Anti-GMO activists use FOIA to bully mother-scientist nutrition and lactation expert


The best way to get away with bullying is to blame the victim after punching her in the gut: “Principal, she did it first.”

Anti-GMO groups’ tactics are just a big-kid version of these playground antics. Led by organic industry-funded U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), these groups are now wielding Freedom of Information Act requests like hammers, demanding that public scientists turn over tens of thousands of innocent emails linked to their research efforts.

One of the latest targets of USRTK’s playground escapades is Washington State University nutritionist and mother of three Michelle (Shelley) McGuire, an expert on human milk and lactation. In July, Dr. McGuire publicly presented preliminary research findings that challenged a widely-touted anti-GMO activist assertion that the herbicide glyphosate, which they denounce as dangerously toxic, is present in mother’s milk, presumably posing harm to infants and children.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, the European Commission and a joint panel of World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (WHO/FAO risk analysis concluded glyphosate is “unlikely to present a public health concern” and is unlikely to be genotoxic”; a sub group of WHO, known as IARC, recently classified glyphosate in the same category as sunlight and coffee, concluding it does pose some risk if exposures are prolonged, which is not the case for the miniscule exposure in food residues), among dozens of global science oversight groups, have determined that glyphosate is mildly toxic to humans, not carcinogenic and perfectly safe as used by home gardeners and farmers alike.

(Here is a statement by WHO as to the difference between “hazard” analysis versus “risk” assessment, which is what regulators use to determine whether humans may be harmed. See article by GLP: Why regulators conclude glyphosate safe while IARC, alone, claims it could cause cancer?]

McGuire detailed her findings at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Science Research Conference in Big Sky, Montana, in conjunction with a university-distributed press release. She found that glyphosate does not show up in mother’s milk, or is below the detection limit of a very sensitive, newly-developed assay. In addition, as McGuire explained to Genetic Literacy Project, although glyphosate and its metabolite AMPA were present in the urine of some of the mothers, their concentrations were extremely low, at harmless levels. Both the analytical methods and clinical study are being prepared for submission to peer-reviewed journals as soon as next week.

Protecting mothers’ milk

McGuire first became interested in the controversy over glyphosate in breast milk after the anti-GMO group Moms Across America published a “pilot study” in conjunction with the European anti-biotech website Sustainable Pulse, which is run by organic entrepreneur Henry Rowlands. The “study”, which claimed that Roundup is “now in mothers’ breast milk”, was based on ten self-collected breastmilk samples analyzed by a small lab–one that does not do university quality evaluations. MAA–that well recognized independent science research organization — concluded and published their “finding” that three mothers had high, “detectable levels of glyphosate in their breast milk.”

Academics Review, a website run by independent geneticists, analyzed the findings:

[H]igh in this case means measurable above the lower limit of detection rather than high meaning a cause for alarm. The highest of these 3 samples, if real, contained glyphosate at levels that represent a worst-case infant exposure (33 µg/kg/day) more than 50-fold below the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) set by U.S. EPA regulatory toxicologists (1750 µg/kg). The ADI is set to provide a wide margin of safety of exposure.

In other words, even if the 10 Moms Across America/Sustainable Pulse samples had been properly collected via a well-controlled methodology, the three samples that showed glyphosate contained a minute fraction of the amount considered safe on a daily basis. The claims by Sustainable Pulse and Moms Across America is little more than junk science.

As a human lactation researcher, McGuire also took interest in the publicized claims–and had the research skills to actually evaluate the issue in a laboratory setting. She reached out to MAA founder Zen Honeycutt last May, inquiring about how the samples were collected (i.e. whether the milk was expressed manually or via an electric pump);  the demographics of the study subjects (age and time postpartum); and the analytical methods of the study. She received a disappointing reply: “As this was not a scientific study we did not collect all the data you are hoping for. The testing was the best available method.” Honeycutt also told McGuire that MAA had secured funding for a much larger study, but she would not reveal the source of the money or when this promised research might be published.

McGuire decided to launch her own research. The results directly contradicted what Honeycutt claims to have found. “The Moms Across America study flat out got it wrong,” read the original Washington State University press release. It didn’t take long for the anti-GMO activists to pounce. Just four days after the press release about McGuire’s findings hit the web, USRTK filed a FOIA request with McGuire’s dean, demanding years of the scientist’s emails and associated documents.

When used well, FOIA is a tool that helps maintain an open and transparent government. But there is a line that, when crossed, transforms a law encouraging checks and balances into a weapon to intimidate and hinder valuable research and researchers. In the case of McGuire, USRTK crossed that line. Rather than working on securing grants to research whether breastfeeding might transmit leprosy, she now finds herself wasting dozens of hours plowing through old emails. No doubt hampering important scientific work is an intended malicious goal of these FOIA requests.

McGuire is concerned about the abuse of public records laws, which were written to ensure transparency from federal and state employees. “This will cripple health research nationwide,” she said, concerned that responding to hostile FOIA requests might become the new norm. They were never intended to target universities and researchers. But now, any time a public scientist’s research threatens to conflict with an interest group’s agenda, FOIAs could be exploited to silence that research.  “We feel violated”, McGuire said of herself and her WSU colleagues, whose emails are also subject to the FOIA request.

With the threat of public records laws looming over their heads, scientists may choose to avoid contentious research questions altogether. McGuire said she believes universities need to stand up to frivolous FOIA demands from organizations with clear agendas. She cited a push back statement issued in 2012 by a University of California Los Angeles task force on academic freedom.

Public records requests are neither a substitute for nor an effective check on peer review by the scholarly community, but instead damage the process by threatening scholars into silence when they should be speaking truthfully and frankly about their concerns. The published record is the gold standard on which scholarship rests and it is readily available to the public. Public records requests of private, draft, or pre-publication materials only serve to confound the peer review process, rather than leading to an improvement or check on this process.

Activists play ‘bad mom’ card

Years ago, McGuire negotiated the first part-time tenure-track research position at WSU so she could devote more time and energy to raising her three children. But just hours after McGuire’s findings were publicized, MAA leader Zen Honeycutt viciously began questioning her fitness as a mom. In an email thread, Honeycutt wrote: “Much of what you state about flaws in our report is untrue and as a mother I would think you would ashamed by what you put out.” She continued:

Moms Across America got nothing wrong. The results are what they are. In fact we clearly state in the report that while mother’s breast milk is the number one choice, we just suggest eating organic. Apparently eating organic, and not GMOs, is what you really have the problem with. I do not know how you sleep. Shame on you for contributing to more confusion, lies and protecting the profits of corporations rather than people and babies.

Ouch. Honeycutt certainly knows how to hit moms where it hurts; right in the you-don’t-protect-babies gut. Can we say that Honeycutt has achieved the height of mom-versus-mom bullying, personally vilifying a scientist mother of three whose only “agenda” is studying human lactation to help mom’s around the world?

Sustainable Pulse director Henry Rowlands echoed the “mom shaming” and “questionable ethics” bullying tactics in a July email to McGuire. “Regarding your care for your children, I question this considering you choose to work with a company that has poisoned children across the World on a regular basis. … [O]r maybe you don’t believe Agent Orange, DDT and PCBs are harmful to children’s health and found in Breast Milk? I suppose it comes down to morals versus work?”

Preposterous and offensive. McGuire has spent her entire career and 24+ years of motherhood supporting moms and babies–her own and those around the world. She is a long-time member and national spokesperson for the American Society for Nutrition and an executive committee member of the International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation,

“To have these folks question my care and love for children, especially my own, is stunning,” she told me. “They know nothing about me nor what kind of life I live.” In her experience, she said, this sort of mud-slinging comes from a place of anger. “My life is built around love and care for others, so this is especially hurtful. I would welcome both Zen Honeycutt and Henry Rowlands to walk in my shoes for a few days, so that they might understand better how world-class research is designed, funded, carried out, and published. They would also quickly see that I am dedicated to improving the health of mothers and infants.”

Industry connections?

Along with the mom shaming tactics, McGuire’s critics played the predictable shill card. “Considering your ties to Monsanto,” Honeycutt wrote in a blog post, “I am not surprised [that you criticized the MAA study].”

Another cheap shot. The WSU breastmilk study was independently funded and samples were collected in conjunction with a National Science Foundation project designed to document microbes and sugars in milk samples collected around the world. As the university’s press release noted, the sample analysis was initially performed at a Monsanto laboratory. The results were verified at Wisconsin-based Covance laboratory, which is not affiliated with Monsanto or the WSU researchers.

McGuire disclosed to the Genetic Literacy Project that she has received a small unrestricted grant of $10,000 from Monsanto on an entirely unrelated research project related to breast feeding and leprosy. Industry grants are the norm in university research, and $10,000, while helpful, is a pittance. McGuire’s research interest in human lactation existed far before she received any industry funding and certainly did not shape the study’s outcomes. And though federal funding is important for university researchers, it falls far short of overall research needs. Private funding makes up slightly more than half of all food and agricultural research dollars.

Del agresearchfunding

Public-private partnerships, which are ubiquitous and well-documented, help researchers address questions that the public and private sectors need answers to. For instance, McGuire’s interest in dietary factors that impact human milk composition has led to research grants from both the dairy and beef industry. McGuire explained that these studies, some of which support health benefits of dairy and beef and some of which do not, are all published in peer-reviewed journals so that other scientists and the public can understand what methods were used in the studies and, importantly, benefit from the findings.

Reflecting this spirit of openness and collaboration, McGuire has urged both Honeycutt and Rowlands to publish their promised mother’s milk research in peer-reviewed journals. Don’t hold your breath. As McGuire advises her introductory nutrition students at WSU, “Anyone can put whatever drivel they want on the internet. Unless a study’s been published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal, you can really just ignore it.”

GMO critics more interested in circus attacks than independent research

McGuire says she was naïve in not anticipating the harsh backlash after she challenged a key anti-GMO propaganda document. Yet even after the public attacks, she had hoped she could dialogue with GMO critics. Upon receiving notice of the FOIA request, she called USRTK director Gary Ruskin. She told him that she was happy to share any information or documentation he wanted. Instead of taking McGuire up on her offer, Ruskin patronizingly compared the FOIA demand to a midterm exam.

“We’re testing you to see how good you’ve been,” he scolded the scientist, who earned her PhD in Human Nutrition with a focus on breastfeeding science from Cornell University more than twenty years ago. Ruskin, who draws his salary from USRTK, which in turn is mostly funded by the anti-GMO Organic Consumers Association, then hung up on McGuire.

Ruskin wrote of his tactics on the USRTK website, “This is about the extent to which corporations such as Monsanto and their front groups are using our public universities and the scientists and academics who work there as tools to promote their agendas and their profits.”

“It’s clear to me now that I underestimated how vitriolic this whole anti-GMO propaganda world had become”, McGuire said. She didn’t anticipate how her emails might be twisted out of context. “But my naïve outlook on this whole crazy world is now gone. I now see this FOIA-driven academic terrorism for what it is: an absolutely disruptive and chilling threat to public university scientists working in agriculture, food, and nutrition.”

McGuire’s funding and collaboration with Monsanto scientists did not shape the results of her study. The source of funding never has, and never will influence her results, she says. The playground bullying of academic researchers needs to stop. And as always, the best way to stop bullies is to stand up to them.

Kavin Senapathy is a contributor at Genetic Literacy Project, Skepchick, Grounded Parents, and other sites. She is a mother of two, science popularizer, co-founder of March Against Myths, and freelance writer in Madison, WI. Follow Kavin at and Twitter @ksenapathy.

  • The-Toad

    This is hardball people, whiners need to go home.

  • ArmyChick

    This is just….awful.

  • KBU

    Critique the science not the scientist.

  • Cairenn Day

    We can allow the science deniers to stop research and to stop folks from educating the general public. We need scientists and researchers to speak up and not to be terrorized in not.

    • WeGotta

      I think you meant “We can’t allow”

      Educate the general public about what exactly?

      • Cairenn Day

        About science. And thanks for the catch, Can’t is right.

        We live in world governed by science, we need science to meet the demands of the growing world population, climate change and threats to the environment.

        Today farmers are producing more food on less land. Less productive land is be allowed to return to nature in conservation easements. This is good for everyone. Modern farming allows more use of no till agriculture, which helps to protect the soil and our waterways and even air.

        • WeGotta

          While not objecting to any of your comments, I would like to present a different way of seeing the world. Mine is no more “correct” than yours.

          Science is just what we choose to call an organized way of making observations about the world as we know it through our very limited experience of the universe.
          It doesn’t govern the world, it’s just our way of making sense of the world.
          We don’t need science any more than we need politics or religion. We don’t need anything really.
          It’s only if we create a false story about who we are when we feel lack or fear.

          This is not to say we shouldn’t apply knowledge toward some goals. Just that we should be careful that our actions arise more from feelings of joy and compassion (our true self) rather than fear or lack (the false self or ego).

          It’s hard enough for us to change ourselves, nearly impossible to change others.
          So let’s all use science in the only way that will make a difference. That is science applied to our own lives. Who are we really? Are we truly happy?

          The rest will take care of itself.

          • Cairenn Day

            I am an artist and my eyesight is very important. Last year I developed wet macular degeneration in one eye. Ten years ago, I would be blind in one eye by now, and since my art is 3 D, it would impact it a lot. Five years ago, they could have stopped it where it was. But instead SCIENCE, that thing you discount as useless, had found a way to reverse much of the damage. I have most of my sight back in that eye.

            A friend’s daughter had ovarian cancer when she was 12, surgery and chemo, and yes science saved her, She is now the mother of a 2 and half year old little girl. And she is healthy now. Science saved her.

            You are using science when you access the internet. We need SCIENCE. Even folks like you.

          • WeGotta

            And yet, your physical body will eventually degenerate and die all the same.

            Does a blind person feel less love than a sighted person? Can a blind person have a more meaningful and full life than a sighted person?
            If so, what made such a life more full and meaningful?

            Your friend’s body will also die, and her daughters’ bodies too.

            Does every 90 year old lie on their death bed and think “oh well, I have had plenty of life” or will they, like a 12 year old feel fear and wish for more time and harbor regrets about wasted time and missed opportunities?

            What does science tell us about the causes of macular degeneration and ovarian cancer? Are some of those causes related to novel environmental factors created in the pursuit of science?

            I am not trying to be contrary. Science has it’s place. Science has a lot to say about the subject of ego and the true nature of the universe. Religion too for that matter.

            We will come face to face with the true nature of reality one way or another. It can and does come with careful attention and practice or it will come at the time of our death. I say, why wait? Why not know your true self here and now? Why not shed the feelings of fear and worry?

            What is our true nature? It’s exactly what science proves. We are not our body or our minds. We are literally everything and everything is us. If you want to change the world, change yourself.

          • Cairenn Day

            Please enjoy your BS and wish to live in the Dark ages, now please get off your computer.

            I enjoy science, I KNOW it is valuable.

          • WeGotta

            Nice talk.

          • TSD

            Dude, the stuff you are spewing sounds like some new age, there is no right answer, hippy bullshit.

          • WeGotta

            Of course! We all see the world according to our perceived reality.
            I’m totally full of shit. But not any more or less than you.

            And I’m not the one insisting the world’s people need to think one certain way about things or another. Think whatever you want. I have no more hold on the truth than you do, or does any scientist or priest.

            I never said there is no answer. Far from it.
            I’m saying the answers are within ourselves. The world is however you want it to be.
            If you think it sucks, it does.
            If you think it’s amazing, it is.

          • Eric Bjerregaard

            “perceived reality” Bunk. If 2 folks see reality differently differently one or both are incorrect. Scientific reality is the same for all of us. The reality in this case is that you are incorrect and Cairenn and TSD are correct.

          • WeGotta

            Oh, okay. Scientific reality.
            Silly me.

            So is it that my reality is false, or my fallacy is real?

  • agscienceliterate

    Kavin, keep up the good work of shining your light on these anti-science bullies. The fact that there are a few of you who take the heat but keep doing your research and your writing and your work means a lot to those of us who support the technological research, and who strongly support your efforts.

  • pissed man

    The problem is their lack of science when it comes to studying GMO safety. Also their lack of science when they find genetic contamination 10 years after unleashing products into the biosphere. The finding of an infection of Gene VI virus connected to the CaMV promoter gene that was found years after release. The showa denko tryptophan biotech screw up that kllled people, the klebsiella planticola screw up that nearly was released and could have killed all terrestrial plant life. The numerous rat, mice and guinea pig feeding studies that show huge endocrine, liver and kidney damage and render the second or third generations sterile, The emails that show several university professors congratulating themselves as Monsanto Shills, the consistently bad science that results in unintended consequences that are not anticipated or tested for safety. the fact that Monsanto does not want their products labeled and the government and companies collude to experiment on people without our consent, against all professional moral and ethical codes.

    You want to have a science discussion now? Lets admit these and many other failures, then we can begin to discuss if this entire technology should be banned because of the consistently changing unknowns and possible permutations and combinations that have plagued it from day 1. None of which have been addressed in the last 30 years. single traits are highly unstable, even when implanting a copy of the same gene in the same genetic structure like showa denko did.

    To get started

    There are numerous problems with genetic engineering that
    are often overlooked. There are code scramblers, hitchhikers, chaperones, DNA rearrangement, horizontal gene transfer, gene position effects, gene silencing, environmental influences, light switches, hot spots, waking up sleeping viruses, cancer, genetic pollution via pollen, synthetic genes, genetic disposition, complex unpredictable interactions, rearranged codes, gene stacking, allergens, nutritional problems, antibiotic resistance and human error. That’s some really precise science! are yo sure you want to put up this so called scientific fascade and try to hide your tobacco science behind it?

    • Yawn.

    • adam

      This picture pretty much sums up your post. A bunch of gobbly-gook pasted together with no references to back it up. I’m all about it if it existed, but nobody is finding it.

  • Shelley McGuire

    Thanks, everyone, for your interest in this horrible trend in attacking, silencing, and crippling public-institution researchers (like myself) who are either saying something or reporting research findings that go against someone’s or an organization’s beliefs or agenda. We need civil dialogue. Intuition and science are not mutually exclusive. But when we can test something using sound scientific method, the results should not be ignored or attacked. Being both a scientist and a woman of faith, I am committed to this approach to controversy. OK, now back to writing an NIH grant for me!

    • adam

      Good luck to you and thank you for your work!

  • Cairenn Day

    Wow, someone that lacks facts. Roundup is not an environmental offender, organic food, is however.

    Did you know that when corn is used to make ethanol that distillers grain is left and that is superior animal feed, better than the corn would be.
    Of course not, you refuse to do any research, you just blindly believe the crap you are told.

    There are almost 2000 studies, many independent.

    A Decade of EU-funded GMO Research

    A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001-2010), DG Research, European Commission

    EC-Sponsored research on safety the genetically modified organisms (1985-2000), DG Research, European Commission

    BioFortified’s Independent Studies

    GMOPundits 600 Studies!/2007/06/150-published-safety-assessments-on-gm.html

    A Survery of Long Term GM Food Studies

    Almost 1800 studies

  • Cairenn Day

    Huh? Why are you LYING about these researchers?

    They are still independent. Stop slandering them because you are willful ignorant.

    • Warren Lauzon

      Because they lost the science part of the discussion long ago – all they have left is slander and personal attacks.

  • Cairenn Day

    No evidence of that, NONE of these folks benefited from their relationship.

    Let me ask you, Do you know who funds RTK? The organic industry. The same industry that LIES about GMO and conventional farming.

    The graft is on the organic side, ALL of it!

  • Cairenn Day

    Then who bought the EU studies? Tell us, or be known as a LIAR.

    EC-Sponsored research on safety the genetically modified organisms (1985-2000), DG Research, European Commission

  • Cairenn Day

    How can one discuss something that you have no idea about? You had so much crap in that post of yours, that it needed a ‘honey truck’ to dispose of it.

    Pick a SINGLE point and we can discuss it. Support your claims with evidence from a credible source

  • adam

    Wow…I think angry man might be a better name for you.

    You got any proof for your claims or is it time for your meds?

  • adam

    Don’t worry about that guy…he’s pretty incoherent. Notice how he didn’t mention what real science and hard questions were. Troll of the 3rd rate.

  • Brian Urbancic

    Great article. One correction: Sunlight (solar radiation) is a Group 1 carcinogen, not Group 2 like glyphosate.

  • Gene

    the only crops which get glyphosate applied to them but arent ’roundup ready’ are when its used for ripening or desiccation like sugar cane

    if a conventional farmer uses glyphosate it will be before planting

    • Actually the vast majority of glyphosate use before RR crops was on perennial crops like grapes, nuts and tree fruit. It is used to control the weeds in the tree or vine row and as long as there are no green leaves on the lower trunk it is perfectly safe for the crop. Its also long been used in non-crop settings and in landscapes. Homeowner use is also very large. The IARC classification is based on “hazard” not risk. For risk you have to factor in exposure and that is a non-issue for almost anyone

      • Gene

        you are right of course, i suppose i should have been more clear as i was referring to the use directly on foods we injest

  • SageThinker

    I am still waiting, too. Just looked on Google Scholar searching “McGuire milk glyphosate” and do not find the paper yet. Still waiting. It’s been a while now. Is the paper publicly available yet? Does anyone have a link to it? Please do reply, if so. I am personally interested to know the type of assay used, how it was verified for reliability, and what its lower limit of assay was determined to be.

  • SageThinker

    Note that while Covance is not “affiliated” with Monsanto in the sense of being a subsidiary or otherwise formally legally connected in charter, it has been Monsanto’s go-to laboratory for years now, and i do suspect that people in the two companies have many personal ties and understandings.

    • Warren Lauzon

      They are also used by some 10,000 other companies.

  • hyperzombie

    Why would you assume that leprosy does not affect women of childbearing age? There are about 200 000 people with leprosy right now, and I assume that half of them are women.

  • Warren Lauzon

    I don’t see your point here. Are you against leprosy research or what? Not sure what it has to do with anything.

  • $9403969

    Until Organic Consumers Association discloses their donors, which they don’t (at least not in their 2013 financial and tax documents) we will not know where the money came from they funded USRTK with. $10 says Nutiva and Bronner.
    Can we make a request for emails from USRTK and OCA? Or are they set up so they don’t have to hand them over, in which case we’ll never know if they have industry ties. The anti-GMO industry seems a bit secretive. What do they hide?