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10 years of GM Watch

  NOTE: 2008 sees the 10th anniversay of the founding of GM Watch, so over the next few weeks we'll be putting out some articles and material to mark our 10th birthday.

This wide ranging interview with GM Watch editor, Jonathan Matthews, takes in amongst other things: the history of GM Watch, the industry's attacks on GM-critical scientists, Monsanto's Internet dirty tricks campaign, the herd mentality that drives the uptake of GM crops, and the industry's current assault on the South.

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Marina Littek of Italy's Green Planet interviews Jonathan Matthews of GM Watch
http://www.gmwatch.org/sart.asp?paid=15

Q: When I first came across GM Watch, you seemed to have all the juiciest stories on GM and all the breaking news, and that's been really useful for what I do. But how did it all begin? Wasn't it a local campaign at the start?

We started out as Norfolk Genetic Information Network or NGIN (pronounced engine) in the Spring of 98. Our main concern was that while GM was rapidly going into farmers' fields and our food supply, little or no information was getting to the public and we wanted to remedy that.

Q: Of course, both sides say this - if only the public had more information.

Yes, but the people who support this technology mean 'if only they had more of our information'. That may sound cynical but it's something that I've observed over and over again. Whenever we - the critics - set up a debate on GM food and crops, it’s almost invariably even-handed - 2 speakers for and 2 against, and so on. When the supporters set up a debate, it's almost invariably fixed!

And when you look at the experience with citizen's juries around the world who've sat and deliberated on this technology, you see why that is. When people are genuinely exposed to both sides of this argument, they invariably come down on the side of caution. 'What's the rush?', they want to know. 'Why don't we check this out before rushing headlong into changing the molecular base of our farming and food supply'. And, of course, there's no answer to that. The only reason for rushing is money.

Q: So how did you try to remedy the lack of information?

We started by launching a regular news sheet - Genetic Network News - which looked at scientists' concerns about this technology, and that sort of thing. The focus was primarily local, with campaigns to get GM banned from school dinners and local supermarkets and the like, but some of our campaign activities, quickly began to attract wider attention.

This was also a period of intense campaigning against local GM crop trials in Norfolk . We worked closely with a lot of individuals and groups in local communities opposing them, including campaigners at Lyng in Norfolk who were faced with a particularly aggressive trial farmer who had a lot of support from the industry, and political support and so on. We helped link them up with Peter Melchett, the then head of Greenpeace UK who farmed in Norfolk, and the campaign culminated in 28 Greenpeace volunteers, including Melchett, being arrested during the attempted decontamination of the site.

That made headlines around the world, not just at the time but during the two court cases that followed here in Norwich in 2000. Throughout that period we worked in close liaison with other local campaigners to make Norfolk a notable hot-spot for the biotech industry, although our focus was also widening from the local to the global throughout that time.

Q: At what point did your campaign go online?

Quite early on. From the start the Internet was a great way of staying abreast of news, new reports and so on, and that flow of information really triggered our own campaign. Then a web-savvy reader of Genetic Network News set up a free NGIN website , in order to try and win a bigger readership for the news sheet . But he soon got fed up with all the stuff I kept asking him to stick on the site, so he gave me a quick lesson in how to edit a website and left me to it!

Then in January 99 we launched the daily NGIN e-mail list and it quickly started to attract subscribers from well beyond Norfolk. Part of its success seems to have stemmed from the comments, analysis and summaries of material we have always tended to put out with the items we post, to try and point up important new information, trends, interesting quotes and the like.

Q: What else has given your campaign its distinctive character?

Right at the start, in the very first issue of Genetic Network News, we said we were particularly concerned to counter the misleading information being put out by the biotech industry, and by its lobbyists and its powerful supporters, and that has never changed.

To start with much of our concern about questionable lobbying and misinformation by biotech proponents was triggered by the science communication activities of a number of scientists at the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory , which is Europe's leading plant biotech institute and happens to be based here in Norwich. That concern accelerated in autumn 98 when the JIC, which presents itself as a publicly and charitably funded institute, entered deals worth around £60m with Dupont and, Britain's then leading biotech company, Zeneca - later part of Syngenta.

We've also tracked the efforts of the pro-GM lobby to gain greater control over the media's reporting of controversial science issues like GM. This led to articles with the geneticist Mae-Wan Ho like The New Thought Police: Suppressing dissent in science .

And our research has repeatedly shown how some pro-GM scientists in their desperation to endorse GM will resort to totally bogus information and industry hype that really does not stand up to critical scrutiny. Yet these are exactly the same people whose constant refrain is that all opposition to GM is based on misinformation and emotion, while support for the technology is based on compelling scientific evidence! We've tried to draw attention to these extraordinary double standards .

Q: Is that what led to the Pants on Fire awards?

Yes, we launched the awards back in 2000 as part of our battle to expose the bias and misinformation promoted by pro-GM and anti-organic lobbyists . The name’s maybe a bit confusing for some non-Brits, but basically it was just a sly reference to the playground rhyme: Liar! Liar! Pants on Fire! The idea was to use humour to lubricate a carefully referenced indictment of bias.

Through the awards, and online characters that we created like Prof Bullsh*t , and also some of the articles I've written or helped others to write, we’ve tried to expose not just bogus hype but also the disgusting nature of the attacks that have been made on scientists who’ve raised questions about this technology. We’ve really tried to hold some of the people involved in the attacks to account and to publicise how they've sought to vilify and victimise these scientists.

Claire Robinson, my co-editor at GM Watch, and I have both been very fortunate in having the chance to have some contact with scientists like Arpad Pusztai and Ignacio Chapela , and to listen to what they have to say. It's very affecting to get a sense of just how badly these scientists have been treated. In terms of the way he was gagged and vilified, Pusztai even draws unfavourable comparisons with his experiences in Eastern Europe under the Soviets. It's hard not to feel a sense of shame at what's happened. This is a man who came to Britain as a political refugee, who built up a formidable scientific reputation, whose years of research into lectins has almost certainly saved lives, and yet he had his reputation trashed for the sake of corporate science.

Q: Tell me about your involvement in uncovering who was orchestrating the attacks on the Berkeley researcher, Ignacio Chapela.

That really is a tangled web. To understand it you need to understand what happened with the Internet campaign in 2000. In 98 and 99, the biotech industry really took a hammering in the way that unfavourable information exploded across the Internet. On top of that, their own PR attempts to promote GM as the saviour of the developing world blew up in their face. Their answer was CS Prakash , who launched his website and his AgBioView list at the beginning of 2000, as part of a campaign that he said was all about supporting GM crops for the developing world.

We initially took Prakash completely at face value. We saw him as a pro-GM scientist who was genuinely standing up for a cause he believed in. But it soon became clear that his list was being used as a conduit for black propaganda. There was stuff on his list accusing those who were critical of GM of everything from murder to terrorism to God knows what. GM-critical scientists were even accused of having blood on their hands over 9/11!!

During 2000 and 2001 we repeatedly used the NGIN list and postings to other lists, including postings to AgBioView itself - although those postings increasingly didn't make that list! - to expose and challenge this misinformation. I think in one case, where a particular environmental group had literally been branded as murderers, we actually extracted an apology. But that was a rare event. Usually, they tried to come back with more of the same. It was incredibly unpleasant.

Gradually, though, our research started to show us that Prakash was not operating alone but was intimately connected to a network of rightwing pro-corporate lobbyists. In fact, it turned out the co-founder of his campaign was Greg Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Over time, Prakash has been forced to be more open about this CEI connection, but back then Conko just appeared to be a contributor.

You can see why they wanted to present the whole thing as if the AgBioView campaign were really that of a lone Indian scientist rallying the science community to the GM cause. As soon as you admit to the CEI connection then you have the fact that the CEI has had money out of Big Tobacco and the likes of Dow Chemicals and Monsanto, and that it lobbies just as vigorously against restrictions on smoking and toxic chemicals as against those on GM crops.

By the end of 2001 our research had taken us further. We had a whole dossier showing AgBioView was a major vehicle for covert biotech industry PR. We'd also uncovered the involvement in all this of Monsanto's Internet PR company, Bivings. In particular, regular poison pen attacks against critics of GM had been appearing, principally on AgBioView, though later, they started turning up elsewhere as well, posted in the name of 'Mary Murphy'.

We'd tracked Murphy's IP address. It was that of Bivings. We were also interested in a similar contributor to the AgBioView list - Andura Smetacek. Smetacek kept promoting the website of a fake agricultural institute which also led back to Bivings . That website tried to link Monsanto’s critics to violence and terrorism.

At this point we teamed up with the investigative journalist Andy Rowell whose research had helped expose the treatment of Arpad Pusztai. Andy got a private detective on the case, trying to track down Smetacek, and we were also getting help from a couple of technical experts. They confirmed that Monsanto's Internet PR firm also had a role in designing Prakash's website and that they were running the AgBioView archive off the company's server, although they'd tried to disguise that.

It was while we were busy tracking this, that the Berkeley researchers, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, had their paper on Mexican maize contamination published. We then witnessed this vicious campaign of vilification being unleashed on AgBioView. Chapela compared it to being fed to the dogs.

That campaign really impacted on coverage of the research and even led to a kind of editorial disassociation from the paper by Nature, the scientific journal that had published it. And the catalysts in all of this were Murphy and Smetacek. Their hate mails against Chapela came out on AgBioView on the very day the research was published and those mails fuelled a frenzied campaign against the researchers with Prakash calling on the scientific community to inundate Nature with complaints. Because we knew who the actors were we could see the whole thing unfolding right in front of our eyes. It was extraordinary.

The result of our research was a whole series of articles that appeared in The Ecologist, The Guardian, New Scientist, Wired News and elsewhere, as well as stuff on radio and TV. Importantly, alot of the coverage not only questioned the way in which the Berkeley scientists had been attacked and the role of Prakash, AgBioView, Monsanto's PR firm and so on, it also brought into question the wider campaign to overturn the research and why that had succeeded to the extent it had. The editor of Nature faced some pretty tough questions about why he’d buckled when the majority of the peer reviewers supported the principal conmclusions of the original paper, and a lot came out about the threats against Chapela even before he published his research.

Q: In the end I think you tracked the whole thing back directly to Monsanto.

That was an amazing break. A few weeks before the story broke, they had suddenly suspended the AgBioView archive - my guess is that they had sussed it pointed to Bivings ’ technical involvement. They would also have known by then we were on their trail - we were making so many enquiries -and this was a good way to obstruct us. But one result of all the publicity, particularly following George Monbiot's first two Guardian articles, was that a couple of people who'd kept personal archives of Prakash's AgBioView from the very start of the list, forwarded us all their Murphy and Smetacek postings. And when we looked at the earliest postings from Smetacek we realised that they, like all the other very early postings on the list, had gone to subscribers with the posters' technical headers, ie you could track exactly where the Smetacek mails had been e-mailed from. Smetacek in these mails presented herself as an ordinary citizen - in fact, as a lady living in London - but the mails' IP address showed they had been sent directly from Monsanto in St Louis. George Monbiot then revealed this in The Guardian .

Q: It was after that that you launched GM Watch and then LobbyWatch.

LobbyWatch was George's idea. We'd built up a directory of profiles of a whole array of lobbyists, corporate scientists, think tanks, extreme political networks and so on that were busy promoting this technology. We launched that on the GM Watch site and George suggested we launch lobbywatch.org as a sister site to make that information more widely available, because exactly the same people were often promoting a much wider agenda than just GM and in a similarly dishonest fashion. The GM Watch name itself actually stemmed from a monthly column we did at one time for The Ecologist that went under that name.

Q: Your activities must have made you a target. I saw the Guardian piece about the e-mail you had from Prakash's son abusing you. That was quite comic in a way because of the language he used, but I imagine it's not always so easy to laugh off.

Compared to all that people like Pusztai and Chapela have gone through, the hate mail is no more than a minor irritation,and sometimes, as you say, it's actually a source of amusement. As you'd expect, we get all the usual accusations - we’re Luddites, we're Nazis, we're communists, we need psychiatric treatment, we consort with terrorists.

One particular piece that was posted on the Net by a sidekick of Prakash's even dragged the school where I work and the professional association it belongs to into its attack. The Secretary of the association came across the attack, because of the perjorative reference to the association, and phoned me wanting to know why it said I associated with terrorists! She was puzzled when I laughed about it. She said some nutcase might believe it and come after me. I asked what else I could do but laugh?

The main thing that they threw at us after the Bivings stuff was that we were conspiracy theorists. That made me smile because I’m someone who's terribly sceptical of any kind of conspiracy theory. In fact, with Prakash and AgBioView I initially took the campaign completely at face value. I thought he must just be attracting the wrong sort of people to his campaign and that they were responsible for all the nastiness. I thought he might even be their victim, in a certain sense, although I couldn't understand why he published their attacks so prominently.

I was actually in correspondence with him at that time, because he knew I was unhappy about what was going out on his list, and I even warned him it was not in his interest to associate with these people! But over time, as the trail of evidence led more and more directly to Monsanto's door, I was forced to concede I’d been terribly naive and that this was an industry PR set up from start to finish.

One positive impact of the revelations we've made, I like to think, is that it seems to have led to a lessening in the viciousness of the attacks made via the Internet on GM-sceptical scientists and others, although off the net Prakash still pops up at conferences that denounce us as eco-imperialists and killers of the poor etc. And I’m not so naïve as to doubt that the Internet hate could just be turned back on again, like a tap, at any time they felt like it.

Part of what's happened, I think, is that they've been made to see that if what they're doing is going to be so widely exposed and made to stick to the attackers, then that may not be the smartest tactic to adopt! If that means some of the attack dogs have been put back on the leash, that has to be in everyone's interest, and it certainly makes AgBioView a lot less hair-raising to read!

There is another reason for the change though, I think, which is less comforting, and that's that they actually need a more respectable profile. What's been happening more and more is that the US administration has got right behind the drive to push this technology globally. This has taken the likes of Prakash and Conko absolutely to the heart of the US-industry campaign. At the press conference where the US launched its WTO action against Europe over GMOs, there were Prakash and Conko centre stage with Prakash appearing as the principal orator to indict Europe in the name of the poor for its resistance to GMOs. It was a moment that spoke volumes. Unfortunately it's the people in Africa and Asia who are bearing the brunt of the accompanying US-industry onslaught.

Q: GM Watch has focused heavily on the industry's campaign there.

Among the many issues we’d always focused on were the agronomic and economic problems with GM crops, which were a world away from all the hype about these wonder crops that were going to feed the world.

Just how flawed this technology was, even at the most practical level, was much less widely appreciated in those early days than it is now, even by opponents of the technology. People had often accepted that there must be some truth in the claims of major benefits for farmers.

We used the NGIN list, and a Farming News section we created on the NGIN website, to popularise the material of UK land agent, Mark Griffiths, and the work of a leading independent agronomist in the US, Dr Charles Benbrook, which showed the poor performance of GM crops in terms of both yields and chemical use. Benbrook later said we were a major gateway to Europe for his work.

Q: But if there are these problems with the crops, why do Brazilian farmers, for instance, smuggle in GM seeds from Argentina to grow them? What's the attraction?

It's various things but it's not what the biotech boosters would have you believe, or even what some of the farmers will tell you. Part of my background is in psychology and one thing that quickly teaches you is that you don't just accept the reasons people give for their actions without checking it out.

The GM soya that some Brazilians have been smuggling in is incredibly convenient - it really suits a certain sort of farmer. It's a kind of junk agriculture where you really don’t have to pay too much attention to what’s going on in your fields. You just plant the seeds at a certain time and pour the Roundup all over the place and you know it will kill absolutely everything apart from the crop - or at least that's what happens at the beginning. Junk farming is like fast food and microwave cuisine - it may not be good for you in the longer term and it may be destructive of precious culinary traditions, knowledge and skills, but it’s a real time saver and people get hooked by that convenience.

As with other destructive habits, though, there's a gap between what GM crops may really have to offer and what those growing them believe. And that's mainly to do with the power of hype and fashion - something that, sadly, farmers and governments and scientists are no more immune from than the rest of us. Donald White, a University of Illinois plant pathologist, describes what's going on as 'a herd mentality'. 'Everyone has to have a biotech program', he says, and that chimes in with a University of Iowa study on why farmers are growing GM soya. That study found that while increasing yields was cited by the majority of farmers in the study as the reason for planting GM soya, the research showed they were actually getting lower yields!

And this isn't peculiar to Iowa. An annual review of the uptake of GM crops for 1998 reported yield improvements of 12% for farmers in the US growing GM soya, based on their own estimates. But a review of over 8,000 university-based controlled varietal trials involving GM soya in the US for that same year showed almost exactly the opposite - yield reductions averaging 7%. In other words, you've got a nearly 20% gap between perception and reality.

But even though the reality of GM crops is lacklustre, the industry's PR machine works overtime to maintain the fiction that it's a glittering success. A week before the publication of the most recent Benbrook report showing how much GM crops have increased, rather than decreased, pesticide use, up pops a report from an industry funded institute saying the exact opposite. It's beyond belief that that timing was accidental. That institute was funded to do that job of work, precisely to smother what Benbrook - a scientist who for 7 years presided over the National Academy of Science's Board of Agriculture - was disclosing.

And that same kind of hype and concealment's going on right around the world. You've got people like Prakash telling farmers in Africa GM will double their production. In India you've got Monsanto pumping out studies and claims that GM cotton is great for Indian farmers, sales are up etc., etc., and at the same time you’ve got carefully conducted research in India showing the diametric opposite. You've also got protests going on and even stories of farmers killing themselves because their crops failed, but Monsanto's PR machine captures far more of the headlines.

There's an extraordinary schizophrenia. You've got Indian politicians talking up biotech because they think it makes them look progressive and like they're doing something for the country, at the same time that you've got angy farmers going on the rampage because of the problems they're getting from just this one GM crop. In Indonesia Monsanto had to pull GM cotton out completely because of all the problems, and yet I regularly see claims that Indonesia is one of the Asian giants embracing GM!

Q: You've also investigated how the industry manufactures support in the South.

A few years back I wrote an article called The Fake Parade exposing how a widely reported pro-GM march by farmers in South Africa was actually carefully orchestrated by pro-corporate lobbyists and how it fitted into a wider pattern of manufactured support from the South. We’ve got special sections on the website just tracking the corporate lobbyists active in Asia and Africa because they are such a problem there. In fact, in countries like South Africa they’re practically running the show - and that’s partly why the biotech industry’s headed down South .

You've got experts there who are up to their ears in industry interests and yet who are being allowed to play a leading role in developing regulatory protocols and legislation governing GM crops. It's because of this that South Africa's become the industry's open door to Africa. One of these lobbyists was quoted the other day saying, If the activists don't get their way, we're going to see biotech crops spread right up through Africa.

Then on top of the industry and its tame scientists, you've got the US using diplomatic pressure and bilateral trade agreements , and you've got USAID pouring money into GM crop-related schemes. They're all trying to browbeat African and Asian governments into accepting weak biosafety regulations and GMOs.

Q: Your last Pants on Fire award celebrated one of those lobbyists.

Yes, we gave the award to the Kenyan scientist, Florence Wambugu , who typifies the kind of thing that's going on. She's a Monsanto protege and, if you read the citation, it almost defies belief that somebody could be so shameless in the way she's promoted this technology.

Wambugu claims GM will literally solve all the problems of Africa. She said somewhere that GM crops would lift the whole African continent out of decades of economic and social despair.

Her career as a propagandist has been built out of a Monsanto GM sweet potato project that she was recruited for. For year's she's hyped that project around the world's media as the answer to hunger and as the way to massively increase sweet potato yields in Africa. She wears traditional African dress and speaks in such evangelical terms that some journalists have even assumed that the project must already be working out in the fields, that Kenyan farmers are already reaping the benefits and that it's already helping to feed the hungry. But when the results of the 3-years of field trials were finally published, it emerged the whole thing was a total flop . The GM crop didn't give the virus resistance it was supposed to and the yields were worse than those of the conventional sweet potatoes that it was supposed to replace.

Yet despite this disaster, Wambugu's still going around proclaiming the project a success! And she's had all kinds of awards and honours bestowed on her by the industry and their pals, as if she had achieved something quite remarkable. So we thought she should be given the one award that she really deserved - the Pants on Fire award .

Q: But, some people would ask, given Africa's problems, what's the alternative?

It's a fair question. Aaron deGrassi from the Institute of Development Studies has carefully researched these kind of GM showcase projects in Africa, and he's found that while in empirical terms they're a failure, they help generate great PR. And that's the problem - that's their real purpose. He contrasts these expensive PR confections with more humble projects, such as one on sweet potatoes in Uganda which - with a fraction of the huge investment that's gone into the Monsanto project - has used conventional means to breed a sweet potato that is virus resistant, that is popular with farmers and that actually doubles yields.

So here's this great success, which could be even bigger if more resources were behind it, and yet all the world hears about is the likes of Wambugu puffing GM. Articles have appeared saying she and Monsanto are 'reshaping the future' and 'serving millions' in Africa, but their projects have actually wasted literally millions of dollars and helped feed precisely nobody. This is what we pointed out in her award citation. These industry PR confections are a massive and shameful distraction from the real task of assisting the poor and hungry in Africa.

There are some important projects out there which are already succeeding in a quiet way despite being massively under resourced. They involve ecologically-friendly farming systems that are suited to the needs and conditions of small-scale farmers in Africa. They offer the chance of greater food security and sustainable livelihoods without environmental devastation. Another Africa is possible, but to get to it we have to stop the biotech industry and the USA using all their leverage to force the world into a GM cul-de-sac where genetically modified crops are relentlessly promoted as the panacea to all our problems.