An Irish scientist who has set himself up as a scourge of spin and misinformation in the row over GM potato trials in Ireland, stands accused of bias so extreme that some might consider it fraud.

Shane Morris, who describes himself as "a Canadian public servant", recently set up a blog to comment critically on the GM debate in Ireland. He has used the blog to attack critics of GM for disseminating what he claims are "lies" and "disinformation".

Morris presents himself as both a non-partisan commentator on the GM debate and an expert on GM. In a recent press release, for instance, Morris claimed that he had "published internationally recognized and award winning papers on the issue of GM food and public perceptions".

The "award winning papers" claim appears to be a reference to an article in the British Food Journal that Morris co-authored and which was declared an "outstanding paper" by the publisher. (Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn, British Food Journal, Nov 2003, Volume: 105, Issue: 10, Page: 700 - 713)

The authors - Douglas Powell, Katija Blaine, Shane Morris and Jeff Wilson - all had connections to the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph, where Morris was once a research assistant. The FSN's activities are supported, amongst others, by an extensive list of biotechnology and agribiz corporations.

Morris and his co-authors claimed in the article that their research at a farm store north-west of Toronto showed that when customers were given a choice between sweetcorn clearly labelled either GM or non-GM, and made available at exactly the same price, a sizeable majority opted to purchase the GM sweetcorn.

But a leading Canadian journalist, who made a number of visits to the farm store while the research was in progress, has provided testimony (see below) and photographic evidence that directly contradicts how the research is presented in the British Food Journal by Morris and his co-authors.

In the British Food Journal, Morris and co claim, "The two types of corn were presented in separate wooden bins labeled with either 'genetically engineered Bt sweet corn' or 'Regular sweet-corn'" (p.705). The only other written information referred to in the article that might have influenced the preference of customers at the store is lists of the chemicals used on each type of corn, and pamphlets "with background information on the project." (p.705)

But the journalist, Stuart Laidlaw, who is on the editorial board of the Toronto Star and leads their reporting on agricultural issues, tells a very different story. Indeed, the evidence from his visits to the farm store suggests the research was marked by a level of experimenter bias so extreme that it renders the research worthless (see Laidlaw's account below).

Laidlaw has published a photograph taken at the farm store that shows above the non-GM sweet corn bin a sign headed: "Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?" By contrast, Laidlaw reports, the Bt-sweet corn bin was labelled: "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn" with the fact that it was Bt-corn shown on a separate sign.

The photograph is reproduced in a book by Laidlaw in which he comments, "It is the only time I have seen a store label its own corn 'wormy'"! He also notes that the descriptions of the corn as either "wormy" or "quality" were not mentioned in presentations or writings about the experiment. This is certainly the case with the piece co-authored by Morris in the British Food Journal. If it had been mentioned, it is hard to imagine that the paper would have been published in any self-respecting scientific journal.

Laidlaw drily concludes, "when one bin was marked 'wormy corn' and another 'quality sweet corn,' it was hardly surprising which sold more. Perhaps the choice by [the farm store] customers to take home [during the course of the research] more than five thousand cobs of wormy corn rather than buy 'quality' Bt corn showed some pretty deep misgivings about GM food."

Laidlaw also notes other instances of experimenter bias. During his visits, Laidlaw found, that an information table in the farm store contained, as well as press releases and pamphlets on the experiments, a number of pro-GM fact sheets - some authored by industry lobby groups, but he found no information on display authored by critics of genetic engineering.

The experimenter bias did not stop there. One of Shane Morris's co-authors - the Scientific Director of the Food Safety Network, Douglas Powell, demonstrated to Laidlaw his ability to influence a customer's responses to questions about Bt corn and his future purchasing preferences. This convinced Laidlaw that the only conclusion that could safely be drawn from these experiments was that, "fed a lot of pro-biotech sales pitches, shoppers could be convinced to buy GM products".

Yet, none of these "pro-biotech sales pitches" are made apparent in the paper for which Morris and Powell and their two co-authors were commended. Instead, their research is presented as providing a careful scientific evaluation of consumer purchasing preferences, in combination with agronomic information about the cultivation of the types of sweetcorn on sale.

Below are some excerpts from Stuart Laidlaw's book which may help you judge for yourself Shane Morris's claims to being a reliable and even-handed source of information on GM issues.

[For Morris's British Food Journal piece, see: ]


[All the following excerpts are taken from Chapter 4 of "Secret Ingredients" by Stuart Laidlaw (McClelland & Stewart, ISBN: 978-0-7710-4595-0 (0-7710-4595-6)) ]

Current practitioners of the third-party technique on behalf of the biotech industry include the Council for Biotechnology Information, headed by former Monsanto Canada president Ray Mowling, the Food Biotechnology Communications Network, Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, and Doug Powell's Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph, which is funded by the food industry, biotechnology companies, and the conservative Donner Foundation. Each organization portrays itself as an unbiased source of information on biotechnology and claims its pronouncements are based on sound science. Each can be counted on, however, to give unswerving support to GM foods and to dismiss any criticism of biotechnology as junk science, whether that criticism comes from as predictable a group as Greenpeace or as respected a body as the Royal Society of Canada.

Jeff Wilson [one of Morris's co-authors] likes to refer to himself as Farmer Jeff. He grows market vegetables just outside the village of Hillsburgh, northwest of Toronto, northwest of Toronto, and operates a small greengrocery adjacent to his house... Wilson takes great pride in knowing most of his customers, talking to them about the growing conditions that brought them their food, and providing the best looking produce he can. "This stuff is just gorgeous," Wilson said one afternoon as we toured his cornfields... [referring to Bt corn]

Doug Powell used Wilson's farm and shop to test his theories on consumer reactions to genetically modified foods. The two have worked together for years. Wilson was an early head of AGCare, a farm group set up in the 1980s to confront consumer fears about pesticides, but he has spent the last few years promoting GM foods. Powell was active with the group as well, advising it on media and consumer relations and speaking on behalf of the group to defend genetic modification. In recent years their experiments at Wilson's farm have formed the basis of Powell's presentations at food and biotech industry conferences across North America...

Powell began his career at Guelph in 1996...

In 2000, Wilson turned over parts of his farm and produce store to Powell so he and his students could test their theories on communicating with consumers about GM food. The previous fall, the two men had showed up at a Loblaws store in Toronto with AGCare to counter the arguments being put forward by Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians as they launched their anti-GM food campaign in Canada.

The Food Safety Network has consistently produced studies showing that consumers can be convinced to buy GM food, that organic foods are not as safe as conventional, and that GM crops are popular with farmers...

Powell's working theory was that if consumers were told more about GM food they would buy it. explore his theory, he and Wilson grew both genetically modified and conventional sweet corn during the summer of 2000. After the harvest, the food was sold in Wilson's on-farm store in bins clearly marking which was modified and which was not. The modified corn outsold the conventional by a wide margin: 8,160 cobs to 5,340. A survey of 174 consumers found that 69 per cent said they would prefer GM corn over conventional, while 26 per cent would not.

I visited the model farm several times that summer, both with Powell or Wilson on hand and without them around. From what I saw, it was hardly surprising that the GM corn outsold the conventional. The sign over the conventional corn read, "Would you eat wormy sweet corn?" It is the only time I have seen a store label its own corn "wormy". The sign then went on to list the chemicals sprayed on the corn to kill bugs and weeds and the fertilizers used. Over the GM corn the sign read "Here's what went into producing quality sweet corn", and listed the fertilizers used to grow the corn. Another sign identified the corn as genetically modified. The descriptions of the corn as either "wormy" or "quality" were not mentioned in Powell's presentations to BIO 2002 or in his writings on the experiment. He did write, however, that "a few customers in the market were observed to fill their bags with regular corn and then pause to read the large signs above the bins, which explained the pest management regime for each type of corn. They then proceeded to empty their bags and refill them with Bt sweet corn."

In an interview, Powell said he saw no problem with the "wormy" sign. "It was a rhetorical question," he said. Rhetoric aside, when one bin was marked "wormy corn" and another "quality sweet corn," it was hardly surprising which sold more. Perhaps the choice by Wilson's customers to take home more than five thousand cobs of wormy corn rather than buy "quality" Bt corn showed some pretty deep misgivings about GM food.

An information table in the market contained press releases and pamphlets on Powell's experiments, as well as a number of pro-biotech fact sheets written by Powell and his students and industry lobby groups. There was no anti-biotech information on display.

On one visit I asked a man why he was buying regular corn over GM. He said he didn't believe that GM was good for the environment and worried about its health effects. As he walked to his truck, Powell talked to him about Bt corn - describing how it did not need insecticides because it produced its own and that it had been approved as safe by the federal government. Powell then told me I should talk to the man again. I did, and he said he would buy GM corn the next time he was at the store. Powell stood nearby with his arms crossed and a smile on his face.

The incident convinced me that the only conclusion that can be drawn from Powell's experiments was that, fed a lot of pro-biotech sales pitches, shoppers could be convinced to buy GM products. Any marketing man could have told him that.

(See also the photo in the book taken at the Wilson farm store (p.89). It shows above the non-GM sweet corn bin the following sign: "Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn? Regular Sweet Corn: insecticides: carbofuran sprayed 3X or Bt foliar spray sprayed 1X; Fungicide: Bravo sprayed once; Herbicide and Fertilizer: 1 application of each". In contrast, the Bt-sweet corn bin was labelled: "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn", followed by a list of fertilizers, with the fact that it was Bt-corn shown on a separate sign.)

For more on Powell and the Food Safety Network: