Keith Kloor’s Endearing Love Affair With GMOs

New York University’s adjunct journalism professor has curious ideas about science and reporting
07/19/2017 06:21 pm ET
Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Few science writers have worked as hard as Keith Kloor to impact public opinion on genetically modified organism (GMO) agriculture. An adjunct professor at New York University and former editor for Audubon and blogger for Discover, Kloor has spent years championing GMO products and portraying skeptics and critics as scientifically illiterate quacks. Kloor’s one-man crusade to paint environmental advocates as nitwits includes a classic of the Kloor canon: his self-aggrandizing piece in Issues in Science and Technology comparing demands for GMO transparency to the tactics of the Trump campaign and the anti-vaccine movement (a favorite bugbear).

His curious form of advocacy includes bitter attacks on anyone who disagrees with him – a style that’s arguably generated more trouble than it’s been worth. At various points, Kloor’s targets have included Jake Tapper of CNNMichael Pollan, professor of journalism at UC-Berkeley; Tom Philpott of Mother JonesMark Bittman, the noted food columnist and professor at Columbia; Glenn Davis Stone, Guggenheim Fellow and professor of archaeology at Washington University; Nassim Taleb, professor of risk engineering at NYU; Marion Nestle, professor of food science at NYU; and Charles Seife, professor of science journalism at NYU. Two years ago, the author of this piece began reporting on journalists attending industry-funded conferences for the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). Days after contacting the pro-GMO Cornell Alliance for Science while reporting for CJR, Kloor posted a blog on his personal website describing this author as a “sadistic troll.”

The public has known for some time that Keith Kloor loves GMOs. What they haven’t known, until now, is how hard he’s worked with industry-funded “experts” to present corporate talking points as journalism and then try to cover his tracks. An avalanche of documents released through court proceedings and freedom of information requests point to a coordinated effort by corporate front groups, scientists secretly funded by agrichemical industry giants, and allied reporters attempting to portray themselves as arbiters of scientific expertise while condemning critics of GMO technology as “antiscience.” While some of this story has been told, Kloor’s level of involvement has so far gone unremarked – and there have been no corrections or retractions of his work.

Forming Private Bonds

In early 2014, Carole Bartolotto was surprised to get a private message on Twitter from Robert Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto. A registered dietician then writing much of the nutritional material for the health care giant Kaiser Permanente, Bartolotto had attended a conference where she heard a lecture that overstated the possible harm from food containing GMOs. Worried about what she saw as media misinformation on GMOs, Bartolotto had started writing more frequently on the topic, attracting Monsanto’s attention.

In a private message, Fraley invited Bartolotto to the company’s St. Louis headquarters. “I will arrange for your travel if you are interested in a dialogue,” Fraley messaged. Bartolotto said she declined the invitation because she felt the company was trying to buy her opinion.

Bartolotto’s relationship with the GMO industry turned ugly that August after she wrote an article for Huffington Post pointing out that this time it was GMO advocates spreading a false theme: GMOs have been proven safe.

“The problem with concluding that GMOs are safe is that the argument for their safety rests solely on animal studies,” she wrote. “These studies are offered as evidence that the debate over GMOs is over. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

Bartolotto’s article upset Kloor, who later emailed Karl Haro von Mogel, a plant geneticist who runs a GMO advocacy website, and Kevin Folta, chair of the department of horticulture at the University of Florida. Acquainted through social media and blogging, all three had apparently met at a biotech literacy conference a few months prior that was organized by two corporate front groups—the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review.

“I sure would welcome your thoughts on the main claims made in the story,” Kloor emailed the two about Bartolotto’s article. While neither Folta nor von Mogel have expertise in human nutrition, Kloor asked them to point out passages they deemed contrary to science. “I could do it, but it’s more meaningful when it comes from an expert,” he wrote.

“I’m in,” Folta later responded. “She’s f―king goofy.”

A brief aside is necessary to explain the players here. Folta was unmasked in the New York Times in September 2015 for receiving unreported payments from Monsanto. So was Bruce Chassy, the head of an ostensibly independent non-profit called Academics Review that we now know from tax records receives the majority of its funding in the form of $300,000 annual grants from the Council on Biotechnology Information, which operates from the offices of the trade group BIO. The idea for the Academics Review was first suggested to Chassy by a Monsanto official.

If Kloor, as a supposedly objective reporter, didn’t already know about these connections, he certainly did nothing to ferret them out. Over the following two days, he, Folta and von Mogel exchanged a series of emails, collaborating on a strategy to discredit Bartolotto and win over opponents of GMO foods. To begin, Folta and von Mogel created a document that picked apart Bartolotto’s article point by point. Kloor then edited it.

“You’re aiming for the fence-sitters, who may well be turned off by language that comes off as heavy-handed,” Kloor wrote. Emails suggest that Folta returned the favor by providing Kloor with some editing advice and helpful wordsmithing for the story, which later appeared at Discover (“Why Vaccine and GMO Denial Should be Treated Equally”).

Paul Thacker

“This feels like the same tactics that the tobacco industry and sugar industry used to discredit critics,” Bartolotto said after reviewing the emails the three exchanged. Bartolotto now teaches nutrition at a university in southern California, but did not wish to disclose the university’s name for fear of online harassment. She added that Kloor’s article was scientifically inaccurate and that its portrayal of her as similar to vaccine denialists made it harder for her to get future articles past her editor.

“It’s quite sad that we are not allowed to have a public dialogue,” Bartolotto said. “This was not an honest attempt at journalism—trying to portray me as some fear mongerer.”

Nor was it an isolated incident.

Perfecting Relationship

After perfecting their act with Bartolotto, Kloor and Folta coordinated a second attack on a GMO critic with a jab at prominent TV science personality Bill Nye, the Science Guy, who has recently launched his latest show “Bill Nye Saves the World.” For years, Nye was a leading critic of what he saw as a lack of industry transparency on GMO technology and potential environmental impacts.

In November 2014, Kloor emailed Folta, “Why not challenge [Nye] to a debate? At first he won’t bother responding, but every day I’ll post up a reminder―like a debate watch update―on my blog . . . . At the very best, he is forced to engage in a science debate, at the worst, we continue to throw sunlight on his bulls―t?”

“Let’s do it,” Folta responded. “I’ll promote it too. He has pissed me off something fierce.”

Kloor then suggested that Folta write a deferential “open letter” to Nye. “And I set this up by introducing you this way: Kevin Folta is the Billy [sic] Nye of GMOs (of course much less well known) But you’re out there, trying to educate people about the science.”

After Folta drafted the letter, Kloor edited it and then emailed back different versions for final selection. “But by end of Sunday we should agree on the version to present,” Kloor wrote to Folta. “Once we do that, I’ll post it at my site first thing early Monday morning.”

The process hit a snag when Kloor asked if Folta should be described as having no “research funded by Monsanto.” Folta responded, “We know that Monsanto sponsors some of the biotech outreach projects like the Biotech Lit conference indirectly.” (A month prior, Jon Entine, head of a corporate front group called the Genetic Literacy Project, had emailed Folta: “Need to talk with you about the biotech lecture series that you got money from Monsanto. I met with them in St Louis yesterday and as per our discussion, they are keen to expand it. When can we talk?” Folta responded, “Now is Good! Make the phone ring!”)

Paul Thacker

After more back and forth, Kloor published the piece without any mention of Folta’s ties to Monsanto. Kloor then promoted the story in different blog postings at Discover, while Folta passed the letter off to Entine to run at the Genetic Literacy Project. Folta asked Entine to note it had originally run at Kloor’s Discover blog. “It was all his idea, and I’d like it to help his visibility,” Folta wrote to Entine. Lawyers now suing Monsanto argue in court documents that Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project and another entity called the American Council on Science and Health are funded by Monsanto to “shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers.”

“There are many ways that researchers can have ties to industry,” said Eric Campbell, a professor at Harvard who publishes research on conflicts of interest in science. “One is by research support. But there are many other forms of relationships that include getting expenses paid or being paid for speaking.”

Not noting Folta’s ties to Monsanto is misleading, Campbell said. “While it’s technically true, it’s not true that this person does not have relationships with the company,” Campbell added.

When provided the emails for comment, Becky Lang, Editor in chief of Discover Magazine, said she could not comment on specifics, but added, “Of course, it’s not our policy now, and never has been, to prompt sources to write criticism, edit criticism, and then run it as independent. It’s also not our policy to ever help sources try to hide their industry relationships.”

After first catching the stick from Kloor and Folta, Nye was later offered a carrot. As with Bartolotto, Monsanto invited Nye to tour their research labs in St. Louis, prompting the Science Guy to reverse course on GMO criticism and revise a chapter of his 2015 book.

“Nye’s doubts have evidently fallen away like milkweeds under a fine mist of herbicide,” observed a writer for Mother Jones. When Nye’s show launched earlier this year, a reporter with Vox complained about a segment where Nye hosted Monsanto’s Bill Fraley, who was there “not just to defend GMOs, but Monsanto itself.”

Vox added, “Nye also appears to be displaying an open bias in a way that undermines the very scientific objectivity he’s trying to promote. That’s why this segment is so striking: Its tone and framing are antithetical to the deep critical thinking Nye urges throughout the rest of the show.”

Bill Nye’s production company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Detecting Industry Rendezvous 

In early 2015, things took a turn for the worse for Keith Kloor and other GMO promoters. In every critical public health debate—from tobacco, to sugar, to soda, to climate change—journalists and public health advocates have, sooner or later, discovered financial ties between purportedly independent academics and corporate interests. Right on cue, a group funded in part by the Organic Consumers Association called U.S. Right to Know filed dozens of freedom of information requests asking to see emails and documents of several academics they suspected were coordinating their messaging with the GMO industry.

The FOI requests spurred Kloor to contact Folta for an article. “I’m doing it for Science Magazine,” he wrote. “They’re gonna play it up. In the magazine and website.” Kloor then sent Folta a series of questions, but did not appear to ask about the Monsanto funding.

Folta responded that the FOI request seemed designed by activists to intimidate scientists and that he had nothing to hide. The resulting article inScience failed to note Folta’s relationship with Monsanto. The story also carried comments from Bruce Chassy, criticizing the FOI requests without noting Chassy’s deep industry connections.

Kloor’s article in Science spurred a writer for Wired to email both Folta and Chassy. “This is just awful,” Alan Levinovitz emailed the two scientists, regarding the FOI requests for their emails. “I’ve had it with the ridiculous demonization.”

“Thank YOU Alan,” Folta responded. “The folks in the antiGM world are going a little goofy right now.” The resulting story in Wired characterized FOI requests as a “legal attack” and “witch hunt,” again without mentioning Folta’s or Chassy’s ties to industry.

Paul Thacker

That summer, Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project and Chassy’s Academics Review organized a second biotech literacy conference, this time at the University of California-Davis, with the support of $165,000 in industry money. An interesting addition to the 2015 conference was a panel to discuss the challenges of FOI requests, threats against journalists, and “random ‘hit’ bloggers.” Kloor and Folta were listed as panelists, and the moderator was none other than Bruce Chassy.

Exposing Corporate Trysts

While working to recast FOI requests as harassment, the entire PR campaign began sliding off the rails in late July 2015. Folta emailed officials at his university, explaining that U.S. Right to Know had gotten his emails. “I found out yesterday from the folks at Monsanto,” Folta wrote.

The next day, Folta alerted Kloor that he was going through the emails to figure out how to deal with any bad press, including his funding. “I started going through this last night and I’m thinking a preemptive release of the materials is good, but selectively.”

Paul Thacker

When the story ran in Nature, Kloor noted that Folta had received a $25,000 grant from Monsanto for educational outreach. “The records, which the university gave to US Right to Know last month, do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Folta,” Kloor wrote. “But they do reveal his close ties to the agriculture giant Monsanto, of St. Louis, Missouri, and other biotechnology-industry interests.” (Kloor later claimed on his personal website that he learned about the public release of the documents from a different scientist, not Folta).

Days after the story ran, Entine emailed Kloor, chiding him on the use of “close ties” to describe Folta’s relationship with corporations. Kloor emailed back, providing a rambling explanation for why the phrase appeared in the story. “I think it is a fair objection,” Kloor wrote, noting that the article had been excruciating to write. In his defense, Kloor argued that the final call on adding “close ties” to the article had been made by the editors at Nature.

“You and I should also talk,” Kloor wrote to Entine. “You are in the emails.”

Paul Thacker

A month later, Eric Lipton wrote a front-page article for the New York Times that described Folta as “part of an inner circle of industry consultants, lobbyists and executives who devised strategy on how to block state efforts to mandate G.M.O. labeling and, most recently, on how to get Congress to pass legislation that would pre-empt any state from taking such a step.” The Times released dozens of emails first gathered by U.S. Right to Know.

Lipton’s reporting also swept up Bruce Chassy, with documents noting that Chassy had negotiated a grant from Monsanto to persuade the Environmental Protection Agency to abandon the tightening of the regulation of pesticides used on insect-resistant seeds.

In October 2015, Bloomberg reported on documents that exposed how Eric Sachs, who leads Monsanto’s scientific outreach, goaded several scientists to write articles to influence “public policy, GM crop regulation and consumer acceptance.” The articles later appeared at the Genetic Literacy Project, without mentioning that Monsanto helped spur and coordinate production of the articles.

A few days before Christmas, Canadian journalist Allison Vuchnich reported that Kevin Folta helped industry coordinate a campaign to discredit Rachel Parent, a 14-year-old Canadian who runs a website and social media campaign on GMO agriculture. Folta helped industry put together a video attacking the teenager and suggested to a public relations firm that they create a website to counter Parent. “Today, I purchased and want to populate this,” Folta wrote. “I have no time, but I have an idea. I can provide content.”

Growing media exposure seems to have irked Folta. In May 2016 he emailed Kloor, “You should write a column about Thacker’s and Lipton’s false columns. Enough time has passed. Let’s turn this around.” He continued, “You can make a damn big splash with this. Lipton and Thacker lied through their teeth, as did Vuchnich.” Folta ended the email, “I’m glad to help.”

Emails reported on and made public for this story started becoming public last summer, yet Kloor has refused to respond to repeated questions about his relationship with Folta. Nor has Kloor explained his involvement with Jon Entine nor his failure to note Folta’s and Chassy’s industry ties in several stories. Kloor also dodged questions when asked if he had received payments or had expenses provided to attend industry-funded conferences.

“Keep them coming, Paul,” Kloor wrote, after being sent a series of questions, some months back. “BTW, this blizzard of leading questions you’ve sent in the past few weeks―with many of the Q’s based on implied assumptions built on falsehoods or distortions―is being asked for which article of yours?” Kloor responded in one exchange.

In Kloor’s blog posting and in multiple emails to this author, he has repeatedly referred to allegations about his close ties to industry scientists as “slander.” As a longtime journalist like Kloor must be aware the correct term for allegedly false written statements is “libel.”