Appointments continue tradition of actual or potential conflicts of interest with the GMO industry. Report: Claire Robinson
Back in March 2022 we analysed the then membership of the UK government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) and found that 100% of the members had actual or potential conflicts of interest with the biotechnology industry, whose products they are supposed to give "independent" opinions on. This was highly concerning because UK ministers rely on ACRE for advice on the risks to human health and the environment from the release of GMOs.
At the end of last year an important paper published in Nature Food – the highest ranking journal on food science and technology – found extensive conflicts of interest not just in ACRE, but more widely in UK regulatory committees on GMOs and other food safety issues.
Among Erik Millstone and Tim Lang's striking findings was that six of the seven then members of ACRE owned up to having conflicts of interest with 16 different corporations. In their paper they point out that conflicts of interest (COIs) are critical to public trust in decision making and conclude that ideally such regulatory or advisory bodies "should not include anyone with COIs that deserve to be declared".
Is anybody listening?
Recent changes at ACRE, however, hold out little hope that the preponderance of COIs is likely to lessen any time soon.
Two of the previous members – former Syngenta man Prof Alan Raybould and Dr Andy Peters – who has been involved in the development and regulation of animal vaccines for different companies (ACRE regulates the release of GMO vaccines) – are no longer on the committee. Prof Raybould died in October 2022.
And as of July 2023 there were three new committee members, Prof Huw D. Jones, Dr Huw E. Jones, and Prof Andrew Millar.
Unfortunately for the public interest, these members appear to be as conflicted as the people they replaced.
Huw D. Jones
Huw D. Jones is a longtime advocate for the deregulation of new GMOs and an advocate for GMOs in general. In 2015 he called Scotland's decision to ban the cultivation of GMOs "a sad day for science and a sad day for Scotland". Between 1998 and 2016 he worked at Rothamsted Research, which has deep links with industry.
At Rothamsted he was head of the Cereal Transformation unit, which "offers a cereal transformation service to generate transgenic crops and edit genomes for research purposes for both internal projects and external contracts".
He is also a member of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP), which advises the UK Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland on any matters relating to novel foods, traditional novel foods, food and feed products of genetic technologies and novel food processes. This double role is a problem because it works against the independence of both committees, suggesting that they could be working in lock-step with each other. It also means that in his role on one committee, he could be sitting in judgement on a decision made in the other committee – an example of "marking your own homework".
He advocates for gene editing to be allowed in organic production.
Failed "whiffy wheat" project
Huw D. Jones has held two Defra licences for field trials of GM wheat in the UK, including the failed GM aphid-resistant "whiffy" wheat trial at Rothamsted Research 2012-2015. A peppermint gene was engineered into the wheat to make it express an alarm pheromone, in an attempt to repel aphid pests.
Despite pro-GMO propagandist Mark Lynas hailing the wheat as "a turning point for GMOs" in terms of public acceptability, on the theoretical basis that it "could plausibly reduce agricultural pesticides", the wheat didn't work in the field. Insect pests adapt quickly, and predictably, the aphids quickly got used to the alarm pheromone that was meant to repel them. The scientists reported "no reduction in aphids" in the GM wheat.
Jones said he was "disappointed" with the results of the trial, which cost the taxpayer nearly £1 million via an award from the public science funding body, the BBSRC. Jones remarked, "As so often happens, this experiment shows that the real world environment is much more complicated than the laboratory."
Huw E. Jones
Huw E. Jones is "Head of Industry Impact and Partnerships at Scotland's Rural College (SRUC). Huw has over 25 years of experience in research, development, and commercialisation across the agriculture sector, with particular specialism in genetics and genomics applied to livestock production."
From 2016 to 2019 he worked at Roslin Technologies (according to his LinkedIn page, "Roslin Technologies was established in 2016 as a stand-alone company with a primary focus on commercialising innovations emerging from the Roslin Institute"), where he was responsible for managing technological developments across the company; establishing five new business units; managing relationships with research staff of the academic partners to develop a strong innovation pipeline for commercialisation; and providing technical inputs to establish and support relationships with clients.
From 2014 to 2016 he was Head of Agriculture at the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN). KTN emerged from the merger of Biosciences KTN, where he had previously worked, with 13 other organisations. He writes on LinkedIn, "The KTN is the UK's Innovation Network, with a primary focus on helping to drive business relevant innovation, partly through facilitating effective knowledge exchange between businesses, research organisations and funding bodies."
Biosciences KTN describes its work as "Connecting science & design with collaborations & investment: the Knowledge Transfer Network helps UK enterprises large and small to innovate & compete globally."
All the above suggests that he has made a career out of helping GMOs towards commercialisation.
In November 2023 he posted on LinkedIn that he was speaking at a lobbying meeting organised by the UK Mission to the EU to promote new GM technologies ("precision breeding"). The UK government deregulated these techniques earlier in the year. He wrote: "Delighted to support the UK Mission to the European Union in Brussels this week to share my thoughts on the important role precision breeding could potentially play in livestock breeding/production alongside other genetic and genomic technologies and approaches, particularly in helping to further improve health and welfare."
Prof Andrew Millar
Millar is an "associate" of the Innogen Institute, which is "a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and the Open University that produces high quality research and supports the delivery of innovation that is profitable, safe and societally useful. We build, nationally and internationally, on fundamental and applied research in science, medicine, engineering and social science." However, not enough information is given on the Innogen or the ACRE websites to inform the public whether this position constitutes a conflict of interest.
From 2012 to the present, Millar has been associate director of SynthSys, which was relaunched in 2022 as the Centre for Synthetic and Systems Biology. The Centre states, "Our researchers explore fundamental biological questions about living cells and systems and apply these insights – often in collaboration with industry – to create innovations for many markets including industrial biotechnology (including bioremediation and biofuels), agriculture, the environment, and medicine and healthcare." Millar's position at the Centre is potentially a conflict of interest with his regulatory role at ACRE.
Conflicts of interest in UK's GMO regulatory committees
It's clear that as long as GMO developers whose careers have been bound up with commercialising innovations are appointed to GMO advisory committees, the interests of public health and the environment are likely to be placed well below facilitating the market introduction of GMOs.