Bioscience Warfare - Big Biotech has silenced majority of scientists working on risk (2/6/2004)

"They've been going after scientists in a systematic, organized way that I haven't seen in my memory," says Chuck Benbrook, a food policy expert and former executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences. "Let's face it, [big biotech has] silenced the vast majority of scientists who are interested in doing research on risks."

"I thought only criminals and desperate people lied, not educated people" - Tyrone Hayes.

In these excerpts from an article centered on UC Berkeley professor, Hayes, the cases of other researchers who have come under fire from the biotech industry are also dealt with in passing, including, interestingly, the little-reported case of the entomologist, Angelica Hilbeck. Hilbeck's research into a type of genetically modified corn produced by Syngenta showed that the green lacewing was being poisoned by eating corn borer larvae that had fed on this corn. Like so many others, she then found herself under attack from the industry.

Below are only excerpts from quite a long article. For the full monty: http://www.sfweekly.com/issues/2004-06-02/feature.html/1/index.html

Bioscience Warfare
SF Weekly
UC professor Tyrone Hayes found that a highly profitable weed killer causes sexual abnormalities in frogs. Then he found out how nasty a biotech multinational can be.
[email protected]

...Hayes is experimenting on frogs, dosing them with atrazine at levels far below what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says humans can consume. What he's found is frightening, at least for the frogs. He has occasionally encountered not only the frog malformations previously related to pesticides in farm, golf course, and highway runoff -- missing limbs, deformed or missing eyes, partial jaws, no jaws -- but also one other, statistically widespread effect. Hayes has found that atrazine turns the testosterone in male frogs into estrogen, causing them to develop ovaries as well as testicles.

In other words, atrazine is a chemical castrator. Research has also linked it to human prostate and breast cancer.

"You know, I used to get up in arms about how we could make DDT illegal in the U.S., but how we still sell it to other countries," Hayes said in a recent interview. "The same thing is happening to us; atrazine was never allowed in Switzerland [home of its manufacturer, Syngenta AG], and now it is banned across the European Union. And it is still being sold to us."

Because most biotech products have been created only recently, however, their comprehensive effects on world ecology are, in many cases, unknown. And as biotech companies continue to forge partnerships with universities, augmenting their dwindling research budgets, scientists at some of the world's most prestigious institutions -- including Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley, the Swiss Federal Research Station for Agro-Ecology, and the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland -- complain that large multinational biotech companies have attempted to suppress studies that suggest highly profitable products may have adverse effects on health or the environment.

"They've been going after scientists in a systematic, organized way that I haven't seen in my memory," says Chuck Benbrook, a food policy expert and former executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences. "Let's face it, [big biotech has] silenced the vast majority of scientists who are interested in doing research on risks."

Industry-university alliances are often seen as advantageous to both academia and the companies that fund research. Over the last three decades, funds provided to U.S. universities by the industrial sector grew faster than funding from any other source. Industry provided 6.8 percent of funding for academic research in 2001 (the latest year for which such figures are available), a slight decline from a high of 7.4 percent in 1999.

To be sure, corporate largess has sometimes created a new dynamism in staid academic research quarters, catapulting cures and medicines quickly to market.

But sometimes, the relationship has raised suspicion. At UC Berkeley, for example, Novartis Agribusiness, now merged into Syngenta, gave $25 million to fund basic research in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology over a five-year period that ended in November 2003. The deal, which was not renewed this year, gave Syngenta some rights to research findings and was an issue of great political contention within the university and the state. The Atlantic Monthly published a disparaging article titled "The Kept University" criticizing the relationship. http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2000/03/press.htm

And sometimes, corporations try to control the research they fund. Sometimes, information and research that are intended to benefit the public are intentionally kept from the public. Sometimes, a lack of attention to critical research on risk assessment -- or to research on risk of any kind -- undermines the ends of scientific research itself.

Sometimes, the facts and data are drowned in spin, and scientists who bear "bad" news are buried in pseudo-science and innuendo.

Four years into his burgeoning career at UC Berkeley, Hayes made a move he would regret. Like many scientists, Hayes decided he would dabble in the private realm and make extra money for his growing family.

In 1998, he joined a private research consulting group, Ecorisk Inc., to explore atrazine's effects on frogs. Ecorisk is an independent company regularly hired by Syngenta, the firm that manufactures atrazine, to provide risk assessment on its products and chemicals. Hayes assumed that he'd been hired because Syngenta wanted to assess the risks of its herbicide. But when Hayes found alarming abnormalities in frogs that had been exposed to trace levels of atrazine, the group was not excited about the results; in fact, Hayes contends, quite the opposite.

Hayes had applied atrazine to frog specimens in his UC Berkeley lab and detailed changes in the larynxes of the frogs. His study wasn't initially aimed at the reproductive system, but to his surprise he also discovered that atrazine caused significant malformations in frog sex organs. What Hayes found was serious and unexpected but was considered, even by him, to be a preliminary indication, merely a basis for more research. That is just what Hayes wanted to do -- continue research and conduct new experiments.

Instead, Syngenta halted funding for Hayes' Ecorisk study. At the same time, Hayes alleges, the company insisted he repeat his previous experiments. Syngenta refused to let him publish the data from his first study, suggesting he complete the repeat experiments in a "private" setting, essentially offering to pay him to keep the results secret, Hayes and others who are close to the situation (and who have asked not to be named) claim.

In 2000, Hayes quit the Ecorisk panel that was studying atrazine in protest. "It will appear to my colleagues that I have been part of a plan to bury important data," he wrote in his resignation letter. "This fear will be particularly realized when independent laboratories begin to publish data similar to data that we [Syngenta and my laboratory] produced together as early as 1999."

Hayes says that he tried to give the U.S. EPA information alleging that Syngenta knew atrazine was harmful but did not take proper action, as required by FIFRA, the Federal Insecticide  Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. According to the act, Hayes contends, Syngenta should have immediately notified the EPA of the results of his research and taken steps to review the environmental and health risks of its chemical.

Hayes says that the conflicts surrounding atrazine research played into what he views as a concerted effort to discredit his findings and ruin his career. After completing his research showing atrazine to have astonishingly harmful effects on frog reproductive organs, Hayes tried to continue without funding from Syngenta or other private companies. He began another study, this one focusing on frogs' reproductive systems; it was published in the journal Nature in October 2002. He is now working on a third study that involves the reaction in frog endocrine systems to mixtures of pesticides; he contends such reactions have already resulted in at least one loss of an entire species of frog in the Midwest. That study should be made public in the next few months, he says.

Hayes' research has been questioned by leading members of the Ecorisk panel, attacked in the popular press by a conservative Fox News commentator, and blasted by the Kansas Corn Grower's Association and the Triazine Network, a collection of about 1,000 growers and herbicide manufacturers named after the family of chemicals that includes atrazine. Both the Kansas Corn Grower's Association and the Triazine Network receive some funding from Syngenta. In November 2002, the Kansas Corn Grower's Association and the Triazine Network petitioned the EPA to ignore Hayes' studies when considering the reapproval of atrazine.

Within a scientific world rarely seen by the general public, the response by Syngenta and associated researchers to his ongoing studies was, Hayes says, scientifically appalling. According to Hayes, Syngenta hired a number of scientists from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, Michigan State University, the University of Florida, and Texas Tech University, among others, with the intent of discrediting his work. "This is a group of individuals whose sole goal is to prove me wrong and to keep atrazine on the market," says Hayes. "Their science is so poor, yet they continually try to damage or hurt my findings by saying they can't reproduce my work under the pretense that they're doing real science."

So far, Hayes acknowledges, the attacks on his research and credibility have had no official effect on his status at UC Berkeley, but they have created enough stress and tension within the Berkeley faculty and administration that Hayes no longer wants to work there. He says he plans to accept an offer to relocate to Duke University.

In the meantime, he continues to submit papers to ... challenging his opponents' research. Overall, though, he's severely disappointed in the reaction of the scientific community to what he believes is a campaign to stop research into atrazine's risks. "I thought only criminals and desperate people lied, not educated people," he says. "My 11-year-old looks over their experiments and sees that they have no controls. They can't be that dumb, so they're lying."

 Tyrone Hayes has unexpectedly found himself in the company of scientists around the world who say they have also experienced pressures related to university research alliances, and also seen the priorities of private sponsors influence what should have been impartial research findings.

John Losey, an entomologist at Cornell University, says he was extremely careful when publishing the results of his study of the effects of genetically modified "BT-corn" on monarch butterflies in May 1999. BT-corn, a grain variant genetically engineered to kill the European corn borer, is patented by Monsanto Corp. To test for possible unintended side effects from the pest-resistant BT-corn, Losey fed monarch larvae milkweed leaves dusted with BT-corn pollen.

Losey noted that 44 percent of the larvae that consumed the engineered pollen died. The BT-corn produces pollen that contains crystalline endotoxin, which, as it turns out, poisons monarch caterpillars.

In the article he submitted for publication, Losey was sure to include a prominent disclaimer that his findings were preliminary and did not prove BT-corn to be harmful to butterflies. All the same, after Losey published his study, he says, he was attacked by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the world's largest international biotech group, with a membership that includes the multinational giants Syngenta, Monsanto, Genentech, Bayer CropScience, and DuPont. (Coincidentally, BIO holds its annual meeting in San Francisco this week.) BIO supplied  misinformation to the popular media, Losey says, and the resulting maelstrom of press reports on his study was like nothing he had ever seen. "It was overwhelming, and certainly there were industry folks trying to denigrate what we found," says Losey. "We can't say whether [genetically modified organisms] are safe or not until we can study them."

Angelica Hilbeck had an uncannily similar experience. A native of Stuttgart, Germany, Hilbeck studied for her Ph.D. in entomology at North Carolina State University, where she developed an interest in genetically modified crops and their relationship to insects. She returned to Europe to work for the Swiss Federal Research Station for Agro-Ecology and began to study the environmental effects of crops that are genetically engineered to kill certain insects. Hilbeck wanted to find out whether insects that are not meant to be the targets of a plant's genetically built-in insecticide might unintentionally be killed. She decided to study a type of genetically modified corn produced by Syngenta; her main so-called "non-target organism" was the green lacewing fly, which feeds on the larvae of the target organism, the European corn borer. Hilbeck's research showed that the green lacewing was being poisoned by eating corn borer larvae that had fed on the genetically modified corn. Hilbeck basically proved that the genetically modified crops had broader environmental ramifications than first realized.

When her first publications came out in 1998, Hilbeck says, environmental organizations picked up the news and spread it through the media -- and, Hilbeck says, the biotech industry retaliated.

"They [Syngenta officials] first of all tried to delay publications," says Hilbeck. "We had used their seeds, and they had the right to see the publications before we published, and they delayed."

Then, Hilbeck says, Syngenta sent out a press  release claiming that the German researcher had fed dead larvae to the lacewing flies, and that the tthe lacewing died because the corn borer larvae were not alive when eaten -- a claim that Hilbeck calls ridiculous. "They were hoping that by discrediting the messenger, the message would die," says Hilbeck. "They went for our credentials as scientists, and with that of our work."

Hilbeck says that she was pressured by her institute to stop research. Syngenta officials accused her of focusing entirely on the bad effects, and not at all on the benefits, of genetically modified corn. But she says the value of risk assessment lies in determining whether previously unknown dangers exist, and, if they do, how significant they might be. "As an ecologist you go out and assess the risks; it is clearly a very beneficial thing to do," Hilbeck says. "But clearly they felt the work was too inflammatory."

Hilbeck was working under temporary contracts at the Swiss Federal Research Station for Agro-Ecology; the contracts weren't renewed. She says she does not feel the same pressure from her current employer, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

The most dramatic and high-profile allegations about retaliation against researchers involve Arpad Pusztai, a native of Hungary who was, until August 1998, the senior scientist at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland. He made the mistake of publishing a study on potatoes transgenically modified to make them more pest-resistant without first consulting his institute. He fed the potatoes to rodents and discovered that there were dramatically negative effects on the animals' stomach linings, as well as immunological damage. This was one of the few studies ever done to assess the risks of such food on humans or animals.

The study was published in the leading United Kingdom medical journal, The Lancet. Shortly thereafter, Pusztai's home was burglarized, his files detailing the research were stolen, and he was fired from his job of 30 years at Rowett. Pusztai says he has undergone a slanderous international campaign to discredit him. He now spends much of his time traveling to interested universities and groups telling his story.

"I grew up under Nazis and Communists," Pusztai said during a panel discussion on the difficulties faced by researchers studying genetically modified organisms held at UC Berkeley in December. "But only in the U.K. for seven months was I not allowed to defend myself. How many other papers should have been -- but have not been -- published?"

... Tyrone Hayes is not attempting to have atrazine banned from use. He is, he says, just trying to protect the scientific process from being perverted by those with huge financial incentives to do so. If banning atrazine (or some other pesticide) would cost the manufacturer too  much money for regulators to contemplate, Hayes says, then regulators should feel free to leave the pesticide on the market -- if they explain that the reason for doing so is financial, rather than scientific. "Atrazine is not going to go away," says Hayes. "What I would like to see is, I would like to see honesty. Atrazine earns $500 to $800 million per year, and it increases corn yield by only 1.2 percent. We need to acknowledge that it makes a lot of money, and we can't afford to take atrazine off the market.

"It's that simple."

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive