Pro-GM scientist attacks bt cotton paper as a "shoddy publication based on meagre and questionable data" (26/2/2003)

26 February 2003


AgBioIndia has pisked up a remarkable attack, 'Outstanding Performance of Bt Cotton in India....Really?', posted on Prakash's pro-GM AgBioView on the recent paper in Science claiming startling benefits from Bt cotton growing in India.

What makes the attack remarkable is not only where it was published but the fact that the author Shanthu Shantharam is himself a strong proponent of GMOs and Bt cotton who supported the campaign against Quist and Chapela's Mexican maize paper. He writes of the Bt cotton claims, "This kind of shoddy publication based on meagre and questionable field data in reputed journals like SCIENCE do more harm to science and technology development, perhaps set GMO technology backwards."


The AgBioIndia Bulletin


Presenting the Real Picture
26 Feburary

Sub -- Bt cotton: 'Science' under attack

First it was the science journal -- Nature. It is now the turn of -- Science. Both the journals have established what we have been worrying for long -- there is no place for good science. After the publication of a shoddy piece of so-called research (in reality, it was a public relations exercise for the biotechnology company), it is the credibility of Science journal that is at stake.

It also raises serious questions about the falling standards of 'peer-review'. The entire process of 'peer-review' has now degenerated into "you pat my back and I pat yours".  David Zilberman and Matin Qaim's controversial paper "Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries" (Science, Feb 7, 2003, Vol. 299) clearly demonstrates the denigration that has taken place ever since industries started sponsoring research.

Meanwhile, we bring you a strong reaction from a scientist to the Bt cotton paper in Science. Dr Shanthu Shantharam says "It was equally startling as to how this report passed the muster of peer review at Science. This paper really questions the current standards of peer review in a prestigious journal like Science that has a century old reputation for high scientific standards."

We hope Dr Shantharam's reaction will inspire the public sector scientists to also stand up and be counted.  After all, what is at stake is the future of good science.


1. Outstanding Performance of Bt Cotton in India....Really? -- Dr Shanthu Shantharam
2. The Fake Parade -- Jonathan Mathews

Sub: Your reply on Science research paper

It is wonderful to read that you are asking questions to the so-called science experts. The opponents are strong and wealthy and its going to be difficult to challenge them. However, I am proud of you and your team to stay strong on the ground for humanity. There are a few people in this world who stand for poor farmers and hungry people. Unfortunately like other goverments, Indian government is also providing all helps to those big corporates.

I salute your courage. We will stay with you in this struggle.

Kafoor AM [email protected]
Many, many thanks for your fitting reply to Matin Qaim and David Zilberman. It also helps me to understand the discussion and its pitfalls much better. I am glad that you had reacted to their report publicly and honestly. Rainer Hoerig [email protected]


1. Outstanding Performance of Bt Cotton in India....Really?

By Shanthu Shantharam

It was really startling to read the latest report in SCIENCE 7 February 2003 on the outstanding (hard to believe) performance of Bt cotton field trials. It was equally startling as to how this report passed the muster of peer review at SCIENCE. This paper really questions the current standards of peer review in a prestigious like SCIENCE that has a century old reputation for high scientific standards of the journal. It is unfortunate that both SCIENCE and NATURE are making very serious errors in judgement in this most controversial of all technologies and by hastily publishing such premature manuscripts based on seemingly not so rigorous data. By doing so, these journals are doing a great disservice to science and technology development. The timing of the publication also makes it quite suspicious. I thought SCIENCE would have learnt a lesson from NATURE publication on Oxaca episode and also from its own experience publishing the rice genome papers last year.

First of all, I have no doubts that Bt technology in any crop when deployed as a part of integrated pest management program will outperform non-Bt counterparts and help protect the environment in more ways than one. But, to suggest as the authors Matin Qaim and David Zilberman do that Bt cotton has out yielded non-Bt cotton by more than 80% and link it directly to a single Bt gene is outlandish. It is obvious that the authors have no background in plant breeding and genetics; otherwise prudence would have them consult cotton breeders before staking out such a claim.

Going by this paper, Bt gene is more apt to be dubbed a "miracle gene". Sadly, it is not.

The other weakness of the paper is total reliance on the company (Mahyco) supplied data from field tests and extrapolating it into the stratosphere.  I have no reason to doubt the data just because it was collected by Mahyco, but because no reader of the paper can decipher precisely what kind of data was made available to authors. I wish the company put their field test data and the methods by which they gathered the data available on their company web site so that any other scientist who wishes to analyze them can do so. By doing that they will be contributing to the evolution of a body of scientifically rigorous knowledge that can be more valuable.

In my opinion, this paper should have been published in Journal of Crop Science or Agronomy with much more details so that it would help discerning readers to evaluate the quality of the data and the conclusions. By no means the editor of SCIENCE should have allowed the title of the paper as it is. The whole paper is about the field tests in India, and the title had no business to suggest that it happens in Developing Countries. This paper has been published in undue haste, and considering the fact the Mahyco Bt cotton varieties were just commercialized last April and only one or two pickings have taken place, the authors and the company should have waited for another two more years (the duration of current commercialisation authorization) and collect statistically meaningful data and carry out rigorous analysis to stake out a claim on the performance of Bt cotton. Every field agronomist or a breeder knows that carefully controlled field tests and real farmers field performance are directly not so related.

There is hardly any good quality science in the paper and yet SCIENCE chose to publish it. It is really very disturbing that even the peer reviewers let go so much of rumination on various social and economic aspects related to GM technology.

As I said in the beginning, I have no doubts about the promise and performance of Bt technology, but I have serious misgivings about the negative impact of this paper will have in furthering the cause of biotechnology anywhere. This kind of shoddy publication based on meagre and questionable field data in reputed journals like SCIENCE do more harm to science and technology development, perhaps set GMO technology backwards. Those of us who took NATURE to task for publishing a shoddy paper on Bt maize "contamination" episode should not let SCIENCE get away with this publication as well.

[Dr Shantharam, formerly with the USDA, now works for Syngenta. His comments first appeared on AgBioView list, under the title: AGBIOVIEW SPECIAL: Bt Cotton in India - How Succesful Is It? Feb 21, 2003. Email: [email protected]]


2. The Fake Parade


Under the banner of populist protest, multinational corporations manufacture the poor
By Jonathan Mathews

"Carrying his placard the man in front of me was clearly one of the poorest of the poor. His shoes were not only threadbare, they were tattered, merely rags barely being held together."

So begins a graphic description of a demonstration that took place at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. The protesters were "mainly poor, virtually all black, and mostly women... street traders and farmers" with an unpalatable message. As an article in a South African periodical put it, "Surely this must have been the environmentalists' worst nightmare. Real poor people marching in the streets and demanding development while opposing the eco-agenda of the Green Left."

And seldom can the views of the poor, in this case a few hundred demonstrators, have been paid so much attention. Articles highlighting the Johannesburg march popped up the world over, in Africa, North America, India, Australia and Israel. In Britain even The Times ran a commentary, under the heading, "I do not need white NGOs to speak for me".

With the summit's passing, the Johannesburg march, far from fading from view, has taken on a still deeper significance. In the November issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology, Val Giddings, a Vice President of the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO), argues that the event marked "something new, something very big" that will make us "look back on Johannesburg as something of a watershed event - a turning point." What made the march so pivotal, he said, was that for the very first time, "real, live, developing-world farmers" were "speaking for themselves" and challenging the "empty arguments of the self-appointed individuals who have professed to speak on their behalf."

To help give them a voice, Giddings singles out the statement of one of the marchers, Chengal Reddy, leader of the Indian Farmers Federation. "Traditional organic farming...," Reddy says, "led to mass starvation in India for centuries... Indian farmers need access to new technologies and especially to biotechnologies."

Giddings also notes that the farmers expressed their contempt for the "empty arguments" of many of the Earth Summiteers by honoring them with a "Bullshit Award" made from two varnished piles of cow dung. The award was given, in particular, to the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, for her role in "advancing policies that perpetuate poverty and hunger"

A powerful rebuke, no doubt. But if anyone deserves the cow dung, it is the Vice President of BIO, for almost every element of the spectacle he describes has been carefully contrived and orchestrated. Take, for instance, Chengal Reddy, the "farmer" that Giddings quotes.  Reddy is not a poor farmer, nor even the representative of poor farmers. Indeed, there is precious little to suggest he is even well-disposed towards the poor. The "Indian Farmers Federation" that he leads is a lobby of big commercial farmers in Andhra Pradesh. On occasion Reddy has admitted to knowing very little about farming, having never farmed in his life. He is, in reality, a politician and businessman whose family are a prominent right-wing political force in Andhra Pradesh-his father having coined the saying, "There is only one thing Dalits (members of the untouchable caste) are good for, and that is being kicked".

If it seems open to doubt that Reddy was in Johannesburg to help the poor speak for themselves, the identity of the march's organizers is also not a source of confidence.  Although the Times' headline said "I do not need white NGOs to speak for me", the media contact on the organizers' press release was "Kendra Okonski", the daughter of a US lumber industrialist who has worked for various right wing anti-regulatory NGOs - all funded and directed, needless to say, by "whites". These include the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based "think tank" whose multi-million dollar budget comes from major US corporations, among them BIO member Dow Chemicals. Okonski also runs the website Counterprotest.net, where her specialty is helping right wing lobbyists take to the streets in mimicry of popular protesters.

Given this, it hardly needs saying that Giddings' "Bullshit Award" was far from, as he suggests, the imaginative riposte of impoverished farmers to India's most celebrated environmentalist. It was, in fact, the creation of another right-wing pressure group-the   Liberty Institute-based in New Delhi and well known for its fervent support of deregulation, GM crops and Big Tobacco.

The Liberty Institute is part of the same network that organized the rally: the deceptively-named "Sustainable Development Network." In London, the SDN shares offices, along with many of its key personnel-including Okonski-with the International Policy Network, a group whose Washington address just happens to be that of the CEI. The SDN is run by Julian Morris, its ubiquitous director, who also claims the title of Environment and Technology Programme Director for the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank that has advocated, amongst other interesting ideas, that African countries be sold off to multinational corporations in the interests of "good government".

The involvement of the likes of Morris, Okonski and Reddy doesn't mean, of course, that no "real poor people," were involved in the Johannesburg march. There were indeed poor people there. James MacKinnon, who reported on the summit for the North American magazine Adbusters, witnessed the march first hand and told of seeing many impoverished street traders, who seemed genuinely aggrieved with the authorities for denying them their usual trading places in the streets around the summit. The flier distributed by the march organizers to recruit these people played on this grievance, and presented the march as a chance to demand, "Freedom to trade". The flier made no mention of "biotechnology" or "development", nor any other issue on the "eco-agenda of the Green Left".

For all that, there were some real farmers present as well. Mackinnon says he spotted some wearing anti-environmentalist t-shirts, with slogans like "Stop Global Whining." This aroused his curiousity, since small-scale African farmers are not normally to be found among those jeering the "bogus science" of climate change.  Yet here they were, with slogans on placards and T-shirts: "Save the Planet from Sustainable Development", "Say No To Eco-Imperialism", "Greens: Stop Hurting the Poor" and "Biotechnology for Africa". On approaching the protesters, however, Mackinnon discovered that all of the props had been made available to the marchers by the organizers. When he tried to converse with some of the farmers about their pro-GM T-shirts, "They smiled shyly; none of them could speak or read English."

Another irresistible question is how impoverished farmers - according to Giddings, there were farmers on the march from five different countries - afforded the journey to  Johannesburg from lands as far away as the Philippines and India. Here, too, there is reason for suspicion. In late 1999 the New York Times reported that a street protest against genetic engineering outside an FDA public hearing in Washington DC was disrupted by a group of African-Americans carrying placards such as "Biotech saves children's lives" and "Biotech equals jobs." The Times learned that Monsanto's PR company, Burston-Marsteller, had paid a Baptist Church from a poor neighborhood to bus in these "demonstrators" as part of a wider campaign "to get groups of church members, union workers and the elderly to speak in favor of genetically engineered foods."

The industry's fingerprints are all over Johannesburg as well. Chengal Reddy, the "farmer" that the Vice President of BIO singled out as an example of farmers from the poorer world "speaking for themselves", has for at least a decade featured prominently in Monsanto's promotional work in India. Other groups represented on the march, including AfricaBio, have also been closely aligned with Monsanto's lobbying for its products. Reddy is known to have been brought to Johannesburg by AfricaBio.

And here lies the real key to the President of BIO's account of the march, and specifically to the attack on Vandana Shiva. Monsanto and BIO want to project an image of GM crop acceptance with a Southern face. That's why Monsanto's Internet homepage used to be adorned with the faces of smiling Asian children. So when an Indian critic of the biotech industry gets featured, as Shiva was recently, on the cover of Time magazine as an environmental hero, the brand is under attack, and has to be protected.

The counterattack takes place via a contrarian lens, one that projects the attackers' vices onto their target. Thus the problem becomes not Monsanto using questionable tactics to push its products onto a wary South, but malevolent agents of the rich world obstructing Monsanto's acceptance in a welcoming Third World. For this reason the press release for the "Bullshit Award" accuses Shiva, amongst other things, of being "a mouthpiece of western eco-imperialism". The media contact for this symbolic rejection of neocolonialism? The American, Kendra Okonski. The mouthpiece denouncing an Indian environmentalist as an agent of the West is a.Western mouthpiece.

The careful framing of the messages and the actors in the rally in Johannesburg provides but one particularly gaudy spectacle in a continuing fake parade. In particular, the Internet provides a perfect medium for such showcases, where the gap between the virtual and the real is easily erased.

Take the South-facing website Foodsecurity.net, which promotes itself as "the web's most complete source of news and information about global food security concerns and sustainable agricultural practices". Foodsecurity.net claims to be "an independent, non-profit coalition of people throughout the world". Despite its global reach, however, Foodsecurity.net's only named staff member is its "African Director", Dr. Michael Mbwille, a Tanzanian doctor who's forever penning articles defending Monsanto and attacking the likes of Greenpeace.

The news and information at Foodsecurity.net is largely pro-GM articles, often vituperative in content and boasting headlines like "The Villainous Vandana Shiva" or "Altered Crops Called Boon for Poor". When one penetrates beyond the news pages, the content is very limited. A single message graces the messageboard posted by an [email protected] - the domain name of The Bivings Group, an internet PR company that numbers Monsanto among its clients. There's also an event posting from an Andura Smetacek, recently identified in an article in The Guardian as an e-mail front used by Monsanto to run a campaign of character assassination against its scientific and environmental critics.

The site is registered to a Graydon Forrer, currently the managing director of Life Sciences Strategies, a company that specializes in "communications programmes" for the bio-science industries. A piece of information that is not usually disclosed in Graydon Forrer's self-presentation is that he was previously Monsanto's director of executive communications. Indeed, he seems to have been working for the company in 1999 - the same year the site of this "independent, non-profit coalition of people throughout the world" was first registered. Foodsecurity's "African Director", Dr. Mbwille, is not, incidentally, in Africa at the moment. He is enjoying a sabbatical observing medical practice in St. Louis, Missouri-the home town, as it happens, of the Monsanto Corporation.

Foodsecurity.net forms but one of a whole series of websites with undisclosed links to biotech industry lobbyists or PR companies, as our previous research has demonstrated. But despite the virtual circus oscillating about him, if the President of BIO were really interested in hearing poor "live, developing-world farmers. speaking for themselves", he need look no further than Chengal Reddy's home state of Andhra Pradesh. Here small-scale farmers and landless laborers were consulted as part of a meticulously conducted "citizens' jury" on World Bank-backed proposals to industrialize local agriculture and introduce GM crops. Having heard all sides of the argument, including as it happens the views of Chengal Reddy, the jury unanimously rejected these proposals, which are likely to force more than 100,000 people off the land. Similar citizens' juries on GM crops in Brazil and in the Indian state of Karnataka have come to similar conclusions - something that the President of BIO is almost certainly aware of.

But rainchecks on the real views of the poor count for little in a world where "something new, something very big" and "a turning point" in the global march towards our corporate future, turns out to be Monsanto's soapbox behind a black man's face.

[Since 1998 Jonathan Matthews has been researching and writing on the industrial alignment of the bio-sciences, and the public relations activities of the biotech industry and its supporters. He co-founded the campaigning news and research service Norfolk Genetic Information Network, also known as GM Watch - http://www.ngin.org.uk ]
You can view previous issues at http://www.agbioindia.org/archive.asp
"[Monsanto] is a company that has been optimistic on the borderline of lying," said Sergey Vasnetsov, senior analyst with Lehman Brothers in New York. "Monsanto has been feeding us these fantasies for two years, and when we saw they weren't real," its stock price fell.

"...those are the two big, bad bullies in the market [Monsanto and Syngenta], so they're going to slug it out," said Bill Johnson, a weed scientist with Purdue University." - Monsanto wants to sow a genetically modified future, By Rachel Melcer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 02/22/2003 http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/business/stories.nsf/Business/12F53E21B03A1A7A86256CD5006E82B2?OpenDocument&Headline=Monsanto+wants+to+sow+a+genetically+modified+future+

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