The corporate conquest of Nature (31/7/2003)

The pro-GM/anti-organic editorial in the current edition of the journal Nature - see below - would seem to mark the journal's final capitulation to the very academic-industrial complex that its editor Phil Campbell once warned against.

Among Campbell's many contentious claims we read, "open meetings in the public debate have been subjected to campaigning tactics by anti-GM lobbyists, leading to complaints from other members of the public that discussions have been compromised." No evidence is produced to support this ridiculous smear that clearly comes from the pro-GM lobbyists that now seem to have Campbell's ear. And has Campbell any idea about what went on at the public meetings organised by pro-GM lobbyists like those of the John Innes Centre?

It would be more than ironic if the smear is aimed at the highly successful public meeting addressed by Dr Ignacio Chapela. Many thought Nature and its editor, Phil Campbell, could sink no lower than when it took the unprecedented step of "retracting" Quist and Chapela's paper on Mexican maize contamination in the teeth of the advice of all but one of the journal's own advisers (Science journal accused over GM article, The Guardian, 7 June 2002, http://ngin.tripod.com/080602b.htm).

But then just a few weeks later, Nature firmly attached its brand to a crude pro-GM propaganda exercise funded by Syngenta - the very company linked to more or less all Quist and Chapela's most prominent scientific critics. (See, "When's a retraction not a retraction? http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=1229)

It took the form of a special "Nature Insight" feature on "Food and the Future" - part of a big advertising promotion and membership drive for the journal. To many, it had all the hallmarks of Syngenta's pieces of silver for the Chapela "retraction" - a retraction whose usefulness to the corporation had been gleefully acknowledged by its head of regulatory affairs. http://ngin.tripod.com/deceit3.html

The Syngenta-funded special feature included 3 separate opinion pieces by one of Chapela's most vicious critics, Prof Anthony Trewavas. These promoted GM crops and attacked organic farming. Typical of Trewavas's argument was the claim that, "Developments in the past 25 years have shown how conventional agriculture can be much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than organic farming". Trewavas even dragged in Dennis Avery's long-discredited E-coli smear against organic agriculture.

In the piece below Phil Campbell nails his own colours firmly to the Trewavas/Avery mast, talking of greater benefits and choice for consumers via GM (!), while complaining of the "self-damaging dogmas" of organic farming. He even argues that the UK's public debate would have been very different if only the reassurances of the science review had arrived in time to inform it. If only, we'd had the benefit of Monsanto's science director's views on GM safety, it seems, all would have been acceptance and reassurance.

Campbell claims his vision is all about accepting "Diversity in food technology". But it reads more like a monoculture of the mind driven by the corporate conquest of Nature.
Nature 424, 473 (31 July 2003); doi:10.1038/424473a
Diversity in food technology

A scientific review, farm-scale trials and extensive public consultations on genetically modified crops should pave the way for greater benefits and choice for consumers - provided that the organic movement abandons self-damaging dogmas.

Last week in England, the Lake District National Park Authority, like other British regions before it, declared itself a GM-free zone. This came close on the heels of a meeting between Margaret Beckett, the British secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, and heads of major retail chains. She was left in little doubt of the retailers' resistance to stocking genetically modified (GM) foods on their shelves, given customers' antipathy.

Ironically, these events coincided with the publication of a rather more positive scientific assessment of GM crops (see Nature 424, 358; 2003). The review emphasized that, provided appropriate testing and regulation are in place for consideration on a case-by-case basis, GM crops hold out significant promise and leave little grounds for fear.

The next steps in the great British GM saga, which is being watched closely by many other countries, will be the publication of results of the farm-scale evaluation of oilseed rape, beet and maize, and the publication of the results of a major public consultation, both due in September. A final scientific review will then be produced for ministers. As the recently published review emphasizes, information from farm-scale evaluations is important in answering key questions about the effects of agricultural processes on wildlife.

The public debate warrants close scrutiny. The processes of consultations (some 40,000 responses) and public meetings (nearly 500, in all) are complete. But only now has the scientific review addressed an agenda of concerns set by initial public consultations. The succinct information provided on the website of the public debate and at meetings does not do justice to the messages now available from the science review. Although much public concern is focused on issues of ownership and equity, the late timing of the science review limits the value of the public consultation on science-related issues.

More worryingly, open meetings in the public debate have been subjected to campaigning tactics by anti-GM lobbyists, leading to complaints from other members of the public that discussions have been compromised. So particular attention should be given to the independent evaluation of the consultation process.

The review left little doubt that the coexistence of GM and organic farming (assuming that approval for GM use is granted) will prove difficult to maintain. But the problem is an artificial one, based in essence on an ultimately arbitrary and self-defeating definition of 'contamination' by the organic movement.

Consider, for example, late blight in potatoes, a major problem for both conventional and organic farmers. Organic farmers contain the problem by applying copper sulphate-based preparations, which can harm the soil. Attempts to breed potatoes that are more resistant to the pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, have consistently failed to yield a marketable product. The best solution probably lies several years down the road in the next generation of GM crops.

British organic farmers - or at least the Soil Association, their campaigning organization - will resist seemingly to their dying breath the idea that inserting genes using molecular biology could be as ethical as the often less reliable but nevertheless technological approaches of conventional organic plant breeding and management. One can but hope that the messages from science will continue to be reassuring about the impacts of GM crops, and that they will combine with organic farmers' self-interest to demolish such phoney bastions, and allow both approaches to agriculture to prosper, in the ultimate interests of consumer benefits and choice.

Dr Philip Campbell
Editor, Nature
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