Scientists under attack: Genetic engineering in the magnetic field of money
By Bertram Verhaag
Review by Claire Robinson
Denkmal-Film GmbH 2009
Available in English, German, or French versions
Billed as "a political thriller on GMOs and freedom of speech", this film by the German film-maker Bertram Verhaag tells the stories of two scientists, Dr Arpad Pusztai and Dr Ignacio Chapela, whose research showed negative findings on GM foods and crops. Both suffered the fate of those who challenge the powerful vested interests that dominate agribusiness and scientific research. They were vilified and intimidated, attempts were made to suppress and discredit their research, and their careers were derailed.
Pusztai found that the internal organs of rats fed GM insecticidal potatoes either increased in size or did not develop properly compared with controls. His experiments turned up no less than 36 significant differences between GM-fed and non-GM-fed animals. Pusztai, encouraged by his research institute, gave a 150-second interview on British TV in which he summarised his findings and said it was unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs for GM foods.
For two days, Pusztai was treated as a hero by his institute. But following a phone call from UK prime minister Tony Blair to the institute's head, Pusztai was fired and gagged under threat of a lawsuit. His research team was disbanded and his data were confiscated. Lies were circulated about his research that he could not counter due to the gagging order, lifted only later when he was due to appear before a Parliamentary Committee. For Pusztai’s co-researchers, the gagging order remains in place for life.
Pusztai's results threatened the GM industry because they showed that it wasn't the insecticide engineered into the potatoes that damaged the rats, but the genetic engineering process itself. So the problem wasn't just with these GM potatoes but potentially with all GM foods on the market. The only solution for the industry and its friends in government was to shoot the messenger.
Traumatic though this was for Pusztai, it wasn't the biggest shock he had to face regarding GM foods. That came when he was asked to review safety submissions from the GM industry for crops we were already eating and found that they were scientifically flimsy. "That was a turning point in my life," said Pusztai. "I was doing safety studies; they were doing as little as possible [in terms of safety testing] to get their foods on the market as quickly as they could."
Another scientist whose run-in with the GM industry is featured in the film is Ignacio Chapela, a molecular geneticist at UC Berkeley. His research, co-authored with David Quist and published in the journal Nature, revealed that Mexican maize had been contaminated with GM genes. The finding was explosive because Mexico is the centre of origin for maize and the planting of GM maize there was illegal.
Chapela found himself the target of a vicious internet campaign condemning him as more of an activist than a scientist and claiming that his paper was false. Nature's editor published a partial retraction of the paper. As Chapela points out in the film, the editor's action flew in the face of scientific method. In the normal way of things, a journal editor publishes a study that he and peer reviewers judge to be sound. It is for subsequent published studies to confirm or correct the findings. It is not for the editor to state that he would not have published a study had he known then what he knows now without the benefit of further peer reviewed scientific input. The editor's move showed how the GM industry is rewriting the rules of science for its own ends.
To add insult to injury, the internet campaign against Chapela turned out to have been initiated and fuelled not by his scientific peers but by fake citizens, "sockpuppets" invented by the Bivings Group, a public relations firm contracted by Monsanto.
Scientists Under Attack goes on to show how the GM industry has blocked the evolution of scientific knowledge. When Russian scientist Irina Ermakova's study found high mortality rates and low body weight in rats fed GM soy, and when Austrian government research found that decreased fertility in mice fed GM maize, the industry carried out its usual campaign of vilification. If the industry were interested in scientific truth, it would push for studies to be repeated with the alleged "flaws" corrected. But this never happens. Instead, GM companies use their patent-based ownership of GM crops to deny scientists access to research materials the GM crop and the non-GM parent line control. So the original research showing problems with GM crops is buried under a deluge of smears and follow up studies are not done. For the public, the difficulty and expense involved in accessing full research papers makes it hard to find where the truth lies.
The film also highlights an extreme example of the corporate takeover of science at University of California, Berkeley (UCB), where Chapela is a professor. In 1998, UCB entered into a $25 million research partnership with biotech company Novartis (now Syngenta). The deal provoked angry debate on campus and was criticized by a number of faculty members, including Chapela. Then in 2007, UCB entered into a $500 million research deal with oil giant BP. The partnership was negotiated in secret, without consultation even within the university. In return for its money, BP gained access to UCB’s researchers, control over the research agenda, and co-ownership of commercial rights over inventions. Chapela says of BP, "They decide what is called science."
The partnership was later spun as one of BP's "beyond petroleum" projects that would take us out of the age of dirty oil and into the new age of solar and renewable energy. But the small print makes clear that the deal focuses on genetic engineering for biofuels proprietary technologies that will be patented and owned by BP.
Most of us think of the enclosure of knowledge by industry interests in the abstract as figures on a balance sheet, and conflicts of interest lurking in the darker corners of scientists' psyches. But as Scientists Under Attack memorably shows, at UCB it's played out on the physical level. UCB is a divided campus, reminiscent of Berlin before the Wall came down. There is the public area, which looks like everyone’s idea of a pleasant university campus. Then, enclosed in high-security fencing and ringed with “no entry” signs, there is the privatized area, the part of the university that’s been co-opted by BP. No amount of reading about the UCB-BP deal can prepare you for the sight of what was once a great public university being turned into something resembling a top-secret military installation.
Seemingly, the culture of the university has changed along with its alignment. Once a celebrated centre of free speech and academic debate, UCB has become a place where tree-sitting students peacefully protesting against the felling of old oaks on campus are caged inside three rows of high-security fencing. In contrast, the university's colony of (not very dangerous) hyenas are judged only to need two.
UCB has dealt harshly with critics of its deals with industry. In 2003, five years after Chapela's protest against the Novartis deal and two years after publication of his Mexican maize findings, he was denied tenure. The university only backed down after Chapela threatened to sue. In Scientists Under Attack, he says: "In genetic engineering, one question means one career. You ask one question, you get the answer. You might or might not be able to publish it. That's the end of your career. What's unique in my case is that I survived."
Chapela adds that the most powerful censorship does not come directly from the GM industry but from closer to home: "It's in the consciousness of the scientist. You censor yourself." In other words, it's not so much that the GM industry has taken away our power, but rather that we've given it away.
While some sectors of the scientific community remain silent in the face of GM industry dominance, nature is proving a tougher opponent. GM monocultures worldwide are threatened by the rapid spread of glyphosate-resistant superweeds. Here again, no amount of reading about the issue can match the visual impact of weeds effortlessly smothering a field of GM soy plants in Brazil. Only a few years previously, as part of the marketing drive for GM soy, farmers had been invited to a party with free booze. They were told to arrange their hoes in a circle and ritually burn them. The idea was that hoes were redundant because weeds could be controlled with glyphosate. Now, glyphosate no longer works and farmers are being forced back to hoeing.
The message about who is really in charge is underlined by public interest attorney and activist Andrew Kimbrell, who is interviewed fishing for trout in a river. He points out that trout eat caddis-flies, which can be killed by Bt maize toxin leaching into rivers. Kimbrell says the GM industry follows a linear economic model based on a drive towards more and more production, regardless of the cost to nature and ourselves. He says this model of progress is a delusion: "Everything is made from the earth these clothes, this camera, this fly rod. There is only one economy the one that we see around us right now. The other economy, of capital and technology and the stock market, is all made up in our heads."
Kimbrell concludes the film by saying that industry hasn't grasped that we need to evolve into a stable economy enmeshed in ecology: "We are going to have to follow the laws of nature and not the artificial laws of any technology. The salmon come back to where they were born to spawn and die, and then the young come out. It's not linear, it's a life-giving circle."