Prof Bull**** gets "tremendous honor"! (5/5/2005)

CS Prakash is leading the celebrations, on behalf of his AgBioWorld campaign, over the GM crop scientists and/or promoters who've just been "elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (USA) which is among the highest scientific honors... AgBioWorld congratulates all the scientists and scholars for this tremendous honor."

Among the newly elected foreign associates hilighted by Prakash are Calestous Juma from Harvard, and David Baulcombe, head of the Sainsbury Laboratory, and professor at the John Innes Centre, Norwich (United Kingdom)

The following article from GM Watch editor, Jonathan Matthews, may give some insight into the character of Prof Baulcombe's contribution to the GM debate.

The article, first published in 1999, also looks at the contribution to the debate of Prof Mike Wilson and Dr Nigel Halford.

Any apparent resemblance between Baulcombe, Halford and Wilson and that illustrious trio of GM-promoting scientists - Prof Bull****, Dr Halftruth and Prof Wilspin - who made their first appearance in a virtual laboratory on the web around the time of the article's publication, is, of course, entirely fortuitous.


The pro-GM establishment has branded the overwhelming public hostility to GM foods as "irrational" and "not based in science". Tony Blair has admonished us to "keep an open mind" and "proceed according to genuine scientific evidence." Jonathan Matthews decided to take Blair up on his challenge and do just that. His discoveries prompt him to ask whether, in trumpeting the value of "sound science", the biotech brigade have merely made a rope to hang themselves.

Shakespeare's Henry IV Part Two is opened by a character called Rumour who stuffs "the ears of men with false reports." This, according to the authors of a recent pro-GM article in Nature Biotechnology, "False reports and the ears of men," is exactly what’s driving forward the current GM debate - with dire consequences for "the real world of science and public policy." What’s required of scientists and public alike, according to the authors, is "selfless integrity" and a stronger critical response to misleading information. 1

The authors' preoccupation is predictably with reports that may damage the standing of GM. But what if there is as much or more reason to be concerned about the contrary? What if a flood of misinformation has not so much hindered this technology as helped to propel it forward? Couldn't the ears of farmers, the political elite and, more recently, the general public have been stuffed with false reports favouring, rather than challenging, GM?

And if this has occurred, has the role of Rumour in all of this really been filled solely by the likes of Monsanto? Or could scientists have actually played a key role in giving credence to the GM propaganda campaign - a campaign from which scientific caution, selfless integrity and a strong critical response have indeed been absent?

The rules of the game

To answer these questions, let's begin by establishing the rules of the "integrity" game.

The authors of the article in Nature Biotechnology1 focus their attack on the way in which small lab-based research studies have allegedly been hyped by the media to an uncritical public with the collusion of the scientists concerned. Theirs, however, is but one of many recent calls for strict scientific rectitude in response to reports that are perceived as raising concerns about GM.

The most glaring example of a breach of the required code is supposedly that of Dr Pusztai's brief comments on television concerning the food safety implications of his research on GM potatoes. Condemnation has focused especially on the fact that his comments were made about unpublished research that hadn't been subject to peer review.

The true scientist, it is implied, would only argue his case with great care on the basis of sound peer reviewed data open to critical scrutiny.

Such caution seems admirable but the joke, as we shall see, is that these standards are only being required of perceived critics of GM. They are simply ignored in relation to scientists making statements supportive of GM. In the latter case, it seems, while such scientists claim the moral and intellectual high ground, in reality, anything goes!

Statements that are quite unproven, comments on research that is still unpublished, even accounts of research that may be seriously misleading or entirely false, are likely to pass without censure—let alone the vilification that has been heaped on Dr Pusztai.

Many such statements made in public or private meetings will have gone unrecorded but here we’ll look at some recent examples where scientists, knowingly or otherwise, have gone on the record.

"False reports": selling GM

An agricultural journalist reporting on a recent public meeting, about an AgrEvo farmscale GM trial in Norfolk, writes of how an eminent scientist on the panel "so obviously could not comprehend why people will not accept proven scientific fact"2. The perplexed scientist was Professor David Baulcombe, head of the Plant Molecular Virology Department at the prestigious Sainsbury Laboratory based at the John Innes Centre (JIC). The JIC, often described as Europe’s leading plant biotechnology institute, represents itself as a wholly independent, charitable and mainly publicly funded institution.

In his opening statement to the meeting, Professor Baulcombe focused particularly on what he regarded as the environmental benefits of GM. He spoke of "enormous environmental benefits, benefits of biodiversity" where GM crops were being grown in North America. In support of these claims he referred to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which was "to be released shortly."

According to Professor Baulcombe, this report showed that "as a result of growing genetically modified corn and cotton, insect-resistant plants, it’s been no longer necessary to apply broad [spectrum] insecticide on a large basis and as a result there has been an increase in the diversity of insect life; there has been a corresponding increase in the diversity of small mammal life and a corresponding increase in the diversity of birds of prey in those areas of the United States." 3

This account of the EPA report obviously provides critical support for Baulcombe’s next statement: "This is an environmental[ly] benign technology, it can bring us enormous potential benefits."3 However, changes in biodiversity are notoriously difficult to pin down in causal terms so it is, to say the least, unfortunate that Prof Baulcombe drew his support from an unpublished source.

There is also the intriguing question of exactly how Prof Baulcombe managed to gain pre-publication access to the results of the report of a U.S. regulatory authority. Explanation is particularly required because the study he describes is hard to tally with the strict remit of the EPA which is to monitor for environmental harm rather than to seek evidence of benefits.

Commenting, in a personal capacity, on the agency’s task of ensuring a "reasonable certainty of no harm," an EPA scientist writes, "We would not typically look at "positive effects". That would be gravy. We have our hands full trying to make sure that negative effects are non-existent or limited!"4 The same scientist also said that while he could not conclusively rule out the existence of the study as described by Professor Baulcombe, being just one scientist in a large agency, he had no knowledge of it.

Professor Baulcombe has been dir


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