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Irish biotech scientist's fraudlent pro-GM paper slammed by leading experts

category international | sci-tech | press release author Thursday January 24, 2008 15:58author by Michael O'Callaghan - GM-free Ireland Networkauthor email mail at gmfreeireland dot orgauthor phone + 353 (0)404 43885 Report this post to the editors

Open letter to British Food Journal editor and editorial board

This scandal came to a head after one of the paper's co-authors, Shane Morris (an Irish biotech scientist with a degree from NUI Maynooth who is advising Fine Gael on GM food and farming issues), threatened legal action against the GM-free Ireland Network and GM Watch after we exposed him as a Canadian Government agent and reported that his paper has been described as "misleading" and a "flagrant fraud". For details see http://www.gmfreeireland.org/morris

This open letter has been sent to the editor and editorial board of the British Food Journal (BFJ).

It's signed by forty scientists, including leading experts in the areas of science policy and research ethics, and by two Members of the UK Parliament, including Britain's former Minister of the Environment and experts from Britain, Canada, the US, Norway, France, Italy, Brazil, Venezuela, Indonesia and Japan, all of whom have been disgusted by the failure of the British Food Journal to retract a paper which, as they note, "has brought science and the BFJ into disrepute."

WORMY CORN PAPER MUST BE RETRACTED

We, the undersigned, are writing to request the Editor and the Editorial Board of the British Food Journal (BFJ) to retract the published article "Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet corn" [1] and to withdraw its "Award for Excellence for Most Outstanding Paper in 2004". This paper, purporting to show that consumers prefer to buy genetically modified (GM) Bt sweet corn over conventional sweet corn, is highly misleading, if not a "flagrant fraud", as it is based on manipulations of the shoppers' preference, not reported in the paper. When evidence of the manipulations emerged, one of the authors, an employee of the Canadian Government, attempted to suppress the evidence, even resorting to threatening legal action in the UK and Ireland. We summarize the sequence of events for your benefit.

The BFJ published the paper in 2003 [1], and subsequently gave it the "Award for Excellence for the Most Outstanding Paper in 2004". The authors claimed to have shown that consumers, when given a choice between GM (Bt) and non-GM sweet corn, preferred to buy the GM-corn by a factor of 3 to 2. But it turned out that the paper was seriously flawed [2] (see Biotech Canada SLAPP Scandal, SiS 36).

Toronto Star journalist Stuart Laidlaw reported on the 'experiment' in his book, Secret Ingredients: The Brave New World of Industrial Farming, (McClelland & Stewart, 2003). The book included a photograph of a sign above the regular sweet corn saying: "Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?" while the corresponding sign over the GM-corn said: "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn." The contrast between "Wormy" and "Quality" was highlighted on the sign by the number of times the regular corn had been sprayed with insecticides and fungicide. This and other blatant attempts to bias the consumers' choice [3] were not reported in the BFJ paper.

A leading researcher into scientific ethics, Dr. Richard Jennings at Cambridge University in the UK, told the New Scientist [4] that if that is the case, "It is grounds for the journal to retract the article."

Prof. Joe Cummins, Professor Emeritus of Plant Genetics at University of Western Ontario, wrote a letter to the Editor of the BFJ on 30 May 2006, requesting that the paper and the Award for Excellence both be withdrawn as "the experiment and its controls do not appear to have been reported either fully or honestly."

The Editor, Dr. Chris Griffith, Head of the Food Research and Consultancy Unit at the University of Wales, Cardiff, failed to retract the paper, sidestepping the objection with a statement in an "Editor's note" [5] that: "A common misconception is that science and research are about facts." Prof. Cummins' letter was also published in the same "Editor's note", followed by a lengthy reply from the senior author, Dr. Doug Powell, Associate Professor of Diagnostic Medicine/Pathobiology at Kansas State University, Manhattan, in which he tried to justify the research. He admitted that the "wormy corn" sign had been present on 30 August 2000 (the day the sales experiment started), and said it was "changed" (not removed) a week later. But he simply dismissed the charge that this amounted to influencing consumer preference.

The paper's second author, Shane Morris, replied on his website GMOIreland [6], claiming he "never saw any such misleading 'signs'", despite the photographic evidence obtained by Laidlaw. Instead he produced his own photographs [7], which he said confirm there were no such misleading signs during the data collection period.

Morris is a biotech lobbyist who routinely attacks critics of GM crops on his website, and is also a paid agent of the Canadian Government, a Senior Consumer Analyst at the Consumer Analysis Section of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. And while holding that position, Morris resorted to threats of legal action, a notorious measure commonly referred to as SLAPP - Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation [2] - forcing a temporary shutdown of the GM Watch website (which first drew attention to Laidlaw's report).

Meanwhile, new evidence has emerged confirming that the "wormy corn" sign was indeed present during a substantial part of, if not the entire data collection period, 30 August - 6 October 2000. Tim Lambert, computer scientist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, noticed a small placard with writing placed over the regular corn in Morris's photographs, but the resolution was too low to read. By blowing up the photographs and aligning the placard with the original photograph of the wormy sign, Lambert found a match in the writing [8]; thereby providing proof that the telltale sign, which Morris claimed never to have seen, was present in Morris's own photographs.

Dr. Jennings has since spoken to Private Eye [9], calling the BFJ paper "a flagrant fraud", and charging the authors with "a sin of omission by failing to divulge information which quite clearly should have been disclosed." But as Private Eye commented [10], "if the researchers had disclosed the wormy corn labels, would any respected scientific journal have published it?"

In November 2007, the Rt Hon. Michael Meacher MP tabled an Early Day Motion in the UK Parliament on Scientific Research into GM Crops [11], which "regrets the continuing attempts to silence or misrepresent scientists whose research indicates possible human health problems from GM crops", "deplores the continuing efforts of an employee of the Canadian Government to close down websites in the UK and Republic of Ireland," and calls for "journal editors to withdraw papers they have published which subsequently turn out to be grossly misleading or even fraudulent." This has been signed by 26 MPs from different political parties.

Professor Cummins wrote to the BFJ Editor again on 26 November 2007, drawing attention to the new evidence, and asking that "accusations as serious as mendacity, falsification and fraud" not be swept aside or barred from discussion. He wrote again on 6 December and 20 December 2007, but Dr. Griffith has failed to reply.

This disgraceful incident has brought science and the BFJ into disrepute, and we urge the Editorial Board to do what it can to redeem itself by retracting both the paper and its award, thus sending a clear signal to the scientific community and the public that you are not compromising the traditional, accepted standards of good science or of truthful journalism.

References

1. Powell DA, Blaine K, Morris S and Wilson J. Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn. British Food Journal 2003, 105 (10), 700-713.

2. Cummins J. Biotech Canada SLAPP scandal. Science in Society 36, 6-7, 2007.

3. "The GM propaganda lab", GM Watch, http://www.gmwatch.org/p1temp.asp?pid=72&page=1

4. "Controversy over claims in favour of GM corn", The New Scientist, 27 May 2007,
http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=mg19025533.30...rss20

5. Griffith C. Editor's note, British Food Journal 2006, 108(8).

6. "More Spin, FAKE information and Lies!!!" Shane Morris, GMOIreland, 20 March 2006,
http://gmoireland.blogspot.com/2006_03_20_archive.html

7. "Poor old Johnny", Shane Morris, GMOIreland, 21 March 2006,
http://gmoireland.blogspot.com/2006_03_21_archive.html

8. "Would you eat wormy sweet corn?", Tim Lambert, 7 September 2007, Deltoid,
http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2007/09/would_you_eat_w...n.php

9. "Corn fakes", Private Eye No. 1194, 28 September - 11 October 2007.

10. Fraude, 27 September 2007,
http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/2007/09/fraude.html

11. Early Day Motion, EDM 425, Scientific Research into GM Crops, 28 November,
http://edmi.parliament.uk/EDMi/EDMDetails.aspx?EDMID=34...N=891

Signed:

Prof. Joe Cummins (jcummins@uwo.ca, tel: 1-519 681 5477)
Emeritus Professor, University of Western Ontario, Canada

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho (m.w.ho@I-sis.org.uk, tel: 44-(0)20-7272-5636)
Roster of Experts, Cartagena Protocol for Biosafety
Director, Institute of Science in Society, www.i-sis.org.uk, UK

Prof. Peter Saunders (peter.saunders@kcl.ac.uk, tel: (0)20-7272-5636)
Emeritus Professor of Applied Mathematics, King's College, London University, UK

Dr. Richard C Jennings
Lectures on Ethics in Science, University of Cambridge, UK

Prof. Andy Stirling
Director of Science, SPRU - Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

Prof. Brian Wynne
Associate Director, ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics,
CESAGen, Lancaster University, UK

Prof. Erik Millstone
SPRU - Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

Dr. Terje Traavik
Scientific Director, GenOk-Center for Biosafety
Professor of Gene Ecology, School of Medicine, University of Tromso, Norway

Rt. Hon. Michael Meacher
Member of Parliament, UK

Alan Simpson
Member of Parliament, UK

Prof. Gilles-Eric Seralini
Molecular biologist, University of Caen, France
President, Scientific Council for Independent Research on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN)
www.criigen.org, France

Dr. David Schubert
Professor, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, Ca, USA

Dr. Michael Antoniou
Reader in Molecular Genetics, King's College London, UK

Dr. Rod MacRae
Food policy consultant
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto, Canada

Dr. Carlo Leifert
Res Dev Professor of Ecological Agriculture, University of Newcastle, UK

Dr. David Miller
Professor of Sociology, Department of Geography and Sociology, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland

Dr. James Wilsdon
Head of Science and Innovation, Demos, London, UK

Dr. Stuart A. Newman
Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy, New York Medical College, Valhalla, NY, USA

Prof. Iain Boal
University of California, Berkeley, Ca, USA

Dr. John Fagan
Chief Scientific Officer and molecular biologist, Genetic ID, USA, Germany, Japan

Dr. Philip L Bereano
Professor Emeritus, Department of Technical Communication, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Dr. Pietro Perrino
Research Manager, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche
Institute of Plant Genetics (ex Germplasm Institute), Bari, Italy

Prof. Masaharu Kawata
Yokkaichi University, Mie-Prefecture, Japan

Dr. Tom Wakeford
Director of Public Engagement, University of Newcastle
SABL Visiting Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), UK

Dr. Werner Kraus Jr.
Dept. of Automation and Systems Engineering, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil

Dr. Christophe Boete
Research Scientist in Evolutionary Parasitology, University Pierre & Marie Curie, Paris, France

Dr. Alexandra Plows
Research Associate, ESRC Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics, CESAGen
University of Cardiff, UK

Dr. Hector Valenzuela
Professor and Vegetable Crops Extension Specialist, University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA

Prof. E R Orskov
IFRU, Macaulay Institute, Craigiebuckler, Aberdeen, Scotland

Dr. Arpad Pusztai FRSE
Biotechnology Section Graduate Division at the St Stephan University School of Ecology, Hungary
Consultant, GenOk-Center for Biosafety, Norway

Dr. Susan Bardocz
Professor of Nutrition at University Debrecen, Hungary, and Consultant, GenOk-Center for Biosafety, Norway

Dr. Malcolm Hooper
Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK

Dr. Paul Nightingale
SPRU - Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

Profa. Dra. Uiara Montedo
Departamento de Engenharia de Produção, Escola Politécnica da Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil

Dr. Stuart Parkinson
Executive Director, Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), UK

Dr. Jonathan R. Latham
Editor, The Bioscience Resource Project, Ithaca, NY, USA

John Verrall MRPS, DBA
Member, Food Ethics Council, Brighton, UK

Dr. Helen Wallace
Director, GeneWatch UK, Buxton, UK

Dr. Brian John
GM-Free Cymru, www.gmfreecymru.org, Wales

Dr. Michael W. Fox
Veterinarian and syndicated columnist, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Hira Jhamtani
Vice Chair, Bali Organic Association, Bali, Indonesia

Dr. Neil Carman
Sierra Club Genetic Engineering Committee, Austin, Texas, USA

Related Link: http://www.gmfreeireland.org/morris/
author by DeirdreHpublication date Sun Jun 08, 2008 13:29author address author phone Report this post to the editors

seems like these "experts" are organic folks and sociologists....and seems Greenpeace was shifty when moving signs

Let's end the debate over sweet corn, worms and GM food
March 6, 2008
http://www.cbc.ca/news/viewpoint/vp_strauss/20080306.html

Given a choice would you rather eat a wormy or worm-free cob of sweet corn?

If this doesn't sound like a question requiring more than a nanosecond of reflection, then you haven't been paying attention to an international row over what might be called "truth in worminess." It has erupted over an experiment conducted nearly eight years ago by three University of Guelph scientists and a local farmer.

It is a row that now has several dozen international scientists petitioning the journal that published the results in 2003 to withdraw the paper, as well as an award it gave to the article as the best paper published in 2003. It is a row in which English and Irish politicians have used the research to table motions denouncing one of the paper's authors for committing what they characterized as "grossly misleading" research of "a flagrant fraud."

So here is what happened. Jeff Wilson (he likes to be called Farmer Jeff) offered customers at his Birkbank Farms store a choice between genetically modified (GM) corn and traditional corn he had grown.

The GM corn had been genetically altered to express the natural insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly known as BT. The unmodified corn had had various pesticides and fungicides — including BT — sprayed on it.

In the store, there were explanations about how each type of corn was produced and the relative cost of both. The two corn types were sold at exactly same price.

When give a choice, consumers bought 680 dozen cobs of GM corn and only 452.5 dozen cobs of conventional sweet corn. Interviews conducted by the Guelph researchers with a small number of the customers afterward suggested that those who bought the GM corn were first impressed with the fact that it looked better than the conventional corn. An analysis revealed that one to two per cent of the GM corn had worm damage, versus 10 to 20 per cent of conventional corn.

As well, from an environmental perspective, the customers seemed more concerned about the pesticides applied to the conventional corn than the gene movement that had created the GM corn.

The British Food Journal eventually published these results.

Did signage skew results?

But when, you might be asking, are we going to get to the wormy corn question?

Well, it turned out that when Toronto Star journalist Stuart Laidlaw visited the farm and the store, he noted that a handwritten sign above the non-GM corn said, "Would you eat wormy sweet corn." Another, above the GM corn, said, "Here is what has gone into producing quality sweet corn," and listed fertilizers.

Laidlaw wrote in his 2003 book Secret Ingredients: The Brave New World of Industrial Farming that the signage was skewed and added, "when one bin was marked 'wormy corn' and the other 'quality sweet corn,' it is hardly surprising which sold more."

I will come back to this contention later, but on to the controversy.

In 2006, Joe Cummins — a retired professor of genetics at the University of Western Ontario — wrote a letter that was published in the British Food Journal quoting Laidlaw's book and demanding that the article be removed and its award rescinded. To put Cummins's views in context, since 1988, he has vigorously written and spoken out against genetic engineering.

In a companion letter, Doug Powell, one of paper's authors and a professor at Guelph, wrote that he didn't think the sign completely prejudiced the study and pointed out that the sign was taken down the next week.

The journal's editor chimed in, in a note: "A common misconception is that science and research are about facts, whereas in reality, research methodology concerns the unknown, hypotheses, probability, balancing and judging evidence or data. Thus, even in an objective research world, there is a need for interpretation and possibly an element of subjectivity."

Sounds so reasonable, but all this was taking place within the context of an often-acrimonious debate in Ireland over the possible introduction of genetically modified foodstuffs.

Another of the paper's authors, Shane Morris — who is Irish and who was working for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency — got involved as a private citizen in the debates, arguments and brouhahas. Morris opined about the topic strongly and often in his GMO Ireland blog and in papers published in scientific journals.

This enraged anti-GM groups, and personal attacks on Morris now pepper the internet. For example, a press release bearing Cummins's name characterizes the disagreement as: "how a Canadian Government Agent is involved in shoddy research and across border intimidation of public interest organization over GM crops." Others repeat the "flagrant fraud" accusation.

Another controversy rages as to whether wormy corn signs were left up for much more than a week or, alternatively, if a Greenpeace researcher tried to uncover them after the offending words had been blotted out.

Wow. My guess is that the 2003 paper may today be the most quoted and discussed Canadian agricultural research paper of all time.

Similar results without signs

In this vein, let me point out three things.

First, the sale of GM and non-GM corn continued the next year at Birkbank Farms, when no offending signs of any sort have been alleged to have been posted. Almost exactly the same buying patterns were reported by the Guelph researchers.

Secondly, a farm in San Luis Obispo, Calif., recently sold GM corn and non-GM corn together with labels identifying them as such. The owner told a local newspaper twice as much GM corn as non-GM corn was bought. He was quoted as saying customers told him they bought the GM corn because it didn't have to be partially shucked to see whether it was wormy, and thus it looked fresher.

But my third point is fundamental. Look, in science, when you think a result is wrong, you conduct another experiment that proves that. While the wormy corn sign seems to me to have at the very least been a serious error in judgment, I can't tell whether it was absolutely a fatal flaw with regard to the research findings. And that is partially because I have seen with my own eyes a big Toronto organic store sell produce that was small and deformed and insect bitten. My reading of the overt message the store was sending out was: perfect food is unnatural; if you want to eat naturally, you must dine on food that looks as deformed as this does.

So I think that somebody should conduct an experiment exactly like the first, except with the offending wormy corn sign removed. Even if there was no controversy, you would want to do this, because only a numbskull would suggest that the tastes and preferences of a small number of people visiting a small farm store in southern Ontario can be generalized to include all humanity's multitudinous habits and preferences.

Maybe it turns out that Europeans are so set against genetic engineering that they would rather eat half-shucked, worm-ridden, all-natural corn than wormless, unshucked GM cobs. Maybe the Chinese are quite the reverse.

But the way to resolve this is not to send petitions to journals telling them to remove articles you disagree with. That's what politicians do. What scientists do is take the rather inelegant testing process we know as the scientific method, apply it, and see what falls out.

What science does is what the scientific signers of the petition against the British Food Journal paper didn't and likely don't want to do.

Hold off prejudice; test; see what is.

(Disclosure: In 2000 I was on a fellowship at Guelph in the agriculture department and met all the Guelph people, including Farmer Jeff, involved in this controversy. But I did no work with them, nor for them.)

Related Link: http://www.cbc.ca/news/viewpoint/vp_strauss/20080306.html
author by Billy idlepublication date Mon Jun 09, 2008 00:10author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Thanx Michael for that - keep up the good work. Its sad that in this country which could do so well out of producing wholesome sustaineable food that the likes of Teagasc, Dept of Agriculture, IFA and the Farmers Journal are so against any type of sustaineable farming that doesn't suit the interests of the giant multinational agribusiness firms such as Monsanto, Bayer etc. You only have to view the stats on Organic farming in this country compared to the rest of the EU to see the the indulgent big business agenda here at every levels. Because barely 1% of land is organcally farmed in this country our import bill for organic food is now running at over 200m euros per annum not to mention the huge organic/low input food market we are losing out on at a european/international level. Contrast this with Austria were 40+% of land is under organic/low input production where the growers/farmers get a much better financial return for their efforts.

 
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