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
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?
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 www.inran.it
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 in 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.
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
What about peer-review?
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
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!