"The Bivings Group has no knowledge of either Mary Murphy or Andura Smetacek," says Gary Bivings. "They don't do PR," says Monsanto below of Bivings.
Unfortunately for both Monsanto and Bivings, the firm's head of online *PR* had already told Newsnight a different story.
Bivings' admission of involvement
For the real Mexican maize story:
New Scientist's Special Investigation: The great Mexican maize scandal
A Dust-Up Over GMO Crops
By Kristen Philipkoski
Wired News with Associated Press, June 12, 2002
The biotechnology industry won a major public relations victory when a leading scientific journal retreated from a study it had published alleging that crops in Mexico were contaminated with genetically modified organisms.
How the victory was attained has become a hotly contested matter. The controversy began when Ignacio Chapela, assistant professor in the department of environmental science policy and management at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote a study saying that Mexico's diverse corn crop -- previously thought to be pristine was contaminated by GMOs.
The scientific journal Nature published the study on Nov. 29, 2001. The research was greeted with a storm of criticism from the biotech industry, particularly on the AgBioWorld message board.
The day Chapela's report was published, a poster named Mary Murphy accused the researcher of being biased against GMOs, and another named Andura Smetacek said he was "first and foremost an activist."
Their posts led to hundreds more criticizing the study, and AgBioWorld launched a petition stating the paper's "fundamental flaws."
But that was just the start of the controversy. A columnist at the Guardian in the United Kingdom fanned the flames by accusing the GMO giant Monsanto of fabricating the message board members and orchestrating a public relations blitz through PR company The Bivings Group, in order to debunk Chapela's research.
The columnist, George Monbiot, in two separate articles suggested that Bivings created Murphy and Smetacek.
Bivings denies all of the allegations and calls them "egregious" in a letter to the editor of the Guardian, which ran the letter today.
"The allegations made against The Bivings Group in two recent columns in the Guardian -- 'The fake persuaders' (May 14, 2002) and 'Corporate phantoms' (May 29, 2002) -- are completely untrue," the company writes.
In April, Nature editor Dr. Philip Campbell wrote on the Nature website that the paper should have never been published in the first place.
Neither Dr. Campbell nor Chapela returned phone calls.
Some researchers say there are problems with the study, but it's common for scientists to disagree on results.
It remains to be seen how genetically modified corn could have infiltrated the Mexican crop, but imported American corn is a likely suspect. It's also possible that, as in other countries like Brazil, Mexican farmers may have smuggled GMO corn hoping for better yields.
If Monbiot's accusations in the Guardian were true, it would suggest a particularly insidious form of viral marketing. But evidence is not conclusive.
Monbiot writes that he found a message satirizing biotech opponents sent by Mary Murphy that contains the identification bw6.bivwood.com, which is a Bivings Group domain name.
But headers in e-mails can be easily altered, and the e-mail is two years old.
Monbiot wrote that he could discover little about Smetacek, but that she often promoted "the Centre For Food and Agricultural Research," which discusses anti-GMO activists' "terrorism." The site, Monbiot writes, is registered to Manuel Theodorov, the "director of associations" at
Bivings Woodell, which is part of The Bivings Group.
Bivings wouldn't comment on Monbiot's allegations regarding the domain names, but in its letter denies having any knowledge of Murphy and Smetacek.
"The 'fake persuaders' mentioned in the articles -- Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek -- are not employees or contractors or aliases of employees or contractors of The Bivings Group. In fact, The Bivings Group has no knowledge of either Mary Murphy or Andura Smetacek," Bivings wrote.
Monsanto officials deny hiring Bivings for a GMO campaign.
"The conduct that the Guardian described is not the kind of thing we'd want Bivings to do," said Loren Wassell, a spokesman for Monsanto.
The Bivings Group helps Monsanto set up websites but doesn't do traditional corporate relations.
"They don't do PR," Wassell said. "We speak for ourselves on issues."
Nineteen countries require labeling of GMOs, and the European Union has banned the sale of any new GMO products since 1998.
The ban has angered U.S. exporters and hampered the growth of European agricultural biotech firms. The EU is expected to consider lifting the ban later this year but it may require labeling.
Meanwhile, the biotech industry's premier conference is underway in Toronto, where the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services voiced his opposition to GMO labeling.
"Mandatory labeling will only frighten consumers," said Tommy Thompson during a breakfast speech Monday at the BIO 2002 conference. "Labeling implies that biotechnology products are unsafe."
But some experts say that's not necessarily untrue.
"The science is so immature, we don't know what we are doing," Canadian genetics professor David Suzuki said at an anti-biotech rally in a Toronto park on Sunday. "If you took Bono out of U2 and stuck him in the Toronto Symphony and said make music, noise would come out, but you have no way of knowing what it would sound like."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.