Kevin Folta talking about GMOs

The pro-GMO scientist Kevin Folta says he bases his statements on GMO safety on science – but some of his views look more like ideology. An expert in nutrition and public health weighs in with a commentary exclusive to GMWatch

Kevin Folta is a scientist and a pro-GMO activist who vigorously goes after anyone that disagrees with his ideology. Folta claims – as though he is the arbiter of truth – that GMO opponents are fearmongers who spread misinformation.

But let's take a look at Folta’s background and compare some of his claims to published research, the perspective of a prominent nutrition expert, and obvious fact.

Folta is a molecular biologist with no known health background. On GMOanswers, a website run by the GMO industry, it says, “Kevin Folta is a professor in and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He got his PhD in Molecular Biology from University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998, and he has worked at University of Wisconsin before settling in at University of Florida. Dr Folta researches the functional genomics of small fruit crops, the plant transformation, the genetic basis of flavors, and studies at photomorphogenesis and flowering. He has also written many publications and edited books, most recently was the 2011 Genetics, Genomics, and Breeding of Berries. Dr Folta received the NSF CAREER Award, an HHMI Mentoring Award and was recognized as "University of Florida Foundation Research Professor" in 2010.”

If you want to know about the genetic basis of flavours or the functional genomics of small fruit crops, Folta is your man. But how likely is it that Folta, a professor in the horticultural sciences department, will know and understand the impact of diet on human health? Is he a doctor, dietitian or nutritionist? Nope. Does he have a master’s degree in public health or PhD in a related field? Nope. Does he understand how we determine if something is safe for humans? Nope. The bottom line is that he does not have the qualifications to weigh in on diet and human health. But does he? Yes, all the time.

In a recent blog post he implied that food additives are safe, saying, “Food additives need FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval, and that requires testing.”

However, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found that between 1997 and 2012 all of the members on panels to determine if a food additive was safe had ties to the industry that created them, either as an employee or consultant. Additionally, the FDA allowed companies that created food products to determine whether or not a food additive was generally recognized as safe, also known as GRAS. In some cases, these companies did not even notify the FDA of this determination!

Food politics guru Marion Nestle, PhD, who actually has a degree in nutrition, wrote a commentary on the study, saying, "How is it possible that the FDA permits manufacturers to decide for themselves whether their food additives are safe?" How indeed.

Folta says, “After 17 years no epidemiological trends have been established between GM and health concerns.” But this is clearly a reflection of his lack of scientific understanding. To date, there is not a single human epidemiological study. To say there are no epidemiological trends between GMOs and health is actually impossible to confirm since GMOs are not labeled. And as Consumer Reports says, “Saying there’s no evidence of harm isn’t the same as saying they’ve been proved safe.”

Folta also says that there is no “plausible mechanism” for harm from GMOs. When it comes to diet and health, we often have no idea why a particular substance causes harm, but that does not stop health professionals or health organizations from making recommendations. A case in point is sugar. NHANES  (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) recently published research that found a 38 per cent increased risk of heart disease for those who consumed 17 to 21 per cent of calories from sugar compared with those who consumed less. They also go on to say, “The biological mechanisms underlying the association between added sugar intake and CVD (cardiovascular disease) risk are not completely understood.” This highlights the well known fact that we often do not know the mechanism for harm for particular foods, such as sugar or red meat, but we do recommend limiting these foods since they are linked with negative health outcomes.

In response to the claim that organic produce is higher in vitamins and minerals, Folta says, “notsomuch”. Yet his views are clearly out of accord with research.

Organic fruits and vegetables are generally 5 to 15 per cent higher in nutrients, but they can be 30 to 100 per cent higher in some cases. And they are much higher in the health-enhancing phytochemicals that plants create to fight off pests. They also have a longer shelf life since they have more antibacterial phenolic acids under their skin, which helps prevent mold, bacterial growth, and thus spoilage. Additionally, organic foods have more microbial diversity, with plenty of healthy bacteria. So if unhealthy bacteria are introduced, they may not be as likely to multiply and cause health problems for us.

Organics also are lower in pesticides. Nestle says, “Research clearly demonstrates that pesticides harm farmworkers exposed to high doses. But recent studies report slightly lower IQ levels in children born to urban women with higher blood levels of pesticides. Although these studies did not control for socioeconomic and other variables that might influence IQ, they raise the possibility that even low levels might be harmful.”

Her advice?  “Buy organic. Pesticides, invisible and unlabeled as they are, constitute a good reason to do so.”

Folta does not support labeling of GMOs and says, “GMO labeling and GMO policy should be dictated strictly by science and evidence and not by manipulation of emotion.” Yet Nestle says, “Labeling GM foods should be a no-brainer.” But Folta and the biotech industry are afraid consumers will reject GMOs. Nestle continues, “If consumers distrust GM foods, the industry has nobody to blame but itself. It has done little to inspire trust. Labelling promotes trust. Not labelling is undemocratic; it does not allow choice.” In fact, the biotech industry has spent close to 100 million dollars to squelch GMO labeling. What are they trying to hide? And just think how many hungry mouths we could have fed or how much blindness from vitamin A deficiency we could have prevented with 100 million dollars.

Folta says that people often accuse him of working for or being funded by Monsanto. But he replies, “I have never received any financial compensation for my time,” implying that he does not have a conflict of interest with regards to his work around GMOs. However, he works for a university that receives funding from the GMO industry. So he stands to benefit if GMOs do well and could potentially lose his job if funding for GMO research wanes.

Folta believes he is science-based and says on GMOanswers, “My answers are 100% consistent with the peer-reviewed literature.” But the examples above cast doubt on these claims.

While Folta might be viewed as having a hard time getting his facts straight, he also misperceives his own behaviour. On his 25 October 2014 blog post, he said: “Some recognize me for unending patience and softness, even in the presence of insults and idiocy.”

Kevin Folta tweetsBut Folta’s perception of himself is far from reality, as these tweets (right), a few of many, demonstrate.

Hmm, so much for softness and patience.

Folta’s version of the truth appears to be a few notches short of reality. Please remember to take what he says with a very large grain of salt.