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Jim Peron: Conflicts Of Interest And The GE Debate

Conflicts Of Interest In The GE Debate Can Be Found On Both Sides

by Jim Peron

Recently I received a phone call from a well known anti-GE activist. In the course of our conversation he intimated that scientists who dismiss the anti-GE hysteria are merely in the pay of the biotechnology industry.

The most tenuous of connections between a scientist and biotechnology raises shrill cries of ³conflict of interest.²

Certainly when a conflict does exist it should be considered very carefully.

Generally we dismiss the opinions of those with such conflicts. A scientist who earns his money from a biotech company is dismissed, just as is the ³scientific² refutation of evolution from a Christian creationist.

We realise that financial interests and religious or ideological presuppositions may mean that someone has an axe to grind on a specific issue. Such people are often not deemed credible sources.

Now the activist who was ranting to me on the phone started promoting the book Hard to Swallow by Jeffrey Smith. Conflicts of interest that Smith may have did not seem to interest him in the least.

First there is the issue of theological bias with Mr. Smith. Smith is strongly connected to the Transcendental Meditation sect of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Those are the people who sit in a lotus position, chant the names of Hindu gods, and bounce on their backside. They call it ³Yogic Flying² and argue that when bottom-bouncing is practised miracles happen.

They even claim that New Zealand¹s economic performance over the last decade or so is the direct result of Yogic Flyer¹s in this country.

Maharishi had his followers begin a political movement to promote TM. They called it the Natural Law Party and Smith was its candidate in Iowa. In fact the sect¹s headquarters in the US is Fairfield, Iowa where Smith ran for office.

This tiny town boasts Maharishi University, a couple of other TM schools, the Natural Law Party headquarters, and other TM connected ventures.

It is also the town where Smith lives and works. His US publisher‹which appears to be himself‹is Yes! Books, which has only published one book and also is located in Fairfield. For a town of 10,000 it¹s a busy place.

Smith¹s New Zealand publisher says he was a candidate but they neglected to mention it was for a party run by a religious sect that many consider a cult. The publisher also mentions that Smith worked for a GE detection lab. But again they are short on details.

The lab in question was Genetics, ID., Inc. also of Fairfield. And the prime owners are followers of the Maharishi. The lead scientist there is John Fagan, who teaches at Maharishi University.

Fagan¹s bias is seen in a letter he sent sent to anti-GE activist Richard Broome, of South Africa¹s anti-GE Safe Food Coalition. The letter said: ³I wish you great success in all the work you are doing for the Maharishi.²

South African newspapers say the Safe Food Coalition is another front group for the Maharishi¹s Natural Law Party.

Another of Genetics ID¹¹s owners‹Smith¹s employer‹is also the owner of several major organic related companies.

Maharishi is also involved in corporate enterprises directly related to the organic industry via Maharishi AyurVeda Products. Recently the sect started their own city, Maharishi Vedic City, just outside Fairfield. The city government went into the organic food business and banned all food items not certified as organic.

The founder of the South African SFC emailed the US Food and Drug Administration urging them to "support an immediate global ban on GE food and... insist that all food production be produced by Maharishi Vedic Organic Agriculture [which] is the most holistic food production system in the world.²

In spite of such apparent conflicts GE-Free New Zealand recently promoted Smith¹s book on their web site. But then a spokesman for the group is also a spokesman for the New Zealand Natural Law Party in addition to being the GE-Free organiser for Wellington.

Hysteria over GE certainly helps the company where Smith was vice president. No doubt the push for organic foods will profit Smith¹s friends at Genetic, ID as well. Nor should we forget that the TM sect and it¹s leader, are also financially profiting from the pro organic stance of the anti-GE crowd.

Last but not least remember that Mr. Smith does have a book to sell.

It¹s not that I¹m saying Smith is dishonest even if I think he¹s probably wrong. But his theological and financial interests should be considered.

It is possible that the fundamentalist Christian¹s take on evolution is right; that the Catholic view on stem cell research is correct and the Maharishi¹s view on GE foods is one worth considering. But I have strong doubts about all three possibilities.

Certainly these groups and their supporters have the right to be heard even if they do have an axe to grind.

But what I question is why the first two groups are so quickly dismissed by the Left while the third group¹s conflict of interests are routinely ignored.

Surely theological and financial conflicts matter regardless of from which side they come. A predisposition to ignore Baptists on evolution and Catholics on stem cell research should mean one ignores bottom-bouncers when it comes to GE foods. Considering financial and theological conflicts like this should be pretty much clear cut.

That it isn¹t so smacks of hypocrisy to me.


- The preceeding op-ed is available for free use provided appropriate credit Is given. It is presented as a public service by the Institute for Liberal Values. For more information contact (09) 368-1466.

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