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Monsanto's World Wide Web of Deceit

 

Excerpts from 

'Kernels of Truth'
 

Kara Platoni, East Bay Express, May 29, 2002 
 
 

....until after Nature recanted the study, much of the debate played out in scientific publications and on the Internet. One major online forum was the site of AgBioWorld Foundation, run by C.S. Prakash, a plant molecular genetics professor at Tuskegee University and vocal supporter of genetic engineering.
 

AgBioWorld.org became a forum for critics of the Berkeley study; Prakash would post critical articles, such as an editorial in the journal Transgenic Research that called the research "a testimony to technical failure." Prakash also posted his own series of press releases, arguing that "organizations with vested interests and hidden agendas have used these tenuous claims and a campaign of hysteria to discredit modern biotechnology" and that Mexican farmers would suffer if denied the technology available to their American counterparts..
 

But there's evidence that some of the most virulent criticisms posted on the site were anything but academic. Following an April investigation by the British weekly The Big Issue, both The Ecologist and The Guardian have followed with articles alleging that AgBioWorld's Web forum, AgBioView, was used as part of a corporate smear campaign against Quist and Chapela. 
 

At issue are the identities of e-mail contributors Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek, who together submitted sixty of the first postings criticizing the study and dismissing Chapela as an anti-biotech activist. According to Ecologist columnist Jonathan Matthews, one of Murphy's e-mail addresses revealed that she worked for the Bivings Group, a Beltway PR firm specializing in 'Internet advocacy' campaigns. One of Bivings' big clients? Monsanto, the company from which Pharmacia was germinated. Smetacek's identity is a bit more nebulous. After unsuccessfully trying to track her down, Big Issue writer Andy Rowell concluded that Smetacek's e-mail address was a front. But who was behind it? Neither publication could say, but both noted that Smetacek's postings made frequent reference to the Center for Food and Agricultural Research, an entity that appears to exist only online and whose domain, they claim, is registered to a Bivings employee.

 

A spokesman for the Bivings Group emphatically denies that the company has ever employed -- or heard of -- either Murphy or Smetacek, and in a terse press release the PR group dismisses the magazines' allegations as "baseless." Likewise, AgBioWorld founder Prakash says he has no knowledge of either woman, but that as a discussion-group moderator it can be tricky to draw the line between people who are just opinionated and those who are passing off unsubstantiated information as fact. "The Internet is not a newspaper; you really have to take things with a grain of salt," he says. He also maintains that his site has no connection with Bivings or any other industry organizations. "It's a very independent nonprofit organization," says Prakash.

 

Quist and Chapela's defenders hold that these attacks on their credibility were not at all impartial. The Bivings Group's own Web site, after all, boasts of the power of "viral marketing," or using word-of-mouth strategies to disseminate clients' views online. Indeed, Andrew Dimock, head of the PR firm's online marketing and promotions division, penned an essay on the topic that appeared in April on Thebivingsreport.com. Following publication of the Guardian article, Dimock's essay was amended to eliminate the following quotation: "There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved. ... 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."

 

The currently posted version instead suggests that people use message boards to "make relevant postings to these outlets that openly present your identity and position." Even more disturbing, says columnist Matthews, is his claim that when searching the AgBioWorld Web archive, he got an error message showing that the site was connected to a Bivings server. "This suggests that Bivings may not just be contributing significantly to the tone and direction of the AgBioView list in an undisclosed way through the use of one or more aliases, but are making some of AgBioWorld's content available in a way that masks their involvement," he says. All attempts by the Express to reach Murphy and Smetacek through phone numbers and e-mail addresses provided by Rowell proved fruitless.

 

Even if the fronts were false, the criticism was effective in refocusing the debate on lab methodology. Defenders of the Berkeley research charge that its detractors are trying to obfuscate the fact that the study's main point -- transgenes have made their way into Oaxacan corn -- is probably correct. "They're spending big bucks to confuse the public and attempt to destroy the credibility of these two researchers," says Greenpeace's Merrill. Chapela concurs. "The people who are publicly after us right now are the usual suspects, the people who are in the pay of the industry and whose dedication is just to produce propaganda," he says. "They basically fed us to the dogs."

 

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