Reason #3: Honesty

posted in: Updates | 15

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:


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 – – 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: 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:

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.

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?

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
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 recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.