GMWatch, 24 September 2012

This is the first part of a response by GMWatch to the Science Media Centre’s “expert reaction” to Séralini’s study on GM maize.

On 19 September Prof Séralini’s team published a study that showed a commercialised Monsanto GM maize, as well as tiny amounts of Roundup claimed to be safe, caused organ damage, increased rates of massive tumours, and premature death when fed to rats.

In what has become the norm for studies that show problems with GM foods, a collection of quotes from “experts” was rushed out to the media on the same day that the study was released, all trying to discredit Séralini’s study. The source was the Science Media Centre (SMC).

The SMC’s quotes were also pumped out via its clones in Australia and New Zealand, with some local experts added in on top.

The SMC’s experts’ views were also circulated by Monsanto, while the biotech industry lobby group Europabio issued a press release that quoted these same experts.

Because the UK’s SMC successfully projects itself and its experts as independent, the critical quotes have been reproduced in a lot of media pieces around the world.

But while the SMC claims to be independent, it is far from it. Although its list of funders includes a lot of learned societies, it has also included some of the biggest names in the biotech industry, such as Monsanto and Syngenta, as well as the industry’s global lobby CropLife International. By contrast, it has no funding at all from environmental NGOs or trade unions, even though it is known to have sought to obtain it.

And the SMC is overseen by a director who connects to a network of extremists who engage in infiltration of media organisations and science-related lobby groups in order to promote their own agenda. It is a network which eulogises GM crops and cloning and which is extremely hostile towards their critics.

Needless to say, none of this turns up in media pieces that reproduce soundbites from the SMC’s “experts”.

In a critique of the SMC in the journal Nature, the science policy journalist Colin Macilwain wrote:

“The SMC’s narrow approach to risk assessment – if you want to hear about the risks of nuclear power, say, just ask your local nuclear engineer – sits happily with the prevalent ethos of British journalism. This was, of course, immortalized by the otherwise-obscure poet Humbert Wolfe: ‘You cannot hope / to bribe or twist, / thank God! the / British journalist. / But, seeing what / the man will do / unbribed, there’s / no occasion to.’

Macilwain is unimpressed by the British press’s uncritical attitude to the SMC’s output:

“The British press – led by the BBC, which treats the Confederation of British Industry with the deference the Vatican gets in Rome – is overwhelmingly conservative and pro-business in its outlook.”

Unfortunately, many other of the world’s media outlets – perhaps taking their cue from the likes of the BBC, were equally uncritical when it came to what the SMC’s experts had to say about the GM corn study.

In future bulletins we will address in detail some of the experts’ arguments provided to the media via the SMC, but here we will take a brief look at those experts themselves.

The SMC provides quotes from 8 named experts. They are identified by the SMC in terms of the universities and public institutions where they work. There is nothing to suggest that they may have any relevant conflicts of interest.

The first expert quoted by the SMC is Prof Maurice Moloney, Chief Executive of Rothamsted Research. What the SMC fails to tell journalists is that Moloney doesn’t just drive a Porsche with a GMO number plate, but has a c.v. to match. It is in fact Moloney’s GM research that lies behind Monsanto’s GM canola (oilseed rape). He also launched his own GM company in which Dow Agro Science were investors. In other words, Prof Moloney’s career and business activities have long been centered around GM.

Another expert quoted by the SMC is Dr Wendy Harwood. Dr Harwood is a GM scientist at the UK’s John Innes Centre, which has had tens of millions of pounds invested in it by GM giants like Syngenta. In fact, a previous director of the JIC told his local paper that any major slow down or halt in the development of GM crops “would be very, very serious for us.”

Prof Anthony Trewavas of the University of Edinburgh is another of the experts that the SMC quotes. They don’t mention that Prof Trewavas is also a GM crop scientist, as well as a fervent opponent of organic farming, or that he is notorious for his attacks on scientists who publish research critical of GM.

Prof Mark Tester is yet another GM scientist quoted by the SMC. He is described by the SMC as Research Professor, Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, University of Adelaide. His University of Adelaide profile tells us: “His commercial acumen is clear from his establishment of private companies and successful interactions with multinational companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Pioneer-DuPont.”

The SMC describes Prof Ottoline Leyser as Associate Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge. They don’t mention that the Laboratory is funded by the Gatsby Foundation of Lord Sainsbury, the well known GM enthusiast and biotech entrepreneur, who also set up and funds the GM-related work of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre.

Prof Alan Boobis is described by the SMC as Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology, Imperial College London. They don’t mention that he is a long-time member of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), i.e the very body that approved the GM corn in question, or that he has also long been on the board of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) – a biotech and food industry lobby group whose backers include the GM giants BASF, Bayer and Monsanto.

Prof Tom Sanders is described by the SMC as Head of the Nutritional Sciences Research Division, King’s College London. Like Prof Trewavas, Prof Sanders was involved in attacking the Pusztai study that suggested concerns about GM. His criticisms do not appear to have been well founded.

This was back in the late 1990s. According to an article in The Independent in 1996, Prof Sanders was at that time “Nutrasweet’s professional consultant”. Up until 2000, Nutrasweet was owned by Monsanto.

These are 7 of the eight independent experts quoted by the SMC.