Christopher Barbey researches strawberry genetics at UF with his PhD adviser in a lab with no name on its door.
His adviser, Kevin Folta, used to display his name. But Folta said he took it down years ago when he began receiving death threats for teaching people how to communicate science.
In a Facebook post Tuesday night, Kevin Folta, a professor and the former chairman of the horticultural sciences department at UF, said damaging attacks from activist groups caused him to resign from his chairman position.
In his resignation email Friday, he said his decision is also for personal reasons, which he later explained as a difficult divorce.
“(W)hen you have personal matters to take care of and are being targeted by these groups, it’s not fair to have to split my time that needs to be 100 percent devoted to my research, and to my faculty and to leadership,” Folta said.
GMWatch.org is an activist group that campaigns against genetically modified organisms, a focal point of Folta’s research. On Monday, the group posted a story online with spousal abuse allegations against Folta and called for a thorough investigation.
However, his colleagues hail him as a worldwide influence. Barbey, a UF doctoral student, said Folta is the reason he came to UF from Idaho for graduate school.
“I followed Kevin online because he is a huge champion for people who have a pro-science attitude toward genetic engineering and what it can do,” Barbey said.
Jonathan Matthews, editor of GMWatch.org, said in an email that he received a signed statement from Jane Graham Jennings, director of The Women’s Community, Inc., detailing an eyewitness account of Folta abusing his wife. Graham Jennings could not be reached for comment before deadline.
“UF needs to urgently carry out a thorough investigation,” Matthews said. “Some of the allegations involve not just ethical concerns but possible criminal activity, and UF cannot turn a blind eye to this.”
Matthews said the online publication is concerned with the genetic modification of food crops and companies who promote them such as Monsanto Company, which Folta has had previous ties to. Matthews said he first got involved with Folta while reporting on his support for genetic engineering and the industry.
The New York Times reported in 2015 that Folta received an undisclosed amount of grant money from Monsanto. In the article, he said UF intended to donate the money to a food pantry.
Folta said he is surprised that this group is having a public influence because the website is not a credible source. He was not aware of the emails sent to UF personnel about the abuse allegations.
“These people stir the pot all the time,” Folta said. “That is what they do. Some people will take this the wrong way.”
Folta said the group has targeted him for years because he is a scientist, calling them a hate group that harrasses him, his mother and his ex-wife.
He said being harassed is nothing new, and this will not be the last time as long as he continues to teach about technology in sustainable agriculture.
“All I can say to that is look at their website,” Folta said. “Look at how they’ve targeted me for years. This is just another set of allegations that will go away like the rest of them did.”
UF spokesperson Margot Winick said Tuesday she has no information yet on who will assume Folta’s position.
Folta said he will be a leader for the horticulture department even after resigning.
“I’m just changing the title,” Folta said. “I will still always work hard to be good at what I do.”
Roxanne Porozinski, Folta’s ex-wife, said Thursday the spousal abuse allegations that GMWatch posted online were true. She said she was disappointed in the first article published by The Alligator because it made Folta the victim.
Porozinski could not be reached for comment before the original deadline. The phone number originally provided for Porozinski was disconnected.
“I’m confirming those allegations are true,” she said. “I can’t expand on anything until after the divorce.”
Porozinski's divorce from Folta is currently being litigated and was filed for on February 9, according to the Alachua County Clerk of Court website. No allegations of abuse have been mentioned as of June 1 within the divorce proceedings.
However, Porozinski said she has organized documentation and a timeline to support the abuse allegations as well as witnesses.
“Women don’t speak out because they are re-victimized,” she said. “The first article showed Kevin as the victim. That is one of the reasons women don’t speak out.”
Porozinski said that Folta told his department at the end of 2017 that he was stepping down. She said Folta’s resignation is a way to blame her.
“He’s not going to be the victim here,” Porozinski said.
“Divorces are bitter,” Folta said. “Roxanne told me last year to be careful because activists that are out to get me would make claims of sexual assault, impropriety with students or physical abuse. I didn’t know it would be her. I wish her the best professionally and personally.”
Folta said he wishes Porozinski would go through the police rather than the internet and activist websites to pursue the matter.
“This is not for the University of Florida to investigate, it’s not for the paper to investigate, it’s not for GMWatch.org to investigate,” he said. “It’s for the police to investigate.”