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Rising Rhetoric on Genetically Modified Crops

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This article was first published as "Rising Rhetoric on Genetically Modified Crops"in PR Watch, Volume 10, No. 1, 1st Quarter 2003. It original article was authored by Andy Rowell and Bob Burton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.


"Their level of desperation appears to be increasing," says Michael Hansen, a scientist with Consumers Union in the US, who monitors the activities of the biotech industry as it lobbies for acceptance of genetically modified (GM) foods. Hansen has watched with increasing alarm as the pro-GM lobby escalates its vitriolic attacks on critics.

End-game for biotech in Europe

Over the next few months we will witness the final end game by biotech proponents to gain acceptance for GM. The pro-biotech industry has accused its critics of fundamentalism and of hijacking the GM debate to further their own political and trade interests. In reality, the pro-GM lobby is using these very tactics itself.

The biotech industry is relying heavily on third parties to push its message, including US and British officials, corporate front groups, a carefully selected group of farmers from developing nations, and a loose coalition that includes right-wing think tanks and even a few ex-Marxists turned libertarians.

For a year, the pro-biotech Bush administration has been trying to isolate Europe over its moratorium on GM foods. In August of last year, it seized a golden opportunity to demonize GM-opponents during the famine in Africa. The US refused to supply the World Food Programme with GM-free maize, despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of tons available in the US and elsewhere. However, the GM maize encountered considerable African resistance, and Zambia refused to accept it.

In an attack that now appears to be part of a well-planned strategy, Andrew Natsios of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) argued that environmental and consumer groups were "killing millions of poor people in southern Africa through their ideological campaign." GM was peddled as a "life-saving technology."

In the United Kingdom, the organization Cropgen serves as a front group for corporate biotech interests, often coordinating its activities with EuropaBio, which plays a similar role on a Europe-wide basis. In January, EuropaBio brought ten "representatives" from developing countries to deliver their favorable perspective on biotech to the EU. Three of the representatives traveled to London to give a press conference for Cropgen on the "need for biotechnology for their continent."

Last year Monsanto flew T. Buthelezi, a pro-biotech African farmer, 300 miles to meet US Trade Representative Robert Zoelleck in South Africa. In the last two years, Zoelleck has met every African trade Minister in a bid to gain acceptance for GM and isolate the EU. He tells them not to listen to Western environmentalists, dismissing them as Luddites: "It's equivalent to that period when people were opposed to machines."

Pro-GM forces also took advantage of the World Summit on Sustainable Development that was held in Johannesburg, South Africa in August. During the WSSD, black farmers (including the ubiquitous T. Buthelezi) marched to defend their "right" to grow GM crops. Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Association described their march as a "turning point" in the GM debate, as "for the first time, we saw significant numbers of real, live, developing-world farmers who have grown crops improved through biotechnology speaking for themselves."

In reality, many of the marchers were not even farmers, and the press contact for the march was Kendra Okonski, an American who works as a co-ordinator for the International Policy Network (IPN) and as a spokesperson for the Sustainable Development Network (SDN) in London.

Strange Bedfellows

Despite their green-sounding names, the IPN and SDN are actually coalitions of libertarian and right wing think tanks across the globe, such as the rabidly pro-biotech AgBioWorld Foundation, based in the United States. The directors of the IPN are Roger Bate and Julian Morris, who have a history of dismissing environmentalism, organic agriculture and climate change. Bate and Morris work for the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a right-wing think tank based in London. Bate is also a fellow at the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a leading anti-environmental think tank, where Kendra Okonski also used to work.

During the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, Okonski wrote an article for the Tech Central Station web site, stating that "Africans are sacrificed on the altar of trendy green delusions." TechCentralStation, whose funding comes from companies including ExxonMobil, AT&T, Microsoft, and General Motors, calls itself a web site "where free markets meet technology." Its European web site lists a dozen affiliated think tanks, including the IPN, the IEA, the Scientific Alliance and the Institute of Ideas in the UK--an odd mixture of libertarian, ex-Marxist, pro-corporate and anti-environmental think tanks.

The Scientific Alliance claims to be an independent, impartial voice that wants to offer a rational, scientific approach to environmental issues, but actually it is a corporate front group led by quarry operator Robert Durward, the director of the British Aggregates Association.

The Institute of Ideas (IoI) is run by Claire Fox, who previously published Living Marxism magazine. Fox's thinking is in line with the old-line Marxist school of thought that promotes technologies such as nuclear power and GM. Living Marxism had a history of attacking the environmental movement as "Luddites," and its associates were behind a TV series called "Against Nature" that ran on BBC's Channel 4 in the late 1990s. The British Independent Television Commission later ruled the program makers had "distorted" the views of interviewees and "misled" participants over the "content and purpose of the programs when they agreed to take part."

Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at Kent University and a leading figure in the contemporary Marxist movement in the UK, has also worked with the IoI and its sister publication, Spiked magazine, which is run by Mick Hume and Helene Guldberg, both former editors at Living Marxism.

Hungry for the Truth

Last December, with Zambia still refusing to accept GM food, the US upped the stakes. Tony Hall, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, claimed that "people that deny food to their people, that are in fact starving people to death should be held responsible for the highest crimes against humanity in the highest courts in the world." His words, aimed at the Zambians, provoked a furious reaction from organisations in over 30 countries, accusing him of promoting an "abusive" US foreign policy.

In January 2003, US trade representative Robert Zoelleck claimed that European Union governments had threatened to withdraw aid from poor countries that accepted GM food products. Poul Nielson, the EU Development Commissioner, retorted by offering a deal: "If the Americans would stop lying about us, we would stop telling the truth about them."

Meanwhile in the UK, as the government finalized the details of an official "public debate" on GM foods, the pro-biotech lobby sprang into action. First came a conference organized by the Scientific Alliance called "Fields of the Future." GeneWatch UK was invited to co-organize but refused, citing the Alliance's anti-green bias. (GeneWatch later organized an alternative conference in co-operation with the Guardian newspaper and other sponsors.)

The chair of the Scientific Alliance conference was Lord Taverne, who chairs Sense about Science, an organization that works closely with the British Royal Society on contentious issues such as scientific "peer review." Sense about Science says its role is to "encourage a rational, evidence-based approach to scientific and technological developments." Funded by learned societies and companies such as Halifax, Uniliver and GlaxoSmithKline, it has an executive committee that includes a number of distinguished scientists.

The director of Sense about Science, however, is Tracey Brown, who used to work for a crisis and risk management PR company called Register Larkin. RL's client list includes pharmaceutical, oil and biotech companies, including Aventis, Bayer, Lilly, Pfizer and the Bio Industry Association. Brown is also involved in the charity Global Futures, whose contact number is the same as Sense About Science and whose contact person is Ellen Raphael, a Register Larkin employee.

Through Global Futures, Brown is also connected to the ex-Marxist clique at the Institute of Ideas. She is the co-author of a book published by IoI, and the domain name for the web site of IoI's Spiked magazine is registered to Global Futures trustee Phil Mullan. Also, Frank Furedi is the author of the only publication on Global Futures' own web site.

IoI, in association with Pfizer, is sponsoring a weekend-long "Genes and Society Festival" in London in April that coincides with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA. The festival is being organized by the IoI's Tony Gilland, who believes that the UK "farm-scale trials are an unnecessary obstacle" to the introduction of "beneficial and benign" GM technology.

Spiked is also running seminars on GM. The latest, titled "GM food: should labelling be mandatory?" will be held in April at the London headquarters of PR firm Hill & Knowlton, in association with the International Policy Network. Consumer groups are boycotting it.

Biotech for the Birds

In addition to think tanks and seminars, the pro-biotech lobby has a strong reservoir of support from within the scientific community, thanks in part to the role that industry plays as a major source of biotech research funding. The scientists who study biotech are inclined to support its development for the same reason that workers at a Lockheed Martin plant are likely to support military spending: their jobs are on the line.

The British Royal Society (RS), England's leading scientific body, ostensibly dedicates itself to upholding high standards for scientific research, but it has employed a disturbing double standard with regard to biotechnology. The RS issued an entire report damning alleged insufficiencies in Arpad Pusztai's controversial research linking genetically modified potatoes to adverse health effects in rats. Prominent RS members, including then-president Sir Aaron Klug, vigorously opposed the publication of Pusztai's research. Lord Robert May, then the government's chief scientist who serves as the society's current president, called his work "garbage" and accused him of "violating every canon of scientific rectitude."

In January, by contrast, the Royal Society rolled out the red carpet to publicize resesarch that purported to finally show ecological benefits of genetically modified crops. The research, funded in part by Monsanto, was conducted at Broom Barn, a government-affiliated research center with biotech commercial partners. The Royal Society celebrated the research in a news release claiming that GM crops "could bring back increasing numbers of endangered wildlife and birds such as skylarks and finches."

In the UK, more than a million people contribute financially to bird conservation. From a PR perspective, therefore, the bird angle "is a nice one. That is what everybody wants to happen, isn't it?" says Elaine Calvert, the freelance press officer who wrote the Royal Society news release. The biotech industry has been looking for a bird angle since at least February 2002, when this emerged as one of the key recommendations of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, a lobby group funded by Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, BASF, Dow Agrosciences, Dupont and Syngenta, with support from the PR firms Weber Shandwick and Lexington Communications.

Broom Barn and the Royal Society briefed science correspondents, prompting a story in the Guardian headlined, "Scientists grow 'bird-friendly' GM sugar beet." A similar report in the Independent stated, "Insects and farmland birds can flourish in GM fields that under conventional farming would be wildlife deserts." Lord Taverne gave a presentation on the bird-friendy news to the House of Lords and members of parliament.

Actually, the Broom Barn scientists had not even looked at birds. "The trial plots were not big enough to look at birds," concedes lead scientist Alan Dewar. "The bird angle isn't conclusive."

"Considering the way in which the RS and scientific establishment have attacked the quality of the science that questions the safety of GM, it is quite extraordinary that they should promote this piece of science," says Dr Sue Mayer from GeneWatch UK. "The only conclusion I can come to is that they have some other motivation and that they are not evaluating science fairly."

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