[Note: The British government has recently grown very outspoken in its new-found support for GMO foods. Here’s a revealing look at what changed.]
The Daily Mail
By Guy Adams
Even by the standards of an industry that claims to be able to end hunger, prevent environmental catastrophe and bring prosperity to the developing world, it must have felt like a breathtakingly audacious move.
Last summer, the world’s biggest biotech corporations decided the time was right to convince the Government to allow so-called Frankenstein food to be grown in its fields.
That should have been a nigh on impossible task. After all, opinion polls have for years demonstrated that the public has huge and keenly felt reservations about GM food. In addition to widespread fears about releasing such products into the countryside, voters are seriously concerned by the prospect of having to eat the stuff.
Indeed, a recent survey by Which? found that 71 per cent of Britons believe GM food, and meat from animals fed on GM food, should be banned from supermarkets. A further 15 per cent are ‘undecided’. In other words, just over one in ten thinks it’s a good idea.
But in modern government, where big policy decisions are taken behind closed doors, the opinions of ordinary folk play second fiddle to the self-interested demands of big business.
The GM industry’s wealthy — but little-known — trade body, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council [ABC], seems to have decided it had a sporting chance of converting David Cameron and his administration to its cause.
Last June, it duly invited a selection of Tory ministers, high-ranking MPs and top civil servants to attend a round table discussion about GM at the Westminster Conference Centre in central London.
To the ABC’s surprise and delight, several accepted. On paper, the summit, inside a steel and glass building a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament, couldn’t have sounded more anodyne.
Headlined Going For Growth and held in an air-conditioned upstairs boardroom, it was billed as an informal talk between politicians and industry experts hoping to find ways of ‘realising the potential of agricultural technologies in the UK’.
Yet behind this mealy-mouthed jargon lay a pressing fact: the so-called round-table discussion was actually a carefully constructed exercise in political lobbying.
Over tea, biscuits and mineral water, the event provided representatives of foreign firms Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta — the big three of the Frankenstein food industry — with a chance to spend two hours arguing the case for GM to ministers and their aides.
It was a priceless PR opportunity for these multi-national biotechnology companies, which fund the ABC and have a combined market value of around £100 billion.
For years, they have been prevented from selling almost all of their hugely profitable GM seed products within the EU.
A change to that rule would afford them access to a market worth billions each year — provided they could secure political backing.
The Going For Growth event, which took place on Tuesday, June 26, 2012, offered the industry a rare chance to secure that backing. Until now it has been shrouded in mystery.
Despite taking place on public property (the conference centre is run by the Department for Business), it did not receive a single mention in the popular media.
Yet via a Freedom of Information request and through conversations with attendees and their representatives, I have been able to gain an intriguing insight into proceedings.
A total of 22 guests attended, including such lofty power-brokers as science minister David Willetts, one of the most senior Conservatives in the Government, and Lord Taylor — then a minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Also there was MP George Freeman — a prominent backbench supporter of GM, who runs an all-party group that supports the industry — and Roger Williams, a Lib Dem who sits on the science and technology select committee.
From Whitehall came four of the most high-ranking civil servants who work in the field of GM, including Mike Rowe, the Government’s head of GM policy and regulation in charge of drawing up laws governing the industry.
Lobbying this influential crew on behalf of the biotech industry were six scientists who work in GM research, along with executives from the big three GM firms, chemicals giant BASF and EuropaBio — an association for biotech companies.
Making up the numbers were two senior figures from the National Farmers’ Union, which is vigorously pro-GM, and a shareholder in Spearhead, an agribusiness firm that farms almost 80,000 hectares of Britain and Europe.
A transcript of their conversation is not available. However, the minutes were recently disclosed under Freedom of Information laws and they suggest that the behind-closed-doors meeting was an unprecedented coup for the GM industry.
During the discussion, it was agreed, for example, that the Government should consider introducing ‘incentives for investment’ in biotechnology and ‘improvements in the regulatory framework’ governing it.
It was also decided that ministers should take ‘a clear position’ on Europe’s GM ban, while industry should hit back against opponents with ‘a clear response to anti-GM groups’.
On what some might consider to be a more sinister note, delegates argued that Britain’s schoolchildren should receive a fuller ‘education’ on the issues surrounding GM, with ‘more focus on plants and biotech in the syllabus at all levels’.
The upshot, according to one attendee — speaking on condition of anonymity — was a meeting that relentlessly pursued a single aim: to convince the Government to ‘push for change on GM law’, across Britain and Europe.
‘It wasn’t a debate on the GM issue, because there were no dissenting voices,’ he says. ‘It was basically an opportunity for our side to bend the administration’s ear. And that’s exactly what we did.’
Not a single opponent of GM food was at the meeting. ‘The nearest the [anti-GM] Soil Association got to the room was on the wrapper of some organic chocolate biscuits, which carried its logo,’ I’m told.
Little wonder, then, that the low-profile lobbying offensive launched in that air-conditioned room appears to have borne fruit.
A week ago, David Cameron signalled a sea change in his Government’s attitude towards GM.
‘I think it is time to look again at the whole issue of GM food,’ he said. ‘We need to be open to arguments from science.’
Days later, David Willetts backed him up, parroting a PR line that might have been spoon-fed to him by one of the well-connected industry lobbyists he met at the Westminster Conference Centre last June.
‘We believe GM crops can help make agriculture more efficient and, just as importantly, more sustainable by, for example, reducing the use of pesticides and the use of fossil fuels,’ he announced.
On Thursday came the icing on the cake. In a heavily trailed speech, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson formally kicked off a campaign to bring GM food to the farms of Britain and Europe.
‘The use of GM could be as transformative as the original agricultural revolution,’ he said, adding that the Government ‘owes a duty to the British public to reassure them that GM is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation’.
On Radio 4, he went as far as to say that without the acceptance of GM crops, young people in Asia ‘will wake up this morning able to see and they’ll go to bed blind for life. Some of them will die today’.
The statements from these senior Tories, which appear co-ordinated, have dismayed environmentalists, who say the Government has been ‘got at’ by the biotech industry.
‘Ministers have been led by the nose by the GM industry in shady meetings behind closed doors,’ says Dr Helen Wallace, of the pressure group GeneWatch.
‘[They] are leading a massive PR exercise on behalf of Monsanto and the other GM companies.
‘Why should the Government be lobbying on behalf of foreign companies to weaken regulations designed to protect consumers, farmers and the British countryside?’
All the more galling to some high-profile opponents of GM has been the Government’s failure to hold a single meeting with their representatives since being elected in 2010. The very ministers so keen to break bread with GM lobbyists and industry insiders have yet to hold talks with any anti-GM organisations.
‘We haven’t had one meeting on GM since this Government was elected,’ says Peter Melchett of the Soil Association.
Friends of the Earth are in the same boat. ‘We’ve had nothing. Not a chance. It would be incredibly difficult for us to get in the door on this issue,’ says a spokeswoman. ‘It’s been very one-sided.
‘What’s all the more worrying is the language used by Cameron, Willetts and Paterson this week. They are talking in what are essentially industry soundbites.
‘It’s as if they’ve been brainwashed by the other side.’
The Government’s failure to consult opponents of GM before announcing its sudden enthusiasm for Frankenstein food makes for curious reading when you consider its historic position on the issue.
In opposition, when Peter Ainsworth had the shadow environment brief, David Cameron’s Tories were sceptical regarding GM, saying they would ban all commercial planting of such crops. The 2010 Conservative election manifesto went a step further.
Beneath a headline urging voters to ‘vote blue, go green’ it added that a Conservative government would ‘not permit any commercial planting of GM crops until or unless it has been assessed as safe for people and the environment’.
It also contained a pledge to introduce clear labelling of food containing GM products.
But that was back in the days when David Cameron rode husky sledges in Arctic wastes — and before his ministers began to be courted by the GM lobby.
In office, Cameron was apparently less principled. After moving to No 10 he appointed Caroline Spelman as his first Environment Secretary.
Her position on GM was dramatically different to Mr Ainsworth’s. She already had close ties to the industry, having founded biotechnology lobbying firm Spelman Cormack and Associates, with her husband, Mark, in the Eighties.
Little wonder, a cynic might observe, that the promised GM labelling legislation failed to materialise.
Spelman was sacked in 2012, but Paterson, her successor, has done little to enact the manifesto pledge on food labelling, which has the support of 89 per cent of consumers, but is vigorously opposed by biotech firms.
Further fuelling the anger of environmentalists are questions over the loyalties of MPs and ministers most involved in formulating government policy on GM.
They point out, for example, that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s wife, Rose, is the sister of Viscount Matt Ridley, who is better known as the former chairman of Northern Rock. After presiding over the bank’s collapse, he has concentrated on his career as a pro-GM blogger and science writer.
Has Ridley had formal or informal discussions with his brother-in-law the Environment Secretary on the subject of GM? DEFRA couldn’t tell me.
Matt Ridley did not respond to our request for a comment.
While there is no evidence to suggest they are serving their own interests, pertinent questions will inevitably be asked about the private finances of key politicians in the GM debate. Among them is Richard Benyon, a minister at DEFRA.
According to the register of MPs’ interests, he owns farmland in Hampshire and Berkshire, meaning he potentially stands to benefit from any change to GM regulation that profits farmers.
And Roger Williams, another MP at last summer’s Going For Growth round-table session is in a similar situation.
He owns farmland in Wales and is a partner in an agricultural firm called R H Williams.
Elsewhere, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the former DEFRA minister who was at the same event, has a stake in a family horticulture business.
George Freeman MP, the chair of the All-Party Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, and another Going For Growth attendee, is a former director and shareholder in Elsoms, a Lincolnshire seed company supplying gardeners and farmers.
As controversy over the Government’s sudden affection for GM mounts, MPs aren’t the only ones whose connections with agriculture are suddenly being scrutinised.
So, too, are the publicly funded scientists, though, to be clear, there is no evidence that their personal interests have influenced their stance.
One of the foremost institutes briefing ministers on the issue, for example, is called Rothamsted Research, which also had a representative at the Going For Growth summit.
The prestigious Rothamsted has recently faced criticism for its chief executive Maurice Moloney’s ties to the GM industry.
He worked for a firm that developed GM oilseed used in the U.S. and has more than 300 patents in plant biotechnology.
Professor Jonathan Jones is a senior academic at another leading institution, the John Innes Centre — which also had a seat at the table during the Going For Growth event.
He was the co-founder of a private biotech firm that has contracts with Monsanto and Bayer, and this week, he was also keeping an eye on the headlines.
At lunchtime on Thursday, his organisation’s Twitter feed was updated: a link to a news article about Owen Paterson’s speech.
The article was headlined: ‘GM crops benefit consumers.’
A highly debatable conclusion that nonetheless speaks volumes about the questionable consensus which seems to exist between the Government, its scientists and the GM lobby.