ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

22 December 2002


This Nature article notes the role of Monsanto's PR firm, Bivings, in initiating and fuelling the attacks on Quist and Chapela over their article in Nature, but does not include the most recent evidence that their principal attacker operated directly out of Monsanto in St Louis as part of the company's guerilla PR strategy to take control of the internet and use it to destroy the credibility of its scientific and other critics.

According to Nature, "It then emerged that some Internet postings attacking Quist and Chapela had been made from computers at a public-relations firm retained by GM giant Monsanto of St Louis, Missouri. Clearly, this was not solely a technical debate."

For the evidence of Monsanto's *direct involvement* in the dirty tricks campaign against its critics:


Agribiotech: More heat than light

Nature 420, 730 - 731 (2002); doi:10.1038/420730a, 19/26 December 2002

Another year, another controversy: that was the story in the perennially contentious area of genetically modified (GM) crops.

In 2002, arguments centred on David Quist and Ignacio Chapela's study of Mexican maize. It was simultaneously a bitter ideological feud among biologists at a single US university and a flashpoint between the agribiotech industry and anti-GM activists over the acceptability of transgenic crops in the developing world  which is becoming a key battleground. And it illustrated how, in this field, the quest for scientific truth is conducted in a minefield of opinion and accusations of vested interests.

The story began in November 2001, when Chapela, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Quist, his postdoc, published a paper in Nature reporting that a 'promoter' sequence from transgenic crops was present in native Mexican maize, and had fragmented throughout the genome. It was a provocative finding, as Mexico is the world's centre of genetic diversity for maize, and operates a moratorium on commercial GM planting.

Supporters of GM technology pored over the paper, and soon argued that the pair's results were an artefact of the molecular techniques they had used2, 3. Quist and Chapela disagreed, but the further evidence they produced4 failed to convince all of the experts, and in April Nature published the exchange with an editorial note5 saying that, in hindsight, the original paper's publication was unjustified.

By this time, pro- and anti-GM websites were buzzing with claims and counter-claims, and journalists were realizing that many of Quist and Chapela's scientific opponents also had Berkeley connections. Indeed, some critics had clashed with Chapela and Quist over the pair's opposition to Berkeley's controversial deal with Syngenta, which gives the Swiss-based agribiotech firm privileged access to the findings of the university's plant scientists. It then emerged that some Internet postings attacking Quist and Chapela had been made from computers at a public-relations firm retained by GM giant Monsanto of St Louis, Missouri. Clearly, this was not solely a technical debate.

The scientific facts remain unclear. For months, Exequiel Ezcurra, president of the National Institute of Ecology in Mexico City, has been suggesting that Mexican scientists have replicated Quist and Chapela's findings, but the results have yet to appear in a peer-reviewed journal. Meanwhile, scientists at CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Texcoco, Mexico, have drawn a blank in their search for transgenic DNA in Mexican maize.

Why is everyone so agitated about the alleged contamination? In part, the answer is that developing countries such as Mexico now represent the front line in the war over GM technology. Agribiotech companies have largely saturated the North American market, and face a bleak future in Europe thanks to consumer opposition and the imminent introduction of strict labelling for GM food. The consumers and farmers of Central and South America, Asia and Africa represent the firms' main potential for growth.

Some companies are keen to stress the benefits that the technology could bring to rice farmers, for example. This year saw the publication of drafts of the entire rice genome6, 7, plus finished versions of two of its 12 chromosomes8, 9, and GM proponents are full of ideas for how the crop could be improved. Among the most appealing is the prospect of launching a second 'Green revolution' by radically overhauling the efficiency with which rice makes sugars by photosynthesis10.

But such goals remain distant. In the eyes of many activists, GM crops are primarily tools to advance the profits of agribiotech firms and wrest economic control of the food chain from small-scale farmers. This helps to explain one of the year's most perplexing developments: the decision of several southern African countries, though facing famine, to reject US offers of food aid containing GM grain. Most have since relented, provided that the grain is milled to prevent planting. But as Nature went to press, Zambia was still holding out.

Elsewhere in the developing world, attitudes are diverging. India emerged as a GM proponent in March when it approved commercial plantings of cotton engineered by Monsanto to produce bacterial insecticide. In Brazil, meanwhile, the official line seems set to swing against transgenic agriculture after the victory of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a left-winger allied to the country's small-scale farmers, in October's presidential election. Lula's adminstration replaces a government that approved commercial planting of GM soya, only to be blocked by a legal challenge from Greenpeace and a local consumer group. The case is still awaiting resolution.

Doubts remain, however, about the developing world's ability to implement and monitor policies on GM agriculture. Despite the de facto moratorium imposed by Brazil's court proceedings, much of the soya grown in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul is derived from GM grain imported illegally from Argentina. And unapproved GM cotton varieties have reportedly been widely planted in India, hampering attempts to monitor the environmental and economic impact of the officially sanctioned crops.

1. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 414, 541-543 (2001).

2. Metz, M. & F|tterer, J. Nature 416, 600-601 (2002).
3. Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601-602 (2002).
4. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 416, 602 (2002).
5. Nature 416, 600 (2002).
6. Yu, J. et al. Science 296, 79-92 (2002).
7. Goff, S. A. et al. Science 296, 92-100 (2002).
8. Sasaki, T. et al. Nature 420, 312-316 (2002).
9. Feng, Q. et al. Nature 420, 316-320 (2002).
10. Surridge, C. Nature 416, 576-578 (2002).
"Think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed". - a favourite quoter of Monsanto's former Chief Internet Strategist, Jay Byrne

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