Thursday, June 23, 2011
AgResearch stalls ‘damaging’ report
By Kiran Chug
The Dominion Post
June 23, 2011
Attempts to shut down a scientific report critical of AgResearch’s practices at its genetic engineering laboratories have been revealed through the company’s internal documents.
The report has sparked a war of words between the Canterbury University professor who wrote it, and the Crown research institute he criticises.
Professor Jack Heinemann, from the university’s Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety, wrote the report, which was published in an international peer-reviewed journal last month.
Its publication came about a year after he was asked by GE Free New Zealand to look into AgResearch’s monitoring of the risk of horizontal gene transfers at its Ruakura facility.
AgResearch receives a mixture of taxpayer funding and commercial backing, with about three-quarters of its funding for research carried out at Ruakura coming from public funds.
The report looked at the agency’s offal holes containing genetically engineered cow carcasses and its monitoring of the risk of material from those pits contaminating the soil.
Correspondence made available to The Dominion Post under the Official Information Act reveals that staff who saw a draft of Prof Heinemann’s critical report found it to be “at face value quite damaging”.
“Generally the report looks and sounds authoritative and thorough. The response should be to take it seriously. This is particularly important as it questions the rigour of AgR scientific processes - an issue that any scientific institute must regard as an issue of core competency.”
Staff then decided on a plan of action, involving asking Prof Heinemann for more time to respond to a copy of the draft report he had shared with them, working up a “media position”, bringing the report up with the risk and audit committee, and finding international experts who could refute the claims.
Staff members’ names are blocked out in the emails, but one of the most recent refers to the “bad press” the report has led to.
In the same email, the staff member states they have found a scientist who could respond to the report in case accusations resurfaced, and also describes a letter allegedly showing Prof Heinemann had a track record of twisting results to fit his own agenda.
After viewing the draft report, staff discuss contacting an expert who had a history of attempting to refute Prof Heinemann’s work.
Prof Heinemann said he had tried to engage with AgResearch over his study throughout the entire process. He was not surprised to read of the lengths it went to find scientists to refute his research. “That’s where they go for the shoot the messenger smear campaign.”
He stood by his findings, and said the regulator, the Environmental Risk Management Authority, was effectively asking AgResearch to monitor itself for findings that would jeopardise its entire commercial programme.
AgResearch’s general manager of applied biotechnologies Jimmy Suttie said he “emphatically denied” that AgResearch had tried to delay Prof Heinemann’s report being finalised.
“We replied to [Prof Heinemann] and made it clear we weren’t trying to delay but we needed additional support.”
He said the company was entitled to seek out whoever it wished to refute the report’s claims, and that its monitoring methods at Ruakura were sound.
He denied that the report damaged AgResearch’s reputation, saying he did not think the public understood the debate.
The research institute is restructuring its management team, and Dr Suttie is being made redundant. He refused to comment on the future of the genetic modification research team, and refused to comment on the possibility of other redundancies.
GE monitoring flaws found
Professor Jack Heinemann found what he described as fundamental flaws in the monitoring of horizontal gene transfer from genetically modified animals disposed of in offal pits.
His report said AgResearch was monitoring soil that was irrelevant because it was at the top of the offal pits, and not metres below, where the animals were buried.
Prof Heinemann said whenever signals were detected that the risk of a transfer existed, they were not rigorously pursued.
AgResearch says its monitoring programme is in line with best practice science, and in seven or eight years of practice has not detected any measurable transfer of genetic material.
It says the report writers are asking them to carry out a substantial research programme in its own right, which would go beyond monitoring.
Its current monitoring programme is appropriate, and meets all the conditions of its approval to carry ou genetic trials.
Horizontal gene transfer from genetically modified organisms has been the subject of many internationa studies and AgResearch says it is well established that it is unlikely to occur in the conditions at its site.