The anti-GMO group ‘US Right to Know’ has intensified its attacks on public sector scientists at the University of California-Davis, launching a new legal assault on the university with a lawsuit filed on 18 August.
For more than a year, USRTK has been hitting numerous public sector scientists with harrassment-style ‘Freedom of Information Act’ requests for thousands of their emails going back several years.
UC Davis faculty targeted include Julian Alston, distinguished professor of agricultural and resource economics; Roger Beachy, founding director of the World Food Center; Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center; Colin Carter, distinguished professor of agricultural and resource economics; Martina Newell-McGloughlin, former director of international biotechnology at Davis; Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology; Daniel Sumner, Frank H. Buck distinguished professor of agricultural and resource economics; and Alison Van Eenennaam, animal genomics and biotechnology cooperative extension specialist.
The focus of USRTK’s effort is clear: the anti-GMO group hopes to find correspondence with Monsanto or other private sector demons which can be hyped or quoted out of context to smear the scientists’ reputations and undermine public confidence in their work.
As three former presidents of the AAAS have written in the Guardian, USRTK’s attack closely resembles the efforts of those behind ‘Climategate’ in running an anti-science campaign by attacking the reputations of individual scientists.
Alison Van Eenennaam, one of those consistently targeted by USRTK because of her outspoken advocacy of biotech science, said to me in an email:
“What is it that constitutes a conflict of interest or an “attack” [as alleged by USRTK]? To me it is when you are being paid or make monetary gain from spreading misinformation or as an expert you are being paid to say something that disagrees with the scientific consensus.
Academics putting up scientifically correct information on websites – whether it is Academics Review, GMO Answers, or blogs is not wrong and should threaten no one except those who seek to deny science or who are making money out of denying science.
By attacking these (lets face it relatively feeble) efforts by the academic community to try to get science-based information out to counter the likes of Natural News, GM Watch and OCA reveals the true intent of USRTK – to silence the scientists using whatever it takes.”
Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis director Kent Bradford concurs. He recently wrote:
“These broad FOIA requests are an attack on science and on the trust that the public properly has in its academic institutions… I am not concerned about the content of our communications, although I cannot prevent selective editing or release by USRTK in their attempts to justify their false conspiracy theories.”
The Center for Science and Democracy of the Union of Concerned Scientists stated in its report ‘Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information Are Used to Harass Researchers‘:
“Individuals and well-heeled special interests across the political spectrum are increasingly using broad open records requests to attack and harass scientists and other researchers and shut down conversation at public universities. …This strategy can curb the ability of researchers to pursue their work, chill their speech, and discourage them from tackling contentious topics.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists further states in its report:
“The tobacco industry was a pioneer in the abusive use of open records requests, targeting Georgia Medical College professor Paul Fischer in the 1990s for his research on the impact of Camel marketing campaigns on children.”
As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway demonstrated in ‘Merchants of Doubt‘ both tobacco and fossil fuels industry front groups ran sophisticated PR campaigns to spread doubt about the well-established scientific consensus that smoking causes cancer and that climate change is man-made. Now the strategy is being used most aggressively by the anti-GMO lobby.
Every relevant academic and scientific institution in the world has issued statements confirming the scientific consensus that laboratory genetic modification of crops does not make food any more risky than conventional crop breeding. It is this attempt to undermine public understanding of the scientific consensus on genetic modification, as well as the bullying use of FoIA laws, that puts USRTK in the same ideological category as climate change deniers and the tobacco lobby.
So whose interests are really being served by USRTK’s attacks? The group’s lawsuit identifies it as “a non-profit organization that advocates for transparency in our nation’s food system”. Rather suspicously however, this transparency does not seem to apply to USRTK itself, at least where funding interests might be concerned.
USRTK’s funding is substantial: after all, launching lawsuits against entire universities is an expensive business. USRTK also recently recruited Carey Gillam, an ex-Reuters reporter whose notoriously biased wire pieces obviously indicated an alliance of anti-GMO ideological interests.
To its credit, USRTK does declare where grants over $5,000 come from. To date, it has received $314,500 from the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), $30,000 from Dr Bronner’s Family Foundation and $5,000 from Westreich Foundation.
But here the problems begin. OCA has published numerous articles on its website promoting anti-vaccine and other anti-science campaigns. For example, one article claims that the deadly ebola virus “can be prevented and treated naturally”, for example by using “intravenous Vitamin C”. OCA also promotes homeopathy, and publishes numerous pieces claiming child vaccines cause autism.
On its swine and bird flu pages, the Organic Consumers Association makes the following absurd and dangerous statement: “It is important to know how to protect your children and yourself with homeopathic and natural alternatives to vaccines to build your natural immunity to the swine flu.” OCA also publishes 9/11 Truther conspiracy theory material.
The Westreich Foundation, USRTK’s third-largest donor, clearly shares this anti-vaccine agenda. Its website front page states: “Vaccine safety for all, including independent testing and research of vaccines and the ingredients they contain, as well as the synchronicity effect of using multiple toxic chemicals together when injected into the human body.”
The idea that ingredients of vaccines can be toxic is a notorious meme spread by anti-vaccine activists. Westreich’s website abounds with pseudo-scientific gobbledegook, for example: “Health creation, prevention and management of chronic disease through Functional Medicine tenants and matrices, Integrative Medicine’s approach to whole-person healing, Natural Medicine’s clearing the way for the body to heal itself when possible (salutogenesis and homeostasis), and the role that the science of nutrition plays in creating health and managing disease.”
It is now well-established that anti-vaccine denialism and conspiracy theories such as those promoted by the Organic Consumers Association and Westreich Foundation have contributed to a resurgence of infectious diseases such as measles and a number of preventable deaths of young children. So is USRTK complicit in this agenda?
I wanted to give USRTK’s director Gary Ruskin a chance to respond to concerns that its funding from anti-vaccine activist groups might lead people to suspect that USRTK shared an anti-vaccine ideological agenda as well as an anti-GMO one – there are many overlaps in these two campaigns, as I have written before.
I sent Ruskin the following email on 2 April (links in the original):
I hope you are well. I would like to ask you a couple of on-the-record questions, if you wouldn’t mind. You may have seen my recent blogpost on the interesting links between the anti-GMO and anti-vaccination movements. I would like to hear your perspective on that.
– USRTK is overwhelmingly funded by the Organic Consumers Association. OCA has numerous pages outlining its opposition to vaccines support of homeopathy and so on. Can I specifically ask you for your personal view on the vaccines controversy? Do you support their mandatory use as is current policy?
– Does USRTK itself have a policy on vaccinations and homeopathy? What is it?
– Do you also feel that Ebola can be treated naturally with large doses of vitamins, as is indicated on this OCA page?
– Your Proposition 37 effort was also sponsored by Mercola.com. Mercola also opposes mandatory vaccinations. Do you not feel that this association was a liability? Or do you agree with Dr Mercola on this issue?
– Do you not feel that yours and USRTK’s funding associations with anti-vaccine groups like OCA and Mercola.com is a liability in terms of your campaign for GMO labelling, which presumably seeks mainstream appeal?
I would be grateful for any responses you are able to give, and thanks again for your time.
I am still waiting for a response. I tried following up via Twitter, but… crickets.
— Mark Lynas (@mark_lynas) April 13, 2016
Clearly transparency is a virtue that Gary Ruskin feels applies to everyone but himself.