The news that I was the recipient of the 2016 CAST Borlaug
Agricultural Communications Award added a new extreme to the wild emotional dynamics
of the past twelve months. Celebrate,
suffer; dance, cry; hurt, heal. Quit, start, refresh, retreat. Lather, rinse
Back in August and September 2015 I read in disbelief that I
was part of Monsanto’s “inner circle”, one of their “strategic advisors” with “close
ties” that “took money to lie about science” and “used undisclosed funds to
thwart labeling efforts.” I read the
websites, I read the articles. The
person I was reading about was not the person in the mirror.
But in the day of the internet, the person in the mirror is
forced to take the yoke that the most devious person installs. You become, in perception, who they decide you are. You lose control of your own persona—that is
left to those that want to destroy you.
There is nothing you can do if you are a mostly unknown public scientist
that has a minor social media presence.
The opponents have money, agenda, personnel, and a mission-- as well as access to
some of the nation’s loudest media megaphones.
The title of the Buzzfeed article was pure hyperbole, designed explicitly to harm the reputation of a scientist. It was soon after changed to "Seed Money" after the defamatory clickbait title did its intended job.
It does not matter what is true. If you read Google's top 100 entries when you search my name, you won't read about Kevin Folta, 29 years in public academic laboratories, research funded almost 100% by public sources. You won't read much about they guy that minted a dozen Ph.D. graduates and gave lab experiences to over 120 undergradutes. You won't read about the work in strawberry genomics and how specific light wavelengths can improve plant nutrition.
Instead you'll be treated to the story that US-RTK, Gary Ruskin, Paul
Thacker, Mike Adams, Charles Seife, Eric Lipton, Vani Hari, Brooke Borel, Joe Mercola, Allison Vuchnich, and many
others wanted told— that Kevin Folta is a
“corporate lobbyist” and “Monsanto apologist”, that is, when he's not conspiring
with PR firms to bully 15 year-old girls. These words were written in prominent
places only to be gleefully grabbed and propagated by activist organizations
sworn to at least destroy my credibility, or at most, end my career in science.
Activist organizations like Natural News, GMO Free USA, and GM Watch
danced with joy as reputable writers spun these tales from carefully-chosen
words from my emails, willingly released under public records laws. Words and sentences pulled from context, plucked and reassembled into weapons. They took the manufactured narratives of legitimate journalists and twisted them to impart maximal damage.
Gary Ruskin of USRTK gave it a whole 12 minutes before trying to downplay the gravity of this recognition. He posts a link to the hit-piece he commissioned when he sent my emails to Eric Lipton at the NYT with a story for him to tell. We're eight months out and everyone sees that it was a cheap shot at harming a public servant.
the internet, and even professionals like Dr. Ena Valikov reviewed my every online
interaction, and took every opportunity to trash my sentiments with vicious interpretations. I’ve saved every one, and there are well over one
I remember last September, I was in tears sitting with Brooke
Borel, a writer I once really appreciated, begging her not to hyperbolize a comedyparody podcast mocking Coast to Coast AM. I told her that the internet trolls would
punish me hard and her words would forever be used to harm me. She was cold and unswayed. The article ran with the catchy “Confessions of a Monsanto Apologist” headline, that
later was changed perhaps when a moral calculus, or a legal adviser, finally weighed in. She is one person I will never forgive. I hope
it was a big check.
The damage was done. The internet's slander machine kicked into high gear, leading to days of articles shared tens of thousands of times, claiming I was a "psychotic", that I was "mentally deranged" and "should never be teaching in a public university." Global News writer Allison Vuchnich assembled a tale that I was paid by Monsanto to harass 15-year old Canadian activist Rachel Parent.
Whether by coincidence or cause, my invitations to talk about science at elementary schools went from twelve a year to zero. Now nobody does it.
Those intent on my demise posted my home address and phone
numbers. My office phone had to be changed, and messages were re-routed to the
police and Domestic Terrorism Task Force. My email accounts experienced
numerous cases of “excessive logins”. I had to scroll through thousands of pages on Craigslist to find, and have removed, the postings in my community that inspired violence against me, listing my home address and phone number.
my normally-closed office door was open, and police were called to check for
bombs and booby traps. I just must have left it open. A package showed
up with no return address, and it sat outside, unopened for weeks, until I
found out that a friend just sent me a book. Your life becomes living in terror.
This is what USRTK and their cadre of complicit journalists inspired—
their constructed narratives fueled defamation of a lifelong public scientist, along
with threats and harassment. It provided dangerous fodder for an emotionally-motivated movement that has a history of burning down laboratories and threatening scientists. I still watch my back.
My good work remains in space, unquestioned and still recognized as important by the scientific community. But awards
for mentoring students, caring for postdocs, publishing work to advance
science, and giving endless service, seven days a week, all day, every day, is
just not as public-interest-exciting as the story of the shill lobbyist traitor with an alter ego,
who takes money from companies to lie about science and bully high school girls.
Through all of this, through all the criticism, it was all
attacks on me, the person. There was not
one shred of wrongdoing, and absolutely no evidence of scientific misconduct,
despite what some of the authors imply.
Not one hint.
I learned of many things that I could have done better. I took actions to be beyond aggressively transparent. I've tried hard to de-snarkify and be a better leader in communicating contentious issues with grace. I still have a long way to go.
But living as me, knowing that the perception of who I am is
in control of horrible people that want to destroy my career, and using the
media to destroy me personally — nobody could handle that.
I didn’t handle it. It
changed me. I suffered with gyrations
between overwhelming runaway anxiety and devastating depression. I neglected myself, quit my almost religious
gym habits and interest in exercise. I
didn’t care anymore, and still am not completely back to where I was before this all happened.
I don't know that I ever will be.
One day in September I sat in a plane on my way to another something out
of town, and I remember thinking to myself, “If this plane were to crash, I
would be okay with that.”
I would break down all the time. If I gave a talk about my work, I’d get
choked up when I’d describe our clever experiment, and I’d have to stop and lose
tears when I put up a picture of the scientists in my lab, sweet, dedicated
professionals that I am so blessed to share my days with. I would have quit if it was not for them, for
the faculty I work with, and for a bigger mission serving the agricultural
interests of my state and nation.
It all changed me. My
hair started going grey and I aged a decade in the last year. My breathing is slow and shallow, I don’t
sleep well. I’m forgetful. The toll has been harsh. My eyes swell with tears when I even think about what I have been through.
But I wear a convincing mask. The whole time I haven’t missed a beat at work. We’re doing good research, we’re publishing,
I’m speaking all over the country about research and science communication. I’m
taking care of business as the Chair of a leading department in our discipline.
I answer almost every email from every high school or college student that is doing a report. I answer the emails from concerned moms. I read and try to respond to every comment on my public Facebook page and on Twitter.
I survived, but I’m dragging an anchor. I can feel it.
Others say, “Screw ‘em, who cares what they think,” and I
get that. But to know that there are still wicked people laying landmines in my path and trashing my reputation, that's hard
to live with.
Then over the last month or so my university turned over
another huge set of my emails to US-RTK and the Food Babe, Vani Hari. I went through them, nothing exciting
there. However, I sit waiting to see the
news explode across social media of my evils and indiscretions, more
manufactured stories that simply are not true, but now become part of my story, as told by the internet.
Throughout this ordeal there have been some rays of
sunshine. I get endless support from an
online community of science enthusiasts that are fast to reach out and offer
their thoughts. I’ve seen scientists
like Dr. Allison Van Eenennaam and my colleagues here at the University of
Florida step up and admonish the relentless ad
hominems I endure. My boss, Dr. Jack Payne, stepped into my defense with great authority, clarifying the issues in public forums and within the university. Drs. Steven
Novella, David Kroll, and David Gorski have written brilliant rebuttals and supportive
entries. I'm grateful to Dr. Maria Trainer for assembling the packet leading to this recognition. If it was not for the support of colleagues I would not be in science today.
This is why being recognized with the Borlaug Agricultural
Communications Award is so amazing. It is a reminder that I am doing the right
thing. It helps me rebuild that record
of who I really am, to put a different story in social space to contrast the
cyber-slander of Food Babes and Health Rangers.
That is why this recognition means so much.
When the sun sets on this mess everything will be okay. Time will be kind. Today’s announcement is a continuation of that
redefining process. I have to go above and beyond to be more effective, more
transparent, more prolific. I need to
find a new level of service, both in the scientific community and in the public
eye. That’s all happening.
I believe that in a strange way the invasive and libelous activist attacks are a gift. They have provided me a visibility and platform that this marginally-relevant plant scientist would never have had
otherwise. Now the challenge is to use that momentum to do what Dr. Norman Borlaug would do-- advance science that can help people. That is the mission of this recognition, to use science, and science communication, to honor his legacy by ensuring that all people, especially those in need, have access to our best agricultural innovations.