Would you eat wormy sweet corn?

A 2003 paper in the British Food Journal by Powell et al described an experiment that found that, given a choice between genetically modified sweet corn and the regular kind, consumers preferred to buy the GM corn by a factor of 3 to 2. However, Stuart Laidlaw reported that the experiment was flawed -- there was a sign above the regular sweet corn saying "Would you eat wormy sweet corn?", while the corresponding sign over the GM corn said "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn". The experiment shows that consumers prefer GM corn to wormy corn, but they may well prefer regular corn to GM corn if they were both presented as worm free.

As a result, there was an exchange of letters in the British Food Journal. Joe Cummins wrote:

Powell et al. acknowledge that this was only a preliminary study and there were a number of limitations arising from consumer testing based solely on this one farm store. However, the cornerstone of science is full and honest reporting, and this experiment and its controls do not appear to have been reported either fully or honestly. The research should, therefore, be withdrawn, as should the journal's Award for Excellence.

Powell conceded that the "wormy corn" sign had present on August 30 (the day the sales experiment started), but

The handwritten signs were changed the following week.


But look at the picture that Powell provided of the display. To the right is a closer view of the sign that was above the regular corn. It's a bit blurry, but you can see that it says "Would you eat wormy sweet corn?". I've overlaid it with Laidlaw's picture of the sign. You can switch between them if you roll your mouse over the image (provided you have Javascript on your browser). The match is perfect.

Shane Morris, who is the second author of the paper, posted another picture of the display on his blog and wrote:

No data from any such "signs" were included in publication data (granted I only came to Canada Sept. 12, 2000 and was not present for the entire sampling period). There are lots of pictures and video footage of the store that show no misleading signs during the data collection period (see pic above). I look forward to posting them all but first lets give Johnny more rope to hang himself. HERE IS GREENPEACE CANADA REVIEWING THE SIGNS........surely they would have contacted the media and the University of Guelph if anything "fraud" like was going on (note camera on Greenpeace rep!!).

But compare Morris's picture of the display with Powell's: what sign is the Greenpeace rep looking at? Yes, it's the "wormy corn" sign. To the right is a close up view of the sign. The writing is just a blur, but I've aligned it with the previous image of the sign and if you mouse over it, you'll see that there is a good match. It's conceivable, I guess, that other words were written on the sign in exactly the same position, but odds are that the sign was unchanged.

Jonathan Matthews (the "Johnny" that Morris refers to) asked the Greenpeace rep in Morris' picture about the sign:

We contacted Michael Khoo and asked him if he could, as Shane Morris claimed, confirm that the wormy corn sign was not up when he visited the store. He couldn't. He told us, "I could have seen it when I was there," but he couldn't say for certain because "it's a little while ago" and he hadn't retained any of the photos he had taken at the store.

But Michael Khoo hadn't gone alone to the store that day. He had a companion - Dr Rod MacRae, an independent food policy consultant based in Toronto who had Greenpeace Canada as one of his clients. Dr MacRae told us that he had seen the wormy corn sign when he went to the store: "I can state categorically that the sign was there the day Michael and I attended." He also confirmed the date: "signage favouring the GE corn by describing the other corn as wormy was still up on Sept. 27, 2000."

Morris has now resorted to threats of legal action to stop criticism of the study. Joe Cummins writes:

SLAPP is acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a litigation used by large organizations, or sometimes even individuals [1] to intimidate and silence less wealthy critics by so severely burdening them with the cost of a legal defence that they abandon their criticism. The acronym was coined in the 1980s by University of Denver professors Penelope Canan and George W. Pring. One marker of a SLAPP is whether the costs outweigh the damages claimed by a large amount; for example, damages of a few hundred dollars and costs in the tens of thousands. SLAPP can be attractive to lawyers because a marginal case can lead to high legal fees, and because clients actually encourage them to run up large costs [2]. ...

The GM-free Ireland Network is the subject of on-going attack by a biotech lobbyist called Shane Morris, a paid agent of the Canadian Government: a Senior Consumer Analyst at the Consumer Analysis Section of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. He manages a website that attacks opponents of GM crops in his home country and in Great Britain, and even high ranking European Union politicians whom he believes are soft on GM crops. Things came to a head when he threatened legal action against third party internet service providers carrying comments critical of him. ...

The effort from Canada to use the threat of third party litigation to have GM Free Ireland and GM Watch removed from the internet enjoyed a brief success when GM Watch went offline. Now GM Watch is back, and both sites have provided full accounts of the efforts to intimidate them into withdrawing criticism of the shoddy study.

I think that science would have been better served if Powell and Morris had acknowledged the flaws in their study rather than making untrue statements about the "wormy corn" sign being removed.

GM Watch has more on this issue in four parts, 1, 2, 3 and 4.

More like this

mmm....wormy sweet corn...nothin' better!

If worms won't eat GM corn, maybe they know something. Despite the fact that their brains are tiny compared to politicians, I take it as a given that worms are incorruptible.

I DO eat wormy sweet corn.

We subscribe to a Community Supproted Agricutlure fresh-from-the-farm weekly delivery of organic fruit and produce. During the summer, that box contains 4-6 ears of sweet corn each week. It is organic - and despite their attempts to control earworm through farming practice, about 1/3 of the ears of corn has worms. It ain't a problem.

Corn earworms are confined to the upper inch or so of the ear. One simply husks the corn, cuts off an inch or two of the top of the ear if it has a worm, and is left with very fresh, sweet, tasty ear of corn, which has lower impact on the farm's local environment and is much better eating than anything I am able to buy in a supermarket.

This study was obvioulsy a biased product of mega-agribusiness and right wing think tanks. A much more truthful set of signs above the two corn ears should have read,

"DANGER Experimental Bio-Engineered Non-Natural Toxin-Laden Mutant Corn"


"Organic All-Natural Bio-Diversity Tolerant Corn With Bonus Free-Range Pre-Moths"

Let's hope that government officials are crafting regulations to have these labels attached to all vegetables, and that those miscreants responsible for this criminally irresponsible study are put into re-education camps.

...depends, do I get to eat the worms?

During Medieval times, only kings needed food tasters to stay healthy.

Thank God for the worms, I say. Taste-tested, safe food.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 07 Sep 2007 #permalink

During Medieval times, only kings needed food tasters to stay healthy.

Thank God for the worms, I say. Taste-tested, safe food.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 07 Sep 2007 #permalink

The "Insecticides" for the regular corn will also have mislead many customers - Bt is, of course, a spray of bacteria - an organic-approved anti caterpillar spray, but "Bt 4x" would make most people think it had lots of chemical insecticide on and in the corn. Bt occurs naturally, and is a caterpillar gut specific bacterium.
Any idea what they listed for the GM corn ?

Ah, Stuart Laidlaw's article linked by Tim has described the GM sign too:

In contrast, the Bt-sweet corn bin was labelled: "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn", followed by a list of fertilizers, with the fact that it was Bt-corn shown on a separate sign.)

I notice it doesn't mention herbicides (which will have been used) or fungicide (which Bt corn needs as much as normal corn). So consumers could choose between "Wormy" apparently high insecticide/herbicide/fungicide corn or "High Quality" apparently insecticide/herbicide/fungicide free GM corn, and 40% of them choose the non-GM!

I think the study is wonderful! It just needs to be reinterpreted in the light of the authors' obfuscation of the experimental design.
What it shows is that 41% of consumers would rather eat wormy sweet corn than worm-free GM corn.
Nothing could illustrate more the disgust that anyone who is informed about the GM feels at the thought of eating the stuff. Even worms aren't enough to put them off.

It confirms other research which shows that consumer resistance is in the 85-95% range when they are informed about GM and also explains the furious opposition to any labelling requirements from GM proponents.

Hence Monsanto successfully suppressed labeling of GM hormone-free milk in the 1990s, but eventually even the big box stores realised that they had to respond to consumer demand for GM-free and the US dairy industry changed its ways. Labeling is the key and this experiment, however misguided, confirms that fact

Morris, Powell et al. succeeded in having GM Watch's web site disabled for approximately a week because "of lies" on their website.


What is missing from the list of "ingredients" in the GM corn is the following:

"Viral promoter gene which has unpredictable effects on any potentially hidden toxic genes in the corn" and "antibiotic resistance genes which may transfer to pathogenic micro-organisms in your gut" and "there may be others but we don't have to tell you about them because they are still secret".

There is also no mention of the harmful effects on experimental animals which were reported, in all places, in a submission by Monsanto requesting approval for one of their GM maizes (Mon 863). Also, no mention of the cows that died in Germany of unknown causes during an experiment carried out by one of the GM companies on one of their GM maizes (Bt176). No mention of the sheep and goats which had serious health problems in India after being allowed onto BT cotton fields after harvest of the cotton.


With all these problems I guess a few worms isn't too bad.

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 08 Sep 2007 #permalink

6EQUJ5 said sept 7:
> If worms won't eat GM corn, maybe they know something.

They don't know much, not having a brain. But pests eating the corn ingest the poison this genetically modified corn now contains. (And as has been predicted al along: resistent pests evolve.)

Seems they got the GM Watch site disabled not because "of lies" but by objecting to the "F" word in the title of a piece about this research called "Award for a Fraud".


But what other word fits? Does anybody think this research would have won an award if they'd put in the information about the wormy corn sign?

And it can't be put down to naivety. Stuart Laidlaw's article linked by Tim makes it clear he raised the issue of the wormy corn sign with the lead researcher while the study was ongoing, so there's no way they can say they didn't know it was contentious when they came to write the paper. Laidlaw says there was other contentious stuff going on that wasn't reported too.


Joe Cummins seems to have told the journal "this experiment and its controls do not appear to have been reported either fully or honestly". That has to be understatement of the year for such a critical omission.

Seems to me that the British Food Journal should have retracted this paper at the time the scams relating to this study were first pointed out, rather than just sit on the fence as they did. It's because the journal didn't condemn what was obviously suspect science, that the innocent "messengers", GM Watch and GM-free Ireland, who brought the problems into public view, are being targeted with legal threats by Shane Morris.

All very curious. The point should not be lost that whatever the historical 'truth' is (wormy, I am sure), the fact remains that Shane Morris, a functional lobbyist of the biotech industry and trained as such by Doug Powell, is an employee of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. This is a disgrace for Canada!

By Brewster Kneen (not verified) on 09 Sep 2007 #permalink

More people would prefer Monday to Saturday if Monday were part of the weekend and Saturday wasn't . . .

Would you eat corn that hates us for our freedoms, promotes malaria in the developing world and punches orphan babies in the face for fun?

I didn't think so.

No wait, 41% of you would. I guess you must really hate eating corn that turns and fluffs your pillows when you get up in the night for a pee, plays jazz flute and promotes global freedom and democracy then.

Really, this is some hilariously bad science. Clearly the methodology should have been a blind taste-test for quant data on food preference (umm, whoops except GM corn is bland shite) combined with a questionnaire on attitudes (umm, whoops except we know that most people don't like GM in principle).

Nothing should surprise us about corruption in GM "science" -- the GM multinationals and the advocates of GM crops and foods have been at it for years. They systematically supress "inconvenient" research results, they vilify honest scientists who find things that suggest that their products may be harmful to health or to the environment, and they are perfectly prepared to cite data selectively or even to employ corrupt statistical analysis of raw data in order to obtain consents for new GM products. The seed owners also refuse to allow the replication of their research, by withholding seeds and GM reference materials from independent researchers. This shows a complete disregard for one of the fundamental principles of science. This has all happened in Europe over and again, and Canada has had its fair share of GM skulduggery too. What have these people got to hide? Why are they so scared of honest science? The answer is obvious -- they know full well that their GM products are harmful, but they have now invested in them so heavily that the old fashioned thing called TRUTH must never be allowed to get in the way of their commercial ambitions.

It just shows that the frankenfood scare tactic is very effective.

By Hans Erren (not verified) on 10 Sep 2007 #permalink

Hans Erren said: "It just shows that the frankenfood scare tactic is very effective."

No it just shows that, once again, you do not know what you are talking about.

Life saving medicines have been refused approval with less adverse effects than have been demonstrated for these GM foods.

If you do a cost benefit analysis you will see that the only benefits accrue to the seed and chemical supplier and no benefit to consumer or farmer.

But as usual you like to appear to be an expert on something which you know absolutely nothing about. You must be in the pay of the GM companies as well as the oil companies.

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 10 Sep 2007 #permalink

I should resurrect the apparent Errendipitous comment label: plop. As in: Hans plopped another talking point disguised as X. Hapless Hans' ploppedness works well as a vested interest's shill.



X? who is X?
I bet you can support that with a 200 page reference Danonimous.

By Hans Erren (not verified) on 11 Sep 2007 #permalink

The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout.

By Laser Potato (not verified) on 21 Sep 2007 #permalink

Coverage of wormy corn paper in Private Eye (28 September)

Includes this...

Dr Richard Jennings, who lectures on scientific practice at Cambridge University, is adamant the paper should have been withdrawn. "The case is a flagrant fraud as far as I see it. It was a sin of omission by failing to divulge information which quite clearly should have been disclosed." But then, if the researchers had disclosed the wormy corn labels, would any respected scientific journal have published it?


I follow your blog because of the good job it does to hold the AGW deniers at bay. However, I'm shocked to see that you support the anti-GM food cranks. Too bad. I hope that you will devote one of your future posts to the epidemiological evidence that shows the dangers of GM foods.

interesting bit from the Canadian Broadcasting Company.....

Let's end the debate over sweet corn, worms and GM food March 6, 2008 http://www.cbc.ca/news/viewpoint/vp_strauss/20080306.html

Given a choice would you rather eat a wormy or worm-free cob of sweet corn?

If this doesn't sound like a question requiring more than a nanosecond of reflection, then you haven't been paying attention to an international row over what might be called "truth in worminess." It has erupted over an experiment conducted nearly eight years ago by three University of Guelph scientists and a local farmer.

It is a row that now has several dozen international scientists petitioning the journal that published the results in 2003 to withdraw the paper, as well as an award it gave to the article as the best paper published in 2003. It is a row in which English and Irish politicians have used the research to table motions denouncing one of the paper's authors for committing what they characterized as "grossly misleading" research of "a flagrant fraud."

So here is what happened. Jeff Wilson (he likes to be called Farmer Jeff) offered customers at his Birkbank Farms store a choice between genetically modified (GM) corn and traditional corn he had grown.

The GM corn had been genetically altered to express the natural insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly known as BT. The unmodified corn had had various pesticides and fungicides -- including BT -- sprayed on it.

In the store, there were explanations about how each type of corn was produced and the relative cost of both. The two corn types were sold at exactly same price.

When give a choice, consumers bought 680 dozen cobs of GM corn and only 452.5 dozen cobs of conventional sweet corn. Interviews conducted by the Guelph researchers with a small number of the customers afterward suggested that those who bought the GM corn were first impressed with the fact that it looked better than the conventional corn. An analysis revealed that one to two per cent of the GM corn had worm damage, versus 10 to 20 per cent of conventional corn.

As well, from an environmental perspective, the customers seemed more concerned about the pesticides applied to the conventional corn than the gene movement that had created the GM corn.

The British Food Journal eventually published these results.

Did signage skew results?

But when, you might be asking, are we going to get to the wormy corn question?

Well, it turned out that when Toronto Star journalist Stuart Laidlaw visited the farm and the store, he noted that a handwritten sign above the non-GM corn said, "Would you eat wormy sweet corn." Another, above the GM corn, said, "Here is what has gone into producing quality sweet corn," and listed fertilizers.

Laidlaw wrote in his 2003 book Secret Ingredients: The Brave New World of Industrial Farming that the signage was skewed and added, "when one bin was marked 'wormy corn' and the other 'quality sweet corn,' it is hardly surprising which sold more."

I will come back to this contention later, but on to the controversy.

In 2006, Joe Cummins -- a retired professor of genetics at the University of Western Ontario -- wrote a letter that was published in the British Food Journal quoting Laidlaw's book and demanding that the article be removed and its award rescinded. To put Cummins's views in context, since 1988, he has vigorously written and spoken out against genetic engineering.

In a companion letter, Doug Powell, one of paper's authors and a professor at Guelph, wrote that he didn't think the sign completely prejudiced the study and pointed out that the sign was taken down the next week.

The journal's editor chimed in, in a note: "A common misconception is that science and research are about facts, whereas in reality, research methodology concerns the unknown, hypotheses, probability, balancing and judging evidence or data. Thus, even in an objective research world, there is a need for interpretation and possibly an element of subjectivity."

Sounds so reasonable, but all this was taking place within the context of an often-acrimonious debate in Ireland over the possible introduction of genetically modified foodstuffs.

Another of the paper's authors, Shane Morris -- who is Irish and who was working for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency -- got involved as a private citizen in the debates, arguments and brouhahas. Morris opined about the topic strongly and often in his GMO Ireland blog and in papers published in scientific journals.

This enraged anti-GM groups, and personal attacks on Morris now pepper the internet. For example, a press release bearing Cummins's name characterizes the disagreement as: "how a Canadian Government Agent is involved in shoddy research and across border intimidation of public interest organization over GM crops." Others repeat the "flagrant fraud" accusation.

Another controversy rages as to whether wormy corn signs were left up for much more than a week or, alternatively, if a Greenpeace researcher tried to uncover them after the offending words had been blotted out.

Wow. My guess is that the 2003 paper may today be the most quoted and discussed Canadian agricultural research paper of all time.

Similar results without signs

In this vein, let me point out three things.

First, the sale of GM and non-GM corn continued the next year at Birkbank Farms, when no offending signs of any sort have been alleged to have been posted. Almost exactly the same buying patterns were reported by the Guelph researchers.

Secondly, a farm in San Luis Obispo, Calif., recently sold GM corn and non-GM corn together with labels identifying them as such. The owner told a local newspaper twice as much GM corn as non-GM corn was bought. He was quoted as saying customers told him they bought the GM corn because it didn't have to be partially shucked to see whether it was wormy, and thus it looked fresher.

But my third point is fundamental. Look, in science, when you think a result is wrong, you conduct another experiment that proves that. While the wormy corn sign seems to me to have at the very least been a serious error in judgment, I can't tell whether it was absolutely a fatal flaw with regard to the research findings. And that is partially because I have seen with my own eyes a big Toronto organic store sell produce that was small and deformed and insect bitten. My reading of the overt message the store was sending out was: perfect food is unnatural; if you want to eat naturally, you must dine on food that looks as deformed as this does.

So I think that somebody should conduct an experiment exactly like the first, except with the offending wormy corn sign removed. Even if there was no controversy, you would want to do this, because only a numbskull would suggest that the tastes and preferences of a small number of people visiting a small farm store in southern Ontario can be generalized to include all humanity's multitudinous habits and preferences.

Maybe it turns out that Europeans are so set against genetic engineering that they would rather eat half-shucked, worm-ridden, all-natural corn than wormless, unshucked GM cobs. Maybe the Chinese are quite the reverse.

But the way to resolve this is not to send petitions to journals telling them to remove articles you disagree with. That's what politicians do. What scientists do is take the rather inelegant testing process we know as the scientific method, apply it, and see what falls out.

What science does is what the scientific signers of the petition against the British Food Journal paper didn't and likely don't want to do.

Hold off prejudice; test; see what is.