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False reports and the smears of men
The pro-GM establishment has branded the
overwhelming public hostility to GM foods as "irrational" and "not based
in science". Tony Blair has admonished us to "keep an open mind" and "proceed
according to genuine scientific evidence." Jonathan Matthews decided to
take Blair up on his challenge and do just that. His discoveries prompt
him to ask whether, in trumpeting the value of "sound science", the biotech
brigade have merely made a rope to hang themselves.
Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two is opened by a character called Rumour who stuffs "the ears of men with false reports." This, according to the authors of a recent pro-GM article in Nature Biotechnology, "False reports and the ears of men," is exactly what’s driving forward the current GM debate—with dire consequences for "the real world of science and public policy." What’s required of scientists and public alike, according to the authors, is "selfless integrity" and a stronger critical response to misleading information.1
The authors’ preoccupation is predictably with reports that may damage the standing of GM. But what if there is as much or more reason to be concerned about the contrary? What if a flood of misinformation has not so much hindered this technology as helped to propel it forward? Couldn’t the ears of farmers, the political elite and, more recently, the general public have been stuffed with false reports favouring, rather than challenging, GM?
And if this has occurred, has the role
of Rumour in all of this really been filled solely by the likes of Monsanto?
Or could scientists have actually played a key role in giving credence
to the GM propaganda campaign—a campaign from which scientific caution,
selfless integrity and a strong critical response have indeed been absent?
The rules of the game
To answer these questions, let’s begin by establishing the rules of the "integrity" game.
The authors of the article in Nature Biotechnology1 focus their attack on the way in which small lab-based research studies have allegedly been hyped by the media to an uncritical public with the collusion of the scientists concerned. Theirs, however, is but one of many recent calls for strict scientific rectitude in response to reports that are perceived as raising concerns about GM.
The most glaring example of a breach of the required code is supposedly that of Dr Pusztai’s brief comments on television concerning the food safety implications of his research on GM potatoes. Condemnation has focused especially on the fact that his comments were made about unpublished research that hadn’t been subject to peer review.
The true scientist, it is implied, would
only argue his case with great care on the basis of sound peer reviewed
data open to critical scrutiny.
Such caution seems admirable but the joke, as we shall see, is that these standards are only being required of perceived critics of GM. They are simply ignored in relation to scientists making statements supportive of GM. In the latter case, it seems, while such scientists claim the moral and intellectual high ground, in reality, anything goes!
Statements that are quite unproven, comments
on research that is still unpublished, even accounts of research that may
be seriously misleading or entirely false, are likely to pass without censure—let
alone the vilification that has been heaped on Dr Pusztai.
Many such statements made in public or private meetings will have gone unrecorded but here we’ll look at some recent examples where scientists, knowingly or otherwise, have gone on the record.
"False reports": selling GM
An agricultural journalist reporting on a recent public meeting, about an AgrEvo farmscale GM trial in Norfolk, writes of how an eminent scientist on the panel "so obviously could not comprehend why people will not accept proven scientific fact"2. The perplexed scientist was Professor David Baulcombe, head of the Plant Molecular Virology Department at the prestigious Sainsbury Laboratory based at the John Innes Centre (JIC). The JIC, often described as Europe’s leading plant biotechnology institute, represents itself as a wholly independent, charitable and mainly publicly funded institution.
In his opening statement to the meeting, Professor Baulcombe focused particularly on what he regarded as the environmental benefits of GM. He spoke of "enormous environmental benefits, benefits of biodiversity" where GM crops were being grown in North America. In support of these claims he referred to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which was "to be released shortly."
According to Professor Baulcombe, this report showed that "as a result of growing genetically modified corn and cotton, insect-resistant plants, it’s been no longer necessary to apply broad [spectrum] insecticide on a large basis and as a result there has been an increase in the diversity of insect life; there has been a corresponding increase in the diversity of small mammal life and a corresponding increase in the diversity of birds of prey in those areas of the United States."3
This account of the EPA report obviously provides critical support for Baulcombe’s next statement: "This is an environmental[ly] benign technology, it can bring us enormous potential benefits."3 However, changes in biodiversity are notoriously difficult to pin down in causal terms so it is, to say the least, unfortunate that Prof Baulcombe drew his support from an unpublished source.
There is also the intriguing question of exactly how Prof Baulcombe managed to gain pre-publication access to the results of the report of a U.S. regulatory authority. Explanation is particularly required because the study he describes is hard to tally with the strict remit of the EPA which is to monitor for environmental harm rather than to seek evidence of benefits.
Commenting, in a personal capacity, on the agency’s task of ensuring a "reasonable certainty of no harm," an EPA scientist writes, "We would not typically look at "positive effects". That would be gravy. We have our hands full trying to make sure that negative effects are non-existent or limited!"4 The same scientist also said that while he could not conclusively rule out the existence of the study as described by Professor Baulcombe, being just one scientist in a large agency, he had no knowledge of it.
Professor Baulcombe has been directly asked
to provide further details on the study in question. To date none have
been forthcoming. The EPA report was the only research evidence Professor
Baulcombe cited in his statement about the "enormous environmental benefits"
being delivered by the use of GM in agriculture.
Smears of men: discrediting critical research
After Professor Baulcombe’s opening statement, almost the very first question that came up was about the American Monarch butterfly research. Prof Baulcombe proved more than ready to meet this particular "false report" with a strong critical response. He told the meeting: "Actually, that research was discredited by a letter published by the former chairman of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment the following week."3
Later the Monarch question was brought up again and this time Prof Baulcombe spelt out exactly why the research did not deserve to be treated seriously: "It’s rather unfortunate that we get back to this report of the butterfly. The most significant finding from that report was not that the genetically modified maize damaged the butterfly, it was actually that non-genetically modified maize pollen had damaged the butterfly and that was the most staggering finding in that paper if you look at the information that’s in there. There were no real differences between the damage caused to the Monarch butterflies by the genetically modified maize pollen, [it was] not that different to the damage caused to the butterflies by the non-genetically modified maize pollen."3
In fact, nothing that Prof Baulcombe told the meeting about the Monarch research is remotely true. The letter Baulcombe referred to was from Prof John Beringer. This letter, while raising questions and emphasising the need for caution in interpreting a preliminary study, states that the research has alerted the regulatory authorities to "a potential problem that will require very serious thought." Beringer has also stated elsewhere that the research amounts to "a real story" and that he would expect regulators to ban the GM crop in question if the study is borne out by further research5.
Earlier, in a BBC interview, Beringer had stated that the study had not been peer reviewed and "might be flawed."6 But in his letter to Nature7 he admits he was mistaken about the issue of peer review and apologises for the comment. He goes on, "My suggestion that the work might be flawed was not intended as a slight" but was a warning against overinterpretation.
In no sense, then, did Beringer in his letter to Nature or elsewhere "discredit" the Monarch research. Indeed Beringer in the letter, if anything, retreats somewhat from his apparently stronger initial comments.
More startlingly, Dr John Losey, the principal author of the Monarch paper, has dismissed Prof Baulcombe’s other claim that the butterfly was damaged equally by non-GM pollen as not only wrong and "completely without merit" but as having come from someone who would appear to have sought to rubbish the research without even bothering to read the published paper.
Dr Losey said, "Let me start by stating that in general the authors certainly do not agree that the study has been discredited... The specific point that caterpillars could be killed as readily by non-transgenic pollen allegedly raised by Dr. Baulcombe is completely without merit. Caterpillars fed on milkweed leaves with untransformed [non-GM] corn pollen suffered NO mortality while 44% of those that fed on leaves dusted with Bt-corn pollen died within 4 days. I assume the person who actually made this quote did not read the paper."
Dr Losey goes on: "It is interesting to note that the caterpillars feeding on untransformed corn pollen actually grew larger than those that fed on leaves with no pollen. Clearly there is no negative effect due to corn pollen alone."8
An interesting aspect of Baulcombe's attack on Dr Losey’s research is that it exactly replicates the tactics used against Dr Pusztai, namely:
A) claiming the research had been
discredited by a notable scientific authority—this claim has been repeated
ad nauseam in the case of Dr Pusztai, largely on the basis of the Royal
Society’s wholly inadequate and partial peer review of a document internal
to the Rowett Institute
which was never intended for publication;
B) claiming that the research throws up nothing of any note as far as GM is concerned, i.e. that the toxicity is explicable for reasons entirely unconnected with GM.
An example of the latter line of attack in relation to Dr Pusztai can be found in the comments of Dr Phil Dale, a close colleague of Prof Baulcombe’s at the JIC. Dr Dale is on record as having told a Government minister that there was nothing surprising about Pusztai’s results because the gene inserted was a lectin and lectins are well known toxins.9 This is very misleading because not all lectins are considered dangerous, even when eaten in raw foods - we consume them, for example, every time we bite into an uncooked tomato. Indeed, the lectin used in Dr Pusztai’s research (the GNA lectin) was specifically chosen because it was not considered significantly toxic to mammals (e.g. rats, as in Pusztai’s research, or humans).
Another close colleague of Prof Baulcombe’s, Prof Jonathan Jones, told the Sunday Times that Pusztai’s results could well be due to naturally occurring toxins in the potatoes, and Baulcombe himself has used this line of attack to dismiss Pusztai's research, telling the New Scientist: "This study is more informative about working with potatoes than it is about GM technology."10
To what extent, one may wonder, did these
JIC scientists bother to inform themselves about the detail of Pusztai's
reseach before publicly dismissing it as saying nothing about GM? It certainly
appears that Baulcombe simply applied to Dr Losey the same tactics that
have been employed so persistently against Dr Pusztai.
The case of the disappearing evidence
Some, of course, will claim that Professor Baulcombe’s tactics in the GM debate are idiosyncratic. Statements to press and public by other scientific experts in this area, it might be assumed, are marked by far greater care and accuracy.
Another senior UK academic who has worked at the JIC is Prof T Michael Wilson, until recently the deputy head of the Scottish Crop Research Institute and now Chief Executive of Horticulture Research International. According to Prof Wilson, opposition to GM by supporters of organic agriculture has been based on a lack of knowledge of the true facts. What is necessary, Wilson says, is for scientists to come out of the laboratory and explain exactly what is going on.11
Prof Wilson showed his readiness to do just that in a recent press article in which he called on the supporters of organic agriculture and genetic engineering to "bury the hatchet", by which he appears to mean that the former should accept the positive benefits of GM crops in the light of the evidence.
Prof Wilson indicated the compelling nature of that evidence by citing "an independent U.S. survey, carried out by Cornell University" which "showed that the use of GM crops in Northern America cut farmers’ bills for pest and disease control chemicals by $465 million. It also reduced tillage and other energy costs and encouraged more wildlife."11
When we asked for further details of this apparently powerful independent evidence from Cornell in support of the farming and environmental benefits of GM crops, Prof Wilson identified the report he had been referring to as "Brief of Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 1998."12
This report was not, in fact, carried out at Cornell. Its author is one Clive James who is not, nor has ever been, a Cornell researcher. James is, however, the Chairman of an organisation, the ISAAA, committed to helping developing countries take up GM technology. The ISAAA appears to be supported to a great extent by cash from the GM industry. Donors include AgrEvo, Monsanto, Novartis, and Pioneer Hi-Bred, and Monsanto are even on its board. In no sense, then, can the ISAAA report be adequately described as coming from an "independent" source.
Indeed, in many respects the report reads rather like a sales pitch for GM crops with an especial emphasis on what might be termed the "South Sea Bubble" line of argument: because GM has been enthusiastically taken up in some parts of the world therefore it must be good!
If Prof Wilson’s characterisation of the report is seriously open to question, so is his account of what the report tells us about GM crops.
While Prof Wilson claims the report provides evidence that the use of GM crops "encouraged more wildlife," it in fact contains no references at all to biodiversity. It does, as Prof Wilson indicated, refer to economic benefits and chemical usage reductions, but these "findings" turn out to be based solely on producer estimates.12
How much these estimates may be worth can be readily gauged by contrasting producer estimates in the report on GM soy yield improvements (12%) with a recent review of the results of over 8,200 university-based controlled varietal trials in 1998. These showed an almost 7% average yield reduction in the case of the GM soya crop. There is also evidence of increased chemical usage on GM soya, which is the main GM crop in production, and increased costs for the grower. In other words, the study’s findings are diametrically opposite to the estimates in the report.13
In short then, the evidence Prof Wilson
cites as showing why GM is a beneficial technology turns out:
• not to be from the source he claims;
• not to be independent in the way he implies; and
• not to contain the evidence for wildlife benefits he claims it does.
In addition, as far as any other reported "benefits" go, they turn out to be based solely on producer estimates for which there is extensive contrary evidence.
If we assume that Prof Wilson is setting
the model for those scientists he’s encouraging to tell us "what is really
going on", perhaps there might be a public preference for their continued
containment within their laboratories!
Blind faith and winning ways
Another UK scientist who has encouraged his peers to take a full part in the GM debate is Dr Nigel Halford of the Institute of Arable Crop Research (IACR). In a piece written for a largely in-house publication for fellow bio-scientists, he tells them, "we have to put our side of the argument at every opportunity through the media and in public debates." Dr Halford concludes his article, "Eventually, we will win the debate here but it will not be easy."14
According to Dr Halford, it should not be too difficult to win the GM debate because "GM crops will be cheaper, tastier, look better, require less intensive farming methods (i.e. less pesticide use), be more nutritious and have longer shelf lives..."14 This statement exemplifies just how tricky the line between faith and science is for GM proponents, for although Dr Halford does use the future tense in his statement, he feels no need to use a cautious "may" for the delivery of these wondrous benefits, even though that delivery without serious cost remains entirely speculative. While Tony Blair may instruct the public to "just keep an open mind" and wait for the evidence, for Dr Halford and his colleagues it appears the future is entirely predictable.
What Dr Halford certainly cannot be faulted on is his willingness to take his own advice on participating vigorously in the GM debate. He has tirelessly spoken from public platforms around the country.
At the Royal Agricultural Show this summer,
Dr Halford had the opportunity to address an audience of farmers and here
he was able to point to the kind of evidence of GM’s benefits that would
certainly gladden the heart of the hard-pressed farming community.
According to Farmers Weekly, Halford told his audience that as a result of the increasing acreage of GM crops in North America, "U.S. pesticide sales fell in 1998 by $200m and are predicted to fall by a further $600m over the next two years. That’s an excellent indicator of the success of these crops in reducing the dependence of agriculture on chemical inputs."15
What Dr Halford doesn’t appear to have told his farming audience, however, is that with the advent of herbicide tolerant GM varieties in U.S. agriculture a vicious price war has broken out amongst competing chemical suppliers. Each is trying to lure farmers back onto their products and away from the few brand-named herbicides that the GM crops are bred to tolerate. As the majority of the U.S. cropped area is still in non-GM varieties, chemical price discounts for these account for a significant fall in total chemical expenditure. Such competition, in addition to the general agricultural recession, has also been influencing all U.S. pesticide prices downwards, including those that can be used with GM crops.
In other words, a reduced pesticide bill, far from being an "excellent indicator" of dependence or otherwise on chemical inputs, tells us little about actual levels of chemical usage.
Indeed, there is good evidence that the
most widely grown GM crop, soya, is being treated with significantly increased
levels of chemicals13 — the very opposite of what Dr Halford would
have farmers believe.
People in glass houses
Pro-GM scientists lament the lack of acceptance with which many of their pronouncements are met. But perhaps they should not be surprised that, like Prof Baulcombe’s audience, an increasingly discerning public shows a reluctance to accept as "proven scientific fact" statements that sound suspiciously like industry spin or common room gossip. In their desperation to accentuate the positive, and in the absence of genuine supporting evidence, it seems scientific rectitude may have gone out of the window for many supposedly independent scientists, despite the fact that they simultaneously invoke exactly that canon to try and see off their critics.
At the very least, the examples we have looked at raise questions about the extent to which the public and the government can rely on scientific experts to be suitably cautious, properly dispassionate and even fully honest in informing them about the GM issue.
What makes this particularly alarming is that the scientists whose questionable "evidence" we have looked at are associated with the very institutes that are key to "independent" research and government advice on this issue in the U.K. Scientists from the John Innes Centre, the IACR, and the Scottish Crop Research Institute sit as U.K. regulators and have been at the forefront of scientific input into a whole series of important reports. Worse, two of these institutes, the IACR and the SCRI, are involved in the running of the highly contentious farmscale GM crop trials that are currently taking place in the UK.
In the next article we will look at the pressures that are driving independent scientists to act like hired guns for the biotech industry.
1. Nature Biotechnology, Commentary, September 1999, Vol 17, No. 9, p 832
2. Sally Smith, "Public grapple with unanswered questions", Crops, August 1999, Vol 17, No. 14
3. All Prof Baulcombe’s comments are taken from an unedited tape of the meeting. A full transcript is available on the NGIN website:
4. Personal communication, attribution withheld
5. Charles Clover, "Expert urges U.S. to act over toxic GM pollen alert," Daily Telegraph
6. Today programme, BBC Radio 4, May 2, 1999
7. Beringer, J. E., Nature, 399, 405 (1999)
8. Personal communication, 30 July 1999, posted to the Cornell list: <BIOTECH-L@cornell.edu>
9. Angela Ryan, "Meacher meets scientists," record of meeting in Environment Minister’s office, available on the NGIN website:
10. See <http://www.jic.bbsrc.ac.uk/sainsbury-lab/jonathan-jones/GMO-pieces/SJJGMO3.HTM>
and New Scientist, October 16 1999, p 6
11. "Scientists call on organic farmers to bury the hatchet", The Scotsman, August 16, 1999
12. Available at <http://agbio.cabweb.org/isaaa>
13. Dr Charles Benbrook, "Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998, AgBioTech InfoNet Technical Paper no. 1, July 13, 1999. Available at:
14. "Dr Frankenstein, I presume?", BBSRC Business, January 1999
15. Farmers Weekly, July 2, 1999
PROFESSOR B: INDEX