Science, Society, Sustainability
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ISIS Report 30/08/07

Biotech Canada SLAPP Scandal

How a Canadian Government agent is involved in shoddy research and across-border intimidation of public interest organisations over GM crops. Prof. Joe Cummins    

Please write to your government representatives to protest this action.

Canadian Government agent attempts to intimidate GM critics in Britain and Ireland

SLAPP is acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a litigation used by large organizations, or sometimes even individuals [1] to intimidate and silence less wealthy critics by so severely burdening them with the cost of a legal defence that they abandon their criticism. The acronym was coined in the 1980s by University of Denver professors Penelope Canan and George W. Pring. One marker of a SLAPP is whether the costs outweigh the damages claimed by a large amount; for example, damages of a few hundred dollars and costs in the tens of thousands. SLAPP can be attractive to lawyers because a marginal case can lead to high legal fees, and because clients actually encourage them to run up large costs [2].

Canada and the United States have had long experience with SLAPP litigation and several states have legislated against the practice. A Protection of Public Participation Act came into effect in British Columbia in April 2001. Unfortunately, the government that had passed the Act was later defeated and it was immediately repealed when the new pro-corporation government came to power. The threat of SLAPP litigation has been effective in suppressing criticism of corporate polluters across Canada.

Now it appears that the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Foods have resorted to SLAPP in Ireland and in Great Britain to try to silence the opponents of GM food in those countries (GM-Free Ireland Network and GM Watch). Canada has committed itself to GM crop production and is the biggest producer after the United States. The action by the Canadian Agriculture Ministry should serve as a warning to all organizations critical of GM crops, as the Ministry is promoting GM crops by intimidating the critics of the GM crops not only in Canada but also in other countries.

The GM-free Ireland Network is the subject of on-going attack by a biotech lobbyist called Shane Morris, a paid agent of the Canadian Government: a Senior Consumer Analyst at the Consumer Analysis Section of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. He manages a website that attacks opponents of GM crops in his home country and in Great Britain, and even high ranking European Union politicians whom he believes are soft on GM crops. Things came to a head when he threatened legal action against third party internet service providers carrying comments critical of him.

 “Most Outstanding Paper” biased in methodology

The main issue apparently concerns an article: “Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn” [3], which won the British Food Journal “Award for Excellence for Most Outstanding Paper in 2004.” The paper, co-authored by Shane Morris, reported that consumers at a farm store showed a strong preference for GM sweet corn over non-GM corn. In the journal article, the choice appears straightforward; the bins were “fully labelled” either “Genetically engineered Bt sweet corn” or “Regular sweet-corn”. The only other written information mentioned in the article that might have influenced the preference of customers were lists of the chemicals used on each type of corn, and pamphlets “with background information on the project.”

However, when Toronto Star reporter Stuart Laidlaw visited the store on several occasions during the data collection period, he found that the sign above the non-GM corn bin was headed: “Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?” Whereas, above the Bt-corn bin the equivalent sign was headed: “Here’s What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn”. So, although the journal paper appears to describe in some detail the care taken to avoid biasing consumer choice during the research, it makes no mention of the two kinds of corn being labelled “wormy” and  “quality”, respectively.

Laidlaw includes a photograph of the “wormy” corn sign in his book, and it has also been reproduced online [4]. The signs are not the only instance of methodological bias spotted by Laidlaw that is not mentioned in the published paper. A number of fact sheets promoting genetic engineering were available at the farm store – some supplied by industry lobby groups – but there was no balancing information from critics. Laidlaw also reports that on one occasion the lead researcher Doug Powell, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph Ontario, demonstrated to him his ability to influence a customer's response in favour of Bt corn. The customer, who had bought non-Bt corn before Powell talked to him, told Laidlaw he would buy GM corn the next time he was at the store.

Senior author admitted bias and Journal Editor sat on the fence

I objected to the study because its results and methods do not appear to have been reported fully and truthfully. The Editor, Professor Chris Griffith of the University of Wales in Cardiff, UK, seemed to have sidestepped my objections by writing in an “Editor’s note” [5]: “A common misconception is that science and research are about facts” (!). My comments were published, together with the reply by the senior author Doug Powell, who appeared to acknowledge the biased methodology, but argued that full reporting was not relevant. He remarked: “Joe Cummins, and others on the internet, have accused me, and my co-investigators, of academic fraud and bias, because a sign sitting atop the bin of regular sweet corn asked, Would you eat wormy sweet corn?”

I do not recollect making those accusations on the internet, nor did they appear in my comment published in the Journal. Despite the senior author’s inability to adequately defend the paper, the Editor has refused to withdraw it even after a leading researcher into scientific ethics asked him to do so [6]. Can we trust anything else published in journal he edits?

The effort from Canada to use the threat of third party litigation to have GM Free Ireland and GM Watch removed from the internet enjoyed a brief success when GM Watch went offline. Now GM Watch is back, and both sites have provided full accounts of the efforts to intimidate them into withdrawing criticism of the shoddy study. However, the Ministry of Agriculture and AgriFoods Canada have very deep pockets, and we have to expect further attempts to pursue the threatened organizations or to extend their effort to critics of GM crops in the rest of the world.

That a Canadian Government employee is involved in such intimidation through SLAPP litigations is surely a gross violation of democracy. Please write to your government representatives here to protest this action. (In Canada, Hon.Gerry Ritz  Ritz.G@parl.gc.ca Minister Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and  Hon. Maxime Bernier   Bernier.M@parl.gc.ca Minister of Foreign Affairs should be contacted.)

References

  1. A famous example was the British publisher Robert Maxwell, who used the threat of expensive law suits to discourage investigation of his business dealings.
  2. Strategic lawsuit against public participation  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SLAPP
  3. 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.
  4. The GM Propaganda Lab, GM Watch, http://www.gmwatch.org/p1temp.asp?pid=72&page=1
  5. Griffith A.  Editor's note, British Food Journal 2006, 108(8).
  6. “Controversy over claims in favour of GM corn”, New Scientist 190 (No. 2553,  27 May 2006, 7, http://www.newscientist.com:80/article.ns?id=mg19025533.300&feedId=gm-food_rss20
  7. GM-Free Ireland, http://www.gmfreeireland.org/morris/index.php  and  GMWatch, http://www.gmwatch.org/p1temp.asp?pid=72&page=1

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