Leading experts demand retraction of "wormy corn" paper (24/1/2008)

NOTE: This open letter has been sent to the editor and editorial board of the British Food Journal (BFJ). It's signed by forty scientists, including leading experts in the areas of science policy and research ethics, and by two Members of Parliament, including Britain's former Minister of the Environment.

The signatories include experts from Britain, Canada, the US, Norway, France, Italy, Brazil, Venezuela, Indonesia and Japan, all of whom have been disgusted by the failure of the British Food Journal to retract a paper which, as they note, 'has brought science and the BFJ into disrepute.'

COMMENT from GM Watch: The behaviour of the editor of the BFJ, and in particular his refusal to even countenance further discussion of this paper despite the extraordinary seriousness of the charges, could not contrast more starkly with the treatment of scientists whose published results prove inconvenient to powerful interests. In the latter case, scientists have been hung out to dry for crimes they haven't even committed. In this case, no matter how outrageously the authors behave, the journal remains steadfastly silent.


Open Letter to British Food Journal Editor & Editorial Board Wormy Corn Paper Must be Retracted

We, the undersigned, are writing to request the Editor and the Editorial Board of the British Food Journal (BFJ) to retract the published article 'Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet corn' [1] and to withdraw its 'Award for Excellence for Most Outstanding Paper in 2004'. This paper, purporting to show that consumers prefer to buy genetically modified (GM) Bt sweet corn over conventional sweet corn, is highly misleading, if not a 'flagrant fraud', as it is based on manipulations of the shoppers' preference, not reported in the paper. When evidence of the manipulations emerged, one of the authors, an employee of the Canadian Government, attempted to suppress the evidence, even resorting to threatening legal action in the UK and Ireland. We summarize the sequence of events for your benefit.

The BFJ published the paper in 2003 [1], and subsequently gave it the 'Award for Excellence for the Most Outstanding Paper in 2004'. The authors claimed to have shown that consumers, when given a choice between GM (Bt) and non-GM sweet corn, preferred to buy the GM-corn by a factor of 3 to 2. But it turned out that the paper was seriously flawed [2] (see Biotech Canada SLAPP Scandal, SiS 36).

Toronto Star journalist Stuart Laidlaw reported on the 'experiment' in his book, Secret Ingredients: The Brave New World of Industrial Farming, (McClelland & Stewart, 2003). The book included a photograph of a sign above the regular sweet corn saying: 'Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?' while the corresponding sign over the GM-corn said: 'Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn.' The contrast between 'Wormy' and 'Quality' was highlighted on the sign by the number of times the regular corn had been sprayed with insecticides and fungicide. This and other blatant attempts to bias the consumers' choice [3] were not reported in the BFJ paper.

A leading researcher into scientific ethics, Dr. Richard Jennings at Cambridge University in the UK, told the New Scientist [4] that if that is the case, 'It is grounds for the journal to retract the article.'

Prof. Joe Cummins, Professor Emeritus of Plant Genetics at University of Western Ontario, wrote a letter to the Editor of the BFJ on 30 May 2006, requesting that the paper and the Award for Excellence both be withdrawn as 'the experiment and its controls do not appear to have been reported either fully or honestly.'

The Editor, Dr. Chris Griffith, Head of the Food Research and Consultancy Unit at the University of Wales, Cardiff, failed to retract the paper, sidestepping the objection with a statement in an 'Editor's note' [5] that: 'A common misconception is that science and research are about facts.' Prof. Cummins' letter was also published in the same 'Editor's note', followed by a lengthy reply from the senior author, Dr. Doug Powell, Associate Professor of Diagnostic Medicine/Pathobiology at Kansas State University, Manhattan, in which he tried to justify the research. He admitted that the 'wormy corn' sign had been present on 30 August 2000 (the day the sales experiment started), and said it was 'changed' (not removed) a week later. But he simply dismissed the charge that this amounted to influencing consumer preference.

The paper's second author, Shane Morris, replied on his website GMOIreland [6], claiming he 'never saw any such misleading 'signs'', despite the photographic evidence obtained by Laidlaw. Instead he produced his own photographs [7], which he said confirm there were no such misleading signs during the data collection period.

Morris is a biotech lobbyist who routinely attacks critics of GM crops on his website, and is also a paid agent of the Canadian Government, a Senior Consumer Analyst at the Consumer Analysis Section of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. And while holding that position, Morris resorted to threats of legal action, a notorious measure commonly referred to as SLAPP Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation [2] - forcing a temporary shutdown of the GM Watch website (which first drew attention to Laidlaw's report).

Meanwhile, new evidence has emerged confirming that the 'wormy corn' sign was indeed present during a substantial part of, if not the entire data collection period, 30 August - 6 October 2000. Tim Lambert, computer scientist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, noticed a small placard with writing placed over the regular corn in Morris's photographs, but the resolution was too low to read. By blowing up the photographs and aligning the placard with the original photograph of the wormy sign, Lambert found a match in the writing [8]; thereby providing proof that the telltale sign, which Morris claimed never to have seen, was present in Morris's own photographs.

Dr. Jennings has since spoken to Private Eye [9], calling the BFJ paper 'a flagrant fraud', and charging the authors with 'a sin of omission by failing to divulge information which quite clearly should have been disclosed.' But as Private Eye commented [10], 'if the researchers had disclosed the wormy corn labels, would any respected scientific journal have published it?'

In November 2007, the Rt Hon. Michael Meacher MP tabled an Early Day Motion in the UK Parliament on Scientific Research into GM Crops [11], which 'regrets the continuing attempts to silence or misrepresent scientists whose research indicates possible human health problems from GM crops', 'deplores the continuing efforts of an employee of the Canadian Government to close down websites in the UK and Republic of Ireland,' and calls for 'journal editors to withdraw papers they have published which subsequently turn out to be grossly misleading or even fraudulent.' This has been signed by 26 MPs from different political parties.

Professor Cummins wrote to the BFJ Editor again on 26 November 2007, drawing attention

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive