An Irish scientist who has set himself up as a scourge of spin and misinformation in the row over GM potato trials in Ireland, stands accused of bias so extreme that some might consider it fraud.
Shane Morris, who describes himself as "a Canadian public servant", recently set up a blog to comment critically on the GM debate in Ireland. He has used the blog to attack critics of GM for disseminating what he claims are "lies" and "disinformation".
Morris presents himself as both a non-partisan commentator on the GM debate and an expert on GM. In a recent press release, for instance, Morris claimed that he had "published internationally recognized and award winning papers on the issue of GM food and public perceptions".
The "award winning papers" claim appears to be a reference to an article in the British Food Journal that Morris co-authored and which was declared an "outstanding paper" by the publisher. (Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn, British Food Journal, Nov 2003, Volume: 105, Issue: 10, Page: 700 - 713)
The authors - Douglas Powell, Katija Blaine, Shane Morris and Jeff Wilson - all had connections to the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph, where Morris was once a research assistant. The FSN's activities are supported, amongst others, by an extensive list of biotechnology and agribiz corporations.
Morris and his co-authors claimed in the article that their research at a farm store north-west of Toronto showed that when customers were given a choice between sweetcorn clearly labelled either GM or non-GM, and made available at exactly the same price, a sizeable majority opted to purchase the GM sweetcorn.
But a leading Canadian journalist, who made a number of visits to the farm store while the research was in progress, has provided testimony (see below) and photographic evidence that directly contradicts how the research is presented in the British Food Journal by Morris and his co-authors.
In the British Food Journal, Morris and co claim, "The two types of corn were presented in separate wooden bins labeled with either 'genetically engineered Bt sweet corn' or 'Regular sweet-corn'" (p.705). The only other written information referred to in the article that might have influenced the preference of customers at the store is lists of the chemicals used on each type of corn, and pamphlets "with background information on the project." (p.705)
But the journalist, Stuart Laidlaw, who is on the editorial board of the Toronto Star and leads their reporting on agricultural issues, tells a very different story. Indeed, the evidence from his visits to the farm store suggests the research was marked by a level of experimenter bias so extreme that it renders the research worthless (see Laidlaw's account below).
Laidlaw has published a photograph taken at the farm store that shows above the non-GM sweet corn bin a sign headed: "Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?" By contrast, Laidlaw reports, the Bt-sweet corn bin was labelled: "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn" with the fact that it was Bt-corn shown on a separate sign.
The photograph is reproduced in a book by Laidlaw in which he comments, "It is the only time I have seen a store label its own corn 'wormy'"! He also notes that the descriptions of the corn as either "wormy" or "quality" were not mentioned in presentations or writings about the experiment. This is certainly the case with the piece co-authored by Morris in the British Food Journal. If it had been mentioned, it is hard to imagine that the paper would have been published in any self-respecting scientific journal.
Laidlaw drily concludes, "when one bin was marked 'wormy corn' and another 'quality sweet corn,' it was hardly surprising which sold more. Perhaps the choice by [the farm store] customers to take home [during the course of the research] more than five thousand cobs of wormy corn rather than buy 'quality' Bt corn showed some pretty deep misgivings about GM food."
Laidlaw also notes other instances of experimenter bias. During his visits, Laidlaw found, that an information table in the farm store contained, as well as press releases and pamphlets on the experiments, a number of pro-GM fact sheets - some authored by industry lobby groups, but he found no information on display authored by critics of genetic engineering.
The experimenter bias did not stop there. One of Shane Morris's co-authors - the Scientific Director of the Food Safety Network, Douglas Powell, demonstrated to Laidlaw his ability to influence a customer's responses to questions about Bt corn and his future purchasing preferences. This convinced Laidlaw that the only conclusion that could safely be drawn from these experiments was that, "fed a lot of pro-biotech sales pitches, shoppers could be convinced to buy GM products".
Yet, none of these "pro-biotech sales pitches" are made apparent in the paper for which Morris and Powell and their two co-authors were commended. Instead, their research is presented as providing a careful scientific evaluation of consumer purchasing preferences, in combination with agronomic information about the cultivation of the types of sweetcorn on sale.
Below are some excerpts from Stuart Laidlaw's book which may help you judge for yourself Shane Morris's claims to being a reliable and even-handed source of information on GM issues.
[For Morris's British Food Journal piece, see: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/Insight/viewContentItem.do?contentType=Article&contentId=870721 ]
[All the following excerpts are taken from Chapter 4 of "Secret Ingredients" by Stuart Laidlaw (McClelland & Stewart, ISBN: 978-0-7710-4595-0 (0-7710-4595-6))
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