Dr Shantu Shantharam has written to GM Watch asking us to correct our statement that he is an employee of Syngenta and complaining that we have been misleading about his views on Bt cotton and other matters. Below you'll see our response, Dr Shantharam's complaint and the original GM Watch report.
We accept Dr Shantharam's statement that he is no longer employed by Syngenta although it should be clear from our respoinse just why we were under the misapprehension that he was. Regarding the issue of someone writing on an apparently independent basis when they have been an employee of a heavily interested party, please note our comment on ex-Syngenta employee Willy De Greef's recent contribution to Nature Biotechnology (given below - for the full item)
The Centre for Science in the Public Interest recently recommended that "journal editors require authors to disclose any financial arrangements they have had with private firms within the past three years, regardless of whether those arrangements relate to the subject of the article, and that the conflicts be published if they are in any way related to the article's subject." (Report Faults Scientific Journals on Financial Disclosure)
Dear Dr Shantharam
Claire has asked me to reply to your recent e-mail. The statement that you are an employee of Syngenta is based on the information made available on the website of your company Biologistics International. I quote:
"Dr. Shanthu Shantharam is the Regulatory Compliance Manager at Plant Sciences Division, Syngenta Basel, Switzerland. Until recently, he was the Head of Stakeholder Relations and Technology Communications in the same company. At the corporate headquarters, Shanthu is leading a project to develop company guidelines and standard operating procedures to ensure highest level of biotechnology regulatory compliance in different parts of the world where Syngenta is conducting biotech business..."
The use of the present tense seems unambiguous.
Regarding your comment on Bt cotton, we took it to mean exactly what you state, ie to be a comment reflecting your indignation that GM crop biotechnology is not making faster progress in India or in other developing countries. It was exactly that point that we were seeking to illustrate - that the industry lobby was preoccupied with not being able to introduce GMOs at a faster rate and it is this frustration which lay behind current attempts to speed up the rate of their introduction. I think this should be clear to readers from the context in which we set your remark. I quote:
"The biotech lobby's main concern is over what they see as stagnation in the GM crop sector in India. Shantu Shantaram spells it out with his complaint, 'all we have is one stupid Bt cotton to talk about.' India's prominence within the developing world makes what the biotech lobby sees as the slow introduction of GM crops into India particularly frustrating."
This seems to me entirely clear.
I cannot agree with your statement that only those who "have no scientific training or knowledge of the techniques and technology keep on repeating this non-sense that exisiting food safety analysis is inadequate or insensitive". Even the recent US report, produced by a committee containing many proponents of this technology, did not go so far as to claim existing testing is adequate. Apart from the issue of adequacy there is also, I would add, an important issue of transparency.
Nor do I agree with your comment that "market forces are the only ones that decide the fate of any product or technology". Where a product or technology may present significant risks to health, the environment or society, it is incumbant on government to act in a precautionary manner and to consult its citizenry about its use.
In fact, not only do I not think it should just be left to market forces but neither do I think such decisions should be left just to "the experts", although their advice will inevitably be an important part of the decision making progress. For one thing, there is always the danger of a herd mentality - as with intelligence experts over WMD in Iraq. And in the end it is for society and its leaders to make the judgement as they are likely to be the ones who bear the consequences, whereas many experts stand to gain from adoption. As Churchill once said, "Scientists should be on tap, not on top."
Date: 31 July 2004 08:54:25 BST
Subject: Misreport on my affiliation
In your recetn postings, I have been identified as an employee of Syngenta that is totally incorrect. Please put out a correction that I am not an employee of Syngenta and that I am an independent
conusltant on biotechnology and biosafety and environmental risk assessment of GM crops with my own consulting firm of Biologistics International.
For the record, I was an employee of Syngenta in Basel for two and half years first as a Head of Sakeholder Relations and Technology Communications and then as a Global Head of Regulatory Compliance.
The comment that I called that supid Bt-cotton is the onely crop we have has been quoted out of context. Indeed, I said that but out of indignation that GM crop biotechnology is not making fast progress in
India and other developign countries. That was the sentiment expressed by all other speakers including Dr. Gurdev Khush at Bio2004 in Bangalore, India. By no means, neither I meant nor I intended to denigrate or doubt Bt cotton. In fact, recently I have written a new commentary on a recently published field data on Bt-cotton by independent scienists in the June issue of Current Science that once and for all demonstrates the overall superior performance of Bt-cotton in more than 33 hectares of farmer's fields.
Also, your editorial preceding my article in BioSPectrum (India) on the ICMR draft paper on GM Food Safety Assessment has been totally mischaracterized. Never have I suggetsed that no one should be concerned about the social and economic impact of GM crops, instead I suggetsed that it should be left to real experts and not the
regulators. At the end of the day, market forces are the only ones that decide the fate of any product or technology. As a sicentist and a former regulator at USDA for over twelve years, I too have a modicum
of knowledge and expertise in the area of food safety. There is a unanimous scientific opinion that existing food safety analysis techniques and technology are sufficient to assess the same of GM
foods. Volumes have been written about it. By nature, science and technology always strive to improve themsleves and am sure new disoveries and developments in food safety analysis will also improve.
We will adopt those new developments and revaluate our old beliefs and facts. Only those who have no scientific training or knowledge of the
techniques and technology keep on repeating this non-sense that exisiting food safety analysis is inadequate or insensitive. I was upset that a premier research body like ICMR in India should repeat
The original comment in WEEKLY WATCH number 83
FOCUS ON ASIA
+ INDUSTRY ASSAULT ON INDIA - FAST-TRACKING CAMPAIGN CONTINUES, BIG PRO-GM CONFERENCE COMING
PV Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society has warned how, unperturbed by the problems already inflicted on the country by GM cotton, "the powerful industrial lobby in India has been instrumental in a process that might completely dismantle the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and hand over the control to an industry dominated committee in the name of a fast track approval".
As part of the biotech industry's campaign to weaken India's regulatory system, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) will hold a big GM promotional - an "International Conference on Agricultural Biotechnology" entitled "Ushering in the Second Green Revolution" at Federation House, New Delhi, Aug 10-12, 2004.
FICCI is operating in partnership with:
(1) The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application (ISAAA) - a U.S.-based, GM promotion and 'transfer' agency whose board has contained leading biotech industry executives and which enjoys multi-million dollar funding from Bayer, Cargill, Dow, Monsanto, Novartis, Pioneer, Syngenta, in addition to funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and Western governmental funding agencies.
(2) The MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) headed by the green revolution scientist, MS Swaminathan, who has been in charge of a government task force set up to revise India's regulatory system. Swaminathan has a disturbing talent for dressing up the industry's agenda in the rhetoric of village India, women's empowerment, etc.
The main conference organisers, FICCI, has already stated that it wants to see the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee's powers curtailed by "changes in rules relating to production and handling of micro-organisms, cells and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)." The conference is intended to deliberate on such changes as well as being a GM promotional.
The biotech lobby's main concern is over what they see as stagnation in the GM crop sector in India. Shantu Shantaram spells it out with his complaint, "all we have is one stupid Bt cotton to talk about." India's prominence within the developing world makes what the biotech lobby sees as the slow introduction of GM crops into India particularly frustrating.
Significantly, Shantaram, who is a frequent spokesman on these issues, presents himself simply as "Dr Shantu Shantaram, Biologistics International USA". In fact, Dr Shantaram is an employee of GM giant Syngenta.
Go to a Syngenta website like that of Syngenta Canada and the message is loud and clear:
"Welcome! We're Syngenta. Syngenta is the world's leading agribusiness company".
But when it comes to Syngenta's man Shantharam, the message is non-existent!
At Syngenta, Shantaram developed the corporation's PR strategies for biotech projects, including Golden Rice. Prior to that he worked for the US Department of Agriculture. Biologistics International is Shantaram's "consulting firm" on biosafety. No doubt he will be putting that expertise to good use to help India usher in its "Second Green Revolution".
Much of the drive to reform India's regulatory system has its roots in a forum on regulatory development set up by Syngenta, in which MS Swaminathan took a prominent part. Syngenta's forum established many of the principles behind the proposals for regulatory reform now being brought forward.
The aim seems clear: to weaken India's regulatory system and then use it as a blueprint to sell to other Asian countries - just as South Africa's fast-track system is now being promoted as a model for the entire continent.
Ushering in the Second Green Revolution - International conference in New Delhi
Clipping the wings of India's regulators
Industry asault on India
Subverting the Cartagena Protocol - Willy De Greef (12/7/2004)
EXCERPT: While the US is busy subverting the Cartagena Protocol's impact by providing expert support for weak biosafety systems for developing countries, here's another subversive effort - this one in the name of public science.
The author, whose article champions this cause, is described in Nature Biotechnology simply as "at the The Plant Biotechnology Institute for Developing Countries (IPBO)" at Ghent University. However, until the end of 2002 Willy De Greef was the Global Head of Regulatory Affairs - Biotechnology for gene giant Syngenta.
According to De Greef the 'Golden Rice' project, "seen a few years ago as one of the most significant single contributions of biotech to public health improvement in the developing world, has been stalled for half a decade, and in the current regulatory environment does not have much hope of reaching third world farmers".
This is all the fault of the Cartagena Protocol.
"To change the situation, it is urgent to create a platform of public sector research institutions, to give a voice to the concerns and the needs of the scientific community in the Cartagena Protocol implementation process..."
De Greef has no doubt that public sector input would create a far more lax regulatory environment, allowing the more rapid introduction of GMOS.
And in that he is quite right.
In many countries plant bioscience has been almost completely aligned with the needs of industry. The UK's public funding body for the bio-sciences, for instance, was actually headed until not so long ago by a director of Syngenta, and the boards that determine its strategy and make its funding decisions are stuffed with industry figures.
De Greef himself - one day a spokesman for the world's largest biotech corporation, the next the champion of public science - is a perfect exemplar of this corrupt situation.