Corn field
Much of the corn grown in the US today is genetically modified. GM labelling of produce and products is voluntary in the US Reuters

Activists in the US are using the freedom of information law to probe the close connection between academics and the biotechnology industry. They seem to be hitting pay dirt.

Investigations by groups like US Right to Know have not revealed any scientific misconduct but point to close ties between some of the big names on both sides.

Correspondence by Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a well-known advocate of GM organisms, for instance shows ties with Monsanto which has paid for some of the scientist's travels in espousing the GM cause among students, farmers, media and politicians.

E-mails also show that Folta received an unrestricted US$25,000 (£16,000) grant in 2014 from Monsanto, which noted that the money "may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects".

Folta says that the funds are for a proposed University of Florida programme on communicating biotechnology.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of US Right to Know, says, "I think it's important for professors who take money from industry to disclose it."

On the ethical aspect of such close relationships, and questions of who works for whom, Bruce Chassy, a toxicologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also under investigation, agrees there could be some inter-dependence as both have overlapping research interests.

The extent of this overlap is what activists seek to know, writes Nature.

Industry contacts also occasionally sent him suggested responses to common questions about GM organisms. But Folta, who considers public outreach as part of his job, insists that nobody ever told him what to say, and that he has not said or done anything "not consistent with the science."

Besides Folta, many other researchers from the public sector are being investigated. Michelle McGuire, a nutrition scientist at Washington State University in Pullman, in her research refutes claims that glyphosate, a herbicide used on GM crops, accumulates in breast milk.

Her work relies on an assay developed with assistance from Monsanto.

Ruskin's group, which was founded in 2014, began present investigations of academics after noting many of them were fielding questions about crop biotechnology on a website called GMO Answers, aimed at consumers, and funded by the biotech industry.

The group sees the site as a marketing tool "to spin GMOs in a positive light". The PR group managing the site often drafted answers for Folta while insisting his replies should be "authentically yours".

US Right to Know has so far received responses only to about 10% of its requests to various universities. The University of Nebraska has refused to provide documents requested by the group.

Currently, up to 93% of US corn is genetically engineered (GE), as are 94% of soybeans and 96% of cotton. The majority of genetically engineered plants are typically used to make ingredients that are then used in other food products, says the FDA.

The field of plant molecular biology is known to be heavily funded by the industry and the companies naturally favour those exploring ways to further apply genetic modification in agriculture.

Biologists who point out risks associated with GM crops, based on their findings, have reported being the focus of vicious attacks on their credibility.

However, many like David Zilberman, a UC Berkeley agricultural and environmental economist, considered credible by both sides, believe the benefits of GM crops greatly outweigh the health risks.