GM Lobby Helped Draw Up Crucial Report on Britain's Food Supplies

Published on
by
the Sunday Observer/UK

GM Lobby Helped Draw Up Crucial Report on Britain's Food Supplies

Email trail shows how biotech group helped watchdog to draw up analysis of GM crops ... and prompted two advisers to quit

by
Jamie Doward

Genetically modified soybeans seeds at a farm in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. Photograph: Alexandre Meneghini/AP

A powerful lobbying organization representing agribusiness interests
helped draft a key government report that has been attacked by
environmentalists for heavily favoring the arguments of the genetically
modified food industry.

The
revelation comes after the resignation of two government advisers who
have criticized the close relationship between the Food Standards Agency
(FSA), the body that oversees the UK's food industry, and the GM lobby.

Emails between the FSA and the
Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) show the council inserted key
sentences strengthening the case for GM food that ended up in the final
report.

The report, "Food Standards Agency work on changes in the market
and the GM regulatory system"
, examines how GM products are
entering the UK, where the growing of GM products is banned, through the
animal feed system. It acknowledges food prices could go up if GM
products continue to be excluded.

Emails from the council - which
represents leading GM food companies such as Monsanto and Bayer - to Dr
Clair Baynton, the then head of novel foods at the FSA, show a close
dialogue between both sides between 2008 and August 2009, when the
report was published.

On 19 November 2008, Baynton sent the
council a draft of the report, saying: "I am happy to discuss... if that
would be helpful."

In response, the council suggested a series of
changes that emphasized how GM food was playing an increasingly
important role in global agriculture and helping bring down food prices.
Some of the amendments were rejected by the FSA, but others were
accepted.

One accepted alteration acknowledged the GM lobby's
argument that GM food is inevitable in the European Union because of its
ubiquity elsewhere. It stated that "retailers were concerned they may
not be able to maintain their current non-GM sources of supply as
producers increasingly adopt GM technology around the world".

And
the FSA also accepted the suggested amendment that soya protein (which
can be grown as a GM crop) remains "the most cost-effective method of
supplementing animal feed at present". Baynton replied a few days later:
"Many thanks for your comments on the draft report", and asked the
council for help in finding evidence of the prevalence of GM foods,
"either authorized or being considered for authorization in Argentina,
Brazil and the US".

Months later, the council sent Baynton, a
former employee of GM food producer Syngenta, a list of whom it wanted
on a steering group overseeing a "public engagement exercise" on GM
food. The email stated: "We believe GM must be presented as an option
within the wider context of food security as part of a solution to
feeding a growing population."

The FSA was due to start the public
engagement exercise, which is expected to cost the taxpayer £500,000,
this month. But the move is being seen in some quarters as a "rigged"
exercise.

Two members who sit on the FSA's steering group have
resigned in protest. Dr Helen Wallace, director of Genewatch UK, a
scientific pressure group opposed to GM, stepped down last month. Last
week, the group's vice-chairman, Professor Brian Wynne, an expert on
public engagement with science, resigned, complaining that the FSA had
adopted a "dogmatically entrenched", pro-GM attitude.

Wallace said
the emails "expose how the Food Standards Agency is acting as a puppet
of the GM industry, by colluding with foreign GM companies to undermine
people's access to GM-free food supplies in Britain". The FSA is chaired
by former Labor minister Lord Rooker, a GM enthusiast, who has
attacked its critics as "anti-science".

A confidential bid
document to win the contract to run the engagement exercise, submitted
by the polling company Ipsos MORI, acknowledges the sensitivity of the
initiative. "There will be no active seeking of media interest in
relation to this project," it explains.

The bidding document
states that it works on behalf of a "multinational agro-chemical and
seed company" and warns: "Campaign organizations who may feel that the
'battle' was won in 2003 could decide to try and hijack the process to
ensure GM food does not get a chance to be reintroduced into the UK."

An
FSA spokesman defended its decision to include the GM lobby's suggested
changes in the final report.

"In order to obtain an accurate
picture of the situation, the FSA held a series of meetings with
stakeholders before drafting this report," the spokesman said. "As the
report was concerned with the markets for food and animal feed, the
biotech industry had not been involved in these meetings. However, in
order to ensure the report was balanced and not to exclude this relevant
stakeholder group, the view of the ABC was also sought. Their comments
were taken on board in the final draft, as were the comments by other
stakeholders."

But Wallace was critical of the decision. "The
stakeholder meeting was transparent - the changes made behind the scenes
at the industry's request were not," she said. "The report fails to
represent the vast majority of GM-free farmers, who will have to pay a
heavy price if their crops or seed are allowed to become contaminated
with GM crops or seed."

The row came as the environment secretary,
Caroline Spelman, who used to work as director of a biotech lobbying
firm, said that she was in favor of GM foods "in the right
circumstances".

BRIEF HISTORY OF GM

People have been breeding animals and new varieties of plants
for centuries. As a result, the world's main food crops have been
selected, crossed and bred to suit local conditions and to make them
tastier.

Whereas traditional methods involve mixing thousands of
genes, genetic modification allows just one or a small number of genes
to be inserted into a plant to change it in a predetermined way. Genes
can be "switched" on or off to change how it develops.

The first
commercially grown genetically modified whole food crop was a type of
tomato, which was modified to ripen without softening and was approved
for release in the US in 1994.

Most GM crops are grown in North
America. The Grocery Manufacturers of America association estimates that
75% of all processed foods in the US contain a GM ingredient. In the
EU, if a food contains or consists of genetically modified organisms
(GMOs), this must be indicated.

Public opposition to GM food
within the EU saw one of its main proponents, Monsanto, pull out of the
European seed cereal business in 2003.

Share This Article

More in: