Tweaking the truth - Alex Avery on Chapela and Quist's reponse (15/8/2005)

The piece below from CS Prakash's AgBioView list (August 12th) really takes the biscuit!

According to its author - Alex Avery (son of Dennis) who like his father operates out of the Hudson Institute, it is intended to show that the statement issued by Quist and Chapela about the recent PNAS paper on Mexican maize contamination "could have been issued against Chapela and Quist's paper in Nature."

But the differences are far more striking than the similarities. For instance, Avery tweaks (with words substituted in brackets) Quist and Chapela's statement so that it begins as follows:

"We (pro-biotech academicians, scientists, policymakers) were surprised by the results and statements presented in this paper (by Chapela and Quist). We had no prior knowledge of the contents or conclusions of the paper until it was being discussed in the media, a few days ago."

But the equivalence this is intended to suggest is totally misleading. Avery, Prakash and associates were not in any way surprised by the results and statements presented in the Quist and Chapela paper in Nature. They had prior knowledge and they had no need to wait a few days before delivering their initial response. They hit the ground running on the day of publication with a carefully coordinated campaign of attack that involved not just criticism of the research but carefully crafted poison pen attacks on the researchers.

The reason they were so well prepared was that Dr Chapela had quietly alerted the Mexican Government to his findings in advance of publication. As a result, he found himself unceremoniously bundled into a taxi and escorted to a deserted office building in a seedy part of Mexico city where people go to hide from the police or dump the bodies of those who have "disappeared".

Here Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, a leading Mexican government official, proceeded to tell Dr Chapela, "how terrible it was that I was doing the research and how dangerous it would be for me to publish." Chapela was also told that he could instead make his scientific reputation by working as part of an elite scientific research team which would show there were no problems of the sort his research was suggesting, ie that the GM contamination could be explained away.

When Chapela refused to play ball, Mexican officials leaked news of his findings in September 2001 - a good 2 months before the Quist and Chapela paper was published. This gave the biotech industry plenty of time to prepare its response.

As soon as Chapela's paper was published in late November, Prakash ran on his AgBioView list vehement attacks on the integrity of Dr Chapela. Avery himself dismissed the research as "junk science". Other attacks used Quist and Chapela's research simply as a point of reference for smears and allegations against Chapela personally.

The key early attacks on the AgBioview list have been subsequently shown to have come from people working for Monsanto and its Internet PR firm Bivings, who were in the habit of using e-mail fronts as part of an insidious form of "viral marketing" aimed at destroying the reputation of Monsanto's scientific and other critics.

These prominently circulated emails attacked Chapela via extensive detail on his supposedly incriminating associations - associations which it was claimed showed Chapela was "first and foremost an activist" not a scientist. It was claimed that research into Chapela's background showed his willingness to collude with "fear-mongering activists" to attack "biotechnology, free-trade, intellectual property rights and other, politically motivated agenda items."

Chapela's research needed to be understood in the light of this collusion, it was implied, and he should be challenged as to just how far in advance he had begun to "coordinate" the release of his "report" with these"fear-mongering activists? Or more likely, did he start earlier and work with them to design his research for this effect?"

Nobody mentioned that Chapela was well-regarded enough to have recently served on a committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences studying the environmental impact of GM crops.

Contrast the tone and character of those attacks with Chapela and Quist's measured response to the PNAS paper.

For more on the attacks on Chapela: http://ngin.tripod.com/deceit_index.html

For Chapela and Quist's actual response to the PNAS paper:
Chapela Quist Statement Ironic
- Alex Avery, Hudson Institute [via AgBioView]

I find the statement released by Chapela and Quist to be quite ironic because if the roles and players were reversed, this same statement could have been issued against Chapela and Quist's paper in Nature. Read the following slightly tweaked version of the C/Q statement and tell me this isn't true?

Modified statement:

"We (pro-biotech academicians, scientists, policymakers) were surprised by the results and statements presented in this paper (by Chapela and Quist). We had no prior knowledge of the contents or conclusions of the paper until it was being discussed in the media, a few days ago. On first approach, it seems to us highly suspect that transgenic DNA may have been (absent) local landraces of maize in Mexico would suddenly become (ubiquitous) within a couple of years.

We continue to be surprised by the interpretation of the significance of this paper as well as by the many representations made about it by the authors for the general public and the media. We are deeply concerned by the conclusions being drawn from those representations in terms of GMO policy and trade, since we feel that these conclusions are not warranted by this paper's results or the interpretation of those results.

We have noticed troubling methodological and technical problems in the (Nature) paper which would have deserved close attention before publication, and certainly before any conclusions could be drawn from it. We are writing a first rebuttal of the paper dealing with these questions, and will make this rebuttal public as soon as it is carefully reviewed and considered by our colleagues.

Given the fact that the paper was published nonetheless, and that conclusions from the biological to the policy and commercial levels are quickly being used in developing policy, we strongly recommend caution in deriving policy from this paper. The scientific community needs the opportunity to apply scrutiny to this work, so that discourse can help guide exactly what can b

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