Reason #3: Honesty

In the last 12 hours, the Ashoka Changemakers contest has really taken a dramatic turn for the better for Biofortified. The vote tallies are constantly changing, but at the start of writing this post, we have rocketed forward to 632 votes, leaving behind our leading opponent the Non-GMO Project, at 260 votes. During the course of the day, we have gained about 570 votes to their 100. There are still two more days left to the contest, and you never know how much things may change down the road. So today I will present another reason why I think Biofortified deserves your vote: Honesty.

Last week, a day into the final voting week, we received a comment on our entry from Megan Westgate, the Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project. I will reproduce it in full:

Biofortified Pro GE?

Although you say here you are not pro GE, on your own homepage there is a link to “Other Pro GE Blogs” implying that yours is one, too. And there is no link to anti GE blogs (which would be a requisite if you really were committed to balanced representation). You even have a link to “Monsanto According to Monsanto” (the industry blog), but no link to the powerful documentary “The World According to Monsanto.” Given these facts, how can you really say that you are offering both sides? Your entry here doesn’t seem honest.

Anastasia and I both pounced on the comment, pointing out that nowhere in our entry to we “say we are not pro-GE,” and asked her to retract her statement and pledge not to engage in dirty politics. Making stuff up is totally not acceptable tactics (misreading isn’t very good either).  Later that day, she did just that, which I applaud her for. Let the contest be about who can gather the most support over the internet, not who can misunderstand the other side the most. Here is her response in full, which I selectively quoted yesterday (to address further misunderstandings without talking about the dishonesty claim).

I appreciate the responses to my comment and am grateful for the opportunity to discuss further. I apologize for my misunderstanding, but stand behind my sentiment that there is room for confusion based on the wording of your entry. You say here that with your site “Discussion is two-way,” but all the links you have up are pointing one way only: towards GE. I am sorry for saying that you present yourselves as “not pro GE,” because you’re right, you don’t say that anywhere. Based on your responses, it seems you agree with my comment that you are not about presenting both sides, and I appreciate that clarification. I think my confusion is understandable. Might I suggest that if you wanted your entry to be completely clear here, you could directly say that your site is pro GE. You’re absolutely right that I am the Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project, and as such take a strong interest in what other organizations are doing to educate and inform the public. We believe that people have the right to avoid GMOs if they want to (and they also have the right to eat them if they want to as long as it doesn’t negatively impact others). I think that a blog like yours could be a really useful complement to our labeling program IF it actually was a two-way discussion that gave just as much coverage to the cons as the pros. If your site did that, even I might vote for it! I join you in your pledge to be civil and respectful, thank you.

This morning, Biofortified got a huge plug from PZ Myers at Pharyngula, with Yum, genetically engineered plants! At about 8-8:30 in the morning (US Central Time, -5 GMT), our votes started to crawl up. Then they started to climb. Then they started to fly. Within an hour, we surpassed the Non-GMO Project, and rocketed upward with no signs of stopping. We were very pleased to see such a huge upwelling of support for our blog in this contest, and we could only wonder what the anti-GE folks that populate the Changemakers site and other interested parties would think. The Non-GMO Project is based in California (two hours later), so they probably had a bit of a surprise when they woke up in the morning!

GM Watch in the UK, however, was not pleased. It was simply not possible that we could get 100 votes in an hour without someone pulling the strings for us in an improper fashion. Only eighteen minutes, ahem: Eighteen Minutes after we took the lead, GM Watch posted these ‘Tweets’ to their Twitter account:

Tweets

I didn’t notice them until an hour later, that GM Watch was accusing the “Biotech Industry” of “fixing the competition!” the only thing that could possibly explain our new votes was that Big Bad Biotech (cue B-movie scream) was somehow manipulating the contest from its sinister lair. Well, what was their evidence?

Biofortified – http://www.biofortified.org/ – is a blog run by some well known GM promoters, like Aussie heavyweight GM lobbyist, David Tribe, for example. It’s a blog the GM industry smiles on. Look, for example, at the links to biotech blogs on this Monsanto website: http://blog.monsantoblog.com/monsanto-according-to-monsanto/ and you’ll find not only Biofortified at the top of the list of ‘Biotech Blogs’ they recommend but links to several other pro-GM blogs by the people behind Biofortified (eg  GMO Pundit).

Fallacy of guilt-by-association, check.

The Council for Biotechnology Information is a GM industry front group – see its members such as Monsanto here:
http://www.whybiotech.com/about/members.asp

This group has been putting out the following messsage on Twitter: “Vote for Biofortified in Ashoka Changemakers contest”.

Yes, as Anastasia mentioned, the CBI twittered a “vote for Biofortified” message last week, long before we started to gain votes. I think I saw another one over the weekend, but that still doesn’t explain how this proves anything of the sort. They apparently didn’t notice that they endorsed us over a month ago on their blog, with no apparent humonguous effect. This still doesn’t seem to fit the facts.

A Monsanto PR operator has discreetly done the same and now the votes for Biofortified have suddenly exploded, more than doubling in a matter of hours in a completely unprecedented pattern.

It took us half a day to figure out what this ‘discreet’ PR operation was. Apparently, one of the folks in the Monsanto PR department plugged us in her Twitter account on Friday:

Interesting dialogue by science bloggers at Biofortified. Ag tweeps check it out & show support 4 science-based disc. http://bit.ly/3dl1EQ

Obviously, there must be a global conspiracy. As people have been pointing out, since when does posting a message to Twitter count as discreet?

The winner of the Chagemakers competition gets a cash prize of $1500 and a conversation with New York Times food writer, Michael Pollan, but above all cudos.

If you think the GM industry trying to fix this competition stinks, then please vote for one of the anti-GM candidates in the Changemakers contest.

Something sure stinks, and it’s coming from GM Watch. I immediately sent them a message asking them to retract their outrageous claims and pledge not to continue these gutter politics. And when I was done with that, I got on the phone and called out to California – Surely the Non-GMO Project would join me in condemning GM Watch’s tactics?

Megan Westgate answered the phone, and we had a pleasant conversation for about 7-8 minutes about GM Watch’s claims, and about the contest. She sure seemed surprised about the recent voting, and said she could understand how they would suspect such a thing, and finally agreed with me to ask GM Watch not to make such baseless claims. I also explained that when my website stats update tonight that I can send her the data about hits to show how many people were coming from our supporters to remove all doubt about voting shenanigans. Although I have no evidence that Biotech companies were not fixing the vote, more importantly GM Watch has no evidence that they are.

While I was reading the part about Biofortified being run by well-known GM promoters, I joked, “I’m not well-known!” Megan laughed and said, “Now you are!”

When news of this sudden reaction reached PZ, he went and posted a second post cheekily wondering where his check from Monsanto got to, and re-emphasizing the ongoing contest. GM Watch’s shallow attempt to muster votes against us by making things up did not go unnoticed.

Although they did not directly accuse us or anyone else of “cheating,” the definition of “fixing” a contest is “to influence the actions, outcome, or effect of by improper or illegal methods.” So although it is not identical to an accusation of cheating, it is very very close, in that the only out is that the votes were obtained ‘improperly,’ whatever that means in this case. Just for the sake of argument, lets say every employee of Monsanto voted for us in the contest today, would that actually be improper or breaking the rules? And strangely focusing on David Tribe in the attempt to tie us all to the ‘industry’ does attack us indirectly. I’m not sure if they should apologize to us, to the ‘industry,’ or if I should instead thank them for giving us a timely example of how little fact-checking GM Watch is capable of? (See how easily Google finds PZ’s post)

What else have they written that has no basis in fact?

We do our best on this blog and on our own blogs to be as open and honest as we can be, to describe scientific issues to the best of our knowledge and to show you how we got that information with references. We are open to criticisms and will correct mistakes if they are pointed out. It is ironic that the day after I wrote about various sources not checking their facts that our vote surge would be hit by a similar fact-free claim from another such site. A vote for Biofortified is a vote for honesty and open debate, and a vote against cheesy gutter politics.

Thank you everyone who has linked to us and voted for us, we feel like a part of a large community of science bloggers and blog fans! It is not over yet, so if you haven’t yet voted please take a couple minutes to navigate through the Changemakers site and vote for us. At the time of posting, we are at 654 votes to their 267. Let’s see if we can hit 1,000 by Wednesday!

I wonder, will GM Watch remain linked as a reliable source on the Non-GMO Project website?

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a Post Doctoral Research Associate for the USDA in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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15 comments to Reason #3: Honesty

  • Pam Ronald

    Karl

    you need to remind people that are you are selling are beeswax candles and honey

  • That’s right! I’m apparently a corporate shill… for hand-made beeswax candles and honey from my bees. Clearly an industry-connected dude here. ;)
    http://www.beelovelycandles.com
    Warning: site not complete yet.

  • Mary

    Do you pay the bees market wages?? Are they working appropriate hours? Are they all US bees? That’s what I need to know.

    Why are they so afraid you’ll get to talk to Michael Pollan? Are you _that_ persuasive?? You’ll turn him or something ;) ?

    Funniest thing I saw today was, though, the town in France as a prize. http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/10/and_those_cheapskates_at_monsa.php#comment-2025336 Maybe they are afraid you’ll get a foothold in Europe and plant something….

  • Stuff like this is why I think your chat with Michael Pollan would be way more interesting than an anti-GMO type’s. One of the things that I didn’t care for in The Botany of Desire was the way he kinda passed the buck on dealing with GMOs in his potato chapter. He talks about the GMO potatoes, explains why they’re an improvement over conventional plants, explains why it’s important that we improve on conventional plants, but still weasels out with a sort of “I’m sure it’s safe, but I don’t trust it” conclusion.

    I’d love to hear someone have a science-based chat with him about that, rather than some people who will exploit his misgivings to lay down a lot of propaganda nonsense that Pollan probably won’t be prepared or inclined to shoot down.

  • (P.s.: Yeah, I’m one of the biotech shills who came over from ScienceBlogs… but from Tomorrow’s Table, not Pharyngula!)

  • Joshua, you’re jumping the gun on one of the next reasons to vote for us! Thanks for helping us out! When will the votes stop going up? (Don’t stop, BTW)

    I’ll have you know Mary that my bees are living in spacious condos with running sugar and tomorrow I am adding insulation to their attics. But I don’t allow dancing after-hours.

  • Why is it that scientists do not declare their incentives in GM over non-GM plant breeding?
    GM is not only more fun to play with but patents and intellectual property are owned by corporates and lucrative alliances are formed between public plant breeders (traditionally poorly funded) with corporate companies. Also individual scientists have incentives to develop patents over gene sequences found in previously non-patentable natural organisms.
    With so many people being promised such increased financial incentives with GM, it is no wonder it is becoming an unaffordable option for farmers.

  • Hi Julie,

    Scientists do declare their financial ties, and in the case of our blog we have no such financial incentives. When scientists write for scientific journals that are also required to declare their financial interests. You can check the About page on our site, or go over to the individual websites of each ocntributor and find the same thing – what we write we write on a voluntary basis.

    I noticed that you commented on the Non-GMO Project’s changemakers entry, claiming:
    “Anti GM activists are ordinary people with genuine concerns that are being ignored by people with a vested interest and it is a shame that those with a vested interest are also hijacking voting results on this site (Biofortified blog). Changemakers is an excellent initiative but change should be for the better, not for individuals to profit from alliances with corporations.”

    Are you willing to revise your statements to align them with the facts?

    I also wrote another post which might interest you, as it mentions you by name. http://www.biofortified.org/2009/08/bizarre-argument-against-ge-wheat/ I don’t remember you declaring any vested interests when you called for some sort of financial ‘protection’ against frost-resistant wheat.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. My only vested interest – the only commercial products I shill for are the beeswax candles and honey that my wife and I make! Thanks for commenting.

  • scotti

    It seems you take off the comments you don’t like,like mine, how many others then or ones that don’t agree with the way you ‘won’ ,or the hubris, perhaps an unfairly claimed prize via twittering in the ‘eleventh hour’. This was a small competition compared to the usual coporate grants.Please don’t act ‘as if’ you are not pro-GE as you appear to be second year students in Iowa of plant genetics.

  • We do not remove comments we “don’t like”, scotti.

  • Correction – it seems that the spam filter has caught a couple of your comments. Ironically, in those comments you repeated GM Watch’s false claims that the competition was fixed, and called our winning the contest a “prank.” These are unproductive, trollish comments, and I have removed them. I tried emailing you to ask you to stop acting this way on our blog, but the email address you supplied is not valid. Try to be productive, and use a valid email address next time, ok?

  • scotti

    Not me, ‘karl’ never have used your self descriptor of ‘prank’ will check whether you tried to email as you have the address ,try not to make false claims or patronise even if its hard.

  • scotti

    Do understand blog controllers to a degree, sites like ‘GMWatch’ which have done such good work for several years and you quote from to ‘spin’ with; have been subject to cyber attacks from those opposed to such public interest groups and more neutral information.So if I made an address typo perhaps that has spared me ,as a spam filter, not my intention though at the time.I’m quite capable of self correction if there’s a need or a valid point made.

  • Scotti, don’t lie. I have the email in my inbox that has your comment, wherein you refer to our win as a “student prank.” I am rapidly losing patience with your conduct on our blog, you are accusing us (and me) of dishonesty repeatedly with absolutely no evidence, or tact. Here is the last sentence of your comment:

    Lets hope some good comes out of your student pranks.

    Does that jog your memory? This comment was deleted as you made several false claims, including comparing our win to G.W. Bush.

    I have tried to email you twice, I just sent a third test, after doing some searching to see if the domain name of your email address was screwed up. Here is a portion of the failure notice:

    Hi. This is the qmail-send program at yahoo.com.
    I’m afraid I wasn’t able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
    This is a permanent error; I’ve given up. Sorry it didn’t work out.

    < *******_**@yahoo.co.au>:
    Sorry, I couldn’t find any host named yahoo.co.au. (#5.1.2)

    — Below this line is a copy of the message.

    Return-Path: < ****@inoculatedmind.com>
    Received: (qmail 43232 invoked from network); 8 Nov 2009 17:07:24 -0000

    If your email address contains a typo, you have made that typo every single time you entered it. I sent an email to the same address, but instead @au.yahoo.com, which hasn’t yet bounced back, so maybe that got it. You could always register for the blog with a valid email address which will save some trouble with commenting, and help you avoid spam filters. (A couple of your comments were caught in the spam filter previously.)

    Finally, it is ironic that in the comments on a post about honesty, that you blatantly lied about what you said on this blog. You are trolling on this blog, and I would like you to please consider reading our comment policy on the About page before commenting further.

  • [...] only is it a victory for science communication, but also for dialogue, honesty, and independence. There are a lot of vested interests on both sides of the debate over genetic [...]

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