At the time, Rachel Parent was 14 years old and had a growing social media following. Her message to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food was attracting attention – including from those who promote GMOs in the U.S. Their internal emails reveal they were discussing how they could counter her message.
“To think at this point, I was on their radar and I had no clue,” Parent said.
The strategizing was revealed in emails, along with thousands of other pages of documents released in a freedom of information request by US Right to Know (USRTK), a non-profit advocacy group funded by the Organic Consumers Association concerned with the safety of GMOs.
The documents shed light into the increasingly nasty and divisive public relations war over GMOs.
“It’s mostly scientists that they attack, but Rachel is a standout. The agrichemical industry is plainly quite threatened by this teenage schoolgirl, so that’s why they’re after her,” Gary Ruskin, the co-director of USRTK said.
The documents show that professors and academics were contacted by companies like Monsanto and the industry trade association’s public relations firm to provide expert opinion and offer credibility in a complicated debate.
But not all the academics revealed their connection to Monsanto or the agrichemical industry.
One professor at a renowned American university volunteered as a science expert to help spread a pro-GMO message. His name is Kevin Folta, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida.
But to understand why Kevin Folta focussed on Rachel Parent, is to understand his relationship with Monsanto and the agrichemical industry.
Folta began corresponding with Monsanto in 2013, according to emails released by USRTK. From there a relationship began with Monsanto, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), and Ketchum, a public relations firm hired by the trade association, the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI).
“I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like….I’d be happy to write the op-ed on making decisions on facts,” Folta wrote in an email in October 2014 to Monsanto.
“He’s literally a mouthpiece for them…Monsanto says jump, and Kevin Folta says ‘how high’?” said Ruskin.
When asked, USRTK also said third-party academics were enlisted by the pro-GMO labelling side.
The documents show Folta wrote articles, blog posts, contributed to industry website GMOAnswers.com, attended public hearings, forums and events to explain and defend GMO technology; he also lobbied Congress and other government agencies.
During these appearances and in his writings Folta has repeatedly referred to himself as an “independent scientist.”
The documents reveal that Monsanto, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Ketchum reimbursed Folta’s travel costs. After the emails were released, Folta admitted as much in his blog posts.
In August 2014, Monsanto also gave Folta an unrestricted $25,000 grant telling him in a letter it “may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects.”
Folta wrote in a blog post that he planned to use the grant for an “outreach program, which covered the costs for me to travel and teach scientists how to talk about science.”
“Kevin Folta is one of the principal attack dogs of the agrichemical industry. He maintains extremely tight communications with Monsanto and the agrichemical industry’s PR firm Ketchum,” said Ruskin.
Folta vehemently denies these claims, telling Global News in an email, he is not an agribusiness GMO advocate. He said he speaks publically, writes, and joined the public relations campaign to defend GMO technology which he believes is safe, reiterating he speaks freely expressing his own scientific opinions.
“I don’t care about the companies. They don’t sponsor my work, I never received anything from them personally, I don’t care about them,” he wrote.
“Because I am effective at communicating the science, activists have tried hard to connect me to being some sort of pawn of these companies. It is nonsense.”
Charla Lord of Monsanto told Global News in an email, “the relationships between the public and private sector are critical and have existed for decades,” said Lord. “We see public-private collaborations as essential to the advancement of science, as well as to educating and sometimes correcting misinformation the public has about plant biotechnology.”
Trish Jordan, also of Monsanto Canada told Global News that Monsanto does not ask academics to keep their relationships with the company under wraps.
“No, absolutely not. We fully understand that transparency is expected. It’s a goal of ours,” Jordan said.
“Holding Activists Accountable”
In a 2013 email, a Monsanto executive contacted scientists and professors from various universities suggesting topics. That email proposed Folta write about “Holding Activists Accountable.”
The email to Folta went on to say: “Demonstrate how activists’ messages and tactics regarding Genetically Modified (GM) crops and plant biotechnology undermine worldwide efforts to ensure a safe, nutritious, plentiful and affordable food supply using responsible and sustainable agricultural practices.”
“The key to success is participation by all of you – recognized experts and leaders with the knowledge, reputation and communication experience needed to communicate authoritatively to the target groups. You represent an elite group.”
The email also suggested Folta show how “activist campaigns… spread false information that goes unchallenged and results In further erosion of the public’s confidence in agricultural innovation.”
Video about Rachel Parent
Later that year, while attending a roundtable in Washington, D.C., Folta was asked by public relations firm Ketchum to make a video about Parent.
The email request to Folta read, “How do you agree/disagree with 14-yr old GMO Labeling activist Rachel Parent, who is, in her own words ‘not anti-science’ but ‘for responsible science and ethical progress?’”
But, the email added, “we try to refrain from personally attacking folks, so don’t worry too much about Rachel specifically.”
Nine days later, a video appeared online that was quite specific, entitled, “How do you agree/disagree with 14 year old GMO Activist?”
The video discussed Parent’s activism, her belief that all GMO food products should be labelled, and addressed her apparent lack of scientific knowledge.
“So when I think about answering Rachel Parent, who’s the activist child – well, young woman – who’s running the website ‘Kids Right to Know…The things I just adore about Rachel is that she’s clearly very articulate, clearly intelligent,” Folta said in the video.
“The problem that I have is when Rachel starts to let non-scientific thinking really kind of cloud her final decision-making process.”
Parent said she finds the tone of the video “almost degrading.”
She also defended the information on her organization’s website as scientifically sound.
“People can say whatever they want about me, but as long as I know what I am doing is right, their opinion doesn’t matter.”
Ketchum, the public relations firm for the industry trade association, said the question for the video about Parent was submitted by a user of GMO Answers.com. According to Ketchum, since 2013, GMO Answers has responded to “more than 1,000 questions by top experts in their field” from people submitting questions from around the world.
‘I have an idea. I can provide content’
Eleven months after the video was posted, Folta volunteered his own strategy to Ketchum: a website to counter Parent and her organization’s website, Kids Right to Know, according to an email obtained by Global News.
“There was a discussion this morning about kidsrighttoknow.com, the junk information site piloted by Rachel Parent as a figurehead,” Folta wrote in an email to a Ketchum employee.
“Today, I purchased kidsrightotruth.com and want to populate this. I have no time, but I have an idea. I can provide content.”
“Can you see if ketchum might have some interest in actually hosting the site w/GMOanswers etc and maybe helping me with someone to do the design? I can provide content.”
The response from the Ketchum employee: “Kevin, I’ll kick this around to our team and see what they recommend!”
According to Ketchum, the website is not in development, “no, Ketchum is not working with Kevin Folta to design or host a website.”
“It was definitely eye opening,” said Parent. “On one hand I was really surprised and disappointed that a professor from a university would want to target and discredit our website, which is really dedicated to youth.”
“And on the other hand, I was pleased to know that Kids Right to Know is making an impact… so it was a bit of bitter sweet.”
Despite her age, now 16, Parent has become the face for the GMO labelling battle in Canada. A Consumers’ Association of Canada – Decima Poll shows close to 90 per cent of Canadians want mandatory GMO labelling.
Opponents, including Parent, disagree and believe the scientific research government regulators rely on is often funded by the same companies that benefit from the sale of GMOs.
She argued there is science that proves GMOs do pose a health risk, so labelling is needed.
Folta spoke about the unfounded concerns about GMOs during an appearance on a Global News morning show in Winnipeg in 2014, saying they are “very safe and very effective.”
University of Florida
As for the University of Florida, U.S. colleges place great importance on the independence of their research.
The university said in an August statement that “Folta has no relationship with Monsanto in research or teaching.”
As for the $25,000 grant given to Folta, Monsanto told Global News, “We were happy to support Dr. Folta’s outreach program to increase understanding of biotechnology….We funded Dr. Folta’s proposal through an unrestricted grant to the University of Florida. An unrestricted grant to a university is much like a gift: it can have no strings attached.”
According to the university’s statement, the funds were reallocated to “the campus food pantry.”
The university said its decision to reallocate the $25,000 grant from Monsanto “came when his (Folta) home address and other personal information appeared among comments on Facebook. Obscene, inflammatory posts also appeared on Craigslist, presumably with the intent to incite local violent action.”
Folta also made a clear distinction that neither his research nor department was ever sponsored in his blog.
“When people would ask me about Monsanto, I’d simply reply, “I don’t work with them,” or “They don’t sponsor my research,” wrote Folta. “Both statements are true. More importantly, both statements are the most telling questions a scientist can answer — Who are your collaborators? Who pays for your lab’s work?”
Folta admitted in a Sept. 2015 blog post there were “many things I could have done differently.”
He said many of the released emails and quotes have been taken out of context, and the focus is no longer on the science but on his actions. Folta has also stopped his blogging and curtailed his social media activity.
In the same post, he explains he has gone back into his records to provide a “complete accounting of my outreach and extension activities. You’ll find how much I was reimbursed for airfare, who paid for the rental car, and who bought the dinner. You’ll see how much was offered as an honorarium or speaker fee, and where that money went. The painstaking detail is necessary, and I think defines a new standard of transparency and a new tool to cultivate trust.”
As for Parent she continues her quest to get GMO ingredients in food labelled, and she knows she faces some serious opposition.
“We are still going strong with our message of right to know…we’re just appealing to simple transparency,” said Parent.
Global News requested an interview with Kevin Folta for this story, but was told by Folta the university denied the request.