfly’s migratory path? Wouldn’t that be easier than trying to ban a field of science?

      And while we’re on the topic, just how much milkweed grew naturally across the mid-West before settlers arrived? I’ve seen virgin prairie, and there’s nothing but grass and stunted shrubs for as far as the eye can see. Let’s face it, there’s probably MORE milkweed growing across America now than before Europeans arrived and started farming.

      • Wes Weinhold says:

        There is now a program to get farmers to plant milkweed because of the continued expansion of barren mono-crop acreage across the Midwest. Even if there were less total milkweed, there were more frequent patches of milkweed as opposed to miles and miles of corn and soybeans.
        And in fact we can eat weeds. Milkweed, lambsquarter, ragweed, burdock and many other “weeds’ are edible and nutritious – many of them imported to this country as food plants by early settlers.

  8. Phoebe says:

    Jonathan Lantham: Thank you for this excellent report. May I add that there are numerous Phd scientists who oppose GMO agriculture, who also met with FDA and/or USDA officials about Enlist Duo — whose factual presentation was utterly ignored. They deserve our praise, and people need to ear their story. In particular, I suggest you interview Dr. David Mortenson, professor of weed ecology in the venerated Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

  9. Nancy Price says:

    After reading the above article, I’d like to point out that Prof. Roger Beachy is now the director the new World Food Center at the University of California, Davis. Just google and explore the agenda, particularly the Science Literacy Project to take programs into the K-12 classroom and also educate the public, since those of us who question GMOs are either under-educated or not educated about the need for and benefits of biotechnology and GMOS.

    UCDavis researchers and grad student receive funding from Monsanto, Mars Inc, and the Gates Foundation. UC Davis is the only university with the G8 countries that is part of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa. Just google and find excellent articles about this project to transform Africa’s diverse peasant agriculture via land-grabbing into GMO mono-crops, criminalizing seed saving and with high input pesticides and herbicides. Many of these crops are for export, not to feed local people.

    ‘There are questions here about the role of a land grant university, the transformation of the well-regarded sustainable ag program at the university and co-opting the the concept of “sustainable,” and the fundamental principle of open discussion, when the university depends on Monsanto funding and as a financial and program partner, Monsanto does not practice these principles. What influence does the corporate funding have on open, transparent, critical discussion and debate that are the fundamental principles of academy.

  10. Steve Olsen says:

    Thanks for unmasking the feeble minded scientists who provide science fiction for profit. The University system is now completely suspect due to these bad apples. Those pushing biotech are some of the most dangerous people on the planet. They are unashamed and will not admit the mistakes of the past with Showa denko’s Tryptophan, Klebsiella planticola, numerous failed products and experiments. Even with the best products the only consistency of GMO is it’s unintended consequences. Considering the possible permutations and combinations in a constantly changing gene, how can anything be guaranteed? Maybe it can never be trusted, and this is their ONLY response to keep it going as long as possible, by trying to justify the unjustifiable? If so then it should all be banned!

    The failure of these companies to find the contaminated genetic defects for years or even decades also casts a large shadow on the industry. It is easier for them to shout down dissent than go out and do the hard work to really investigate and improve the science. If the science of GMO was really improved and safety studies were performed and they worked to better mankind, rather than the pockets of a few corporations, then maybe it would not have to be backed by tobacco science minions.

    We need to answer this basic theory, if the genetic structure is constantly changing and the genetic combinations and permutations are far too complex, and unintended consequences are to be expected no matter how good our science, then this technology needs to be banned entirely. It seems as if this is the case, and that they are desperate to keep the money flowing until we find out?

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