Alan McHughen is a molecular geneticist who spent twenty years at the University of Saskatchewan before joining the University of California, Riverside. He is said to have helped develop Canadian and US regulations governing GM plants. He is also the author of the book, 'Pandora's Picnic Basket; The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods', which claims to 'explode the myths and explore the genuine risks of genetic modification (GM) technology'. In the same year his booklet 'Biotechnology and Food' was published by the American Council for Science and Health, which has been described as an 'industry front group that produces PR ammunition for the food processing and chemical industries.'
In 'Pandora's Picnic Basket' McHughen argues that many of the concerns about genetic engineering are based in reality on 'myths' and 'misinformation'. McHughen has even claimed, 'Opponents to GM put forward untenable pseudo-scientific assertions, then run away, unwilling or unable to defend their positions.'
Yet 'Pandora's Picnic Basket' contains a number of 'untenable pseudo-scientific assertions'. For instance, on p.233 we read, 'According to Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute the highly respected US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta noted 2471 cases, including 250 deaths, of infection by the unpleasant E. coli strain O157:H7 in 1996 alone. These bacteria live in manure. Manure is used as a fertilizer in organic farming systems. Organic foods were implicated in about a third of the confirmed O157:H7 cases despite the fact that organic food constitutes only about 1% of food consumed in the US.'
In fact, according to Robert Tauxe, M.D., chief of the food borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the CDC, there is no such data on organic food production in existence at their centers and he says Avery's claims are 'absolutely not true.' Avery's claims have repeatedly been debunked with even Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute commenting that, 'looking at a few selectively reported cases from a single year doesn't seem to be convincing anybody who doesn't already have a predilection to believe you in the first place.'
That McHughen should have a predeliction to believe Avery may not be surprising given that McHughen's own work has centered on seeking to genetically engineer industrial traits into flax in the face of strong opposition. The president of Flax Growers Western Canada,Chris Hale, accused McHughen of a 'clear misunderstanding' of flax markets when McHughen argued it was an ideal crop for engineering such industrial traits as the production of plastics or drugs as it wasn't part of the food chain. Hale pointed out that Europe, which was 'far and away' the biggest importer of Canadian flax, required an assurance from the Canadian Grain Commission that no GM flax was grown in Canada. Hale also pointed out that the residue of flax exported to Europe for industrial purposes is fed to livestock. The Canadian flax industry managed to get a chemical-resistant variety flax, developed by McHughen, banned from commercial production. ( Flax growers reject GM proposal )
However, McHughen has recognised the problems associated with 'contamination' via pollen drift etc. Perhaps for that reason McHughen was one of the few biotechnologists ready to question the tretament of Dr Ignacio Chapela, the UC Berkeley scientist who published a paper on the contamination of native maize by GM varieties in Mexico. T he journal Science and Policy Perspectives reported:
'Another scientist who strongly sides with Chapela is Alan McHughen, a researcher at the Crop Development Center at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. McHughen is one of those who believe the outburst toward Chapela was far out of proportion to the alleged offense and senses that the attacks on
Quist and Chapela were coordinated and conspiratorial. "I think there are a group of people who for whatever reason don't want to hear anything at all about reasons to question the technology," says McHughen. "I read Chapela's paper over and over again and I just couldn't find anything that was inflammatory about it." '