Kevin Folta’s Florida colleague reflects on conflicts in biotech communication outreach

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According to his critics in the anti-GMO movement, the chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Kevin Folta, is a shill for Monsanto. He can’t be trusted.

While Dr. Folta does not consult for Monsanto nor does he receive any Monsanto funds for his laboratory, his outreach science communication workshops at other universities have been funded in part by Monsanto — as Dr. Folta has acknowledged. Folta himself has received no money for his science seminars; the money has been used to cover hard costs.

This partial funding, so some claim, has transformed Dr. Folta into a propaganda machine on behalf of transgenic plants. The irony of all this is that the message that Dr. Folta gives in these presentations is totally in line with what the vast majority of credible scientific organization say and what, in fact, the overwhelming credible, peer-reviewed science has concluded: eating GMO foods is no more risky than eating conventional foods.

The “talk-for-travel-money” scenario outlined above makes a testable hypothesis. If the funding is what motivates Dr. Folta to give public lectures, then without Monsanto funding, Dr. Folta would not give these presentations. It is that simple and it is easy to test. Was Dr. Folta talking publically about the science of transgenic plants before funding from Monsanto? The answer is yes. Hence, this does not fit the scenario outlined above. There is no cause and effect here — despite the demonization campaign underway on the web.get

A caveat to this is asking whether Dr. Folta is materially rewarded for his activities by a separate mechanism. Dr. Folta is a Professor at the University of Florida so perhaps the University of Florida rewards him for these efforts?

As a professor at the University of Florida myself, I can speak to the rewards system at UF with some authority. (Full disclosure: Dr. Folta and I are in the same graduate program as well as the same department.) The university, like many large institutions, has three functions: teaching, research and service. For faculty in agriculture, service means extension.

Virtually all faculty members in agriculture at UF (termed the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, IFAS) have an appointment involving two of the three areas. Each faculty member is evaluated yearly for their accomplishment in the assigned areas. Major criteria used for research involve the number and quality of papers published; grant funds received, invited talks, graduate students in training and graduated, etc. Teaching evaluation involves feedback from a peer review committee as well as student ratings. Extension involves impact of activities on the various clientele groups, etc.

So how much weight does out reach carry in the review process? Very little. While outreach efforts are receiving more and more attention, as they should, it does not formally fit into any of the functions outlined above. It is akin to serving on a committee. You might get a pat on the back, but I can say categorically, outreach and committee service will not get you tenure or promotion at the University of Florida. In a very real sense, time spent on outreach and public education takes away from time that could be spent on activities that lead to tangible, material rewards.

Dr. Folta has another burden. He accepted our plea for him to serve as chair of our department. On top of maintaining a first class research program and his high standard in the classroom, Kevin must answer to the vice president for IFAS as well as to the faculty of this department for how well the department is doing.

In effect, Professor Folta’s outreach program takes time away from his research, his teaching, counseling students, his administrative duties and his lovely wife. It is a huge negative on his money-time ledger sheet. Other than a few frequent flyer miles, there is no material benefit for Dr. Folta. In fact it is just the opposite. Kevin does it because he thinks it is the right thing to do. The vast majority of credible plant scientists and organizations also think it is the right thing to do. To suggest that Dr. Folta would manipulate the content of his talks for any financial gain or travel money is simply disingenuous.

Curtis Hannah is a University of Florida Research Foundation professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department focusing on molecular biology and plant genetics. Contact him at [email protected]

  • Verna Lang

    Thanks for your defense of Dr. Folta. The point that his message was the same both before and after the donation from Monsanto is worth the notice of his more rabid critics. Prepare yourself though because if they do happen to read this, I’m sure that your logic will be lost on them and they will simply issue FOIA requests to cover the entire department.

  • WeGotta

    Like a soap opera!

    “Each faculty member is evaluated yearly for their accomplishment in the assigned areas. Major criteria used for research involve the number and quality of papers published”
    This is a very common thing that should be re-evaluated in my opinion. We have a glut of useless and just plain bad papers out there simply because people “need” to get published in order to fulfill some requirement or pad their CV.

    • Well, yes, this is an issue that needs to be addressed and is being addressed in the academia both in the US and in other regions of the world (especially in Europe), but that doesn’t mean that Kevin Folta is publishing worthless papers or making worthless public presentations just to fill his CV.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Hey Curtis, Nice article. I hope the smokescreen clears soon. However, as I’m sure you realize. You will now be attacked. At the very least you will be accused of writing this because Kevin is your boss. Time to grow thicker skin.

    • Larkin Curtis Hannah

      Yup

  • gmoeater

    I’d love for someone to ask Chuckie Benbrook where his travel funds come from. (hint: Big Organic. All the way.) And how about the $40k that Vandana Shove-It (ooops; that’s Shiva. Clumsy spell check correction) gets for each and every one of her speeches, that goes straight into her silk robes?

    Folta’s messages are about biotechnology. Biotech crops and the science behind them need to be explained to the public. Thank goodness there IS a Kevin Folta to go around and bring information to schools and other groups. If one has read anything he has said, they will see quickly that he does not promote any specific companies, or even promote one crop method over another. He explains the science behind genetically engineered crops. Period. No political agenda there except information. The cracktivists hate that.

    Chuckie, Shove-It (oops, darn that spell check), and Vain Hair (no spell check error there) openly scoop organic money into their personal wallets to spill their hype to anyonel who will listen. Kevin Folta doesn’t get a dime of any from Monsanto. The cracktivists refuse to see their own hypocrisy.

    • Read about Benbrook in our Biotech Gallery profile.

    • Wackes Seppi

      Would
      you please make a further correction? It’s not Vandana Shiva, but
      Dr. Vandana Shiva. I don’t know of any occasion on which she
      momentarily gave up her (partially fake) title.

      Your
      reference to her silk robes is pretty pertinent. Have you ever
      noticed: new photo… new sari…

      This
      being said, I have some questions, and why not put them here.

      How
      did Paul Thacker and Charles Seife get hold of famous Email? Haven’t
      they gotten it from USRTK? What did they actually receive? Just
      that Email? A collection of Emails supposed to offer a basis for
      mounting a case against Mr. Folta? The whole lot? How much check
      work did they do? Did they receive a prepared, suggested, text or
      scenario?

      Paul
      Thacker and Charles Seife seem to be highly competent and influential
      journalists. One of them is even a journalism professor at New York
      University. Why, then, did they produce such a piece of, in the
      final analysis, BS? Why on PLoS Blogs? Why not in a major
      newspaper?

      So…
      Are they USRTK shills?

      • Loren Eaton

        “I don’t know of any occasion on which she
        momentarily gave up her (partially fake) title.” Oh, behave!!

  • In a very real sense, time spent on outreach and public education takes away from time that could be spent on activities that lead to tangible, material rewards.

    This is one of the reasons I was personally so furious about this “Asymmetric Warfare” attack. For years I’ve been a beneficiary of Dr. Folta’s public eductation efforts. Every week I see @KevinFolta gently explaining on Twitter, the Illumination blog and other fora. I know what the local time is in Florida. It’s very obvious to me that Dr. Folta is taking time away from his family to help the world understand biotech. I’m repeatedly amazed at how effective he is handling the often-hostile challenges.

  • Benjamin Edge

    I attended Kevin Folta’s Biotech Communication Workshop at RTP near Raleigh last April. With a room full of students and faculty from nearby universities, employees of various biotech and pharma companies in the area, and interested laypeople, it would have been difficult for Kevin to get away with promoting a company line without someone calling him on it. The typical question from the audience was “how do I communicate the science of biotechnology when the person I’m talking to says Monsanto (or some other company) is evil and GMOs are poison, I read it at Natural News”? Kevin answered questions with science, and there was plenty of back and forth with ideas that different people had found helpful for them.

    The cost of attendance was FREE.

  • majotay

    “workshops at other universities have been funded in part by Monsanto — as Dr. Folta has acknowledged.”

    When/where did he acknowledge this? I thought this whole brouhaha was because it had just been revealed due to the FOIA request.

  • majotay

    “workshops at other universities have been funded in part by Monsanto — as Dr. Folta has acknowledged.”

    When/where did he acknowledge this? I thought this whole brouhaha was because it had just been revealed due to the FOIA request.

  • majotay

    “an education outreach program whose goal is to expand the acceptance of new technologies, which is being funded by the entities who stand to gain the most financially from the acceptance of those same technologies is by it’s very nature suspect”

    Does anyone agree with that statement? Would you agree with that statement if it wasn’t being applied to your profession or your colleague, but some other industry/profession/person?

    • Wackes Seppi

      How
      about this (rejection substituted for acceptance in the quote):

      « an
      education outreach program whose goal is to expand the rejection
      of new technologies, which is being funded by the entities who stand
      to gain the most financially from the rejection of those same
      technologies is by it’s very nature suspect »

      Since
      you challenged the readership, would you care to reply?

      Oh,
      and by the way, Kevin Folta’s presentations are available on the net.
      So you can check whether his outreach was indeed to promote
      acceptance of Monsanto’s GM corn and soybean (which are already
      ubiquitous in the USA).

      • majotay

        Yes, that would be just as bad and I didn’t question Dr. Folta’s integrity and you didn’t answer my question.

    • Larkin Curtis Hannah

      Actually the goal is to educate people about the science behind transgenic organisms.

      • majotay

        Right, so let me rephrase:

        “an education outreach program whose goal is to expand the acceptance of transgenic organisms, which is being funded by the entities who stand to gain the most financially from the acceptance of transgenic organisms is by it’s very nature suspect”

        Do you agree with that statement then?

        • Larkin Curtis Hannah

          I stand by my original statement. Society benefits from this technology. And technology on the market has been tested more than any other food. Hence I do not agree with your statement.

          • majotay

            Do you at least understand how people could be suspicious of the fact that their education is being funded by companies selling the same product they are being educated about?

            I do not question your belief that these technologies are good for society and I agree with you for the most part.

          • Larkin Curtis Hannah

            Let me tell you exactly what I truly believe: I think most of this “suspicion” to which you refer is caused by groups that financially gain by demonizing the new gene technology.

          • Larkin Curtis Hannah

            Let me tell you exactly what I truly believe: I think most of this “suspicion” to which you refer is caused by groups that financially gain by demonizing the new gene technology.

          • RobertWager

            I agree with Larkin. The vast majority of the public is 1-3 or more generations removed from primary food production. As such they have almost zero knowledge of the different breeding methods used to make food crops. The suspicion of one breeding method alone is definitely because of the multinational multi-billion dollar fear campaign waged against it.

            When asked non-leading questions like what if anything would you like to see added to food labels less than 5% actually say GMO. Price and quality are by far the major concerns for the average person.

          • majotay

            “The suspicion of one breeding method alone is definitely because of the multinational multi-billion dollar fear campaign waged against it.”

            Surely, in part, that’s true, but I think it also has to do with the “cut and paste” nature of the latest methods especially when between species, even if in reality these methods produce perfectly safe products.

          • RobertWager

            I agree with Larkin. The vast majority of the public is 1-3 or more generations removed from primary food production. As such they have almost zero knowledge of the different breeding methods used to make food crops. The suspicion of one breeding method alone is definitely because of the multinational multi-billion dollar fear campaign waged against it.

            When asked non-leading questions like what if anything would you like to see added to food labels less than 5% actually say GMO. Price and quality are by far the major concerns for the average person.

          • majotay

            Do you at least understand how people could be suspicious of the fact that their education is being funded by companies selling the same product they are being educated about?

            I do not question your belief that these technologies are good for society and I agree with you for the most part.

      • majotay

        Right, so let me rephrase:

        “an education outreach program whose goal is to expand the acceptance of transgenic organisms, which is being funded by the entities who stand to gain the most financially from the acceptance of transgenic organisms is by it’s very nature suspect”

        Do you agree with that statement then?

    • Rickinreallife

      The phrase “whose goal is to expand the ACCEPTANCE ” and the rest of the sentence is written in a leading way. In a courtroom, the defense lawyer would rise and say, “objection, council is leading the witness.” Try rewriting the sentence this way “an education outreach program whose goal is to expand UNDERSTANDING of new technologies”. That is closer to the truth, but I suspect the authors chose the wording they did to fit with the narrative implied by the remainder of the sentence.

      The reason people responding are reluctant to answer your question directly is that they do not agree with the premise implied by the authors by that selection of words. I also dispute the inference suggested by that word selection, that the content Mr. Folta’s program is merely an effort to persuade reluctant minds to give in. It also implies that Kevin’s a motivation is that it benefits Monsanto. I think Kevin would be motivated to spread the message of the benefits and safety of biotechnology if commercial seed companies like Monsanto did not exist, and if the only ones using it were non-commercial, public sector breeding programs. Lets do another thought experiment that is not altogether unplausible and is to a certain extent already unfolding. Suppose Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, etc. decided to forego genetic engineering because it just didn’t sell in the marketplace, retailers of products were losing market share to GMO-free ingredient source products. I think Kevin would still be advocating for agricultural applications of biotechnology, and his message would probably be critical of Monsanto et. al. for abandoning genetic engineering. Do you agree with that?

      Now directly to your question. If your question is “Does the fact that Mr. Folta received some of the funding for the outreach program from entities that apply biotechnology as a commercial venture likely to be perceived as a conflict of interest and looked upon suspiciously by members of the public” then yes, that is true enough. Segments of the public will infer conspiratorial motivations. If your question is actually, “Does the fact that Mr. Folta received some funding for the outreach program from entities that apply biotechnology as a commercial venture show that Mr. Folta can and is bought to convey false information to the public about biotechnology” then no, that is not truthful.

      • majotay

        ” I think Kevin would still be advocating for agricultural applications of biotechnology, and his message would probably be critical of Monsanto et. al. for abandoning genetic engineering. Do you agree with that?”

        Yes, I do agree with that.

        “If your question is ‘Does the fact that Mr. Folta received some of the funding for the outreach program from entities that apply biotechnology as a commercial venture likely to be perceived as a conflict of interest and looked upon suspiciously by members of the public’ then yes, that is true enough.”

        Thank you, that is all I was asking, if anyone here could understand the suspicion that a layman might have about this funding.

  • majotay

    “an education outreach program whose goal is to expand the acceptance of new technologies, which is being funded by the entities who stand to gain the most financially from the acceptance of those same technologies is by it’s very nature suspect”

    Does anyone agree with that statement? Would you agree with that statement if it wasn’t being applied to your profession or your colleague, but some other industry/profession/person?

  • majotay

    “the e-mails show that Folta did receive an unrestricted US$25,000 grant last year from Monsanto, which noted that the money ‘may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects'”

    I was also wondering if this was troubling to anyone here, because while Dr. Folta may have the integrity to only use the money to cover travel expenses, how many other scientists may have been offered monies that they do use for activities which could be construed as having a conflict of interest.

    • Wackes Seppi

      I know
      of a famous French scientist who toured Australia and the Philippines
      in February-March 2012.

      I also
      know of another (not famous) who tours France to lecture on the evils
      of GMOs. It’s not on monies from his university.

      And
      there is also:

      « Dr
      Charles Benbrook is currently to tour in Australia giving advice to
      Australian farmers. His tour is promoted by Genethics, Greenpeace and
      Network of Concerned Farmers. One area where his advice has been
      controversial is on non-acceptance ofUS food aid in time of famine by
      Zambia government. »

      http://gmopundit.blogspot.fr/2005/11/advice-to-zambia-from-charles-benbrook.html

      • majotay

        Yes, it seems that money being spread around to influence people is a real problem, everywhere.

        I guess we’ll just have to hope only people with integrity receive industry funds.

  • majotay

    “the e-mails show that Folta did receive an unrestricted US$25,000 grant last year from Monsanto, which noted that the money ‘may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects'”

    I was also wondering if this was troubling to anyone here, because while Dr. Folta may have the integrity to only use the money to cover travel expenses, how many other scientists may have been offered monies that they do use for activities which could be construed as having a conflict of interest.

  • PunkRucker

    The arrogance of these scientists is truly astounding. The truth is they have no idea what they are doing by tampering with the genetic code of the food that we eat. Who the fu&k do they think they are ?? Genetic Literacy Project – how sweet of them to want to educate us. “Science Trumps Ideology”.ha ha ha ha what a sham