Emails expose anti-GM science for hire

13 Oct, 2015 07:55 AM
I would be glad to get involved as an expert witness in the Marsh case.

EXPOSURE of a private email trail has revealed one of WA organic farmer Steve Marsh's biggest backers sought to fund "scientific" research to present in a "strategic court room" as evidence of genetically modified (GM) crops being unsafe, to help demand a moratorium.

Emails obtained under a recent US-based Freedom of Information request show the proposal in an exchange between WA organic food entrepreneur Georg Kailis and US agricultural research professor Dr Charles "Chuck" Benbrook.

The FOI request is linked to an escalating public relations war in the US between biotech companies and pro-organic groups over the use of public figures and payments to try and influence views on plant biotechnology.

The emails involving Mr Kailis resulted from an FOI request of the Washington State University's (WSU) records by US school teacher Stephan Neidenbach who reportedly supports GMs and promotes science communication.

The emails were posted last week, with dozens of other documented exchanges, on MuckRock; a repository website used for sharing government documents between journalists and other interested groups.

At the time of the email exchange with Mr Kailis in March 2014, Dr Benbrook was a research professor at WSU's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Dr Benbrook is credited with publishing a 2012 study suggesting GMs had caused increased pesticide use in crop production due to glyphosate resistant weeds but the research methodology was attacked by critics.

He has also been shown to have received funding from large organic businesses like Whole Foods to conduct research during his WSU post, highlighting the benefits of organic farming and foods but has denied any conflict of interest.

Mr Kailis has been a long-term campaigner against the use of GMs and is part of the prominent Kailis family fishing and food dynasty, in WA.

During a public hearing of a 2002 WA parliamentary inquiry into gene technology legislation, he warned parliamentarians about the impacts of GMs on the State's clean-green brand and marketing image.

"We should just stay away from it. It is a ticket on the Titanic," he told the inquiry.

Mr Kailis also told the hearing his family had significant agricultural interests including investment in a $30 million olive grove plantation in Donnybrook and were "substantially committed financially, not just morally, to the position of no GMOs, and organic".

In communications with Dr Benbrook released in the FOI trail, Mr Kailis suggested $1.5 million had been provided to boost Mr Marsh's legal case in the WA courts, against his neighbour Mike Baxter.

"Legal redress is needed for GMO safety failures," Mr Kailis wrote.

"But we need very, very good preparation work.

"We just did two years of prep work for the Steve Marsh case which cost $1m of pro bono from Australia's biggest lawyers, plus $500k from us (The Safe Food Foundation).

"We have some big funders who want to get the science showing lack of safety of GMO in a significant court room."

Mr Baxter subsequently won the court case held in the WA Supreme Court over two weeks in February last year, only weeks before the email exchange occurred.

Mr Marsh and wife Sue tried to sue their neighbour for $85,000 in losses after losing their organic certification when GM canola swathes were detected on their Kojonup grain and sheep farm in late 2010.

The high profile legal test-case is now subject to an attempt by Mr Marsh's lawyers Slater & Gordon to seek an appeal to the High Court.

In his reply email, Dr Benbrook told Mr Kailis he would charge $200 per hour to be an expert witness in the Marsh case.

He also warned about going down the "academic route" but could "ramrod" the proposed research that would question the safety of GMs.

"I suspect this job could be done in four to eight months if there were adequate resources to get the help needed," the email said.

"I will ramrod it, but cannot take it on unless fully funded.

"My academic program is running on fumes, I need to retain my WSU base for lots of reasons.

"If someone goes the academic route, it would be 2-4 years before a dissertation is done.

"The fast route requires hiring and paying top-notch folks to join the team, so the papers can be divided up, and then individual evaluations reviewed/confirmed by the group.

"I don't have time to do a thorough budget, but expect six figures through publication.

"I would be glad to get involved as an expert witness in the Marsh case.

"I charge $200/hr - I have lots of trial and depo experience."

In another email, Mr Kailis asked what the costs and outcomes would be of choosing the "ramrod path" of four to eight months.

Dr Benbrook's reply said, "Off the top of my head, if I am the ramrod, I would need full control of process and right to be a slave driver/dictator, and at least $100k, and probably will regret promising to do it for that amount".

In reply, Mr Kailis said his aim was for the proposed research to be "robust enough to take into a "strategic" court room as a summary of evidence of GMO/glyphosate harm to date and be a spur to demand moratorium until further testing and more.

"Yes we will get PR from this research but the end game I aim for is to be in court with independent scientific evidence of harm versus proGMO (vested) scientific evidence," he said.

"I will now get some feedback from my lawyers and sponsors."

In his final email to Mr Kailis, Dr Benbrook said his experience as an expert witness in court proceedings was that the publication of research in a peer reviewed journal was "very important in responding to inevitable attacks".

University of Melbourne senior lecturer in food biotechnology and microbiology, agriculture and food systems David Tribe said the FOI email exchange showed that there was a PR plan to produce a predetermined outcome on the efficacy of GMs - not a scientific one.

"This exchange shows that Mr Kailis is prepared to pay for research that has a preordained outcome and is confirmation of bias," he said.

Dr Tribe also said the email exchange showed Mr Kailis had a global network of anti-GM and pro-organic connections he was working with.

But he said it was "curious" that despite this network of allies, including the Safe Food Foundation, they were unable to find a solitary witness who was able to testify at the Marsh v Baxter court case, and give evidence, proving GMs are unsafe.

"This 'dollars for the findings we need' playbook is a worrying departure from open-minded scientific investigation," he said.

"Also it's questionable whether Benbrook has the expertise to lead such a study."

The US public relations battle has been highlighted around recently proposed federal legislation for mandatory labelling of GM foods with other FOI documents exposed in The New York Times.

In Western Australia, the Marsh v Baxter case outcome has been linked to the proposed removal of the GM Crops Free Areas Act which governs the commercial approval of biotech crops, in the large grain growing and exporting State.

Mr Kailis is also a prominent board member of the UK-based Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) which also opposes GMs.

His SFT website biography says he is a "key member of the Australian sister institution, the Safe Food Foundation/Institute".

Safe Food Foundation director Scott Kinnear posted on his group's website during the Marsh v Baxter trial last year that his group had raised $750,000 to support the organic farmer's cause.

Mr Kailis was also credited with assisting funding the controversial study by Dr Judy Carman - published in 2013 - on the long-term impacts of feeding GM corn and soy to pigs.

Mr Kinnear was contacted by Fairfax Media to seek comment from Mr Kailis in response to the FOI emails but declined to provide any contact details and was unable to provide a response before deadline.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


Rural Realist
13/10/2015 12:18:06 PM

Surely there's a formal term for people who undermine competition by slander in order to drive up prices for their own product?
Fran Murrell
13/10/2015 3:57:23 PM

This article appears to be in response to the recent scandal showing Monsanto contacted PR firms who then got scientists to willingly follow their script in promotion of GM crops. This is not the same at all. Benbrook is a reputable scientist who used USDA pesticide data in his research showing that herbicide use increased on GM crops. Kallis contacted him over research to support an organic farmer contaminated by GM in a court case. GM has caused super pests, super weeds and contamination in the US. It's not surprising that research showing the reality of harm caused by GM crops was requested.
Zero Till
13/10/2015 5:53:47 PM

If consumers woke up to the fact organic is a religious movement with no scientific basis then they may appreciate how safe, sustainable and innovative modern agriculture in Australia is. It's funny how science is settled on climate change but its not even used to back up the hopeless organic farming system.
13/10/2015 5:58:55 PM

Organic Crops should have rights too! This is a one sided war with big Agriculture and big business! Nature and the Environment that sustains us should come first! Healthy Environment = Healthy People its that simple!
Frustrated pohme
14/10/2015 2:43:03 AM

When the facts don't show what you want them to show why not invent the evidence? Dr Benbrook has been on my radar for some time as being able to produce 'strange' and peculiar conclusions many of which don't seem to stack up. He (and others) have let them selves down badly.
John Newton
14/10/2015 5:26:06 AM

Oh come on. Do a search on Monsanto backed undermining of opponents of GM. And there's nothing secret about Dr Benbrook's opposition to GM. He's been vocal for years. and here's the big difference. Benrook doesn't do it for profit. Monsanto does. Follow the money. This is just another weasel trick of the biotechs to discredit those who oppose the false useless and outdated 'science' of genetic modification. And as for Rural Realist, tell me what Benbrook's product is: organic farming? Big money in that Follow the money.
14/10/2015 6:04:33 AM

Ho hum. Why am I not surprised? This is not news. This sort of thing is happening every day. People will go to any lengths to push their cause. Most of it is legal so they get away with it. The bottom line is that it does not change the facts.
14/10/2015 6:28:23 AM

Good well balanced article Colin.
14/10/2015 6:48:31 AM

Zero Till you really do let yourself down in this blurb. There is absolute science in the organic system as there is absolute science in conventional farming systems. To claim it as a religion is ridiculous and some would say that No-Till is a religion which isn't truly proven as well. All the best ideas in organic and conventional ag go into a melting pot to create a better end result whether you like it or not but to single out organics is ridiculous. It's funny how non-believers of climate change are often pro GM. Interesting correlation there. Similar makeup to the African Ostrich.
14/10/2015 7:49:10 AM

I don't know about the rest of the world, but I would actually like to see scientific, objective quality evidence that what animals and I eat won't actually harm me (whether organic or GM)!
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