29 May 2002The Guardian
Tony Blair's speech to the Royal Society last Thursday was a wonderful jumble of misconceptions and logical elisions. He managed to confuse science with its technological products. GM crops are no more "science" than cars, computers or washing machines, and those opposing them are no more "anti-science" than people who don't like the Millennium Dome are "anti-architecture".
He suggested that in the poor world people welcome genetic engineering. It was unfortunate that the example he chose was the biotech industry in Bangalore in south-west India. Bangalore happens to be the centre of the world's most effective protests against GM crops, the capital of a state in which anti-GM campaigners outnumber those in the UK by 1,000 to one. Like most biotech enthusiasts, he ignored the key concern of the activists: the corporate takeover of the food chain, and its devastating consequences for food security.
But it would be wrong to blame Blair alone for these misconstructions. The prime minister was simply repeating a suite of arguments formulated elsewhere. Over the past month, activists have slowly been discovering where that "elsewhere" may be.
Two weeks ago, this column showed how the Bivings Group, a PR company contracted to Monsanto, had invented fake citizens to post messages on internet listservers. These phantoms had launched a campaign to force Nature magazine to retract a paper it had published, alleging that native corn in Mexico had been contaminated with GM pollen. But this, it now seems, is just one of hundreds of critical interventions with which PR companies hired by big business have secretly guided the biotech debate over the past few years.
While I was writing the last piece, Bivings sent me an email fiercely denying that it had anything to do with the fake correspondents "Mary Murphy" and "Andura Smetacek", who started the smear campaign against the Nature paper. Last week I checked the email's technical properties. They contained the identity tag "bw6.bivwood.com". The message came from the same computer terminal that "Mary Murphy" has used. New research coordinated by the campaigner Jonathan Matthews appears to have unmasked the fake persuaders: "Mary Murphy" is being posted by a Bivings web designer, writing from both the office and his home computer in Hyattsville, Maryland; while "Andura Smetacek" appears to be the company's chief internet marketer.
Not long ago, the website slashdot.com organised a competition for hackers: if they could successfully break into a particular server, they got to keep it. Several experienced hackers tested their skills. One of them was one using a computer identified as bw6.bivwood.com.
Though someone in the Bivings office appears to possess hacking skills, there is no evidence that Bivings has ever made use of them. But other biotech lobbyists do appear to have launched hacker attacks. Just before the paper in Nature was publicly challenged, the server hosting the accounts used by its authors was disabled by a particularly effective attack which crippled their capacity to fight back. The culprit has yet to be identified.
Bivings is the secret author of several of the websites and bogus citizens' movements which have been coordinating campaigns against environmentalists. One is a fake scientific institute called the "Centre for Food and Agricultural Research". Bivings has also set up the "Alliance for Environmental Technology", a chlorine industry lobby group. Most importantly, Bivings appears to be connected with AgBioWorld, the genuine website run by CS Prakash, a plant geneticist at Tuskegee University, Alabama.
AgBioWorld is perhaps the most influential biotech site on the web. Every day it carries new postings about how GM crops will feed the world, new denunciations of the science which casts doubt on them and new attacks on environmentalists. It was here that the fake persuaders invented by Bivings launched their assault on the Nature paper. AgBioWorld then drew up a petition to have the paper retracted.
Prakash claims to have no links with Bivings but, as the previous article showed, an error message on his site suggests that it is or was using the main server of the Bivings Group. Jonathan Matthews, who found the message, commissioned a full technical audit of AgBioWorld. His web expert has now found 11 distinctive technical fingerprints shared by AgBioWorld and Bivings' Alliance for Environmental Technology site. The sites appear, he concludes, to have been created by the same programmer.
Though he lives and works in the United States, CS Prakash claims to represent the people of the third world. He set up AgBioWorld with Greg Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the far-right libertarian lobby group funded by such companies as Philip Morris, Pfizer and Dow Chemical. Conko has collaborated with Matthew Metz, one of the authors of the scientific letters to Nature seeking to demolish the maize paper, to produce a highly partisan guide to biotechnology on the AgBioWorld site. The Competitive Enterprise Institute boasts that it "played a key role in the creation" of a petition of scientists supporting biotech (ostensibly to feed the third world) launched by Prakash. Unaware that it had been devised by a corporate lobby group, 3,000 scientists, three Nobel laureates among them, signed up.
Bivings is just one of several public relations agencies secretly building a parallel world on the web. Another US company, Berman & Co, runs a fake public interest site called ActivistCash.com, which seeks to persuade the foundations giving money to campaigners to desist. Berman also runs the "Centre for Consumer Freedom", which looks like a citizens' group but lobbies against smoking bans, alcohol restrictions and health warnings on behalf of tobacco, drinks and fast food companies. The marketing firm Nichols Dezenhall set up a site called StopEcoViolence, another "citizens' initiative", demonising activists. In March, Nichols Dezenhall linked up with Prakash's collaborator, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to sponsor a conference for journalists and corporate executives on "eco-extremism".
What is fascinating about these websites, fake groups and phantom citizens is that they have either smelted or honed all the key weapons currently used by the world's biotech enthusiasts: the conflation of activists with terrorists, the attempts to undermine hostile research, the ever more nuanced claims that those who resist GM crops are anti-science and opposed to the interests of the poor. The hatred directed at activists over the past few years is, in other words, nothing of the kind. In truth, we have been confronted by the crafted response of an industry without emotional attachment.
Tony Blair was correct when he observed on Thursday that "there is only a small band of people... who genuinely want to stifle informed debate". But he was wrong to identify this small group as those opposed to GM crops. Though he didn't know it, the people seeking to stifle the debate are the ones who wrote his speech; not in the days before he delivered it, but in the years in which the arguments he used were incubated.