Why Did Anti-GMO Group Target Certain University Academics?

By Keith Kloor | February 13, 2015 1:31 pm

In the current issue of Science, I report that a dozen university academics recently received freedom of information requests from a non-profit group opposed to genetically modified (GM) products. Why were these 12 scientists selected? In my piece, I write:

The group, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) of Oakland, California, says it has no vendetta. It has targeted only researchers who have written articles posted on GMO Answers, a website backed by food and biotechnology firms, and work in states with laws that require public institutions to share many internal documents on request, says Executive Director Gary Ruskin. USRTK is interested in documenting links between universities and business, he says, and is “especially looking to learn how these faculty members have been appropriated into the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.”

A statement issued by Ruskin after my piece appeared reiterates what he told me in an interview. The headline of his press release: “US Right to Know FOIAs Profs Who Wrote For GMO PR Website”

But this, I have since learned, is not accurate. It turns out that a number of the professors–including four of the six researchers targeted at the University of California, Davis–have had no connection with the GMO Answers website.

I mentioned this to Ruskin via email today, and he quickly wrote back:  “You are correct and I am sorry. My fault.”

I asked him why he chose those four researchers, if they had nothing to do with the website. He responded with links to two articles (here and here) that show some of the UC Davis academics speaking out and writing on California’s 2012 GMO labeling proposition. (It was defeated.)

Shortly after my story was published, some biotech scientists expressed free speech concerns. At the Biofortified site, Karl Haro von Mogel, a research geneticist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, writes that

these FOIA requests risk violating academic freedom and have a silencing effect on scientist-communicators who fear becoming political targets.

Michael Phillips, a scientist at the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics, in Barcelona, Spain, airs similar concerns at his plant biology blog. He writes:

The [freedom of information] requests were filed by the group US Right to Know (USRTK) allegedly to investigate possible improper dealings between public research scientists and private industry partners. I say “allegedly” because this particular group has a history of anti-GMO activism and appears to be motivated by a strict ideology that is not evidence-based. They are also motivated by a desire to embarrass public scientists and disrupt their work. That arouses suspicions this new approach might just be an exploitation of a legal resource to harass and derail scientists doing legitimate research that certain individuals feel ideologically opposed to due to their personal worldview. This seems even more likely considering the scientists who are the subjects of these requests are all outspoken supporters of biotechnology who have engaged with the public to defend and promote the usefulness of this technology.

There are more angles to this story to explore, including the background of the PR agency that oversees the GMO Answers website. But at this moment in time, numerous public sector biotech researchers are feeling as embattled as some of their high profile colleagues in the climate science community.

UPDATE: The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report today called, “Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information are Intended to Harass Researchers.” Puneet Kollipara at Science magazine has the story.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized
ADVERTISEMENT
  • vogateer

    Why doesn’t Ruskin’s organization reciprocate and make all of their email available to the rest of the world?

    I’d like to see the links between USRTK and businesses, and see how they’ve been appropriated into the PR machine for the Organic industry.

  • mem_somerville

    That piece from Spain is terrific. I didn’t know that they were required to have an industry partner.

    I hope angles are explored on the PR groups associated with this organic industry activism. I mean, we already know they hire troofers and anti-vaxxers, but one wonders what else goes on.

    EDIT: I mean, troofers aren’t Putin, of course. But Putin banned GMOs, so can he be all bad to team organic? I don’t get it.

  • plantgeneticist

    test

  • realheadline

    “..these FOIA requests risk violating academic freedom and have a silencing effect on scientist-communicators who fear becoming political targets.”

    Do these tactics sound familiar? Wrong political targets?

  • Anonymous

    Interestingly enough, none of the ethical questions are brought up in this article. Just the fact that genetic scientists fear for their reputations because they have unnaturally altered the genetic landscape of planet earth. What piece of property are genetic scientists not allowed to alter on planet earth? Are all cells up for epigenetic manipulation? . When will genetic “parks” be established? What are 90 days of genetic modification research doing to safety efficiency in the broad applications of epigenetics? Where is the ethical science society on these issues? Does some sort of ethical branches of Science governing need to be established? It seems that scientists get to engineer anything despite side effects and the fda is the only safety check for such experiments to enter the public? So please, wonder why they choose those specific scientists and completely avoid the issue again. I know how scientists sure do love hamster wheels.

    • JH

      ” Just the fact that genetic scientists fear for their reputations because they have unnaturally altered the genetic landscape of planet earth. ”

      Snort!!!! What a friggin’ howl.

      You don’t live in building made of “unnatural” milled lumber or brick?

      You don’t eat food bred through “unnatural” human interference?

      You don’t use a car or a bus or a train? You walk barefoot everywhere?

      Check into reality buffalo bill. There’s nothing natural in your world.

      • Eli Rabett

        Try this, a new organism genetically engineered to need a non-naturally occurring amino acid.

  • Cathy Schmiers

    They wanted to own our genes but luckily the Supreme Court finally wised up and said no.They own patents on seeds which they shouldnt. They want to run and put genes in everything so they can own it. Thats why they put human genes in vegan cheese and cabbage with scorpions.Its all for greed with no oversight for safety. Geneticist David Suzuki, CC, OBC, PhD, LLD: “Any politician or scientist who tells you these products are safe is either very stupid or lying.” From an interview with David Suzuki: “We are performing a massive experiment. The results will only be known after millions of people have been exposed to (GMO foods) for decades…The hazards of these foods are uncertain. In view of our enormous ignorance, the premature application of biotechnology is downright dangerous.”Our government is owned by big business now.It is a revolving door from govt. to business .LET ME REITERATE FROM A GENETICIST PHD; ANY POLITICIAN OR SCIENTIST WHO TELLS YOU THESE PRODUCTS ARE SAFE IS EITHER VERY STUPID OR LYING’. Personally I think both.Its all greed. Any idiot knows that round up weed killer on corn that is itself a pesticide so it can tolerate the round up without dying is a crazy idea who has any sense.Have you ever used round up? It kills everything.Why are all the bees and butterflies dying from GMO crops. They were alive and fine before them.They need to be banned but the people want it labeled.They wont do it because of our corrupt govt.They want to make trees for the paper companies that have low lignen.The lignen makes trees strong.The Sierra Club and others are against it.The trees will fall down easily, break, get diseases .Their wonderful answer is to make the trees sterile.Sierra Club,” The result, then, may be a silent forest, one which doesn’t support chipmunks or snakes at ground level, holds no birdsong in its branches, has no raptors soaring above. Clearly, such a stand of trees is not really a forest. And worse, the damage can’t be confined to private property as trees live for many years and can’t be closely observed; “birth control” among trees is less reliable than among people and even genetic engineering can’t guarantee that a branch won’t decide to manufacture pollen. Pine pollen can blow hundreds of miles on the wind. “. Sound familair? Sound like them destroying life again?Now they want to destroy forests of life and the trees too.What if these wonderful sterile trees that break easily and get diseased spread to Yellowstone etc.? This will make global warming worse.In fact it is inevitable.That crap spreads.They also have birth control, hepatitis etc corn e they grew outside with numerous violations.Russia banned GMOs.They did a study on hamsters and tthey went sterile.France did a study and rats got big tumors.Now they want to silence genes.Two researchers in Australia said that to silence genes is dangerous.They said it could silence our genes.Also why are so many people getting allergies nowadays that used to be uncommon? Maybe that is why they are putting human genes in foods so we wont get allergic to it.”
    Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) has developed a type of genetically modified (GM) wheat that may silence human genes, leading to disastrous health consequences.
    Last year, University of Canterbury Professor Jack Heinemann released results from genetic research he conducted on the wheat, which showed with “no doubt” that molecules created in the wheat, which are intended to silence wheat genes to change its carbohydrate content, may match human genes and potentially silence them.
    University Professor Judy Carman agreed with Heinemann’s analysis, stating inDigital Journal:1
    “If this silences the same gene in us that it silences in the wheat — well, children who are born with this enzyme not working tend to die by the age of about five.”WHY CANT WE HAVE REAL FOOD? WE DONT WANT FRANKENFOOD.It is our right to know what we are eating.Even if you think it is great stuff the BEES AND BUTTERFLIES are telling us differently. Wait until they can destroy the forests.Does anyone care about our environment?

  • Viva La Evolucion

    Are you suggesting that freedom of information is a bad thing? I think that scientists and University academics who correspond with biotech firms or colleagues via email should simply assume that those emails have potential to be forked over upon request at any given time, and not email anything they don’t want others reading. And, the suggestion that complying with request is too time consuming is just lame, considering it is 2015, and any self respecting scientist will have easily accessible online records. The only thing that would be time consuming would be trying to go back and remove certain info, which goes back to first point, don’t email people things you don’t want read by public :-)

    • JH

      “University academics…should simply assume that those emails have potential to be forked over upon request…”

      Pretty much everyone should be operating on this assumption unless they’re using their personal email account for personal matters. Once you use your personal email account for professional matters, it also becomes subject to FOIA.

      ” the suggestion that complying with request is too time consuming is just lame…”

      ?????. FOIA requests take time and are very costly because the party subject to the request still has an obvious right to privacy over matters not related to the subject of the request. Thus culling the supposedly relevant material from non-relevant material could take hundreds or thousands of man-hours. It’s a ridiculous expense.

      FOIA is out of control and should be dramatically curtailed. The cost of preparing info for idiotic requests like the one being made here should not be borne by taxpayers.

      If the info requested is not generally public record, for the request to be granted at public expense the requesting party should be required to demonstrate in court that the request has significant value to the general public. Otherwise, at the very least they should be required to pay for the data that is *relevant to their request* to be compiled by a disinterested third party.

      • Eli Rabett

        Your personal university account is covered, but not a personal gmail/yahoo/hotmail although there are questions about whether if you are using a university computer at the university. If the outgoing email is captured then it can be FOIAed

        • Matthew Slyfield

          I don’t know how it would work for a University, but I recall from the whole Lois Lerner email mess that under the Federal FOIA, if a federal employee is using a private email account for conducting government business (which is itself technically a violation of federal law) the personal email account is subject to FOIA requests.

          • JH

            I suspect any time you try to evade FOIA by using alternate accounts you’re breaking the law./

      • Matthew Slyfield

        “Thus culling the supposedly relevant material from non-relevant material
        could take hundreds or thousands of man-hours. It’s a ridiculous
        expense.”

        Male Bovine Excrement!

        I work in the IT field. If the university were supporting the faculty properly in these matters, their IT department should be able to do 90% of that work in less than 24 man-hours.

        • JH

          ” their IT department should be able to do 90% of that work in less than 24 man-hours.”

          Ha ha ha ha! :) I’d love to have some of your happy drugs.

    • Chris Preston

      It is not trivial to respond. You have to go through all of the e-mails and redact the names of anyone who is not specifically mentioned in the FOIA request.

      Most academics of my acquaintance would send and receive hundreds of e-mails a week, so a request for e-mails over 2 years would mean sorting through 10s of thousands of e-mails, extracting all the relevant ones and redacting details not covered by the request.

      • Matthew Slyfield

        Why do universities leave that to the individual professors rather than having the IT and legal departments handle most of the work?

        The administrators of the email system should be able to set op a key word search that would find all the relevant emails in a couple hours.

        • Chris Preston

          I doubt the University will leave it all to the individual professors, as there legal departments would want to make sure the University’s interests are protected. However, it is likely that processes vary from University to University, but at the very least the researcher will have identify where the e-mails are stored. If their IT department is anything like the one at my University, I would expect the research would also have to find all the individual e-mails.

          If they had used a private e-mail address for any University business, those e-mails would have to be searched as well.

          In any case, someone’s time will have to be used to go through the e-mails to redact information. That will be a cost to the University that will mean it cannot use that money for something more useful.

          • Matthew Slyfield

            If their IT department is running a proper email system, the emails are all on University owned servers controlled by the IT department and well yes, it costs money, but if their IT systems are set up right and run properly, the cost won’t even come within an order of magnitude of what you are suggesting.

            Their regular IT and Legal department budgets should include money set aside for exactly that kind of work.

          • Chris Preston

            Well I can only talk about the University I work in. There is a limited amount of space available for you on the server, so I have to store old e-mails in other places.

            There also needs to be someone who knows what they are doing to do the redactions in each e-mail in order to comply with privacy legislation and IP rules. I wouldn’t trust the IT department to do that.

          • Matthew Slyfield

            “Well I can only talk about the University I work in. There is a limited
            amount of space available for you on the server, so I have to store old
            e-mails in other places.”

            Well, all I can say to that is that whoever is running their IT department is incompetent and they aren’t running a proper email system.

            I spent 16 years working in a corporate IT department. They actually made it impossible for users to keep local archives, if you want an archive it has to be on the email servers. The did that because of the problem local archives create for responding to subpenas for emails.

            Though even when the local archives were allowed, the IT department didn’t really need the local user to individually search the archives because they can remote log in to any PC on the company network.

            “There also needs to be someone who knows what they are doing to do the
            redactions in each e-mail in order to comply with privacy legislation
            and IP rules. I wouldn’t trust the IT department to do that.”

            Of course not, that would be the Legal Department’s job. I wouldn’t trust the professors to know what could and could not be legally redacted.

          • midnight rambler

            Maybe it’s different in the corporate world, but any university email system, and any commercial one like Gmail, uses POP3 which allows users to download messages and then delete them off the server. Since most individual users’ mailboxes had relatively little storage space until just a few years ago, most people would download them in order to avoid filling up their boxes. One of my accounts still only has 200MB of storage and has to be cleaned out periodically.

          • Matthew Slyfield

            A publicly funded university that is subject to a state FOIA (or the federal FOIA for a federally funded university) is exceedingly foolish and I have no sympathy for their cries over how difficult and costly it is to comply because they are responsible for the cost and difficulty, not the FOIA act.

          • midnight rambler

            So you’re saying it’s the fault of publicly-funded universities like the University of Wisconsin for allowing their idiot governors and legislatures to gut their funding to the point where they don’t even have phone lines, let alone working IT departments?

            Honestly, your arguments are so boneheaded that I don’t see the point in arguing with you. You seem to think universities have endless resources available for managing IT and are simply being lazy and irresponsible by not doing it properly, when in fact they’re running deficits just trying to get the basics of education done. State aid for public universities (which don’t have endowments like private ones) has been cut in half over the past 20 years.

          • Matthew Slyfield

            No I don’t think they have endless resources available. However, they need to allocate the resources they do have in such a way that they can meet their legal obligations.

          • JH

            Matthew, with all due respect I think you’re keeping your head in the sand here.

            Application of FOIA “obligations” to science researchers’ emails is new. It stands to reason that universities haven’t allocated funding for it. It doesn’t matter what organization you’re in, you can’t budget for something you don’t know can or will happen or has no precedent whatsoever. Do you agree with that?

            It also stands to reason that protecting the privacy of people not subject to the request is a legal obligation of the university that requires substantial legal consideration, perhaps even on a line-by-line basis, and all of that before we even get to the technical aspects of the communication. Furthermore, the meaning of FOIA is constantly evolving through the judicial process and is different on the state and federal levels, so it requires both national and local legal expertise.

            Upshot: you don’t just type a command into search prompt and voila. It just ain’t like that.
            I *do* have sympathy for *anyone* that’s subject to such a request. Its a massive and extremely onerous undertaking. It’s ridiculously costly and should be stopped.

            And you might note that all the FOIAs filed for climate science produced nothing useful because the targets evaded the requests. Ultimately, it took a hack to bust the relevant information into the public sphere.

          • marque2

            If the phone lines were that important, they would have been kept and something else reduced.

            It is a common trick of government agencies to get rid of the most important things first when confronted with budget cuts, that way they can cry to the public about how they can’t get that service. Remember Obama shutting down all the parks, including unattended parking lots at Mount Vernon – spending more money to actually block them off, then was saved? Putting cones on the STATE highway, so folks couldn’t pull over and see George Washington from the road, Exactly.

            Private industry would have laid off the whiny researcher who can’t spend $60 bucks from his project to get phone service for a month.

          • Scarlet Kleen

            But now universities are starting to use gmail or outlook and these have more than 200MB. Google drive has 15GB. Outlook has 5GB. I guess that’s pretty much for an account one has to use only for academic purposes. Besides, AceWriters account (which isn’t that popular) provides users with 2 GB of storage. So, I doubt university email system admin couldn’t think of some ways to add space to the storage.

          • marque2

            At companies they have policies on the front end like this as well. Delete your data once you get past say 100 megs. However on the back end the IT staff have all the emails backed up and sent to a vault, so they can be retrieved at any time. What you see at the front end, doesn’t match the reality in the rear. For the University not to back up servers which contain documents in the public trust is actually criminal.

      • Viva La Evolucion

        Most email platforms have search functionality, which allows one to search through emails and retrieve all emails that contain requested info. Also, one can easily export those emails into text file and use “find and replace” function to find specific names and replace with x’s or whatever, which solves both the extraction and redaction issues that you brought up.

  • Robert Howd

    “The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government.” (see http://www.foia.gov/). Does it give anyone any right to information on emails or other communications of a university researcher that is not related to any government grant or contract? I can’t see how it could. If the research of a UC Davis researcher is funded by Monsanto, Dow, or Syngenta, it seems to me he or she can tell Ruskin to take a hike.

    • Eli Rabett

      Most states have the equivalent and state universities are covered but there are special exemptions. You have to look at the individual states

  • http://theprogessivecontrarian.wordpress.com/ Bernie Mooney

    It makes not one whit of difference whether a scientist has money making ties to industry. The facts and evidence are what count. A scientist could be living in a mansion paid for by Monsanto and all that matters is, is what he saying true?

  • David Skurnick

    Working in the insurance business, it was drummed into me that in case of a lawsuit, anything could be discoverable. So, one must not write anything in computer or on paper that would be embarrassing if presented in open court. Because of the FOIA, academic scientists will have to learn the same lesson.

  • Tom Scharf

    You can ask the Governor of Oregon why FOI laws exist and how they can be used properly.

    Attributing malice to everyone who opposes you is quite tiring. The laundry list of accusations against the requester here appear to have zero evidence to back it up which just makes it shameless mudslinging.

    Let’s hope their conclusions on GMO are more evidence based than these statements.

  • Eli Rabett

    Rather good comment by Nassim Taleb on GMOs that most biologists involved in the GMO debates who argue against the precautionary principle don’t appear to be aware that what the evidence is showing us is that barring a tail even GMOs are safe, however they argue that the evidence is showing that there can’t be a tail event

    • Dominick Dickerson

      Taleb argument falls apart when you consider any of the other equally if not more chaotic processes plant breeders have regularly used over the last century. Ever have a ruby red grapefruit or eat calrose rice? If you have you’ve experienced the wonders of radiation breeding, aka mutagenesis. Thousands of replicates are bombarded by radiation in the hopes that maybe, just maybe a mutation may occur at some point that will hopefully confer some kind of novel/ useful trait. Where are Talebs doomsday predictions for those methods?

      Talebs drivel makes no sense, and his reasoning is flawed by his failure to understand even the most basic elements of plant breeding.

      • Eli Rabett

        Taleb’s arguments (RTFR) are that the wings in a normal distribution are two sided. However there are distributions that are one sided, such as the health risks from smoking or environmental tobacco smoke or greenhouse gas forced climate change. Those distributions are one sided. It’s all risk with increasing forcing.

        Wanna pull a Joe Bast of Fred Singer and dispute that?

        • Dominick Dickerson

          The hell does that even mean?

          Talebs argument boils down to, genetic engineering is risky because it’s an attempt at top down control and traditional plant breeding is bottom up tinkering and so is inherently less risky.

          But why isn’t Talebs argument applicable to other forms of plant breeding, like mutagenesis as I mentioned above?

          Also Talebs account that genetic engineering promotes monoculture is laughably naive. Wide spread planting of commodity crops occurred before genetic engineering and it will occur after. But within those mass plantings of corn and soy there actually is genetic diversity. Transgenic events have been introduced into many varieties .

  • acrebassa

    Keith Kloor, I’m sorry to vent here, but maybe you can help me figure out where to vent.

    Yesterday on my Comcast home page, there was a slideshow about foods doctors won’t eat. The first slide was for donuts, with an explanation from Dr. Michael Hirt (who at least says on his CV that he has a medical degree from Harvard). He won’t eat them because, “Ninety-nine percent of pastries like doughnuts are made from
    genetically modified wheat,” claims Internist and nutritionist Dr.
    Michael Hirt, founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine in
    California’s San Fernando Valley. “This mutant grain contains 200-plus
    proteins that have never been safety studied in humans and have been
    linked to many diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity,
    cancer, arthritis, and autoimmune conditions…”

    This reminds me of all those lying (or half lies/half truths) emails that used to go around like clockwork several years ago.

    When I tried to verify Dr. Hirt’s info on Google, as your average reader might do (and the anti-GM folk won’t do), there weren’t too many links to true information, and they certainly weren’t at the top.

    The contact info provided by Comcast is not meant for responding to content. I don’t plan on trying to change Dr. Hirt’s mind, but I wanted to let Comcast know what a disservice (and worse!) they are doing to the average reader by perpetuating such lies.

    Thank you!

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+