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[SANET-MG] public relations in science journals
The article below describes the efforts of some people who provide
public relations for GM crops using science journals.Shane Morris was
rewarded for such efforts with a position in the Canadian Ministry of
Agriculture meaning that he will never have to work another day in his
life. His job description is "red meat geneticist" a position that seems
to imply that he is involved in keeping people out of the Canadian food
From GM Watch
Shane Morris, who describes himself as "a Canadian public servant",
recently set up a blog to comment critically on the GM debate in
Ireland. He has used the blog to attack critics of GM for disseminating
what he claims are "lies" and "disinformation".
Morris presents himself as both a non-partisan commentator on the GM
debate and an expert on GM. In a recent press release, for instance,
Morris claimed that he had "published internationally recognized and
award winning papers on the issue of GM food and public perceptions".
The "award winning papers" claim appears to be a reference to an article
in the British Food Journal that Morris co-authored and which was
declared an "outstanding paper" by the publisher. (Agronomic and
consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn, British Food
Journal, Nov 2003, Volume: 105, Issue: 10, Page: 700 - 713)
The authors - Douglas Powell, Katija Blaine, Shane Morris and Jeff
Wilson - all had connections to the Food Safety Network at the
University of Guelph, where Morris was once a research assistant. The
FSN's activities are supported, amongst others, by an extensive list of
biotechnology and agribiz corporations.
Morris and his co-authors claimed in the article that their research at
a farm store north-west of Toronto showed that when customers were given
a choice between sweetcorn clearly labelled either GM or non-GM, and
made available at exactly the same price, a sizeable majority opted to
purchase the GM sweetcorn.
But a leading Canadian journalist, who made a number of visits to the
farm store while the research was in progress, has provided testimony
(see below) and photographic evidence that directly contradicts how the
research is presented in the British Food Journal by Morris and his
In the British Food Journal, Morris and co claim, "The two types of corn
were presented in separate wooden bins labeled with either 'genetically
engineered Bt sweet corn' or 'Regular sweet-corn'" (p.705). The only
other written information referred to in the article that might have
influenced the preference of customers at the store is lists of the
chemicals used on each type of corn, and pamphlets "with background
information on the project." (p.705)
But the journalist, Stuart Laidlaw, who is on the editorial board of the
Toronto Star and leads their reporting on agricultural issues, tells a
very different story. Indeed, the evidence from his visits to the farm
store suggests the research was marked by a level of experimenter bias
so extreme that it renders the research worthless (see Laidlaw's account
Laidlaw has published a photograph taken at the farm store that shows
above the non-GM sweet corn bin a sign headed: "Would You Eat Wormy
Sweet Corn?" By contrast, Laidlaw reports, the Bt-sweet corn bin was
labelled: "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn" with the
fact that it was Bt-corn shown on a separate sign.
The photograph is reproduced in a book by Laidlaw in which he comments,
"It is the only time I have seen a store label its own corn 'wormy'"! He
also notes that the descriptions of the corn as either "wormy" or
"quality" were not mentioned in presentations or writings about the
experiment. This is certainly the case with the piece co-authored by
Morris in the British Food Journal. If it had been mentioned, it is hard
to imagine that the paper would have been published in any
self-respecting scientific journal.
Laidlaw drily concludes, "when one bin was marked 'wormy corn' and
another 'quality sweet corn,' it was hardly surprising which sold more.
Perhaps the choice by [the farm store] customers to take home [during
the course of the research] more than five thousand cobs of wormy corn
rather than buy 'quality' Bt corn showed some pretty deep misgivings
about GM food."
Laidlaw also notes other instances of experimenter bias. During his
visits, Laidlaw found, that an information table in the farm store
contained, as well as press releases and pamphlets on the experiments, a
number of pro-GM fact sheets - some authored by industry lobby groups,
but he found no information on display authored by critics of genetic
The experimenter bias did not stop there. One of Shane Morris's
co-authors - the Scientific Director of the Food Safety Network, Douglas
Powell, demonstrated to Laidlaw his ability to influence a customer's
responses to questions about Bt corn and his future purchasing
preferences. This convinced Laidlaw that the only conclusion that could
safely be drawn from these experiments was that, "fed a lot of
pro-biotech sales pitches, shoppers could be convinced to buy GM products".
Yet, none of these "pro-biotech sales pitches" are made apparent in the
paper for which Morris and Powell and their two co-authors were
commended. Instead, their research is presented as providing a careful
scientific evaluation of consumer purchasing preferences, in combination
with agronomic information about the cultivation of the types of
sweetcorn on sale.
Below are some excerpts from Stuart Laidlaw's book which may help you
judge for yourself Shane Morris's claims to being a reliable and
even-handed source of information on GM issues.
[For Morris's British Food Journal piece, see:
[All the following excerpts are taken from Chapter 4 of "Secret
Ingredients" by Stuart Laidlaw (McClelland & Stewart, ISBN:
Current practitioners of the third-party technique on behalf of the
biotech industry include the Council for Biotechnology Information,
headed by former Monsanto Canada president Ray Mowling, the Food
Biotechnology Communications Network, Ontario Agri-Food Technologies,
and Doug Powell's Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph, which
is funded by the food industry, biotechnology companies, and the
conservative Donner Foundation. Each organization portrays itself as an
unbiased source of information on biotechnology and claims its
pronouncements are based on sound science. Each can be counted on,
however, to give unswerving support to GM foods and to dismiss any
criticism of biotechnology as junk science, whether that criticism comes
from as predictable a group as Greenpeace or as respected a body as the
Royal Society of Canada.
Jeff Wilson [one of Morris's co-authors] likes to refer to himself as
Farmer Jeff. He grows market vegetables just outside the village of
Hillsburgh, northwest of Toronto, northwest of Toronto, and operates a
small greengrocery adjacent to his house... Wilson takes great pride in
knowing most of his customers, talking to them about the growing
conditions that brought them their food, and providing the best looking
produce he can. "This stuff is just gorgeous," Wilson said one afternoon
as we toured his cornfields... [referring to Bt corn]
Doug Powell used Wilson's farm and shop to test his theories on consumer
reactions to genetically modified foods. The two have worked together
for years. Wilson was an early head of AGCare, a farm group set up in
the 1980s to confront consumer fears about pesticides, but he has spent
the last few years promoting GM foods. Powell was active with the group
as well, advising it on media and consumer relations and speaking on
behalf of the group to defend genetic modification. In recent years
their experiments at Wilson's farm have formed the basis of Powell's
presentations at food and biotech industry conferences across North
Powell began his career at Guelph in 1996...
In 2000, Wilson turned over parts of his farm and produce store to
Powell so he and his students could test their theories on communicating
with consumers about GM food. The previous fall, the two men had showed
up at a Loblaws store in Toronto with AGCare to counter the arguments
being put forward by Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians as they
launched their anti-GM food campaign in Canada.
The Food Safety Network has consistently produced studies showing that
consumers can be convinced to buy GM food, that organic foods are not as
safe as conventional, and that GM crops are popular with farmers...
Powell's working theory was that if consumers were told more about GM
food they would buy it. ...to explore his theory, he and Wilson grew
both genetically modified and conventional sweet corn during the summer
of 2000. After the harvest, the food was sold in Wilson's on-farm store
in bins clearly marking which was modified and which was not. The
modified corn outsold the conventional by a wide margin: 8,160 cobs to
5,340. A survey of 174 consumers found that 69 per cent said they would
prefer GM corn over conventional, while 26 per cent would not.
I visited the model farm several times that summer, both with Powell or
Wilson on hand and without them around. From what I saw, it was hardly
surprising that the GM corn outsold the conventional. The sign over the
conventional corn read, "Would you eat wormy sweet corn?" It is the only
time I have seen a store label its own corn "wormy". The sign then went
on to list the chemicals sprayed on the corn to kill bugs and weeds and
the fertilizers used. Over the GM corn the sign read "Here's what went
into producing quality sweet corn", and listed the fertilizers used to
grow the corn. Another sign identified the corn as genetically modified.
The descriptions of the corn as either "wormy" or "quality" were not
mentioned in Powell's presentations to BIO 2002 or in his writings on
the experiment. He did write, however, that "a few customers in the
market were observed to fill their bags with regular corn and then pause
to read the large signs above the bins, which explained the pe!
management regime for each type of corn. They then proceeded to empty
their bags and refill them with Bt sweet corn."
In an interview, Powell said he saw no problem with the "wormy" sign.
"It was a rhetorical question," he said. Rhetoric aside, when one bin
was marked "wormy corn" and another "quality sweet corn," it was hardly
surprising which sold more. Perhaps the choice by Wilson's customers to
take home more than five thousand cobs of wormy corn rather than buy
"quality" Bt corn showed some pretty deep misgivings about GM food.
An information table in the market contained press releases and
pamphlets on Powell's experiments, as well as a number of pro-biotech
fact sheets written by Powell and his students and industry lobby
groups. There was no anti-biotech information on display.
On one visit I asked a man why he was buying regular corn over GM. He
said he didn't believe that GM was good for the environment and worried
about its health effects. As he walked to his truck, Powell talked to
him about Bt corn - describing how it did not need insecticides because
it produced its own and that it had been approved as safe by the federal
government. Powell then told me I should talk to the man again. I did,
and he said he would buy GM corn the next time he was at the store.
Powell stood nearby with his arms crossed and a smile on his face.
The incident convinced me that the only conclusion that can be drawn
from Powell's experiments was that, fed a lot of pro-biotech sales
pitches, shoppers could be convinced to buy GM products. Any marketing
man could have told him that.
(See also the photo in the book taken at the Wilson farm store (p.89).
It shows above the non-GM sweet corn bin the following sign: "Would You
Eat Wormy Sweet Corn? Regular Sweet Corn: insecticides: carbofuran
sprayed 3X or Bt foliar spray sprayed 1X; Fungicide: Bravo sprayed once;
Herbicide and Fertilizer: 1 application of each". In contrast, the
Bt-sweet corn bin was labelled: "Here's What Went into Producing Quality
Sweet Corn", followed by a list of fertilizers, with the fact that it
was Bt-corn shown on a separate sign.)
For more on Powell and the Food Safety Network:
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