from Claire Robinson, WEEKLY WATCH editor
Many of us are reeling from the government's decision - based on no rational argument - to commercialise GM crops in Britain, starting with Bayer's discredited Chardon LL maize.
It says everything that this decision was taken by a committee chaired by the UK's Foreign Secretary. As former environment minister Michael Meacher said on Newsnight on 18 Feb, this decision has nothing to do with supporting science and everything to do with kow-towing to the Bush administration and GM giants like Monsanto. The government's plan to sell their decision on the basis of helping the Third World is particularly nauseating.
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BETRAYAL OF THE WEEK
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
MUST-READ: HUNGRY CORPORATIONS
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK
HEADLINES OF THE WEEK
BETRAYAL OF THE WEEK
+ GM CROPS TO GET GO-AHEAD, LEAKED PAPERS REVEAL DECISION
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Thursday February 19, 2004
The government is to go ahead with genetically modified crops despite what it acknowledges is considerable public resistance, cabinet committee papers passed to the Guardian reveal.
The minutes of the discussion - which was held eight days ago and involved senior cabinet ministers including the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and the environment secretary, Margaret Beckett - disclose the government's final decision to give the green light to the first crop of GM maize in Britain...
The papers make clear the government's recognition that public opinion in this country is generally resistant to GM crops. "The public was unlikely to be receptive," the discussion notes.
"Opposition might eventually be worn down by solid, authoritative scientific argument." ... supportive MPs would be encouraged to speak out. The papers say: "There was a merit in preparing the ground with key MPs, particularly those with an interest in science or food security in developing countries."
The government's chief scientist, David King, the chairman of the Food Standard's Agency, John Krebs, both in favour of GM, were at the committee meeting and agreed to make statements supporting the government on the day of the announcement. Other pro-GM scientists will be recruited to further forward the message.
In a concession to the Welsh view that it wanted no GM crops in Wales Mrs Beckett suggested that the government could offer advice on the establishment of voluntary GM free zones.
The government's suggestion that it may offer a compromise of allowing GM-free zones will also be of interest to the more than 40 regions, including Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and the Lake District national parks authority, which have made moves to declare themselves GM free.
Mrs Beckett conceded the government still had not cleared up how to avoid contamination of non-GM crops.
Sue Mayer, director of Genewatch UK, said: "Overall the government seem determined to go ahead in some form with growing GM crops in the UK, despite a lack of public support, economic advantage or investment in further research. They are clearly anxious that the decision will not be received positively and are having to plan ways of presenting the policy in a favourable light because it does not speak well for itself." http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2679
+ HOW THE GOVERNMENT REACHED ITS DECISION
Edited extracts of the minutes of a cabinet sub-committee discussion on GM crops in Britain involving the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and the environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, on February 11 are at http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,2763,1151183,00.html
These extracts make it obvious that this government is as firmly wedded to spin as ever. Especially of note is the government's dismissal of the inconvenient results of its own GM Nation? public debate and its plan to prepare "the ground with key MPs".
More worryingly, the government appears to hold a pigs-might-fly belief that the industry will pick up the tab for a fund to compensate conventional or organic farmers who suffer losses from GM contamination.
Here's Paul Rylott, head of biosciences at BayerCropSciences and chairman of the industry-backed Agricultural Biotechnology Council on the likelihood of this happening: "If the government told us to provide a compensation fund for organic farmers, we'd say 'don't be silly'. There's no need to have a compensation fund." http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2678
+ DEBATES ON GM ARE CRITICISED...
At a time when the government badly needs to discredit the results of its own public debate, which showed overwhelming hostility to GM, as if by magic, a team of "independent" researchers have come up with the discovery that public opposition to GM crops is "probably lower than indicated in many of the GM Nation? findings"!
Prof Nick Pidgeon, from the UEA, said: "The results of our survey broadly mirror a number of the key conclusions of the debate steering board, particularly regarding the widespread levels of concern across Britain about the risks of this technology and the need for independent regulation of the technology.
"However, our results also show that the extent of outright opposition to GM food and crops among the British population is probably lower than indicated in many of the GM Nation? findings." The evaluation team found 36pc opposition to GM, 13pc in support and 39pc undecided.
In fact, far from being "independent", the researchers include a group from the Institute of Food Research (IFR) at Colney, a GM-friendly, BBSRC-funded sister organisation on the Norwich Research Park of the pro-biotech John Innes Centre - a serious cause of concern with regard to the claims in this report. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2677
+ ... BUT RETAILERS CONFIRM HIGH PUBLIC OPPOSITION TO GM
Unlike the government, British retailers are under no illusion that public opposition to GM is high and has not decreased. The following are excerpts from recent evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on "GM food - evaluating the farm scale trials", 17 December 2003:
"...we are talking about a consuming public of which anywhere up to 70 per cent will say they will not buy GM products. As an industry, therefore, retailers' attitudes for their own-label products - and I have to stress own-label products - are that they have non-GM policies." - Richard Ali, Director of Food Policy, British Retail Consortium (which represents the major British supermarkets)
"From research that we have done, I think that the public view genetic modification as two quite distinct issues. There is quite clearly an issue of safety and there is quite clearly an issue of the potential for environmental harm." - Ian Burgess, Group Quality Assurance Manager, the Co-op
Richard Ali: IGD, the Institute of Grocery Distribution, which represents the whole food chain, is an educational trust. They did some studies in 2000 which showed that they expected it to take 15 to 20 years for consumer trust in GM to be fully regained. Within that timescale, they believe that the products that have to come on the market to enable consumer trust in GM to come back would probably take another 12 years from where they were in 2000.
So another nine to 10 years and, therefore, 2012 or 2013 before the third-generation GM products which have the characteristics which the consuming public believe would get them to buy discrete GM products. We are probably looking at between another 12 to 20 years...
. . .
Chairman: Going back to the Institute of Grocery Distribution, SCIMAC [industry body], in their written evidence to us, referred to a recent survey conducted by the IGD which they said indicated that 13 per cent of consumers would use labels to avoid GM foods, 13 per cent would use labels to choose GM foods, while 74 per cent were not sufficiently concerned to take any action either way. Are you familiar with that?
Richard Ali: I am, yes.
Chairman: It seems to differ from what you were telling us about the survey just now.
Richard Ali: The information I was giving you was very much that if people were asked, "Will you buy GM food or not?" a huge proportion of those people say no. The vast majority of people also know when they walk into a supermarket that the product is non-GM. Therefore, a smaller proportion of people walk in and say, "I'm going to check the label to make sure this is non-GM". It is the same answer, just coming from two different directions. People are concerned but they believe that the retailers and the food manufacturers do not use this product anyway.
. . .
Ian Burgess: If it is of use, I could illustrate those points with some findings from a recent survey that we carried out amongst our members and customers. When we asked them would they knowingly buy food containing GM ingredients, 79 per cent said that they would not knowingly buy food that contained a GM ingredient. That bears out the figures that Richard was quoting.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
+ MICHAEL MEACHER ON GM CROP COMMERCIALISATION IN UK
"Why is the Government going ahead? It is not because of the science, it is because of the Bush administration applying pressure, and because of companies like Monsanto who want to make a big profit bonanza out of cornering the world food supply. It is nothing to do with feeding the world." - Michael Meacher, former UK environment minister http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2677
MUST-READ: HUNGRY CORPORATIONS
+ HUNGRY CORPORATIONS
by Helena Paul and Ricarda Steinbrecher
London and New York: Zed Books, 2003; ISBN 1 84277 301 1; GBP15.95; USD22.50
Over the next few weeks we'll be featuring short excerpts from this excellent book about the biotech industry's push to own the food chain.
ON THE PATENT TRAP: "...patents have generated a climate of fear among farmers. Plant breeders' rights, patents, and the notorious growers' contracts are forcing farmers to abandon their age-old practices of seed saving, sharing and selling. No farmer wants to risk a major lawsuit by attracting the attention of the private detectives that now police the countryside for the seed companies. For many farmers, the only way out is to grow the patented genetically engineered crops and abide by the contracts."
ON MONSANTO'S PIRACY OF SOYA: "Most breeding programmes, public or private, now routinely use molecular marker techniques to speed up the breeding process. These markers allow breeders to identify whether the traits that they seek have been incorporated into their crosses, thereby speeding up the breeding process. However, many of the most important markers that are discovered are patented and the traits that they identify are also being patented. On 30 September 1999 Monsanto filed a patent in 81 countries on soybeans with enhanced yield (WO-0018963). That patent has already been issued in Australia (AU6277599). It covers any cultivated soybean containing certain genes or segments of DNA from 'wild' or 'exotic' soybeans identified through molecular marker techniques. The group of genes, which is only vaguely defined, is said to be responsible for enhanced yield. Not only does the patent claim an important trait in soybean breeding, but it also gives Monsanto monopoly rights on Glycine soja (wild soybean), particularly PI407305 from southern China and all its progeny. Further, the patent extends to any soybean carrying the yield genes."
PRAISE FOR "HUNGRY CORPORATIONS"
"Hungry Corporations tells us how the biotech industry and their captive governments use Third World hunger as the justification for force feeding the world with GMO's, while it is really their own hunger for profits and power which is driving the commercialization of GM crops and foods. Written by authors who have been in the frontline of fighting the biotech giants, Hungry Corporations is a valuable resource for researchers, activists and ordinary citizens determined to defend their freedom." - Vandana Shiva, author, Staying Alive
"In less than a decade a handful of extremely powerful corporations have managed to gain control of the very building blocks of life. But with the scientific basis of their technology flawed, and hardly any practical results to show so far, these gene-giants now urgently need an ideological basis to justify their investment in genetic engineering. They have found it in the 800 or so million people that go hungry every day. Hungry Corporations explains how they go about it: pushing legislators to give them monopoly control, co-opting public research institutions, organizing PR campaigns, and discrediting everybody who disagrees." - Henk Hobbelink, author and coordinator, GRAIN
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK
+ SOUTH AFRICA: DECISION TO IMPORT GM WHEAT CRITICISED
The South African Council of Churches (SACC) and 38 other civil society organisations said they are opposed to the government's decision to allow the import of GM wheat into the country. Noting the lack of conclusive studies on the impact of GM crops on human and environmental health, the protest group sent a letter to the Registrar of Genetically Modified Organisms stating: "We do not believe South Africa should be the first country to take the risk to allow GM wheat (seeds or seeds for milling) if the social, environmental and economic impact is of such concern to the rest of the world."
It raised concerns that South Africa would become the dumping ground for GM crops and a gateway for their distribution to other parts of the continent. The SACC urged the government to declare a moratorium on the import and growing of GM wheat pending more thorough study and debate. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2676
+ EASY PICKINGS - GMOS IN AFRICA
More red flags are going up over GM foods flooding the African market without the necessary collective bio-safety precautions or technological capacity being in place. Monsanto recently announced its application for a commodity clearance permit for GM wheat with the Department of Agriculture.
Environmental lawyer and founder of the African Centre for Bio-Safety Mariam Mayet said: "This is an obvious pre-emptive bid by Monsanto to create a much-needed market for its GM wheat, because none exist anywhere in the world. It's a hugely disingenuous move by Monsanto and belies the fact that Monsanto is struggling to obtain commercial approval for GM wheat in the United States and Canada."
In contrast to the frosty reception in the US, Canada and Europe, South Africa - with its elastic laws and pitted consumer awareness - is easy pickings for transnational seed companies, say the anti-GM environmentalists. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2676
+ MEXICO TO DROP GM LABELLING
Mexico has become the first importer country to agree to adopt US-backed standards for labelling GM grains, a move activists said was a violation of Mexican law and a threat to native maize varieties. The pact appeared to mark a victory for the US position in favour of loosening or dropping label requirements, and suggested that Mexico had not only been won over entirely on the issue, but had also agreed to help the US lobby for such rules in world forums.
In October last year, Mexico signed a tripartite agreement with the US and Canada which allows into Mexico maize shipments with as much as 5% of GMOs with a label that says only that the shipments "may contain" genetically modified organisms.
"Many countries around the world have rejected this type of (labelling) agreement," said Alejandro Calvillo, of Greenpeace Mexico. "Why has Mexico, the country where corn originated, accepted it?" he asked. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2676
+ INDIA: BT COTTON BENEFITS SHORT-LIVED - STUDY
A study just released by entomologists at Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi has cast doubts on the long-term benefits of Bt cotton. The Bt gene produces a toxin called "Cry1ac" that kills bollworms, a cotton pest. The study, by K Chandrasekar and GT Gujar, found that the protection afforded by the Bt gene lasts at best for six years. The bollworm developed "31-fold resistance to the toxin 'Cry1ac' within six generations." http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2634
+ INDIA: SUPREME COURT SENDS NOTICES TO MINISTERS OVER MONSANTO WHEAT PATENT
A three-member Supreme Court bench has issued notices to the ministries of commerce, industry, law, agriculture and environment on a public interest litigation accusing the government of not objecting to Monsanto's patent claim over an Indian wheat landrace, granted by the European Patent Office (EPO) on 21 May 2003. The lawsuit was filed by the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.
As the government did not come forward to defend the country's bio-resources from being patented by a foreign multinational, RFSTE filed a lawsuit before the Supreme Court on February 9. Advocate for the petitioner, Pincky Anand told FE, "the petition was filed on January 9, accusing the government of failing to challenge the patent rights given to Monsanto. On January 12 we conveyed to the Chief Justice about the urgency of taking up the case as the time needed for the government to challenge the patent rights accorded to Monsanto expires on February 21. The court was convinced about our arguments and decided to issue notices to ministries concerned in the government." http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2634
+ AUSTRALIAN CONSUMER TURNS BACK ON GM FOOD
A new poll shows that Australians are increasingly worried about GM foods and the risk they could pose to health and the environment. Initiated by Biotechnology Australia, the government's biotech agency, the survey found that the majority of people would not eat GM foods and opposed their use by farmers.
The poll tracked more than 1,000 people over the past four years to measure changes in attitudes towards GM products. Only two GM crops - cotton and carnations - are commercially grown in Australia, and although GM canola has been approved, state bans are preventing its commercial planting.
Since 2001 there has been "a dramatic decline in the number of Australians who say they would eat foods that have been genetically modified to be healthier, or taste better with 58 per cent rejecting the idea altogether," reports Milward Brown that conducted the survey on behalf of the government.
Eighty per cent of respondents said they were concerned about the use of gene technology in food, although there was slightly less concern about its use in human health applications. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2637
+ WORLD TREATY MAY BECOME NEW FOCUS FOR GMO DEBATE
While a main US concern is to resume shipping GM grain to Europe, this trade could be squeezed by the rules of the UN Cartagena Protocol, which aims for transparency in GMO trade. Signatory countries now number more than 80 and will meet this month in Malaysia to discuss how to implement the protocol, their first meeting since it came into force in September.
The protocol obliges exporters to provide more information about GM products like maize and soybeans before any shipment to recipient countries, to help them decide whether to accept it. Under its provisions, a nation may reject GMO imports or donations -- even without scientific proof -- if it fears they pose a danger to traditional crops, undermine local cultures or cut the value of biodiversity to indigenous communities.
The US, where most GMOs originate, has not signed the Cartagena agreement and looks unlikely to do so in the short term, insisting GMOs are no different from natural organisms. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2676
+ UK: CLEAN BILL OF HEALTH FOR FUNDING BODY?
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the government agency responsible for funding animal and plant research was given a clean bill of health by a committee of MPs, but told to sharpen up its communications policies in the wake of "failed" attempts to win the public over on GM foods.
However, this clean bill of health for the BBSRC has everything to do with the committee of MPs in question and not least its Chairman, Labour MP for Norwich North, Ian Gibson. Gibson is very close to the John Innes Centre, which is based in Norwich. The JIC, apart from receiving sizeable funding from the BBSRC is also the beneficiary of the largesse of Labour's Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury.
This cosy world goes to the very heart of what's so wrong with the BBSRC, which until just over a year ago was presided over by Peter Doyle, a director of biotech giant Syngenta and the former executive director of GM company Zeneca (now part of Syngenta). Doyle originally took up his BBSRC post while still Zeneca's executive director. Zeneca/Syngenta were for several years major investors in the JIC. Doyle is said to be a crony of Tony Blair's.
Doyle's replacement as Chief Executive at the BBSRC is Prof Julia Goodfellow. She's the wife of geneticist Dr Peter Goodfellow, who is head of discovery research at biotech/pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline. The last time we checked, GlaxoSmithKline had 3 representatives sitting on BBSRC boards. They are far from the only representatives of large corporations on the boards of the BBSRC.
Syngenta sits on 3 boards, AstraZeneca on 2, Pfizer on 4, and Unilever on 2. Also represented are Genetix plc, Lilly and Merck Sharp & Dohme. In these circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that biotechnology has been swallowing up the lion's share of the research funds.
Yet none of this seems to have raised any concerns among the committee of MPs, who only appear to want the BBSRC to do a better job of winning public acceptance for GM crops.
For more on the BBSRC: http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=21&page=B
+ UK: ANOTHER DOSE OF KREBS
Sir John Krebs, current Chair of the UK's Food Standards Agency, has been reappointed for a further four-year term by the Secretary of State for Health, John Reid and the appropriate devolved authorities (Scottish Ministers, National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Executive).
During the UK's Public Debate on GM in 2003, nine organisations, including the National Federation of Women's Institutes and Unison, the UK's biggest trade union, wrote to Sir John, accusing him of bias and of misrepresenting the views of the public. In the letter they said, "There is a strong consensus amongst consumer and environment organisations that the published views and statements of the FSA and its Chair are indistinguishable from those of the pro-GM lobby and do not properly represent public health and consumer interests." http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2638
+ EU RACES TO THWART INFLUX OF GM FOOD FROM EAST
The EU is racing against time to stop GM foods entering western Europe from the east after the community's enlargement on May 1. Some of the 10 new member states have been growing GM crops for some time, but recent checks have shown that the testing facilities to monitor their spread to neighbouring crops are either flawed or non-existent.
The biggest agricultural country in eastern Europe, Poland, which has been growing GM crops for several years, has had no testing facilities at all.
Environmental groups accuse biotech companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer of using the former eastern bloc as a "trojan horse" to get GM products into the EU. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2635
+ KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: CAPTAIN HOOK AWARDS FOR BIOPIRACY
With a hearty cry of "Yo-ho-ho and a clutch-full of contracts," a couple dressed as Captain Hook and Tinker Bell announced the culprits for the most infamous and malevolent bio-piracy acts in the past year, at the Convention on Biological Diversity conference.
Among the "laureates" to get the Captain Hook Awards for Bio-Piracy 2004 were Brazilian president Luis In”¡cio Lula da Silva, the United States, Dutch corporation Soil and Crop Improvement, and Monsanto.
The awards were presented by the Coalition Against Bio-Piracy (CAB), a group of peoples' organisations, on the sideline of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a UN-backed conference bringing 2,000 government delegates, scientists and environmentalists to discuss ways to preserve Earth's diversity of life.
Dressed up as the characters from Peter Pan, Jim Thomas and Alywin Darlen Arnejo of CAB presented the awards, which included the most outrageous act of bio-piracy, the greediest offenders and the worst threat to human diversity.
The worst corporate offender award went to Monsanto, for a European patent on a chapati wheat derived from a traditional Indian variety, claiming not just the wheat, but also the flour, the dough and all edible products produced from it. The announcement was greeted with boos and cries of, "Give us back our chapati!" from an Indian delegate in the crowd.
Lula da Silva was the recipient for the "worst betrayal" due to Brazil's proposal to open the Amazon region to GM crops. The US was deemed the "worst national disgrace" for promoting the commercial exploitation of its national parks and championing the patenting of biological resources.
The most outrageous bio-piracy activity award went to Soil and Crop Improvement, for seeking to negotiate joint ownership of Ethiopian teff (a small cereal grain used to make bread) varieties with the Ethiopian government, and claiming to have acquired intellectual property for growing the crop and production of all its products. http://www.captainhookawards.org/
Great pic of Jim Thomas as Captain Hook:
HEADLINES OF THE WEEK: from the GMWATCH archive
19/2/2004 Debates on GM criticised
19/2/2004 Leaked papers reveal GM crops to get go-ahead
19/2/2004 More on Government go-ahead for GM maize
19/2/2004 New publications that expose Monsanto!
19/2/2004 South African Council of Churches opposes import of GM wheat / Monsanto admits seeing developing countries as prime targets
15/2/2004 BBSRC's clean bill of health
15/2/2004 Krebs reappointed as Chair of Food Standards Agency
15/2/2004 No GM surrender in Europe / Australian consumer turns back on GM ingredients
14/2/2004 Bt cotton benefits short-lived: study/more on Monsanto wheat patent in India
14/2/2004 EU races to thwart influx of GM food from east
14/2/2004 Monsanto, Lula & U.S. win Captain Hook awards
13/2/2004 THE WEEKLY WATCH number 59
12/2/2004 AEI wades in - Biotech Bounty: "saving billions" or "making billions"?
FOR THE COMPLETE GMWATCH ARCHIVE: http://www.gmwatch.org/archive.asp