The article below is reprinted from the British magazine Private Eye, No. 1194, 28 September-11 October 2007. The ‘heavy-handed’ libel threats referred to below temporarily closed the GM Watch website this summer.
Heavy-handed libel threats on the part of a biotech researcher have done little to silence criticism of a scientific paper claiming that shoppers prefer GM produce.
Published in the British Food Journal three years ago, the paper was based on the findings from a Canadian farm store where customers were offered a choice of GM or non-GM sweetcorn. The four researchers concluded that 50 percent more people opted for the GM crop. The journal branded the study its “most outstanding paper” of the year.
Alas, the paper did not disclose that above the non-GM corn was a sign asking shoppers: “Would you eat wormy sweetcorn?”, while the GM crop was signed: “quality sweetcorn.” The Canadian journalist who originally uncovered the story said there had been pro-GM literature in the shop, but nothing from GM’s critics.
UK campaign group GM Watch published a photo of the wormy sweetcorn sign under the title ‘Award for Fraud’. Following its expose, in May last year, the New Scientist carried demands from a researcher on scientific ethics at Cambridge University that the British Food Journal withdraw the paper.
The journal’s editor refused, although he did print a letter condemning the paper alongside one from one of its authors, Douglas Powell of Kansas State University, dismissing the allegations. Powell said the signs were only up for a week, contained the language of consumers and were “not intended to manipulate consumer purchasing patterns”.
Then, last month another of the paper’s authors, Canadian government analyst Shane Morris, threatened a libel action against GM Watch’s internet service provider.
Morris said the wormy signs had been taken down long before he joined the research team on 27 September 2000. He put two photos on his blog that he said showed the “wormy” sign had been removed and replaced. But a computer scientist who saw the images disputed this. And a Toronto-based food policy expert, Dr Rod MacCrae, who visited the shop on September 27 2000, told the Eye: “All I can tell you is that a wormy corn sign looking very much like the one in GM Watch’s photo, was there at the farm the day I visited.”
Dr Richard Jennings, who lectures on scientific practice at Cambridge University, is adamant the paper should have been withdrawn. “The case is a flagrant fraud, as far as I see it. It was a sin of omission by failing to divulge information which quite clearly should have been disclosed.” But then, if the researchers had disclosed the wormy corn labels, would any respected scientific journal have published it?
Reproduced by kind permission of PRIVATE EYE www.private-eye.co.uk