Agricultural researchers rattled by demands for documents from group opposed to GM foods

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By Keith Kloor
11 February 2015
Science Magazine

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, says Executive Director Gary Ruskin. 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.”

(After this article was published, ScienceInsider learned that a number of the scientists receiving freedom of information requests from USRTK have no involvement with GMO Answers. In an e-mail, Ruskin writes that he was incorrect on this point and apologized for the error. He says he requested documents from the scientists with no connection to GMO Answers as a result of their public statements pertaining to California's 2012 GM food labeling proposition, which was defeated.)

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