March 26, 2003
The alliance of science
'Independent' groups share pro-GM common ground
by Andy Rowell
As the public debate on the introduction of genetically modified foods to Britain gets under way, both sides are eager to win public support. The sceptics are led by large membership organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and are backed by more than 100 groups that are part of the Five Year Freeze campaign. On the other side of the debate is the well-funded agricultural biotechnology industry, backed by most scientific bodies and the US government.
Next week, as part of the GM debate, the government's strategy unit is holding a seminar on potential "shocks and surprises" relating to GM crops and foods.
One surprise is that the past few years has seen the emergence of industry-funded lobby groups, think tanks, websites and libertarians, many of which are linked and are all pro-GM.
The Scientific Alliance (SA)
The alliance is a corporate funded group that is consistently pro-GM. Set up in 1991 by Robert Durward, director of the British Aggregates Association, it says it offers a "rational approach" to the environmental debate. It is constant in its pro-GM, anti-green, pro-industry positions. It runs a website and organises conferences, including Fields of the Future, a conference on GM issues held in January. This was chaired by Lord Taverne, from Sense about Science.
Sense About Science (SaS)
Sense about Science says its role is to "encourage a rational, evidence-based approach to scientific and technological developments". It is funded by non-GM companies such as Unilever and GlaxoSmithKline. Its director is Tracey Brown, who used to work for PR company Register Larkin, which has among its clients pharmaceutical, oil and biotech companies, including Aventis, Bayer and the Bio Industry Association. SaS has forged links with the Royal Society, Britain's bastion of the scientific establishment. An SaS panel that addresses the issue of scientific peer review meets at the Royal Society and includes Brown, as well as Tony Gilland, from the Institute of Ideas.
The Institute of Ideas (IoI)
The libertarian institute, part funded by GM company Novartis, developed out of LM (formerly Living Marxism) magazine, whose publisher was media commentator Claire Fox. LM and the IoI have a history of attacking the environmental movement. It is now running a Genes and Society festival to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the DNA discovery, in association with pharmaceutical company Pfizer. The event is organised by the IoI's Tony Gilland, who has gone on record as saying the "farm-scale [GM] trials are an unnecessary obstacle" to the introduction of "beneficial and benign" GM. The IoI has published a book co-authored by Tracey Brown, who also chairs a session at the Genes and Society festival. The sister organisation of the IoI is Spiked, an internet magazine run by ex-LM editor and Times columnist, Mick Hume. Spiked has started a "public debate" on GM labelling in association with the International Policy Network.
International Policy Network (IPN)
The network, set up last year, is a coalition of international rightwing thinktanks. The directors of the IPN in the UK are Roger Bate and Julian Morris, of the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has long attacked environmentalists over organic agriculture, GM crops and climate change. The IPN, which puts out media releases and co-hosts conferences, is also linked to the Sustainable Development Network, a coalition formed last year, in time for the world summit on sustainable development, to back the pro-industry agenda. This coalition includes the US-based AgBio World Foundation, run by CS Prakash. At the same time, www.agbioworld.org is the internet's most prolific pro-GM website.
The Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC)
The ABC was set up by the biotech industry as a lobby group. It is chaired by Stephen Smith, of GM company Syngenta. In February 2002, one conclusion of ABC's inaugural report was that if GM crops could be seen to be beneficial to birds, then the majority of people would support their growth. The ABC has moved its PR account to Lexington Communications, where its director, Mike Craven, was head of New Labour's press office and worked with deputy prime minister John Prescott. Lexington has now hired Bernard Marantelli, formerly of GM company Monsanto, to organise a £250,000 PR campaign aimed at "regulators, legislators, retailers and consumer groups" to approve GM crops.
Science Media Centre (SMC)
Based in the Royal Institution – the oldest independent research body in the world – the SMC says it is "an independent venture" that aims to promote good science by offering impartial advice to the media. It too consistently defends GM agriculture and openly accepts money from GM, drug and oil companies including BP-Amoco, Dupont, Pfizer and Astra Zeneca. The head of SMC is Fiona Fox, a former contributor to LM magazine and sister of Claire Fox, of the IoI.
One of the SMC's contributors is Vivian Moses, a pro-GM scientist, who sits on the advisory forum of the Scientific Alliance and who is chair of Cropgen, a biotech industry group set up to "make a case for GM crops". In January, Cropgen held a conference on the "need for biotechnology" in Africa. Last month, it promoted further research on the economic benefits of GM food. Although the "public should be allowed to make their own informed choice about GM foods", says Moses "it is essential that the biotechnology industry takes the lead in helping educate people on this issue."
Andy Rowell is the author of Don't Worry it is Safe to
Eat – the true story of GM food, BSE and foot and mouth,
published by Earthscan