ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

Prof Hillman attacked for promoting bogus claims
Hillman and his associates


Professor John Hillman, director of the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) in comments in the SCRI's annual report released in February 2000 , and evidently hyped to the media, claims that organic farming poses considerable (though very non-specific!) risks to human health. In fact, there is more than just a lack of evidence for claims such as Hillman's as Hillman directly repeats Avery's bogus e-coli assertions (see OTA Speaks Out About Safety of Organic Foods)

Hillman paints a lurid picture

"Organic farming raises risks of faecal contamination not only of food but also of waterways, food poisoning, high levels of natural toxins and allergens, contamination by copper and sulphur-containing fungicides, production of diseased food, low productivity, and creation of reservoirs of pests and diseases."

These lurid sounding claims follow the typical pattern of such attacks. "Faecal contamination" relates to the use of manure by organic farmers, but what is ignored is that most conventional farmers use manure in addition to agrochemicals. As John Vidal notes, "conventional UK farmers use about 80m tonnes of it a year as a fertiliser. Just 9,000 tonnes goes on organic land and crops. So why the attacks on organic foods and not conventional ones?"

Similarly, claims of "high levels of natural toxins and allergens" tend to be based on potential problems (eg potatoes going green after exposure to light ) that in reality could affect vegetables grown with any type of agriculture, ie once again there is no specific connection with organic agriculture.

In fact, a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report concluded that organic practices not only reduce food poisoning via e-coli infection but also reduce the levels of contaminants in foods and contribute to cleaner drinking water. The exact opposite of some of Hillman's key claims.

It is perhaps understandable, then, that when he was asked by BBC Radio 4's 'Food Programme' for the references to back up his attacks on organic farming in the SCRI report , Prof Hillman was said to be 'too busy' to provide any of the data!

Yet such dubious attacks have turned up even in reputable scientific journals.  In a recent edition of the journal Nature an article, MUCH FOOD, MANY PROBLEMS (Nature 402, 231 [1999] - 18/11/99) by Anthony Trewavas of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh , made repeated claims of substantial problems with organic agriculture with several of the more extreme claims based once again on Avery - for more on this.

There are obvious parallels between the way Avery and his admirers have attacked organic agriculture and the ways in which GM has often been promoted - in many cases by scientists from exactly the same institutes! As we detailed in 'False reports and the smears of men', Professor Hillman's predecessor at the SCRI cited research evidence in the press showing GM to be a beneficial technology. Yet the research turned out on examination:

    not to be from the source he claimed;
    not to be independent in the way he implied; and
    not to contain evidence he claimed it did.

Many equally dubious public claims involving reference to research that either doesn't exist or has been seriously mis-described have also been made by GM proponents - see

But what is particularly remarkable is the way that Professor Hillman in the SCRI report combines his emotive and unsupported catalogue of lurid claims against organic farming (eg "diseaesed food", "reservoirs of pests and diseases") with a call for the ditching of "unhelpful and unjustified language". Thus, Hillman tells us:

"Deliberately pejorative language is obscuring the debate and encouraging people to pre-judge the issues before they have heard all the facts."

Yet again, improved standards of discourse are being demanded of the critics of GM while they are completely ignored in relation to scientists making statements supportive of the technology or which are anti-organic.

Pro-GM scientists claim the moral and intellectual high ground, saying they base their views and pronouncements solely on sound science. To judge by their behaviour, however, Professor Bullsh*t is closer to the mark when he says that the truth is that "anything goes!"

Media reports of Hillman's attack on organics mentioned that, "The Scottish Crop Research Institute, based at Invergowrie, is a major international centre for research into agricultural, horticultural and industrial crops", but failed to mention the extent of industrial-sponsorship of institutes like Hillman's SCRI, nor the way in which the committees of their public funding bodies are packed with figures linked to big corporations and the biotech industry [see: scientists gagged by public funding body with big links to industry]

See also Professor Hillman and his associates!

Prof Hillman attacked for promoting bogus claims

The Director of Scottish Crops Research Institute had to defend his pro-GM statements and his attack on organic farming in the SCRI annual report. A scientist responded to the good Professor criticising him for promoting bogus research. There has been no reply to this accusation suggesting Hillman may have decided it is time he stopped digging!
The Dundeee Courier and Advertiser, 4th April 2000

Dear Sir

Professor Hillman, Director of the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) at Invergowrie, Dundee in his letter to your paper, asks all correspondents to state their affiliations, so let me state mine. I obtained a doctorate in plant genetics from the John Innes Institute (now John  Innes Centre), widely regarded as Europe's leading institute for plant biotechnology, and as you might expect I am a strong supporter of science in agriculture.

I do, however, worry about the overcommitment of some scientists to GM technology. Given the inevitable uncertainties about this technology at this stage in its development, such levels of commitment and certainty are simply inappropriate. I also worry about the degree of corporate influence on independent research - something I have witnessed at first hand.

Prof Hillman' s own contribution to the GM debate well illustrates my concerns. In his recent Director's Report in the SCRI's annual report, he attacks organic agriculture in lurid terms, making much of research claims by the right wing American academic Dennis Avery  that organic crops carry higher risks of e-coli contamination.

Yet Avery's research claims, allegedly based on  Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, have repeatedly been exposed as bogus. According  to Robert Tauxe, M.D., chief of the food borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the CDC, there is simply no such data on organic food production in existence at their centers! Tauxe has gone so far as to state that Avery's claims are "absolutely not true."

Yet Prof Hillman in his report and elsewhere, has complained, in relation to GM crops, about those "who raise speculative risks" and "promote public fear" without a sound scientific basis.

Could anythingbetter illustrates the need for a little humility and calm reflection in the GM debate, rather than a continual and unconvincing dismissal of pefectly reasonable public concerns and caution as mere "hysteria"?

Dr Jeremy Bartlett

Hillman and his associates

This is taken from the Genetically Modified Food website:

The myth of Escherichia coli / Faecal Contamination

A number of advocates of biotechnology would like us to believe that eating organic food somehow exposes us to a greater risk of food poisoning through consumption of Escherichia coli bacteria which might be present in organic fertiliser.

In fact, organic argriculture does make use of composted animal dung as a fertiliser. However, conventional, non-organic agriculture makes use of animal dung, human waste plus many chemical compounds as fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Thus, conventional agriculture exposes the consumer to exactly the same risk of Escherichia coli, plus the added risks incurred through possible consumption of human waste, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides used on these products.

Furthermore, in using Genetically Modified produce, the consumer is exposed not only to the dangers of consuming pesticides and herbicides, but also to foreign genetic material in the plant, whose effects have not been properly tested.

For more information about the issues of Genetic Modification see "What's Wrong with Genetic Modification"

Two examples are of biotechnology advocates who perpetuate the "Faecal Contamination" or "Escherichia coli" myth in trying to discredit organic farming are :

*Professor John Hillman
*Dennis T Avery [see:  Saving the Planet With Pestilent Statistics ]

Professor John Hillman

Professor John Hillman is Director of the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) at Invergowrie, Dundee.

In this article which appeared on the BBC website on 2 February 2000, Professor Hillman is quoted in his Director's report as stating "Organic farming raises risks of faecal contamination not only of food but also of waterways, food poisoning, high levels of natural toxins and allergens, contamination by copper and sulphur-containing fungicides, production of diseased food, low productivity, and creation of reservoirs of pests and diseases."

What is not made clear is that Professor Hillman is also on the Board of Directors of the BioIndustry Association, whose tagline is "Encouraging and Promoting the Biotechnology Sector of the UK Economy".

A list of members of the BioIndustry Association can be found here -