Opinions on GMOs are firmly rooted, despite academic efforts to sway non-believers. Factor in examination of research funding and the issue is in for an eternal winter.
That raises questions about transparency, ethics, and accountability.
The partnering of industry and science sank deeper into the public consciousness earlier this month following a watercooler New York Times article.
And now everyone from Gary Ruskin, co-founder and co-director of U.S. Right to Know; Vani Hari, activist known as "Food Babe"; Mary Ellen Camire, food science professor and past president of the Institute of Food Technologists; and Monsanto, a biotech giant wants to have a say.
Emails uncovered through FOIA requests revealed how the industry uses academics in promoting causes. These 40 requests were initiated by activist group U.S. Right to Know (less than a quarter have been answered), though some additionally were filed by The New York Times. The news organization also sent requests looking into academics linked to the organic industry.
"There is no evidence that academic work was compromised, but the emails show how academics have shifted from researchers to actors in lobbying and corporate public relations campaigns," reported The New York Times.
But the GMO debate is a tangled web, and with differing opinions flaring, where does that leave room for something truly "unbiased?"
"I hate to see anybody just rule out genetic modification outright because it's evil. It's how you use it. A car is not evil unless you plow it through a crowd of people," Camire told Food Dive.
The Trojan Horse of the academics-industry relationship
When scientists work with food companies, their work is under scrutiny and the process — from compensation to reported findings — raises ethical questions about what it means to be truly transparent.
Prime examples are Kevin Folta, the chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, and Chuck Benbrook, who previously worked for Washington State University. Biotech companies funded Folta's trips to Pennsylvania and Hawaii, and organic companies funded Benbrook's trips to Washington as well as some of his research, reports The New York Times.
According to the article, biotech and organics are comparable partners with the scientists, but Nathanael Johnson of Grist noted it's likely that biotech may be more deeply involved.
To activists like Hari and Ruskin, a scientist being paid in this capacity is an appetizer to a larger food buffet.
"University professors and researchers, companies, need to be up front when they are outright working with the industry," said Hari.
"We're making noise and the food industry is being dragged kicking and screaming to do it," said Ruskin.
Sorting out conflicts of interest
Camire thinks science and industry can meet without controversy. She highlighted work by the American Society for Nutrition which brought together the Institute of Food Technologists and other organizations to discuss public-private partnerships in research for food and nutrition.
"Funding university professors to do research is an obvious win-win for consumers, for the food industry, but there's always that concern about taint," Camire said. "So if there's a public-private partnership, the federal government, or in some cases the state government, is sort of the broker, and the industry gives the money to the federal government, and the federal government uses some of its money, and then distributes it impartially to university researchers. I think that's a much better model to go by."
Camire recounted an incident several years ago where McCain Foods — the largest manufacturer of French fries in the world — approached her about writing an article.
"2008 was the international year of the potato ... I was approached by a scientist to write an article on the health benefits of potatoes, because there had been a lot of negative press about potatoes," she said. "But I said I wouldn’t take any money for it ... I just didn't feel right doing something that I'd publish in a peer review journal, I didn’t want any money from them. I felt my own research with potatoes here at the university was enough."
"I thought that might raise doubts about the veracity of what I was talking about and I try to look at things fairly because eating is not a risk-free activity," she added.
But at the end of the day, the gray area still exists, even with all conflicts exposed.
When Johnson caught up with Folta, Folta said that he should've further explained his relationship with Monsanto but didn't feel it was required at the time.
Johnson wrote, "It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that scientists have (sometimes ardent) political opinions, or email with people at businesses and advocacy groups, or receive money from companies that like what they are doing. In fact, I would be astounded if Folta and Benbrook weren't talking to people in industry. None of this changes the way that I would approach either of them, because I never call up scientists and expect them to deliver Truth."
Folta wrote a piece for The Huffington Post highlighting the need to go beyond transparency — and provided PDFs detailing his outreach and extension activities.
"So if you asked me about funding from Monsanto today, I'll refer to the one time they reimbursed me for my exact costs incurred for traveling to speak to farmers in Colorado last year," Folta wrote. "I'd mention that they once donated to my science communication program, but the funds were not used and transferred to a charity."
Perception is critical
Charla Lord, a Monsanto spokesperson, wrote in an email that transparency is a core part of its business.
"At Monsanto, we communicate and exchange ideas with dozens of public sector scientists on matters of common interest," she added. "The vast majority of those relationships do not involve any funding; they are about exchanging scientific information, sharing different perspectives, and ultimately enabling complementary efforts where our common interests align."
With health-conscious U.S. consumers drinking less soda for 10 straight years, Coca-Cola funded a study with the Global Energy Balance Network. When the results claimed that junk food doesn't cause obesity and that obesity can be fought with exercise, health experts cried foul.
Following that backlash, Coca-Cola said it would increase transparency. The beverage giant has since disclosed close to $120 million in U.S. scientific research since 2010 and said it wouldn't be renewing its Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics sponsorship (though Coca-Cola could fund the academy again).
Distrust looms, with Hari as an influential figure. Despite her detractors, she's managed to rattle the industry. After all, Kraft announced it would be removing artificial dyes following a large petition from Hari and the work of her "Army."
Meanwhile, the non-GMO movement is growing rapidly. According to Packaged Facts, the $5 trillion retail-valued global food and beverage market included $550 billion of non-GMO products in 2014. However, removing GMOs, at least for companies like Chipotle that eliminated them from most of its items, are aimed at consumers that fall under the industry-deemed "health halo." Calling something non-GMO is an effective marketing tool, where perception reigns supreme.
Camire notes the distrust issue goes beyond "big industry."
"Unfortunately, I think some people just distrust big industry in general and anyone who's gotten funding from them," Camire said. "It’s more of a perception issue than a real issue in bias I think."
Is this distrust warranted? Johnson argues private research has been vital to science, and that it's illogical to say that anyone who accepts money from businesses or works with company representatives is "tainted and toxic." "Collaboration with industry is part of the mission of many universities — it's literally in the job description of many public scientists," he wrote.
Food is 'emotional'
It's the passion all sides feel about food that only makes discussing it more difficult. The consumer has power in terms of making purchases, and getting educated about what's in their food. How food is made is paramount to these decisions, especially in an era where someone can take out their phone and learn information in seconds.
"I believe that we all have the right to talk about these issues," Hari said. "I believe that we all have the power to learn the ingredients in our food and also to learn how food is made and where it comes from."
Lord acknowledged Monsanto's engagement level with consumers is not where it should have been, though says it's "done a good job" with the science community, agriculture chain, and farmer customer discussions.
"We were absent from those conversations – we have nothing to hide, we just weren't talking about it," she said. "Hindsight is an important thing and, in our case, it's helping change how we engage more with all stakeholders."
One problem that alienates consumers is not effectively explaining information on an understandable level. For example, when speaking about varieties of wild blueberry plants grown in the same field, the technical term is "clone" — not exactly something that inspires words like "natural" or "authentic."
"We put food in our bodies and so it’s part of us," Camire said. "And so people hold very emotional ties to their food."
And with such emotional fervor carrying into treatment of research, the controversy has rooted itself as an inevitability.