This is the third part of our response to an article attacking GM Watch published on AgBioView by its "guest editor", Andrew Apel.
Apel's article can be found at
The article at the centre of the controversy is at
Part 1 of our response to Apel looked at the extraordinary hypocrisy of his attack
Part 2 looked at how the claim of libel simply fails to stack up
Part 3 (below) raises serious questions about Apel's defence of the study.
Propaganda, Fraud and Libel - a response (part 3)
In Propaganda, Fraud and Libel, Andrew Apel attacks GM Watch over an article on our website about an award winning paper reporting research conducted by Doug Powell, Shane Morris and others at a Canadian farm store (Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn, D.A.Powell, K.Blaine, S.Morris and J.Wilson, British Food Journal, Volume 105 Number 10, 2003, pp. 700-713). The research was into consumer preference in relation to GM and non-GM sweet corn.
According to Apel, "The activists' case was opened for them by Toronto Star reporter Stuart Laidlaw. The reporter claimed that when he visited the Birkbank farm store on several occasions during the start of the trials, the hand-written sign above the non-GM corn said, 'Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?' while that above the engineered corn said, 'Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn.'"
Note how Apel tries to undermine the Toronto Star reporter by shoehorning him in with the "activists". Note how he also limits the time frame for Laidlaw's visits to the farm store to "occasions during the start of the trials". As Laidlaw doesn't date his visits to the farm store in his book Secret Ingredients, it would be interesting to know how Apel can be so specific about such a limited time frame.
One reason this is an important issue soon becomes apparent:
"What the opponents of Powell's work pointedly failed to mention is that after the first week of the study the signs they complained about were taken down. Only then did the formal data-gathering phase begin - using machine-printed, laminated placards."
The implication seems to be that while Laidlaw visited the farm store several times during the study, because all his visits fell, according to Apel, "during the start of the trials", he won't have seen the problematic signs come down before data gathering began.
Of course, even if this scenario were correct, it wouldn't actually resolve anything, because the farm had a lot of repeat customers, as the sweet corn paper itself notes, so their purchasing preferences could have been influenced before the problematic signs were taken down.
But that aside, in relation to the involvement of one of the researchers - Shane Morris, Apel says it is particularly libelous to implicate him in anything to do with the signs:
"..the hand-written "wormy" sweet corn signs had gone up and come down before Morris was in Canada, before he was employed at the University of Guelph, and before the data were gathered."
And, Apel says, there is independent verification of that, because these newer signs were "viewed and photographed by Michael Khoo of Greenpeace", although "Greenpeace has for unknown reasons failed to make these pictures public."
Curiously, Apel does not mention in his article that there is plenty of photographic evidence available independently of Greenpeace, as Shane Morris tells us on his blog:
"There are lots of pictures and video footage of the store that show no misleading signs during the data collection period (see pic above). "
To date, Morris has made two of these images available on his blog to show the wormy corn sign wasn't in the store
Unfortunately, these images are at such a low resolution that it is not easy to read what the signs say. This problem could easily be resolved by Shane Morris making the images available at a higher resolution. This is particularly important since, as we have noted before, irrespective of any newer signage, there is a sign in these images which looks as if it might be the wormy corn sign.
Like Apel, Shane Morris is emphatic that the wormy corn sign was not there when he went to the farm store for the first time in late September 2000 - the same day, as Morris notes, that Michael Khoo of Greenpeace came to the store:
"I never saw any such misleading "signs" (granted, I only came to Canada in Fall/Autumn (mid September) 2000, so my work visa says!!!)... C'mon GM Watch at least get something right.....I wasn't even in the Country for your alledged "sign" fraud!!"
And when we published our article about the study, Morris made this point again:
"He [ie the assumed author] still refuses to claim I (Shane Morris) committed fraud as he knows (because Mr. Khoo from Greenpeace can confirm) the signs (he claims are misleading) were not up and newer signs were in place by the time I was employed at the University of Guelph (even before I was in the country)... I visited the farm for the first time with Mr. Khoo on Sept. 27, 2000."
We contacted Michael Khoo and asked him if he could, as Shane Morris claimed, confirm that the wormy corn sign was not up when he visited the store. He couldn't. He told us, "I could have seen it when I was there," but he couldn't say for certain because "it's a little while ago" and he hadn't retained any of the photos he had taken at the store.
But Michael Khoo hadn't gone alone to the store that day. He had a companion - Dr Rod MacRae, an independent food policy consultant based in Toronto who had Greenpeace Canada as one of his clients. Dr MacRae told us that he had seen the wormy corn sign when he went to the store: "I can state categorically that the sign was there the day Michael and I attended." He also confirmed the date: "signage favouring the GE corn by describing the other corn as wormy was still up on Sept. 27, 2000."
The possible implications of Dr MacRae's statement are clearly serious. Not only has Shane Morris stated that the wormy corn sign had been taken down before he joined the study, and specfically that it was not there on September 27 - the day Dr MacRae visited the store, but Doug Powell in his defence of the research in the British Food Journal also stated that the controversial handwritten signs on display on August 30 "were changed the following week", suggesting they came down around three weeks before Dr MacRae visited the store.
This particular issue could perhaps be resolved by careful analysis of images of the signs that Shane Morris says are available. But, as we have already noted, the fact that these signs were ever included in the study already raises serious questions - not least, as the claim that no data was collected while they were present does not seem to tally with the information available in the actual paper. Sales of the two types of sweet corn are shown as having been recorded from the day the sweet corn was harvested, ie August 30, when Powell and Morris do not dispute that the wormy corn sign was in place in the store.
And as noted previously, the signs are not the only instances of alleged experimenter bias. Stuart Laidlaw says there was GM promotional material in the store authored by lobby groups without any balancing literature from critics. Doug Powell denies this. So far Stuart Laidlaw, now the faith and ethics correspondent of the Toronto Star, has stood by his reporting. As with MacRae and Morris, clearly Powell and Laidlaw cannot both be right.
The British Food Journal gave this paper an award for Excellence for Most Outstanding Paper in 2004. That award - like the paper - has not been retracted. The current editor, Prof Chris Griffiths, has instead chosen to sit on the fence, neither defending, nor criticising the research, saying the matter is closed and he will leave it to BFJ readers to make up their own minds, and suggesting they follow any developments on the internet!
But the issues surrounding this research have now become so serious that the BFJ needs to take hold of the situation, investigate the evidence and make it clear whether it still regards this paper as exemplary science.
In part 4 of our response we will turn to another contentious issue raised in Andrew Apel's attack on GM Watch, Shane Morris's role as a Canadian public servant.