In May 2006 Doug Powell took up a post in the Department of Pathobiology at Kansas State University. He was formerly an associate professor in the Dept. of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, Canada. He was also the scientific director for Guelph's Food Safety Network, formerly known as the Agri-Food Risk Management and Communications Project, which now largely operates out of Kansas State.
Canada is one of the world's largest producers of genetically modified crops and Powell is a keen supporter of the technology. A member of the Ontario Bt-corn coalition, Powell accuses those who criticise GM crops of engaging in 'sound bite science' that has 'everything to do with political opportunism and nothing to do with food safety'. (Don't be fooled)
Powell is a fierce opponent of any move to make the labelling of GM foods mandatory. According to Powell, 'Mandatory labeling is not about creating choice at all. It's about targeting products, creating retailer nervousness and customer fears and ultimately removing choice from the marketplace.' (Consumers prefer genetically enegineered sweet corn)
The Food Safety Network has amongst its declared aims a commitment to 'actively engage the Canadian and international publics in discussions and debate about food safety options' via 'on-going media outreach, letters-to-the-editor, research-based press releases and weekly opinion articles distributed nationally and internationally.'
Powell's own commitment to media outreach can be assessed from his curriculum vitae (resume). Between 2000 and January 2003 he wrote some 80 articles for the general media, in addition to articles for trade publications. In the same period, according to his c.v. when it was available online, he was involved in approximately 1,500 'media interviews or hits (where Powell was referenced for background material)'.
Powell's prolific engagement on the GM issue has proven controversial. He has been called the 'darling of the pro-biotech lobby and its chief attack dog' and has been accused of using his 'regular appearances on the op-ed pages of the nation to denigrate anyone who criticizes the science or the regulatory framework around biotechnology'. (Propaganda is not science)
In an article entitled Rude Science in the Manitoba Cooperator (58(46):4 21 June 2001), editor John Morriss reviewed Powell's performance as a science communicator, describing him as a 'tenured Assistant Professor at a Canadian university' who at some point 'morphed into a full-blown apologist for biotechnology, while still operating under his 'food safety' umbrella'. For Morriss, even more serious than Powell's role as a biotech apologist, is his 'aggressive if not vicious attacks on other scientists who dare to challenge his views' .
Morriss gives as an example Powell's 'offensive attack on no less than the Royal Society of Canada and the members of the panel it appointed to review food biotechnology'. He quotes from a piece Powell contributed to The National Post - as part of 'Junk Science Week' - in which Powell dismissed the Royal Society's report (Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada) as ‘ 'a document that more resembled a Greenpeace hatchet job than a reasoned analysis of the science surrounding GM issues'.
Powell also claimed the Royal Society report had 'aroused understandable outrage from this country's scientists.' Morriss comments, 'This country's scientists? Perhaps Powell means all with the exception of the 14 scientists on the panel... including (one) at the University of Guelph... apparently 'academic freedom' at that university allows trashing of your colleague's work in non-peer reviewed journals.'
Powell's notoriety for 'aggressive if not vicious attacks' extends beyond his 'attack dog' defence of GMOs. In autumn 2004 he made the front page of Guelph's local paper when he pleaded guilty to assault. He was ordered by the judge to take counselling for domestic violence after it emerged he had spat in the face of his girlfriend after subjecting her to 'a string of abusive terms'. He had also prevented her from making a 911 call. It also emerged in court that Powell had two prior convictions for criminal negligence causing death, for which he had been sentenced to 17 months in jail. (Professor Gets Probation for Spitting on Girlfriend, Guelph Mercury, 6 Nov 2004)
A curious aspect of the case was that the judge was asked to give Powell a discharge. Discharges are normally only granted to first offenders so that they do not acquire a criminal record. Powell, as the judge noted, already had a criminal record as a result of the two prior convictions for serious criminal offences. However, the judge was advised that Powell - 'a well-respected consultant, a prolific writer and an expert in his field of food science who travels extensively' - had a travel waiver that allowed him to enter the United States despite his criminal convictions. The judge was persuaded by a joint submission on sentencing from the prosecution and the defence that a criminal conviction for domestic violence might serve to prevent Powell from crossing the border. The judge indicated that he was only agreeing to the discharge reluctantly as 'every abusive man needs to get the message' that they would not just get a slap on the wrist from the court. (Guelph Mercury)
It remains to be seen whether the Food Safety Network's funders will be similarly prepared to set aside Powell's abusive behaviour and waive his criminal convictions because of the job he's doing. To date there has certainly been no lack of financial backers.
One of the concerns expressed by the Royal Society of Canada in the report to which Powell took such exception, was the growing evidence of university researchers building 'unprecedented ties with industry partners'. In Powell's case Monsanto helped support his postgraduate studies (to the tune of $40000). And Powell's Food Safety Network has had an ever lengthening list of private funders. They include many with interests directly related to biotechnology, as well as some of the world's biggest agri-food corporations. The list includes Monsanto, DuPont, Eli Lilly, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred, ConAgra, McCain, McDonald's, Nestle, Ag-West Biotech, Bioniche Life Sciences Inc., Southern Crop Protection Association, Pharmacia, AgCare and the (biotech industry funded) Council for Biotechnology Information. The list of Powell's financial backers extends well beyond Canada to include organisations such as Central Laboratories Friedrichsdorf in Germany, Plant Bioscience Ltd. in the UK, Hort Research and Crop and Food Research in New Zealand, and Syngenta Seeds USA.
Judging by the personnel available to support Powell's activities, the Food Safety Network is far from under-resourced. For the period 2000-2002, Powell lists as under his supervision: 12 members of the 'News Team', 7 research associates, and 4 technicians for the Food Safety Network's toll-free Call Centre. Powell's graduate students also play an active part in the Network's communication activities (see below).
The 'News Team' contribute to the 5 listservs under Powell's direction: Bioednet (for science teachers), the Food Safety Network (FSnet), Functional FoodNet (FFnet), the Animal Network (Animalnet) and the Agriculture Network (Agnet). The most significant of these is Agnet.
Launched in June 1998 , Agnet reaches an international audience and is one of the two key pro-GM listservs - the other being CS Prakash's AgBioView . Agnet' s long list of funders has included Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, DeKalb (now part of Monsanto), and Pioneer Hi-Bred (part of DuPont).
The Food Safety Network, as part of its 'educational and consumer outreach', also has its own 'Food Safety Network Model Farm, a 250-acre fruit and vegetable operation owned and operated by Jeff and Sharon Wilson of Hillsburgh, Ontario, including continuing comparative research on genetically engineered and conventional sweet corn and potatoes'. Jeff Wilson was formerly the chair of AgCare, a strongly pro-GM 'coalition of agricultural groups' with which Powell has also been associated.
Wilson and Powell have used the Model Farm to run research on consumer responses to GM (Bt) sweet corn and non-GM (conventional) sweet corn. The sweet corn was separated into two separate bins and labelled as genetically engineered Bt sweet corn or regular sweet corn. Both were sold for the same price and sales showed the genetically engineered Bt sweet corn outselling the regular sweet corn.
Although Powell has repeatedly claimed the research shows 'consumers voting with their wallets' for the GM produce, concern has been expressed about strong experimenter bias in the assessment of consumer preference. Stuart Laidlaw of the Toronto Star in a book entitled Secret Ingredients reproduced a photo taken at the Wilson farm market which shows that above the non-GM sweet corn bin was a sign headed 'Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?' followed by a long list of chemicals applied. In contrast, the Bt-sweet corn bin was labelled: 'Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn'. T he label wording introduces clear experimental bias. Indeed, what is so remarkable, says Laidlaw, is that consumers were willing to buy as many as 5000 cobs of 'wormy' (as against 'quality') sweet corn.
Despite this the research was peer reviewed and published in the British Food Journal. The journal later awarded the study a prize as its 'most outstanding paper' of 2004. However, the paper included no information about the signs saying 'wormy' and 'quality' corn. In late May 2006 New Scientist reported that a 'leading researcher into scientific ethics is calling for the withdrawal of a paper published in the British Food Journal two years ago purporting to show that consumers preferred genetically modified to non-GM sweetcorn.' The article said that Dr Richard Jennings, who studies research conduct at the University of Cambridge, had called for the retraction of the paper in the light of the evidence of experimenter bias.
The concern that Powell is operating more as a propagandist than a scientist is not confined to his research. In 2002, Ann Clark, in a presentation sponsored by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, made a scathing attack on those like Powell who abused their role as educators for propaganda purposes. According to Clark, 'Those entrusted with graduate education frame the research questions and methods which solidify the values of the students they supervise. And what some are doing today under the umbrella of academic freedom is actually not far removed from the proclamations of Orwell's Ministry of Truth.'
Although Clark does not mention Powell by name, her 'evidence that students are already mastering the art of doublespeak' includes 'an article posted 6 September 2002 to a Canadian university website... by a graduate student emulating the distinctive writing style of the faculty adviser who was quoted at the start of this paper'. The quote in question is from Doug Powell.
Clark analyses statements in Powell's student's article, which was about the case of Percy Schmeiser - a Canadian farmer sued by Monsanto, to show that it uses 'intentionally misleading wording, innuendo, and ridicule - the standard tools of doublespeak - to discredit and diminish without actually addressing the substantive issues raised by the Schmeiser case.' (Industry and Academic Biology: teaching students the art of double-speak)
In this context, it is interesting to note that the Food Safety Network graduate students and staff have, under Powell's direction, given 'talks, workshops and other forms of outreach with teachers and students across Ontario'. Science teachers from across Canada have also been involved in some events, such as an introduction to GM foods, provided by Powell, and a tour of the Food Safety Network's Model Farm where the consumer preference research on Bt corn is conducted. (Outreach with teachers and students)
In 2002 Powell was a visiting researcher to the Life Sciences Network (LSN) in New Zealand, which lobbies aggressively for GM food and crops. Some of New Zealand's state funded agricultural institutes that helped to fund LSN have also supported Powell's Food Safety Network.
The parallels and differences between LSN and the Food Safety Network are instructive. LSN openly operates as a lobby group. It operates as an entity ostensibly independent of universities and scientific institutes with interests in biotechnology, even though it has quite often enjoyed both their covert and overt support, including financial support and 'membership'. That support has, however, attracted controversy and seems to have led to an eventual withdrawal of funding.
The Food Safety Network, on the other hand, existed under Powell as an integral part of the University of Guelph while enjoying the considerable support of industry. In other words, at Guelph propagandising for GMOs has been institutionalised to the point where it became Powell's full-time professional role to 'actively engage the Canadian and international publics' in defence of GMOs.
While many would view such an overtly campaigning role as inappropriate for a scientist and educator within a public university, that is not how Powell sees it. For Powell it is those scientists and educators who refuse to take a lead in defending GM crops who are at fault. Such scientists, according to Powell, 'abdicate their leadership responsibilities and leave students to form their opinions in a sea of websites, conversations rooted in caffeine-stimulated intuition, and conspiracy-theory speculations.' For Powell this is an 'abandonment of educational leadership'. (Quoted in Industry and Academic Biology: teaching students the art of double-speak)