In the first part of a series, Jonathan Matthews examines Kevin Folta’s claims of having been subjected to “terrorism”
There's one thing that Kevin Folta has always insisted on: “Don't call me a shill for Monsanto when it's not what I do and really I come with full disclosure.”
And because people kept challenging the University of Florida professor about his corporate connections, he kept banging home the point – over and over again:
“My record speaks for itself, it is all public, and there are no associations with Monsanto or Big Ag”
“I have no financial ties to any of the Big Ag companies that make transgenic crops, including Monsanto.”
Folta also said that it was “a joy to think that I'm keeping people up at night googling into the depths of public records” to try and find his Big Ag connections, and that their need to do it was “sort of a compliment for [my] being incredibly untouchable with respect to Big Ag collusion.“
Then a freedom of information (FOIA) request forced the University of Florida to hand over all Folta’s Big Ag related emails, and an article appeared in Nature. The article said that contrary to all Folta’s assertions, the emails revealed “his close ties to the agriculture giant Monsanto, of St Louis, Missouri, and other biotechnology-industry interests”.
Those “close ties” included a no-strings-attached $25,000 grant from Monsanto, and payments for his travel to see politicians, the media and others that the industry wanted him to meet with.
People quickly pointed out that long after Folta had got Monsanto's money, he was still telling everyone: “I have nothing to do with Monsanto.”
But far from backing down or apologizing, Folta came out fighting, saying he had done absolutely nothing wrong. He even made legal threats against those who called him a liar.
Then last week in a highly emotional podcast, Folta announced: "The terrorists have won."
Folta told his listeners that he had reluctantly accepted his university's suggestion that he forgo the Monsanto money he'd been using for his science communication. Mark Lynas summarized the situation on Twitter:
Folta’s boss, Jack Payne, also referred to the “death threats” Folta’s been getting.
In his podcast a tearful-sounding Folta told his audience: “I can't afford to have somebody destroy my lab, to destroy 10 years of my work. That's where this is going.”
Folta has also made much of posts that appeared on his local Craigslist. Among other things, these called Folta a “corporate whore”, called for him to be fired, and said his mother would be ashamed of him.
Folta says he found the reference to his late mother deeply upsetting. But although he asked Craigslist to delete the post, which they did, he then reproduced it in full on his blog and told his followers to “share this post EVERYWHERE".
Why would Folta want to help a post that he said was hurtful, quite apart from “false and defamatory”, go “EVERYWHERE”? He explained: “We need to expose the heinous tactics of the anti-GMO movement. This shows their disgusting approach to harm those that simply teach science.”
In his podcast he hammers home the message: “This whole thing also shows you the hate of the anti-GMO movement.” And in his local paper he describes the treatment meted out to him as “terrorism” and says, “These people are scum.”
While the Craiglist posts were undoubtedly nasty, Folta’s claim that they were intended to foment violence in “my community“ seems more than a stretch.
And despite all the talk of death threats and danger to his lab, his students and his family, in a recent piece for his local paper, Folta only claims to have had “implied threats”. Similarly, a University of Florida press release speaks only of “comments that could be construed as threats”. Comments that “could be construed as threats” are, of course, not necessarily threats at all, not even veiled ones. It depends how you construe them.
Would it be uncharitable to suggest that the way Kevin Folta has chosen to construe them suggests a flimsy attempt to distract from the real issue – his own apparent dishonesty – while vilifying his critics?
This is not the first time that Kevin Folta has claimed to have received death threats. Previously, though, he made light of them, joking on his blog that he was going to get himself a bulletproof lab coat to protect himself “from the lovely peaceniks”, and saying there’s “a fine line between flower power and fire power.”
And let’s not forget that the food debate often gets surprisingly vicious on social media. For instance, Vani Hari – aka the Food Babe – whom Folta condemns for “abject food terrorism”, says she has been subjected to repeated death threats. And even one of Hari’s strongest critics has been moved to condemn the threats of violence and rape made against her on Facebook: “They are misogynistic and vile in the extreme... One refers to her as a ‘stupid female’ who should ‘kill herself’. Another wishes death upon her from something she ate. Yet another makes a not-so-subtle reference to raping Hari’s dead body.”
And if Folta feels he’s suffered because of being associated with an agrochemical giant, consider the plight of scientists whose work has challenged the interests of those very same corporations. UC Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes, for instance, says a named Syngenta scientist threatened to “have me lynched, or he said he would send some of his 'good ol’ boys to show me what it’s like to be gay,’ or at one point he threatened my wife and my daughter with sexual violence.” And this appears to have been just one part of a systematic campaign aimed at intimidating and discrediting him.
Another scientist whose research upset the biotech industry, Dr Ignacio Chapela, reports being taken by a minder to meet a named senior Mexican government official in an empty office block. After discussing why Chapela should drop his problematic research, “He makes reference to him knowing my family and ways in which he can access my family. It was very cheap. I was scared. I felt intimidated and I felt threatened for sure.”
For the late Prof Andres Carrasco, whose research showed that Monsanto's Roundup caused malformations in embryos, things went well beyond threats. According to Amnesty International, on one occasion when trying to give a presentation about his research, Prof Carrasco had to lock himself in a car for two hours to escape a mob yelling threats who beat on the vehicle. One of those unable to shelter with Carrasco was hit in the spine and subsequently suffered from lower body paralysis, while the “former provincial Sub-Secretary of Human Rights, Marcelo Salgado, was struck in the face and left unconscious,” according to the human rights group.
Brazilian anti-GMO protester Valmir Mota de Oliveira suffered an even worse fate. In 2006 this father of three was killed after he was gunned down at point-blank range in an attack on protesters by security guards hired by Syngenta. The protesters had occupied fields used for GMO trials.
None of this in any way excuses any threats, implied or otherwise, that may have been made against Kevin Folta. But it’s also worth noting that whereas Folta can boast that “my administration backs me 100%... This has been a good thing in many ways”, scientists on the other side of this debate have sometimes found themselves the target of those within their own corporate-friendly institutions. The treatment of Dr Arpad Pusztai is a notorious example. Pusztai saw his lab disbanded and was sacked. And for months he was unable to respond to any of the attacks on him because of a gagging clause that had been imposed on him.
Finally, it has to be said that neither Folta playing the victim nor the reallocation of Monsanto’s money does anything to address the driving force behind all the criticism. People are angry with Folta not about the Monsanto money per se, but about Folta not being straight about it or about his wider relationship with the biotech industry. And nothing Folta has done since the news came out has done anything to repair that yawning integrity gap.
The next article of this series will examine Folta’s claims to having been the victim of libels and lies.