After receiving a FOIA request from US Right to Know—a nonprofit dedicated to exposing “the failures of the corporate food system“—the University of Florida notified Folta, a food and agricultural science professor at the university, that he would have to turn over all of his e-mails relating to correspondence with 14 different firms involved in agribusiness. His options: Submit all of his emails and allow lawyers to sift through them independently, or spend hours doing it himself alongside legal counsel.
The request is a response to public arguments by Folta that genetically modified foods are safe. Folta compares the strength of the scientific consensus on GM safety to the consensus on climate change and vaccines, and US Right to Know—or USRTK—believes the food and agricultural industries may be pressuring Folta and other scientists into voicing such arguments.
On January 28, US Right to Know sent out a FOIA request targeting 14 scientists at four universities, including Folta, requesting that they all turn over their email correspondence with industry representatives. Gary Ruskin, the executive director of USRTK, says the move is essential for uncovering the food industry’s efforts to manipulate scientists into advancing pro-genetically-modified propaganda.
“The agri-chemical industry has spent $100 million dollars in a massive public relations campaign,” he tells WIRED. “The public has the right to know the dynamics.” The implication is that the scientists are working too closely with businesses who support genetically modified, or GM, foods.
Legal teams at the universities—Nebraska, University of Florida, UC Davis, and the University of Illinois—are currently evaluating the situation, but some scientists have already spoken out against the FOIA request. Although all of the targeted academics feel the requests are an unwarranted invasion of their privacy, many tell WIRED they are happy to comply with the requests, adamant that they and their colleagues have nothing to hide.
“I’m just a teacher, trying to distill a controversial literature for the general public,” Folta says of his stance on genetically modified foods. “I turned over everything [requested by the FOIAs] immediately.” He insists his job is to communicate that science to the public, no matter what kind of intimidation he might face. He has published extensive blog posts about the FOIA requests, some with examples of his e-mails to food industry businesses.
The situation is part of a long and heated battle over the future of GMOs. But there’s much more at stake than just food safety. For some, this FOIA request—which echoes a high-profile FOIA made amidst the even more heated debate over climate change—represents a serious threat to academic freedom as well as the right to privacy.
“Open records requests are increasingly being used to harass and intimidate scientists and other academic researchers, or to disrupt and delay their work,” reads a 2015 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Academic institutions and other involved parties need to be prepared to respond to these requests in a way that protects the privacy and academic freedom of researchers while complying with the law and respecting the public’s right to information.”
Prominent scientific organizations agree with Folta on GMOs. “Every…respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion,” reads a 2012 statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”
The World Health Organizations website includes a similar statement, last updated in 2014: “The GM products that are currently on the international market have all passed safety assessments conducted by national authorities.” And a Pew Research Center study showed that 89 percent of scientists believe that GMO foods are safe—compared to 88 percent consensus on human-caused global warming.
This is in stark contrast to the general public, only 37 percent of whom believe that GM foods are safe. And various activist groups, including USRTK, believe that organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science may have fallen victim to a massive and well-orchestrated industry PR campaign.
Ruskin, USRTK’s executive director, spearheaded California’s failed Proposition 37 for the mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. And he’s the author of a recent report, Seedy Business: What Big Food Is Hiding With Its Slick PR Campaign on GMOs, which accuses some of the targeted scientists of being “untrustworthy” and “shills.”
When journalist Keith Kloor wrote about the USRTK’s FOIA request at Science Insider, Ruskin asserted that the scientists had been selected for FOIA requests due to their involvement with GMO Answers, an industry sponsored website that posts answers to public questions about the safety of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.
After it was pointed out that some of the scientists had no involvement with GMO Answers, Ruskin apologized for the error and stated that some scientists had also been targeted for making public statements against California Proposition 37.
He and other activists claim that industry-tainted scientists unfairly harass researchers who publish studies questioning the safety of GMOs. As a result, there is no room for unbiased dialogue about the safety of GMOs in the sphere of academia.
“It’s sad that it’s come to this,” says Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union. “But I find it interesting that when the side that’s attacked is trying to use the same tactics, they cry foul.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group, decried the FOIA requests in one of the first comments made on the issue by an independent organization.
“These requests to the genetic engineering researchers, just like other overly broad open records requests that seek excessive access to scientists’ inboxes, are inappropriate,” reads a February 20 statement. “We know such politically or ideologically motivated attacks can have chilling effects on researchers and confuse the public about the state of the science.”
Scientists targeted by the FOIAs insist that no harassment is occurring, and offer a different explanation for hostility to research that has suggested GMOs are unsafe.
“It’s just bad science,” says Bruce Chassy, former head of the University of Illinois’s food science department, who is also the target of a FOIA, referring to work that purportedly shows the dangers of GMO foods. “I’m an outspoken critic of bad science, and in my point of view, the anti-GMO movement is a showcase of bad science.” (His university has rejected the request since Chassy is emeritus.)
Chassy points out that it was part of his job, and the job of all food scientists, to build bridges between universities and industry. To smear anyone who works with industry, he says, would be to relegate research to the ivory tower and cut higher education off from important funding sources.
“As a department head I have not always been sure about the proper relationship between a university and industry,” he says. “That’s an important discussion to have, rationally and publicly. But these requests are not about rational dialogue. They are destructive, unethical, and immoral. They are looking for words to twist and take out of context.”
USRTK’s request is the latest in a long list of controversial FOIA requests. As Ruskin points out, a Greenpeace FOIA request just uncovered industry funding of a prominent climate-change denier at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This, Ruskin argues, is the same kind of collusion he wants to uncover with his own request.
Chassy tells WIRED the comparison is ridiculous. “When someone is saying things that are against the scientific consensus, then you ask yourself: ‘What’s going on here?’” he says. “But when people are producing work in line with the scientific consensus there’s no reason to go on a witch hunt.”
He and other academics, as well as the Union of Concerned Scientists, say that a more valid comparison is with the FOIA request made of former U-Va climate scientist Michael Mann in 2011. The request was initiated by a Republican congressional delegate and the American Tradition Partnership, a conservative advocacy group. Scientists and academics widely viewed the request as motivated by the desire to intimidate Mann and suppress good science, and they applauded the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision to reject the request.
Dialogue over GM foods is highly polarizing and emotional, making rational evaluation of the current situation extremely challenging. At this point, it is essential that scientists, academics, and policy-makers unconnected with the agri-chemical industry examine the relevant information—all of which is available online—and state their conclusions clearly and publicly. The status of the debate over GMOs, and nothing less than the future of academic freedom, depends on what they have to say.