BIOTECH'S HALL OF MIRRORS
 

by Jonathan Matthews


In November 2002, Val Giddings, the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s Vice President of Food and Agriculture, wrote in Nature Biotechnology about an event that took place at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. It was “something new, something very big,” wrote Giddings; an occasion that would make us “look back on Johannesburg as something of a watershed event — a turning point.” 

The momentous event was a protest march. Not the one that attracted some 20,000 poor, evicted and landless people, but one that, with only a few hundred demonstrators, captured press coverage on five continents: a protest staged by farmers and traders in support of free trade and GM crops.

What made the protest so remarkable, said Giddings, was that for the very first time, “real, live, developing-world farmers” were “speaking for themselves” and rejecting the “empty arguments” of the industry’s critics. Giddings singled out the statement of one protesting farmer, Chengal Reddy, leader of the Indian Farmers Federation. “Traditional organic farming . . . is the very technology that led to mass starvation in India for 
centuries,” said Reddy. “Indian farmers need access to new technologies and especially to biotechnologies.” Giddings also noted that the farmers conferred a “Bullshit Award,” made with two varnished piles of cow dung, upon those who are deepening their poverty by denying them biotechnology. 

But if anyone deserved the cow dung it was Giddings, for almost every element of this spectacle was framed so as to deceive. Take, Chengal Reddy. Reddy is not a poor farmer, nor even the representative of poor farmers. He is a politician who has on occasion admitted to never having farmed in his life. His “Indian Farmers Federation” is a lobby for big commercial farmers in Andhra Pradesh, where his family is a prominent right-wing political force — his father having coined the saying, “There is only one thing that Dalits [untouchables] are good for, and that is being kicked.” 

If it seems doubtful that Reddy was in Johannesburg to help the poor speak for themselves, the identity of the march organizers is also not a source of confidence. Although the London Times ran an admiring commentary on the march under the headline, “I Do Not Need White NGOs to Speak for Me,” the media contact on the organizers’ press release was Kendra Okonski, the daughter of a U.S. lumber industrialist. Okonski has worked for a variety of anti-regulatory NGOs, including the ultra-right Competitive Enterprise Institute, all funded and directed, needless to say, by “whites.” Okonski also runs Counterprotest.net, a website devoted to helping pro-corporate lobbyists take to the streets in mimicry of popular protesters. 

Given this, it hardly needs saying that the “Bullshit Award” was far from the imaginative riposte of impoverished farmers that Giddings suggests. Rather, it was the creation of another right-wing pressure group. Based in New Delhi and well known for its fervent support of deregulation, GM crops and Big Tobacco, the Liberty Institute is part of the same coalition that organized the rally — the deceptively named Sustainable Development Network. In London, the SDN shares offices, along with many of its key personnel — including Okonski — with the International Policy Network, a group whose Washington address happens to be that of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. 

Another irresistible question is how impoverished farmers — according to Giddings, farmers from five different countries attended the march — could afford the trip to Johannesburg from distant lands like the Philippines and India. Here, too, there is reason for suspicion. In late 1999, The New York Times reported that a street protest against genetic engineering outside a public FDA hearing in Washington, D.C. was disrupted by African-Americans carrying placards bearing messages like “Biotech saves children’s lives.” The Times learned that Monsanto’s public relations company, Burston-Marsteller, had paid a Baptist Church from a poor neighborhood to bus in these “demonstrators” as part of a wider campaign “to get groups of church members, union workers and the elderly to speak in favor of genetically engineered foods.” 

The industry’s fingerprints are all over Johannesburg as well. Chengal Reddy, who has featured prominently in Monsanto’s promotional work in India for almost a decade, was brought to Johannesburg by AfricaBio, a group that, like others at the march, is closely aligned with Monsanto.

The rally in Johannesburg provides but one gaudy spectacle in a continuing fake parade. Consider, for instance, the sleight-of-hand behind Nature’s unprecedented disowning of a previously published article that demonstrated the transgenic contamination of traditional maize in a remote part of Mexico [See “Transgenic Maize in Mexico,”GeneWatch Vol. 15 No. 4]. Val Giddings told the Washington Post, “We believe that Nature erred in publishing the article to begin with, and it seems they came to the same unavoidable conclusion. The authors’ . . . commitment was not to data and science but to a religious commitment to an [anti-biotechnology] dogma.”

Despite the fiery campaign of criticism, largely generated on the net, that led to Nature’s muddled post-publication mea culpa, that decision was in fact very far from “unavoidable.” Prior to its publication by Nature, the article — written by two University of California at Berkeley scientists, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist — was screened with unusual care, going through four rounds of peer review. Then, in light of the controversy, it was re-reviewed by three reviewers; only one advised a retraction, while the others concluded that the main results had been left unchallenged by the critics. 

Still more revealing, though, is the fact that Giddings’ denunciation of the Berkeley scientists was almost identical to the attacks which launched the campaign against them on the very day of the research’s publication. In an article about the Mexican maize controversy, the journal Science described how “widely circulating anonymous e-mails” accused Chapela and Quist of “conflicts of interest and other misdeeds”. Those e-mails surfaced first on the listserv of AgBioWorld, a pro-biotech group co-founded by Greg Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and one C.S. Prakash, who edits AgBioView, an email list in which GM critics have been compared to Hitler and the 9/11 terrorists.

AgBioWorld prominently circulated emails from a “Mary Murphy” and an “Andura Smetacek” that claimed Dr. Chapela was an “activist first” and a “scientist second,” and that he colluded in attacks on “biotechnology, free-trade, intellectual property rights and other politically motivated agenda items.” Smetacek even insinuated that Chapela had actually designed his research in collusion with “fear-mongering activists.” On top of that, Smetacek wanted to know how much money Chapela was getting in “expenses” from the anti-biotech “industry.” 

Although the internet is an easy place to launch such inflammatory attacks from Hotmail-type addresses, it is also a place where, without meticulous care, the details of identity can be surprisingly easy to track. 

In July 2000 a “Mary Murphy” posted a fake Associated Press article on the message board of foxbghsuit.com, a website dedicated to a legal case connected to Monsanto’s genetically engineered cattle drug rBGH. The Hotmail reply address given matches that of Chapela’s attacker; however, Murphy is also identified as bw6@bivwood.com — the domain name of The Bivings Group, an internet PR employed by Monsanto.

The e-mail headers of “Andura Smetacek” are still more startling. In her earliest emails, Smetacek presented herself to the AgBioView list as a concerned observer of the GM debate writing from London. However, the Internet Protocol address on those messages is 199.89.234.124 — numbers assigned to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. 

Tracking Monsanto’s fake citizenry leads into a wider web of deceit. For instance, Smetacek posted information on the website Foodsecurity.net, which claims to be run by “an independent, non-profit coalition of people throughout the world” but which is actually registered to Monsanto’s former director of executive communications, Graydon Forrer. Again, in “her” early e-mails, Smetacek consistently promoted the website of the Center for Food and Agricultural Research (CFFAR) as a key information source. However, this agricultural “center” turns out to be as phony as Smetacek herself, never having existed beyond a website chock full of articles labeling Monsanto’s critics “vandals” and “terrorists”.

If anyone has any lingering doubts that the rot starts at the top, consider a PR industry workshop in Chicago at the end of 2001 run by Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former Chief Internet Strategist and Head of Corporate Communications. 

Billed by its organisers, Ragan Communications, Inc., as showing how Monsanto “brilliantly outwits its opponents at their own game of guerilla PR,” Byrne’s presentation was accompanied by a PowerPoint display. One slide, headed, “Take action/Take control,” illustrates Monsanto’s work on a particular search engine. Listed are the top search results for “GM food” before and after Monsanto took action. All the “before” sites are critical of GM; the “after” sites were mostly created by Bivings and include “CFFAR” — the fake agricultural institute promoted by Smetacek.

Another of Byrne’s slides is headed “Listservs: Directed & opt-in…” It contains a single image: a thread of messages on the AgBioView list. The implication is that Monsanto uses this list for strategic PR purposes. Interestingly, in addition to providing a conduit for all of Murphy and Smetacek’s attacks on Ignacio Chapela, AgBioWorld is listed among the members of the “Network” which organized the fake Johannesburg demonstration. Finally, an error message I received while searching AgBioWorld’s original list archive showed its material was being drawn from a database on apollo.bivings.com — the main server of The Bivings Group. 

AgBioWorld and Monsanto have also been active during the current food aid crisis in southern Africa, where the danger of being caught exploiting the hunger of millions for PR purposes has apparently been outweighed by the opportunity to paint the industry’s critics in the darkest hue. 

Lingering at the top of Monsanto-India.com’s home page for several weeks in September was a link to an article, “Green Killers and Pseudo-Science,” which blended an account of the Bullshit Award in Johannesburg with a wider attack on “green fundamentalists” whose “opposition to genetically modified foods is killing people in famine-hit Africa.” In late October, Monsanto’s electronic newsletter, “The Biotech Advantage,” carried the headline “Academics Say Africans Going Hungry Because of Activist Scare Tactics.” The activists in question turned out to be the staff of a Catholic theological centre and a Zambian agricultural college. Their “academic” attackers, by contrast, included AgBioWorld’s founders, Prakash and Conko, and the editor of a biotech industry newsletter who has called on the U.S. to bomb Zambia with GM grain if it continues to reject it. 

Around this time I was forwarded an interrogative e-mail from one “Max Russell-Bennett,” ostensibly a private citizen, with an AgBioWorld press release attached. The release implied that thousands had died in the Indian state of Orissa as a result of resistance to GM food aid, and urged activists not to repeat the mistake in southern Africa. In reality, the deaths in Orissa had been caused by a cyclone; a check on the email’s IP address revealed that it originated with Monsanto Belgium. 

The cynical antics of the biotech industry’s lobbyists during the crisis in southern Africa are the ultimate manifestations of the shamelessness seen in their use of fake citizens, fake organisations, and even fake public protest. It’s not just a question of using “fronts” for malicious corporate attacks, but of the exploitation of situations where it’s important — on a life-or-death level — that we are able to discern the truth. 

It matters what poor farmers and people in the Third World really want, and it matters what actual scientists and real citizens are trying to say; and this becomes difficult to discern within a hall or mirrors where industry’s facade is reflected from a dizzying array of sources that are all just one and the same.

***

Jonathan Matthews co-founded the Norfolk Genetic Information Network. For more on Monsanto’s internet campaign, go here.

 
 
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