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ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network


Report on the science communication activities of the John Innes Centre (JIC)



1. JIC and schools

2. JIC and public meetings

3. JIC and the media

4. JIC and government

5. JIC, corporate influence and scientific judgements



A key element in any resolution of the current controversy over GM crops is access to accurate, understandable and unbiased information. The  John Innes Centre (JIC), Europe's leading plant biotechnology institute, promotes itself as an impartial and expert source of such information and advice to government, the farming industry, educators, the media, and the general public. The JIC's science communication activities encompass public meetings, press articles, advice to political leaders, exhibitions, conferences, a special GM website, a schools' project, and even plays.

The JIC appears well able to command a special status for its science communication, as illustrated by the explanation of the Deputy Editor of the Eastern Daily Press (EDP) as to why his paper ran a prominent feature on GM by JIC scientists without any balancing comment from other experts:

"To enlist the comments of experts, who have a role to promote scientific understanding, education and knowledge seems highly appropriate." [1]

The right of JIC scientists to bring forward their views is, of course, indisputable. What is of concern is the way in which these views, projected as both expert and disinterested, may  thus be exempt from the caution that would normally apply to information emanating from an organisation with a clear vested interest.

The purpose of this report is to analyse, through specific examples, just how well JIC scientists are living up to the special status afforded to their science communication.  In short, can it really be categorised as expertise imparted with honesty and impartiality?

1. JIC and schools

The JIC  has created a web-based schools' project [2] and has commissioned a play to tour UK secondary schools. [3] It also hosts the Teacher-Scientist Network which links nearly 100 teachers in local schools with the JIC. [4]

In Spring 2000 the JIC was chosen by the Association for Science Education to host an In Service Training meeting entitled, "What shall we tell the  children?" The Association invited the JIC to contribute to a training session on "Food Scares and Genetic Engineering."  According to the Association, the  purpose of the training was to enable teachers to help their pupils "take a balanced view of the issues where science is in the news." [5] So the obvious  question is: just how balanced is the JIC's own "science communication" for young people?


"Biotechnology in Our Food Chain", the JIC's UK schools' project on GM, which is funded largely by Lord Sainsbury’s Gatsby Trust, was piloted at two schools in the Norwich area in Spring 1998. As well as being currently available on the web, it is due to be made available soon on CD-ROM. The JIC claims that the project takes note of the "various viewpoints".

Are such viewpoints taken note of in a balanced way? Superficially it may appear so. In the section on "GM and the developing world", for example, there are two sections: "Plant biotechnology: meeting the needs of the developing world?" and "Plant biotechnology: new problems for the developing world?" [6]  As both are of about equal size, this appears to provide equal coverage of both possible benefits and concerns.

Closer inspection, however, reveals that while the possible benefits of GM are presented without any reservation, the possible concerns are presented with strong reservations, e.g. "Problems might arise as a result of the development of the products of crop biotechnology, but are equally likely to arise if they are not developed." [6] Moreover, the listing of concerns is immediately followed by a slightly longer subsection, entitled "The Gene Campaign: priorities of a developing country," reporting a strongly worded attack on those who raise such concerns.  This means that more than half the space devoted to the question of concerns is, in fact, taken up with bringing them into question.

The subsection on the Gene Campaign is based on an article by Suman Sahai who heads this New Delhi based organisation. According to the project, Suman Sahai dismisses concerns about GM as "spurious",  a "luxury of developed countries," self-indulgent, "simplistic", and as relying on "the use of charge [sic] hyperbole". This part of the project concludes with a statement that in the developing world the use of the genetically engineered growth hormone bovine somatotrophin (BST), which increases milk production, or the use of genetically engineered delayed-ripening, could already "directly improve human survival and health". [6]

The project’s authors express no reservations about any of these points. Thus, the fact that the possible impact of GM crops has given rise to strong concerns within the developing world is nowhere mentioned. Nor is the fact that the Suman Sahai article attracted strong criticism when it was first published - the well-known Indian scientist Dr Vandana Shiva, for instance, chided Suman Sahai for effectively projecting the views of transnational companies. [7]

Also not referred to, are the worries that exist about both of the biotechnological products which Suman Sahai claims could help to "improve human survival and health". Serious animal welfare and human health concerns have dogged the use of BST, which as a consequence has been refused approval in both the EU and Canada. Likewise, the delayed-ripening technology referred to was found to be flawed and had to be withdrawn.

To report Suman Sahai's comments without any of these important caveats seems calculated to mislead, not least if one contrasts her views to those, say, of the 22 African agricultural delegates to the UN who in a joint statement described GM as "neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us". [8]

In fact, in other articles and statements on biotechnology, Suman Sahai has herself struck a very different note, writing, for instance, in her article  "GM FOODS: AREAS OF CONCERN" that "there are real and credible concerns about GM crops". "[9]

Finally, it might also be added that the fact that Suman Sahai, an Indian woman, is consistently referred to as "he" in the JIC project, only adds to the sense that the project's authors are more preoccupied with promoting their own agenda than with enquiring into the source or context of the opinions which they have chosen to highlight.


"Q3 Do you believe that genetically modified food is, potentially, of great value in improving the health of the population? For example, if the 'super broccoli' (containing significant anti-cancer qualities, for example) was a big success and consumed on a large worldwide scale, what statistical changes do you think we may notice (long term) for problems such as cancer/heart disease etc?"

That is the somewhat leading question posed  to some of the contributors to the "Meet the Experts" section of the JIC's online schools' project (see 1a above). It provides a  springboard for John Lampitt from the National Farmers Union (NFU):

"I believe there are exciting possibilities for improving the nutritional qualities of foods by genetic modification and these changes may eventually lead to improved diet and health in whole populations."[10]

The 'super broccoli' example, however, turns out to be entirely bogus - not because such a plant may not have the health improving properties attributed to it but because the use of genetic modification is entirely unnecessary in order to produce it. In other words, it is perfectly possible through conventional plant breeding to produce a broccoli plant which contains much more than usual of the naturally occurring compound believed to lower the risk of cancer.

Furthermore, no one could have been more aware than those at the John Innes Centre that the anti-cancer qualities of broccoli could be successfully enhanced without any recourse to GM, because a plant breeding programme aimed at producing such a broccoli plant through classical breeding was already underway at the JIC at the time of the schools' project.

Indeed, such a plant has now been  produced. The new plant was produced faster than would normally be the case thanks to the use of DNA fingerprinting technology, but that does not require any use of genetic modification. To quote Richard Mithen, the head of the JIC research team involved, ""No gene has been inserted through genetic modification. This is classical breeding."[11]

This inevitably raises the question of how ‘super broccoli’ ended up in a schools' project on GM. After all, even if such a misleading example of a GM food came solely from the school students involved, what  led them to believe that 'super broccoli' required GM? And why did the JIC's project organisers not correct (even by way of a footnote), prior to publication of the project on the internet, the misleading impression created?


The JIC has, together with the Teacher Scientist Network based at the Centre, commissioned a play on GM [3] which is due to tour UK secondary schools. The JIC states that the aim of this project is to meet the desperate need of young people for straightforward, unbiased information on GM. [12] An accompanying Information Pack for teachers describes how the project was developed in such a way as to ensure that the script, the structured debate which accompanies the play, and the Information Pack itself,  provide "unbiased and representative coverage of the range of viewpoints that exist."[12] It also states that all the would-be script writers were required to participate in a "laboratory day" on GM involving a wide range of viewpoints.[13]

However, Luke Anderson who was present at the "laboratory day" as a representative of the Soil Association, reports that he was the only person there who was not pro-GM.  He writes, "I was totally outnumbered in the room with everyone else from industry etc. I complained that it was unfair for there just to be me against GE in the room." [14]

So how successful is the play in meeting the need of young people for unbiased information on GM? Dr Jeremy Bartlett, a scientist with a doctorate in plant genetics from John Innes, who attended a production of the play and the accompanying debate, describes the event as a carefully crafted exercise in manipulation. The play is very entertaining, according to Dr Bartlett, and well written, but its message for young people would seem strongly to reflect the views of those who commissioned it:

"The GM campaigner looks ridiculous, behaves deviously, has no proper arguments against GM and loses the girl. His fiancee listens to the rational scientist and furthers her career by promoting GM foods. We're told that science is pure and unbiased and that only scientists are qualified to comment on GM." [15]

2. JIC and public meetings

JIC scientists regularly address meetings of the general public and of special interest groups, such as farmers. They are often presented as leading experts keen to promote scientific knowledge and undertsanding.

Their comments are not normally fully recorded but an analysis of transcripts of meetings that have been recorded indicates there may be reason for concern.


Prof David Baulcombe is one of the most senior scientists at the JIC, heading the Centre's prestigious Sainsbury Laboratory as well as its Plant Molecular Virology Group. Professor Baulcombe told a Norfolk audience that he understood that the growing of GM crops had been shown to have enormous environmental benefits by US government research. The U.S. report, soon to be published according to Prof Baulcombe, showed increases in the diversity of insect life, small mammal life and birds of prey in the areas of the US where insect-resistant GM corn and cotton were being grown.

However, despite subsequent requests, Prof Baulcombe has been unable to provide any evidence to substantiate the existence of such a report. A scientist from the agency in question has stated that not only is he unaware of any such report but that the research Prof Baulcombe described does not fall within the
agency's remit. [16]


Prof Baulcombe also told the same meeting that in the famous Monarch butterfly research the butterfly larvae were harmed equally by non-GM and GM corn pollen. This is totally untrue - only those larvae which fed on the GM pollen died. There was no mortality at all among those larvae that fed on non-GM corn pollen.

These and other comments about the Monarch research made by Prof Baulcombe have subsequently been criticised for their inaccuracy by Dr John Losey, the principal author of the research, who has suggested Professor Baulcombe could not have read the research paper prior to dismissing it. [16]


Prof Jonathan Jones is a Senior Scientist in the Sainsbury Laboratory of the John Innes Centre, heading its molecular and genetic approaches to plant disease resistance lab . Prof Jones has published several pieces on GMOs in the national press and was reportedly an advisor to Number 10 during the Pusztai crisis in February 1999. Prof Jones has attacked GM critics as self-serving and for "quite literally leading everyone up the garden path." [17]

Prof Jones regularly speaks at public meetings around the UK. One of his favourite claims is that the growing of GM crops has made aerial spraying of pesticides unnecessary in the United Sates, resulting in "crop dusters" going "out of business because plants are so [pest] resistant, there’s no business for applying insecticides indiscriminately from aeroplanes".  Prof Jones is known to have made this claim three times during the course of just one public meeting in Norfolk and twice during the course of another[18]. According to Prof Jones, this effect of GM crops is "a benefit not just to the workers who don’t have to apply the insecticides but to all the wildlife in the area and beyond."[17]

However, such claims of drastic reductions in pesticide use seem to directly contradict reports of  no reductions, insignificant reductions or even increases inoverall use of pesticides in the US.[19] According to the leading US agronomist Dr Charles Benbrook, former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture for the US National Academy of Sciences and author of "Pest  Management at the Crossroads", overall insecticide use in the US has been on the increase, "Pesticide pounds applied are up, sales are up." [20]

In fact, according to Dr Benbrook, while "crop dusters" are indeed going out of business, this results from the fact that "fewer and fewer pesticides may be applied aerial, because of drift. Virtually all the new chemistry is incompatible with aerial application; the low-dose herbicides are devastating to all sorts of other vegetation and are notorious for drifting.  The new biopesticides are too expensive, applications must be precise, and go on at too low a rate for aerial to work; ditto, the new fungicides."[20]  None of this has anything to do with GM crops.

Dr Benbrook’s overall conclusion on Prof Jones’ much repeated claim that crop dusters are going out of business because of GM crops: "This fellow does not know what he is talking about."[20]

3. JIC and the media

In the JIC's own estimation the exposure they achieve in the local and national media is "excellent" and helps enhance their external profile. [21] A good example of the JIC's "science communication" in this sphere is provided by a major feature in the Eastern Daily Press on GM. [22] According to the EDP's Deputy Editor, the contributing JIC scientists "were asked to answer questions in a completely factual way. We asked that the replies should be accurate, straightforward and rely on the best scientific knowledge to answer the questions raised by our readers." [1]


It is categorically stated by the JIC scientists in the EDP feature that, "Any impact of GM on wildlife will be minor compared with the impact agriculture already has." [22] Such a statement would surely suggest to most readers that there are unlikely to be significant causes for concern about the impact of GM crops on biodiversity.

However, while JIC scientists are certainly leading experts on plant genetics, they are not experts on ecology or biodiversity and it is well known that organisations like English Nature and the RSPB - organisations that draw on considerable expertise with regard to farmland wildlife - are far less sanguine about the possible impact of GM crops. [23]

Both English Nature and the RSPB have repeatedly expressed concerns that the growing of GM crops, by further intensifying agriculture, may threaten the very survival of certain plants and invertebrates, birds and mammals  -  a consequence that can hardly be dismissed as relatively "minor". Graham Wynne, Chief Executive of the RSPB, has gone so far as to warn that certain types of GM crops "will result in farmlands devoid of wildlife and spell disaster for millions of already declining birds and plants." [24]

Moreover, the JIC's statement can hardly be "completely factual," or based "on the best scientific knowledge," when the research required to support such a statement is still in its earliest stages with no significant results expected before 2002 at the earliest . In the judgement of English Nature, who unlike the JIC are involved in overseeing that research, "No one yet knows enough to judge whether this technology is environmentally beneficial or harmful. But there is some worrying evidence." [25]

Many of the JIC scientists' other assertions in the EDP feature are equally contentious. David Wood of the Faculty of Agriculture and Biological Sciences at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne complained to the paper, after seeing the JIC feature: "We have many scientists on the cutting edge of GM research here, and very few of them would make the kind of opinionated and baseless claims that your 'experts' did in this article." [26]


Among the claims in the JIC feature, there is even one that got Monsanto into trouble with the Advertising Standards Agency. [27] Under a reproduction of an old seed catalogue illustration of different varieties of tomatoes, a caption states that it "shows that plant genetic modification is nothing new." [22]

The " nothing new" claim directly contradicts the JIC's own definition (on their GM Issues website) of what "genetic modification" is. [28] It is clearly misleading when such traditional plant varieties were produced by cross-pollination among the same, or closely related, species to suggest that this is no different from GM, where genes from any class of organism (e.g. viruses, bacteria, unrelated plants, animals and even humans) can be inserted into plants. This is why the ASA upheld complaints against Monsanto when it claimed  that GM was just an extension of traditional breeding.

The well-known UK author and columnist Brian Appleyard, who has written extensively on biotechnology, is blunt in his assessment of this type of claim: "The propagandists who say this is business as usual are, not to put too fine a point on it, lying." [29]

4. JIC and government

The JIC has been enormously influential with the political elite. JIC scientists have served on key regulatory committees and have been key contributors to reports on GM that are known to have been highly influential with Ministers, e.g. those of the Nuffield Council, the House of Lords Select Committee, the Royal Society.

In the case of the House of Lords' report, members of the relevant sub-committee made a series of visits to the Centre during the compilation of the report. According to the JIC, "Members of the Committee indicated their appreciation of the straightforward and unbiased presentation and commentaries that they received..." [30]


Prominent among the JIC scientists who informed and advised the visiting members of the House of Lords committee was Dr Phil Dale. There is no published record of what information they were given by  Dr Dale but there is of a meeting at which Dr Dale advised a Government minister.[31]  It is notable that at this meeting many of Dr Dale's remarks on GM are challenged by other scientists also present. [31]

Dr Dale, a former Government advisor on GM crop releases and still a member of the key regulatory committee on GM foods, is also recorded as having told Environment Minister, Michael Meacher that there was nothing surprising about Dr Aarpad Pusztai’s reported findings, of adverse effects on rats from eating GM potatoes, because the gene inserted was a lectin and lectins are well known toxins. [31] This is very misleading because not all lectins are considered dangerous to mammals - we consume them, for example, every time we bite into a tomato - and, needless to say, the lectin used in Dr Pusztai’s research (the GNA lectin) was chosen precisely because it is considered normally toxic only to insects and not to rats or humans.

5. JIC, corporate influence and scientific judgements

The examples given above would seem to represent clear abuses, in a variety of spheres, of the status afforded the JIC as an institute with a mission "to promote scientific understanding, education and knowledge" in an unbiased manner. Critical, of course, to the maintenance of this status is the JIC's ability to define itself as independent of commercial interests.


Despite receiving funding from just about every major biotech company, JIC scientists claim to be independent of industry because commercial sponsorship represents only about 10% or less of their overall annual funding. In reality, however, corporate influence extends well beyond the issue of direct funding and could be said to relate to the whole current culture within which the JIC operates.

The "corporate plan" of the JIC's main public funding body, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has over a number of years committed those it sponsors to integrating scientific opportunity with the needs of industrial users. This is known as "market pull" and in simple terms means that the research direction of UK scientists in the biosciences has been made increasingly dependent on corporate investment and commercial relevance. [32]

Industry is, needless to say, heavily represented on the boards of the BBSRC [33], and the Chairman of the BBSRC was, until recently, the Chief Executive of Zeneca (now AstraZeneca), the JIC's biggest commercial sponsor. AgrEvo (now Aventis) is another biotech company that directly sponsors research at the JIC and is also represented on the boards of the BBSRC. [33]

The JIC's other main funding sources are the EU and the Gatsby Trust of Lord Sainsbury, a longstanding GM enthusiast .   Even with regard to funding by the EU, public acceptance of GM crops is vital to continued high levels of funding of related research.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Prof Mike Gale, the former Acting Director of the JIC, has stated that any slow down or halt in the development of GM crops "would be very, very serious for us." [34]

All in all, the JIC could hardly have a greater interest in the acceptance of GM crops. Does this matter in terms of scientific judgement? The common sense answer is clearly "yes" and research backs this assumption up. There is clear evidence of the impact on scientific judgements of such conflicts of interest. A strong association has been shown between scientists’  published positions on product safety and their financial relationships with the relevant industry. [35]  As the Editor of the British Medical Journal has commented recently: "These competing interests are very important. It has quite a profound influence on the conclusions and we deceive ourselves if we think science is wholly impartial." [36]

Given the JIC's very considerable vested interest in the public acceptance of GM crops, it is only sensible to frame its science communication accordingly, particularly as the examples given in this report clearly demonstrate that the information given by JIC scientists is frequently both questionable and self serving.


The JIC’s director, Prof Chris Lamb, has publicly expressed his concern at the "polarisation of discussion about agriculture". Instead of "polarising rhetoric", according to Prof Lamb, the JIC is seeking to foster "balanced scientific discussion." Meanwhile Prof Jonathan Jones of the JIC shows his commitment to balanced discussion and avoiding "polarising rhetoric" by terming GM critics,  "the green mujihadeen", and posting material on the JIC website describing them, either individually or collectively, as "bigoted", "myopic", "mystical", "anti-scientific", and prone to erupt with "green bile".  [37]

How appropriate is this kind of polarised beligerance when science at this point is simply unable to provide definitive answers about the safety of GMOs, given deep uncertainties about their effects?

Such overcommitment also seems misplaced when attractive alternative applications of science in agriculture (such as traditional plant breeding assisted by gene mapping and molecular markers - see 1b above) are already making genetic engineering appear outmoded and would enjoy far greater public support and marketability.

Sadly, since Prof Lamb took over as director of the JIC,  there appears, if anything, to have been a  notable reduction in the number of senior scientists pursuing such alternatives to genetic engineering.[38]

If this institutional overcommitment of the JIC to a single experimental technology continues, it may not only undermine the JIC’s credibility on this issue but its whole future as a serious scientific institute.


[1] Personal communication - James Ruddy, 25th January 2000
[2] "Biotechnology in Our Food Chain"
[3] "Sweet as you are" by Jonathan Hall, performed by Y Touring Theatre Company
[4] JIC Annual Report, Norwich, 1998/99 p.95
[5] "What shall we tell the children?" Saturday 8th April 2000 at John Innes Centre, Norwich
[6] "Biotechnology in Our Food Chain", p.7:
[7]  Dr. Vandana Shiva, "Bioethics: A Third World Issue,"
[8] African delegates’ [excluding South Africa] statement to the FAO negotiations on the International Undertaking for Plant Genetic Resources, June 1998
[9]  Dr. Suman Sahai, "GM FOODS: AREAS OF CONCERN", Gene Campaign, July 13, 2000
[10] "Biotechnology in Our Food Chain",
[11] Patricia Reaney, "Super-broccoli plants bred to prevent cancer",  Reuters (London), 24th May 2000
[12] Liz Blake, Jez Bond and Dr Clare Robinson, " 'Sweet as you are' Information Pack", August 1999, p.7
[13] Ibid p.8
[14] Personal communication, 30th August 1999, from Luke Anderson, author of 'Genetic engineering, food, and our environment," Dartington, 1999
[15] Dr Jeremy Bartlett, "Sweet as you are," a review, SPLICE: the magazine of the Genetics Forum, vol 5, no. 6, p16. Also at:
[16] Jonathan Matthews, "False reports and the smears and men," GM-FREE, vol 1, no. 4, pp. 8-14 Also at:  Complete transcript of the public meeting at Lyng in Norfolk at:
[17] from tape recording of a public meeting on GM crops,  organised by South Norfolk District Council, at Easton College, Norfolk, on 7th March 2001.
[18] GM debate at UEA, Norwich, 27th November 2000, and Easton College, Norfolk, 7th March 2001
[19] E.g. "Transgenic Cotton: Are There Benefits for Conservation?"  WWF International, March 2000,  ; "No Reduction of Pesticide Use with Genetically Engineered Cotton", WWF International update, Fall, 2000,
[20] Personal communication, 11th March 2001
[21] JIC Annual Report 1997/98, Norwich, p.v
[22] Eastern Daily Press, 17th January 2000, "The great GM debate: Your questions answered by scientists at the John Innes Centre".
[23] English Nature, "Position statement on: Genetically Modified Organisms",
[24] Quoted in Luke Anderson, "Genetic engineering, Food, and our environment," Dartington, 1999, p.27
[25] English Nature, "Putting our environment first" in " 'Sweet as you are' Information Pack", August 1999, p.20
[26] Posted to Eastern Counties Newspapers' online letters page on their Norfolk Now website:
[29] "The Clone Rangers", The Sunday Times, Culture section, 16th Jan 2000
[30] JIC Annual Report 1998/99, p.95
[31] Report on a Meeting of Molecular Biologists called by Michael Meacher on March 31st 1999, prepared by Angela Ryan,
[32] "The Godfather - the industrial alignment of UK bioscience",
[33] "Scientists gagged by public funding body with big links to industry  - How the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council controls publicly funded scientists",
[34] Front page article,  Eastern Daily Press, 15th February 1999
[35] Henry Thomas Stelfox et al, "Conflict of Interest in the Debate over Calcium-Channel Antagonists",  The New England Journal of Medicine -- January 8, 1998 -- Vol. 338, No.2   Abstract:
[36] Daily Telegraph, 14 February 2000
[38] Witness the departure of Prof Dennis Murphy and Prof Graham Mithen. In 1998 Farmers Weekly reported Murphy as saying: "Oilseed crops can replace oil from non-renewable fossil sources and genetically modified crops need not play any role in the revolution...This approach could enhance agricultural diversity and supply us with valuable, renewable products for as long as the sun shines on the earth...This is a novel strategy that is not widely appreciated as yet. But it could provide a real alternative to the use of GMOs."

Professor Bullsh*t