Minister up to her neck in conflicting interests
2.Profile of a Broom's Barn scientist: Alan Dewar
EXTRACT: If critics [of GM] were hoping for a figure within the new coalition to act as a bulwark against the voracious appetite of big business and the zeal of scientists, they will find little comfort by delving into the background of Mrs Spelman. (item 1)
NOTE: The UK's new Environment Minister, Caroline Spelman's close connection with Broom's Barn will set yet more alarm bells ringing. Brooms Barn, as the profile of one of its former scientists (item 2) makes all too clear, is not only riven with conflicts of interest but has operated at times less like a scientific institute and more like a spin laboratory for the biotech industry, even allowing Monsanto to conduct press tours of its GM crop trials, generating favourable headlines that turned out to be completely misleading.
1.Special investigation: Do government's GM-friendly plans make former biotech lobbyist Caroline Spelman Minister for Conflicting Interests
Daily Mail, 12 June 2010
[Image caption: David Cameron: The PM has described the lobbying industry as 'the next big scandal waiting to happen']
As anyone who has lived downwind of a sugar beet processing plant will know, the smell produced is not as sweet as you might imagine.
A similarly unexpected stink is now wafting from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It can be followed to the door of the office of new the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman.
As we shall see, Ms Spelman, the former Tory Party chairman, knows an awful lot about sugar beet. But the fug caused by her appointment to Defra is rather more complex.
It is not just the lingering scent of dodgy expenses, which saw her brought to book in 2008 over 'Nannygate', and ordered to pay back GBP10,000 to the public purse after effectively charging child care to the taxpayer.
That scandal first suggested an inability to separate private interest and public responsibility.
Ms Spelman has since moved onwards and upwards. But a malodeur remains around this intriguing woman.
Test the air today and you might detect a worrying whiff emanating from her husband's professional interest in Defra contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds and the puzzling status of their agri-business lobbying firm.
But perhaps most whiffy of all is that the Secretary of State apparently shares the same controversial beliefs as such biotech giants as Monsanto, the world's leading producer of weedkiller and genetically modified crops.
Genetic modification (GM) of our foodstuffs remains a hugely contentious issue.
GM foods come from crops which have had their molecular structures altered in the laboratory.
This is done to improve particular traits, such as resistance to herbicide or drought.
But there are a number of recorded drawbacks, from the rampant growth of herbicide-resistant 'superweeds' to wiping out insects vital to wildlife up the food chain.
There is also concern about the unknown risks to humans.
Those leading its advancement, such as Monsanto, whose gross profit for this financial year is predicted to be around the GBP4 billion mark, argue that it is the solution for an increasingly populated, heated and hungry planet.
But it is not just die-hard enviromentalists who fear that 'Frankenstein Foods' risk damaging with untold consequences the delicate balance of nature.
Dr Helen Wallace of GeneWatch UK and Lancaster University Professor Brian Wynne resigned recently from a Food Standards Agency group overseeing a public consultation on GM.
They quit claiming it was an exercise in state sponsored 'GM propaganda', to which they could not lend their name.
Professor Wynne said the FSA, a government quango, was 'dogmatically entrenched' in favour of GM.
A reason for caution? Or at least neutrality? Not as far as Ms Spelman is concerned.
Just last week and merely a few days into her new job, she pledged the coalition would be the most pro-GM government yet.
She told the Guardian newspaper that GM 'can bring benefits to the marketplace'.
GM crops are as yet still forbidden from being grown commercially in the UK.
But the new secretary of state said that she supported their introduction under 'the right circumstances'.
If critics were hoping for a figure within the new coalition to act as a bulwark against the voracious appetite of big business and the zeal of scientists, they will find little comfort by delving into the background of Mrs Spelman.
They would find a professional career spent in or around the very same biotechnology industry.
Some would argue that it is refreshing to have a minister with detailed, working knowledge of the sector over which they have been put in charge.
But the disturbing question is whether Mrs Spelman is an expert witness, or a partisan one?
And it's this question which must be asked in the context of a sugar beet research centre, a 16-year old book of bone dry erudition and a lobbying company whose directors and addresses seem to mutate and modify to suit Mrs Spelman's circumstance.
The new head of Defra is an agricultural scientist, specialising in sugar beet.
Some nine million tonnes of it are grown in this country every year.
The crop is one of the most important - and heavily EU subsidised - sectors of UK agriculture.
In the early 1980s Ms Spelman was Sugar Beet Commodity Secretary for the National Farmers Union.
From there, she moved on to become Deputy Director of the International Confederation of European Beet-growers, based in Paris, a role she only relinquished at the end of the decade.
Her career then took a significant turn. She took a position as an unpaid research fellow at the Centre for European Agricultural Studies.
Her particular interest was biotechnology and her work there resulted in the 1994 publication of her book Non-Food Uses Of Agricultural Raw Materials: Economics, Biotechnology And Politics.
On the front cover is a photograph of a sugar beet. The picture is credited to the Broom's Barn Experimental Station in Suffolk.
Mrs Spelman was a frequent visitor to Broom's Barn in the Eighties and early Nineties, according to staff.
'She has had a long association with this establishment through her work with both the NFU and the European Beet Growers in the Eighties,' said its current director Bill Clark.
'Both organisations have always held meetings here and were obviously very interested in the work we did here, which has traditionally been research with sugar beet.'
Since then Broom's Barn has been the location of the first and, as yet, only trial crop of GM beet to be grown in this country.
The sponsor of the trial? Monsanto, the biotech giant, that would dearly love to be able to sell its herbicide-resistant GM beet seed in Britain and across Europe.
For the moment, the EU has only approved for commercial cultivation a variety of GM maize.
But Europe is the world's largest market for sugar beet seed. Across in the United States almost 100 per cent of the crop is of a genetically modified strain.
The EU has recently allowed foodstuffs which contain sugar from American GM beet crops to be sold in Europe.
Lobbying is now being carried out on behalf of biotech firms and commercial growers, to be allowed to grow GM beet on this side of the Atlantic.
Monsanto claims that its introduction would save farmers GBP150 a hectare per year.
Opponents say it would devastate wildlife by allowing a massive increase in the use of herbicide.
A few days before Ms Spelman's appointment last month, the New York Times ran the latest in a series of stories which have questioned the enviromental impact of Monsanto's market domination in the United States.
Widespread use of Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller, in tandem with its 'Roundup Ready' GM seeds, had led in fact to the mutation of 'superweeds' which were resistant to the chemicals, it reported.
The biggest concern is pigweed, which grows at a rate of more than one inch a day and reaches a height of three metres.
The so-called perfect super weed is extremely hardy, produces 10,000 seeds at a time and will smother food crops in the same field.
More than 130 types of weed have developed some level of resistance in more than 40 U.S. states and experts estimate these superweeds have infested close to 11 million acres so far.
Monsanto is now advising farmers to use a cocktail of herbicides on their fields so that weeds would not develop an immunity to one in particular.
Monsanto also went on the offensive in the Supreme Court, where it is seeking to overturn California's ban on its genetically modified alfalfa.
Opponents said that it contaminated other crops. An attempt by a U.S. enviromental group to get a court injunction against further planting of Monsanto's GM beet failed earlier this year.
Clearly, organisations like Monsanto need friends in high places. And that is where the lobbyists come in.
In 1989 when she took up the research she also, with her husband Marc Spelman, set up a commercial enterprise, to tap into her by now significant agricultural contacts.
Spelman Cormack and Associates was a lobbying firm focused on protecting and promoting the interests of the food and biotech industries (Cormack is Spelman's maiden name).
One of its core tasks was to lobby the very government department which, two decades after the company was created, Mrs Spelman was to head.
Yet Spelman, Cormack and Associates still exists, albeit in a recently altered form.
Last year, Ms Spelman resigned her directorship and handed sole control of the firm to her husband.
The address of the firm's registered office was also moved from their Midlands constituency home to their smart West End flat.
It is still, however, trading under the Spelman name. This has not gone unnoticed.
Last month the Centre for Open Politics, which campaigns for political transparency, wrote to Defra's Permanent Secretary pointing out this very obvious conflict of interest.
One section of the letter is worth repeating at length: 'The Secretary of State is in charge of negotiating subsidies, quotas and tariff barriers at the EU Agricultural Council, giving rise to a clear conflict of interest between this official role and her close links to a company which has in the past lobbied or may be intending to lobby over such matters.
'The Secretary of State is also responsible for Genetically Modified food regulations at the same time as her husband's firm deals with bio-tech industry clients.'
The letter added: 'Mrs Spelman therefore remains linked to a farming and food lobbying firm that she set up, held shares in for ten years, and for which her husband is still using her name and home address for commercially.'
Enviromental groups have also voiced their concerns.
Friends of the Earth has called on Mrs Spelman to stand aside from all decisions about the future of GM crops, and from decisions about reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, which could involve both GM and the huge sugar beet industry.
Kirtana Chandrasekaran, of Friends of the Earth, told the Mail that Mrs Spelman's appointment broke the spirit of new rules announced by David Cameron which will ban ministers from joining the lobbying industry for two years after leaving office.
She added: 'Mrs Spelman has major conflicts of interest and should not be involved in taking decisions affecting the future of industries she has lobbied for. As things stand, we do not even know which companies she has acted for.'
Mrs Spelman's husband seems to have further interests in her new role as head of Defra.
He is also a senior executive at the global outsourcing firm Accenture, which is involved in the operation of the much-criticised 'farm payments scheme', which delivers EU subisidies to landowners.
It has been described by an official watchdog as a 'masterclass of maladministration'.
Indeed, the scheme, administered by the Rural Payments Agency, has been run so badly that Britain faces having to pay some GBP280 million in EU fines.
A further GBP43 million was reportedly lost in overpayments. When this emerged before the election, the then Shadow Enviroment Secretary Nick Herbert - then widely expected to run Defra when the Tories were in government - said ministers responsible 'refuse to accept their responsibility.'
The minister responsible now, of course, is Mrs Spelman. The Accenture contract is due to run out this year and Mrs Spelman is likely to have the final say in whether it is renewed.
Last night a spokesman for Mrs Spelman said her husband dealt with global strategy for Accenture and was not involved in the RPA contract.
The spokesman also said that Spelman, Cormack and Associates was in the process of being wound up.
He added: 'For over a decade the company has had no client revenue, or clients, and its income was occasional royalties following the publication of a book she wrote in 1994 on non-food uses of agricultural raw material.'
Why then did the Spelmans recently feel the need to change the structure of the company?
Ironically before the General Election David Cameron said of the lobbying industry: 'It is the next big scandal waiting to happen. It's an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.'
But the election saw a number of former lobbyists enter Parliament. Some were already there, of course.
One of them is Mrs Spelman.
Her spokesman was unable to provide the Mail with a list of the companies for which her firm had lobbied.
But he claimed: 'The company did not represent GM clients. On her appointment as Secretary of State she made the permanent secretary aware of the company and the permanent secretary is happy there is no conflict of interest in the present circumstances and that the requirements of the ministerial code are being met.'
So why then does such a bad smell hang over this somewhat unfortunate affair?
ADDITIONAL REPORTING: Jason Groves and Simon Trump
2.Profile of a Broom's Barn scientist: Alan Dewar
[for many embedded links see original]
Dr Alan Dewar is the director of Dewar Crop Protection Ltd. He was previously head of Entomology at Broom's Barn, a division of Rothamsted Research, formerly known as the Institute of Arable Crops Research (IACR), which has employed a number of pro-GM scientists, including ones who have simultaneously worked for the biotech industry lobby group CropGen. IACR/Rothamsted Research has had Dupont, Novartis, Syngenta and AgrEvo (which became part of Aventis CropScience, and later Bayer) amongst its 'Commercial Partners'.
Dr Dewar began work at Broom's Barn in 1984. Broom's Barn focuses on agricultural research and development in sugar beet. Although financed principally through the sugar beet industry, it also undertakes work directly sponsored by commercial companies. Dewar and another Broom's Barn scientist, Dr Mike May, both hit the headlines in 1999 when The Guardian ran a story about a conflict of interest between their leading role in the UK Government's GM Farm Scale Evaluations and their having earlier been commissioned by one of the companies (AgrEvo) whose crops they were testing for the department of the environment. Dewar and May have also undertaken research for Monsanto.
In January 2003 Dewar and May were among the authors of 'A novel approach to the use of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops for environmental benefit' (Proceedings of The Royal Society B, 270 (1513), 335-340). According to their co-author and Brooms barn's director, John Pidgeon, "This is the first time research has shown that GM herbicide-tolerant crops can be managed for environmental benefit." But, in fact, this part-Monsanto-supported research was just the latest to be presented in this way by scientists from Broom's Barn.
Five years earlier, in 1998, Monsanto conducted press tours of GM crop trials with late-growing weeds run by Dewar and May, provoking a lot of positive publicity about the environmental impact of Monsanto's GM sugar beet. Dewar was quoted as enthusiastically saying, "It was obvious to see that the weedy plots were heaving with life." The Times ran the headline, 'Modified crops help man and wildlife', and told its readers, "Genetically engineered crops can save farmers money, reduce chemical spraying and create a better habitat for birds and insects, scientists claimed yesterday." When, nearly two years later, Dewar and May's paper on the research was finally published in Pest Management Science (April 2000), it turned out that the delayed herbicide application involved in the trials produced a massive yield penalty that farmers would be unlikely to accept.
Following on from the 2003 paper Mike May authored a further paper, "Economic Consequences for UK farmers of growing GM herbicide tolerant sugar beet" (Annals of the Association of Applied Biologists, (2003) 142: 41-48 - as of 2003 May was General Secretary of the Association of Applied Biologists). May's research claimed to show major savings for farmers taking up GM sugar beet but working farmers belonging to the independent farmers' group, FARM, quickly spotted from their experience of beet-growing that the paper had exaggerated by as much as 75% the costs of a conventional herbicide regime. This had the effect of making the GM herbicide regime appear financially attractive. When compared to the real cost, there was little financial benefit from the GM crop and for many farmers with lower weed burdens a financial penalty. According to FARM, the paper also overlooked other costs associated with a GM crop which taken together would have the effect of seriously increasing
rather than decreasing growing costs.
For more on Dewar and May's research see:
New study on Transgenic Sugar Beet GM BEET RESEARCH ANSWERS VERY FEW QUESTIONS
1. John Vidal and James Meikle, Test experts paid by GM firm, 4 August 1999, accessed 25 Jan 2010. NB The Guardian wrongly reports that one of the scientists was "Bob May" - in fact, it was Mike May.
2. SACK GM RESEARCH SCIENTISTS! Government Told: Act Now on Conflict of Interest, press release, FoE, 16 Mar 2000, accessed 26 Jan 2010
3. Research Partners, Rothamsted Research website, version placed in web archive 20 Aug 2003, accessed in web archive 25 Jan 2010
4. John Vidal and James Meikle, Test experts paid by GM firm, 4 August 1999, accessed 25 Jan 2010. NB The Guardian wrongly reports that one of the scientists was "Bob May" - in fact, it was Mike May.
5. Alan M. Dewar, Mike J. May, Ian P. Woiwod, Lisa A. Haylock, Gillian T. Champion, Beulah H. Garner, Richard J. N. Sands, Aiming Qi and John D. Pidgeon, A novel approach to the use of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops for environmental benefit, Proc Biol Sci. 2003 February 22; 270(1513): 335 340, accessed 26 Jan 2010. On p. 340 Monsanto is acknowledged as a co-funder of the research.
6. Mike J. May, Gillian T. Champion, Alan M. Dewar, Aiming Qi and John D. Pidgeon, Management of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant sugar beet for spring and autumn environmental benefit, Proc. R. Soc. B 2005 272, 111-119, accessed 26 Jan 2010. This research used Monsanto patented seed.
7. Alan M Dewar, Lisa A Haylock, Kathy M Bean and Mike J May, Delayed control of weeds in glyphosate-tolerant sugar beet and the consequences on aphid infestation and yield, Pest Manag Sci 56:345-350 (2000), accessed 26 Jan 2010. This research was funded by Monsanto, as is acknowledged on the final page of the study (p. 350).
8. AlanM. Dewar, Mike J. May, Ian P. Woiwod, Lisa A. Haylock, Gillian T. Champion, Beulah H. Garner, Richard J. N. Sands, Aiming Qi and John D. Pidgeon, A novel approach to the use of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops for environmental benefit, Proc Biol Sci. 2003 February 22; 270(1513): 335 340, accessed 26 Jan 2010
9. Economic consequences for UK farmers of growing GM herbicide tolerant sugar beet, undated press release, Rothamsted Research, accessed 26 Jan 2010
10. Alan M. Dewar, Mike J. May, Ian P. Woiwod, Lisa A. Haylock, Gillian T. Champion, Beulah H. Garner, Richard J. N. Sands, Aiming Qi and John D. Pidgeon, A novel approach to the use of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops for environmental benefit, Proc Biol Sci. 2003 February 22; 270(1513): 340, accessed 26 Jan 2010
11. Martin Brookes and Andy Coghlan, Live and Let Live, New Scientist, No. issue 2158, 31 October 1998, accessed 26 Jan 2010
12. Mark Henderson, "Modified crops 'help man and wildlife'", The Times, 25 August 1998
13. Alan M Dewar, Lisa A Haylock, Kathy M Bean, Mike J May, Delayed control of weeds in glyphosate-tolerant sugar beet and the consequences on aphid infestation and yield, Pest Management Science, Vol 56, Issue 4, 2000. p 345-350 (April 2000), accessed 26 Jan 2010
14. The actual words of the study abstract are: "in untreated controls and the two later glyphosate treatments, weeds almost completely covered the ground, leading to reduction of root weight, sugar concentration and yield at harvest." Alan M Dewar, Lisa A Haylock, Kathy M Bean, Mike J May, Delayed control of weeds in glyphosate-tolerant sugar beet and the consequences on aphid infestation and yield, Pest Management Science, Vol 56, Issue 4, 2000. p 345-350 (April 2000), accessed 26 Jan 2010
15. M J May, Economic consequences for UK farmers of growing GM herbicide tolerant sugar beet, Ann. appl. Biol. (2003), 142:41-48, accessed 26 Jan 2010
16. REPORT OF THE TRUSTEES AND FINANCIAL STATEMENTS FOR 2003, Association of Applied Biologists, accessed on Charity Commission website, 26 Jan 2010
17. In the Winter 2007 edition of aabnews, the newsletter of the AAB, Mike May is described as having been elected an honorary member of the AAB. AAB News, Issue 66, Winter 2007, p. 2
18. Broom's Barn research on GM savings vastly exaggerated, press release, FARM, 17.3.2003, version placed in web archive 5 Apr 2006, accessed in web archive 26 Jan 2010