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Can Biotech Opponents Quash Scientific Facts?

February 11, 2015
Why are GMO opponents so worried about scientists who talk about biotechnology? Are they worried that the public will actually learn that GMOs aren’t scary and that they actually help make agriculture more sustainable and help keep food costs low? Are opponent groups scared of scientific facts?

Science writer Keith Kloor explains in an article posted on the Science website that a dozen public sector scientists working in the field of biotechnology were hit with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from a California-based group opposed to GMO foods.

Kloor spoke with many of the targeted scientists and also with the anti-GMO activist who filed the document requests.

The FOIA requests are asking university administrators to turn over any correspondence between a dozen academic researchers and a handful of agricultural companies, trade groups, and PR firms, including GMO Answers, an initiative aimed at answering the public’s questions about GMOs.

On the GMO Answers website, more than 100 experts from leading academic institutions, industry groups and representatives from member companies are committed to making information about GMOs in food and agriculture easier to access and understand.

“It seems like a fishing expedition to me,” says geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California (UC), Davis, one of six UC researchers targeted by the requests. “I am very worried [the correspondence] is going to be used to sully the reputations of scientists.” The tactic is familiar in another controversial area, climate science, where researchers have faced an avalanche of document requests from climate change skeptics.

The group, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) of Oakland, California, has targeted only researchers who have written articles posted on GMO Answers. USRTK is interested in documenting links between universities and business, says USRTK Executive Director Gary Ruskin, and is “especially looking to learn how these faculty members have been appropriated into the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.”

Ruskin is no stranger to the GM food debate. He helped manage an unsuccessful 2012 effort to pass a California ballot initiative requiring the labeling of food products containing GM ingredients.

USRTK’s website says its sole major donor (more than $5000) is the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit group based in Finland, Minnesota, which has donated $47,500.

USRTK says its requests are designed to promote transparency in a controversial research arena. But some researchers worry they will also have a chilling effect on academic freedom. “Your first inclination … is to stop talking about the subject,” Van Eenennaam says. “But that’s what they want. And I don’t want to be intimidated.”