ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

28 April 2002


1. SEEDS OF DISSENT: Anti-GM scientists are facing widespread assaults on their credibility -  who is behind the attacks?


1. Seeds of dissent: Anti-GM scientists are facing widespread assaults on their credibility

Andy Rowell investigates who is behind the attacks

The Big Issue, No. 484, April 15-21 2002

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 issues of genetic pollution in a centre of unique 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 it had concluded "that 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 that 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 says 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. "I think it 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 over 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 website. On the list serv the first attack was posted by someone called 'Mary Murphy' within hours of publication. She wrote: "It should also 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 list. So who are they?

Mary Murphy's email is, 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 Monsanto'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 gleaned 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 fake website called CFFAR as well as via articles and attacks on listservs under aliases. The attack on the Nature piece is a continuation of this covert campaign.

Andura Smetacek is no stranger to such dirty tricks. The Big Issue South West can also reveal that she was the original source of a letter that was published under the name of Tony Trevawas, 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 a 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 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, by 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, saying that it is run on a "shoestring". He 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."

[Andy Rowell is the author of 'Green Backlash: global subversion of the environment movement', Routledge, London and New York, 1996]


2. Monsanto - Up to its dirty old tricks again

The Ecologist, Vol 32 No 4, May 2002

A dirty tricks campaign leads straight to the door of a Monsanto PR company, says Jonathan Matthews in the launch of his new column

The journal Science reporting recently on how the Mexican "maize scandal" was driving the battle over GM crops "to new heights of acrimony and confusion", noted the part played by, "widely circulating anonymous e-mails" accusing researchers, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, of "conflicts of interest and other misdeeds".

These accusations surfaced first in late November on the day of Nature's publication of Chapela and Quist's findings of GM contamination of maize varieties in Mexico - the global heartland of maize diversity. Samples of native criollo corn were found to contain a genetic 'switch' commonly used in GM crops and one sample was even found to contain a commonly inserted gene that prompts the plant to produce a poison. The results were particularly surprising as Mexico banned the growing of GM maize in 1998, and the last known GM crops were grown almost 60 miles from where the contaminated maize was found.

For the biotech industry this could not have come at a worse time. Its efforts to lift the European, Brazilian, and Mexican moratoria on GM seeds or foods were all coming to a head.

Chapela and Quist came under immediate attack in a furious volley of e-mails published on the AgBioView listserv. AgBioView correspondents calling themselves 'Mary Murphy' and 'Andura Smetacek' claimed Chapela and Quist's research was a product of a conspiracy with "fear-mongering activists". The conspirators' aim, apparently, was to attack "biotechnology, free-trade, intellectual property rights and other politically motivated agenda items."

These claims prompted a series of further attacks from others. Prof Anthony Trewavas, for example, denounced scientists like Chapela who had "political axes to grind". Trewavas demanded Chapela be fired unless he handed over his maize samples for checking.

This was not Trewavas's first controversial intervention in the GM debate in response to material put into circulation on AgBioView. Last October, for instance, Trewavas was named in the High Court as the source of an anti-Greenpeace letter at the centre of a libel case. Trewavas subsequently claimed that the letter originated on AgBioView.

The last piece in question was posted by one Andura Smetacek, who regularly posts vitriolic attacks on critics of the biotech industry. In Smetacek's early posts, interestingly, repeated reference is made to one particular website, Ostensibly, CFFAR - or the Center for Food and Agricultural Research, to give it its full title - is "a public policy and research coalition" concerned with "food and fiber production." But despite links to from the websites of US public libraries and university departments, there appears to be no evidence this organisation really exists.

To judge by the frequent usage of words like "violence", "terrorism", and "acts of terror", the real purpose of the site is to associate biotech industry opponents with terrorism. This mission is faciliated by fabricated claims. In its "" section, for instance, accuses Greenpeace of engaging in multiple attacks on British farms. Greenpeace is accused of commandeering farmers' tractors and crashing through fences in pursuit of farmers' families.

The domain registration details for show the registrant to be one 'THEODOROV, MANUEL'. Among early signatories to a pro-agbiotech petition launched by AgBioView list editor, Prof CS Prakash, the following details can be found: NAME: emmanuel theodorou. POSITION: director of associations. ORGANIZATION: bivings woodell, Inc. DEPARTMENT: advocacy and outreach.

What kind of "advocacy and outreach" do Bivings Woodell, Inc., aka the Bivings Group, do? According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, "The Bivings Group has developed 'Internet advocacy' campaigns for corporate America since 1996... Biotechnology giant Monsanto [is] among the Bivings clients who have discovered how to make the Internet work for them."

As part of its brief, Bivings designs and runs Monsanto's websites and Theodorou is believed to have been part of Bivings' Monsanto team. Mary Murphy would also seem to connect to Bivings. Or so it would seem from the evidence of a fake Associated Press article on the bulletin board of the website. It was posted by "Mary Murphy (".

Between them Smetacek and Murphy have had 60 or more attacks published, often very prominently, by Prakash on the AgBioWorld listserv. Prakash presents AgBioWorld as a mainstream science group reliant on the support of  individuals and philanthropic foundations. However, a website design specialist who took a detailed look at the AgBioWorld site reported that there appeared to be evidence that part of its content was held on a Bivings' server. Furthermore,, and the Bivings'-designed, all seemed to be the work of the same designer.

Perhaps it's time for Prakash to clarify where AgBioWorld finishes and biotech industry PR begins. Come to that, the Royal Society might like to tell us why Trewavas, one of its media advisors, seems so keen to promulgate PR industry smears. And, finally, Monsanto needs to explain how its much vaunted pledge to abide by principles of openness, transparency and respect tallies with a dirty tricks campaign.

Jonathan Matthews is a co-founder of Norfolk Genetic Information Network (


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