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Peter Wills Replies To Russell Poulter

Dear Editor,

Russell Poulter has answered all of three of my specific questions (generally suggesting that we could bet closer to a resolution of Corngate by the release of further documents) with the retort "I am assured by Novartis that no such report exists".

As I have indicated, in December 2000 Novartis had (and has even more now) every reason not to have any report from the extra measurements it had contracted GeneScan to perform. When, soon after 5 December 2000, the NZ Government decided that the corn was totally uncontaminated, Novartis had achieved its goal. Whatever informal report it had recieved from GeneScan (the 5 December informal report said "one may draw the conclusion that samples received at GeneScan Australia from Novartis Seeds do contain trace-contaminating levels of Bt11"), Novartis would then have had every reason to ask GeneScan not to make a proper written report, especially if the initial suspicion was confirmed.

Thus, I can accept the assurance from Novartis that it "no such report exists", but that begs the question; Why does no such report exist when as of 5 December GeneScan was under contract from Novartis to produce such a report and was being frustrated by equipment failure.

I don't know anyone in Novartis, so I can't check whether my suspicions hold water. I hold my suspicions on the basis of my knowledge of how big companies (Enron, Xerox, WorldCom) behave and I reflect on how much can be believed (having experienced in the Nixon era when the leader of the free world turned out to be a liar when it suited him). Is Novartis more trustworthy than the US Government and its president?

These matters can only be resolved by facts, not by assurances (from Russell Poulter, Helen Clark or Marion Hobbs).

So, the facts we need to know are:

1. Were the measurements still being done by GeneScan on 5 December 2000 being conducted by the fluorimetric Online-PCR (or similar) method? If not, what was the nature of these ongoing measurements?

2. What was the nature of the equipment failure reported by GeneScan on 5 December 2000?

3. Had GeneScan ground up several kg of corn and extracted DNA in the hope of quantifying contamination at a low level (<0.02%) by using quantitative rather than qualitative PCR? If so, were the measurements ever concluded (and would we learn the truth now even if they were)?

I do not accept Russell Poulter's assurance that neither Crop and Food nor GeneScan "provided any worthwhile evidence of GMO". Why should I accept his judgment until I have seen the reports for myself? The government has not released any of the reports of results that proved positive. When I have seen the reports I will make it clear what I think and I will explain my interpreation of the evidence, but I will issue no assurances either way. Assurances belong to politics, not science.

A: I stand by my claim that the government is witholding evidence (reports of positive tests).

B: I stand by my claim that GenScan was still under contract to Novartis on 5 December 2000, that GeneScan had reported informally its belief that Lot NC9114 was contaminated and that we have no idea what the final results were or what the outcome of that contractual arrangement was.

C: I stand by my claim that the unduplicated positive results for the ADH-Cry1A(b) construct are prima facie evidence for contamination which can only be poved false by futher evidence (like sequencing the PCR product at a cost of $6, or a huge $30 if you have to pay the commercial rip-off artists to do it). [Why has Russell Poulter never mentioned any of this?]

I challenge any molecular biologist anywhere in the world to put his/her reputation on the line and say, on the basis of the results currently in the public domain, that the results referred to in "C" can be dismissed as false positives and need no further investigation. [I expect this challenge will, if widely distributed, provoke the usual noise of ad hominen attacks on me without a single well- argued, substantive, credible answer being published. Perhaps all of the biologists on the academic staff at the University of Auckland could put themselves on the line and act as a jury.]

When the Berkeley PCR results concerning GE contamination of maize in Mexican landraces came out (involving measurements of a similar kind) and were challenged on technical grounds, I reserved judgment and said the matter could only be properly resolved by further, more careful tests. The pro-GE brigade got together and bludgeoned the journal Nature into taking the unprecedented step of recanting its support for a paper it had published. Now that the boot is on the other foot Russell Poulter is saying we need no further tests and that we should accept his assurance.

The cases are very similar indeed, but in the one case (New Zealand) we are told that no further evidence is required and we can draw a firm conclusion, whereas in the other (Mexico) we are told that the drawing of a conclusion was a dastardly scientific deceit.

I am sorry if I had it wrong that Russell Poulter is connected with C&R. I cannot even remember where I got the impression, but I thought he was associated with Tony Conner's group in some way. I did not mean to be disparaging. On the other hand I would like to know whether the C&R equipment which he says "is the most advanced in the world" included Online-PCR prior to December 2000. I would also like to know if GeneScan used such equipment on the NZ samples at that time.

Please ignore any innuendo that may remain in this statement. I am calling for more facts. That's what scientists do in order to get closer to the truth of the matter. I do not understand why Russell Poulter resists my attitude and chooses instead to join the politicians who deal in assurances of the sort that he willingly dispenses.

Peter Wills

Peter R Wills
Associate Professor
Department of Physics
University of Auckland

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