Government advisory body presented an 'independent' report on Thursday
- It was used to support a bid to speed up the use of GM food in the UK
- But in fact all five authors have a vested interest in promoting GM crops
The authors of a study calling for GM crops to be fast-tracked into Britain’s farms and kitchens all have links to the industry, it can be revealed.
The report was presented as the work of ‘independent’ scientists and was published on Thursday by a government advisory body.
It was used to support a bid to speed up the development of the controversial crops in the UK, but it has emerged that all five authors have a vested interest in promoting GM crops and food – and some are part-funded by the industry.
Opposition: Critics of GM described the 'independent' report as 'biased and downright dangerous'. Pictured is an anti-GM protest in 2002
Critics of GM last night described the report as ‘biased and downright dangerous’, and accused the biotech giants and the Government of mounting a crude propaganda campaign to overturn public opposition.
The academics behind the study were chosen by the Council for Science and Technology, the body that advises the Prime Minister on science policy issues.
In the report presented at a press conference on Thursday, no information was given about the five scientists beyond their names and the institutions they work for.
They include Professor Sir David Baulcombe, from Cambridge University, who works as a consultant for GM firm Syngenta, which gives his department research funding.
Syngenta is behind a genetically modified maize or corn, called GA21, which could go into UK farms as early as next spring, making it Britain’s first commercially grown GM crop.
Also on the list is Professor Jonathan Jones, of the Sainsbury Laboratory, which is at the centre of Britain’s GM research. It is part-funded by former Labour science minister, Lord Sainsbury, who is one of the country’s biggest supporters of the technology.
Another co-author was Professor Jim Dunwell, of the University of Reading. He was a founder member of CropGen, which describes its mission as ‘to make the case for GM crops and foods’.
The study suggested GM crops could save the hungry in the Third World from starvation and create new plants resistant to disease and pests.
'Sales pitch': Opponents have questioned whether the scientists' conclusions are to be believed
The authors argued that current EU regulation should be re-drawn to allow the UK to go it alone and plant the crops, even if the rest of Europe objects.
By contrast, the study pulled a veil over evidence of harm to the countryside, insects and wildlife associated with industrial GM farming practices.
The US has seen the emergence of superweeds that are immune to some chemical sprays and are now choking fields. Separately, there has been an absence of research into the health effects of eating GM.
A spokesman for GM Watch, Claire Robinson, said: ‘By no stretch of the imagination can these people be described as independent scientists.
‘Their views should be treated with the same scepticism we would apply to any sales pitch.’
Critics say the timing of the release of the study and a supporting letter from the Government’s chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport, are highly suspicious.
The details were sent to David Cameron in November – but Sir Mark and ministers delayed going public until now.
Food and Farming Secretary Owen Paterson, who is a passionate supporter of GM farming, is trying to convince the EU to allow Britain to plant GM crops even if other states want a ban.
The publication of the supposedly independent study calling for exactly this policy is expected to prove useful in those negotiations.
The director of GM Freeze, Liz O’Neill, said: ‘A group of scientists with financial interests in the success of GM wrote a letter to the Prime Minister in November but waited four months to tell the Press about it – just in time for EU discussions about regulation. Something certainly smells a bit fishy.’
The administrations in Scotland and Wales have previously made it clear they want nothing to do with GM crops.
'Suspicious': The report is being used to speed up the development of GM crops in the UK
Dr Brian John, of the group GM Free Wales, said: ‘This extraordinary report, published very conveniently to coincide with Owen Paterson’s attempts within the EU to dismantle GM regulations and to repatriate powers to the UK, is in turns naive, biased, disingenuous, cynical and downright dangerous.
‘We find it incredible that five senior scientists can have been so dismissive of the work of scores of independent scientists who have discovered that GM organisms are directly and indirectly harmful to mammals and to the environment.
‘In the world of science there should be respect for those whose findings are “inconvenient”.’
Sir David yesterday confirmed his connection to Syngenta, but said: ‘I am independent in that I am not paid a salary by any corporate organisation. I do receive funding for research in my lab from Syngenta and consult for them – although I do not receive the fee as it goes to a departmental fund.’
Prof Jones said that while some might question his independence, he was simply ‘very well informed about GM science and technology’. Prof Dunwell said he was a founder of CropGen, but no longer had any ties to the GM lobby group. He added: ‘I am an independent scientist.’
The two other authors were Professor John Pickett, of Rothamsted Research, and Professor Pere Puigdomenech, of the universities of Cambridge and Barcelona. Rothamsted is heavily involved in GM research.
Prof Pickett said: ‘I greatly value links with industry, particularly at the technology transfer level, and these are completely transparent interactions.’
Prof Puigdomenech was co-chairman of the seventh International Plant Molecular Biotechnology Congress, sponsored by Monsanto, Bayer and DuPont. He could not be contacted for a comment.
Last night, the Science Media Centre, which released the report, insisted the authors were independent.
A spokesman said: ‘They are not employed by government or industry and each works for different publicly funded universities and research institutes.
For better or worse, it’s not unusual any more for universities and institutions to get bits and pieces of funding from government, charities and industry – indeed many can only access public money on condition that they raise a proportion of their funds from commercial or private sources.
‘This does not automatically undermine their independence.’
But Soil Association chief executive Helen Browning said: ‘It’s really just not good enough for a group of scientists who have a strong interest, it seems, through their funding sources, in persuading a reluctant public to accept the growing of GM crops in the UK, to be the ones who attempt to write the rule book on how that should happen.’
GM experts: The REAL dossier
PROFESSOR JONATHAN JONES - Sainsbury Laboratory
Professor Jones proudly wears a T-shirt in his Twitter page image with the slogan: ‘GM food? Am I bovvered? I am not bovvered.’
He is group director at the Sainsbury Laboratory, and is also the founder of and adviser to biotech company Mendel Biotechnology, which counts Monsanto – a GM giant – as a major client. Mendel has been granted more than 20 biotechnology and GM patents.
Mendel’s 2009 annual report noted two collaborative partnerships: one with Monsanto and the other with Bayer CropScience.
Professor Jones co-founded the UK’s ‘first GM crop company’, Norfolk Plant Sciences, to find ways of commercialising Sainsbury Laboratory’s GM research into a new type of tomato.
PROFESSOR SIR DAVID BAULCOMBE - University of Cambridge
Sir David is a consultant for the GM crop company Syngenta.
The fees he receives, which are likely to be many thousands of pounds a year, go into a department fund to support his work.
He was previously the head of the Sainsbury Laboratory, which is part of the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich. The Sainsbury Laboratory is at the heart of Britain’s GM research.
It has received millions of pounds in donations from Lord Sainsbury, a former Labour science minister and champion of GM.
Professor Baulcombe is also Regius Professor of Botany at Cambridge University.
PROFESSOR JIM DUNWELL - University of Reading
A founding member of the pro-GM lobby group CropGen in 2000.
The group’s stated mission is to ‘make the case for GM crops and foods by helping to achieve a greater measure of realism and better balance in the UK’s public discussions on agriculture and food’.
Professor Dunwell says that he has not been in contact with CropGen since 2002. However, he remains an advocate for GM. Recently, he wrote an opinion piece in which he accused the EU of slowing down the commercial exploitation of GM crops as a result of ‘unnecessarily tight’ regulation.
PROFESSOR JOHN PICKETT - Rothamsted Research Station
He works at Rothamsted Research, which lists biotech firms Aventis, DuPont, Novartis and Syngenta as ‘partners’.
Rothamsted, in Hertfordshire, is hosting a trial to grow GM wheat, which contains genes from the mint plant and gives off a scent that deters pests.
Professor Pickett suggested the technology could be commercialised to generate money for its developers.
In 1998, he was heavily involved in rubbishing research published by Professor Arpad Pusztai, of Aberdeen’s Rowett Research Institute, which appeared to show that feeding GM potatoes to rats had negative effects on the animals’ stomach lining and immune system.
PROFESSOR PERE PUIGDOMENECH - Institute of Molecular Biology at Barceolna CSIC and visiting research fellow at Cambridge
HE has worked closely with Sir David and has links with The Sainsbury Laboratory, the John Innes Centre, and Rothamsted Research Station.
Spain is the only country in Europe in which substantial areas are planted with GM maize.
Prof Puigdomenech was also co-chairman of the seventh International Plant Molecular Biotechnology Congress, sponsored by Monsanto, Bayer and DuPont.