We have been informed that Dr Alan McHughen, one of the four scientists who offered their services as reviewers of Dr Ermakova's work and who encouraged Nature Biotechnology to publish the offending article, is aggrieved that certain opinions have been expressed "without supporting evidence" and which he finds defamatory. We are happy to provide the supporting evidence below in the context of a note about the threatened litigation.
Ref: Nature Biotechnology 25, 981 - 987 (2007) GM soybeans and health
safety-a controversy reexamined
Nature Biotech's "professional malpractice"
Ref: Nature Biotechnology 25, 981 - 987 (2007) GM soybeans and health safety-a controversy reexamined
Letter from GM Free Cymru to Andrew Marshall, Editor, Nature Biotechnology, 28 Sept 2007
We assert our fundamental legal right to publish factual material relating to GM, and to express our honest opinions about corporations, individual scientists and institutions involved in the GM industry.
(1) We consider scientific controversies about GM issues to be of intense public interest in Wales, and also of interest to key Welsh stakeholders in farming, health and the environment;
(2) We investigate GM issues and circulate and publish items on both sides of the debate, and we work with the media to expose abuses of power, corrupt corporate science, institutional bias and the vilification of honest scientists;
(3) We consider that the descriptions of the persons mentioned in our letter to Andrew Marshall were based on factual and verifiable information. In the case of AMcH, he has many known connections to the GM industry which we will be happy to demonstrate in court if required (1)(2)(3)(4)(5). For us to refer to him as an apologist or industry spokesman is entirely reasonable, given his publication record and links with commercial GM organizations;
(4) We consider that we have a right to state our opinion that the "group of four" (of which AMcH is a part) acted in such a manner as to leave no doubt in the scientific community that it was intent upon destroying Dr Ermakova's reputation. That would also be the view of any reasonable person reading the article and knowing the background (6);
(5) We will be content, in the interests of fairness, to publish on our web site any response which McHughen might wish to submit to our letter, if he is unable to find any other communication vehicle. The most natural vehicle for such a response from him would be Nature Biotechnology, as the journal at the centre of this dispute.
In a letter dated 2nd October 2007 and addressed to http://www.hosting365.com/, AMcH accused the web host of being responsible for the web site of GM Free Ireland and of "making ..... statements in permanent form that disparage the plaintiff or tend to bring him into ridicule or contempt." He claimed that the statements in question, published at http://www.gmfreeireland.org/news/index.php, incorrectly asserted:
1) that he was an “apologist” or spokesman for the industry when, he said, he had been careful to maintain his neutrality as an employee of a public University, and
2) that he (and his co-authors) “…...were out to destroy Dr Ermakova's reputation“ in their criticisms of her which were published in Nature Biotechnology. He claimed that the group of four scientists were careful to avoid "ad hominem" arguments; and that they focused entirely on her ‘scientific’ methods and interpretations.
He then said that "to make these defamatory assertions without any supporting evidence is clearly libelous," and demanded the immediate removal of the offending material from the web.
On the same day the web host forwarded the letter to GM Free Ireland, and that organization responded vigorously, asserting its right to report honestly on disputes and other matters in the GM field, and concluding: "The GM-free Ireland Network will continue to exercise our freedom of speech to report on this story as we see fit, and do not take kindly to any threat of SLAPP lawsuits as a form of censorship."
McHughen wrote again to GM Free Ireland on 2nd October with a threat of immediate legal action unless an apology was published, and unless those parts of the letter which offended him were removed from the GM Free Ireland web site.
Regarding our assertion that AMcH is an "apologist" or spokesman for the GM industry (7), this cannot possibly be seen as a defamatory, insulting or libellous statement. That would be to place a hypersensitive and even ludicrous construction on those words. Nor could our assertion be deemed to be "unlawful, libelous, abusive, offensive, vulgar or obscene material." On the contrary, someone working as an apologist or spokesman for the GM industry would reasonably be expected to be proud of such a designation. We do not say that AMcH is an OFFICIAL spokesman, but we express the opinion that he and his colleagues are self-appointed spokesmen -- as is well known in the GM science community (1-5). So we are not saying anything new here or doing anything that will reduce his status, bring him into ridicule or damage his career.
Dr McHughen appears to be an enthusiastic letter writer with (in our view) a propensity for getting involved in matters that would be none of his business if he were a biotechnologist quietly getting on with research in his laboratory. The fact that he takes such a high profile and seeks to "defend" biotechnology and the GM industry at every opportunity suggests to us that he sees himself as an apologist and spokesman for the industry which he clearly feels passionately about (7). That is his right.
The fact that AMcH has frequently asserted his "neutrality" and independence in GM matters in print and on the web does not mean that he is demonstrably free of bias in his scientific investigations and in his writings. It is for others to judge whether he is a genuinely neutral scientist or a proponent of GM technology.
Regarding our opinion that the "group of four" was intent upon destroying Irina Ermakova's reputation, that is a perfectly natural conclusion to draw, when one looks at the evidence (5). This evidence is carefully assembled by reference to materials (including correspondence) in our possession; and it has not been disputed by the Editor of Nature Biotechnology. It should be remembered that the idea for the article came from the "group of four", who put it to the Editor of Nature Biotechnology, who then agreed to provide them with a vehicle for their criticisms. That signals a premeditated intent to attack her work in print. We might ask whether AMcH and his colleagues were seeking to help Dr Ermakova or to enhance her standing, or were acting out of some noble ideal such as the pursuit of truth? We contend that nobody reading the article could possibly draw that conclusion; the intention very clearly was to inflict professional damage. Dr McHughen says that he and his colleagues "were careful to avoid ad hominem arguments" -- but every scientist knows that you do not have to mount a full-frontal personal attack on somebody's character or appearance to destroy his or her reputation. Their statements in the article (8) were in our view meant to damage her and to diminish her in the eyes of the scientific community -- note that in his letter to the web host McHughen even puts this: "we focused entirely on her ‘scientific’ methods and interpretations." That is an interesting giveaway -- by putting the word "scientific" in inverted commas he shows that he does not consider her work to be real science at all. He has been similarly dismissive in the past about the status and work of other well-respected scientists including Dr Judy Carman and Dr Mae-wan Ho.
In his recent letter to GM Free Ireland AMcH expresses his outrage that we "purported to know" his intentions. To "purport" something is to imply, profess or suggest it through a strong opinion -- and as far as we know that is not a crime, and never has been. How many thousands of people have purported (in print, and on the web) to know Tony Blair's real intentions with respect to the Iraq War? Some of those "purported intentions" were very evil indeed. So far as we know, he has not sought to prosecute any of the writers for libel.
It is intriguing to note that none of these self-appointed critics of Ermakova's work is an animal physiologist, and (by their own admission) not one of them has any experience of animal feeding studies. We find it amazing that Nature Biotechnology should have given such ill-qualified persons free space in the pages of the journal. The Editor refers to the four men as "researchers working in the field" but in fact they work in quite different fields of biotechnology. Their technical shortcomings will be exposed in due course, and we still take the view that their "corporate comments" were ghost written by other, unnamed, scientists. One illustration of their inexperience in this area is their heavy dependence upon a paper by Brake and Evenson which described experiments on mice, not rats, and which has been roundly criticised as inadequately controlled and unreliable (9).
One might also ask whether this group of four men might be capable of the persecution of scientists whose research findings they find "inconvenient'. Indeed, one might ask whether there is any precedent for their attack on Dr Ermakova. Sadly, the evidence for previous premeditated attacks on individuals, designed to damage their careers, is abundant (10). On the basis of these precedents, one might well draw the conclusion that the four men were acting entirely in character in this case, and that they have developed a special sort of expertise in "going after" scientists who have irritated the GM industry.
Finally there is no direct reference to Dr McHughen in our letter which could be construed as libellous. Our real criticisms in the letter were directed at Nature Biotechnology, and not at the scientists involved. One might ask why, if McHughen was happy to hide within the "group of four" in the pages of Nature Biotechnology, he should now be so PERSONALLY aggrieved about comments about the group's affiliations and perceived intentions which were not even offensive, let alone defamatory.
We will be happy to enter into a correspondence with Dr McHughen on any of the above matters, and find it extraordinary that he has chosen to threaten litigation against GM Free Ireland as a first rather than a last resort. If we had been asked to provide support for the points made in our letter to Nature Biotechnology, we would have been very pleased to do so -- and that would undoubtedly have sorted things out in the normal spirit of academic debate.
on behalf of GM Free Cymru
4th October 2007
(1) His own CV on the Univ of California Riverside web-site says that he has "developed
internationally approved commercial crop varieties using both conventional
breeding and genetic engineering techniques". Also: "His research
focuses on using biotechnology, especially the development of molecular genetic
technology to develop improved crops.........."
According to GM Watch: "McHughen's own work has centered on seeking to genetically engineer industrial traits into flax in the face of strong opposition. The president of Flax Growers Western Canada,Chris Hale, accused McHughen of a 'clear misunderstanding' of flax markets when McHughen argued it was an ideal crop for engineering such industrial traits as the production of plastics or drugs as it wasn't part of the food chain."
(2) Reviews of "Pandora's Picnic Basket", OUP, 256 pp.. From
Amazon web site:
"........ he clearly explains the benefits, but belittles the REAL problems of GM which he avoids. It is a gross manipulation of the truth. He is funded by MONSANTO, a totally pro GM company whose products have ruined farmers in India. He calls all the hazards of GM mere myths - invented by the media. He fails to address any hazards and tells only half the truth. How can he provide an unbiased viewpoint when he has genetically modified food himself?"
".....The book is an impassioned and ironic defense of biotechnology from someone who has apparently dedicated much of his life to its use in agriculture. It is clearly in favor of foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), against labelling, and against many additional regulatory measures under discussion internationally." (Book Review by Lynn Silver, MD, MPH, University of Brasilia)
We understand that the book was distributed free to Canadian schools -- raising interesting questions as to who funded this operation, and why......
In the UK and US there is another book called "A Consumer's Guide to GM Food" (Paperback)
by Alan McHughen, OUP, 2000, 288 pp.
There is a further book called "Biotechnology and Food", published by the American Council for Science and Health (which, although it fails to disclose its current funding sources, is known to have been financed in the past by Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Archer Daniels Midland, Ciba-Geigy, the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, Pfizer, and NutraSweet Company).
(3) From the Monsanto web site ( (Biotech Knowledge Center/ The Biotech
Advantage) : ".........any restrictions placed on the development
of biotech products is shortsighted and imposes another unnecessary burden
on an already stressed agriculture community." Press release relating
to: "Crop Confusion; Dispel Myths About The Risks Of Biotechnology
In California," Alan McHughen, The Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA.)
Also from the Monsanto (UK) web site: "In the seven years since the release of the world's first biotech food, over 300 million people have consumed biotech products, grown on over 100 million acres around the world each year. Remarkably, there's not one documented incident of harm, either to human health or the environment." (This is a grotesque statement, no doubt gleefully accepted by Monsanto, given that there are many fully documented incidents of harm in the literature.)
Opinion piece by Alan McHughen, Alberni Valley Times 2002
(4) The affair of the Triffids: We understand that AMcH, over the strong and vigorous objections of the flax growers in Canada, insisted on engineering and then registering a GM flax - Triffid - with public funds through the Univ of Saskatchewan Crop Development Center - which the Flax Development Commission then forced to be deregistered and destroyed to avoid losing market share. The University lost a substantial sum of money from this episode.
(5) Dr McHughen has also take a high profile in correspondence to politicians,
seeking to promote the virtues of GM technology and attacking those who have
the temerity to disagree with his views. Two examples:
"It is distressing to us to see the impacts (as expressed in Professor Burke's letter) that anti-science efforts in the UK have had on the development of excellent basic research into new technologies as well as those engaged in it. The treatment of the FSE results is just the latest example of how over-simplification and rhetoric can undermine rigorous scientific assessments." (AMcH was a signatory to this letter, sent by a group of GM scientists to Prime Minister Tony Blair)
He was also the first signatory (indicating that he probably instigated the letter and wrote the first draft) of a letter to the Canadian High Commissioner dated 13 September 2007, defending Shane Morris and "utterly denouncing" the Soil Association and its Director Peter Melchett. Ironically, AMcH and his co-signatories (including Chassy, Moses and Giddings) claimed that any Government reprimand on Shane Morris for seeking to close down the GM Watch web site "would have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Canadian scientists, and of scientists around the world."
Any pretence by AMcH of neutrality or impartiality on GM issues disappears at a stroke when one reads this letter, and we are thoroughly entertained by the thought that such a doughty defender of freedom of speech should now be threatening legal action against those who have the temerity to publish something about him which he does not like.
(6) NATURE BIOTECHNOLOGY FACILITATES PREMEDITATED GM ROTTWEILER ATTACK
How a well-known scientific journal "set up" an honest scientist through a conspiracy of lies and deception
This piece has also been widely disseminated through the web and is now pasted on many other sites worldwide.
(7) By "GM industry" we mean the whole of the GM development
chain, including scientific research, testing, seed production, breeding, commercial
development and marketing. In the same way, the term "steel industry" incorporates
all stages in the production of steel which is finally incorporated into consumer
"Today the term "apologist" is colloquially applied in a general manner to include groups and individuals systematically promoting causes, justifying orthodoxies, or denying certain events, even of crimes. Apologists have been characterized as being deceptive, or "whitewashing" their cause, primarily through omission of negative facts (selective perception) and exaggeration of positive ones, techniques of classical rhetoric........."
(8) Selected quotes from the article:
"Taking into account the deficient experimental design, and signs of poor animal husbandry and unbalanced nutrition -- as judged by high control group mortality and poor growth performance -- it should come as no surprise that deficient animal stewardship would lead to behavioural changes."
"The claim of 51.6% pup mortality in GM soy-fed groups defies credibility. It is not possible that such a strong lethal effect could have evaded researchers, regulatory agencies, health and agricultural agencies and animal producers for more than a decade."
"We find the claim (Table 5) that 12/12 dams fed non-GM soy produced a total of 72 pups whereas none of the GM-soy fed groups produced a single pup even less plausible when we consider Ermakova's previous reports."
"It is also of concern to us that Ermakova appears never to have published a peer-reviewed paper describing an animal study of this kind nor does training for such studies appear to be in her academic background."
"Her results depart so dramatically from previously reported findings as to be remarkable, and remarkable results demand remarkable support that Ermakova fails to provide."
"If she had questions about her own results, as she says she did, she should not have devoted so much time to publicizing what are demonstrably flawed studies."
These are strident and forthright criticisms, and we do not deny these authors the right to make them, or deny that they might have some merit. But the authors could have balanced them with some words of encouragement, or some signs that they appreciated the difficulties under which Dr Ermakova was working in Russia; and they chose to make no ameliorating comments at all. They could also have accorded Dr Ermakova some respect and made the criticisms to her privately, or in the form of a published letter or paper of their own. The fact that the comments are not attributed to any of the four individuals personally, but to the group corporately, is a cause of great concern. We consider that the "corporate" comments have damaged Dr Ermakova, and that this was the intention of the group of four scientists (including AMcH) who sought a published outlet for their views. In fact the comments copied above will be construed as accusations of incompetence, bias and even dishonesty, and might well form the basis of a claim for legal redress from Dr Ermakova if Nature Biotechnology does not offer suitable recompense.
(9) D.G. Brake and D.P. Evenson (2004). A generational study of glyphosate-tolerant
soybeans on mouse fetal, postnatal, pubertal and adult testicular development.
Food Chemistry and Toxicology 42:29-36.
"One particular study cited by the ACNFP to dismiss Ermakova’s findings has been strongly challenged by scientists around the world. It used processed soya, made from batches of soya harvested in the middle of two certain fields in South Dakota, and
formulated into rat chow by a commercial company, which were fed to small number of mice (not rats). These are other peculiarities in experimental design made the study not only substantially different from that of Ermakova, but also completely unreplicable. The
remarkable similarities in the composition of the GM and non GM diet - both supposed to contain 21.35 percent soya meal – were beyond belief. There were no standard deviations to the figures provided; 59 out of 78 were identical to 2 - 3 significant figures, and the rest differed so slightly that they would have been within standard errors. Could it be that the researchers have been feeding both groups the same diet? There was no evidence that the two diets were different, no PCR on the food samples were performed to ascertain that one was GM and the other non-GM."
Chassy, Moses and McHughen were involved in this attempt to prevent an independent animal feeding study in Adelaide. They wrote to Premier Dr Geoff Gallop -- and in the letter made outrageous statements about the professional competence and scientific standing of Dr Judy Carman and Dr Mae-wan Ho:
In 2006 McHughen published an attack questioning Dr Arpad Pusztai's professional competence on the GM propagandist site AgBioWorld:
In 2001 McHughen made unsupported accusations against Dr Ann Clark, a colleague in the University of Guelph, behind her back, to various individuals including her Faculty Chairman. The allegations were unfounded, and there was a clear intent to damage Dr Clark's academic reputation. No action was taken against Dr Clark.