International PR Firm Behind
Attack on Anti-GE Corn Critics

SEEDS OF DISSENT: Anti-GM scientists are facing widespread
assaults on their credibility. Andy Rowell investigates who is behind
the attacks.

The Big Issue, No. 484, April 15-21 2002

Anti-GM scientists and activists are increasingly having their
credibility attacked through a campaign orchestrated by the biotech
industry. Now that campaign has seen a prestigious scientific journal
become the latest casualty.

The attacks against the journal Nature culminated in the publication
last week of an admission that it was wrong to print a scientific paper
last year that was critical of GM. The admission was the first in the
journal's history. It is apparently the latest example of biotech giants
are using front organisations and websites to discredit scientific
research that criticises GM technology.

The saga started last November when Nature published an article by
scientists from the University of California Berkeley that alleged
contamination of native Mexican maize by GM. As Mexico has a moratorium
on commercial GM planting, it raised issues of genetic pollution in a
centre of unique maize biodiversity.

The paper led to the researchers and Nature being attacked by pro-GM
scientists and the biotech industry. Nature finally buckled under the
pressure, issuing a statement saying it had concluded "that the evidence
available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original

"It is clearly a topic of hot interest", says Jo Webber from Nature,
admitting that this story is not just "technical" but also "political".

The political context is that the biotech industry is trying to lift
European, Brazilian and Mexican moratoria on genetically modified seeds
or foods. It is desperate to open up Europe, having lost more than $200
million due to the moratorium on growing of GM corn alone. Nature has
refused to comment further about the row.

This week sees crucial negotiations at the UN Convention on Biological
Diversity in The Hague. The Nature statement could not have come at a
better time and the biotech industry is naturally gleeful. "Many people
are going to need that [Nature"s editorial] reference", says Willy De
Greef from Syngenta, the world1s leading agribusiness company, 3not
least those who, like me, will be in the frontline fights for biotech
during the Hague negotiations2.

Despite Nature1s climb-down, the authors of the original study, David
Quist and Ignacio Chapela, have published new evidence that they say
vindicates their original findings. They add that two other studies by
the Mexican government confirm their research and believe Nature has
been "under incredible pressure from the powers that be".

"This is a very, very well concerted, co-ordinated and paid for campaign
to discredit the very simple statement that we made," says Dr Chapela.

The central co-ordinator of the attacks has been CS Prakash who is a
professor of Plant Molecular Genetics at Tuskegee University, Alabama,
and who runs the AgBioWorld Foundation. AgBioWorld was co-founded by
an employee of the Washington-based right-wing think tank Competitive
Enterprise Institute.

Prakash calls the Quist and Chapela study "flawed" and says the "results
did not justify the conclusions." He says that they were "too eager to
publish their results because it fitted their agenda".

Prakash's pro-GM website has been the central discussion forum of the
Nature article. "I think it a played a fairly important role in putting
public pressure on Nature" says Prakash, "because we have close to 3,700
people on Agbioview, our daily newsletter, and immediately after this
paper was published, many scientists started posting some preliminary
analysis that they were doing.

"Agbioview has brought together those scientists and AgBioWorld provided
a collective voice for the scientific community". These discussions led
to a highly critical and influential statement attacking Nature that
received over 80 signatories.

Two letters signed by pro-GM scientists that criticised Nature's
original publication were also printed in the same issue as the
journal's retraction. The lead authors of the letters, Matthew Metz and
Nick Kaplinsky, signed the pro-biotech statement on the website.

Both have or have had links with the Department of Plant and Microbial
Biology at Berkeley that entered into a $25 million deal with Novartis
(now Syngenta), a deal that was opposed by Chapela. "It became a very
big scandal and they cannot forgive that", says Chapela.

But most importantly it wasn't scientists but a PR company that works
for GM firm Monsanto that started and fuelled the anti-Nature debate on
Prakash's website. On the list serv the first attack was posted by
someone called 'Mary Murphy' within hours of publication. She wrote: "It
should also be noted that the author of the Nature article, Ignacio H
Chapela, is on the board of directors of the Pesticide Action Network
North America, an activist group", wrote Murphy. Murphy accused Chapela
of being "not exactly what you1d call an unbiased writer".

The next bulletin was from someone called 'Andura Smetacek' who claimed
Chapela was in league with environmental groups and added, wrongly, that
his paper was "not a peer-reviewed research article subject to
independent scientific analysis". Smetacek and Murphy have between them
posted around 60 articles on the Prakash list. So who are they?

Mary Murphy's email is, which hides her employer. On
one occasion on an internet message board she used this address but also
left a trail of other identifying details that showed she worked for the
Bivings Group, a PR company with offices in Washington, Brussels,
Chicago and Tokyo.

Bivings, which has more than a dozen Monsanto companies as clients, has
been assisting Monsanto's use of the internet since realising that it
played a significant part in the company's poor PR image. Bivings says
it uses the internet's "powerful message delivery tools" for "viral

When asked about what they do for Monsanto, a spokesperson for Bivings
said "We run their web sites for various European countries and their
main corporate site and we help them with campaigns as a consultant. We
are not allowed to discuss strategy issues and personal opinions". They
declined to give any further information on their work for the company.

However further insight can be gleaned from a recent report by Bivings
which said: "Message boards, chat rooms and listservs are a great way to
anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this
world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present
your position as an uninvolved third party."

As a "third party" Bivings has covertly smeared biotech industry critics
on a fake website called CFFAR as well as via articles and attacks on
listservs under aliases. The attack on the Nature piece is a
continuation of this covert campaign.

Andura Smetacek is no stranger to such dirty tricks. The Big Issue South
West can also reveal that she was the original source of a letter that
was published under the name of Tony Trevawas, a pro-GM scientist from
the University of Edinburgh, in the Herald newspaper in Scotland. The
letter became a source of legal action between Greenpeace, its former
director, Peter Melchett, and the newspaper. The case went to the high
court and ended with Melchett receiving undisclosed damages and an
apology from the Herald. Trevawas has always denied he wrote the letter.

In a letter written earlier this year, "Smetacek" said: "I am the author
of the message which was sent to AgBioWorld. I'm surprised at the stir
it has caused, since the basis for the content of the letter comes from
publicly available news articles and research easily found on-line".

Smetacek is also a "front email". In an early posting to the AgBioView
list she gave her address as London, while in a recent correspondence
with The Ecologist magazine Smetacek left a New York phone number.
However after extensive searching of public records in the US, the Big
Issue South West found no one in America with that name. Despite
numerous requests by The Ecologist for Smetacek to give an employer or
land address she has refused to do so.

A clue to her identity is that Smetacek's earliest messages to AgBioView
consistently promoted the website. CFFAR stands for the Centre
For Food and Agricultural Research and describes itself as "a public
policy and research coalition dedicated to exploring and understanding
health, safety, and sustainability issues associated with food and fiber

In fact the website attacks organic agriculture as well as environmental
groups, like Greenpeace, by calling them "terrorists". The website is
registered to an employee of Bivings who works as one of Monsanto's web-

Even the AgBioWorld Foundation website is linked to Bivings.

Jonathan Matthews, a leading anti-GM activist, has researched the
activities of Bivings. While searching the AgbioWorld archives he
received a message that told him that an attempt to connect him to a
Bivings database had failed. Internet experts believe that this message
implies Bivings is hosting an AgBioView database. These experts also
notice technical similarities between the CFFAR, Bivings and AgBioWorld

Prakash, though, denies receiving funding or assistance for the AgbioWorld
foundation, saying that it is run on a "shoestring". He denies working
with any PR company saying he is "pro-the technology not necessarily the

However, Matthews said: "Via Bivings, Monsanto has a series of shop
windows with which to influence the GM debate. One of these is
AgBioWorld. The chief mannequin seems to be Prakash who has been very
influential in the whole Nature/GM corn contamination fiasco. But I
wonder if Nature really knows who is behind the attacks."

Dr Sue Mayer from GeneWatch UK says: "It is quite extraordinary the
lengths the biotech industry and the scientific establishment will go to
discredit any critical science." ENDS
The Ecologist, Vol 32 No 4, May 2002

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, Ostensibly, CFFAR - or the Center for
Food and Agricultural Research, to give it its full title - is "a public
policy and research coalition" conerned with "food and fiber
production." But despite links to 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 "" section, for instance, 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 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 website. It was posted by "Mary Murphy (".

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,, and the
Bivings' designed, all seemed to be the work of the
same designer.

Perhaps it's time for Prakash to clarify where AgBioWorld finishes and
the 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.

Jonathan Matthews is a co-founder of Norfolk Genetic Information Network

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