The Ecologist Vol 32 No 4, May 2002
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A dirty tricks campaign leads straight to the door of a Monsanto PR company, says Jonathan Matthews in the launch of his new column.
The journal Science reporting recently on how the Mexican "maize scandal" was driving the battle over GM crops "to new heights of acrimony and confusion", noted the part played by, "widely circulating anonymous e-mails" accusing researchers, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, of "conflicts of interest and other misdeeds".
These accusations surfaced first in late November on the day of Nature's publication of Chapela and Quist's findings of GM contamination of maize varieties in Mexico - the global heartland of maize diversity. Samples of native criollo corn were found to contain a genetic 'switch' commonly used in GM crops and one sample was even found to contain a commonly inserted gene that prompts the plant to produce a poison. The results were particularly surprising as Mexico banned the growing of GM maize in 1998, and the last known GM crops were grown almost 60 miles from where the contaminated maize was found.
For the biotech industry this could not have come at a worse time. Its efforts to lift the European, Brazilian, and Mexican moratoria on GM seeds or foods were all coming to a head.
Chapela and Quist came under immediate attack in a furious volley of e-mails published on the AgBioView listserv. AgBioView correspondents calling themselves 'Mary Murphy' and 'Andura Smetacek' claimed Chapela and Quist's research was a product of a conspiracy with "fear-mongering activists". The conspirators' aim, apparently, was to attack "biotechnology, free-trade, intellectual property rights and other politically motivated agenda items."
These claims prompted a series of further attacks from others. Prof Anthony Trewavas, for example, denounced scientists like Chapela who had "political axes to grind". Trewavas demanded Chapela be fired unless he handed over his maize samples for checking.
This was not Trewavas's first controversial intervention in the GM debate in response to material put into circulation on AgBioView. Last October, for instance, Trewavas was named in the High Court as the source of an anti-Greenpeace letter at the centre of a libel case. Trewavas subsequently claimed that the letter originated on AgBioView.
The last piece in question was posted by one Andura Smetacek, who regularly posts vitriolic attacks on critics of the biotech industry. In Smetacek's early posts, interestingly, repeated reference is made to one particular website, CFFAR.org. Ostensibly, CFFAR - or the Center for Food and Agricultural Research, to give it its full title - is "a public policy and research coalition" concerned with "food and fiber production." But despite links to CFFAR.org from the websites of US public libraries and university departments, there appears to be no evidence this organisation really exists.
To judge by the frequent usage of words like "violence", "terrorism", and "acts of terror", the real purpose of the site is to associate biotech industry opponents with terrorism. This mission is faciliated by fabricated claims. In its "vandalwatch.org" section, for instance, CFFAR.org accuses Greenpeace of engaging in multiple attacks on British farms. Greenpeace is accused of commandeering farmers' tractors and crashing through fences in pursuit of farmers' families.
The domain registration details for CFFAR.org show the registrant to be one 'THEODOROV, MANUEL'. Among early signatories to a pro-agbiotech petition launched by AgBioView list editor, Prof CS Prakash, the following details can be found: NAME: emmanuel theodorou. POSITION: director of associations. ORGANIZATION: bivings woodell, Inc. DEPARTMENT: advocacy and outreach.
What kind of "advocacy and outreach" do Bivings Woodell, Inc., aka the Bivings Group, do? According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, "The Bivings Group has developed 'Internet advocacy' campaigns for corporate America since 1996... Biotechnology giant Monsanto [is] among the Bivings clients who have discovered how to make the Internet work for them."
As part of its brief, Bivings designs and runs Monsanto's websites and Theodorou is believed to have been part of Bivings' Monsanto team. Mary Murphy would also seem to connect to Bivings. Or so it would seem from the evidence of a fake Associated Press article on the bulletin board of the foxbghsuit.com website. It was posted by "Mary Murphy (bw6.bivwood.com)".
Between them Smetacek and Murphy have had 60 or more attacks published, often very prominently, by Prakash on the AgBioWorld listserv. Prakash presents AgBioWorld as a mainstream science group reliant on the support of individuals and philanthropic foundations. However, a website design specialist who took a detailed look at the AgBioWorld site reported that there appeared to be evidence that part of its content was held on a Bivings' server. Furthermore, agbioworld.org, vandalwatch.org and the Bivings'-designed thebivingsreport.com, all seemed to be the work of the same designer.
Perhaps it's time for Prakash to clarify where AgBioWorld finishes and biotech industry PR begins. Come to that, the Royal Society might like to tell us why Trewavas, one of its media advisors, seems so keen to promulgate PR industry smears. And, finally, Monsanto needs to explain how its much vaunted pledge to abide by principles of openness, transparency and respect tallies with a dirty tricks campaign.