It's not just toxic seeds and herbicides ... Monsanto's PR practices carry their own toxic load. Photo: Light Brigading via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Monsanto's scientist shill exposed
Claire Robinson / GMWatch
8th September 2015
The 'Kevin Folta affair' has cast the hard light of day into the dubious PR tactics of the GMO industry, writes Claire Robinson - recruiting and paying scientists as secret shills to promulgate a pro-GM message without revealing their funding sources.
I'm glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like ... I'm grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment.
The New York Times has published a fascinating article on the scandal surrounding Monsanto and Kevin Folta, the chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida.
Monsanto executives recruited Dr. Folta, a molecular biologist, in the spring of 2013 after they read a blog post he had written defending the biotech industry.
According to the NYT, Monsanto and its industry partners have "passed out an undisclosed amount in special grants to scientists", including Folta, "to help with 'biotechnology outreach' and to travel around the country to defend genetically modified foods."
Folta was revealed by Freedom of Information requests to have accepted $25,000 from Monsanto, even though he had repeatedly denied having any Monsanto funding.
A damning string of emails, released as a result of the Freedom of Information requests, have been posted online by the New York Times, with a commentary by the NYT editors. Many of the emails are between Kevin Folta and Monsanto or other industry and PR players.
Monsanto's actions in its alliance with the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization are revealed in thousands of emails requested by the nonprofit campaign group US Right to Know, which is funded by the organic foods sector.
'I'm ready to write whatever you like'
The emails show Folta as an eager partner in a cosy relationship with Monsanto. In November 2013 Folta sent an email to employees of the PR firm Ketchum, which runs the pro-GMO website, GMO Answers, for its client, the Council for Biotechnology.
Regarding an upcoming meeting with the rest of the GMO Answers team, Folta wrote: "Tell them I'm a friend of Ketchum". In 2014 Folta wrote to a Monsanto manager: "I'm glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like."
After Monsanto agreed to Folta's funding bid for $25,000 for a pro-GMO communications programme, Folta wrote to a Monsanto executive, "I'm grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment."
Another Monsanto executive called the Folta deal "a great 3rd-party approach to developing the advocacy that we're looking to develop." The 'third party PR technique' is when industry places its messages in the mouths of supposedly independent third parties, such as scientists and doctors, because the public are more likely to trust them.
Folta claimed to be open about funding
Folta has repeatedly claimed that he was open about his funding arrangements. For example, early this year he wrote, "The bottom line is that my university operates under the Sunshine Law. Emails are public information, just like my funding, my salary, my cholesterol levels, and everything else about me."
And in response to online speculation from critics about his funding sources, he wrote: "Hey guys, you know you could just reach out and ask ... always glad to talk about such things. My research has been funded 100% by public sources, except for a small amount we get for strawberry research, mostly molecular marker development that helps our breeding program pyramid flavor-related genes via traditional breeding. No Monsanto."
But while the $25,000 Folta got from Monsanto was for outreach and not research, he was anything but open about it. On page 104 of the newly released emails, you can see Folta apparently trying to hide Monsanto's $25,000 grant so that it is not "publicly noted".
Among his outreach work for the GMO industry, Folta answered questions on GMOs for pro-GMO website GMO Answers. Ketchum, the PR agency that runs the site, provided canned answers for Folta to repeat for the reading public.
Folta had previously said of Ketchum's pre-prepared points in an article published in Nature, "I don't know if I used them, modified them or what ...".
But the email string published by the NYT remedies Folta's memory failure. The NYT's editors note: "Dr. Folta was encouraged to make any changes he wanted, but he largely stuck with the script." Two examples, in which Folta regurgitated Ketchum's responses, are provided.
Finally, it should be noted that while the NYT tries to draw an equivalence between Folta taking money from Monsanto and Dr Charles Benbrook being funded by the organic industry, the two are not comparable.
Benbrook never denied being funded by, or having a relationship with, the organic industry. But Folta repeatedly denied his Monsanto links.
According to the NYT, Folta is "among the most aggressive and prolific biotech proponents, although until his emails were released last month, he had not publicly acknowledged the extent of his ties to Monsanto."
Claire Robinson is an editor at GMWatch.
This article was originally published by GMWatch and contains some additional reporting by The Ecologist.
More: 'GMOs and the puppetmasters of accademia - what the New York Times left out' by Dr Jonathan Latham.
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