by Bertram Verhaag
review by Claire Robinson
13 October 2010
Billed as "a political thriller on GMOs
and freedom of speech", this film by the German film-maker
Bertram Verhaag tells the stories of two scientists, Dr
Ignacio Chapela, whose research showed
negative findings on GM foods and crops.
Both suffered the fate of those who
challenge the powerful vested interests that dominate agribusiness
and scientific research. They were vilified and intimidated,
attempts were made to suppress and discredit their research, and
their careers were derailed.
Pusztai found that the internal organs of rats fed GM insecticidal
potatoes either increased in size or did not develop properly
compared with controls. His experiments turned up no less than 36
significant differences between GM-fed and non-GM-fed animals.
Pusztai, encouraged by his research institute, gave a 150-second
interview on British TV in which he summarized his findings and said
it was unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs for GM
For two days, Pusztai was treated as a hero by his institute. But
following a phone call from UK prime minister Tony Blair to
the institute's head, Pusztai was fired and gagged under threat of a
lawsuit. His research team was disbanded and his data were
Lies were circulated about his research
that he could not counter due to the gagging order, lifted only
later when he was due to appear before a Parliamentary Committee.
For Pusztai’s co-researchers, the
gagging order remains in place for life.
Pusztai's results threatened the GM industry because they showed
that it wasn't the insecticide engineered into the potatoes that
damaged the rats, but the genetic engineering process itself. So the
problem wasn't just with these GM potatoes but potentially with all
GM foods on the market. The only solution for the industry and its
friends in government was to shoot the messenger.
Traumatic though this was for Pusztai, it wasn't the biggest shock
he had to face regarding GM foods.
That came when he was asked to review
safety submissions from the GM industry for crops we were already
eating - and found that they were scientifically flimsy.
"That was a turning point in my
life," said Pusztai.
"I was doing safety studies; they
were doing as little as possible [in terms of safety testing] to
get their foods on the market as quickly as they could."
Another scientist whose run-in with the
GM industry is featured in the film is Ignacio Chapela, a
molecular geneticist at UC Berkeley.
His research, co-authored with David
Quist and published in the journal Nature, revealed that Mexican
maize had been contaminated with GM genes. The finding was explosive
because Mexico is the centre of origin for maize and the planting of
GM maize there was illegal.
Chapela found himself the target of a vicious internet campaign
condemning him as more of an activist than a scientist and claiming
that his paper was false. Nature's editor published a partial
retraction of the paper.
As Chapela points out in the film, the
editor's action flew in the face of scientific method. In the normal
way of things, a journal editor publishes a study that he and peer
reviewers judge to be sound. It is for subsequent published studies
to confirm or correct the findings. It is not for the editor to
state that he would not have published a study had he known then
what he knows now - without the benefit of further peer reviewed
The editor's move showed how the GM
industry is rewriting the rules of science for its own ends.
To add insult to injury, the internet campaign against Chapela
turned out not to have been initiated and fuelled not by his
scientific peers but by fake citizens, "sockpuppets" invented by the
Bivings Group, a public relations firm contracted by
Scientists Under Attack goes on to show how the GM industry
has blocked the evolution of scientific knowledge.
When Russian scientist Irina Ermakova's
study found high mortality rates and low body weight in rats fed GM
soy, and when Austrian government research found that decreased
fertility in mice fed GM maize, the industry carried out its usual
campaign of vilification. If the industry were interested in
scientific truth, it would push for studies to be repeated with the
alleged "flaws" corrected. But this never happens.
Instead, GM companies use their
patent-based ownership of GM crops to deny scientists access to
research materials - the GM crop and the non-GM parent line control.
So the original research showing problems with GM crops is buried
under a deluge of smears and follow up studies are not done.
For the public, the difficulty and
expense involved in accessing full research papers makes it hard to
find where the truth lies.
The film also highlights an extreme example of the corporate
takeover of science - at University of California, Berkeley (UCB),
where Chapela is a professor.
In 1998, UCB entered into a $25 million
research partnership with biotech company Novartis (now
Syngenta). The deal provoked angry
debate on campus and was criticized by a number of faculty members,
Then in 2007, UCB entered into a $500
million research deal with oil giant BP. The partnership was
negotiated in secret, without consultation even within the
university. In return for its money, BP gained access to UCB’s
researchers, control over the research agenda, and co-ownership of
commercial rights over inventions.
Chapela says of BP,
"They decide what is called
The partnership was later spun as one of
BP's "beyond petroleum" projects that would take us out of the age
of dirty oil and into the new age of solar and renewable
But the small print makes clear that the
deal focuses on genetic engineering for biofuels-proprietary
technologies that will be patented and owned
Most of us think of the enclosure of knowledge by industry interests
in the abstract - as figures on a balance sheet, and conflicts of
interest lurking in the darker corners of scientists' psyches. But
as Scientists Under Attack memorably shows, at UCB it's
played out on the physical level.
a divided campus, reminiscent of Berlin before the Wall came down.
There is the public area, which looks like everyone’s idea of a
pleasant university campus. Then, enclosed in high-security fencing
and ringed with “no entry” signs, there is the privatized area, the
part of the university that’s been co-opted by BP.
No amount of reading about the UCB-BP
deal can prepare you for the sight of what was once a great public
university being turned into something resembling a top-secret
Seemingly, the culture of the university has changed along with its
Once a celebrated centre of free speech
and academic debate, UCB has become a place where tree-sitting
students peacefully protesting against the felling of old oaks on
campus are caged inside three rows of high-security fencing. In
contrast, the university's colony of (not very dangerous) hyenas are
judged only to need two.
UCB has dealt harshly with critics of its deals with industry. In
2003, five years after Chapela's protest against the Novartis deal
and two years after publication of his Mexican maize findings, he
was denied tenure. The university only backed down after Chapela
threatened to sue.
In Scientists Under Attack, he
"In genetic engineering, one
question means one career. You ask one question, you get the
answer. You might or might not be able to publish it. That's the
end of your career. What's unique in my case is that I
Chapela adds that the most powerful
censorship does not come directly from the GM industry but from
closer to home:
"It's in the consciousness of the
scientist. You censor yourself."
In other words, it's not so much that
the GM industry has taken away our power, but rather that we've
given it away.
While some sectors of the scientific community remain silent in the
face of GM industry dominance, nature is proving a tougher opponent.
GM monocultures worldwide are threatened by the rapid spread of
glyphosate-resistant superweeds. Here again, no amount of reading
about the issue can match the visual impact of weeds effortlessly
smothering a field of GM soy plants in Brazil.
Only a few years previously, as part of
the marketing drive for GM soy, farmers had been invited to a party
with free booze. They were told to arrange their hoes in a circle
and ritually burn them. The idea was that hoes were redundant
because weeds could be controlled with glyphosate.
glyphosate no longer works and
farmers are being forced back to hoeing.
The message about who is really in charge is underlined by public
interest attorney and activist Andrew Kimbrell, who is
interviewed fishing for trout in a river. He points out that trout
eat caddis-flies, which can be killed by
Bt maize toxin leaching into
rivers. Kimbrell says the GM industry follows a linear economic
model based on a drive towards more and more production, regardless
of the cost to nature and ourselves.
He says this model of progress is
"Everything is made from the earth -
these clothes, this camera, this fly rod. There is only one
economy - the one that we see around us right now. The other
economy, of capital and technology and the stock market, is all
made up in our heads."
Kimbrell concludes the film by saying
that industry hasn't grasped that we need to evolve into a stable
economy enmeshed in ecology:
"We are going to have to follow the
laws of nature and not the artificial laws of any technology.
The salmon come back to where they were born to spawn and die,
and then the young come out. It's not linear, it's a life-giving
Biotech’s Dirty Tricks
in New Documentary 'Scientists Under Attack'
by Jeffrey Smith
September 14, 2011
"Scientists Under Attack"
reveals the total distortion of science being used by
the biotech industry, and the way in which honest
scientists who try to question GMOs are viciously
attacked and discredited.
“One question means one career.”
This was the harsh warning of UC
Ignacio Chapela for those
daring to conduct independent research on genetically engineered
foods and crops.
“You ask one question, you get the
answer and you might or might not be able to publish it; but
that is the end of your career.”
Both he and biologist
Arpad Pusztai dared to asked
questions and do the research. And then all hell broke lose.
Using stunning visuals filmed on three continents, veteran German
filmmaker Bertram Verhaag tracks the fate of these two scientists at
the hands of a multi-billion dollar industry that is desperate to
hide the dangers of their genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
BR Online says of the film,
“Belief in noble and incorrupt
research and science is reduced to absurdity.”
Arthouse says the,
“movie shows how purchased truth
becomes the currency in the perfidious business between science
And GMWatch writes,
“Original research showing problems
with GM crops is buried under a deluge of smears and follow up
studies are not done.”
insect-killing, career-ending potato
“As a scientist looking at it and
actively working on the field, I find that it’s very, very
unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs.”
UK’s World in Action TV show
When Dr. Pusztai voiced his concerns
about the health risks of genetically modified (GM) foods during a
nationally televised interview in August 1998, his was not simply
just another voice in a contentious debate.
Pusztai was the world leader in his
field, and he had received major government funding to come up with
the official method for testing the safety of GM foods.
His protocols were supposed to become
the required tests before any new GMO entered the European market.
Pusztai was an insider, and an advocate of GM foods - that is until
he actually ran those tests on
supposedly harmless GM potatoes.
The high-tech spuds were engineered to produce their own pesticide.
“The point of the whole genetic
modification experiment was to protect the potato against
aphids, which are one of the major pests in Scotland,” he said.
His team inserted a gene from the
snowdrop plant into the potatoes, which did in fact protect the GM
crop from the insects.
As part of his safety studies, he fed that insecticide producing GM
potato to rats, along with a complete and balanced diet. Another
group of rats ate natural potatoes. A third was fed not only the
natural potatoes, but they also received a dose of the same
insecticide that the GM potato produced.
This way, if the insecticide was
harmful, he would see the same health problems in both the group
that ate the GM potatoes, and those that ate the diet spiked with
To his surprise, only those that ate the
GM potato had severe problems - in every organ and every system he
problems linked to GMOs
“After the animals were killed and
dissected,” Pusztai recalled, “we found out that in comparison
with the non-genetically modified potatoes, their internal
organs developed differently.”
The intestines and stomach lining, for
example, increased in size, the liver and kidneys were smaller, and
the overall rate of growth was retarded.
And the immune system suffered.
“They found in those data 36 - 36! -
very highly significant differences between the GM-fed animals
and the non-GM fed animals.”
Since the rats that ate the natural
potatoes plus the insecticide did not have these issues, there was
one obvious conclusion - the process of genetically engineering the
potatoes caused unpredicted side effects, turning a harmless food
into a dangerous one.
When Pusztai saw the extensive damage that his potatoes caused in
the lab animals, he also realized that if biotech companies had done
the safety studies, the dangerous potatoes would have easily made it
He knew this because a few months
earlier, he had reviewed the confidential submissions from the
biotech companies which allowed their GM soy and corn onto the
“They were flimsy,” he said. “They
were not scientifically well founded.”
They would never detect the changes in
Reading the industry studies was a turning point in Pusztai’s life.
He realized what he was doing and what the industry scientists were
doing was diametrically opposed. He was doing safety studies.
Monsanto, on the other hand, were doing as little as
possible to get their foods on the market as quickly as possible.
Pusztai also realized that the GM soy and corn already on the market
had been produced using the same process that had created his
dangerous potato. Thus, the GM crops being consumed in the UK and
the U.S. might lead to similar damage in the gut, brain and organs of
the entire population.
Thus, during his TV interview, Pusztai flatly stated:
“If I had the choice, I would
certainly not eat [GM foods] until I see at least comparable
experimental evidence which we are producing for genetically
After the TV show aired, Pusztai was a hero at his prestigious
Rowett Institute, where the
director praised his work to the press, calling it world-class
After two days of high-profile media
coverage throughout Europe, however, the director received two phone
calls from the UK Prime Minister’s Office.
“It’s only when we think there was
political pressure coming from the top that the situation
changed,” said Pusztai. “And then the director, to save his own
skin, decided that the best way to deal with the situation [was]
A) to destroy me, B) to make me shut up.”
Pusztai was told the next morning that
his contract would not be renewed, he was silenced with threats of a
lawsuit, his team was disbanded, and the protocols were not to be
implemented in GMO safety assessments.
And then came the attacks.
Coordinated between the Institute, biotech academics, and even the
pro-GMO UK government, a campaign to destroy Pusztai’s reputation
was launched. They were determined to counter the negative media
coverage and protect the reputation of GMOs - even if it meant
promoting blatant lies and sacrificing a top scientist’s career.
Because Pusztai was gagged, he said,
“whatever they did say on TV, radio
and wrote in the newspapers, I could not deny it, I could not
correct it, I could not say what was the real situation.”
“The most hurtful thing of all,” remembers Pusztai’s wife Susan,
“was that he wasn’t allowed to talk to his colleagues and his
colleagues were not allowed to talk to him. So whenever he
entered a room, they went silent within seconds.”
After seven excruciating months, a
committee at the UK Parliament invited Pusztai to speak.
the gag order, which allowed Pusztai to ultimately publish his
research, and be interviewed for this film.
Oops - GMOs
weren’t supposed to be there
Ignacio Chapela, a professor at the University of California at
Berkeley, had “a long-term relationship with a group of indigenous
communities” in Mexico.
Although GM corn was not yet legally
grown in the country, Chapela decided to equip the Mexicans with a
laboratory that could test for its presence, in case GMOs were
To help with the training, his colleague
David Quist brought GM corn from the U.S.
For the non-GM control
corn, Chapela said,
“we thought we should just use the
local corn, which, of course, is going to be clean and
wonderful. And the surprise came when the negative control
started coming out positive. That means we started finding
transgenic materials where they were not supposed to be.”
“The reason why our findings were so
astounding was because it was thought that there was no
transgenic corn being planted in Mexico at all. And people
wanted it that way... Why? Because Mexico is the center of
origin of corn. The Mexican government was worried about
maintaining the integrity of the land races.”
Apparently GM corn imported as food was
unknowingly being grown, and had already started contaminating the
source of corn’s biodiversity.
According to Chapela the industry,
“had been telling the world that
they really had control over these crops, that if they
planted... transgenic corn in one field, that transgenic corn
would not go anywhere else.
So our discovery that we were
finding transgenic corn maybe a thousand miles from the nearest
legal transgenic corn field was a huge problem for them because
it really showed very simply, and with real evidence, that they
really did not have control.”
Chapela and Quist wrote up the finding,
which was accepted for publication by the prominent journal Nature.
“many people within the industry
very nervous and very unhappy,” says Chapella. They “started a
discreditation campaign for the paper. They did not want the
paper to be published.”
Unable to stop Nature, however, a
Monsanto PR company - the
Bivings Group - deployed plan B.
“They created two fictitious
characters, two doctors,” recounts Chapela. “And these two
doctors went on the internet and started spreading rumors that
what we had said was false and that the paper was flawed.”
The disinformation campaign went viral.
It put huge pressure on Nature, spread the false notion that
contamination had not taken place, and resulted in a campaign
against Chapela by biotech advocates in his University.
“In my case,” says Chapela, “I was
pushed out of the university at least three times. Every time I
fought back and we managed to keep my job. But it’s been very
The treatment of Pusztai and Chapela illustrates what happens around
the world to scientists who discover harm from GM crops.
The work of Russian scientist Irina Ermakova, for example, was viciously attacked, and there were
repeated attempts to intimidate her:
papers were burnt on her desk
and samples were stolen from her lab.
Peeking through these stories of personal attacks are the very real
dangers of GMOs, which compel the audience to question the use of
GMOs in their own diets.
Consider the impact of Ermakova’s research
on young women planning to raise a family. After she fed genetically
engineered soy flour to female rats, more than half of their
offspring died within three weeks.
The film also unravels the claims of biotech benefits on the farm
A visit to Brazil introduces herbicide-tolerant
soybeans, engineered to make weeding a field easier. Farmers can
Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide right on the field, and the GMOs
survive. But this has led to massive overuse of Roundup, which in
turn has led to the emergence of herbicide-tolerant superweeds - no
longer controllable with Roundup.
A natural reaction to these stories might be to ask why isn’t the
government telling us the truth and protecting us.
Unfortunately, they are part of the
FDA cover up
The FDA scientists who reviewed GMOs in the early 1990s were
uniformly concerned about their health impacts, according to
attorney Andrew Kimbrell, who runs the D.C.-based Center for Food
He was on the team that sued the FDA in
1998, forcing them to turn over nearly 60,000 pages of secret
Kimbrell extracts key memos from massive
filing cabinets in his office, reading the scientists’ warnings:
“So the scientists asked for these
studies,” says Kimbrell. “But the politicians at the FDA and in
the administration at that time
(1998) said no. They suppressed the
science. And these questions, these studies, have never been
Instead, the U.S. government maintains the
illusion that nothing is wrong, and that this science works just as
the biotech companies are telling us. This is beautifully
illustrated with excerpts of biotech apologist Nina Fedoroff,
the former science advisor to the Secretary of State.
Her bland assurances about the safety of
GMOs crumble with each new revelation in the film.
risks - no benefits
“No one gets up in the morning
saying I want to go buy a genetically engineered food,” says
Kimbrell. “They offer no benefits, no more
nutrition, no more flavor, no nothing. They only offer risks.”
He says the average rational person
“Why would I buy a food that offers
me no new benefits but only risks?”
Kimbrell, who wrote the book
to Know, says it was,
“critical for the industry to get
these foods out without anyone knowing, because if they knew,
they would obviously choose not to buy them.”
But as Chapela’s discovery of
self-propagating GMO contamination illustrates, the risk of GMOs
extends well beyond individual considerations.
“We are manipulating life in a way
that we really do not understand, we cannot control, and then
we’re letting it go into the environment. So it’s a change that
is radical, that is unprecedented, that is beyond anything we
can understand, and it is irretrievable.
We cannot get it back.
That’s my concern!”
Científicos Bajo Ataque / Scientists Under Attack
Subtitulado en Español
the potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and other vegetable
products that we buy in the supermarket are
genetically modified. Food inspection authorities
and biologists experimenting with the manipulation
of DNA structures for large food companies claim
that these products
sufficient testing and form no danger to public
the experts featured in 'Scientists under Attack -
Science in the Magnetic Field of Money,'
is a blatant lie.
companies have commercial interests that result in
censored research results and crucial questions that
go unanswered. Microbiologist Àrpàd Pusztai found 36
significant differences between rats that had eaten
genetically modified potatoes and rats that had
eaten "normal" ones.
Among the first
group the liver was less well-developed, but when
Pusztai announced this in a television interview, he
was fired. After publication of negative research
data in Nature magazine, his colleague Ignacio
Chapela was attacked online in a viral marketing
campaign to discredit his results.
The editors of
Nature proceeded to write an editorial admitting
that they should not have published the data,
bringing their prestigious publication's independent
reputation into question.
applies to universities that accept large sums of
money from businesses performing food research.
still be trusted?