Pro-GM scientist to give TV lectures
John Vidal, environment editor
The Guardian, August 23, 2005
One of Britain's most provocative scientists, who has been accused of protecting the biotech food industry and has dismissed organic produce as "an image-led fad", will give the televised BBC Christmas science lectures, which are aimed at children and young adults.
Professor Sir John Krebs, who was appointed by the government in 2000 to be the first head of the independent Food Standards Agency, will devote the Royal Institution lectures to the subject of food. On past record, say his critics, he can be expected to argue strongly for biotechnology and advanced technologies to feed growing populations.
According to the Royal Institution, the now-retired Sir John "will ask whether new farming methods such as genetically modified crops will be the solution, or whether we will all have to become vegetarians". He will also consider the question: "Will the future bring us the chocolate bar that treats heart disease or the mood-enhancing potato crisp?"
Sir John, a distinguished ecologist who specialises in bird behaviour, made some enemies while at the FSA, endorsing GM foods at the start of his term and later claiming that there was no evidence that organic food was better than conventional food. He has accused GM sceptics of being "shrill, often ill-informed and dogma-driven".
His critics now fear he will use the influential Christmas lecture platform to promote his own beliefs. "Sir John has always gone out of his way to promote GM and attack organic foods. Children deserve to get a balanced message. We are sick and tired of being told by government and some scientists that GM food is necessary and the only way to avoid starvation", said Pete Riley, head of GM Freeze, which represents more than 120 British consumer and environment groups.
The Royal Institution, one of the pillars of the British scientific research establishment, specialises in the communication of scientific ideas and regards the prime-time televised lectures as some of its most important events of the year. In the past they have been strictly above politics.
"There is no intention to be political or controversial," said a spokeswoman yesterday. "He was chosen from a number of other scientists. It just happened that he wanted to talk about the future of food. The lectures have not been written yet. When they are, they will be looked at and considered. We would not allow anyone to say just anything," she said.
Lord Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, which certifies organic food and has a record of opposing GM, said: "My impression is that most kids are pretty repulsed about messing about with nature and that he will have a harder time persuading them that GM food is good than he had with Mr Blair. We live in hope that he's learned from the drubbing he got from the review of the FSA done by Baroness Dean".
Baroness Dean's review concluded that the FSA under Sir John had not fulfilled its criteria for being scientifically impartial when considering both organic and GM goods. "The vast majority of people consulted felt that the FSA had deviated from its normal stance of making statements based solely on scientific evidence. This view was expressed not only by stakeholders representing organic and GM interest groups, but by those who would be regarded as supporters and natural allies of the agency", it said.
Sir John was unavailable for comment yesterday.