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The Conflict of Interest Culture Among GMO Advocates

Though a very robust scientific debate exists on most aspects of GMOs, news outlets, oddly, are increasingly reporting the exact opposite: that there is a “scientific consensus” on GMOs and the scientific debate is over. (Photo: Take Back Your Health Conference/flickr/cc)

The New York Times recentlyweighed in on the scandal involving University of Florida professor Kevin Folta, a leading GMO advocate whose passionate declarations about his absolute independence from the biotech industry were revealed to be false. Documents turned up a few weeks ago showing that Folta has received tens of thousands of dollars from Monsanto, promised the company a “solid return on the investment,” and even attached his named him as the author of GMO advocacy materials largely written by the biotech industry’s public-relations firm.

Folta was one of several pro-GMO academic advocates with conflicts cited in the article, which confirms a long-documented pattern of outsize influence by the biotech industry in academia. But, bizarrely, the Times added a new twist to the story, accusing the organic foods industry of also having “aggressively recruited academic researchers” to advance its own political agenda. The biotech and organic industries are “squaring off,” the Times reports, to win influence.

If the organic industry is squaring off with the biotech industry, this battle amounts to a small posse of gunslingers versus the entire U.S. military. The biotech industry has spent, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress, funding political candidates, sponsoring academic research, endowing professorships, funding construction of university buildings and hiring university professors as consultants. This influence campaign also reaches into the federal government, which pressures foreign governments to accept GMOs and even censors government research that goes against the wishes of the biotech industry, according to whistleblowers.

The organics industry has almost negligible influence in these arenas by comparison, especially in academia, and to suggest otherwise (as the Times does with a single, pretty weak example), distorts what’s really happening, especially at our public universities. In 2012, Food & Water Watch examined thousands of research funding records at several large public universities, finding that agriculture departments depend very heavily on pro-GMO industry sponsors like Monsanto and Cargill.

Not only is the influence of the “organic foods industry,” as the Times calls it, infinitesimal by comparison, but a growing sector of organic products are actually owned by giant food processors like General Mills and J.M. Smucker, which frequently align their politics and pocketbooks with the biotech industry, for example in opposition to GMO labels.

Though probably an effort by the Times to offer balanced reporting, the awkward indictment of organics alongside the biotech industry serves to diminish the real story about the outsized—and unparalleled—role that the biotech industry plays in academia, science and public policy.

Unfortunately, this failure seems reflect a larger trend of timid—and sometimes inaccurate—media coverage of GMOs, including from high-profile papers like the Times and the Washington Post. It is difficult to ignore how often news outlets are reporting favorably on GMOs by using industry talking points or leaning heavily on “experts” like Folta, who are passionately pro-GMO (and have undisclosed conflicts of interest).

By contrast, the voices of the many highly qualified scientists critical of GMOs are often missing or marginalized in the news, as was noted at a recent whistleblower conference that featured a session on the “media blackout” of scientists critical of GMOs. And there are more than a few. Hundreds of scientists are on record noting how little independent research exists on GMOs, how many gaps there are in the scientific literature and how industry plays too large a role in science.

Though a very robust scientific debate exists on most aspects of GMOs, news outlets, oddly, are increasingly reporting the exact opposite: that there is a “scientific consensus” on GMOs and the scientific debate is over. This totally erroneous talking point comes from the biotechnology industry and has been widely disseminated by academics like Folta.

Read more about the outsize role of industry in academia here.

Tim Schwab

Tim Schwab is a food researcher at Food and Water Watch. With a background in journalism, Tim worked as a reporter and as a researcher on a variety of projects before joining Food and Water Watch. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He can be reached at tschwab(at)fwwatch(dot)org.

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