Killing the Messenger

An academic disagreement over a research team's report has exploded into a proxy fight over the benefits of biotechnology.

| Tue Jul. 9, 2002 2:00 AM EDT

A parochial tussle over a professor's published research has mutated into a full-blown academic fight between critics and defenders of biotechnology.

The flap began seven months ago, when the scientific journal Nature published a paper submitted by Ignacio Chapela, a microbiologist from the University of California at Berkeley, and one of his graduate students. The findings were startling: Genes from genetically-modified corn, Chapela asserted, had contaminated native strains in the remote mountains of Oaxaca, the Mexican state considered the birthplace of maize.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chapela's findings clearly alarmed officials in the Mexican government, which adopted a moratorium on the planting of genetically-modified crops in 1998. But, instead of trying to verify the findings, Chapela claims that Mexican officials sought only to squelch his research.

Now, Chapela is under fire from critics closer to home. On April 4, Philip Campbell, the editor of Nature, announced that the journal was second-guessing its decision to publish Chapela's research -- a move unprecedented in the 133-year history of the publication -- stating that the "evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper."

In their original paper, Chapela and David Quist present two significant findings: Native corn is being contaminated by genetically-modified corn; and the resulting hybridization is resulting in the unpredictable scattering of modified genes.

It is the team's second conclusion that has attracted the harshest criticism. Matthew Metz a researcher at the University of Washington and the author of one of two letters published in Nature refuting Chapela and Quist's research, dismisses the pair's second finding as "more mysticism than science."

Both Metz and Nick Kaplinsky, a graduate student at Berkeley and the lead author of the second critique published in Nature, insist they were compelled to respond simply in order to promote good science. "Because this is such an important issue, it is important that the science is done correctly," Kaplinsky argues in his letter to Nature.

At the crux of scientific disagreement is the manner in which Chapela and Quist traced the scattering of genetic material in crops they studied. Chapela and Quist have acknowledged that they may have overreached in making their second assertion. "What we do agree upon and give to them is the possibility that their interpretation might be better than ours for 2 of the 8 sequences we published," Chapela says.

But that admission has not been enough to assuage their critics, who claim that the Berkeley pair's work was clouded by anti-biotech ardor. Referring to Chapela and Quist as "fervent anti-genetic engineering activists," Metz claims their findings were flawed. "Conducting experiments with preordained conclusions in mind is a recipe for disaster," Metz argues.

While academic disagreements over biotechnology have become relatively common, the strident nature of the attacks on Chapela and Quist has surprised many researchers. Even some of Chapela's critics are professing amazement at the rancor of the current debate.

"I've never seen anything like it," Peggy Lemaux, a molecular biologist at Berkeley told Science magazine, "There's been a lot of fighting about transgenics, but this is something else."

Miguel Altieri, an associate professor at Berkeley, suggests that the attacks on Chapela and his research are little more than a proxy fight in a larger campaign to discredit academic voices that question biotechnology.

"Chapela is being crucified by these guys," Altieri maintains. As a result, he says critics are "sending a message to any young scientists that would break ranks with GM research, telling them, 'Ok you can do this research but if you publish it we're going to come down on you'."

With the stakes so high -- biotech companies are lobbying Brazil, the European Union and Mexico to lift embargoes on genetically-modified crops -- perhaps it was inevitable that a row would erupt over what Campbell, the Nature editor, calls "one of the most hotly debated technologies of our time." Adding to that heat, Chapela, Quist and their critics are all known to have strong views and strong allegiances in the wider, more contentious fight over biotechnology.

In 1998, Chapela served as the spokesman for a faction of Berkeley academics opposed to a five-year, $25 million alliance between the school and the Novartis Corporation, the world's third-biggest producer of commercial seeds -- including genetically-modified seeds. Quist, for his part, served as a member of Students for Responsible Research, a group organized to thwart the Novartis deal. Now in its fourth year, the deal provides funds from Novartis, since renamed Syngenta, to support research by many in the university's department of plant and microbial biology.

Several of Chapela's most vocal detractors, meanwhile, have ties to Berkeley -- including Metz, who received his Ph.D. from the university in 2001 -- and participated in the fight over the Novartis deal. This connection is not lost on Chapela who claims that "every single writer of [the Nature] letters has a direct link to the Novartis-Berkeley deal, every single one."

Moreover, Metz and two co-authors of the Nature letters are also among the more the 3,000 signatories to an online petition -- "Scientists in Support of Agricultural Biotechnology" -- crafted by a pro-biotech organization known as the AgBioWorld Foundation. The petition, featured on the AgBioWorld site, argues that biotechnology "constitutes powerful and safe means for the modification of organisms and can contribute substantially in enhancing quality of life."

Metz and Kaplinsky have also signed a separate letter circulated by AgBioWorld defending the need for "scientific discourse" on the corn contamination research. Further illustrating the degree to which the academic debate has spread well beyond the confines of the academic community, that letter was drafted to counter a statement -- issued by the Institute for Food and Development Policy and several other groups and individuals -- whilch calls on academics to "renounce immediately the use of intimidatory tactics to silence potentially 'dissident' scientists." In response, the AgBioWorld letter argues that the criticism of Chapela's research is appropriate. "Such relentless criticism and re-examination is perhaps most important when it leads in directions that may conflict with a point of view driven by politics or activism, rather than science," the letter states.

The influence of the biotechnology lobby has also been alleged in other attacks on Chapela's research.

Jonathan Matthews, a well-known critic of genetically-modified food, and journalist Andy Rowell claim that biotechnology advocates used an online reader exchange, also run by AgBioWorld, to encourage attacks on Chapela's paper. Immediately after Nature published the original paper, Matthews and Rowell reported, e-mails that can be traced to an employee of a public relations firm hired by Monsanto began appearing on the AgBioWorld site. The postings question Chapela's objectivity and encourage readers to write letters denouncing his article. Bivings officials refute the allegations made by Matthews and Rowell -- company president F. Gary Bivings has said his company has had "no involvement" with AgBioWorld. Monsanto, of course, is one of the world's largest producers of genetically-modified seeds.

Finally, while the academic fight rages in the US, the same Mexican agency which first sought to stifle their findings may provide vindication for Chapela and Quist. On April 18, Jorge Soberon, the executive secretary of Mexico's biodiversity commission, announced that data collected by government scientists confirmed the "world's worst case of contamination by GM material." The study found that corn crops at 95 percent of the sites surveyed in Oaxaca and Puebla states -- and up to 35 percent of individual farmers' crops -- had been contaminated by foreign, modified genes.