Misdirection is one of the main themes running through our latest Lobbywatch Review, whether it involves agribusiness lobbying, GMO deregulation, or the real origin of COVID-19, on which we have a lot of new information — enough, in fact, to have one veteran science correspondent declaring that “the long campaign to ‘debunk’ the lab-leak hypothesis and marginalize it as a ‘conspiracy theory’ has failed, miserably”.
Agribusiness spends more than defence or construction industries on lobbying the US government
Agricultural corporations and lobby groups spent more than $150 million last year lobbying the United States government, more than either the US’s massive defence or construction industries. One of its main lobbying focuses has been to limit environmental regulations.
Representatives of Brazil’s environmental agencies met more than 700 times with agribusiness and mining companies under Bolsonaro
Since the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration, representatives of Brazilian environmental agencies had at least 709 meetings with agribusiness and mining companies, averaging one meeting every two days. In contrast to these drivers of deforestation, civil society had less than 10 meetings at the Ministry of Environment during the same period.
Science, lobbies and the environment
Corporate Europe Observatory and the University of Bergen recently co-hosted a seminar about how corporate lobby groups deploy “science” to manipulate regulators and the public. The seminar was dedicated to Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, celebrating its 60th anniversary. The video of the event is available here, as are the following Powerpoint presentations on the role of science in corporate lobbying:
* Naomi Oreskes: Paths to a less Silent Spring
* Jeroen van der Sluijs: Regulatory science and precaution: Lessons from the neonicotinoid case
* Andrea Saltelli: Science and regulatory capture
* Stéphane Foucart: The guardians of reason
* Nina Holland: Lobbies in action
* May-Brith Ohman Nielsen: Pushing pesticides onto Norwegian gardens, fields and forests.
Freedom of Information request about glyphosate elicits 229 blank pages from regulator
After Canada’s federal government agreed to Bayer's request to increase the amount of glyphosate residues allowed in foodstuffs to levels above those permitted even in the United States and China, there was an outcry. Although the regulator Health Canada’s decision was based solely on industry studies, in response to a Freedom of Information request about which studies they were relying on, Health Canada provided 229 blank pages. The regulator claims they are blank because the documents contain personal information and “provide financial, commercial, scientific or technical information to a government agency by a third party, which is of a confidential nature and is maintained by this third party”. This total lack of transparency comes only a month after it emerged that the Canadian government’s deregulatory reforms on GMO foods appear to have been primarily authored by the director general of CropLife Canada, the main trade group for the agrichemical industry.
Big Agriculture casts itself as climate champion at COP27
A US-led sustainable farming initiative, which aims to raise billions of dollars to tackle climate change, has been criticised for favouring big business and promoting uncertain technofixes ahead of UN climate talks in Egypt in November. Launched at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last year by the US and United Arab Emirates governments, the AIM for Climate (Aim4C) coalition pledged to accelerate innovation in agriculture and food systems to support climate action. Alongside 40 states, partners include major agribusinesses, such as Brazilian meat giant JBS, and agricultural trade groups such as CropLife International, as well as research centres such as the University of Edinburgh’s Climate Change Institute. Multi-billion-dollar nonprofits the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Nature Conservancy (“corporate partners” have included Boeing, BP, Cargill, Dow Chemical, Monsanto, and PepsiCo) are also taking part. Backers say the coalition aims to unlock new technologies that can help reduce the sector’s major contribution to climate change and make harvests more resilient. But food and farming groups have publicly criticised Aim4C, accusing it of championing industry-friendly and unproven climate “solutions” instead of spurring a transformative embrace of diverse, regenerative agriculture.
USDA’s $3B “Climate-Smart Commodities” programme is “all greenwashing”
The US Department of Agriculture’s recently announced $3 billion “Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities” sounds like doublespeak, an Orwellian invention that reverses the meaning of words, says the agricultural commentator Alan Guebert. Or, more plainly, how can today’s commodity-centered, industrialized agriculture be remotely “climate-smart” when everyone in the food business readily acknowledges it’s an oil-gulping, climate-changing juggernaut? The short, truthful answer is it can’t. A Land Grant University agronomist told Guebert, “We can’t sequester carbon in any appreciable amount in today’s commodity production systems. Not through conventional tillage, not through minimum till, not through no-till. That’s just an agronomic fact. So what are we doing with these USDA projects?” Another Land Grant University researcher told him, “This is all greenwashing — vanity and greenwashing — to keep today’s ag policies in place.”
Smoke and mirrors on sustainable agriculture at COP27
At COP27 in Egypt, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) voiced alarm that “green buzzwords are being used to obstruct systemic reform”. IPES-Food is particularly concerned that often loosely defined alternative concepts relating to sustainable food production, notably “regenerative agriculture”, “climate-smart agriculture”, and “nature based solutions”, are being deployed to keep the focus on vague aspirations or to cloak intensive agriculture. For instance, the term “regenerative agriculture” is often used interchangeably with “carbon farming” and “no-till” agriculture, where the focus is almost entirely on rotations with cover crops and reduced- or no-tillage — often requiring the use of broad-spectrum herbicides, like glyphosate, and even GMO herbicide-tolerant crops. IPES-Food favours the term “agroecology” and calls for a rejection of solutions that lack definitions and exploit ambiguity to mask agribusiness as usual.
Smoke and mirrors on gene editing at Westminster
When the UK Government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill had its third reading in Parliament on 31 October, Labour’s Shadow Farming Minister Daniel Zeichner branded it “a vague thin Bill” that “lacked effective regulatory framework”. He also said the Government was trying to gloss over the issues by inventing the entirely non-scientific term “precision breeding”: “It is a term without clear scientific meaning. Frankly, it has been invented by the Government for their convenience and is a misnomer. Telling us in a rather paternalistic tone that we need not worry because there is no difference between gene edited or traditionally bred crops and livestock does not convince. There is a risk that, as worded, the Bill will allow trans-genetic transfer — effectively, GM through the back door.” 100 scientists and policy experts agree with Zeichner that using the term “precision breeding” to describe gene editing is “technically and scientifically inaccurate”. It's a misleading marketing term that should have no place in legislation. More on how the misleading marketing of the bill has shaped media coverage here.
UK: Roundup promoter appointed as environment secretary
New UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has appointed Thérèse Coffey MP as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Last time Coffey was an environment minister she tweeted that she was “Getting ready to deploy the amazing Roundup” alongside a picture of Monsanto’s product. Now she’s the most senior minister at DEFRA — with Mark Spencer, who's been described as “our very own little Bolsonaro” (a reference to the Amazon-destroying Brazilian president), at her side.
How big pesticide reaches into every element of rural life in Australia
Like “big pharma”, the global agricultural chemical companies run very sophisticated marketing and sponsorship networks that reach into almost every facet of rural life. German multinational Bayer, Swiss based Syngenta, Canadian based Nutrien, Adama (owned by Syngenta), US based Corteva (formerly Dow Dupont chemicals), and Australian company Nufarm contribute millions, if not billions, in support for rural activities. They subsidise agronomists in rural towns. They provide scholarships at agricultural schools and fund farm safety programmes. They even fund government bodies, including — most controversially — providing 90% of the budget for Australia’s pesticides regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, which operates on a user-pays basis.
Covid was “more likely than not” the result of a lab leak: Senate report
Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking member of the US Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), has released an “interim report” entitled “An Analysis of the Origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic”. According to the veteran science journalist Michal Balter, the new report provides “a sober, careful, and fully science-based review of the current evidence”. The report concludes, “Nearly three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, substantial evidence demonstrating that the COVID-19 pandemic was the result of a research-related incident has emerged.” Michael Balter considers the report one more sign that “the long campaign to ‘debunk’ the lab-leak hypothesis and marginalize it as a ‘conspiracy theory’ has failed, miserably”. Read Balter’s summary of the report and commentary here.
COVID-19 origins: Investigating a “complex and grave situation” inside a Wuhan lab
The US Senate team working on the new Senate report found evidence of alarming biosecurity issues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the lab at the centre of suspicions about the pandemic’s onset. Their evidence is not included in the new Senate report but is explored in depth by ProPublica and Vanity Fair, which downloaded more than 500 of the documents from the WIV website that were originally unearthed by Senate investigators.
Experimenting with disaster: Biolab incident reports reveal hundreds of accidents
An Intercept investigation, based on over 5,500 pages of US National Institutes of Health (NIH) documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), has uncovered “a litany of mishaps” in America’s biolabs, literally hundreds of lab accidents that have gone undisclosed to the public. While most accidents involved low-risk pathogens, some happened in higher security BSL3 labs and involved, for instance, 1918 influenza (the so-called Spanish flu responsible for the most severe pandemic in recent history), recombinant chikungunya virus (for which no preventive vaccines or effective treatments are currently available) and modified H5N1 avian influenza (the highly pathogenic bird flu). The documents strongly support claims that current oversight of biolabs is inconsistent and incomplete. The Intercept has published three articles on what the documents reveal: here, here and here.
Attack of the killer preprints
The alternative to the lab leak hypothesis is the market origins (zoonotic) hypothesis — the claim that the COVID-19 pandemic spilled over from animals to humans at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. A series of preprints casting serious doubt on this zoonotic hypothesis have recently been published, some of which are in submission at journals, and most of which will be soon. Michael Balter has provided an excellent summary of these preprints, including the critique by Zhang et al, of which he writes: “The earliest known case of COVID-19 at the Huanan market was not at or nearby a wildlife stall; there is no statistical correlation between cases and the locations of wildlife stalls; environmental samples taken after the pandemic began are more consistent with spread from toilets at the market than with spread from wildlife stalls; and, to top it off, ‘there is no epidemiological evidence indicating any infection of a raccoon dog [a suspected intermediate host] or any other wild or domestic animal, before or during the early pandemic, at any market elsewhere in Wuhan, or even in the rest of China.’”
More pushback on market origin claims
The views of a number of leading critics of the zoonotic hypothesis, including Richard Ebright, Virginie Courtier-Orgogozo and Nikolai Petrovsky, have been published as an eLetter on the journal Science’s website. In their critique of a recent article by Worobey et al pointing the finger at the Huanan market, they argue that though the paper supports the market serving as an early superspreading event for COVID-19, it provides no definitive evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was first transmitted to humans from wildlife sold there: “Out of the 457 animals (18 species) tested from the market, all were negative.” See also Yuri Deigin’s critique of Worobey et al’s failure to control for Huanan market-linked sampling bias, in this Twitter thread.
SARS-CoV-2 shows “fingerprint” of laboratory engineering
SARS-CoV-2 shows signs consistent with genetic engineering, according to a new preprint that argues that the virus has the exact endonuclease fingerprint of infectious clones made at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. An article for US Right to Know summarises the preprint, the attacks on it from the group of virologists and their supporters who have been maintaining that the virus could only have had a zoonotic origin, and the authors’ responses to the criticisms. See also this response to the attacks by one of the authors: The synthetic origin theory of SARS-CoV-2.
We have probable cause to suspect a laboratory origin
Alex Washburne argues that the lab origins hypothesis is overwhelmingly the better explanation for the emergence of COVID-19 when the most important pieces of evidence are seen together. He focuses on four major pieces of evidence that he says, taken together, are far greater than the sum of the parts. The four pieces are the DEFUSE proposal to insert human-specific furin cleavage sites into SARS-related bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology; the fact that SARS-CoV-2 arose in Wuhan; the fact that SARS-CoV-2 has a furin cleavage site in its spike protein, making it highly infectious compared to its relatives in the betacoronavirus subgenus, which all lack this feature; and the fact that SARS-CoV-2 has the restriction map of an infectious clone.
Why is the US government giving yet more money to Peter Daszak?
A familiar COVID-19-related name is back in the news, writes Ashley Rindsberg, author of The Gray Lady Winked. The EcoHealth Alliance NGO run by Peter Daszak has been granted another $600,000 by Anthony Fauci’s agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This, to say the least, has raised eyebrows. It’s hard to overstate the role Daszak has played in pandemic-related issues. His EcoHealth Alliance is the organisation responsible for funnelling hundreds of thousands of dollars, sourced from US government grants, to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, considered by many to be the likely source of the pandemic.
Republican leaders concerned about failure to hold Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance to account
Ashley Rindsberg is far from alone (see item above) in his disbelief at the continuing flow of public money to Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance. Republican leaders of a House of Representatives committee and two sub-committees say in a joint statement that they find it unbelievable that since EcoHealth Alliance’s 2020 grant suspension for refusal to cooperate with NIH’s oversight of the work they sponsored at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Daszak’s organisation has received in total more than $23.4 million in further grant funding from the US government. They also say that previously undisclosed correspondence shows that NIH has mismanaged over many years the concerns surrounding EcoHealth Alliance’s risky research in China. They continue to investigate and if the Republicans gain control of the House after the upcoming mid-term elections in the US, it seems likely those investigations will become bipartisan and witnesses, like Fauci and Daszak, may well be subpoenaed.
Boston University researchers’ testing of lab-made version of COVID virus draws government scrutiny
Research at Boston University that involved testing a lab-made hybrid version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is garnering heated headlines alleging the scientists involved could have unleashed a new pathogen. There is no evidence the work, performed under biosecurity level 3 precautions in BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, was conducted improperly or unsafely. In fact, it was approved by an internal biosafety review committee and Boston’s Public Health Commission, the university said. But it has become apparent that the research team did not clear the work with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which was one of the funders of the project. The agency indicated it is going to be looking for some answers as to why it first learned of the work through media reports.
Boston University lab wasn’t required to clear potentially controversial study with NIH, director says
The director of the Boston University laboratory that conducted potentially controversial research on the viruses that cause COVID-19 said his institution didn’t clear the work with the National Institutes of Health because it wasn’t funded by the federal agency. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which had awarded two grants to the research group, said that it should have been informed about the nature of the work beforehand, in order for a review to be conducted.
Government lab in Maryland plans to create a hybrid monkeypox strain that is MORE deadly than one currently spreading in US
A US government laboratory in Maryland plans to make the circulating monkeypox strain more lethal in highly controversial research in mice. The team wants to equip the dominant clade (virus group) — which mostly causes a rash and flu-like symptoms — with genes from another strain that causes severe disease. The latest monkeypox study is being funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a research arm of National Institutes of Health (NIH). But the modified virus poses an exceptionally high risk to the public if it accidentally leaks, according to Dr Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Why do labs keep making dangerous viruses?
The omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is more transmissible than earlier variants, which has helped drive so many infections that health officials have essentially lost count. But omicron is also less deadly than past variants. Against this background, scientists at Boston University decided to see if they could engineer in a lab a new COVID virus — called the omicron S-bearing virus — that was as infectious as omicron (that is, extremely infectious), but more likely to cause severe disease. It turns out they could. Which we know because they published the details.
Did West Africa’s Ebola outbreak of 2014 have a lab origin?
The Ebola outbreak of 2014 was a disaster for West Africa. Over 11,000 lives were lost amidst intense negative social and economic consequences. The 2014 outbreak of Zaire Ebola (as the species is known) is today commonly cited as a bona fide example of a natural zoonosis that began in the country of Guinea. However, the 2014 outbreak was puzzling on multiple levels. The greatest of these puzzles is that all previous Zaire Ebola virus outbreaks occurred in the Congo basin, which is thousands of miles away. Additionally, to this day and despite extensive sampling, no animal source of Zaire Ebola virus in West Africa has ever been identified. At the same time, in Sierra Leone, not far from the border with Guinea, is the town of Kenema, which hosts a US-funded virus research facility. The research focus of this lab, which is run by the US-based Viral Haemorrhagic Fever Consortium, are the viral haemorrhagic fevers, of which Ebola is one. An independent investigation by journalist Sam Husseini and virologist Dr Jonathan Latham suggests a cover-up. Although there are clear and obvious inconsistencies between the scientific evidence and the orthodox narrative of a Guinean origin, western researchers, many of them from the lab in Kenema or closely connected to it, chose to overlook these weaknesses to promote a false and misleading Guinean origin story. Husseini and Latham also point out that among the researchers supporting that story are a number of authors (Robert Garry, Andrew Rambaut, Kristian Andersen and Edward Holmes) who have become perhaps the most prominent and ardent defenders of a zoonotic origin for COVID-19. Husseini and Latham suggest Fauci had good reason for reaching out to Drs Garry, Rambaut, Andersen, and Holmes to become members of “what we have called Anthony Fauci’s COVID origin SWAT team. Not only were its members principals in arguing against lab origin theories, they even adopted many of the same scientific and phylogenetic misdirection strategies and tactics as those described above to suppress COVID-19 lab origin speculation.”
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