2.The Fake Persuaders
NOTE: Item 1 is a piece in the journal Nature reporting on research confirming that Mexico's ban on GM maize has not stopped transgenes getting into traditional 'landrace' maize crops in the Mexican heartland.
The original research exposing this GM contamination scandal was published by Nature back in 2001, but on publication the researchers David Quist and Ignacio Chapela from the University of Califonia, Berkeley, became the focus of a ferocious campaign of vilification aimed at discrediting them and their research.
Item 2 is George Monbiot's Guardian article exposing Monsanto's PR firm's covert involvement in this campaign. The investigation into this dirty tricks campaign was coordinated by GMWatch.
We eventually exposed that the campaign to discredit the researchers originated with Monsanto itself, as part of a much wider smear campaign against the company's critics. For more on this see MONSANTO's WEB OF DECEIT: http://ngin.tripod.com/deceit_index.html
What's disturbing is the evidence in the current Nature article (item 1) that factors other than science are still coming into play in relation to the publication of research that's problematic for the biotechnology industry. Note how a reviewer of the new paper apparently sought to block publication on the grounds that the researcher could "gain undue exposure in the press due to a political or other environmental agenda" (item 1).
1.Modified genes spread to local maize
Nature 456, 149 (2008) doi:10.1038/456149a, Published online 12 November 2008
*Findings reignite debate over genetically modified crops.
Transgenes from genetically modified (GM) maize (corn) crops have been found in traditional 'landrace' maize in the Mexican heartland, a study says. The work largely confirms a similar, controversial result published in Nature in 2001 and may reignite the debate in Mexico over GM crops.
The paper reports finding transgenes in three of the 23 locations that were sampled in 2001, and again in two of those locations using samples taken in 2004. Written by a team led by Elena Ãlvarez-Buylla of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, the study will be published in the journal Molecular Ecology.
In 1998, the Mexican government outlawed the planting of GM maize to protect its approximately 60 domesticated landraces and their wild relatives. But newspaper reports suggest that farmers have planted at least 70 hectares of GM maize crops in the northern state of Chihuahua, and it is unclear what repercussions this may have.
Only about 25% of the maize planted in Mexico comes from commercially sold seed; the majority is saved from harvest to harvest. That's why, says Ãlvarez-Buylla, researchers need to pin down whether transgenes really have made it into local crops. "It is urgent to establish rigorous molecular and sampling criteria for biomonitoring at centres of crop origination and diversification," the team writes.
Allison Snow, a plant ecologist from Ohio State University in Columbus, led a team that reported in 2005 it could not detect transgenes in maize from regions sampled by the original Nature paper. She calls the new work "a very good study, with positive signs of transgenes".
"It is good to see this," adds Ignacio Chapela, the ecologist from the University of California, Berkeley, who was senior author on the Nature publication. "But it took seven years."
The original paper caused a storm of controversy[3,4,5]. Critics pointed out some technical errors, including problems with the type of PCR used to amplify the genetic sequences, although Chapela and his co-author David Quist stood by their conclusions. Others questioned whether the critics were influenced by their association with the biotechnology industry, which they denied. In the end, Nature published an editor's note saying there was insufficient evidence to justify the original publication. Advocates of GM crops widely, and erroneously, called this a retraction.
A second round of criticism was sparked in 2005, after the Snow paper reported no evidence for transgenes in Mexican maize. Some criticized this article as being statistically inconclusive and lacking representative samples, which the authors disputed.
Ãlvarez-Buylla's team set out to resolve the issue by conducting genetic tests on thousands of maize seed and leaf samples for evidence of two transgenes: a gene promoter from the 35S cauliflower mosaic virus, and the nopaline synthase terminator, NOSt. The team found transgenes in about 1% of more than 100 fields it sampled, including some sampled by Quist and Chapela in 2001.
Jose SarukhÃ¡n, a biologist at the UNAM and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, recommended the Ãlvarez-Buylla article for publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was rejected; in a letter to the authors on 14 March this year, the journal's editor-in-chief Randy Schekman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that the biology and genetics didn't warrant publication, and that a reviewer had pointed out the report could "gain undue exposure in the press due to a political or other environmental agenda". SarukhÃ¡n responds: "I saw no reason why it should not be published."
Norman Ellstrand, a plant geneticist at the University of California at Riverside, called the study intriguing. "The importance of the study is not in the impact of the transgenes themselves," he says, "but in the fact that their spread has occurred so easily in a country where the planting of transgenic maize has not occurred for several years."
However, the new paper doesn't confirm an important conclusion from the original Nature paper - whether the transgenes had been integrated into landrace genomes and passed along to progeny plants. Ãlvarez-Buylla suspects this may be the case, but she's not interested in pursuing another round of politically charged battles - and will leave that work to others.
1.Quist, D. & Chapela, I. Nature 414, 541 543 (2001).
2.Ortiz-Garcia, S. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 102, 12338 12343 (2005).
3.Suarez, A. V. et al. Nature 417, 897 (2002).
4.Metz, M. & Futterer, J. Nature 416, 600 601 (2002).
5.Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601 602 (2002).
6.Quist, D. & Chapela, I. Nature 416, 602 (2002).
7.Cleveland, D. A. et al. Environ. Biosafety Res. 4, 197 208 (2005).
8.Ortiz-Garcia, S. et al. Environ. Biosafety Res. 4, 209 215 (2005).
2.THE FAKE PERSUADERS
Corporations are inventing people to rubbish their opponents on the internet
The Guardian, May 14 2002
Persuasion works best when it's invisible. The most effective marketing worms its way into our consciousness, leaving intact the perception that we have reached our opinions and made our choices independently. As old as humankind itself, over the past few years this approach has been refined, with the help of the internet, into a technique called "viral marketing". Last month, the viruses appear to have murdered their host. One of the world's foremost scientific journals was persuaded to do something it had never done before, and retract a paper it had published.
While, in the past, companies have created fake citizens' groups to campaign in favour of trashing forests or polluting rivers, now they create fake citizens. Messages purporting to come from disinterested punters are planted on listservers at critical moments, disseminating misleading information in the hope of recruiting real people to the cause. Detective work by the campaigner Jonathan Matthews and the freelance journalist Andy Rowell shows how a PR firm contracted to the biotech company Monsanto appears to have played a crucial but invisible role in shaping scientific discourse.
Monsanto knows better than any other corporation the costs of visibility. Its clumsy attempts, in 1997, to persuade people that they wanted to eat GM food all but destroyed the market for its crops. Determined never to make that mistake again, it has engaged the services of a firm which knows how to persuade without being seen to persuade. The Bivings Group specialises in internet lobbying.
An article on its website, entitled Viral Marketing: How to Infect the World, warns that "there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organisation is directly involved... it simply is not an intelligent PR move. In cases such as this, it is important to first 'listen' to what is being said online... Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party... Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously." A senior executive from Monsanto is quoted on the Bivings site thanking the PR firm for its "outstanding work".
On November 29 last year, two researchers at the University of California, Berkeley published a paper in Nature magazine, which claimed that native maize in Mexico had been contaminated, across vast distances, by GM pollen. The paper was a disaster for the biotech companies seeking to persuade Mexico, Brazil and the European Union to lift their embargos on GM crops.
Even before publication, the researchers knew their work was hazardous. One of them, Ignacio Chapela, was approached by the director of a Mexican corporation, who first offered him a glittering research post if he withheld his paper, then told him that he knew where to find his children. In the US, Chapela's opponents have chosen a different form of assassination.
On the day the paper was published, messages started to appear on a biotechnology listserver used by more than 3,000 scientists, called AgBioWorld. The first came from a correspondent named "Mary Murphy". Chapela is on the board of directors of the Pesticide Action Network, and therefore, she claimed, "not exactly what you'd call an unbiased writer". Her posting was followed by a message from an "Andura Smetacek", claiming, falsely, that Chapela's paper had not been peer-reviewed, that he was "first and foremost an activist" and that the research had been published in collusion with environmentalists. The next day, another email from "Smetacek" asked "how much money does Chapela take in speaking fees, travel reimbursements and other donations... for his help in misleading fear-based marketing campaigns?" The messages from Murphy and Smetacek stimulated hundreds of others, some of which repeated or embellished the accusations they had made. Senior biotechnologists called for Chapela
to be sacked from Berkeley. AgBioWorld launched a petition pointing to the paper's "fundamental flaws".
There do appear to be methodological problems with the research Chapela and his colleague David Quist had published, but this is hardly unprecedented in a scientific journal. All science is, and should be, subject to challenge and disproof. But in this case the pressure on Nature was so severe that its editor did something unparalleled in its 133-year history: last month he published, alongside two papers challenging Quist and Chapela's, a retraction in which he wrote that their research should never have been published.
So the campaign against the researchers was extraordinarily successful; but who precisely started it? Who are "Mary Murphy" and "Andura Smetacek"?
Both claim to be ordinary citizens, without any corporate links. The Bivings Group says it has "no knowledge of them". "Mary Murphy" uses a hotmail account for posting messages to AgBioWorld. But a message satirising the opponents of biotech, sent by a "Mary Murphy" to another server two years ago contains the identification bw6.bivwood.com. Bivwood.com is the property of Bivings Woodell, which is part of the Bivings Group.
When I wrote to her to ask whether she was employed by Bivings and whether Mary Murphy was her real name, she replied that she had "no ties to industry". But she refused to answer my questions on the grounds that "I can see by your articles that you made your mind up long ago about biotech". The interesting thing about this response is that my message to her did not mention biotechnology. I told her only that I was researching an article about internet lobbying.
Smetacek has, on different occasions, given her address as "London" and "New York". But the electoral rolls, telephone directories and credit card records in both London and the entire US reveal no "Andura Smetacek". Her name appears only on AgBioWorld and a few other listservers, on which she has posted scores of messages falsely accusing groups such as Greenpeace of terrorism. My letters to her have elicited no response. But a clue to her possible identity is suggested by her constant promotion of "the Centre For Food and Agricultural Research". The centre appears not to exist, except as a website, which repeatedly accuses greens of plotting violence. Cffar.org is registered to someone called Manuel Theodorov. Manuel Theodorov [aka Emmanuel Theodorou] is the "director of associations" at Bivings Woodell.
Even the website on which the campaign against the paper in Nature was launched has attracted suspicion. Its moderator, the biotech enthusiast Professor CS Prakash, claims to have no connection to the Bivings Group. But when Jonathan Matthews was searching the site's archives he received the following error message: "can't connect to MySQL server on apollo.bivings.com". Apollo.bivings.com is the main server of the Bivings Group.
"Sometimes," Bivings boasts, "we win awards. Sometimes only the client knows the precise role we played." Sometimes, in other words, real people have no idea that they are being managed by fake ones.
For more on MONSANTO's WEB OF DECEIT: http://ngin.tripod.com/deceit_index.html