Who is Jeffrey Smith?

Someone sent me a link to some YouTube videos of Jeffrey Smith promoting one of his books. I’m not sure what this person expected to accomplish, but it gives me a great opportunity to discuss the important issues of credibility and bias. I just started reading Lies, Damned Lies, and Science, about these and other issues surrounding science communication, and the book has really made me start to examine the source of information more carefully.

I’m frustrated by Smith’s star status among anti-GMO activists for quite a few reasons, but the main one is: who the heck is he? His official bio is incredibly vague. I found snippets of information in comments on various sites that all seem to source back to an article by Alex Avery. The article, Jeffrey Smith – A Highest Flying Activist’s Hidden Scientific Beliefs?, says that Smith is a poor source for science information because of his belief in yogic flying, a type of transcendental meditation. Unfortunately, I’m wary of taking Avery at face value as well because he presumes to speak on topics he doesn’t have training in, but at least Avery has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology. Smith apparently has an MBA, but I can’t find where his degree was from or what his undergrad degree was in. I also can’t find what Smith did before mysteriously becoming an anti-GMO guru, other than his being an aide for one James E. Davis, who ran for US Senate in 1996 in Illinois for the Natural Law party, earning 0.3% of the vote. According to some sites, like Smith’s bio at the Penrhos Trust, he ran for US Senate in 1998 in Iowa, but he isn’t listed in the relevant Wikipedia article (or in the Des Moines Register). He might have connections to Maharishi University of Management (is this where he got that MBA?) but doesn’t come up in a search on their site either. According to the Penrhos bio and others, Smith was VP of Marketing for a GMO detection lab, but I can’t find any details about that. In interviews with anti-GMO publications, Smith claims to have worked for various non-profits “do gooder type of things” but provides no details.

Am I just really bad at Googling? Let me know if you can find anything, I’m curious. Regardless of what he has done, it sounds like exactly zero of it prepared him to be a communicator of science. On this blog, I discuss things I know I don’t have expertise in, but I don’t claim to be an expert in them. I also have my credentials, at least my job and school history, posted clearly. What are these people hiding that they can’t do the same? I hope that people will start to be more transparent about these things, because the context of the person making a claim is often very important in interpreting the claim. How does this matter? Here’s what I replied to the email:

I have a scenario for you. Let’s say someone sends you a press release of the CEO of Monsanto making all sorts of claims that GMOs are the best, totally safe, going to save the world, blah blah blah. Do you believe him? Probably not, because you know he’s got a lot to gain from making exaggerations and even from telling complete untruths. You might not realize it, but Jeffery Smith makes a lot of money from his website, books, and speaking engagements. Do you really trust a guy that makes his living on what he says to be 100% truthful? I don’t. Let’s extend this idea to subjects other than GMOs… Would you believe a door to door salesman of Product X to be 100% truthful about the product? Would you believe a chiropractor who told you that there were no other options for back pain besides chiropracty? Would you trust a pro-life activist to give good advice on birth control? How about asking an oil executive about global warming? Of course not, because we know all of these people have something to gain by getting you to believe what they say. It’s not that everything that they say is 100% a lie. If that was the case, you’d see through them in a minute. No, they’ll tell 90% truth, as much as they need to so that they can slip in a few exaggerations or falsehoods and have them sound like truth. Not that anyone is necessarily doing this on purpose, it can be subconscious. We all carry biases on a variety of topics – those proverbial rose colored glasses can color what we say as well as what we see. We just have to be careful to take things with a little bit of caution (or a lot of caution as the case may be) and to get information from multiple sources, including sources we know are biased the other way. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. It also helps if the source actually has at least a little bit of professional training or credentials in the subject they purport to be an expert in.

Anastasia is a Board Member of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Learn more about Anastasia at about.me. Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer(s). She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Any mention of a specific company or product does not indicate endorsement of that company or product.


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35 comments to Who is Jeffrey Smith?

  • M. Davis

    Don’t shoot the messenger. Yes, we all carry biases, therefore should do our own research. I have done mine on GMOs and and come to MY OWN conclusions, ergo
    Just say NO! to GMOs.
    It takes no professional training to know my own conclusions. I have read many “professional” scientists who agree with me. It takes no professional training to know that I don’t want GMOs on my plate. It takes no professional training to dump wonderful things like Agent Orange (Monsanto made it – other’s dumped it) on to a people. No, professional training is not the be all and end all that we should believe without question. Now Monsanto, among others, is making GMOs and the farmers are dumping it on to the people. GMOs are a blight upon the earth – the research tells me that.

  • Good for you for doing your own research. Unfortunately, lots of people don’t bother. They read a book by Jeffery Smith and maybe a few blog posts and make a conclusion – instead of considering a variety of sources. What sources have you researched, may I ask? Have you considered their potential biases and how those biases might affect the quality of the information provided?

    It doesn’t take professional training to understand even complex subjects like biotechnology. However, when a person claims to be an expert on something, especially when they presume to do things like advise world leaders on a subject (as Smith claims he does), I would hope that the person has at least a basic education in the subject. Does Smith have the perquisite knowledge and experience to critically interpret scientific journal articles? Judging by what I know about him, I say he does not. It’s not that he’s incapable of understanding biotechnology or any other subject, it’s that he has no right claiming to be an expert.

    This is not an ad hominem attack. I’m not attacking Smith as a person. I’m simply questioning his self-proclaimed status as “the leading spokesperson on the health dangers of Genetically Modified Organisms” when he has no training in biology (genetics, medicine, human nutrition, biochemistry, microbiology, agriculture, etc) and when he doesn’t exhibit the critical analysis skills one needs to report on something as complex as biotechnology.

    Professional training is important because it provides background and scope. This doesn’t mean that every person with an advanced degree is an expert in everything (on the contrary, they are an expert in only a narrow subject) but they are equipped with the ability to better examine things related to their subject area.

    It’s taken me years to be able to read a scientific journal article and understand each part. I rely heavily on my college-level education in biochemistry, plant physiology, and genetics (just to name a few). Still, I have to do a lot of research on each paper to be sure I understand the methods they use, what work has been done before, how they came to any conclusions, etc – which means even more papers to carefully examine. I also check the affiliations of the researchers and of the funding agency, searching for any potential bias or conflicts of interest that might have led the researchers to make conclusions that aren’t sound. I also look for other papers that might contradict this paper to see how/why the new conclusions are different. It can take an entire day or longer for some papers, depending on how familiar I am with the research subject. This is a learned skill that takes years of practice, and sometimes I still miss things. I’m no genius, but I’m no slouch either. If it takes me this much effort and time, even with the benefit of advanced education, can we really expect people with no training to do better?

    As for the rest of your comment – Monsanto does not equal genetic engineering. It might be a surprise to you, but there are many researchers in the private and public sectors working on and with biotechnology that don’t work for Monsanto. Agent Orange and the tragedy associated with its use has nothing to do with biotechnology either. To argue against use of a technology, you actually have to argue against the technology, not present a straw man.

  • Mary

    Well, people are taking vaccine advice from a Playboy model. Apparently the standards aren’t that high for a lot of people….

  • Anastasia,

    Documenting Jeffrey Smith’s provenance in a footnote to your blog would consume more space than warranted in a polite note. Having followed his wretched career for years — forced to, actually, because the loving attention of activists pushes him onto the agenda — I’ll just give you a precis of his background.

    Smith runs a dance studio in Fairfield, Iowa. As a sideline, he publishes books through Yes!, a vanity publisher — nobody involved in the mass market will have him, in spite of his claims to be an “international best-selling author”.

    He used to be head of marketing for Genetic ID, also of Fairfield, Iowa. The head of Genetic ID, John Fagan, worked overtime to demonize GM crops as the equivalent of nuclear warfare, in a highly successful effort to boost his business — which was testing for GM content.

    In one international convention that I organized, Fagan promised to me that he would disclose the procedures his company uses in determining whether a grain sample was engineered or not. When he showed up, he didn’t deliver, and instead, wasted our time with his speculations on how GM crops would destroy etc., and so forth.

    Meanwhile, Jeffrey Smith (Fagan’s student) has published a book that’s been de-bunked on all its points by scientists too numerous to mention (how long do you want this post to be?), and if you search the ‘net, you will find a picture of Smith actually demonstrating his flying yogic abilities to members of the Illinois Senate.

    With the popularity of Smith, the natural impulse is to think that no person alive would gain any popularity if they are comprehensively dishonest, uninformed, or malignantly warped.

    If you’re interested in the statements of those whose claims are easily on a par with those of Jeffrey Smith, read the article at
    http://www.gmobelus.com/news.php?viewStory=372

    Bottom line: don’t learn plant molecular biology from someone who teaches dancing. Even if he’s a really good dance teacher.

    Andy.

  • Just out of curiosity, I Googled John Fagan, and found that he actually started out a career with distinction, but then mysteriously moved to Maharishi U. Do you know why he gave up his job at NIH? I just think it’s strange.

  • Anastasia,

    I couldn’t begin to guess about Fagan’s move to Maharishi U., and I haven’t heard even the slightest rumor about his motives. I’ve heard many guesses about his motives, though, and none of those guesses were flattering. Given the state of current debate, I wouldn’t count on an accurate biography of Fagan any time soon.

  • It’s very hard to eliminate issues of credibility and bias from any social commentary.

  • Paul,

    It depends on what social commentary. For instance, it is too widely-known to dispute that “organic” farming originated with Nazi Germany. The general theme of “organic”, via the theme of ‘Blut und Boden’, was expanded to include ‘human weeds’.

    That is to say, supposedly invasive, supposedly ‘un-natural’ “species”, such as Jews.

    In Germany, farmers and scientists are the new ‘Jews’. Field trials and farmers’ crops are repeatedly destroyed, and the German government’s policy about killing the ‘Jew crops’ is completely paralyzed.

    Germany was once the cradle of Western science and philosophy, and has once again sunk into the vicious mire of fascism.

    The destroyers of German research, and of German farmers’ fields, may or may not not wear brown shirts, but they’re on the same xenophobic mission.

    Andy.

  • Raj

    Hi,

    I wanted to know how you know Jeffrey Smith make a lot of money from his website, books and speaking engagements.

    Raj

  • Anastasia

    Raj – you’re right, I don’t know exactly how much money Smith makes from his anti-GMO activism. I apologize for assuming that "the leading spokesperson on the health dangers of Genetically Modified Organisms" would pull in a lot of money from his activities. You can find the prices of his books, DVDs, brochures, displays online. I was unable to find how much he asks for in speaking fees. I don’t know if Smith’s income from activism is more or less than his income as a dance instructor.

    • Doug Rankin

      Anastasia,

      Your comments about Smith are sounding kind of snide. Maybe you have an axe to grind with him. I don’t know. I saw Smith speak twice, and through my cynical eyes he came across as an excellent speaker, and presented a good deal of data very cogently. The was the consensus. The entire time without waltzing or flying. I’ve known plenty of extremely educated people who get some big ideas wrong. I’m sure you do, too. If I take him on face, he’s quite a powerful advocate for being very cautious with GMOs.

      • Ewan R

        “he’s quite a powerful advocate for being very cautious with GMOs”

        Although if you take away all the lies he tells he becomes somewhat less so.

        Practically a mime.

      • I didn’t write this with a snide intent at all. He might be an excellent speaker, and he might be very passionate about what he does, but the point of this article is that he doesn’t have any sort of training that would provide him with the basic skills needed to interpret complex biological research. His lack of training in this area is clear when you read his work. Unfortunately, he makes a lot of mistakes in interpreting the science. Now, we all make mistakes, but when we start out with zero training in a subject mistakes are much more likely.

    • theoldtechnite

      I’ve had trouble finding out his income levels too but he charges $19.99 for his new gmo scare movie, “Genetic Roulette”. But he does save a bundle on his travel expenses with his Yogic Flying. It’s the safest way to travel! :)

  • DHuth93

    I actually stumbled accros your blog while doing my own googling on Jeffrey Smith. I have a good friend who told me that he believed there was "chemical warfare" in milk you buy at the store. I found, very likely, the same youtube video of this guy and the same questions struck me.

    Now that I know this guy is *probably* just some kind of political tool cranking out an agenda, what remains is the question of what makes a "formally" educated person versus the autodidact, especially in the internet age. I have a good friend who is a walking encyclopedia of military history and is fewer than 20 credits into getting any type of degree. I can also recall, very clearly but painfully, a conversation with a registered nurse in an emergency department. I was taking nursing prereqs and had just started working as a nursing assistant, so I asked EVERYBODY questions about EVERYTHING and I read constantly. This nurse draws up Protonix in a syringe and I ask, "What’s that?"

    "Oh, it’s Protonix, it’s for reflux."

    "How does it work?"

    "It puts like a coating in the stomach."

    "If it puts a coating in the stomach, why do you give it as an injection rather than a pill or syrup?"

    Now irritated : "Oh, I don’t know! It probably doesn’t do anything, I’m just giving it because the doctor told me to!"

    Wow. True story. Nurses in emergency rooms not knowing what the drugs that they’re giving to sick people are (Protonix is a proton pump inhibitor, does not coat the stomach and works much better I.V. than P.O.), are walking around following orders like concentration camp guards and getting paid a very decent salary to do this. Possibly worst of all, she really was convinced that the drug that she was going to put into someone’s vein would be of no benefit to the patient.

    Anyway, thanks for the great post and thank you to everyone who provided all of this telling information.

    93,
    –DH

    • Keith

      DH
      That is why nurses aren’t allowed to write prescriptions, they do not have the training needed to know what to prescribe. They only have the training on how to administer what the doctor has prescribed. Your analogy makes no sense to me concerning this discussion.

  • Anastasia

    DH, you raise some great points. There are definitely some formally educated people who are pretty much worthless and some people with no formal education who really know their stuff.

    With science in particular, being able to be able to glean information from scientific journal articles and to determine whether or not a given article is or is not valid takes a lot of practice. It is surely possible for someone without any formal classes in basic biology, chemistry, genetics, etc to eventually be able to read, understand, and analyze the articles – but I don’t think it’s very likely.

  • Matt C.

    Thanks for blogging about the enigmatic Mr. Smith. I read a tirade of his posted by an adherent on a bulletin board discussion regarding GE crops. Looking into his research was tricky and finding anything regarding his credentials was even trickier. Having examined some of his articles, it seems he has a tendency to cherry-pick evidence or cite dubious sources(including himself) to back his claims.

  • Anastasia,

    Regarding your scenarios about whom to trust, there is a vast difference between having an actual product to sell, and being paid when the only product is what you say.

    Having an actual product means your buyers will actually directly test the thing that they have purchased (via actual use) to see if it works as advertised.

    With no product other than what you say, all that’s necessary is to convince people about what you say, and move on. Those who are convinced won’t bother doing fact-checking!

    So actually the scenarios you present are not fully equivalent.

  • Debra Smith

    Thank you Anastasia for so eloquently, but most importantly, scientifically, questioning the credentials snd credibility of Jeffrey Smith and the supposedly scientific facts he reports. Who the heck is this guy, Jeffrey Smith, that my son keeps refering to and sending me You Tube videos telling me about the dangers of GMO products? My son has become fervent about not consuming GMO products and questioning our government’s interests in the health of it’s citizens. Probably a good idea. My son seems to think Jeffrey Smith is the guru for GMO education.

    I may not have the education that you have, Anastasia, but I do believe in the scientific method. I am questioning the impact of GMO products on the health of the world. I do question the motives of powerful companies, and I most certainly question the motives of Jeffrey Smith.

    I will do my own investigation as you have suggested. It is about finding the truth using many different sources.

    By the way, I am a registered nurse. I always anwered my patient’s questions as accurately as I could and if I didn’t, I would find someone who could answer the questions. As a professional and as a scientist, I am always curious and always open to learning about new things.

  • Mary G.

    Another one to investigate is Joseph Mercola. His websites invariably lead the reader to buy his books, his products (vitamins, supplements, cookware, etc.) which are all ridiculously expensive.

    I became outspoken against him after reading his article on the “dangers” of microwave cooking. One of the events that he uses as “proof” that microwaves are dangerous is that a nurse in a hospital E.R. warmed whole blood for a patient’s transfusion in a microwave, then put that blood in the patient via an IV. Good LORD how stupid!!!! If she’d BOILED the blood in a pan of water she’d have gotten the same level of damage.

    In another article about microwaves Mercola gives the information that microwaves are dangerous BECAUSE they cook food “from the inside out”, exciting the water inside of cells within the food. In yet another article, he reverses himself and says that the claim of microwaves cooking foods from the inside out is a MYTH. The dude can’t make up his mind which way he’s going to stir people to hysteria.

    I find Jeffrey Smith’s claims to be equally without merit, unfortunately.

    At the same time, I DO find reason for caution for ingesting GMO foods. The same scientists who are creating glow-in-the-dark mice are messing with our food supply. It doesn’t take much genetic manipulation to create whole new species, and I’m not comfortable with taking DNA from insects or bacteria and inserting it into mammals or plant species intended for consumption by humans.

    I WISH we had someone we could trust for information on these things, but Smith and Mercola do not come across as reliable to me.

    • Cheryl W

      Mary, How about Dr. Don Huber, professor emeritus from Purdue University, prior chair of a regulatory subcommittee for the US Government, who has sent letters protesting approval of GM Alfalfa? This guy isn’t just repeating what he’s heard – this is his field, for over 50 years.
      To the point of Jeffrey Smith, I am willing to concede, especially after hearing Dr. Huber talk for over an hour on this link (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yx4UVhJcnpo) that there are some people who know the research deeply – like Dr. Huber, and there are some people who are more effective in being communicators of sound bits and getting the word out. I’m good with each of them taking their own role. (and to the point about ‘why no one else, Dr. Huber speaks that there ARE many others, but they are often bullied into being silent by those in authority over them. He says this is work only a retired person can do. I’m thankful for him.) Same with Dr. Mercola, he speaks what he knows, and gets speakers in to speak about what they know. I agree with you that GMO foods need to not be eaten, and I am working to get my family’s diet turned around by eating local, including my own food, and organic as possible.

  • Louis J.

    Thanks to everyone for your discussion, very informative. I’ve been looking over the internet for information which defeat the anti-GMO arguments which as a student in post grad plant breeding I know to be exaggerated.

    About the point where it was mentioned that Smith makes a lot of money from his publications, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. I’ve spoken to people who had first hand worked very close to people like Seralini, pointing out that for his guest lectures alone he gets paid a shameful sum of money. The same applies to the money he makes from his books.

    These people and NGOs have their own hidden agenda. What they care about is sensationalism. Only think that they will censor any comment explaining the scientific facts posted on their internet fora or websites. I tried many times and got the same reaction every time. It’s frustrating trying to explain things and being censored like that. They don’t want people to know the facts. I think the obfuscation of knowledge is terrifying.

    What I also learned is that the whole argument against GMOs is fueled by the same companies which lead the monopoly, because the more people are afraid, the more they will pressure politicians to raise the costs and legal barriers on GMOs. Politicians are of course dependent on the public perception and will comply. Good negative propaganda ensures that only the leading companies have the money to finance the development of transgenics. I wouldn’t be surprised if Greenpeace and Monsanto are working hand in hand behind the scenes.

  • Stephen Parsons

    Jeffrey Smith runs the Institute for Responsible Technology out of his home in Fairfield, Iowa. Yes he does make pretty good money through being a very skilled communicator of distortion and half truth on genetically engineered foods. According to academicsreview.com, IRS filings show Smith’s home based business grossed over $200k/yr for each year, 2008, 2009, and 2010. Likely the income is generated from speaking fees, donations, and book sales. His own website is quite self promotional.
    As a yogic flyer, it can be safely assumed that Smith was well embedded in the culture and practices of the Maharishi Mahesh TM movement. A core aspect of the TM movement was the practice of working hard to make a lot of money through semi-religious business ventures. Smith has succeeded, by consistently bending the truth and being a skilled persuader. Part of his agenda is to support his friends and business associates in the organic food movement. Big money there too.
    I would call Jeffrey Smith a very talented fear mongerer and first class promoter of mis-information cloaked in the veil of serving a high and noble purpose. Of course he reveals little about his own background for it would dramatically undermine the credibility that he has falsely gained.

  • Stephen Parsons

    I agree with Louis J. People like Jeffrey Smith have so frightened the USA and Greenpeace has so frightened the rest of the world that most countries now have an unnecessary regulatory burden only Monsanto can afford. Universities and private research centers can no longer afford to be in the molecular plant breeding business. People in those sectors are feeling discouraged. Oh the irony.

    Red grapefruit, seedless watermelon, most varieties of wheat, tritical, and many other common foods were produced by genetic modification far more brutal than what Jeffrey Smith is screaming about. For background on development of food crops, I recommend the book: Mendel in the Kitchen.

  • Mac

    I am up front in saying I have given an alias. This is not to reduce the importance of what I type but to limit recriminations if my employer doesn’t like my comments.
    THERE IS NOTHING DANGEROUS OR SINISTER ABOUT USING GENETIC ENGINEERING TO PRODUCE GMO’S, IT IS HOW YOU USE THE TECHNOLOGY THAT IS THE KEY.
    Where are all the diabetics going to get their insulin if not produced by GMO’s in lab which makes insulin more affordable.
    What protein the DNA in an organism codes for is the important thing not that it is or isn’t a GMO.

    Bad scenario; BT broccoli… I would NOT eat GMO broccoli with BT gene.
    Good scenario; broccoli that has been developed that has increased amount of dietary iron.

    In the stomach the enzymes that digest DNA, proteins and amino acids treat all DNA, proteins and amino acids the same, regardless of the food.
    So a tomato that had fish DNA added to increase the shelf life is no different to having chopped tomatoes on your fish (this example didn’t make it to market as far as I am aware due to other quality issues not related to fish DNA).

    The inserted DNA in GMO’s isn’t the problem, it is the cellular chemicals produced by the enzyme, which is made by the protein the the DNA makes.

  • veronica

    What do Biotech companies have to lose by LABELING their GM products? 64 other countries do so-this information is all over the place. GM crops make money for biotech agencies, nothing more. The false belief that genetic engineering is good somehow? Roundup ready crops- spreading more roundup on our food and land? how is this good? DO you deny that viruses become more virulent with more use of antibiotics? this means DNA mutates- it is the very basis of survival on this planet. If you do not understand this fact, review your junior high school biology notes- it doesn’t take an expert to understand this, you just need to pay attention. Genetically spliced genes will mutate; genes mutate, period. The great thing about LABELING, you can eat all the genetically modified food you want- because you will know which ones to choose- not those nasty ‘organic’ products. So, support labeling, then you can choose to buy only GMOs. Happy eating!

  • veronica

    A quick correction to my post- overuse of antibiotics creates more virulent bacterial infections. To the point though, viruses do also mutate and become more virulent. BUT, I’m sure you already knew that

  • Shoe

    http://fundanything.com/en/campaigns/laboratorylunch perhaps this is how
    Jeffery makes is money?

    So many of the things he’s saying either don’t pertain to the GMOs themselves, are just so wrong that they’re almost a lie, or are said in such a scare tactic way that I’m taken aback.

    I am mid-way through reading this discussion. Thank you Anastasia, your blog post really brings a log of people googling Jefferey Smith together.

    • Stephen Parsons

      Mr. Smith and his friends seek to make money by using anti-GMO scare tactics to promote organic foods. This behavior is consistent with the (commercial/spiritual) culture in which Smith has been embedded for many years. See the TM Movement.

      The argument FOR GE crops rests on economics, overpopulation and climate change. If overpopulation and climate change are real, than Big Ag will need to increase yields while adding flood and drought resistance and other beneficial features to the crops. Ideally, we ought to work toward a planet dominated by permaculture design. (check back in 100 years)

      In the meantime, genetic engineering has its place and its purpose. In the grand scheme of things, the alleged harm caused by GMO crops is tiny or non-existant compared with other planetary problems.

  • [...] to debate the safety of GM foods with two other panelists, including the GM food wacko alarmist Jeffrey Smith.   Ronald tried repeatedly to make the point that there’s no evidence that GM foods [...]

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