Newly released documents reveal a Canadian teenager and her activism on the issue of GMO labelling were the subject of emails strategizing how her message could be countered nearly two years ago.
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 GMO technology 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 Public Relations War Over GMO
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 (pictured at right).
But to understand why Kevin Folta focused 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 repeatedlyreferred 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 publicly, 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.”
Read the rest of the article on Global News Canada’s website here >