In the vast lobbying campaign over the safety of genetically modified foods, academic researchers are turning up on both sides of the debate, paid by biotechnology and organic agribusinesses to provide “the gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree,” according to The New York Times.
Citing emails obtained through open-records requests, the Times article describes how both sides, often at the urging of public-relations consultants, have used scientists’ reputation for “supposedly unbiased research” to channel public opinion over the issues in dispute, to push regulatory agencies to take (or not take) certain steps, and to influence state and federal legislators.
Academic scientists have long been recipients of business grants for agricultural research, but now they also take industry-backed trips -- “biotechnology outreach,” it was called in one email -- to Washington or other destinations to lobby on behalf of their benefactors. They continue to conduct research, the Times reports, but in some cases their published findings were drafted by industry consultants.
Although opponents of genetically modified organisms in foods have adopted tactics similar to those of biotech and related industries, their spending on such approaches is only “a tiny fraction” of what the backers of GMO foods have paid.
Huge companies like Monsanto, for example, have provided funds to researchers like Kevin Folta, chairman of the horticultural-science department at the University of Florida. Just last month he decided to donate $25,000 in Monsanto money to a local food pantry to avoid criticism that he was beholden to the agribusiness.
“Nobody tells me what to say, and nobody tells me what to think,” he told the Times, saying that he defends bioengineering techniques because he believes they are safe.
Still, scientists on both sides of the debate concede that their work for either the biotech or organic industries could taint their own reputations. As one academic researcher formerly backed by the organic-food industry, Charles M. Benbrook, told the Times, “If you spend enough time with skunks, you start to smell like one.”