Devinder Sharma sees the Nuffield Council's plea for massive funding for GM research as more about job security for UK scientists than food security for the hungry.

Devinder writes, 'By setting up a working group, comprised of five so-called distinguished scientists -- known to be corporate loudspeakers --the outcome of the report was never in doubt.'

The panel is guilty of exploiting hunger in the poor world for the sake of employment opportunities for the rich.

If anyone thinks that unduly cynical, consider the following about one of those five Nuffield report authors, Prof Derek Burke.

In the 1980s Burke worked for biotech company Allelix Inc of Toronto and until 1998 was a director of Genome Research Ltd.  He has also been Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia and a member of the governing council of the John Innes Centre (JIC). Both institutions have benefited from investment in GM research, with the JIC enjoying multi-million pound investments from biotechnology corporations like Syngenta and Dupont.  

Burke participated in the UK government's 'Technology Foresight' exercise to decide how science could best contribute to the UK's economic competitiveness. He was then charged with incorporating the Foresight proposal to build businesses from genetics into the corporate plan of the UK's public funding body, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). As a result, BBSRC developed a strategy for integrating scientific opportunity with the needs of industry.  

In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement in March 2003, he gave advice on campaigning to scientists wishing to defend nanotechnology. Burke told his readers, 'Don't hype. We made that mistake about biotechnology in the early 1980s, and it did us great harm. Achievements were too slow in coming, cost more than originally estimated and delivered less in consumer benefits than we had promised. We were bullish, but if you overdo it, you will regret it. Some of this is driven by over-confidence, some by a desperate thirst for funds. Quick money can easily mislead inexperienced managers into spending too freely and uncritically, and credibility is quickly lost.'

Financial considerations are the key according to Burke, '...the consequence of the loss of this technology for society is the loss of the ability to create new wealth. It's my grandchildren that I'm concerned about. How will they earn their living in 20 years? The answer may lie partly in your hands.'

For  more on Burke:

For more on the other Nuffield authors:
Nuffield report: Symbol of Unethical Science
By Devinder Sharma, Chair, Forum for Biotechnology & Food security, New Delhi and Member, Coordination Committee, National Kisan Panchayat, India.

After the failure of the Royal Society to stand up for the cause of 'good science', it is now the turn of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Both have landed straight into the lap of corporate world, and therefore sullied the credibility of science and technology. 

Nuffield Council on Bioethics latest report entitled "The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries," is a classic example of deft corporate manipulation of scientific institutions so as to exploit even the hungry and malnourished. It is a reflection of the systematic failure of modern science to stand up to industrial pressures. Coming hand-in-glove with the appropriate trade measures, being forced through an unjust global trading regime, the forceful introduction of GM crops in developing countries is a recipe for disaster.

Nuffield Council's report is also a classic example of how unethically scientific conclusions can be pre-determined. By setting up a working group, comprised of five so-called distinguished scientists -- known to be corporate loudspeakers --the outcome of the report was never in doubt. We were wrong in assuming that at least the Nuffield Council on Bioethics was based on ethically sound principles.

Let us now look at what these scientists have done in the past. Much of the ecological damage that the world is faced with is the outcome of blindly following the industry-sponsored research.

1) For fifty years, they went on promoting chemical pesticides. They termed the obnoxious chemicals as 'safe' provided these were to be used carefully. They continued to brush aside reports of pesticides poisoning and the resulting environmental contamination. They surely had a job to do and they did it remarkably well.

It was instead a case of systematic public deception. Knowingly or unknowingly, agricultural scientists were very conveniently used as loudspeakers by the chemical industry -- an industry, which has since then moved to life sciences. And these scientists didn't spare any effort to turn down all the traditional wisdom and knowledge in pest control as 'sub standard' and 'backward'. The only way to increase crop productivity, we were told, was to use more chemicals. 

It took three decades for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), for instance, to realise the gravest mistake of green revolution - pesticides are unnecessary. But by the time the mistake was realised, pesticides had polluted the environment, poisoned the fertile soils, contaminated the ground water and taken a heavy human toll.

Not far from where IRRI is located, rice farmers in Central Luzon province in the Philippines, had gradually got disenchanted with the indiscriminate use of pesticides. From a peak insecticide use in the mid-1980s, it is now at an historic low. Contrary to what agricultural scientists and the chemical industry had maintained all these years, the decline in insecticides use has been accompanied by an increase in productivity from an average of 2.75 tonnes to 3.25 tonnes per hectare in 2002. It also resulted in savings on an average of up to 1,000 pesos per hectare for these farmers.
Equally significant is the scientific courage with which IRRI's director general, Dr Ronald Cantrell has accepted the reality: "It shows that the mistakes of the Green Revolution - where too much emphasis was sometimes put on the use of chemicals for pest control - have clearly been recognized and corrected, " adding, " because of their toxicity, insecticides really should be used by farmers as a last resort, and we are very pleased to see that farmers have realized this for many years, especially here in the Philippines." His colleagues at IRRI are now equally critical of the extent and use of pesticides. Says Gary John, an ecologist: "The simple fact is that, in the rest of Asia, most insecticide use on rice is a waste of the farmers' time and money."

2) Since the same industry has now moved to life sciences, and has a huge stake in promoting genetically engineered foods and crops, scientists too have jumped onto the more lucrative biotechnology bandwagon. In fact, such is the desperation to promote the commercial interests of the private companies that even plant breeding - which is responsible for the high-yielding crop varieties that ushered in green revolution -- is now being branded as a dangerous technology. Sometimes back, at a meeting at the John Inn's Institute for Plant Sciences at Norwich (UK), I was shocked to hear a distinguished molecular geneticist castigate plant breeding. I am sure when nanotechnology finally emerges on the commercial horizon, the same breed of scientists will term genetic engineering as a dangerous technology !

'Hidden hunger' or 'silent hunger', as it is called, is the new buzzword in the scientific echelons. For thirty years after the advent of green revolution technology, scientists are rediscovering the importance of nutritional security for masses. The desperation is not in reality aimed at addressing the problems of 'hidden hunger' but more tuned to according public acceptance to the controversial science and technology of genetic engineering. Take, for instance, the much-touted 'golden rice', the rice that contains the genes for beta-carotene.

Of the 68 million who suffer worldwide from Vit A deficiency, 12 million live in India. It is also known that almost the entire Vit A deficient population in India lives in marginalised areas and comprise people who cannot or who do not have access to two square meals a day. If only these hungry people were to get their adequate dietary intake or the two square meals a day, they would not suffer from Vit A deficiency or for that matter any other micro-nutrient deficiency. If these poor people cannot afford to buy their normal dietary requirement of rice for a day, how do we propose to make available 'golden rice' to them is something that has been deliberately left unanswered.

To say that 'golden rice' would provide the poor with a choice of such 'novel foods' is to ignore the realities. Given a choice, all that the hungry need is food.

And food is rotting in front of their eyes. At the beginning of the millennium, India had a record food surplus of 65 million tones, much of it stacked in the open for want of space. On the other hand, 320 million continue to go to bed hungry every night. Neither the Nuffield Council on Bioethics nor the five members of the working group ever made an appeal to the international community or to the British government to help distribute the rotting grain to the poor and hungry.

Nuffield Council on Bioethics never urged the British government, saying that it was the 'moral duty' of the British government to help India tide over its hunger crisis by helping in food distribution. Nor did it ever ask the DFID to come forward and perform a 'moral obligation'. After all, if India had successfully removed hunger, much of the world's hunger problem would have been resolved by now. A third of the world's estimated 800 million hungry live in India.

The newfound morality is merely a smokescreen. Nuffield Council is actually making a strong plea for GM research so as to provide job security to its scientists. If the shutter is pulled on GM research in UK, joblessness in scientific field will multiply. The Nuffield Council is therefore equally guilty of exploiting hunger for the sake of providing employment to British science graduates.