The founder of GMWatch, Jonathan Matthews, replies to a bizarre series of attacks by a well-known troll
One thing is certain. When you publish an article exposing trolls who engage in vicious vendettas, you’re going to get trolled. And if the principal offender is prone to comparing those he doesn’t like to Adolf Hitler, and those he does to Jesus Christ, things are bound to get weird.
In some ways, of course, this is par for the course. When George Monbiot used our research to expose Monsanto’s use of black propaganda, it was suddenly claimed that I was linked to a “terrorist group”. When we published a piece challenging the hype over golden rice, we were denounced as “a bunch of murdering bastards”. And when we first exposed Mark Lynas’s fraudulent claims to being a founder of the anti-GMO movement, he denounced us as “an industry shill for Big Organic”.
Unfortunately for Mark Lynas, when he tried to substantiate that smear, he ended up having to retract it with a grovelling apology to the Soil Association. But that hasn’t stopped a recent piece published by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project (GLP) from going down exactly the same path.
Its author, Stephan Neidenbach – the main subject of our article “We love GMOs and vendetta” – starts his article by labelling us an organic industry “front group”. And he doesn’t stop there. He also says we’re anti-vaccines and implies we’re in thrall to “Big Tractor”, as well as to a well known social justice group, the MP Zac Goldsmith, and the scientist Dr John Fagan. He also implies we have links to an anti-Jewish cabal… oh, and that my real agenda is starving the planet.
Before we look into these charges, a word about Stephan Neidenbach’s penchant for accusing people of being fronts for industry and other dark forces.
The nonprofit GMO Free USA is a favourite Neidenbach target. But his claim that it is a front for a GMO testing firm earned him a letter from the company's lawyer (see image, right), pointing out that his post “characterizing GMO Free USA as a front group for Genetic ID is false and defamatory”.
Despite that, Neidenbach is still busy trying to connect people to the company.
A newer Neidenbach bête noir is the social justice group, Global Justice Now, formerly known as the World Development Movement. Recently Monsanto’s Director of Millennial Engagement, Vance Crowe, retweeted a Neidenbach graphic attacking students at Iowa State University for protesting the questionable ethics of the GMO banana research taking place there. Neidenbach claimed the protesters were being “funded by a European NGO” – Global Justice Now.
When Global Justice Now pointed out that they had nothing to do with “any banana protests”, Neidenbach (@welovegv) told them he was sure they had “money laundering through all kinds of front groups”. Neidenbach offered no evidence in support of this defamatory claim.
According to Neidenbach’s article, GMWatch acts as a mouthpiece for a whole array of individuals, movements and interests, including Global Justice Now and the founder of Genetic ID.
But before examining these front group claims, I want to tackle a few of the other charges Neidenbach levels against us, including his insinuation that we’re linked to anti-semitism.
Neidenbach didn’t like the article I wrote about his trolling. He accuses me of giving those mounting “an organized attack on my own personal life” the chance to “claim they were somehow the ones victimized”. In other words, I mistook the victim (Neidenbach) for the troll.
But the article he refers to was almost entirely focused on Neidenbach’s attacks on the risk analyst Nassim Taleb and one of Taleb’s co-authors, the post-doctoral student Joe Norman. I have seen no evidence that either Taleb or Norman mounted any kind of attack on Neidenbach’s “personal life”.
What I did see evidence of was Neidenbach repeatedly attacking them via demeaning graphics, including ones that compared Taleb to Hitler and Stalin, as well as attempting other forms of intimidation. I also saw clear evidence that when Norman objected, Neidenbach’s Facebook page was used to abuse and threaten him, and this included the threat of physical violence.
And this wasn’t a one-off. The bullying and intimidation are still going on. Take for instance that protest at Iowa State where Neidenbach claimed the students were in the pay of Global Justice Now and refused to hear otherwise.
One of the protesters, a graduate student called Angie Carter, was understandably outraged when Monsanto’s Vance Crowe retweeted Neidenbach’s malicious graphic that alleged the students were funded by a European NGO. Angie fired back a series of tweets at Crowe asking, for instance, if he was paid by Monsanto “to feed trolls and conspiracy”.
Although the Monsanto man didn’t respond to Angie, Neidenbach did. He filed a FOIA request to Iowa Sate, where Angie graduated last year, demanding access to her emails.
If it seems extraordinary that anyone would use a freedom of information request against a student, remember that Neidenbach’s attacks on Joe Norman had already shown that he and his supporters viewed harassing an early career academic as perfectly acceptable.
Likewise whistleblowers. Neidenbach recently filed a FOIA request against Dr Jonathan Lundgren, the USDA scientist who says the agency tried, among other things, to suppress his research on bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides.
So here's someone who calls filing a FOIA request on a tenured professor with powerful institutional backing “a McCarthy-style witch hunt”, but who himself files them on student protesters raising ethical issues, and on whistleblowers risking their careers.
Mark Lynas as victim
According to Neidenbach, he’s not the only victim of my misrepresentation. He cites an article I wrote about Mark Lynas, and calls it “a massive smear campaign”. He goes on, “I asked Mark about his experiences with GMWatch, and he had this to say, ‘GMWatch is at the extreme end even of the anti-GMO movement. They specialize in smear tactics, innuendo and character assassination.’”
Lynas does a pretty good line in smears himself, as this comment demonstrates. In fact, the well known writer on food politics, Tom Philpott, has commented on Lynas’s tendency to resort to “name-calling” and “rhetorical hyperventilation” when facing challenging evidence.
That was certainly my experience when he responded to the article in which I set out why his claims to having been one of the founders of the anti-GMO movement didn’t fit the facts. It was this article that led Lynas to label GMWatch an “industry shill for Big Organic”.
The complaints about my piece from Lynas and Keith Kloor, one of his keenest supporters, led James Wilsdon, then Professor of Science and Democracy at the University of Sussex and previously director of the Science Policy Centre at the Royal Society, to comment, “Based on my knowledge of the past 20 years of UK GM politics, it's a fair piece. [Lynas has] massively exaggerated his role.”
The accuracy of my article was further confirmed when many of the leading figures of the UK environment movement of the last few decades issued a joint statement directly contradicting Lynas’s claims to having had any kind of founding or leading role in the anti-GMO movement – claims they described as simply “not true”.
Reeking of hatred
Lynas also told Neidenbach that GMWatch is “not part of any conversation I want to be involved in”, which is curious because Lynas has engaged in extensive public conversations with us. The last one took place less than a year ago and many people told us that we very much got the better of it. Could that be why he’s lost his taste for talking to us?
It’s also odd, given his apparent desire to distance himself from those who engage in smears, innuendo and character assassination, that Lynas seems to have so few qualms about collaborating with Stephan Neidenbach, given his well documented use of all these tactics.
Lynas even told Neidenbach that our website “reeks of hatred”. Presumably to Lynas, Stephan Neidenbach’s Facebook page, with its inflammatory graphics and threats of violence, smells of roses.
Neidenbach uses Lynas’s descriptors for us – “extreme” and reeking of “hatred” – as a jumping off point for trying to associate us with anti-semitism.
He writes, “Hatred seems to be an accurate word to use. GMWatch is part of a large network of web pages that use similar techniques to push their agenda.” One of these, Neidenbach says, is Spinwatch, which “seems to have ‘a keen interest in the Jews”.
Spinwatch, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a small UK-based nonprofit that’s separate from, and independent of, GMWatch. It campaigns for lobbying transparency and provides public interest reporting on spin and deception. Its advisory board includes the Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who’s Jewish, the MP Caroline Lucas, and the BBC’s former industrial correspondent Nicholas Jones. Their biggest funder to date is the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a highly regarded Quaker trust. I think it’s fair to say that Spinwatch’s advisors and funders would be astonished to discover they’re supporting an anti-semitic organization.
Members of the LM network tend to be particularly hostile to Spinwatch and GMWatch because, together with the journalist George Monbiot, we have done more than anyone to expose their network and in particular its infiltration of science media outfits like Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre.
There is a similar irony about their anti-Jewish charge being used by Neidenbach. As my article about his trolling makes clear, he has repeatedly trivialized the genocidal crimes of Adolf Hitler by creating graphics that portray those concerned about GMO food and farming as on a par with the man responsible for the extermination of six million Jews.
Neidenbach has even drawn a parallel between the yellow star Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis and the labelling of GMO foods.
This trivializes the enormity of marking out a group of human beings for racial segregation and discrimination that also made it easier to identify them for transportation to the extermination camps. To use this symbol as part of a graphic about food labelling is an insult to the victims of the holocaust.
As well as trying to associate us with anti-semitism, Neidenbach claims we’re “anti-vaccines”. He doesn’t support this claim by reference to any statement we have ever made but via a four-year-old tweet that links to an article about scientists’ concerns specifically over the use of live GMO viruses in vaccines.
What Neidenbach doesn’t cite is something much more straightforward – a GMWatch article where I clearly set out my general attitude to vaccines:
“Vaccines are considered safe (or at least better than a world without vaccines) by many people – including me – largely because they are developed, produced and tested through a route we trust. Lose that trust and you lose support for vaccines. Moreover, they are administered by people we can hold to account.”
What more can I say, except that there is as much truth in GMWatch being anti-vax or anti-semitic as there is in Neidenbach’s claims that we’re really a front for a whole array of special interests. Here’s the list.
The only evidence Neidenbach produces for claiming we are an organic industry front group is that we’ve received some funding from a charity which supports initiatives involving sustainability, biodiversity and organic farming.
The Sheepdrove Trust has helped support our work since 2014. As we were founded in 1998, they were a little late to the party in terms of owning us.
And this isn’t a Kevin Folta moment. In contrast with Folta, who claimed he had “nothing to do with Monsanto” even though he’d received a grant from the company, we haven’t been going around saying we never had a dime from this trust. In fact, the charity’s support is openly declared on our website, along with the names of our other institutional supporters. This is almost certainly why Neidenbach knows about it.
In fact, most of his attacks on us are manufactured out of information we freely make available. The rest, as is probably becoming clear, he derives either from suspect sources or just makes up.
Our website also acknowledges the support in 2013 and 2014 of the Isvara Foundation. The Foundation describes itself as “a progressive trust” that supports organizations opposing “unsustainable and socially destructive neo-liberal policies”.
But because the Foundation was established by a partner in the Jallad Group, which derives part of its income from agricultural equipment, Neidenbach argues that we “are connected to tractor companies”. He doesn’t mention that the Foundation says it is wholly independent of the Jallad Group.
According to Neidenbach, this constitutes a conflict of interest because GMO crops “allow for the reduction of tilling the soil and chemical applications.” This he suggests is something “Big Tractor” might not be too happy about.
But any tractor firm (not that the Isvara Foundation is a tractor firm!) worth its salt would be selling the super-tractors that are now being used in Latin America to spray the massive amounts of chemicals being applied to GMO herbicide-tolerant crops.
In any case, according to the US Department of Agriculture, GMO crops did not significantly affect the adoption of no-till farming. On top of that, now that herbicide-resistant weeds have over-run GMO crop fields, many GMO farmers are having to return to tillage anyway.
And, of course, no-till can be practised in organic and conventional farming systems. It’s not limited to GMO crops.
Global Justice Now
Neidenbach says we have a further unacknowledged conflict of interest because the Isvara Foundation’s “web page” was set up by Global Justice Now. If you think that’s a rather convoluted connection, then don’t forget that Global Justice Now are the UK-based anti-poverty campaigners that Neidenbach accuses of funding and directing GMO protesters in the US.
Clearly, with Neidenbach’s conspiracy mindset, anything is possible – those shape-shifting extracontinental anti-poverty campaigners could be fixing to take over the world!
Because our website also acknowledges the support of a foundation established by Zac Goldsmith’s father, Neidenbach says, “It should come as no surprise to anyone then that Matthews hangs onto [Zac’s] every word.”
Neidenbach also says our supposed connection to Zac explains something else: “Recently The Ecologist faced criticism for promoting myths about the zika virus and the transgenic mosquitoes set as a solution. This connection explains their lack of guilt.”
There are a few problems with this. First, far from being guided on everything by Zac, I strongly disagree with his support for the Conservative Party, even though I admire his work on environmental issues. Second, Zac sold The Ecologist almost four years ago. And the article about the Zika virus and GMO mosquitoes that Neidenbach refers to was not written by us.
Dr John Fagan
One of the oddest things about Neidenbach’s GLP article is that rather than having a photograph of anyone who’s part of GMWatch, it has a large photo instead of the founder of the GMO testing firm Genetic ID.
That is because Dr John Fagan and the company he founded are one of Neidenbach’s hobby horses. He has, for instance, characterized GMO Free USA as “a front organization for John Fagan and Genetic ID”. It was this that led to the letter from the company’s lawyer demanding a retraction of this “false and defamatory” claim.
Neidenbach based his claim solely on Dr Fagan being on GMO Free USA’s advisory board. But according to the nonprofit, Dr Fagan had retired from Genetic ID, and the company had been sold, before he became an advisor. They also told me that Dr Fagan’s scientific advice is “primarily related to food testing” and he is “not a member of our Board of Directors, nor is he a staff member at GMO Free USA. He has no role in directing GMO Free USA and is not involved in GMO Free USA's daily business.”
The same goes for GMWatch. Dr Fagan has no role whatsoever, official or otherwise, and never has had. Yet Neidenbach has claimed on his blog that Dr Fagan “works with” GMWatch and he implies in the GLP article that he had something to do with the founding of the organization. He didn’t. I founded GMWatch and I direct it, and I have never even met John Fagan, let alone employed him.
Neidenbach’s aim in all this is not just to link GMWatch and GMO Free USA to undisclosed business interests, but also to make us appear to be creations of the Transcendental Meditation movement, in which Dr Fagan is prominent. Needless to say, neither organization was founded by or is affiliated to the TM movement. The same goes for any other spiritual, commercial or political organization.
Earth Open Source
The only connection with Dr Fagan that I’m aware of is that he is one of the scientists that my co-editor Claire Robinson has coauthored publications with. Between 2010 and 2014 Claire also did some other paid research and editorial work for Earth Open Source – a sustainable food nonprofit that Dr Fagan directs.
That’s hardly remarkable. Since Claire first started doing work for GMWatch back in 2000, she’s been involved in research, writing and editing for literally hundreds of clients, including scientists, publishers, authors, industry CEOs, and NGOs. All of this work, including the work for EOS, is entirely independent of GMWatch.
That said, like other organizations concerned about GMO food and farming, I’ve been more than happy for GMWatch to promote some of the work Claire has done with EOS on this issue, most notably the excellent GMO Myths and Truths. But this work involves Dr Fagan’s contributions as a scientist, not his spiritual outlook. And his scientific statements should be judged on their merits.
The same goes for Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project and is now the director of the US National Institutes of Health. Collins is a born-again Christian who firmly believes in miracles. Yet we don’t assume his scientific utterances are automatically suspect because of his spiritual beliefs. Nor do we assume that anybody who has ever worked with him – all the staff of the NIH and the HGP for starters – plus all of their contacts, must share some hidden agenda. Such an assumption would not just be nuts but would smack of McCarthyism.
Yet as part of his all-roads-lead-to-John-Fagan conspiracy theory, Neidenbach even tries to paint him as some sort of mastermind behind UK-wide anti-GMO opposition, claiming for instance on his blog that it was Dr Fagan who “helped create the fear, uncertainty, and doubt around GM soy in England in the late 90s.”
But I was active in the UK on GM soy at that time and to the extent I was even aware of Dr Fagan it was as one scientist among many who were concerned about GM crops. Peter Melchett, the then head of Greenpeace UK, confirms my impression: “I don’t remember John Fagan being involved with Greenpeace work against GM crops in the 1990s. I first came across him when I was working for the Soil Association, some time after 2002. The Soil Association has worked with John from time to time, and greatly values his expertise and integrity.”
Smears, bigotry and intimidation
When Stephan Neidenbach isn’t busy weaving GMO conspiracy theories, he can also be found on Costco’s Facebook page telling them to get the Bible (or “that rubbish”, as he calls it) off their shelves so children won’t see a book he says is on a par with Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And this guy calls us extreme?
So what are we doing even commenting on his stuff? I know we shouldn’t feed the trolls, and I managed to sit out a slew of bonkers Neidenbach Facebook and Twitter posts calling us cultists and comparing us to Hitler, knowing that anything I said would just prompt more of the same.
But when I saw the likes of Lynas and Entine promoting his attacks, including his vile attempt to link us to anti-semitism, and when I saw Monsanto’s Vance Crowe promoting his smears against ISU students and Global Justice Now, I decided we should expose this BS and those promoting it.
It is particularly fitting, of course, that Neidenbach’s attacks on our supposed “industry” funding should end up being promoted by Jon Entine’s GLP, given Entine’s notorious lack of transparency about his funding ties to the industries whose critics he attacks. Just as ironically, in terms of acting as a front, the GLP was recently identified in emails released through freedom of information requests as among those working hand in glove with the GMO industry.
Posting articles based on bogus claims is also nothing new to Entine. For instance, he published an article based entirely on malicious images falsely attributed to GMO Free USA. And even though it has been shown in detail that these images are fakes that GMO Free USA never created, Entine has neither removed nor corrected his GLP article.
GLP has also been accused of other unethical journalistic practices, including, among other things, publishing personal information about GMO critics, such as their private phone numbers and home addresses, making them vulnerable to harassment.
So if anyone thinks promoting Neidenbach’s smears, bigotry and intimidation is some kind of new low for the pro-GMO lobby, it isn’t. As the industry’s problems spiral, trolling is becoming the new normal.