Florida biotech advocate gets CAST communications honor

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 21, 2016 - Kevin M. Folta, a University of Florida molecular biologist who specializes in better strawberries but who became the target of anti-biotech crusaders for articulating the benefits of biotechnology, is the 2016 winner of the annual Borlaug CAST Communications Award given by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST).

The award will be presented to Folta Oct. 12 in conjunction with World Food Prize ceremonies in Des Moines. CAST, a federation of more than 20 food and agricultural scientific societies that is supported by several academic, government and industry groups, named the award for the late Norman Borlaug, the crop scientist credited with sparking the Green Revolution. 

Lets Talk Food Folta, who chairs Florida's Department of Horticultural Sciences, is the third consecutive winner of the award recognized by CAST for articulate advocacy of food and agricultural biotechnology. Last year's went to plant geneticist Channapatna Prakash, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Alabama's Tuskegee University, who spoke at a ceremony here Thursday to announce the selection. The 2014 winner was Alison Van Eenennaam, Animal Genomics and Biotechnology Cooperative Extension Specialist at the University of California, Davis.

The choice of Folta “had tremendous support,” said Mark Armfelt, an Elanco veterinarian who heads the CAST board of directors. CAST requires five letters of support for nominees; Folta had 17. “He truly has a passion for communicating the truth about science and agriculture,” Armfelt said. 

Folta and several other academic scientists at state-supported universities were targeted by the organic industry-supported U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) last year with a series of public records requests for email correspondence between them and the biotechnology industry. “In Folta's case, the emails are being used to unfairly paint a public servant in science as a corporate stooge,” Jack Payne, head of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, wrote in the Tampa Bay Times.

The USRTK campaign succeeded in getting a front-page article in The New York Times that described his emails with Monsanto and the GMOanswers.com web site. The article “unfairly characterized Folta's relationship with Monsanto,” Payne wrote. “The newspaper presents a picture of corporations enlisting university faculty as their lobbyists. In reality, Monsanto donated $25,000 to the University of Florida, not to Folta, to cover travel expenses for his volunteer work speaking about the science of agricultural biotechnology.” 

Payne wrote that Folta had “become the target of multiple intrusive public records requests,” adding that what universities “have previously learned from episodes such as ‘Climategate' is that scientists' emails can be cherry-picked and used out of context to confuse the public about issues around which there is solid scientific consensus.”

Folta received death threats after his visit to Hawaii last year to talk about the science of biotechnology. “I had to sit with the FBI domestic terrorism task force” investigating threats against Folta and his laboratory, Payne told Agri-Pulse in Washington earlier this month. 


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The contretemps seems not to have silenced Folta. In a blog post last week, he mused, “Over the last few years I've watched battles brew and millions of dollars be spent on a silly proposition - how do we legislate a means to separate good food from good food with a decoration on the box?” The solution, he suggested, is voluntary labeling if the industry moves quickly enough “before new legislation is on the ballot and before activists move the goalpost.”

He adds, “The ball is in the court of food manufacturers. If a label that a few folks want and nobody will read is there, then there is no reason to force it by law, which leads to the clunky, expensive problems in logistics and testing. It also eliminates the mess of litigation inevitably to follow. The real advantage? Add a few words. Then we can start focusing on how to help people and the environment with technology instead of distraction with first-world problems.” 

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