Biotech Defamation Case May Send Peruvian Biologist to Jail
This outrageous case began when Antonietta Ornella Gutiérrez Rosati, a biologist at the La Molina National
Agricultural University in Lima, claimed to have identified a P34S promoter and NK603 and BT11 transgenes in 14 of 42 maize samples from the Barranca region. Her findings were not submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, but she did send them along to El Comercio, Peru's leading newspaper and called for a moratorium on the introduction of biotech crops.
Ernesto Bustamente, the vice president of the Peruvian College of Biologists, disputed her findings, arguing (translation via Wayne Parrott) in his regular newspaper column:
The author had two absurdly improbable conclusions a) the simultaneous presence of three transgenic events from two different companies (a gene for resistance to the herbicide glyphosate; a gene for resistance to another herbicide glufosinate, and a Bt gene for resistance to a lepidopteran insect. b) having found transgenics in 30% of the crops. This is even more serious, given that one of the two companies has not commercialized its seeds. These false and incoherent conclusions can be explained by the fact that the report has grave errors in procedure and quality control (absence of positive standards, wrong interpretation of the amplicons, etc.).
I do not know if transgenic maize is being grown in Peru; maybe yes, maybe no. It is also possible that Martians are alive and well in Barranca; maybe yes, maybe no. What is certain is that no one has proven that there are transgenic crops in Barranca or in any part of Peru (except for experimentals). Not yet.
Given this sequence of personal and institutional ineptitude, a false truth has been generated and disseminated internationally. This should have been corrected by the investigator, the reporter, the ecologist, the politicized Conam, INIA, or the University. Nevertheless, I see with unease that each time a false truth is promulgated as a done deed, it gets used as a tool by those ideological and pseudoenvironmental groups that use their anticorporate stances to torpedo the important role that modern biotech should play as a developmental tool for Peru.
Instead of rechecking her work or sending it out for peer review, Gutiérrez sued Bustamente for defamation, and a Peruvian court ruled that he had defamed her. [Aside: Defamation laws in Latin America are infamous for being used to shut up people whom the elites dislike. Thank our founders for the First Amendment!]
As Nature Biotechnology reported the case in February:
After Bustamante refused to retract his statements, Gutiérrez filed a suit for defamation. She later presented her findings to the Peruvian Genetic Society of which she is president, but would not comment on the case, except to say that "you must use respect" in scientific discussion and that her critics have "polarized" the debate.
The declaration of support for Bustamente being circutlated among researchers, reads in part:
More specifically, the verdict destroys the integrity of science. Ultimately, the strength of science lies in peer review. It is an established and universal procedure that scientists publish their work precisely so the rest of the scientific community can evaluate it. No scientist ever publishes under any illusion that their work will be accepted without question. A few of the published research papers stand the test of time. Others fall by the wayside, as scrutiny by the scientific community at large is able to find flaws or alternative interpretations for their results. Only when the science community at large validates a piece of scientific work after repeated questioning and challenges, thus separating facts from artifacts, can science move forward. Therefore, engaging in scientific critique has become both a right and a duty for scientists.
We are saddened that another Peruvian scientist took personal offense when her results were questioned. Legitimate scientists would have reviewed their data to ensure its integrity. Instead, she chose to seek redress through the court system. But by doing so, she violated the tenets that form the very foundation of science. We wish to stress that no court ruling is ever able to alter scientific fact or the laws of nature.