British Science Journal Admits Publishing Phony Report
April 10, 2002
by Dennis T. Avery
After a five-month holdout, the besieged British journal Nature has raised the white flag of surrender admitting that it published as fact a report that turned out to be merely the latest in a series of biotech hoaxes.
In a rare skinback, the journal’s editors disavowed a November story reporting that genes from genetically modified corn were “polluting” the DNA of a farmer-bred corn in an area of southern Mexico believed to be the birthplace of corn.
Based on widespread criticism of the article by independent scientists and further assessments by outside referees, the editors said the evidence submitted was “not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper.”
Two University of California researchers had published a story last fall claiming they’d found GM corn popping up in fields near Oaxaca in southern Mexico.
The report was especially disturbing because it fanned fears that genes from genetically modified crops could actually “jump” into regular plants and destabilize their genetic makeup.
Indeed, environmental activists, who have long warned of such nightmares, quickly exploited the Nature article.
The authors of the Nature piece, David Quist and Ignatio Chapela of the University of California at Berkeley raised the fear that biotech corn might already have destroyed the ancient genetic blueprint for one of the world’s most important crop plants.
The radical environmental group Greenpeace immediately seized on the report with a spokesperson labeling the so-called genetic invasion “a worse attack on Mexican culture than if they had torn down the Cathedral of Oaxaca and built a McDonald’s over it.”
One of the researchers, Chapela, sounded less like an objective scientist than an eco-activist himself when told a USA Today reporter that “diversity is going to be crowded out by these genetic bullies.” That seemed to echo Greenpeace’s line that “there are over 300 local and wild varieties of Mexican maize, which stand to be lost . . .”
Unfortunately, for Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups, Quist and Chapela’s findings began to dissolve under the skeptical questioning of respected genetic scientists across the globe.
At least three leading groups of scientists sent separate letters to Nature challenging Quist and Chapela’s conclusions; one includes more than 100 names, several of them from the pair’s home base UCal/Berkeley. Another scientist, cited by Quist and Chepala, wrote the scientific journal to say they misinterpreted his work.
A leaked internal memo from an independent scientist appointed by Nature to review the challenges says, in part, “I am in complete agreement with the common theme in all four [critical] letters, which is that the … data presented is simply not sufficient to warrant ANY of the conclusions of the authors.
“Simply stated, the authors have not demonstrated that transgenes or parts of transgenes from industrially produced maize have become incorporated into the genome of the maize landraces they studied.”
The scientist added that the authors’ response that used a widely accepted method to screen for transgenes is simply a gross misrepresentation of laboratory practices. He concluded that “ . . . Nature should demand that the authors retract their manuscript” if they cannot provide better documentation that genetically modified genes actually ended up in native corn crops.
From a historical perspective, it’s important to note that Mexican farmers have experimented with every high-yielding corn plant they could find for thousands of years. That’s how corn grew from the thumb-sized ears of teosinte to today’s forearm-sized ears.
While Quist and Chapela’s contention seems highly doubtful, it’s likely that transgenic corn genes will turn up in Mexico eventually — but without endangering the world’s corn crop in any way.
In fact, there is no wild corn in Mexico at all. Claiming that new genes in Mexico’s farmer varieties will endanger the genetic base of the corn crop is like claiming that cross-breeding two Chihuahuas may alter the genetic makeup of the wild Mexican lobos or wolf.
This is the second time in recent years that Nature has published an article that touched off a major, and, as it turned out, unwarranted furor about biotech crops.
In 1999, the journal published a paper by Dr. John Losey of Cornell indicating that biotech corn would harm the larvae of Monarch butterflies. Field studies subsequently showed that Monarchs are safer in biotech cornfields than in fields that are sprayed with the usual insecticides.
It’s particularly crucial that respected scientific journals like Nature do not succumb to the political passions of the moment.
They need to get it right the first time because the stakes on this increasingly crowded planet are so high.
To protect the planet’s wildlands in 2050 and beyond, the world must triple the yields on its current farmlands — or eradicate 4 billion people. Biotechnology may well be the solution, and respected opinion makers such as Nature must ensure that they present scientifically accurate information to the public.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.