In DepthBiotechnology

Agricultural researchers rattled by demands for documents

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Science  13 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6223, pp. 699
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6223.699

GM food opponents, like these in Los Angeles, are adopting new strategies that put academics on the spot.

PHOTO: © LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS/CORBIS

The fierce public relations war over genetically modified (GM) food has a new front. A nonprofit group opposed to GM products filed a flurry of freedom of information requests late last month with at least four U.S. universities, asking administrators to turn over any correspondence between a dozen academic researchers and a handful of agricultural companies, trade groups, and PR firms. The scientists—many of whom have publicly supported agricultural biotechnologies—are debating how best to respond, and at least one university has already rejected the request.

“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, 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, Executive Director Gary Ruskin told Science. 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.”

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. Late last year, he helped found USRTK, which works “to expose what the food industry doesn't want us to know. … We stand up for the right to know what is in our food and how it affects our health.” The group's three board members include Juliet Schor, a prominent economist at Boston College. USRTK's website says its sole major donor (more than $5000) is the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit group based in Finland, Minnesota.

In the requests, Ruskin seeks all letters and e-mails exchanged after 2012 between the scientists and 14 companies and groups. The list includes Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Dow, major biotech and grocery trade groups, and communications firms including FleishmanHillard and Ogilvy & Mather. “The records disclosed … will be used in preparation of articles for dissemination to the public,” states one request obtained by Science.

Many researchers are awaiting advice from university lawyers on how to respond. Kevin Folta, a biologist and biotech researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville, would like to comply. But he anticipates trouble. “Unfortunately, when you skim through the 70,000 e-mails I have … [USRTK] will find opportunities to pull out a sentence and use it against me,” he predicts. “They will show I have 200 e-mails from big ag companies. While it is former students … or chitchat about someone's kids, it won't matter. They'll report, ‘Kevin Folta had 200 e-mails with Monsanto and Syngenta,’ as a way to smear me.”

USRTK has asked food allergy researcher Richard Goodman, a former Monsanto employee who has been at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, since 2004, for any correspondence with his old firm related to a controversial study led by biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen in France. The study, which claimed that foods caused health problems in rats, was published in Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2012 but was withdrawn in 2013, the same year Goodman became an associate editor of the journal.

Toxicologist Bruce Chassy, who retired in 2012 from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, understands why he is a target. “I suspect a disclosure would make me look bad,” he says, noting he regularly interacts with firms that produce GM products and has urged them to do more to answer the technology's critics. But the school's lawyers rejected USRTK's request on 4 February, noting Chassy no longer works at the university.

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.”

  • * Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist living in New York City.

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