On Sunday (18 July) an article appeared in The Observer newspaper detailing Prof Jonathan Jones's failure to make clear his busines links to Monsanto in a recent article for the BBC. (Scientist leading GM crop test defends links to US biotech giant Monsanto)

The article quoted GMWatch editor Jonathan Matthews as saying, "The frontman for the latest GM push in the UK is being portrayed as a dedicated public servant doing science in the public interest, but it now appears he not only has vested interests in the success of GM but even commercial connections to Monsanto."

And Helen Wallace of GeneWatch UK was quoted as saying that Monsanto's "PR strategy relies on seemingly independent scientists making empty promises about the future benefits of GM crops".

In a statement to the Observer, Prof Jones insisted: "It is not true to suggest I have attempted to hide my role as co-founder and science advisory board member of Mendel Biotechnology, which has contracts with Monsanto, Bayer and BP. The information that I am co-founder”¦ of Mendel has been in the public domain on the Mendel website for at least 10 years."

The publication of the Observer article prompted a storm of criticism of Jones online and in the Comments section of the Guardian/Observer website.

One reader wrote:

"If Prof Jones cannot see that, no matter how fair and balanced his judgement in this case, his links with Monsanto will cast suspicion and doubt on a positive report on GM potatoes, he must be barking."
Jones himself posted a comment saying he had disclosed his interest in Mendel:

"I told Jamie Doward [the journalist who wrote the Observer article] before today's Observer article that in a commentisfree [article] in 2007 ( I specifically pointed out that I had cofounded Mendel Biotechnology."

Jones added: "My [recent] BBC website piece was invited in the context of my GM blight resistance potato trial, which has nothing to do with Mendel or Monsanto, neither of whom have any business in potato."

A reader responded:

"Had to laugh that Jones thinks that declaring his interests in Mendel/Monsanto 3 years ago is enough. Try writing an article for any reputable scientific journal these days. You have to fill out a new conflict of interest form every time. This makes sense because how can you expect readers to look back at an author's publication history every time he/she writes a new article?

"Also very funny is his claim that Mendel/Monsanto has no interest in spuds. It does have an interest in the acceptance of GM technology in the UK, and this spud trial will be used by GM proponents to leverage that. Also Mendel has patents on GM technologies that could be used in a variety of plants. ... Monsanto did create a GM potato which was rejected by consumers even in the US. Clearly the company is hoping for a turnaround in consumer feeling. This is from Monsanto's current website: 'Potatoes are an important crop and there may be a day in the future when Monsanto re-enters the potato business.'

"Monsanto also owns De Ruiter Seeds and Seminis Seeds, both suppliers of veggie seeds. It would be extremely funny if they made a vow that they would never deal in potatoes.

"Hilarity apart, I think it is a wise principle to know with whom one is in bed."

Another reader disputed even Jones's claim to have declared his interest in Mendel/Monsanto three years ago:

"Prof Jones seems to think that mentioning his connection to this company once in passing in an article on a website 3 years ago constitutes full and frank disclosure!

"What makes this worse is, if you look at the actual piece, Jones doesn't even name the company he founded. You have to click a link to find out it's Mendel Biotechnology and you'd have to dig around still further to discover Monsanto regards Mendel as a key collaborator.

"Even this indirect disclosure is a complete one-off. In Jones' other Comment is Free article, there's absolutely no reference to Mendel or his having any commercial interests:

"Likewise in the recent BBC piece promoting GM, there's absolutely nothing to suggest he's a cofounder of a company that has Monsanto as its principal client. And any time I've heard Prof Jones speak on TV or radio, there has been no reference to his having founded Mendel or sitting on its board. His self-description is exactly like the BBC piece - he is a senior scientist at a non-commercial research centre.

"I would wager a guess that absolutely no one who interviewed Prof Jones, or offered him comment space during his recent wave of PR activities related to the GM potato trial had a clue about his involvement in a company with 'very effective mechanisms of collaboration' with Monsanto, 'including the exchange of extensive proprietary information.'

"Yet it's vital that people benefiting from the label 'public science' are completely upfront about the extent of any commercial interests. After all, if Jones were successful in gaining acceptance for GM potatoes, it would almost certainly open the door to Monsanto's products.

"Unfortunately, Prof Jones' failure to be completely upfront about his ties to Monsanto fits an all too familiar pattern with GM promoters: "

Another reader's comment also confirmed that Jones's failure to declare conflicts of interest was part of a consistent pattern rather than a one-off event:

"I found out about Prof Jones' involvement in an American based biotech firm back in 2001 when someone told me there were jobs going there. I was quite surprised to find Prof Jones, and if my memory serves me correctly a couple of other leading British plant scientists on the directorial board. The thing that surprised me back then was that having worked in their field for over ten years and having heard them speak on numerous occasions at conferences etc that I had never heard them mentioned their clearly relevant commercial interests. If my memory serves me correctly they always stuck to their wholly impartial for 'the public good' scientist persona.

"Now following the thieving banks [and] the thieving politicians, I am not surprised at all. Our leading lights are all the same, out for number one."

Placing the Jones/Mendel/Monsanto episode in a wider context, a reader criticised the public-private partnerships at academic institutions that inevitably give rise to often undisclosed conflicts of interest. The reader wrote that scientists who speak out against such deals are victimized:

"Scientists who point to the obvious conflicts of interest in the public-private partnerships that dominate American and British academic institutions these days are blacklisted from ever having senior appointments - and that's why lead scientists on GMO trials have ties to the corporate agribusiness lobby. Those ties are encouraged by university presidents, who might hold stock in Monsanto, and who will give financial favors, lab space, and important positions to those who support their agenda. ”¦

"For example, the University of California jointly controls the patent (with Monsanto) on rGBH milk production. The UC expects to receive $100 million in royalties from sales of rGBH. You think the UC administrators would be pleased if some associate professor published studies pointing to health problems with rGBH, or even wrote a grant to do that? Would they get tenure? Probably not - they've canned people repeatedly for similar violations of their ideological principles."

Towards the end of the storm of comments from readers, Jones himself left a comment, saying he had asked the BBC to update his bio note on the BBC website to include his interests in Mendel and Monsanto.

Late yesterday the BBC did so better late than never. Let's hope this sets a precedent for media outlets to require full disclosure of interests when "experts" are given a platform for their views on controversial issues. As one reader commented:

"I congratulate Prof Jones on revising his affiliation information. I know that he regards his commercial ties as purely incidental but that's really for his readers to decide. As Richard Smith pointed out when editor of the BMJ [British Medical Journal], 'These competing interests are very important. It has quite a profound influence on the conclusions and we deceive ourselves if we think science is wholly impartial.'"
For the sake of clarity, GMWatch has made minor corrections of typos, spelling etc. to the Comments posted at

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