11 August 2002
SYNGENTA, NATURE AND PROF TREWAVAS
If you thought Nature and its editor, Phil Campbell, couldn't sink any lower than over-ruling the advice of all but one of the journal's own advisers, in taking the unprecedented step of retracting Quist and Chapela's paper on Mexican maize contamination (Science journal accused over GM article, The Guardian, 7 June 2002, http://ngin.tripod.com/080602b.htm), then think again. The journal has now got itself involved in a crude pro-GM propaganda exercise directly funded by the biotech industry.
The latest incident needs to be understood in the context of the undue power wielded by the industry and its supporters over public institutions and its ability to shape scientific discourse in pursuit of its own interests. The Mexican maize scandal provides an obvious recent example of the problem.
It hasn't only been biotech industry critics who have been willing to acknowledge aspects of this. An article in Science and Policy Perspectives recently noted how Prof Alan McHughen, a keenly pro-GM molecular biologist at the Crop Development Center at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, is among those who suspect that the attacks on Quist and Chapela that led up to Nature's retraction were "coordinated and conspiratorial." (Biotech's OK Corral, Wil Lepkowski, Science and Policy Perspectives, No. 13, http://www.cspo.org/s&pp/060902.html)
There is certainly overwhelming evidence that Monsanto was among the conspirators orchestrating the anti-Chapela campaign via its PR operatives [http://ngin.tripod.com/deceit_index.html], but there has also been considerable suspicion about the role of another corporate giant, Syngenta, in the light of what has emerged about the company's extraordinary level of connectedness to more or less all Quist and Chapela's published scientific critics.
Quist and Chapela were, of course, both long-time critics of a huge commercial tie up between the University of California Berkeley and Syngenta (formerly Novartis). Several of their key critics, on the other hand, owe their jobs to Syngenta funding. Other key Chapela critics, while not sharing the same degree of direct financial dependence, have also not been unconnected to funding issues involving the company.
For instance, one of Chapela's most scathing critics, Matt Metz, was, as a special investigation for the New Scientist noted, "a vocal supporter of the Novartis [UC Berkeley] alliance". Metz's co-author, New Scientist notes, was "Johannes Futterer, a young Swiss researcher whose boss, Wilhelm Gruissem, was at Berkeley four years ago and was widely regarded as "the man who brought Novartis to Berkeley". [THE GREAT MEXICAN MAIZE SCANDAL, New Scientist, 15 June 2002,
http://ngin.tripod.com/130602a.htm] Gruissem was, in fact, at Berkeley only long enough to have the agreement signed, before he left for a government institute in Switzerland where Novartis is headquartered. Interestingly, in an article in the magazine of the institute ("ETH-Life", 25 March, 2002,
Futterer comments that he "decided" to write the letter attacking Chapela only after consultation with Gruissem.
If the majority of the co-authors of the two attacks on Chapela in Nature are Syngenta-connected, then the most widely touted published criticism of Quist and Chapela outside of the pages of Nature also came from someone not undetached from the issues arising from the company's funding. Paul Christou, who used an editorial in Transgenic Research to launch a fierce assault on Quist and Chapela (No Credible Scientific Evidence is Presented to Support Claims that Transgenic DNA was Introgressed into Traditional Maize Landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico, Transgenic Research 11: iii-v, 2002), was until very recently a leading researcher at the John Innes Centre. Here he worked cheek by jowl with scientists working in the JIC's Syngenta laboratory, built at the JIC as part of a 50 million pound investment package that has made Syngenta the JIC's biggest commercial sponsor.
Another prominent Chapela-critic was a member of the JIC's governing council. Prof Anthony Trewavas posted an attack on Chapela on the internet, suggesting he was politically motivated and calling for his dismissal from Berkeley if he didn't hand over his samples for independent checking.
To date, however, there has been little exploration of any connection between Nature and Syngenta. The current issue of the journal has now brought that sharply into focus. It contains a special Nature Insight feature on "Food and the Future". This can be accessed free on the web:
But you don't have to be aware of this url to come across the feature. Do a Google search on "GM food" and an advertisement linking to Nature's "Food and the Future" will appear with your search results. If you click on the link, then on reaching the "Future of Food" index page, you are greeted with a special message, "Hello Google user, welcome to this free Food and the Future Insight, which we hope you enjoy reading. A special subscription offer for Google users offering an extra free 6 months on top of a personal 12 month subscription is accessible via the banner below". In other words, the "Future of Food" is part of a package that includes not only free web access to all the articles in the special Nature Insight feature, but a big advertising promotion and membership drive for the journal.
Clearly, Nature is splashing out. Except that it isn't only Nature's publishers who are funding the package, as is made clear to anyone who reads right to the end of the "Food and the Future" editorial. The final paragraph notes, "We are pleased to acknowledge the financial support of Syngenta in producing this Insight."
Naturally, the funding acknowledgement is accompanied by the following, "As always, Nature carries sole responsibility for all editorial content and peer review." Opinion pieces, however, not being based on any primary research, are not subject to peer review - just editorial approval. The lead opinion piece for the "Food and the Future" was clearly commissioned to give an overview for this special Insight feature. The piece is all about how GM crops are going to defeat the predictions of Malthus. It's author, Prof Anthony Trewavas.
The well-promoted web version of the Syngenta-funded feature doesn't stop there, though. There are two more opinion pieces included as classic commentaries. These are:
Much food, many problems
A new agriculture, combining genetic modification technology with sustainable farming, is our best hope for the future.
Nature 402, 231Ë†232 (1999); doi:10.1038/46157
Full Text: http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/46157
Urban myths of organic farming
Organic agriculture began as an ideology, but can it meet today's needs?
Nature 410, 409Ë†410 (2001); doi:10.1038/35068639
The latter contains statements like, "Developments in the past 25 years have shown how conventional agriculture can be much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than organic farming". The former contains such gems as:
"Going organic worldwide, as Greenpeace wants, would destroy even more wilderness, much of it of marginal agricultural quality15."
"Mycotoxin contamination [of organics] , and infection from the potentially lethal Escherichia coli O157, are additional problems15."
"average crop yields [for organics] on a variety of soils are about half those of intensive farming15-17"
These points are all highly contentious [see:
http://ngin.tripod.com/trewavas.htm]. Note too the reference given by Trewavas for the three points above, "15. Avery, D. in Fearing Food. Risk, Health and Environment (eds Morris, J. & Bate, R.) 3-18 (Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 1999)". Anyone who follows up this reference discovers that it's simply to another opinion piece, this time by Dennis Avery. The piece lacks any specific references to supporting evidence. In other words, Trewavas' trail of evidence for this series of damaging assertions leads nowhere but to the claims of a highly controversial commentator employed by the biotech industry funded Hudson Institute!
Nature's inclusion in its special feature of *3* opinion pieces, including the "Food and the Future" overview, authored by a highly partisan molecular biologist with no especial scientific expertise relating to organic agriculture or sustainable development, almost beggars belief. Not least, given that Nature and its editor have allowed no space in the feature for any alternative views, eg looking at the successes of alternatives to GMOs in agriculture, the extent of the risks that genetic engineering poses, the diversity of goals in development, etc.
But could Nature in giving such unquestioning prominence to the views of Prof Trewavas have been in any doubt that it was party to a crude propaganda exercise? Evn leaving aside his notorious attack on Ignacio Chapela, that would seem more than surprising given Trewavas's well-known track record as a cras propagandist for genetic engineering.
One might have thought alarm bells might have rung at Nature given that in October 2001, for instance, "Professor Trewavas, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh" was named in the High Court in London as the source of a letter making libellous allegations against Lord Melchett and Greenpeace in relation to organic farming and GM foods. [Greenpeace wins damages over professor's 'unfounded' allegations - Education Guardian, Monday October 8, 2001]
A published apology in the Herald, on the 6th October confirmed that, "On 3 November 2000 the Herald published a letter it had received from Anthony Trewavas." Trewavas made no attempt to disassociate himself from the letter at the time of publication, when it was widely posted on the internet, but after the adverse publicity following on from the court case, Trewavas has sought to deny responsibility for the letter's publication. However, he has to encouraging others to circulate the material in question as widely as possible, and to sending the material to, amongst others, a newspaper editor and a PR operative with that intent. More recently it has emerged that the original author of the material that Trewavas sought to widely circulate was another PR operative, "Andura Smetacek", involved in a Monsanto dirty tricks campaign that took in the attacks on Chapela. [http://ngin.tripod.com/deceit5.html]
But the libel letter is far from the only controversy centering on Trewavas and his views and activities. Take, for instance, the advice he gave to US scientists on a listserv supporting GM foods in April 2000, where he described critics of genetic engineering as, "bloody minded, anarchist and frankly merely destructive." According to Trewavas, opponents of the technology are interested solely "in destroying US agribusiness". In the same message Trewavas describes the international environmental group Greenpeace as "controlled by extremists/nihilists and other subversives.. whose only interests [sic] is in destroying business/damaging trade and who have no solution to world population problems except to let people die." He also advises enlisting the help of far right US congressmen like Jesse Helms by alerting them, "that a subversive organisation directed from europe is attempting to destroy US agriculture and US farming." [advice to US scientists - see:
Does any of this suggest a man whose views on "Food and the Future" would not need balancing??!!! In the same piece, Trewavas advised GM supporting scientists to take every opportunity to contact the media to attack the critics and put forward pro-GM views. Trewavas certainly cannot be faulted for failing to take his own advice. That one of the world's most prestigious science journals, forming a key institution in the legitimation of scientific thought and in the formation of the public image of science, should have become party to such a propaganda exercise, is something that clearly requires explanation.
"...the 'sound science' movement is not an indigenous effort from within the profession to improve the quality of scientific discourse, but reflects sophisticated public relations campaigns controlled by industry executives and lawyers whose aim is to manipulate the standards of scientific proof to serve the corporate interests of their clients." Doctors Elisa Ong and Stanton A. Glantz writing in the America Journal of Public Health, November 2001