When's a retraction not a retraction? (30/7/2003)

Here's an excerpt from Andy Rowell's new book, Don't Worry, it is Safe to Eat, from a chapter on the Mexican maize scandal.

Rowell details many aspects of the affair, including the Monsanto-Bivings inspired campaign of character assassination against Ignacio Chapela.

The section below deals with the issue of Nature's "retraction" of the Quist and Chapela article, revealing a level of double-speak and conflict of interest that almost beggars belief.
Professor Allan McHughen, [a fervent GM supporter] from the Crop Development Center at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, believes that there 'are a group of people who for whatever reason don't want to hear anything at all about reasons to question the technology. I read Chapela's paper over and over again and I just couldn't find anything that was inflammatory about it'.60

...on 4 April 2002, Nature issued a terse statement on its website that there was disagreement between the Quist and Chapela and one reviewer. Because of this and 'several criticisms of the paper Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper.' 65

'It is clearly a topic of hot interest,' said Jo Webber from Nature, admitting the story was not just 'technical' but also 'political'. 'Nature has been going for a very long time and this is a very unusual occurrence'.

Webber also admitted that she felt her editor had fudged the issue.66 The statements put out by Nature seemed to be contradictory and there was confusion as to whether the paper had actually been 'retracted'.

The Editor, Philip Campbell, wrote 'The retraction was necessitated by technical flaws in the paper that came to our attention after its publication (which we should have picked up), and by the authors' decision not to retract the paper themselves'.67

In contrast, Dr Maxine Clarke, the Executive Editor of Nature wrote a month later in June that the Quist and Chapela paper 'has not been formally retracted by Nature, and stands as a citable publication'.68 Quist certainly felt it was a fudge: 'I think they wrote in very specific language for a reason, so that it was somewhat equivocal', he says. 'If results come out to corroborate our results, they can say, "See, we didn't ask for a retraction because it is a biological reality; it is happening". If it turns sour, they can say, "See, we were right in putting these guys on the chopping block".' 69

Chapela was more blunt, accusing Campbell of 'siding with a vociferous minority in obfuscating the reality of the contamination of one of the world's main food crops with transgenic DNA of industrial origin'.70 Campbell had sent the paper to three referees before deciding whether to retract. Of the three, only one scientist thought the paper should be retracted - though all said there were flaws in its second part - the section on iPCR. Others joined in the argument, and the journal was accused of setting a 'dangerous precedent' and it was added that, 'by taking sides in such unambiguous manner, Nature risks losing its impartial and professional status'.71

Due to the connections between the prominent attackers and the biotech industry, Chapela requested that Nature print a 'statement of conflict of interest from all authors,' as regarding the Berkeley-Novartis connection. 'It cannot go unnoticed that the antagonists signing the letter against the Nature piece should all be connected directly with this local political scandal', wrote Chapela. Campbell refused.

Chapela also noted that 'Given that two of the three reviewers of the exchange between our critics and ourselves unequivocally state that our main results and statements are not legitimately challenged by the letters included here, we find it unjustified that Nature should decide to remove its endorsement of a paper which itself was subjected to several rounds of a particularly stringent review process'.

Chapela noted how the second referee had said 'none of the critics seriously dispute the main conclusion' and the third said, 'none of the comments has successfully disproven their main result that transgenic corn is growing in Mexico and crossing with local varieties'. Yet Dr Campbell published the retraction - citing only the first referee, leading to the charge that 'he had ignored the advice of most of its own advisers'.72

In the end Nature published two critical letters, one from a team led by Nick Kaplinsky in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology - the department at Berkeley that received the Novartis funding. The lead author of the other letter was Matthew Metz, who also used to be at the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at Berkeley.73

Both lead authors - Matthew Metz and Nick Kaplinsky - were signatories to the Prakash 'Joint Statement' that Prakash had urged scientists to sign. It has received nearly 100 signatories.74 Metz had co-edited a pro-biotech document with the AgBioWorld Foundation, the Liberty Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute two years before.75 Another co-editor was Andrew Apel, editor of the industry newsletter, AgBiotech Reporter, who used the 11 September attacks to vilify anti-GM activists and scientists, specifically Drs Vandana Shiva and Mae-Wan Ho, as having 'blood on their hands'.76

In his letter to Nature, Metz argued that Quist and Chapela's analysis was 'flawed' and that the authors had 'misinterpreted' a key reference. Kaplinsky's letter argued that Quist and Chapela may have been 'confused', and although transgenic corn could be growing in Mexico, their claims were 'unfounded'.77

Chapela admits that Nature was 'under incredible pressure from the powers that be', and that the journal had asked him to respond to four letters that were critical of his paper, of which only the Kaplinsky and Metz letters were published. Both of these critics work or used to work at the department that received the Novartis funding. Metz's co-author, Johannes Fütterer, is a post doctorate student at ETH-Zurich, under Wilhelm Gruissem. According to Chapela 'Gruissem was head of department in Berkeley and the person who brought Novartis to us'.

Chapela believes that it is this issue that lies at the heart of the whole saga. 'I and a few other people stood up against it and we made a big scandal that went around the world. It became a very big scandal', he says. 'And they just cannot forgive that.' Metz had even written to Nature defending the Novartis deal.78 Chapela points to an article in the German press that says that Fütterer only 'decided' to write the letter with Metz after consultation with his boss, Gruissem, and 'his American research associates'.79 So everyone who had letters published in Nature was in some way connected to the Novartis-Berkeley relationship.80 This point was also taken up by others, pointing out the controversy was taking place 'within webs of political and financial influence that compromise the objectivity of their critics'. Correspondence to Nature also pointed out that the 'Nature Publishing Group actively integrates its interests with those of companies invested in agricultural and other biotechnology, such as Novartis, AstraZeneca and other "sponsorship clients", soliciting them to "promote their corporate image by aligning their brand with the highly respected Nature brand"'.81 As if to prove their point, just over six weeks later, Nature ran a special 'Insight' into food and the future, sponsored by Syngenta that contained several pro-GM and anti-organic-farming opinion pieces.82 But Metz and Kaplinsky replied that their criticisms of Quist and Chapela, were 'exclusively over the quality of the scientific data and conclusions' and that their funding has 'absolutely nothing to do' with their criticisms.83

However, the journal also published a further letter by Quist and Chapela where they acknowledged that in relation to iPCR they had misidentified certain sequences. But they added 'the consistent performance of our controls, as reported, discounts beyond reasonable doubt the possibility of false positives in our results'. The authors, noted that 'to address' the challenges laid down by their critics they had used a 'non-PCR-based method' called DNA-DNA hybridization. 'The results of these experiments' they argued, 'continue to support our primary statement. The DNA-hybridization study confirms our original detection of transgenic DNA integrated into the genomes of local landraces in Oaxaca.' 84

Ironically the fact that GM contamination has occurred is now not disputed by the GM opponents. 'Quist and Chapela have subsequently presented data that further supports the presence of transgenes in maize landraces - a point that has not been disputed', argued Prakash on AgBioWorld.85

In April, Jorge Soberon, the executive secretary of Mexico's National Commission on Biodiversity, announced the findings of the Mexican government's research at the International Conference on Biodiveristy at The Hague. Soberon confirmed that the tests had now shown the level of contamination was far worse than initially reported in both Oaxaca and Puebla. A total of 1876 seedlings had been taken by government researchers and evidence of contamination had been found at 95 per cent of the sites. One field had 35 per cent contamination of plants alone.

The Mexican government also re-confirmed the presence of the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus.86 Jorge Soberon said soberly that: 'This is the world's worst case of contamination by genetically modified material because it happened in the place of origin of a major crop. It is confirmed. There is no doubt about it'. In response, Philip Campbell, the editor of Nature, said: 'The Chapela results remain to be confirmed. If the Mexican government has confirmed them, so be it'.87

In August the President of Mexico's National Institute of Ecology, confirmed that his team had found 7 per cent of the native maize plants they sampled contained genetic material that appeared to come from bioengineered corn. 'This is basically the same result that Chapela reported in his study, and both results suggested the presence of transgenic constructs in native maize varieties', he said, confirming that the paper had been submitted for publication.88

But two months later, the controversy took a new twist when the Mexican press announced that Nature had rejected their independent studies into the GM contamination for publication. The reviewers had rejected the papers for opposing reasons. One said that the results were so 'obvious' that they did not merit publication in a scientific journal, whereas the other said the results were 'so unexpected as to not be believable'. The Nature editor said the papers had been rejected on 'technical grounds'.89

So over a year after the revelation of GM contamination in Mexico, the controversy continues and nothing has been done to stop the source of the contamination, but then perhaps that is what the industry wants.
Andy Rowell's Don't Worry, it is Safe to Eat, published by Earthscan is available at a special 15 per cent discounted price of GBP14.44 for Ecologist readers. From the UK phone 01903 828 800, or fax 020 727 81142
More info online: http://www.andyrowell.com/dont_worry_PR.htm

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