28 October 2012

It could hardly have been more damning - six French science academies jointly dismissing Prof. Gilles-Eric Seralini's recent paper in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology as a "scientific non-event."

Or so it seemed until news began to trickle out about how few people had actually been involved in producing the academies' unsigned statement. And then it emerged that this tiny group of academicians had included Georges Pelletier.

That changed everything. Not only had Pelletier been involved in the regulatory approval of Monsanto's NK603 maize - an approval Seralini's study directly challenged, but he is also a leading light of the AFBV - the French Association of Plant Biotechnology [Association Francaise des Biotechnologies Vegetale], which has waged war on Seralini for years.

In a press release in 2009, for instance, the AFBV claimed Seralini's GM research had been discredited by the scientific community. The AFBV also wrote to various media organisations challenging their coverage of Seralini's research and denouncing him as a "merchant of fear" and a researcher who was "first and foremost an anti-GMO activist, purporting to be independent whereas his studies are financed by Greenpeace." It was attacks like these that lead Seralini to successfully sue the AFBV's President for defamation.

What makes Pelletier's role in shaping the science academies' statement even more scandalous is that whoever selected Pelletier to evaluate Seralini's recent paper could not fail to know that he would be bound to condemn it. This was because the AFBV had already publicly attacked the paper. As head of the AFBV's Scientific Committee, such an attack would almost certainly have required Pelletier's approval. And in any case, Pelletier had also personally signed onto a public statement that dismissed Seralini's study as principally "a publicity gambit."

What makes Pelletier's role in judging Seralini's paper even more dubious is the corporate connections of the AFBV. These first emerged in the evidence presented in court by Seralini's lawyer during the libel case, as the film maker and writer Marie-Monique Robin notes in an article written at the time that takes a detailed look at the AFBV's multiple  conflicts of interest.

Robin notes that the AFBV denied Seralini was independent on the basis that his institute had accepted funding from Greenpeace, even though it only amounted to a tiny fraction - under 4% - of CRIIGEN's income. On the other hand, the AFBV declared itself to be strictly independent of industry when the evidence shows that many of the AFBV's leading lights are anything but.

Here are some of the corporate connections that Robin lists:

*Alain Deshayes, founding member of the AFBV and one of its directors, with Nestle.

*Roland Douce, founding member of the AFBV and on its Scientific Committee, with Rhone-Poulenc Agrochemicals, now part of Bayer.

*Claude Fauquet, founding member of the AFBV, with the Donald Danforth Center, co-founded and backed by Monsanto.

*Lise Jouanin, a member of AFBV's Scientific Committee, with the chemical giant ICI and Genoplante - see below.

*Axel Kahn, sponsor of the AFBV, with Rhone-Poulenc. From 1988 to 1997 Kahn chaired the French regulatory body the Biomolecular Engineering Commission (CGB), before becoming Chief Scientist at Rhone-Poulenc, the agrochemical giant with GM interests. His first patent with Rhone-Poulenc was apparently filed in 1994, i.e. while still a regulator.

*Marcel Kuntz, founding member of the AFBV and one of its directors, with Syngenta, the GM and agrochemicals giant.

*Alain Toppan, founding member of the AFBV and one of its directors, with a number of companies including Biogemma, the biotech research arm of French seed giant Limagrain.

*Chris Bowler, founding member of the AFBV, with the GM firm Plant Genetic Systems Inc, now part of Bayer.

*Marc Van Montagu, identified by the AFBV as a key supporter, with Plant Genetic Systems Inc. which he founded.

*Philippe Joudrier, founding member of the AFBV and on its Scientific Committee, with Biogemma, the GM research arm of Limagrain.

*Alain Boudet, founding member of the AFBV, with Biogemma - see above, ICI and Zeneca (now part of AstraZeneca).

*Michel Caboche, founding member of the AFBV and Member of the Academy of Sciences, with Genoplante - see below.

*Jean-Pierre Decor, founding member of the AFBV, with Rhone-Poulenc Agrochemicals.

*Alain Godard, founding member of the AFBV and one of its directors, former CEO of Rhone-Poulenc Agrochemicals and Aventis CropScience, which was acquired by Bayer.

Robin also mentions the corporate connections of a long list of other leading figures in the AFBV including Georges Pelletier - the man now identified as having helped to shape the unsigned statement of the six science academies. This is because of Pelletier's role as Chairman of the Executive Committee of Genoplante.

Genoplante is a public private plant genomics research partnership. Its principal corporate partners are the aggressively pro-GM French seed giant Limagrain Group, via its biotech research arm Biogemma, and Bayer.

Established in 1999, one of the driving forces behind Genoplante was Limagrain Group Chairman Pierre Pagesse who became Vice-President of Genoplante. It was under Pagesse's leadership that the Limagrain Group heavily committed itself to developing GM crops. The strength of Pagesse's own commitment, as well as his firm's frustration at the opposition it met, is reflected in the fact that at one point Pagesse even led a group of pro-GM vigilantes who came to blows with anti-GM protesters.

Georges Pelletier's current deputy at Genoplante is Georges Freyssinet, Limagrain's Scientific Affairs Manager. A Limagrain publication called "Embracing Our Vision" gives the views of different leading figures within the Limagrain Group. For Georges Freyssinet it says, "Limagrain's future goes hand in hand with the development of GMOs... Georges Freyssinet, Limagrain's Scientific Affairs Manager, is behind the Group's new research on this subject. He takes a look at how this technology has become so vital for the Group..."

Given that the French seed giant has bet its shirt on GM, it is easy to imagine the sense of corporate frustration - not to say desperation - triggered by the publication of Seralini's paper. Vilmorin - a holding of Limagrain Group - was planning to conduct GM field trials in France next spring but was forced to suspend those plans by the furore that followed the publication of Seralini's paper.

Nothing could better illustrate why discrediting that paper might be seen as critical to the future prospects of GM crops in France, and to maintaining investments in GM related research.

Finally, there is one other reason for extreme caution about the academies' statement on Seralini's paper. And that is that even science academies that might seem far removed from agricultural biotechnology or wider commercial interests may not have as disinterested a perspective as one might imagine.

In her article on the AFBV, Marie Monique Robin notes how its President, Marc Fellous, in his attacks on those raising concerns about GM foods, claims the support of the Academy of Medicine. Robin points out that the Academy in a report that was published in 1996, and which was adopted unanimously, stubbornly supported the safety of asbestos. At that point asbestos had been classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an extension of the World Health Organization, for nearly a decade. And within a year of the Academy's report, the French government moved to ban it permanently. Robin also points the finger at the Academy over other health scandals that have rocked France in the last twenty years

In relation to GM, Robin notes that the Academy at a meeting in late 2002 on the issue of GM labelling concluded: "The total requirement of labelling and traceability may well result in disastrous commercial consequences." Robin finds it revealing that the focus of the Academy of Medicine was not on health issues but on "trade implications," suggesting they are more concerned with the private interests of industry than the health of consumers.

On the evidence available, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that a similar concern over "commercial consequences" may have also played a critical part in shaping the academies' response to Seralini.