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A powerful lobbying organisation representing agribusiness interests helped draft a key government report that has been attacked by environmentalists for heavily favouring the arguments of the genetically modified food industry.
The revelation comes after the resignation of two government advisers who have criticised the close relationship between the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the body that oversees the UK's food industry, and the GM lobby.
Comments made on the BBC Today Programme by Professor Brian Wynne after his resignation:
“The main concern … was that this was being called a public dialogue about food and the role of GM within that and the more I was involved in it … the more it looked much more like … yet another … extractive exercise in eliciting public attitudes to GM. The two things are quite different in their principles. The Government has ... established principles for good practice on public dialogue and various of those principles were being contravened in the way in which the dialogue was being set up.”
“The members of the steering group, the officials … from FSA and the other relevant Government agencies … were … operating in a perfectly proper way. It’s the context in which the steering group and the process was being established that I was concerned about and that’s where I think the claim to impartiality is …in a state of institutional denial.
“When you … look at the premises on which the FSA is operating then there’s no way in which this can be an impartial public dialogue. The first one is that the GM issue as a public issue is a scientific issue. It’s about risks and … is it safe if I eat GM food. There are many more dimensions to the GM issue alone, let alone food security in the world, than the safety of GM. It’s controversial … but … there are many other dimensions to it which are not scientific issues and I tried to make that distinction in the steering group. It was falling on deaf ears in the FSA around me, not in the steering group itself. The second (premise) is the FSA operates only on sound science. The third one is … that the public is anti science.”
“When I challenged (the Chair of the FSA) on that … he equated public attitudes with headlines in … the tabloids. Tabloid headlines are not public attitudes. One can see expressions of an anti science kind occasionally in the public domain on this issue but the public is not anti science in general. To begin with those premises one arrives at a pro GM policy in all but name and … the claim that this is … impartial and that the FSA is impartial with respect to GM is simply not true.”
To: John Curtice, Chair, Steering Group, Food Standards Agency GM Dialogue
From: Helen Wallace, Director, GeneWatch UK
CC: Steering Group members, FSA, ScienceWise, DEFRA, BIS, DoH, ERAD (Scotland), DARDNI, Rural Affairs (Wales)
26 May 2010
I am resigning from membership of the Steering Group for the GM dialogue with immediate effect. I hope you understand when you read the contents of this letter why I am also making this public.
I joined the Group with some scepticism and it has now become clear to me that the process that the FSA has in mind is nothing more than a PR exercise on behalf of the GM industry. In my view, this would be a significant waste of £500,000 of taxpayers’ money.
Freedom of Information requests that have been passed to me show that the FSA met with the industry group the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) on 21st September 2009 to discuss a “GM public engagement programme”. On 1st October 2009, the ABC advised the FSA “abc welcomes the opportunity to provide suggestions on the individuals and groups that would add value to the FSA GM engagement Steering Group. We support this activity and understand the importance of this initiative; however 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. It is important that when consumers are thinking about GM, they are considering the future as much as the present”. The industry also suggested edits to a draft FSA report to the Food Strategy Task Force, which claims that lack of demand and rising costs will drive out non-GM feed supplies and that GM and non-GM feed should no longer be segregated. In a subsequent report, DEFRA and the FSA support the industry’s line that ‘zero tolerance’ of unapproved GM crops in the EU threatens food supplies.
These industry claims are reflected in the background materials provided to the Steering Group by the FSA, which state that “current problems with the supply of non-GM soya mean that over the next 12 months retailers and food manufacturers will need to consider whether they can sustain their current GM-Free stance” and that: “The Government has recommended that discussions take place in the wider context of global food supply to take account of the long term security of global food production and changing food prices”.
The FSA has persistently resisted attempts to make the role of GM in feeding the world a subject for debate, instead arguing that this merely provides a ‘context’ for the dialogue. Its policy note – which took six months to produce - does not suggest the public should be in any way consulted about plans to allow the contamination of feed shipments with unauthorised GM, or about the lack of labelling for meat or dairy products derived from animals fed on GM feed.
The same industry PR strategy is being actively implemented by Ipsos-MORI, which states on page 89 of its bid to run the dialogue that the Ipsos Mori Reputation Centre has been working with a “multi-national Agro-chemical and seed company” and its advertising agency since 2009 “to develop concepts which link agribusiness with important global issues (such as climate change, water scarcity, deforestation etc) and position the company as a positive force”. On page 17 of its bid, Ipsos-MORI warns that campaign organisations could “try and hijack the [dialogue] process to ensure GM food does not get a chance to be reintroduced into the UK. The danger is that anti-GM campaigning could take place in the absence of any ‘defence’ except from industry who will struggle to be credible”. This seems a shockingly one-sided view for a company bidding to run a dialogue to take: although not surprising from one running a reputation management exercise on behalf of the GM industry.
In reality, there is no shortage of GM-free feed supplies, although the US company Monsanto is reported to be attempting to restricting the access of Brasilian farmers to conventional (non-GM) soybean seeds. Further, there is no realistic prospect of production of drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant, or nitrogen-fixing GM crops, which were first promised by the US Office of Technology Assessment in 1981, when the US Government was encouraged to begin subsidising GM crop research.,
The US company Monsanto still controls 95% of the GM seed market and its main products are GM maize and soya engineered to be resistant to its herbicide RoundUp. The other GM companies - Dow, DuPont, BASF, Syngenta and Bayer - have adopted the same strategy. Herbicide-tolerant superweeds are now spreading across the US: and Monsanto’s share price is plummeting. Pesticide-resistance is also developing to GM pesticide-resistant crops. This is why the list of applications provided by the FSA in its (belated) policy document consists almost exclusively of GM crops stacked with multiple herbicide-resistant traits. These are the crops that the companies wish to ship into Europe without any prior approvals process.
Far from alleviating hunger, expensive patented GM seeds packaged with own-brand herbicides would lock poor farmers into a cycle of poverty in which they become increasingly dependent on multi-national seed companies. Further, Monsanto and other companies have been actively lobbying for US government subsidies for industrial-scale biofuels, which now prop up the US market for GM crops and are thought to be one factor in the 2008 spike in food prices that pushed millions into poverty.
I wish to reassure you that I am not in any way questioning your independence as Chair and I appreciate that some changes have been made in response to concerns that I have raised in meetings. However, I remain convinced that the FSA process was set up from the outset to provide free “reputation management” to the GM industry at taxpayers’ expense. The FSA appears to actively engaged in trying to use the so-called dialogue to implement the industry’s PR strategy: focusing on a non-existent positive future where new GM crops will ‘feed the world’, whilst lobbying to end the segregation of GM and non-GM food and feed entering Britain and Europe, and opposing the labelling of meat and dairy products produced using GM feed.
This is not a process that I am prepared to support.
Dr Helen Wallace
HYPERLINK "http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/foodmattergmreport.pdf" http://