GM lobby helped draw up crucial report
2.More leading academics condemn GM "dialogue"
3.GM "dialogue" in tatters
4.GM food deserves better than this witch-hunt
NOTE: Colin Blakemore makes a number of dubious assertions (item 4) but none more so than his claim that the FSA has been a pioneer in transparency, in inclusion, and in proceeding without bias. Yet, Blakemore tells us, 'Now it is under attack over GM.'
But the FSA has been under attack over GM from day one. On the day it was announced that Sir John Krebs was to be the first head of the FSA, he publicly endorsed GM food in interviews, saying all GM products approved for sale in the UK 'were as safe as their non-GM counterparts'. Even prior to his appointment, he was already on record as saying that criticisms of GM food were 'shrill, often ill-informed and dogma-driven'. Some have suggested that his historic support for GM food may have been the key factor in Sir John, an expert on bird behaviour, being offered the top job at the Food Standards Agency.
By holding a position from day one that all approved GM products 'were as safe as their non-GM counterparts', the FSA under Krebs has brought an unquestioning attitude to the status quo. This contrasts notably with Krebs' and the FSA's combative stance on organic food. Interstingly, it is in the context of organic food that Krebs' has asserted the 'paramount importance' of the FSA's independence from 'industry .
When in 2005 Baroness Dean conducted an official review of the FSA under Sir John Krebs. She said that with regard to GM and organic foods: 'the perception of the vast majority [of stakeholders] was that the Agency had deviated from its normal stance of making statements based solely on scientific evidence, to giving the impression of speaking against organic food and for GM food. 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 is clear that many stakeholders believe the Agency has already made policy decisions on these issues and is not open to further debate.'
5 years on from Baroness Dean recommending to the FSA that it address the concerns of stakeholders, the Agency has as its head Lord Rooker - another self-avowed advocate of GM, who's already dismissed public scepticism on GM as 'anti-science' before the FSA's public 'dialogue' has even begun.
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1.GM lobby helped draw up crucial report on Britain's food supplies
The Observer, Sunday 6 June 2010
*Email trail shows how biotech group helped watchdog to draw up analysis of GM crops ... and prompted two advisers to quit
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.
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 emphasised 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 authorised or being considered for authorisation 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 GBP500,000, 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 Labour 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 organisations 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 favour of GM foods "in the right circumstances".
2.More leading academics condemn GM "dialogue"
The Food Standards Agency and the advocacy of genetically modified crops
The biotechnology industry and the public purse
(Letters) Daily Telegraph, 5 June 2010
SIR - The resignation of two members of the Food Standards Agency's GM dialogue steering group - one of them the vice-chairman (report, June 2) - highlights the concerns we and others have been raising about such exercises for some time.
In this case, they are setting the agenda for the debate at the behest of the biotechnology industry, to the exclusion of broader stakeholder concerns. Far from corporations paying for this helpful work, the public purse is subsidising it to the tune of GBP500,000.
The FSA should halt this patronising process and undertake a dialogue not simply aimed at contriving a "yes" to all GM technology from a population that it wrongly assumes is "anti-science".
Dr Tom Wakeford
Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre, Newcastle University
Dr Michel Pimbert
International Union for Conservation of Nature, Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy
Professor Andrew Watterson
Centre for Public Health and Population Health, Stirling University
Professor Erik Millstone
SPRU Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex
Dr Bronislaw Szerszynski
Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, Lancaster University
Dr Les Levidow
Senior Research Fellow, Development Policy and Practice, The Open University
Dr Jackie Haq
Department of Sociology, Newcastle University
3.GM "dialogue" in tatters
Scottish Farmer, 4 June 2010
ATTEMPTS TO engage the British public in an unbiased 'dialogue' about genetically modified food were in tatters this week, following two high profile resignations from the project’s steering group.
The 'GM Dialogue' was a New Labour idea to take the heat out of the GM debate, which had become impossibly mired in 'Frankenstein Foods' type headlines.
Administered by the Food Standards Agency, representatives of both pro and anti-GM factions were co-opted to the steering group to reach agreement on how the matter could be presented to the public in a fair and impartial way - but that brief accord has now fallen to pieces amid accusations that the FSA is privately pro-GM.
Dr Helen Wallace, of GeneWatch UK, was first to resign, after it emerged that the FSA was in talks with public relations firm Ipsos-MORI to handle the 'dialogue' publicity, even though the firm was already working for "a multi-national agrochemical and seed company".
4.GM food deserves better than this witch-hunt
The Observer, 6 June 2010
Colin Blakemore argues that we must be more open-minded when considering GM foods
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. It's a non-ministerial government department set up as an explicit response to the way in which mad cow disease had been handled. And let's not forget what a disaster that was, and the impact that it had on public confidence in the government's use of scientific evidence.
Since then it has been a pioneer in transparency (most of the meetings of its committees are conducted in public), in rigorous commitment to the best evidence (rather than prejudice and anecdote), and in its efforts to consult widely and without bias in the development of advice to government.
Now it is under attack over GM. Europe, comfortable in the assumption that it could be self-sufficient in food production and supply, is suspicious about GM foods. That attitude was forged in the fevered "debate" of 1998, fuelled by Dr Arpad Pusztai's assertions about the risks from GM potatoes, on the basis of then-unpublished observations on rats, and the Daily Mail's "Frankenfoods" campaign.
As GM food production grew elsewhere in the world, the cabinet office published in 2008 a review of the whole issue of food security called Food Matters. Defra and the FSA were asked to review global trends in GM production and "the extent to which changes in the market are putting a strain on the regulatory system for GM products".
The recently published email exchange between the agency and the Biotechnology Council appears to have been part of a broad consultation among stakeholders about the draft Defra/FSA report.It would not be in the public interest if industry were excluded from discussions about the future of food production.
They are ultimately responsible for it, after all. The difficult task for the FSA is to deal with industry in a way that should not lead to accusations of bias or complicity.
Three years ago the FSA set up a general advisory committee on science, with the specific remit to "challenge" the agency on its use of scientific evidence.
The agency invited me to chair that new committee, and I was happy to accept, because I saw it as the latest indication of the FSA's commitment to openness.
What I write here is entirely my own opinion, not that of the committee I chair. But my committee, which sets its own agenda, will surely want to look at the accusations made against the FSA, I trust that the government and the public will see that open and rigorous process as preferable to Trial by Tabloid.
Europe's belief it can survive without GM contrasts with the dire warnings from leading scientists about the gathering Perfect Storm the combination of climate change, population growth, water shortage and inadequacies of food supply.
We desperately need a solution to the problem of food security. GM might not be the answer but it is an option, with a clear scientific rationale, which we ought to consider.
It would be irresponsible to reject scientific assessment of the risks and potential benefits of GM and to accept without challenge the unsubstantiated horror stories about GM and uncritical praise for organic farming from the ideological opponents of GM.
Colin Blakemore is Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford