On Aug. 8, 2013, Monsanto representative Eric Sachs emailed Prof. Anthony Shelton, entomology, and eight professors from various universities about contributing to “an important project” he had started — a series of publically geared articles on agricultural biotechnology — according to an email obtained by The New York Times.
Shelton agreed. Although Monsanto requested that he write the article, Shelton did not disclose his connection to the company; it was not necessary because Monsanto did not compensate him for it.
“There would be a conflict of interest if I were paid to write the article or if someone tried to proof and edit what I was writing, but that was not the case with this at all,” Shelton said.
Monsanto, an agricultural biotechnology company, sells genetically modified crop seeds, generating revenues upwards of $9 billion, according to an Aug. 11 story in the MIT Technology Review.
According to The Times, biotechnology companies and pro-organic organizations have both made recent efforts to involve academics — who are seen as unbiased authorities by the public — in the GMO debate. A major source of contention is the use of herbicides on plants that have been genetically modified to tolerate them, which organic organizations say may be harmful to humans.
In September, The Times released emails showing that Charles Benbrook, a former professor at Washington State University, had been paid to conduct and speak about anti-GMO research. At the same time, it also released the emails that Sachs had sent to Shelton and other academics. These emails showed a strong link between what Sachs envisioned for their articles and what they actually said.
Shelton’s paper, and six others outlined in Sachs’s email, were published as a series in December 2014 by the Genetic Literacy Project — an independent organization that aims to educate the public about biotechnology and genetic engineering, according to the GLP’s website.
Co-authored with David Shaw, a weed scientist and vice president for research and economic development at Mississippi State University, Shelton’s article discussed the benefits of genetically modifying plants to be herbicide-tolerant and resistant to insects.
Shelton said he supported the message of his article and that the science underlying it was accurate.
“So as long as we are honest brokers in this discussion, which is what I’ve tried to do, I don’t see a conflict of interest,” Shelton said.
Prof. Margaret Smith, plant science, agreed that Shelton’s connection to Monsanto was not technically a conflict of interest. According to Smith, it is not customary to disclose connections at all in review articles like Shelton’s — even if the author has been funded by them — and “in no case do people disclose all the entities with whom they have had interactions,” she said.
“As scientists, we talk with and interact with hundreds of people,” Smith said. “Such conversations are part of the business of doing science, and could not realistically be tallied and kept track of.”
In his email, Sachs said the purpose of these articles was to give the public additional perspectives on the safety of genetically modified crops.
“The broader goal is to elevate the public dialogue and public policy discussion from its current over-emphasis on perceived risks,” Sachs wrote in the email.
Shelton said he viewed Sachs’s request as another form of public outreach, which he has been doing throughout his Cornell career.
“As a land-grant university scientist, I try to respond to all of those different requests and talk about work that I know about. If anyone asked me to provide information about something I know about, I’m happy to do it,” Shelton said.
According to Shelton, Sachs suggested that he co-write the paper with Shaw but did not influence the article’s content. Shelton also said he did not know if Monsanto tried to spread the article to a wider audience.
Smith, however, criticized Monsanto’s strategy of enlisting professors, saying that it invited suspicions of controversy where none likely existed.
“If academics are to retain people’s trust as independent voices … then we need to be scrupulous in avoiding both the existence and the perception of conflict of interest,” Smith said.