On 5th October 2001 Prof Anthony Trewavas FRS was named in the High Court in London as the source of a letter at the centre of a libel case involving Lord Melchett, Greenpeace and the Glasgow Herald. (Greenpeace wins damages over professor's 'unfounded' allegations, Education Guardian, Monday October 8, 2001)
According to an agreed apology published by the Herald on the 6th October:
'On 3 November 2000 the Herald published a letter it had received from Anthony Trewavas, Professor in Plant Biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh. The letter alleged that Greenpeace campaigns had deliberately spread unfounded fears about GM Foods, so as to further the financial interests of Lord Melchett and Greenpeace, that Greenpeace accepted donations from companies and had inappropriate links with commercial organisations. The Herald acknowledges that there is no foundation in any of these allegations.'
When the letter was originally published in the Herald, it was widely publicised by way of the Internet, eg on Monsanto's Knowledge Centre website.
In response to a critical comment following the case, Prof Trewavas repeatedly denied being the original author of the libel letter. He claimed, 'The letter in question was posted on agbioview and was written by a lady in London.' (Reply by Prof Trewavas) In correspondence with the Ecologist Prof Trewavas further identified the author as an Andura Smetacek.
An firstname.lastname@example.org posted around 40 different items to CS Prakash's AgBioView e-mail list. Smetacek's postings were often displayed prominently on the AgBioView list and were at times enthusiastically received:
...In sum, I have one word for your comments - MAGNIFICENT! Keep on
posting your comments.
(Archive: Message #689, Date: August 8, 2000)
The libel letter was not the only controversy triggered by Smetacek. In Autumn 2001 AgBioView prominently circulated emails from Smetacek and a 'Mary Murphy' attacking Dr Ignacio Chapela, a researcher at UC Berkeley and co-author of an article on Mexican maize contamination in the journal Nature. Smetacek posted extensive detail on Chapela's supposedly incriminating associations - associations which Smetacek claimed showed Chapela was 'first and foremost an activist' not a scientist.
According to Smetacek, research into Chapela's background showed his willingness to collude with 'fear-mongering activists' to attack 'biotechnology, free-trade, intellectual property rights and other, politically motivated agenda items.' Chapela's research needed to be understood in the light of this collusion, Smetacek implied, and he should be challenged as to just how far in advance he had begun to 'coordinate the release of his "report" with these fear-mongering activists? Or more likely, did he start earlier and work with them to design his research for this effect?'
A string of links followed to items intended to show Chapela had engaged in such incriminating activities as criticising the commercial relationship between UC Berkeley and biotech giant Novartis, or supporting a statement by scientists calling for a moratorium on GM crops. (Ignatio Chapela -- activists FIRST, scientist second, 29 Nov 2001) Smetacek failed to mention, however, that Chapela was well-regarded enough to have recently served on a committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences studying the environmental impact of GM crops.
The next AgBioView bulletin (Fri, 30 Nov 2001) had as its lead item a response to Smetacek's piece in which a subscriber called on scientists to use the media to expose Chapela's dubious links.In the next Agbioview bulletin that day, Dr Julian Kinderlerer took issue with the kind of attacks being made on the Berkeley researchers:
'I am really concerned at the personal attacks that some choose to use in relation to a piece of research. ...To attack a piece of work by attacking the integrity of the workers is a tactic not usually used by scientists.' (RE: AGBIOVIEW: Chapela and Mexican corn, 30 Nov 2001)
Prakash had arranged for a response to this from Smetacek to go out immediately below Dr Kinderlerer's comments. Smetacek appears to concede that Kinderlerer has a valid point but then proceeds to make a series of further attacks on Chapela, concluding,
'How much money does Chapela take in speaking fees, travel reimbursements and other donations from this [anti-biotech] industry for his help in misleading fear-based marketing campaigns?' (More evidence that Chapela was coordinating with activists, 30 Nov 2001)
This e-mail contained Smetacek's only serious attempt to corroborate the claim, made in 'her' original attack, of some sort of collusion between the Berkeley researchers and the 'fear-mongering activists'. Smetacek quoted from a newsletter from 'The Campaign' which stated:
'In early October, we reported that native corn was testing positive for genetically engineered DNA in an area in Mexico where biotech corn has not been permitted to be grown.' The implication, given that Quist and Chapela's research wasn't published until the end of November, was that this could only have been known about in early October through some sort of 'collusion' with the researchers. In reality, however, Nature had run a piece headlined 'Transgenic corn found growing in Mexico' back in September (Nature 413; 337).
Smetacek's attacks appear to have been part of a carefully coordinated attack designed to get inflammatory material rapidly and anonymously into circulation in the scientific community with a view to producing exactly the kind of acrimony and controversy that duly followed .
Smetacek's other main line of attack on biotech industry critics in her postings to AgBioView was to a