1.Science under attack? Not exactly”¦
2.Jonathan Jones - a profile
Last night's programme featured GM scientist Prof. Jonathan Jones, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who, according to Dr Brooks, "doesn't understand why people won't accept genetically modified crops. In a Cameron-esque moment, Nurse explains that he met a member of the public once, and they said they 'didn't want genes in their food'. From this he concludes that if people were just better informed about genetics (that is, if they just bloody listened to we scientists), the whole problem would go away."
Below the Brooks' article (item 1) is a profile of Prof. Jones _ item 2. For some of the well based concerns the likes of Jones and Nurse fail to acknowledge: http://www.gmwatch.org/gm-crops-research-documenting-the-limitations-risks-and-alternatives
1.Science under attack? Not exactly”¦
Dr Michael Brooks
Free Radicals, January 25 2011
In many ways, last night's BBC Horizon (Science Under Attack) could have been a piece of comedy programming - in the style of The Office, say, or Pineapple Dance Studios. White-haired white male Sir Paul Nurse lovingly strokes a copy of Newton's Principia in the basement archive of the Royal Society ("I have to touch it!") while puzzled that some people just don't connect with scientists.
Nurse goes on to skewer Telegraph climate change denier James Delingpole with a question about whether he would deny medical consensus if diagnosed with cancer, then visits an American man who is living, apparently healthily, with HIV - without taking the medical consensus treatment of antiretroviral drugs. The irony is lost on Nurse.
Luckily, there are other white-haired white male scientists to share the pain of not being understood. Phil Jones, for instance, the man who refused to deal with a co-ordinated set of Freedom of Information requests from climate deniers (designed as a bureaucratic Denial of Service attack) and set the whole climategate scandal in motion. "I wish people would read the peer-reviewed literature," Jones sighs. No, really, he said that. Out of touch with the general public? Us?
While Nurse's hand-wringing voiceover repeatedly asks why not everyone believes the pronouncements of scientists, we get to see Nurse in his lab, surrounded by busy young post-docs of varying race and gender (no doubt working at close to minimum wage, but let's not go there). We are slightly fed up with the self-pity by this stage, and shouting at the TV: "Look at them. They look normal, they look like the rest of us. Ask them! Ask them about how science should connect with the modern world!" But no, we go to Norwich instead, to talk to a white-haired white male scientist [Jonathan Jones] who is growing blighted potatoes in a rainy field.
This one doesn't understand why people won't accept genetically modified crops. In a Cameron-esque moment, Nurse explains that he met a member of the public once, and they said they "didn't want genes in their food". From this he concludes that if people were just better informed about genetics (that is, if they just bloody listened to we scientists), the whole problem would go away.
Perhaps the most heinous moment is when Nurse has tea with another white-haired white male scientist. Professor Fred Singer doesn't believe global warming is caused by human activity and does his level best to get this point of view heard everywhere he can. Nurse listens politely over some Earl Grey, then goes to a (white-haired white male) NASA scientist who says Singer's point of view has been examined and found wanting.
What is so heinous is that Singer's is presented as a valid, independent scientific viewpoint that just doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny. There is no mention of Singer’s previous convictions for anti-scientific lobbying. Could this be the same Fred Singer who, in the 1980s, when he sat on the White House's Acid rain review panel, told us that acid rain wasn't worth worrying about? Who, as the US Department of Transportation’s Chief Scientist repeatedly denied that CFCs were responsible for ozone depletion? The one who was on the advisory board of Alexis de Tocqueville, an organisation that defended the tobacco companies in their attempt to avoid higher taxes and responsibility for causing cancer?
Nurse is likeable in an avuncular kind of way, and I can't help feeling his new role as President of the Royal Society is going to be a tough gig. I have always thought the Royal Society to be less like an uncle and more like my grandfather: pre-feminist - slightly misogynistic, actually - and wary of foreigners, especially those with dark skin. Oh, and toothless.
These days we need scientists, and those who preside over them, to bare their teeth. When it comes to public confusion over the truth about climate change, Nurse seems to want to blame the media, mischievious or credulous journalists, or a lazy public who don't read the primary literature. The reality is, scientists such as Singer - who got off scot-free in this programme - are to blame for the fact that the public doesn't know who to believe and that, consequently, governments feel no compulsion to take action on climate change. Scientists willing to compromise their integrity for money and positions of power are a much greater threat to climate science than the likes of James Delingpole, who is nothing more than a mouthpiece.
The issue this programme tried to address is of enormous importance I think it's the most important issue in science today. Which is why my next post about this programme (hopefully to come later today) won’t be nearly so snide.
2.Jonathan Jones - a profile
Prof Jonathan Jones is a Fellow of the Royal Society and senior scientist at the Sainsbury Laboratory of the John Innes Centre (JIC) (1988-present as at June 2010).
Jones has undertaken research at UC Berkeley.
Since the late 1980s he has headed a lab within the Sainsbury Laboratory, using molecular biology and genetics to better understand plant disease resistance with a view to engineering disease resistance genes into crop plants. In 1998 Jones wrote, 'I've worked with transgenic plants for 15 years, in the US and the UK. The more I do it, the less I worry about it.'
It was environmental concerns which, according to Prof Jones, led him into a career in plant biology as a source of high-tech solutions. He has written, 'It simply is appalling how rainforests are cut down, fisheries fished out and water resources are overutilized and polluted. But the solutions require more science, not less.'
Jones is on the science advisory board of the Two Blades Foundation. His biography on the Two Blades Foundation website says:
Dr. Jones has co-founded 2 companies; Mendel Biotechnology, founded in 1997 to carry out genomics experiments to discover and exploit key regulators of crop productivity, and Norfolk Plant Sciences Ltd, to combine health promoting traits and disease resistance traits in potato and tomato. Dr. Jones was elected a Professor at the University of East Anglia in 1997, a member of EMBO in 1998, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2003.
As well as being a co-founder of Mendel Biotechnology, Jones is also on its advisory board. Monsanto is an investor and collaborator in Mendel Biotechnology. Monsanto's vice president, biotechnology, Stephen Padgette, is listed as being on the advisory board of Mendel Biotechnology in its Annual Report 2008.
As at July 2010, Mendel had been granted over 20 biotechnology and GM patents, as listed on its website. Its interests include developing "energy grasses" for biomass and biofuels.
In its 2008 Annual Report it lists two lines of business that were central to its growth in that year:
* a collaborative project with Monsanto on soybean yield, "the basis of which is a Mendel technology"
* the establishment of "the first-ever field trials of genetically diverse Miscanthus varieties for biomass production in the United States"
Mendel's 2009 Annual Report names 2009 as a "watershed year", demonstrated by two collaborative partnerships: one with Monsanto and the other with Bayer CropScience.
Mendel's deal with Monsanto involved Monsanto's "initial deployment of our [Mendel's] platforms" for its "improved yield soybean".
Mendel's deal with Bayer involved "developing chemical products which make crops more resistant to biotic and abiotic stress factors, which in turn will stabilize yields and improve crop productivity".
Mendel Biotechnology - and Jonathan Jones - attempting to rescue Monsanto's low-yield Roundup Ready soy?
GM soybeans have given consistently lower yields than non-GM equivalents. Analysing multiple US field trials in 1999, agronomist Dr Charles Benbrook found an average yield drag of 5.3% for Roundup Ready soy. In some locations, the best conventional varieties beat RR yields by more than 10%. Controlled comparative field trials of GM/non-GM soy suggested that 50% of the drop in yield was due to the genetic disruptive effect of the GM transformation process.
In what was arguably a tacit recognition of this fact, in 2009 Monsanto launched its Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans, which it called "the first product we developed simply to increase crop yield". Monsanto said a new gene in RR2 soy would give "a 6-7 percent yield increase" in yield. When stacked with other aspects of RR2 technology, the total yield increase was predicted by Monsanto to reach 7-11%.
Interestingly, the first figure of 6-7% yield gain is within the range of yield drag for first-generation RR soy quoted by agronomists in the above-mentioned studies. In other words, RR2 soy is hoped to compensate for the yield drag of RR1 soy, bringing yields all the way up... to that of conventional soy. The second figure of 7-11% would, at its higher end, slightly exceed the average yield of the non-GM soybeans that formed the controls in the yield studies mentioned above. That might justify to farmers the higher prices of GM soy seed, which have been the target of much criticism.
Monsanto credits Mendel Biotechnology with discovering the magic gene that is meant to deliver these yield increases for its RR2 soybeans. The chemicals company BASF is a second collaborator.
However, in 2010, just one year after the release of RR2 Yield soybeans, reports have emerged that they are not giving the promised higher yields. In July 2010 it was announced that West Virginia’s attorney general had launched a probe into Monsanto under consumer fraud laws over its claim that RR2 soybeans would give farmers higher yields.
According to a Bloomberg report, Monsanto last year began shifting growers to the new seeds by promising a 7 percent to 11 percent bigger harvest compared with the original Roundup Ready soybean seeds:
Roundup Ready 2 soybeans were planted on 1.5 million acres last year and cost growers $74 an acre, 42 percent more than the older product, Bloomberg said.
But according to West Virginia Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw, Iowa State University, Pennsylvania State University, a farmer group and investment researcher OTR Global found the latest seeds failed to deliver what Monsanto promised.
Government surveys show the yield on soybean farms in West Virginia was 41 bushels an acre in 2009, the same as in 2008, the Journal said. McGraw offered Monsanto a chance to meet with state officials before he begins litigation.
"My office is concerned that West Virginia farmers are paying much higher prices for soybeans with the Roundup Ready 2 trait when the yields do not live up to the claims and do not justify the increased prices," McGraw wrote.
In the face of this reported dismal failure of a Mendel/Monsanto GM technology, Mendel co-founder and advisory board member Jonathan Jones, who has an interest in the success or failure of both companies, published an article on the BBC website, praising Monsanto and hyping GM technology as a high-yield "solution" to the food and energy crises (see section, "Promoting GM on BBC website - vested interests undeclared").
Attacking GM critics
Unusually for a biotechnologist, Jones has at times been willing to criticise the biotech industry, outside of the area of GM crops. He wrote to The Guardian to support George Monbiot's concern about Monsanto's genetically engineered cattle drug BST, 'George Monbiot and the Guardian have got wrong much of their coverage on GM foods and GM crops. But he is certainly right to highlight concern... about milk from cows treated with bovine somatotropin (BST). It appears suspect both on animal welfare and human health grounds'.
However, his keenness to communicate the benefits of GM crops has led him to adopt a less tolerant attitude towards environmental critics of GM crops like George Monbiot. In fact, while the JIC's Director, Prof. Chris Lamb, has publicly expressed his concern at the 'polarisation of discussion about agriculture', and declared it part of the JIC's vision to seek to foster balanced debate, Jones has adopted an often highly aggressive tone in public meetings and in some of the material he has written for publication.
He attacks critics of GM crops at public meetings as 'self-serving' fundamentalists, calling them 'the green mujihadeen'. On the JIC website he has posted material complaining of 'George Monbiot's periodic eruptions of green bile on the subject of GM crops' and of 'George Monbiot and his bigoted, myopic, mystical, anti-scientific, organic farming business interest friends'.
During the Pusztai crisis in February 1999 Jones penned an article at the request of Tony Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, on the benefits of GM crops. The government's spin doctors then tried to place the article in a national newspaper. The material turned up 'partially summarized' in a Sunday Times editorial on 14 February 1999. The following day the Daily Telegraph reported how the piece had been hawked around the press by Number 10. The fact that Jones worked for a laboratory founded and funded by Labour's Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, who is a leading advocate of GM crops, attracted critical comment.
In the article, Jones wrote, 'Grandstanding does not resolve scientific questions', and he concluded, without any apparent sense of self-contradiction, 'The future benefits (for consumers and the environment) will be enormous [from GM] and the best is yet to come. In the meantime, let's have more information and less rhetoric.'
Jones has also attacked GM critics for 'quite literally leading everyone up the garden path.' But he has himself faced criticism for making baseless claims in support of GM crops.
At public talks, Jones has repeatedly claimed that GM crops have made aerial spraying of pesticides unnecessary in the US, resulting in 'crop dusters' going 'out of business because plants are so [pest] resistant, there's no business for applying insecticides indiscriminately from aeroplanes'. However, according to a leading US agronomist, Dr Charles Benbrook, in an email to GMWatch, insecticide use in the US has actually been on the increase. While crop dusters are indeed going out of business, says Benbrook, this is because 'fewer and fewer pesticides may be applied aerial, because of drift. Virtually all the new chemistry is incompatible with aerial application.' Dr Benbrook's conclusion on Jones' much repeated claim that crop dusters are going out of business because of GM crops: 'This fellow does not know what he is talking about.' So where did Jones get his data? He told GMWatch he read it in a newspaper - The Christian Science Monitor.
Ironically, in his article about the media storm over Pusztai's research, Jones wrote, 'As a scientist myself I can only say "show me the data". Grandstanding does not resolve scientific questions.'
Promoting GM in BBC article - vested interests undeclared
On 6 July 2010 the BBC website published a 'Viewpoint' article by Jones ("Fussy eaters - what's wrong with GM food?") promoting GM food as a solution to the world's food security issues. In contrast with most reputable scientific journals, the BBC did not declare Jones's conflicting interests in writing the article, i.e. that he has interests in Mendel Biotechnology (see above) and so stands to gain if GM is accepted in the UK and Europe. The BBC simply described him in his more publicly-oriented role as "senior scientist for The Sainsbury Laboratory, based at the John Innes Centre, a research centre in plant and microbial science".
Screengrab of Jonathan Jones bio under his article on BBC website, taken 19 July 2010
In the article, Jones blithely dismisses the risks of GM foods:
In the early 80s, we did wonder about - in Rum[s]feldspeak - "unknown unknowns; the unknowns we didn't know we didn't know about", but 27 years later, nothing alarming has been seen.
In this statement, Jones is wilfully ignoring the large and growing body of scientific evidence indicating risks and harm from GM food and feed.
Jones's article for the BBC reads almost like the promo for Mendel Biotechnology in its 2009 Annual Report. Both use exaggerated 'crisis narratives' about expanding populations and shrinking food and energy supplies - and present GM technology as the solution.
* Mendel Biotechnology promo:
During the next 20 years, with an expanding global population, improved diets and rapidly growing energy demands, society will need to produce plants enhanced for food, feed, fiber and energy benefit without significant increases in production acreage. With the growth of energy generation from agricultural feedstocks, agricultural and energy supply chains serving the needs of a growing bioeconomy are expected to become integrated. Agricultural systems have had a major impact on the global environment; our technologies can contribute substantially to minimizing environmental consequences of agriculture for future generations.
[Our] Mission: To create value from our knowledge about the regulation of plant gene and pathway function - knowledge that enables advanced improvement in plant variety performance ... to meet global agricultural and energy production needs.
* BBC article:
A billion humans do not have enough to eat. Water resources are limited, energy costs are rising, the cultivatable land is already mostly cultivated, and climate change could hit productive areas hard. We need a sustainable intensification of agriculture to increase production by 50% by 2030 - but how? ... In the US or Europe, improved seeds could increase yields by 10% or more, reduce pesticide use and give "more crop per drop"... We can improve crop variety performance by both plant breeding (which gets better every year with new genetic methods), and by genetic modification (GM).
Jones makes unjustifiable claims in the article of benefits of GM crops - "increased yield, decreased agrochemical use and reduced environmental impact of agriculture". In fact, independent research has discredited all these claims: GM crops have been found not to increase yields or decrease overall chemical use and neither have they reduced the environmental impact of agriculture. The BBC seemingly has not asked Jones to provide evidence for his pro-GM claims. It is valid to ask if a critic of GM could get away with making similarly unsubstantiated claims on the other side of the argument in a BBC news article.
In the article, Jones calls for the deregulation of GM. Naturally, there is no mention on the BBC website that Jones would stand to benefit from such a deregulation through his interests in Mendel.
When is an agrochemical company not an agrochemical company?
Bizarrely, in his BBC article, Jones gives the impression that Monsanto is not an agrochemical company and so its motives in promoting GM seeds and crops are somehow purer than those of companies that sell agrochemicals:
Some fear the domination of the seed industry by multinationals, particularly Monsanto.
Monsanto is certainly the most determined and successful agbiotech company.
In their view, they had to be; they bet the company on agbiotech because unlike their rivals (who also sell nylon or agrichemicals) they had nothing else to fall back on.
It seems that Monsanto thinks differently. This is from its website as at July 2010:
Monsanto's agricultural productivity products are designed to help make our customers' operations more efficient - from farm to golf course. These non-seed-based products play a vital role in improving productivity and controlling invasive weeds.
Crop Protection Products: Roundup® Agricultural Herbicides
Roundup® agricultural herbicides are the flagship of Monsanto's agricultural chemicals business. The properties of Roundup agricultural herbicides and other glyphosate products can be used as part of an environmentally responsible weed control program and fit with the vision of sustainable agriculture and environmental protection.
Click here for more information about Crop Protection Products. <http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto/ag_products/crop_protection/default.asp> etc., etc.
In fact, as 93 percent of U.S. soybean plantings in 2009 contained Monsanto’s Roundup Ready trait, its GM seeds business directly relies upon its chemicals business.
As another fact, based on 2008 figures, Monsanto was the fifth largest agrichemical company in the world.
Monsanto also owns Acceleron seed treatment products. These contain a combination of fungicides including ipconazole, metalaxyl and trifloxystrobin for protection against primary seed-borne and soil-borne diseases, along with clothianidin, an insecticide, to reduce damage caused by secondary pests. Clothianidin is a systemic insecticide that may be carried to all parts of the corn plant including the pollen-producing tassel and pollen visited by bees. The selection of clothianidin for seed treatment can be seen as irresponsible because the insecticide has been implicated in bee die-offs.
Article in The Observer details Jones's vested interests
On 18 July 2010 The Observer published an article critiquing Jones's failure in the BBC article to declare his commercial interests in Mendel - and by extension, in Monsanto:
* Jamie Doward, Scientist leading GM crop test defends links to US biotech giant Monsanto, The Observer, 18 July 2010
The article quoted GMWatch director Jonathan Matthews as saying, "The frontman for the latest GM push in the UK is being portrayed as a dedicated public servant doing science in the public interest, but it now appears he not only has vested interests in the success of GM but even commercial connections to Monsanto."
Helen Wallace of GeneWatch UK was quoted as saying that Monsanto's "PR strategy relies on seemingly independent scientists making empty promises about the future benefits of GM crops".
In a statement to the Observer, Jones insisted: "It is not true to suggest I have attempted to hide my role as co-founder and science advisory board member of Mendel Biotechnology, which has contracts with Monsanto, Bayer and BP. The information that I am co-founder”¦ of Mendel has been in the public domain on the Mendel website for at least 10 years."
The Observer article prompted a storm of criticism of Jones and his BBC article from readers of the article in the Comments section of the Guardian/Observer website. Here are a few.
If Prof Jones cannot see that, no matter how fair and balanced his judgement in this case, his links with Monsanto will cast suspicion and doubt on a positive report on GM potatoes, he must be barking.
* Jones himself added a comment saying he had disclosed his interest in Mendel once on a website three years previously, in 2007:
I told Jamie Doward [journalist who wrote the Observer article] before today's Observer article that in a commentisfree in 2007 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/mar/28/jonathanjonesscientist) I specifically pointed out that i had cofounded mendel biotechnology.
My BBC website piece was invited in the context of my GM blight resistance potato trial, which has nothing to do with Mendel or Monsanto, neither of whom have any business in potato.
* In response to Jones's comment, "Trog1" wrote:
Had to laugh that Jones thinks that declaring his interests in Mendel/Monsanto 3 years ago is enough. Try writing an article for any reputable scientific journal these days. You have to fill out a new conflict of interest form every time. This makes sense because how can you expect readers to look back at an author's publication history every time he/she writes a new article?
Also very funny is his claim that Mendel/Monsanto has no interest in spuds. It does have an interest in the acceptance of GM technology in the UK, and this spud trial will be used by GM proponents to leverage that. Also Mendel has patents on GM technologies that could be used in a variety of plants. http://www.mendelbio.com/newsevents/issuedpatents.php ... Monsanto did create a GM potato which was rejected by consumers even in the US. Clearly the company is hoping for a turnaround in consumer feeling. This is from Monsanto's current website: "Potatoes are an important crop and there may be a day in the future when Monsanto re-enters the potato business."
Monsanto also owns De Ruiter Seeds and Seminis Seeds, both suppliers of veggie seeds. It would be extremely funny if they made a vow that they would never deal in potatoes.
Hilarity apart, I think it is a wise principle to know with whom one is in bed.
* "Profb" disputed even Jones's claim to have declared his interest in Mendel/Monsanto three years ago:
Prof Jones seems to think that mentioning his connection to this company once in passing in an article on a website 3 years ago constitutes full and frank disclosure!
What makes this worse is, if you look at the actual piece, Jones doesn't even name the company he founded. You have to click a link to find out it's Mendel Biotechnology and you'd have to dig around still farther to discover Monsanto regards Mendel as a key collaborator. http://monsanto.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=544
Even this indirect disclosure is a complete one off. In Jones' other Comment is Free article, there's absolutely no reference to Mendel or his having any commercial interests: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/feb/07/haltinggrowth
Likewise in the recent BBC piece promoting GM, there's absolutely nothing to suggest he's a cofounder of a company that has Monsanto as its principal client. And any time I've heard Prof Jones speak on TV or radio, there has been no reference to his having founded Mendel or sitting on its board. His self-description is exactly like the BBC piece - he is a senior scientist at a non-commercial research centre.
I would wager a guess that absolutely no one who interviewed Prof Jones, or offered him comment space, during his recent wave of PR activities related to the GM potato trial had a clue about his involvement in a company with "very effective mechanisms of collaboration" with Monsanto, "including the exchange of extensive proprietary information."
Yet it's vital that people benefiting from the label "public science" are completely upfront about the extent of any commercial interests. After all, if Jones were successful in gaining acceptance for GM potatoes, it would almost certainly open the door to Monsanto's products.
Unfortunately, Prof Jones' failure to be completely upfront about his ties to Monsanto fits an all too familiar pattern with GM promoters: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=405427 
* "graham666" agreed with "profb" that Jones's failure to declare conflicts of interest on this occasion was part of a consistent pattern rather than a one-off event:
I found out about Prof Jones' involvement in an American based Biotech firm back in 2001 when someone told me there were jobs going there. I was quite su[r]prised to find Prof Jones, and if my memory serves me correctly a couple of other leading British plant scientists on the directorial board. The thing that su[r]prised me back then was that having worked in their field for over ten years and having heard them speak on numerous occasions at conferences etc that I had never heard them mentioned their clearly relevant commercial interests. If my memory serves me correctly they always stuck to their wholly impartial for 'the public good' scientist persona
Now following the thieving banks, the thieving politicians I am not su[r]prised at all. Our leading lights are all the same, out for number one.
* "Ikesolem" criticised the public-private partnerships at academic institutions that regularly produce such conflicts of interest as Jones was accused of. "Ikesolem" wrote that scientists who speak out against such deals are victimized:
Scientists who point to the obvious conflicts of interest in the public-private partnerships that dominate American and British academic institutions these days are blacklisted from ever having senior appointments - and that's why lead scientists on GMO trials have ties to the corporate agribusiness lobby. Those ties are encouraged by university presidents, who might hold stock in Monsanto, and who will give financial favors, lab space, and important positions to those who support their agenda.
It's no different from the way Lysenko operated under Stalin - everyone agrees to chant the same ideological phrases. Genetic theory is capitalist propaganda and is fascist in nature, said Lysenko, so anyone who studies DNA goes to the gulag. Today, says the university president, the role of the university is to assist business interests in their goals, not to pursue independent research which might undermine those very interests.
For example, the University of California jointly controls the patent (with Monsanto) on rGBH milk production. The UC expects to receive $100 million in royalties from sales of rGBH. You think the UC administrators would be pleased if some associate professor published studies pointing to health problems with rGBH, or even wrote a grant to do that? Would they get tenure? Probably not - they've canned people repeatedly for similar violations of their ideological principles.