ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

8 January 2003


this is a rough *unofficial* transcript of the majority of last night's broadcast. programme repeated sunday 5pm or yo can hear it here:
and you can post comments here:
Keen GE-supporter and UK regulator, Dr Phil Dale of the John Innes Centre already has


Seeds of Trouble

Richard Hollingham, Narrator (N)

[N] GM, genetically modified crops, promised a bright new dawn for agriculture. And for a while everything was going the industryís way. But then things started to go wrong. Wobbly shareholders, angry activists and sceptical consumers. But the industry began to fight back, and many have felt the brunt, from entire countries to individual scientists like this one.

[Ignacio Chapela] "I was so drained, I was emotionally very shocked and drained. I donít think anything like that had ever happened to me. I felt totally shaken and I just stayed in a state of shock for hours after that. The whole evening I just couldnít talk."

[N] One night in September 2001, Dr Ignacio Chapela, associate professor from the university of California at Berkeley, was driven in a taxi to this remote area of Mexico City. Dr Chapela had just completed a study which showed that native varieties of maize grown here in Mexico had been contaminated with DNA from genetically modified crops. Heíd agreed to meet with Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, a senior official with the Mexican government. But at night, this area was an unlikely place for anything official. Although the meeting took place in the large [?concrete and?] steel and glass building behind me, this really isnít a particularly pleasant area. The building itself overlooks a makeshift dump around the size of 2 football pitches, strewn with rubble, bags of rubbish and old mattresses. Graffiti covers almost every available wall and fence. Thereís a pack of wild dogs picking through the undergrowth. Heaven knows what theyíll find here.

[N] Dr Chapela knew his research was controversial and possibly embarrassing for the government here, but he wasnít expecting to feel in danger.

[Chapela] When we walked in the building was really empty. We climb up in the elevator to the 12th floor and we come out into this deserted office space. There is this long corridor that is pretty gloomy and there is this little light that comes on at the other end from the side in the corridor, and this is where this official is sitting, in a makeshift office. The desk is a door taken off its hinges and put on cardboard boxes. There is no phone, there is a maid who is instructed to prepare coffee and leave. We are left, the three of us, together. I was sat next to the wall and the aide was sitting blocking me from the door. And then this officer who is in charge still today of the Commission on Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms, the most important Mexican official on these matters, he let me know that I would be very mistaken in publishing the results of this research. He makes it clear that I am the one who is creating the problem. And this is all done in very very aggressive language. And then he said, I look forward to the development of the biotech industry in Mexico and itís going to happen. There is only one hurdle. And that hurdle is you.

[N] Dr Chapela then tells how he was offered the opportunity to conduct some secret research. He would work for 6 weeks at a luxury resort alongside 4 scientists from the biotechnology industry. Dr Chapela says, to make his life easier, he was even told the results of the study in advance. It would conclude that his original research was wrong. Dr Chapela declined the offer.

[Chapela] Then he instructed the aide to show me the offices. These are just totally empty office spaces. At some point I was left alone in one of the rooms and I was looking out of the window and I saw that this was a building surrounded by just dumpsters. And I just think, Oh my God, they could just push me out of the window here, so I did think this could be the reason why I was being shown these spaces. And yet nothing happened.

[Fernando Monasterio] I am Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, executive secretary of [Ö] which is the Commission on Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms of the federal government of Mexico.

[N] Dr Chapela claims he was driven out to a building on the edge of town, that he had a meeting with you on the 12th floor in a ramshackle office and he feared for his life.

[FM] I am not aware of the fact. The simple offices and premises that we use are the offices in which we give the best service and I am not aware of that fact.

[N] He claims you intimidated him and that he really was genuinely scared.

[FM] Quite surprised. Here we have very respect for people and I shall talk to him, itís good to know.

[N] Did you have a meeting with him?

[FM] Yes.

[N] And as far as you are concerned, what happened at that meeting, what was discussed?

[FM] The issues of the presence of maize, the importance of publishing, that what we were doing is research, and that when we have the results from our own researchers, we will share with him.

[N] So it wasnít your intention to intimidate him?

[FM] No.

[N] Did the meeting take place as he describes in an almost empty building on the 12th floor in a desolate part of town?

[FM] No, on the 5th floor of our offices, which is an office of the ministry of health, in the southern part of town where we work, yes.

[N] Did he have any reason to be fearful of publishing his research in Mexican [sic]?

[FM] No. Oh no. Not at all.

[N] Fernando Ortiz Monasterio wasnít the only Mexican official who was keen to chat with Dr Chapela that autumn of 2001. The then deputy agriculture minister, Victor Manuel Villalobos, also made his feelings known. In a strongly worded letter, which Iíve seen, Dr Chapela was warned that heíd be held personally responsible for any damage to the whole of Mexicoís agriculture and economy resulting from the publication of the study. It was all getting rather melodramatic. But why go to so much trouble over just one piece of research? Could it be pressure from Mexicoís friendly neighbour to the north? In this programme weíll try to discover whoís influencing whom in the debate on GM and whoís pulling what strings.

The United States has embraced biotechnology on a massive scale. Around a third of US maize, or corn as itís known, is GM, and around 80% of soyabeans. Thatís tens of millions of acres grown each year. And itís stated US policy to promote this technology abroad. On the official government website, the US undersecretary for agricultural affairs says, "US foreign policy is devoted to a longer-term struggle to gain world acceptance of agricultural biotechnology. So whatís the extent of this struggle? Time for a trip to the US Embassy, to meet the councillor for agriculture, William Brandt.

The American Embassy covers a whole block of the city in Mexico; we have to get through security which involves lots of men with gunsÖ. [attempts to reach Brandt by phone] What a palaver. And during that thereís a man with a very large submachine gun standing next to me.

[W Brandt] Our policy is boy, the more countries we can get on board who can stand up and say biotechnology done responsibly is good, itís good for us, itís good for our country, our economy, the more countries we can get up and stand with us, itís to our advantage.

[N] Mexico has had a ban on planting GM maize since 1998. And thereís been a certain amount of opposition to agricultural biotechnology in the Mexican Congress. Those opinions are ones the Americans are keen to change.

[WB] With regards to Congress thatís a process of providing information, making sure they have all the facts before they write legislation, and to that extent we meet constantly with Congress, we also meet closely with groups like Agrobio and [Commission headed by Fernando Monasterio].

[N] Thatís the commission headed by Fernando Ortiz Monasterio.

[WB] We have brought those interested in Congress up to the United States to meet with our health policy experts and our people in public policy. They spent a great deal of time with our American Medical Association learning about what the AMA thought about the use and consumption of biotechnology.

[N] Youíll be aware of the Ignacio Chapela research. There are allegations that there was pressure from this embassy to put pressure on Chapela not to publish that research.

[WB] I can categorically state that there was not any. We have not made any pressure on Mexico with regard to the Chapela study.

[N] All expenses paid trips to meet important people in Washington may help, but the US doesnít really need to bother. Mexico already imports 6 million tonnes of maize from the States every year, and around a third of that is GM. Itís somewhat confusing because though there is a moratorium on planting GM crops, you can still import them to eat. And as Mexico needs maize to feed its people, it has little choice. But the sheer quantity imported is a considerable dent to the countryís national pride. It canít compete with the huge subsidised farms of the American cornbelt, and has become a net importer of its staple food. Here in Mexico, maize is everything: from food to culture, itís almost a religion.

[Frank Contreras] Corn is tattooed on the Mexican historic memory, you can go to pyramids and see images of corn. For many people who live in the Mexican countryside, corn is their life.

[N] Frank Contreras covers Mexico for American Public Service Radio.

[FC] This is where corn was developed by human beings 10,000 yrs ago. Now that the US has control of this key crop, itís almost as if I said, here, let me pull my nose off and give it to you, and now my face is yours. This very thing that made me me, is now in your control. So itís this deep tremendous source of frustration for the Mexican people.

[N] ÖWhen it comes to maize, the government in Mexico would very much like the country to be self-sufficient. Which probably means adopting the latest technology from the US. [GMW: Surely some mistake????] But cultivating GM maize here could have serious repercussions. Mexico is after all the plantís centre of origin. Itís the place it was first cultivated and therefore the natural seedbank. Alarm bells started ringing when Dr Chapela found traces of modified genes in native maize grown in the southern hills of Oaxaca. And while some in the government wanted this information suppressed, others have been trying to verify it. The president of the National Ecology Institute commissioned two separate studies from respected laboratories to look for GM material in Oaxacan corn. They found contamination in 6% of the samples. Even those passionate for biotech accept the findings are probably right.

[Jose Luiz Solero{?}] These studies, the only thing they do, is to identify the presence of transgenes. Period. But who has the information of the actual impact of that presence? Nobody.

[N] Dr Jose Luiz Solero [?]. Not a comment you would expect from the director of Agrobio, Mexicoís pro-GM lobbying organisation. Funded by the biggest biotechnology companies like Syngenta and Monsanto, heíd like studies into the implications of Dr Chapelaís research, the effects of GM technology on the environment, health and the livelihoods of farmers. So why isnít someone doing them? Because, says Dr Solero, thereís no political will. And no wonder. Research suggesting adverse effects on the environment, biodiversity or the lives of farmers would all but kill off the prospects of growing GM maize, and pro-biotech interests got to the heart of Mexicoís government, up to the president, Vicente Fox, himself.

[unknown person] The president is in favour of biotechnology mainly because he is a farmer, or was a farmer, then he was president of one of the leading companies of the food industry, Coca Cola. So he knows the value chain of food processing very well. His brother has a seed producing facility and even a small company called Biotechnology 2000, so they know biotechnology. They are aware of the benefits etc.

[Ryan Zinn?] One of President Foxís major campaign contributors was a man by the name of Alfonso [Romo?] who is president and owner of Gruppo [?] the largest biotechnology corporation in Mexico.

[N] Ryan Zinn is a campaigner for Global Exchange, an organisation concerned with the rights of indigenous peopleÖ he told me that when it comes to GM, the Mexican government is anything but independent.

[RZ] Government officials play a dual role. On one hand they work for the government and on the other act as advisors to corporations like Monsanto and Gruppo [?].

[N] So from what Iíve heard here in Mexico, itís likely that opponents of GM will lose their battle. In fact there is already a gaping hole in the ban on GM crops. It allows for what they call semi-commercialisation, although how you grow a semi-crop is unclear. There are thousands of acres of GM soyabeans being cultivated in Mexico and itís likely the governmentís already made up its mind. Itís my guess that embarrassing findings such as Chapelaís will be quietly ignored.

But Ignacio Chapelaís problems didnít end in Mexico. He faced his greatest critics from, of all scientists, his own colleagues, here at the university of BerkeleyÖ. From his office here, associate professor Chapela submitted his results to Nature for publication. It was peer reviewed by 3 scientists and eventually published. Within days, a letter was circulating at Berkeley condemning the results as unfounded. Mike Freeling was one of the signatories.

What was your reaction when you first saw that paper in Nature?

[Freeling] A student of mine, Nick Kaplinsky, brought the paper to me and told me it was some of the worst science heíd ever seen in his life. The paper used a technique called PCR, polymerase chain reaction, and those of us who use this technique a lot, we know what artefacts look like. We know which sequences always come up but the authors had made some conclusion based on them.

[N] Prof Freeling accepts that Dr Chapela was right in claiming he found GM maize growing Mexico, but he passionately argues with the paperís second conclusion, which suggests the engineered genes are unstable, and fragments move around the maize genome. Of course, scientific disagreements arenít uncommon, and even Dr Chapelaís supporters acknowledge problems with this second part of the research. But disagreements donít usually become so public, or so personal. Prof Lawrence Bush followed events from his office at Michigan State University.

[L Bush] One of the surprising things about the reaction to Chapelaís article in Nature was the vociferous and overwhelming disagreement that it conjured up. It was out of all proportion to the claims that were being made. In most instances in the sciences, if one writes a paper that is seen as seriously flawed, one does one of two things. Either one produces some research that demonstrates how flawed that paper was, or one simply ignores it. An awful lot of work gets published that is flawed; itís just simply ignored.

[N] Within hours of publication, websites had detailed breakdowns of flaws in the research, flaws in the paper, and flaws in Chapela. Some of the comments published on biotech industry web forums were from real scientists. Others were from people who hid behind anonymous email addresses. One of these has since been traced to an employee of Monsanto. A couple even seem to have had access to information which wasnít in the public domain. The protests culminated in letters published in the journal Nature. Those selected for publication were signed by past and present professors and graduate students from Berkeley, Dr Chapelaís colleagues. But the signatories had more in common than just that. They have all benefited from a 25 million dollar grant from the biotechnology company Novartis. When the deal was signed in 1998, Dr Chapela had been extremely vocal in his opposition to it. So could this be the real reason why his paper got such a pasting? Prof Freeling again.

[Freeling] Itís true that Ignacio Chapela was very much against that, and thatís because it wasnít a department matter, it was an entire college matter, and heís in my college. I vaguely knew that Prof Chapela was against this, but thatís approximately how much I cared.

[N] Maybe not then. Even so, the deal with Novartis, now part of Syngenta, was and is unique. Itís the first time a whole public university department has signed up with one company. For the scientists, it means they get extra funding. For the company, first refusal on any patents. Even if the research had been publicly funded.

It was so controversial the California Senate held a special hearing. Sen Tom Haydon called the deal, "a usurpation of democracy by the biotech industry". What worries many of the opponents of the arrangement is that the company has a say in all the research the department undertakes, wherever the funding comes from. And critics need to watch out. Thereís a lot at stake when the industry doesnít like your work.

For the record, Dr Chapelaís paper has not been retracted, and remains part of the accepted body of knowledge.

So can a publicly funded scientist rise above commercial pressures when they are taking the big business dollar? Prof Nick Stennick[?] advises the US government on scientific integrity, and heís certainly worried about corporate influence on public knowledge.

[NS] When a researcher works in an area and the researcher gets funding from that area, very often they shape a viewpoint or they have a viewpoint that is consistent with what their industrial sponsors or their government sponsors or so on think. There are some demonstrated examples of possible biases in the biomedical industries and particularly in the area of drug company funding, where there have been some studies that have tried to show, are there differences in the way that results are reported depending on whether there is or isnít drug company funding, and the answer is yes, people who get drug company funding tend to look on certain medicines more favourably than people who arenít getting it. And thatís what weíre worried about.

[N] Maybe itís easier for Americans to trust their government; after all, they didnít have Mad Cow disease or foot and mouth. At least 70% of processed foods in the US contain genetically modified ingredients, but you wouldnít know it from the label. Here in my kitchen in Michigan my breakfast cereal has a full list of ingredients, vitamins and so on, but no mention of GMÖ [missed a bit] but contains GM ingredients. A series of focus groups carried out by the US government suggested that few consumers knew that they were eating GM ingredients, and when told they were, wanted them to be labeled. But all attempts to get labeling laws approved here have met with intense opposition from the government, farmers, and the biotech industry. Efforts to get bills through Congress have quickly faltered. But last autumn, two women from the Northwest city of Portland, Oregon thought theyíd take on the system. Donna Harris and Kate Lord gathered the right number of signatures to add measure 27 to the November election ballot. As well as voting for their reps in Congress, people in Oregon also vote to label GM food. So next stop, Portland, Oregon. Ö

[N] Donna, what was your motivation?

[Donna] It was when my baby was born and I started calling the 800 numbers on the back of the formula, baby cereal, baby food, Iíd ask does your product contain GE ingredients, and theyíd say, maybe, maybe not. If it does, itís an insignificant amount. I was really shocked that baby formula, they wouldnít know what was in it; to me itís really important to know whatís in the food Iím feeding my children and to have a choice at the supermarket.

[Kate] My [motivation] was slightly different. Iíd been working with the cooperative movement for 20 yrs with farmers and then here at the grocery store, and the coop movement pioneered all kinds of consumer rights issues that not only fit with my personal sense of, letís find a mainstream sensible answerÖ it was also within the philosophy and context of the cooperative movement which was about putting power back in the hands of ordinary working people.

[N] Is there a danger that you are perceived as a couple of green anarchists who are just going out to cause trouble?

[Kate] Theyíre spending 6 million dollars to paint us that way.

[Donna] ÖIím a mom with 2 kids, my son plays football, I consider myself a true American.

[N] Every morning a handful of campaigners were standing at busy road junctions with placards reading "Honk for Yes on 27" or "Honk for Labels on GM Food". And things were going well for Donna and Kate, working out of a makeshift office with a total budget of around 150,000 dollars; the polls were on their side; it looked like labeling in Oregon would happen. UntilÖ

[Voice from broadcast ad] Measure 27. The more you know about it, the less youíll like it. It is a badly written labeling law that will do nothing to protect public health and safety. [Womanís voice] The last thing we need is more government red tape, more bureaucracy. [Manís voice] Join me in voting No on 27. [Woman] Join Oregon farmers in voting No on 27.

[N] With a budget of more than 5 million dollars, one and a half million from Monsanto alone, the Coalition against the Costly Labeling Law tapped into what Americans fear most: a rise in taxes.

[Voice from broadcast ad] Measure 27 would also increase our state budget and would cost taxpayers over 100 million dollars.

[N] Strangely, the adverts didnít refer to genetically modified, biotechnology, or in fact anything to do with food. Just cost. And it soon became clear that the authors of Measure 27 hadnít spent enough time on the wording. They called for tougher regulations than the EU, were unclear whether restaurants would have to label their menus, and sketchy about what it would cost the consumer.

Ö Joe GilliamÖ lobbies on behalf of the Oregon Grocery Industry Association.

[JG] If someone has a bias towards "I donít want any genetic engineering", they can buy organic food. This is more about scaring people into buying organic foods by the organic industry. This is about market share.

[N] The figure thatís come up in the campaign, Coalition against the Costly Labeling Law, 550 dollars per family per year. How do you break that down? Itís just a little label on a little packet.

[JG] Itís not the cost of the ink. What it is, is the paperwork that goes with it, and the man hours you have to put in. So the farmer is going to have to track, as that ingredient goes to a silo, the silo is going to have to have that tracking, they send it to a wholesaler, and then the retailer gets the product, and by the time you do all those pieces we are looking at 550 dollars per family to do all this.

[N] The pro-labeling campaigners lost. But theyíve not given up. And next time theyíll be a little more wary of the opposition.

The biotech industry is a powerful enemy to reckon with. The GM companies have their lobby groups in Washington and their friends in government, and when youíre the US, you can take on the world. For the Land of the Free, freedom to trade is the no. 1 priority. And of course when youíre the most powerful nation on earth, you can decide what that means. Certainly a definition which seems to accommodate a doubling of US farm subsidies.

Other nations are also feeling the pressure. And that includes Britain and our European neighbours. In Brussels last October hundreds of people demonstrated against GM by pushing supermarket trolleys to the EU headquarters. Because of its moratorium on new biotech crops and stringent labeling requirements, when it comes to GM, the European Union is seen as biotechís public enemy no. 1. Because European consumers wonít buy the stuff, the US has been losing around 200 million dollars a year in maize exports alone. Tony Blair has made speeches in favour of biotechnology and itís been suggested that Britain could act as a go-between, bridging the gap between Europe and the US. Thatís what I was keen to talk to the environment minister Michael Meacher about, but despite 3 weeksí worth of calls and detailed emails, he seemed unable to find the time.

[author of book Lords of Harvest points out that GM crops are patented and thatís why companies can make money from them; that these companies are based in the North and that they will hold all the cards where food is concerned; Greenpeace argues that environmental problems are inseparable from economics in present climate.]

[Hugh Grant of Monsanto]Ö. If you talk to the scientists in St Louis they believed 15 years ago that by working on this stuff, things that would make pesticides go away and things that had a chance to make farming more sustainable, they believed that when they were successful, people would lift them up on their shoulders and run around the room. There was a certain amazement and disappointment 2 or 3 years ago when they finally cracked the code, only to find that they became the most unpopular people on the planet.

[N] [at Monsanto headquarters] signs lead off to the various rooms. The Renaissance Room, Mystic RoomÖ the receptionist quipped that I might come out brainwashed. I think she was joking. Next to her desk a copy of the Monsanto pledge hangs from a scroll. This is the result of the makeover the companyís undertaken in the last 18 months. The document details the companyís commitments to the world under the categories, dialogue, transparency, sharing, benefits and respect. In the last section, the consumer is specifically mentioned. But if they do respect the consumer, why are they so opposed to labeling? They donated one and a half million dollars to fight measure 27 in Oregon.

[Hugh Grant] The regulatory environment is different on both sides of the Atlantic. The American approach would say, label the stuff thatís different. Biotech isnít different. European approach is, label absolutely everything. If you took your approach to its logical conclusion, the label would be the size of a telephone book. And the conclusions last year in the EU were, these foods from a safety point of view werenít equivalent, they were more safe than the traditionally produced foods because theyíve been studied so thoroughly. [EH???] So this is a discussion that will run and run.

[N] And the argument will keep running because when it comes to biotech, thereís a lot of money at stake. Itís just at the moment, GM foods havenít quite netted the industry the money it had hoped. Many biotech startup companies have folded. Even the big players like Monsanto arenít performing too well. To make it, they need to develop new products, new markets, and minimise opposition. So can we learn to stop worrying and love GM? Should we? In the next programme, the cornbelt farmers who love biotech, and those who are turning against it. What are the benefits of GM? Iíll also be finding out about the next generation of crops and what Monsanto are up to inside their glowing building.

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