Science in Society Archive

Science in Society #37 - Spring 2008

The only radical science magazine on Earth

Science in Society 37 cover


From the Editors
A Very Inconvenient Truth
Redeeming Science from Corporate Corruption
Wormy Corn Paper Must be Retracted
UK and Irish Politicians Denounce Canadian Government Agent's Dirty Tricks to Promote GM Crops
Support French Scientist Telling the Truth about GMOs
A Very Inconvenient Truth: Systematic Bias in Favour of Finding No Adverse Impacts from GM Feed
Prepublication Review Yes, but Panel Must be Balanced
Climate Change
IPCC Final Climate Warning Before Bali
Saving and Restoring Forests Saves Far More Carbon Emissions than Biofuels
Cordless Phones & Malignant Brain Tumours
Letters to the Editor
USDA Watch
Stop GM Soya 356043!
Freeing the World from GM
Non-GM Breakthroughs Leave GM Behind
Organic & Sustainable
Beware the New "Doubly Green Revolution"
Transparent Label An Alternative to Organic Certification
Organic Cuba without Fossil Fuels
Greening the Desert - How Farmers in Sahel Confound Scientists
Saving the World with Biodynamic Farming
Greening Ethiopia for Food Security & End to Poverty
Mitigating Climate Change through Organic Agriculture and Localized Food Systems

From the Editors

A Very Inconvenient Truth

In the correspondences pages of the December 2007 issue of Nature Biotechnology, the editor Andrew Marshall was roundly condemned for misleading Russian scientist Irina Ermakova to do an ‘interview’, in which he allowed well-known GM proponents to pose as impartial reviewers of her research findings of serious health and reproductive impacts on rats fed GM soya. The dust has yet to settle before Marshall launched his next offensive on behalf of the pro-GM lobby in his editorial in the same issue.

“Another Inconvenient Truth”

In a full page editorial headed “Another Inconvenient Truth”, Marshall accused the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and the Italian media of deliberately ignoring important data favourable to GMOs.

According to Marshall, the Italian National Research Institute for Food and Nutrition (INRAN) organised a field trial in 2005 to compare conventional maize with two otherwise similar varieties that had been genetically modified to produce Bt toxin against the corn borer. The outcome was that the yield of the Bt-maize was higher than conventional maize, and the Bt maize also had a lower level of fumonisins, toxins produced by a fungus that can infect maize.

INRAN held a public meeting on the trial in 2006, but, so Nature Biotechnology claims, the full data - apparently favourable to GM crops - were never released. Eventually, a small band of “determined plant biotech researchers”, including Professor Tomasso Maggiore at the University of Milan, who had, according to Marshall, planned and conducted the trial, held a press conference on 13 November 2007 to publicise what had been found.

The press conference was by most standards successful. Two major Italian newspapers, La Stampa and Il Giornale, had reported it in print, and others covered it online. There were interviews on the Italian radio. Marshall, however, was highly critical of the Italian media for not treating it as a major news story. This was a case of the suppression of important scientific evidence.

Inconvenient for whom?

What actually happened was quite different, and the coordinator of the project, Giovanni Monastra at INRAN ought to know.  He has written a letter to Marshall, and we understand that Monastra’s letter will be published in Nature Biotechnology. A detailed account of the story (in Italian) can be found on the IRAN website

INRAN did organize a trial in 2005 to compare GM and conventional corn. Maggiore did not, however, plan and conduct the trial, he was only commissioned to grow the crops and collect the crop yield data.  Other scientists were assigned other tasks. In particular, the analysis of fumonisins and other mycotoxins was the responsibility of a team led by Marina Miraglia at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità Rome.

The trials were duly carried out, and the data were prepared for the presentation on 7 March 2006. On 27 February 2006, INRAN received Maggiore’s report on work he had carried out for the project.  In an accompanying letter, Maggiore apologised for the delay in submitting his report, and he also wrote that he was not including the data on fumonisins, because he had not yet analysed it. That was the first indication INRAN had that Maggiore intended to carry out such an analysis, and because they already had the fumonisin data from the group asked to do the job, INRAN did not press Maggiore for his results.

At this point, the story becomes more intriguing. The “small band of dedicated researchers” Marshall referred to (actually an organisation called “Salute, Agricoltura, Ricerca”, or SAGRI ) claims that on 23 February 2006, Maggiore sent to INRAN a report containing the fumonisin results. The letter Maggiore is supposed to have sent is displayed on the SAGRI website.  SAGRI accuses INRAN of withholding the results because they were favourable to GM crops. 

INRAN made a careful check of their records and could find no evidence that Maggiore’s letter was ever received, either by email or by post.  What is more, neither INRAN nor anyone else can understand why, if Maggiore had sent a report including those data on 23 February, he should write four days later making no reference whatsoever to the earlier letter, and instead, apologising for being slow to submit his report, and saying that he had not yet carried out the analysis. It will be interesting to hear how SAGRI and Maggiore can explain that.

At the public meeting in 2006, a representative of INRAN presented all the data from the field trials, including the fumonisin results from Miraglia’s group. Also reported were the higher yields for GM maize; as that was what had been found, and there was no reason not to say so.

Eventually, Maggiore completed his analysis of the fumonisin data. He found a level of contamination of 6 000 ppb, considerably higher than the value of 2 450 ppb obtained by Miraglia. Miraglia is an expert in the field, whereas Maggiore is an agronomist, so there seems no reason to assume a priori that the higher value is correct. But that’s what Maggiore found, and one would have expected him to submit his results for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.  That could have led to further work to determine which of the two results was correct. Instead, Maggiore presented his results at a press conference organised by SAGRI.

What about peer-review?

For several years now, the scientific establishment has been arguing very strongly that peer review is the sine qua non of sound science and that it is a serious breach of scientific ethics to disseminate results that have not appeared in a peer reviewed journal. In the Nature Biotechnology article attacking Ermakova, for example, her critics wrote, “When scientists circumvent peer review, they not only undermine science, they also undercut the credibility of science in the eyes of the general public.”

Yet when Maggiore chose to present his results at a press conference rather than submit them to peer review for a scientific journal, instead of criticising him, Nature Biotchnology criticised the Italian media for not giving his work even more coverage than it received!  Of course, there is an important difference: Maggiore and SAGRI, and it seems also Nature Biotechnology, are pro-GM, and keen to put GM crops in the best possible light, with or without peer review.

The “positive results” of Bt maize are not what they seem

It’s not as if there were some immediate danger that made it imperative to get the positive results known as quickly as possible. When conventional maize is grown in Italy, it is treated with pesticide to protect it against the pyralid moth, whose larvae attack the crop and promote the fungus that yields fumonisins.  That was not done in the trial, because it would have interfered with the aim of the experiment, which was to compare GM and conventional maize.  So while both Maggiore and Miraglia found fumonisins above the EU permitted level of 2 000 ppb, the results are not representative of commercial maize grown in Italy. Also, comparing Bt to conventional maize that was not treated with pesticide as it would be on a typical Italian farm was giving an obvious yield advantage to Bt-maize. That’s justifiable on scientific grounds, and not what one would expect INRAN to have done if their aim had been to make a case against GM crops, as SAGRI and Nature Biotechnology suggested. The GM supporters do seem to find it difficult to believe anyone would do an experiment simply to find out how things actually are, or report the result regardless of which side of a debate it tended to support.

As you shall read in the series, Redeeming Science from Corporate Corruption (SiS 37), studies performed by, or on behalf of, companies claiming to show GM food is safe, and accepted by government regulators as such, do nothing of the kind. A paper given an award for excellence in the British Food Journal is based on fraudulent manipulation of consumer preference to bias research data in favour of GM sweet corn, and the Canadian Government has apparently given its agent free rein to intimidate UK and Irish citizens in trying to defend the research.

A few years back, the UK government was caught colluding with industry in a Farm Scale Evaluation intended to put the most positive spin on GM crops, by, among other things, not reporting the poor performance of GM maize  (Bogus Comparison in GM Maize Trial, SiS 22) (see photo).

We are faced with a corporate corruption of science in which every level of the corporate structure is complicit: the scientific establishment, journal editors and big government held to ransom by the biotech industry. But great changes are afoot. Read on!

Article first published 17/02/16

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