I was debating whether to write about this topic.
But in the face of science, innovation, and humanity, something has to be done to raise awareness on just how destructive agricultural activists can be. While I don’t want to bring more attention to them (they deserve none), it’s been terrible to see some of the things they’ve done. For example, Greenpeace has organized the destruction of field trials and farms for their own personal fundraising game. Research facilities have been destroyed. They harass scientists and farmers like me.
I’m an outspoken advocate of biotechnology on farms. We grow some “GMO” crops, and it’s thanks to this technology we no longer have to spray nasty insecticides like we did in decades past. We are able to use safer herbicides, are able to produce more crop on less land using fewer resources, and we no longer have to till the soil, which is a win-win for the planet and us. There’s a reason why 95 percent of commodity-crop farmers are utilizing this brilliant technology on farms — they’re proven to be safe, productive, and beneficial, and everything we eat has been modified in some way.
When learning about genetic modification in plants, who better to learn from than the scientists in the lab who are working on engineering solutions for farmers? Dr. Kevin Folta is someone I have learned a ton from when it comes to how plants are modified, and he, too, is an outspoken advocate for biotechnology. He’s a well-known and respected scientist around the globe, teaching and communicating about breakthrough technologies such as CRISPR, gene editing, genetic engineering, RNAi, and more. He changes hearts and minds. He’s a damn good communicator and has made a huge impact on helping the general public understand ag science as a University of Florida professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department.
Or should I say, was the chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department.
Recently someone with personal ties to Professor Folta found some pay stubs from years ago — from Monsanto, the United Soybean Board, Bayer, etc. These were reimbursement checks for exact costs of travel to speak about plant breeding — no speaker fees or personal remuneration. Makes sense, right? Shouldn’t publicly-funded scientists at least have their costs covered to speak to ag audiences? Coach-class airfare, a cheap hotel, maybe a meal here and there — scientists should not have to pay this from their own pocket. He’s already donating his time, away from home, frequently on weekends. And again, not a cent to him personally (and if they do offer a speaker fee, it goes toward science outreach or to a charity in need).
The reimbursement checks are being paraded around the internet as “payoffs” and evidence that Folta’s teaching of science is simply a covert paid public relations effort. A new low.
Scientists in plant genetic improvement must interact closely with seed companies. How else do you understand farmers’ needs and options, and focus on relevant research? If you’re working on engineering a better soybean for example, um, yes, you should be talking to the soybean board about soybean development — that’s kind of how science collaboration works. Similar to myself as a farmer. Do I have to talk to the soybean board or Monsanto? Absolutely! We are soybean growers! (They don’t pay me to write about these topics, by the way; all viewpoints expressed here are my own.)
What happened next to Folta is awful. Anti-GMO activists decided to put the pay stubs on blast, to treat him like some sort of paid corporate shill, to create false accusations, and to defame and harass him and the university organization. Unfortunately, there have been a number of these incidents over the years where the department has been harassed nonstop. This ultimately led to him stepping down as chairman of horticulture science, to protect the university, his department, and his students. His colleagues and students were grateful for almost six years of leadership in a difficult managerial position.
I sat down last week with Folta at a restaurant in Chicago. It was clear that this decision weighed heavily on him — he has a passion for science and food in a way that few others do. As we talked, he recounted some of the threats he has faced, some of the accusations, as well as some of his best moments. He cherishes his work with students, and enjoys opportunities to talk about modern agriculture with people. It’s those bright spots that make the dark cloud he’s been cast into all the harder for him to deal with.
It’s all so despairing, despite the fact that Folta has shown strength and perseverance through the whole situation. Here we have someone doing good in the world for farmers, science, and the environment, and activists are trying to destroy this and silence him. He led scientists that work on fruit and vegetable crops, none that are GMO. Many faculty and students work in organic production, where he has funded training and opportunities. The activism Folta encountered, however, is about destroying careers to push an agenda, as Greenpeace, GM Watch, and many other groups try to do.
What makes me sad is that I’m sure many of the anti GMO activists are really well intentioned. I, too, was once a well-intentioned anti-GMO activist before I moved to our farm. Rumors about GMOs swirl the internet daily, but if more people asked real, full time professional farmers and scientists about farming and science, the world would be a much better and knowledgeable place. These activist groups would love for people to believe that GMOs are drenched in toxic chemicals, farmers are controlled by huge greedy corporations, terminator seeds, GMOs hurt bees, etc. None of this is true. Fact check before sharing misinformation!
On the flip side, who’s funding these activists? Follow the money. While Kevin Folta is hearing shill accusations and facing attempts to destroy his livelihood and career, who are the real shills? Who does the funding for activist groups like the Organic Consumers Association, the Food Babe, or GMO Free USA? There is so much money to be made off of consumer fear, and Whole Foods isn’t exactly broke. The Non-GMO Project is worth almost $20 billion dollars. By creating fear-based messaging and incorrect information, they are successfully profiting off of an incorrect message about food and farming for their own money-making agenda. Folta and others shine light on that.
I hate to say I boycott non-GMO and organic foods. Any kind of food comes from a farm, and all farmers deserve respect regardless of what label their product falls under. Unfortunately for these sleazy activist groups, they’ve made it difficult to support false-label accusations, which puts farmers and consumers alike in a tough spot. My hope in raising awareness on this topic is to bring light to the misinformation out there, fact check, and remember to explore both sides of every argument. Go to the source, dig deeper.
Maybe an anti-GMO activist reading this will realize that scientists such as Kevin Folta or farmers or agronomists are a better source of information on this topic than a big-city well-funded activist who’s maybe never been in a lab or on a farm a day in their life.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker, and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm, which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.
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