Kevin Folta Returns to the Public Science Conversation

Hi Everybody. I’ll keep it short. The attacks are relentless, I’m under a lot of pressure on many fronts. I’m taking the opportunity to disappear from public visibility and focus on my lab and my students. It has been a challenging time. I appreciate the support, I’m grateful for your wishes, but this battle is vicious and one-sided, and I think I’m well served bowing out of the public science conversation for the foreseeable future. Thank you. — Kevin Folta, Facebook, November 4, 2015

After disappearing from public view for several months, one of the most prominent scientific advocates for plant biotechnology is back.

“It was a time that I had to retreat from public vision and discussing agriculture and food for various reasons,” says Kevin Folta, plant biologist and chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, as he joined RealAgriculture for the interview below at the CropConnect Conference in Winnipeg last week.

“The beauty of this is lots of other people have stepped into the void. I think our messaging has changed, and now we’re able to communicate what we know about food and agriculture and technology much more effectively. I think we came out ahead,” he says.


Folta’s emails were subjected to a public records request in early 2015, which led to widespread criticism, ranging from personal tweets to a front-page article in the New York Times, regarding his relationship with Monsanto and the biotech industry. Much of the criticism revolved around a $25,000 grant Monsanto gave the university to help cover expenses for Folta’s scientific communication program.

Folta speaking at the CropConnect conference in Winnipeg.
Folta speaking at the CropConnect conference in Winnipeg.

“The problem is sometimes when you’re transparent people will take bits of facts that are there and use them in ways that are out of context or use them in ways that aren’t right,” he says. “We were going through that very personal attack. It got really ugly and was really hard for me, but we got through it.”

One of the main lessons Folta says he’s learned is the need to be obviously transparent.

“You’ll be able to find how much I was reimbursed for the cab ride to this conference from the airport, because every cent is accounted for. It’s just all about building trust,” he says.

He’s concerned though that the backlash will discourage others from participating in public dialogue about technology and food, particularly scientists who receive direct research funding from industry: “Scientists with those connections are now afraid to engage the public because they don’t want it to be misinterpreted and blown out of proportion on the front of the New York Times.”

Speaking at CropConnect and the University of Manitoba last week, he urged farmers to share their perspective with people who have concerns about technology used to produce food.

“We have to be there to be the messengers rather than relying on others online who are profiting from misinformation,” he says.

Folta’s podcast “Talking Biotech” will return on February 20th, and will feature an interview with Chelsea Boonstra, a Manitoba farmer and U of M ag student, discussing how she uses social media to share about her family’s farm (her video below has been watched more than 16,000 times in the last week.)

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For our school end of year project we had to create a video of our farms. I wanted to share this to the public as there…

Posted by Chelsea Boonstra on Thursday, February 11, 2016

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