In what may be the weirdest GMO news of 2015, a new report documents how Kevin Folta, a University of Florida professor recently exposed for having undisclosed ties to the biotechnology industry, has been running a pro-GMO podcast under an assumed identity.
Guests and listeners alike were deceived by the ruse, according to the story. Most bizarrely, Folta even interviewed himself, employing two different voices and identities, addressing at one point whether he had financial ties to the biotechnology industry. His version conflicts sharply with that of The New York Times, which documented how Folta had been collaborating with Monsanto on a $25,000 GMO advocacy campaign and had attached his name as the author to pro-GMO materials written by the biotechnology industry.
Even some of Folta’s peers are now shaking their heads. Among the scientists and science advocates that Folta interviewed on his podcast, one guest called his use of a fraudulent identity “surprising and unsettling.”
The writer of this expose, Brooke Borel, is by no means a critic of GMOs. Her previous work includes reporting sourced with quotes from well-known pro-GMO academics, many with industry ties that Borel does not disclose. Largely or entirely missing from her reporting are the voices of GMO critics, including the hundreds of expert scientists who have long noted that there are many unresolved safety issues with GMOs. Even her new article exposing Folta’s questionable behavior, though very thoughtful at times, openly defends Folta’s pro-GMO ideology, which she erroneously says reflects a scientific “mainstream” on the safety of GMOs and their importance in feeding the world.
To me, that raises an equally important, unstated narrative: Borel’s examination of Folta’s “entanglement” with industry, and her discussion of how “industry’s influence has become increasingly difficult for scientists to navigate,” also clearly applies to journalists, who are being aggressively courted by industry and its academic foot soldiers.
Borel notes she first met Folta at a small, “mostly pro-GMO” biotechnology conference where she was recruited to speak. One source indicates that sponsors or organizers were the Genetic Literacy Project, Academics Review and the University of Florida—pro-GMO entities whose names bubbled up in the Times’ report on industry influence in academia. Borel later disclosed that a funder of the event was the main biotech trade association, the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Another noteworthy point: The goals of the conference Borel attended seem very similar to those found in a $25,000 grant Folta secured from Monsanto, which included recruiting science journalists as participants in a series of workshops about GMOs.
Borel recently penned an article that acknowledges potential for conflicts of interest when science journalists take industry money. She explains at some length her decision to accept industry money for travel and lodging to conferences, like she did for the one involving Folta, but to decline speaking fees. This may differ from Washington Post writer Tamar Haspel, who frequently writes about GMOs and recently acknowledged she frequently takes paid speaking and moderating gigs--but did not disclose who pays her or how much money she receives.
For all the ethical rationalizations some science writers make to justify their participation in industry-backed GMO events, there is a big blind spot. You don’t hear them discussing the appropriate level of financial engagement with GMO critics. That’s because GMO critics don’t have anywhere near the resources as the biotechnology industry, which spends untold sums of money wooing journalists, lobbying Congress, and funding academic research.
Does the biotech industry’s unparalleled financial influence have an impact on GMO research? Clearly. What about on science writing? That’s difficult to document. To be sure, the varying ethical roadmaps that science writers employ as they engage with industry do not inspire confidence. It brings to mind the comments from an ethics researcher that Borel quotes: “The academic may still feel they are being true to themselves…And sometimes it’s very hard for them to realize when it has really crossed the line.”