Monsanto's World Wide Web of deceitThe Big Issue, No 484, 15-21 April 2002
SEEDS OF DISSENT
Anti-GM scientists are facing widespread assualts on their credibility. Andy Rowell investigates who is behind the attacks
Anti-GM scientists and activists are increasingly having their credibility attacked through a campaign orchestrated by the biotech industry. Now that campaign has seen a prestigious scientific journal become the latest casualty.
The attacks against the journal Nature culminated in the publication last week of an admission that it was wrong to print a scientific paper last year that was critical of GM. The admission was the first in the journal's history. It is apparently the latest example of biotech giants using front organisations and websites to discredit scientific research that criticises GM technology.
The saga started last November when Nature published an article by scientists from the University of California Berkeley that alleged contamination of native Mexican maize by GM. As Mexico has a moratorium on commercial GM planting, it raised crucial issues about genetic pollution in a centre of maize biodiversity.
The paper led to the researchers and Nature being attacked by pro-GM scientists and the biotech industry. Nature finally buckled under the pressure, issuing a statement saying "the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper".
"It is clearly a topic of hot interest", says Jo Webber from Nature, admitting that this story is not just "technical" but also "political".
The political context is that the biotech industry is trying to lift European, Brazilian and Mexican moratoria on genetically modified seeds or foods. It is desperate to open up Europe, having lost more than $200 million due to the moratorium on growing of GM corn alone. Nature has refused to comment further about the row.
This week sees crucial negotiations at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in The Hague. The Nature statement could not have come at a better time and the biotech industry is naturally gleeful. "Many people are going to need that (Nature's editorial) reference", says Willy De Greef from Syngenta, the world's leading agribusiness company, "not least those who, like me, will be in the frontline fights for biotech during the Hague negotiations".
Despite Nature's climb-down, the authors of the original study, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, have published new evidence they say vindicates their original findings. They add that two other studies by the Mexican government confirm their research and believe Nature has been "under incredible pressure from the powers that be".
"This is a very, very well concerted, co-ordinated and paid for campaign to discredit the very simple statement that we made," says Dr Chapela.
The central co-ordinator of the attacks has been CS Prakash who is a professor of Plant Molecular Genetics at Tuskegee University Alabama, and who runs the AgBioWorld Foundation. AgBioWorld was co-founded by an employee of the Washington-based right-wing think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Prakash calls the Quist and Chapela study "flawed" and says the "results did not justify the conclusions." He adds that they were "too eager to publish their results because it fitted their agenda".
Prakash's pro-GM website has been the central discussion forum of the Nature article. He said: "I think it a played a fairly important role in putting public pressure on Nature because we have close to 3,700 people on AgBioView, our daily newsletter, and immediately after this paper was published many scientists started posting some preliminary analysis that they were doing.
"AgBioView has brought together those scientists and AgBioWorld provided a collective voice for the scientific community". These discussions led to a highly critical and influential statement attacking Nature that received more than 80 signatories.
Two letters signed by pro-GM scientists that criticised Nature's original publication were also printed in the same issue as the journal's retraction. The lead authors of the letters, Matthew Metz and Nick Kaplinsky, signed the pro-biotech statement on the website.
Both have or have had links with the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at Berkeley that entered into a $25 million deal with Novartis (now Syngenta), a deal that was opposed by Chapela. "It became a very big scandal and they cannot forgive that", says Chapela.
But most importantly it wasn't scientists but a PR company that works for GM firm Monsanto that started and fuelled the anti-Nature debate on Prakash's listerv. On the listserv the first attack was posted by someone called 'Mary Murphy' within hours of publication. She wrote: "It should be noted that the author of the Nature article, Ignacio H Chapela, is on the board of directors of the Pesticide Action Network North America, an activist group." Murphy accused Chapela of being "not exactly what you'd call an unbiased writer".
The next bulletin was from someone called 'Andura Smetacek' who claimed Chapela was in league with environmental groups and added, wrongly, that his paper was "not a peer-reviewed research article subject to independent scientific analysis". Smetacek and Murphy have between them posted around 60 articles on the Prakash Iist. So who are they?
Mary Murphy's email is firstname.lastname@example.org, which hides her employer. On one occasion on an internet message board she used this address but also left a trail of other identifying details that showed she worked for the Bivings group, a PR company with offices in Washington, Brussels, Chicago and Tokyo.
Bivings, which has more than a dozen Monsanto companies as clients, has been assisting the GM firm's use of the internet since realising that it played a significant part in the company's poor PR image. Bivings says it uses the internet's "powerful message delivery tools" for "viral dissemination".
When asked about what they do for Monsanto, a spokesperson for Bivings said "We run their web sites for various European countries and their main corporate site and we help them with campaigns as a consultant. We are not allowed to discuss strategy issues and personal opinions". They declined to give any further information on their work for the company.
However further insight can be gleamed from a recent report by Bivings which said: "Message boards, chat rooms and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party."
As a "third party" Bivings has covertly smeared biotech industry critics on a website called CFFAR.org as well as via articles and attacks on listservs under aliases. The attack on the Nature article was a continuation of this covert campaign.
Andura Smetacek is no stranger to such tactics. The Big Issue South West can also reveal that she was the original source of a letter that was published under the name of TonyTrevawas, a pro-GM scientist from the University of Edinburgh, in the Herald newspaper in Scotland. The letter became a source of legal action between Greenpeace, its former director Peter Melchett, and the newspaper. The case went to the high court and ended with Melchett receiving undisclosed damages and an apology from the Herald. Trevawas has always denied he wrote the letter.
In a letter written earlier this year, Smetacek said: "I am the author of the message which was sent to AgBioWorld. I'm surprised at the stir it has caused since the basis for the content of the letter comes from publicly available news articles and research easily found on-line".
Smetacek is also a "front email". In an early posting to the AgBioView list she gave her address as London, while in recent correspondence with The Ecologist magazine Smetacek left a New York phone number. However, after extensive searching of public records in the US, the Big Issue South West found no one in America with that name. Despite numerous requests by The Ecologist for Smetacek to give an employer or land address she has refused to do so.
A clue to her identity is that Smetacek's earliest messages to AgBioView consistently promoted the CFFAR.org website. CFFAR stands for the Centre For Food and Agricultural Research and describes itself as "a public policy and research coalition dedicated to exploring and understanding health, safety, and sustainability issues associated with food and fiber production".
In fact the website attacks organic agriculture as well as environmental groups, like Greenpeace, calling them "terrorists". The website is registered to an employee of Bivings who works as one of Monsanto's web gurus.
Even the AgBioWorld Foundation website is linked to Bivings.
Jonathan Matthews, a leading anti-GM activist, has researched the activities of Bivings. While searching the AgBioWorld archives he received a message that told him that an attempt to connect him to a Bivings database had failed. Internet experts believe that this message implies Bivings is hosting an AgBioView database. These experts also notice technical similarities between the CFFAR, Bivings and AgBioWorld websites.
Prakash, though, denies receiving funding or assistance for the AgBioWorld foundation and denies working with any PR company saying he is "pro-the technology not necessarily the companies".
However Matthews said: "Via Bivings, Monsanto has a series of shop windows with which to influence the GM debate. One of these is AgBioWorld. The chief mannequin seems to be Prakash who has been very influential in the whole Nature/GM corn contamination fiasco. But I wonder if Nature really knows who is behind the attacks."
Dr Sue Mayer from GeneWatch UK says: "It is quite extraordinary the lengths the biotech industry and the scientific establishment will go to discredit any critical science."
The Bivings website
|"This is a very, very well concerted, co-ordinated and paid for campaign to discredit the very simple statement that we made"|