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[SANET-MG] A common misconception is that science and research are about facts
The letters below are fairly self explanatory. Interestingly, the letter
have not yet been published in the journal but were first released to
though I am an author of one letter the journal editor told me the
letters would not be available until late September. The letters tell a
great deal about the practice of science in biotechnology. I shudder to
think that the editor's view of research has pervaded not only
biotechnology but medical research as well.It seems to me that the
foundation stone of science"full and truthful reporting" may have been
pulverized and turned to mush.
British Food Journal 2006 Vol 108 Issue 8
Chris Griffith, editor, BFJ
A common misconception is that science and research are about facts,
whereas in reality, research methodology concerns the unknown,
hypotheses, probability, balancing and judging evidence or data. Thus,
even in an objective research world, there is a need for interpretation
and possibly an element of subjectivity.
Often with an incomplete picture, judgments are made, which maybe
reported as facts by the media, leading to consternation in the minds of
the public when new or contradictory findings later emerge.
One highly topical area, in which research and data collection needs to
be undertaken, relates to genetically manipulated, or genetically
engineered foods/organisms. It is also an area in which scientific
opinion may not only be split but also polarised.
Another subject of debate in the research world relates to the accuracy
and validity of published work. Several high profile cases, relating to
concerns over published research, have recently made international news.
However, at a lower level, advancement within disciplines requires
vigorous debate and argument in order to progress. Most journals, even
with peer review, will at some stage publish a paper which later goes on
to be questioned. In the past this has been very rare with papers in the
British Food Journal, although the validity of a paper involving GE
corn, published in the BFJ in 2003, has now been challenged. The BFJ, in
common with the approach used by other journals, has decided to publish
a letter commenting on the GE corn paper. However, recognising there are
two sides to every coin the BFJ has accorded the main author the right
to reply. The philosophy behind the approach being that it is for the
readership of the journal to make up their own mind. It is unlikely
publication of these two letters will resolve the issue and interested
readers are advised to monitor any continuing debate using the
respective authors' web sites.
Dear Professor Griffith and Board
I am writing about an article: “Agronomic and consumer considerations
for Bt and conventional sweet-corn”, D.A. Powell, K. Blaine, S. Morris
and J. Wilson, British Food Journal, Volume 105 Number 10, 2003, pp.
700-713, which won the British Food Journal's Award for Excellence for
Most Outstanding Paper in 2004.
A book by a leading Canadian journalist, Stuart Laidlaw (Secret
Ingredients: The Brave New World of Industrial Farming 288 pages 1st ed.
(15 April 2003) McClelland & Stewart; ISBN: 0771045956) raises serious
questions about the method for collecting opinion data in the Powell et
Powell et al. reported consumers at a farm store showed a strong
preference for GM sweet corn over non-GM corn. In the paper the choice
appears straightforward – the bins were “fully labelled” either
“genetically engineered Bt sweet corn” or “Regular sweet-corn”. The only
other written information mentioned that might have influenced the
preference of customers was lists of the chemicals used on each type of
corn, and pamphlets “with background information on the project.”
However, according to Toronto Star reporter Stuart Laidlaw, when he
visited the store on several occasions during the data collection
period, the sign above the non-GM corn bin was headed, “Would You Eat
Wormy Sweet Corn?” Above the Bt-corn bin the equivalent sign was headed:
“Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn”. Although Powell et
al. describe in some detail the care taken to avoid biasing consumer
choice during the research, there is no mention in their paper of the
corn being labelled “wormy” or “quality”. Laidlaw includes a photograph
of the “wormy” corn sign in his book. The photograph has been reproduced
online: www.gmwatch.org/p1temp.asp?pid = 72&page = 1
The signs are not the only instance of methodological bias observed by
Laidlaw but not reported by Powell et al. A number of fact sheets
promoting genetic engineering were available at the farm store – some
authored by industry lobby groups – but there was no balancing
information from critics. Laidlaw also reports that on one occasion the
lead researcher demonstrated to him his ability to influence a
customer's responses in favour of Bt corn. The customer, who had bought
non-Bt corn before Powell talked to him, told Laidlaw he would buy GM
corn the next time he was at the store. Such interventions are of
particular significance given that Powell et al. report that the store
had a high number of repeat customers.
Powell et al. acknowledge that this was only a preliminary study and
there were a number of limitations arising from consumer testing based
solely on this one farm store. However, the cornerstone of science is
full and honest reporting, and this experiment and its controls do not
appear to have been reported either fully or honestly. The research
should, therefore, be withdrawn, as should the journal's Award for
Professor Joe Cummins
Professor Emeritus University of Western Ontario, Wilkins Street,
London, Ontario, Canada
May 30, 2006
Professor Chris Griffith
Would you eat wormy sweet corn? Or cabbage? Or broccoli?
That is what Ontario, Canada, producer Jeff Wilson often asks his
customers. With 200 acres of fresh fruit and vegetables and a retail
market on the farm, inquiring about his customers' preferences is not
just good manners, it is good business.
Throughout the 1990s, Wilson's customers expressed a desire for reduced
pesticides in the fresh produce purchased at his Birkbank Farms market.
Wilson adopted an intensive integrated pest management program, but when
cool, wet weather struck in 1997 – ideal for European corn borer – many
of Wilson's customers who had previously said they could tolerate wormy
corn by breaking off the damaged ends were no where to be found.
Wilson lost about $25,000 on sweet corn sales that year; an expensive
lesson in people say one thing, but when it comes to grocery shopping,
often do another.
So when I approached Jeff Wilson in 1999 about growing a genetically
engineered Bt-sweet corn that in Florida field-trials had significantly
reduced the need for pesticide sprays to control corn borer, he was
I was eager to see what consumers would do when given a choice between
genetically engineered and conventional whole produce – in this case
sweet corn and potatoes – in a market setting instead of a survey or
willingness to pay experiment which are both notoriously misleading.
As described in our paper (Powell et al., 2003), conventional (what we
labeled as “regular” based on customer feedback) and genetically
engineered Bt-sweet corn and potatoes were grown in similar eight acre
plots, harvested, segregated and made available for sale at the Birkbank
Joe Cummins, and others on the internet, have accused me, and my
co-investigators, of academic fraud and bias, because a sign sitting
atop the bin of regular sweet corn asked, Would you eat wormy sweet corn?
That is a question Jeff Wilson cares about, with his pocketbook. It is
also the language consumers use when talking about sweet corn, and what
they are looking for when they peel back the silks of corn-on-the-cob.
But is it language intended to manipulate consumer purchasing patterns?
The use of language, and its shared meaning, is always subjective. I
have always based such work on the integrative risk analysis framework,
first promoted by the US Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk
Assessment and Risk Management in 1997 (available at:
www.riskworld.com/Nreports/nr7me001.htm) which argues that risk
assessment, management and communication activities should be
intertwined and reciprocal, rather than separate entities. And the best
way to deal with value judgments in risk analysis is to openly declare
potential sources of bias.
My bias is that science has a responsibility to lead, to explore the use
of new technologies to enhance the safety and quality of the food supply
while actively minimizing risks and respecting the concerns of affected
consumers. For over a decade I have devoted my career to reducing the
incidence of foodborne illness, and to the responsible use of new
technologies to enhance the safety of the food supply.
Wilson and his staff at Birkbank Farms are committed to providing
consumers with high quality food produced in the safest manner, as well
as clear and accessible information regarding how that food is produced.
Our shared goal is to understand consumer preference, not shape it.
The point-of-sale information in 2000 (and in subsequent years not
described in Powell et al., 2003) at Birkbank Farms consisted of a large
placard describing the options Wilson had to produce non-wormy corn,
smaller handwritten signs describing the treatments received by corn
available for sale on a specific day (which varied weekly throughout the
course of the six-week consumer data collection period to reflect the
different conditions under which different rows of corn were grown and
variations in weather) and information pamphlets. This presentation can
be viewed at:
The large placard contained the following text:
“Delivering High Quality Sweet Corn
In order to provide you with the quality of sweet corn that you want we
have three options
1. Genetically engineered Bt-sweet corn:
contains Bt protein in leaves and stalk; and requires fewer insecticides
to prevent worm damage thus minimizing environmental impact.
same Bt protein as in genetically engineered variety but sprayed on
protein exists naturally in environment and breaks down rapidly ...
3. Conventional pesticides:
used by most farmers to create worm free corn; and
applied according to guidelines set by governments, but harm to
beneficial insects observed”.
Because the work at Birkbank Farms was an overall risk analysis
experiment in providing the public, and anyone else, with full and
transparent information about how a particular commodity was produced, a
press conference was held at Birrkbank Farms on 30 August 2000, to mark
the beginning of the sweet corn harvest. The handwritten sign over the
regular sweet corn asked, Would you eat wormy sweet corn, and then
listed the treatments that corn had received to produce less-wormy sweet
corn. The handwritten sign over the GE sweet corn (and we deliberately
chose the label GE sweet corn because that is what it was – not just
genetically modified, not a product of biotechnology or other terms that
proponents of GE have suggested may be more palatable to the consuming
public) said “Here's what went into producing quality sweet corn”, and
listed no pesticides but herbicide and fertilizer. The handwritten signs
were changed the following week.
A critic of GE may charge that simply asking the question, Would you eat
wormy sweet corn, unduly influences consumer preference. A supporter of
GE may charge that by labelling the corn genetically engineered unduly
stigmatises the product and influences consumer preference (Powell, 2001).
I find such categorizations simplistic.
However, one journalist, among the dozens of other journalists,
scientists, activists and hundreds of consumers who visited Birkbank
Farms during the data collection period, and cited by Cummins,
apparently interpreted the sign as evidence of manipulation.
We observed no evidence to support that charge, either through formal
intercept interviews or anecdotal conversations; quite simply, no one
else mentioned the wormy corn aspect of our signage (which was referred
to in the description on the placard and, briefly, on the handwritten
sign), although we admittedly did not specifically ask the question.
What we did observe and respond to was heightened customer interest in
methods of food production generally, and in response we developed and
maintained a three kilometre self-guided walking tour on Birkbank Farms
outlining the various tradeoffs and choices that face a commercial
producer. Hundreds of people who wanted to know more about how their
food was produced and the challenges involved took a stroll through the
farm in 2000, and hundreds more in subsequent years.
In 2001, when we deliberately downplayed the research at the farm after
the extensive media attention the previous year, sales of GE sweet corn
outsold regular sweet corn 5:2. The presentation used that year is
available at: www.foodsafetynetwork.ca/en/article-details.php?a = 4&c =
18&sc = 137&id = 889.
Cummins also alleges that the point-of-sale literature was promotional.
The only literature that I am aware of present at point-of-sale was a
brochure written by Katija Blaine and me, that contained information
about benefits, risks and management strategies. Interested readers can
make their own conclusions about the alleged persuasive nature of the
brochures – one for Bt-sweet corn and one for Bt potatoes – by viewing
them at: www.foodsafetynetwork.ca/en/article-details.php?a& = 3&c = 9&sc
= 53&id = 886 and www.foodsafetynetwork.ca/en/article-details.php?a =
3&c = 9&sc = 53&id = 887,respectively.
The research at Birkbank Farms had strengths and weaknesses and both
were related to the commercial nature of Wilson's operation. However,
since May 2000 when we first wrote to Wilson's neighbours to inform them
of our intent and hosted a public meeting for others to voice their
concerns, we have been completely open about our intentions and results,
and welcomed criticisms as a way to improve the project.
Powell, et al. (2003) explicitly acknowledged the limitations and
applicability of the research by stating, “The labels on the produce
bins may have influenced consumers to buy, just because they were there
or perhaps because there was detailed information provided”, and
concluded, “This research is a starting-point and describes the
experience of one farmer on one farm during the 2000 growing season”.
Finally, to suggest that I possess some extraordinary persuasive skills,
and that if I did, I would influence sweet corn purchases, one buyer at
a time (with an intercept interviewee who was not included in the study)
says more about the preconceived notion of my critics. What some allege
is manipulation could more readily be described as conversation. Talking
to people is good for Jeff Wilson's business and good for researchers.
Associate Professor, Department Diagnostic Medicine/Pathobiology, Kansas
State University, Manhattan, KS, USA
Powell, D.A. (2001), “Mad cow disease and the stigmatization of British
beef”, in Flynn, J., Slovic, P. and Kunreuther (Eds), Risk Media and
Stigma, EarthScan, London, pp. 219-28.
Powell, D.A., Blaine, K., Morris, S. and Wilson, J. (2003), “Agronomic
and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn”, British
Food Journal, Vol. 105 No. 10, pp. 700-13.
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