GMO MAKERS, THEIR PUPPETS IN ACADEMIA, AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

Monsanto et al. Mislead Public Using Every Trick in the Book

GMO scarecrow in cornfield. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gareth Williams / Flickr, David Prasad / Flickr

With a debate raging over whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe, it seems reasonable that people would look toward the media, academia and scientists for answers. But major biotech companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Dow know this, too, and seem to be engaged in an effort to rig the results.

GMOs are produced by recombinant DNA technology. How it works sounds like science fiction, or something out of a horror movie. Imagine: Genes from an insecticide are inserted into the genome of the corn plant, thus producing a crop that resists insects. The insecticide is made from the protein of a bacteria closely related to anthrax, and it works by making the guts of the insect explode.

Critics, such as the Center for Food Safety, say that GMOs are insufficiently tested and may be dangerous. There are high-profile campaigns in three Western states to label GMOs as such, so that consumers can know what they are buying and eating. At the same time, food businesses have been scrambling to ban, or remove, the warning labels.

Are GMOs dangerous? For answers to such questions, we normally turn to reputable scientists associated with reputable universities. Surely we can trust them to give us objective information. Or can we? It turns out that biotech heavyweights like Monsanto, Bayer et al have been paying reputable people from reputable institutions to swing the debate in their favor.

A treasure trove of emails — obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by a US non-profit and acquired by The New York Times —reveals that academia is infested with professors who are paid to vigorously promote GMOs on behalf of the biotech industry, which also includes trade associations such as CropLife America.

And some academics have even sabotaged the efforts of others to publish facts that contradict the claims of these professorial shills for GMOs.

“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.”

But to learn how deep the problem goes, you would need to find the links to those emails, and dig through layer upon layer of them.

Of course, if you don’t have time for that, you always can rely on The New York Times to give you the low-down on Big Food’s propaganda efforts. Or can you? The Times — whose motto is “All The News That’s Fit to Print” — has published a curiously tame and seriously incomplete version of what is buried in those emails.

“FIT TO PRINT”

On the front page of the September 6 copy of The New York Times, appears “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Show”, by Eric Lipton. The emails themselves are presented in the electronic version of the paper in a sidebar.

1At first sight, the Lipton article is impressive. He exposes a number of individuals from various institutions, but focuses mainly on Kevin Folta — Chair of the Department of Horticulture at the University of Florida.

Folta secretly took expenses, and $25,000 of unrestricted money, from Monsanto to promote GMO crops. And Lipton reports a damning quote showing Folta’s close relationship with Monsanto, something he had previously denied:

“I am grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment,” Folta wrote after receiving the $25,000 check.

Lipton also mentions Folta’s participation, with other academics, in a website run by the biotech industry, GMO Answers. A PR firm hired by the industry provided questions from the public, such as, “Do GMOs cause cancer?”

But, as Lipton reports, Ketchum, the PR firm, did more than provide the questions — it also provided answers which Folta used nearly verbatim.

NO SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT?

In the scientific community, none of this was exactly news. The basic facts had already been revealed in a leading scientific journal, Nature, by Keith Kloor, who also had access to the emails.

It is odd that this was first reported by Kloor, a pro-biotech journalist who works for a pro-biotech publisher. Or perhaps not so odd, given that Kloor went on to state that the emails “do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Folta” — even after Folta was on record as denying he had received any biotech funding.

Not disclosing such funding is definitely considered scientific misconduct. So why did Kloor rush to exonerate him?

Was Kloor’s story a pre-emptive strike to defuse the issue of wider biotech corruption of academia? Was Lipton’s?

DAMAGE CONTROL?

The damning emails originally came to light earlier this year, when a newly-formed activist 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. These academics were suspected of working with (and being paid by) the biotech industry and/or its PR intermediaries. (The emails released via FOIA — reputedly totalling in the tens of thousands — are the source of Kloor’s and Lipton’s highly selective reporting.)

One might think that if these 43 scientists had nothing to hide, such a request would have generated little attention outside academia.

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