THE BLOG
03/17/2016 01:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Teen Anti-GMO Crusader Rachel Parent: Idealist Or Pawn Of Father's Supplement Business?

This story is co-authored with David Warmflash, physician and science writer.

Imagine. You come home after a hard day at school. You're hungry, so you reach for a bag of delicious corn chips. You don't know what's in there because there's no label, so you eat it...

OMG, there's GMOs in it! You didn't know! You might be harmed! That's why we need food labeling, to protect innocent children being targeted by evil corporations!

It all boils down to one pitch line: "You have a right to know what's in your food."

That's the gist of anti-GMO campaigner Rachel Parent's stump speech, delivered at schools and on television programs around the world. She's only 16 years old, but the Canadian high school student has become a canny international crusader in the effort to protect the world against the ecological and health dangers of foods made from genetically engineered crops. She may be the organic industry's most important weapon in convincing the public that genetically modified foods should be labeled. (Watch TedX talk here).

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"I was shocked to learn that our government wasn't doing any independent studies on GMOs but was relying on studies by the biotech companies, the very companies that stood stand to gain from their approval. I decided a good place to start was to create awareness of GMOs, the potential risks to our health and the environment, and to demand labeling, so people would have the freedom to choose if they want to avoid eating them."

Parent is an excellent presenter. The tone of her voice, timed chuckling and the shake of her her head are all perfectly timed, sending a message that you'd have to be crazy not to agree with her that foods made with genetically modified ingredients are something you'd want to avoid. Children shouldn't be pawns of large, anonymous corporations who have taken over the world food supply. "Kids have a "right to know," she is fond of saying.

Who is Rachel Parent?

In case you are not familiar with her name, let us bring you up to date. In her TEDx talk and elsewhere, Parent has said that she was drawn to the GMO issue at age 12, when she had to give a school speech for a 6th grade project. As she prepared for her talk, she's said, she "saw how GMOs were negatively impacting the entire ecosystem -- the environment, soil, water, plants, animals, insects and people. Just everything and everyone." So, snap, the self-created myth goes, shortly after her speech was well received at her school, she founded an organization called Kids Right to Know to spread what had been revealed to her.

Parent became a folk hero among the anti-GMO crowd when, shortly after entering high school, she debated labeling and the safety of GMOs with TV personality Kevin O'Leary on a Canadian Broadcasting Company program.

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The 'debate' went viral. Headlines such as this one -- "5 ways a 14-year-old crushed an arrogant interviewer" -- flooded the web.

Like most anti-GMO activists, Parent asks people to support mandatory GMO labeling but does not directly call for a ban of genetic technology in agriculture. But during her talk and in her debate with O'Leary and on other programs, she tries to convince people that the ingredients derived from genetically engineered plants pose 'hidden dangers.' Like most pro-labeling supporters who claim to support a 'right to know' but in less guarded moments make it clear they would love to rid the planet of genetic engineering technologies altogether (see Genetic Literacy Project infographic and article by Jon Entine here), Parent tries to make her doubts about GM food safety sound science-based.

For example, on her website, Kids' Right to Know, she cites a stream of studies that raise all kinds of safety concerns. They come across as alarming, if one is not familiar with the scientific literature on GMOs. In actuality, they are mostly a combination of fringe research in predatory pay-for-play journals, and a familiar collection of discredited, misconstrued and biased studies reviewed and rejected by some 270 international independent science organizations which have issued statements declaring that foods containing ingredients from genetically-engineered plants are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods. But Parent presents these fringe, flawed studies as mainstream science, and her fresh sincerity goes a long way toward convincing the credulous.

She also lapses into common strawman arguments and half-truths, such as claiming that Third World hunger is due to poverty and not a food supply issue, when in reality both of those things are factors and the supply issue will get worse as we move toward a 9 billion plus population around mid-century. Here is a well reasoned critical analysis of Rachel Parent's views by Swedish science writer Emil Karlson, author of the respected Debunking Denialism blog.

But something else is never disclosed on her website and in her talks. Why did Parent suddenly get so interested in GMOs? And how did this precocious teenager explode upon the foodie world with a polished website with layered arguments that mimicked the most sophisticated anti-GMO websites? It wasn't disclosed in the TEDx talk, nor at the anti-GMO marches and other events where Parent gives interviews and talks, but the Parent family owns a franchise of stores called Nutrition House, which also has a high profile web presence.

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What is Nutrition House? Think brick and mortar version of online stories like Mike Adam's Natural News and Dr. Joseph Mercola, well known as websites peddling dietary supplements and natural products. These products -- widely considered unnecessary at best and killer dangerous at worst -- are virtually unregulated and their purveyors have managed to block repeated attempts at mandatory labeling.

According to an article in the Canadian Business Journal, "Nutrition House has positioned itself well to capitalize on the $4 billion (Canadian) natural health products industry." Worldwide, it's a $400 billion industry -- unlabeled and unregulated, with no purity standards or testing.

Nutrition House has more than 70 stores throughout Canada, plus one in Atlanta, mostly in upscale shopping malls. Products include nutritional supplements, herbal remedies, "sports nutrition" (protein powders and such), and a host of other products, most of which come in jars in capsule or power form. Basically, it's like the supplement section of the Whole Foods Market, and if you look into many of the products, you will see that they're guaranteed to be GMO-free, and free of almost any nutritional benefit as well.

Rachel's father, Wayne Parent, is the CEO of Nutrition House. His Facebook page suggests that he too is an activist against GMOs. In other words, teenage Rachel is not just a leading spokesperson for labeling advocates; whether she will acknowledge it or not she's a front for the 'natural products' anti-GMO movement who have done everything in the power to deny the public a right to know about the very real dangers of many "natural" supplements.

How ironic that the literal poster child for the anti-GMO 'right to know' movement is the daughter of a family who has made millions of dollars selling quack notions to the public about supplements. So much for Rachel and her parents commitment to a 'right to know.'

Because of those concerns, the Genetic Literacy Project contacted Parent and her father's company by email and through her website contact forms with requests for a statement to include in this article. Neither Rachel, nor her father's business has responded, but we do hope that they'll send comments now that this article is published.

Rachel Parent and the Kevin Folta affair

The Rachel Parent backstory -- that she and her family are deeply embedded in the anti-GMO industry -- helps put in perspective the recent attack by Parent and her advocates against University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta. Folta has been a tireless advocate in recent years on the potential risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology, appearing for no fees at public conferences, university lectures and TV and radio programs, while engaging the public in online chat lines and podcasts and in hundreds of blogs and articles each year. We've known Professor Folta for years; he is whistle clean and a dogged advocate for transparency. His undeniable success at campaigning for empirical based science has made him a perennial target for anti-GMO groups, particularly fringe natural product organizations.

The antis finally scored last summer after the organic industry funded group US Right to Know secured emails under various state freedom of information acts of more than 45 professors and science communicators who USRTK claimed had 'dangerous' industry ties. Among them was Folta, who has received exactly zero dollars in his career from 'Big Ag' to support his research. USRTK cherry picked one email that showed that Folta's university had received $25,000 from Monsanto as an "unrestricted gift" (university jargon for no deliverables expected) to cover the cost of travel and other incidentals for unpaid talks to various organizations to teach scientists how to effectively engage the public in discussions on genetic engineering.

Folta himself pocketed nothing from these talks, all done for free in open public forums. In one sloppily written article, in the New York Times, Folta was profiled extensively while the work of Charles Benbrook, a well known GMO critic, was only briefly referenced. As it turned out, 100 percent of Benbrook's research dollars -- hundreds of thousands of dollars -- came from anti-GMO and pro-organic industry sources, in contrast to the zero industry dollars that supported Folta's research.

The controversy led Folta to suspend, at least temporarily, his science outreach efforts. But the unsubstantiated attacks have continued, most recently spurred by the Parent family. In an article by Allison Vuchichon on the Global News Canada website, "Documents reveal Canadian teenager target of GMO lobby," Rachel and her parents maintained that they were the targets of a "GMO lobby" financed attacked headed up by Folta.

"To think at this point, I was on their radar and I had no clue," Vulchicohon quoted Rachel as saying.

The article highlighted an email Folta had written to a friend suggesting that Rachel's website KidsRighttoKnow.com was deceptive and that a website should be established to counter the unscientific claims by teaching STEM (science and technology issues) to teenagers. The Parent site is in fact filled with unsubstantiated claims that mirror the mostly anti-science views of the natural products industry -- like those promoted by her parent's company, Natural House, which has a high profile presence on the web.

Anti-GMOers see it differently. "It's mostly scientists that they attack, but Rachel is a standout. The agrichemical industry is plainly quite threatened by this teenage schoolgirl, so that's why they're after her," the article quoted Gary Ruskin, the co-director of USRTK, who had procured the emails. Ruskin referred to Folta as the GMO industry's "attack dog" -- an absurd comment to anyone who has met Folta or is familiar with his engaging, professorial and non-confrontational style. The article portrayed Folta as the industry's serpent's head targeting a helpless Canadian truth teller:

Later that year [2014], while attending a roundtable in Washington, D.C., Folta was asked by public relations firm Ketchum to make a video about Parent.

The email request to Folta read, "How do you agree/disagree with 14-yr old GMO Labeling activist Rachel Parent, who is, in her own words 'not anti-science' but 'for responsible science and ethical progress?'"

But, the email added, "we try to refrain from personally attacking folks, so don't worry too much about Rachel specifically."

Nine days later, a video appeared online that was quite specific, entitled, "How do you agree/disagree with 14 year old GMO Activist?"

The video discussed Parent's activism, her belief that all GMO food products should be labelled, and addressed her apparent lack of scientific knowledge.

"So when I think about answering Rachel Parent, who's the activist child - well, young woman - who's running the website 'Kids Right to Know...The things I just adore about Rachel is that she's clearly very articulate, clearly intelligent," Folta said in the video.

"The problem that I have is when Rachel starts to let non-scientific thinking really kind of cloud her final decision-making process."

Parent said she finds the tone of the video "almost degrading."

She also defended the information on her organization's website as scientifically sound.

"People can say whatever they want about me, but as long as I know what I am doing is right, their opinion doesn't matter."

The article, written with a decided bias by Vuchichon, who gave a platform for a renewed attack on Folta and did not disclose the financial conflict of interests of the young campaigner and her parents, let to a torrent of vicious emails and social media personal attacks against Folta. The fusillade was touched off by GMOFreeUSA using an attack voiced by Stacy Malkan, the co-founder of USRTK.

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Malkan and USRTK co-founder Gary Ruskin then mounted a Twitter offensive, echoed by the anti-GMO chorus that haunts the Internet, sweeping in such influential anti-GMO campaigners as Nassem Taleb, Pete Meyers and even Food Babe.

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Rachel Parent jumps in to promote this conspiracy mongering to her followers -- again, never disclosing her family's personal financial stake in trying to discredit anti-science critics like professor Folta.

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Here the attackers that seek to defame scientists and communicators like Folta end up exploiting an idealistic, if misguided teenager; she's merely a tool for their ideological goals. They try to portray her as an innocent victim of bullying, when no bullying words were ever spoken. And Parent even endorses and retweets false allegations against a public scientist.

What we have is this: A scientist critical of Rachel's deceptive claims on her website and the distorting impact they might have on innocent children suggests a science-based remedy -- a STEM-based website to counter misinformation -- exactly the kind of engagement we would hope that public scientists would be doing. No website was ever made, and the domain Folta suggested as a venue for a genuinely open discussion of the science, "kidsrighttotruth.org", is actually owned by Parent's father. Folta's off-the-cuff comment was twisted into some sort of attack on Parent coordinated by Monsanto.

These distortions continue the trend established by USRTK: Misuse FOIA to secure tens of thousands of emails, cherry pick short passages, and then re-interpret them in false narratives that are damaging to scientists. All in all quite a fiasco... in this case prompted by Rachel Parent -- who the media, by and large, has portrayed as an idealistic teenager promoting the ideals of transparency and democracy. The truth, clearly, is far different. Parent is entitled to her views, of course. But let's be clear. Whatever her personal views, she is servicing the perspectives of ideologues who would like nothing more than the end of the use of genetic engineering and other technological breakthroughs. This coincides with the financial interests of the natural products and supplement industry (and her family's multi-million dollar company) which has fought tooth-and-nail against the public's 'right to know' when it pertains to their own products.

From mommy bloggers to the President, we all recognize how important it is for young women to become trained and active in STEM disciplines. In the case of Parent, it is sad to see ideology steer her away from science and into promoting denialism and its profitable products. Everyone acknowledges that she is bright and articulate. Unfortunately, she's being manipulated as a popular puppet to push bad science and unvetted products. That's why we should not be critical of her personally. However, we must be critical about what she represents and of the those, including her parents, who are using her: she's become spokesperson a dangerous role model for young people who see science as an ideological tool. Rachel Parent is a poster child. Not for bullying or the excesses of Big Ag but for the hypocrisy of those who use the cloak of 'right to know' to deceive the credulous.

Jon Entine, Executive Director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution on Twitter.