Once Aligned to Fight for Monsanto, GMO Activists Now Battle Among Themselves

Exposure of corporate ties leads to acrimony among “independent” science communicators.

7 minute read

A 39-page complaint filed with the University of Florida alleges that professor Kevin Folta spied on his now ex-wife, threatened colleagues, and attempted to hide a $600 per hour consulting contract with Bayer. The complaint also alleges that Mr. Folta may not have reported his financial conflicts of interest on a $466,000 grant with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

Filed by Karl Haro von Mogel, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California at Riverside, the grievance highlights an acrimonious split between two ardent supporters of GMO technology and the agrichemical industry.

Both Mr. von Mogel and Mr. Folta have sought to define themselves as trusted sources of science information, while vigorously defending Monsanto against accusations of lying to citizens and regulators. However, they now focus on hurling accusations against each other of misinforming the public.

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“Karl Mogel has invested a lot of time harassing me via my university, conferences, and my ex-wife’s attorneys,” wrote professor Folta, in an email to The Disinformation Chronicle. “He means nothing to me other than an unprofessional annoyance.” 

In a point-by-point rebuttal, Mr. Folta denied each allegation in Mr. von Mogel’s complaint, which had been emailed to Elaine Turner, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. 

“The university inquired with me about Mogel’s complaint, we discussed it, and they apparently found it simply consistent with his record of harassment,” Folta wrote. “No further action was taken.”

Mr. von Mogel did not return repeated requests for comment.

In his filing with Dean Turner, Mr. von Mogel accused Mr. Folta of an “unacceptable breach of research ethics” by hiding a consulting contract with Bayer. The complaint also noted that Folta is part of a team of researchers working on a $466,000 grant from the USDA to study science communication.

“Secretly getting personally paid a substantial sum by the biotech industry (and denying it) while studying biotech communication in a research setting is unethical,” stated Mr. von Mogel in his complaint.

“All current and pending funds were fully disclosed to the USDA via their relevant documents,” Mr. Folta responded. “I have a budget of $0 under that award,” Folta added, stating that he was only assisting a junior faculty member on a grant proposal and project.

Mr. von Mogel added that due in part to Mr. Folta’s “deteriorating behavior” he had been forced to ask him to step down from the board of a nonprofit he runs called Biology Fortified, a group that bills itself as “an independent educational tax-exempt non-profit organization.” 

However, both the group and Mr. von Mogel’s claims of “independence” have long been questionable.

Biology Fortified and “Independence”

From its founding, Biology Fortified has had tentacles into the agrichemical industry.

Back in 2010, Mr. von Mogel promoted genetic engineering and Biology Fortified in a video for the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a trade and lobby organization for agrichemical companies.

A few years later, CBI partnered with Ketchum PR and launched GMO Answers, to promote pesticides and genetic engineering. In 2015, the New York Times exposed how Ketchum PR sometimes ghostwrote pieces for academics listed as “independent” on the GMO Answers website, and that Monsanto sought some of those same academics to help defeat GMO regulations.

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Then, in June 2013, Mr. von Mogel flew to Washington D.C. to appear on a panel discussing biotechnology sponsored by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. That panel was moderated by Patrick J. Michaels—a notorious climate denialist who has been affiliated for decades with multiple front groups funded by the oil and gas industry—and included Kevin Folta, and Jon Entine, a former reporter who runs the Genetic Literacy Project.

A month after Mr. von Mogel spoke at Cato in 2013, West Hawaii Today reported that two business groups sponsored a summit on the island to promote genetic technology, where Mr. von Mogel again spoke alongside Mr. Entine. In a blog posting for the American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Entine later discussed his Hawaii trip with Mr. von Mogel and railed against “hardcore anti-GMO activists.”

Mr. von Mogel did not respond when asked who paid for his trip to Hawaii.

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The Genetic Literacy Project, in turn, came under fire for its own dubious claims of corporate independence. A 2017 award-winning series on agrichemical lobbying by the French newspaper Le Monde dismissed the Genetic Literacy Project as a propaganda website for Monsanto. The following year, investigators working for Democrats on the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology released a report naming the Genetic Literacy Project as an industry front group that provides a platform to “support industry spokespersons”. A year later, Bayer stated that they were no longer funding the Genetic Literacy Project.

Biology Fortified’s role as an industry mouthpiece was further highlighted in 2017, when a judge released documents that were part of a lawsuit against Monsanto on the dangers of the pesticide glyphosate. One document detailed Monsanto's plan to attack the World Health Organization (WHO), which was working to classify the pesticide glyphosate as a possible carcinogen. To discredit the WHO, Monsanto named several "industry partners" they would work with that included the Genetic Literacy Project—and “Biofortified” AKA Biology Fortified.

Biology Fortified’s “Independent Experts”

Many of Biology Fortified’s guest experts listed on their website raise further questions about the group’s self-proclaimed independence: 

Andrew Kniss is an associate professor of weed ecology & management at the University of Wyoming. In 2014, Monsanto emailed Mr. Kniss that they were providing him with an unrestricted gift, and he is regularly promoted by the Genetic Literacy Project.

Marc Brazeau is a writer for the Genetic Literacy Project.

Kavin Senapathy is a sometime writer, advocate for GMO agriculture, and co-author with Henry I. Miller on articles that have been aggregated by the Hoover Institute. In 2017, the New York Times reported that Monsanto ghostwrote an article for Mr. Miller, after which Forbes removed several pieces Senapathy and Miller co-authored. Afterwards, French television released an expose, detailing Mr. Miller’s work to promote Monsanto. When a journalist staked out Mr. Miller’s residence to interview him, he sped away in car.

Robin Bisson writes for Research Professional News and was formerly affiliated with Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

Calestous Juma was a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2015, the Boston Globe reported on a widely disseminated paper he wrote on GMO agriculture at the behest of Monsanto, which sent him the paper’s summary and headline. Mr. Juma is now deceased.

Drew L. Kershen is an emeritus professor of law, at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, and appears on tax forms for the Genetic Literacy Project as a Director.

Steve Savage is an industry consultant who has hosted a podcast for the foundation of CropLife, a trade and lobby association for the agrichemical industry.

Mary Mangan is a writer for the Genetic Literacy Project who was exposed working with Jay Byrne, a PR operative whose clients have included Monsanto, CropLife, and the American Chemistry Council. 

Pamela Ronald is a professor of plant pathology at the University of California at Davis, and has appeared on the tax forms of the Genetic Literacy Project as a Director.

“I’ll Ride That to the Grave”

In a final email to The Disinformation Chronicle, Folta's anger overflowed about questions regarding the complaint from his one-time ally.

“I would not even reply to you other than I wanted it to be documented that you knew the facts before you continued your hate campaign,” wrote Folta to The DisInformation Chronicle. “You and your lackeys took me out of schools, out of conferences, out of opportunities to do good for others because you tarnished my reputation in a disgusting way. I’ll ride that to the grave.”

This feud between Mr. von Mogel and Mr. Folta to define who is most independent of corporate influence is likely to linger, calling to mind a quote from Dylan Thomas: “An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.” 

So expect more drunken battles as they continue to war.

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