GM Attack Dog - a profile of Doug Powell (31/1/2005)

Although less well-known as a pro-GM propagandist than CS Prakash, Doug Powell has been called the 'darling of the pro-biotech lobby and its chief attack dog' in Canada.

From a base at the University of Guelph, Powell's pro-GM communication activities attract funding from around the globe, not least from the biotech industry.

But Powell stands accused of biasing research, of abusing his role as a faculty advisor, and of 'aggressive if not vicious attacks on other scientists'. Even criminal behaviour appears to have been glossed over.

Doug Powell - a GM Watch profile
[for all the links]

Doug Powell is an associate professor in the Dept. of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, Canada. He is also the scientific director for Guelph's Food Safety Network, formerly known as the Agri-Food Risk Management and Communications Project.

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.' (Canadians and GM foods)

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., 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 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 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'. 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


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