Genetic Network News : Issue 3 - John Innes Special

A petition has been launched in Norfolk in support of Norwich MP Ian Gibson’s call to Norfolk County Council to toughen up its policy on genetically modified (GM) ingredients in school meals.  

scorpion tomatoes 
"Eat up your nice tomato puree, children." 

The petition notes parliament has banned GM foods from their own catering because of the risks, and calls on Norfolk to follow the lead of other education authorities across the country by banning them completely from school meals. Petition organisers Norfolk Genetics Concern say Norfolk must provide children with food which is “free from this unnecessary and unwanted experiment with their health and their futures.”  


Genetic Network News shows how the John Innes Centre (JIC) is a key part of the  corporate alliance that is imposing genetically manipulated food onto the world’s population. JIC provides key research for the big corporations and key pro-biotech advice to the Government, to whom they have access as independent scientists while, in reality, the main direction of their research is highly dependent on commercial biotech.  

Genetic Network News lifts the lid on how the JIC’s work and advice is aligned to industry at the expense of ordinary people around the world. 


The Government’s call for a voluntary 3-year ban on the commercial growing of genetically engineered crops should be seen as but the first step on the road to stopping the mad rush to introduce GE crops and food without long term safety testing. We now need:  

* to halt all the 300+ hazardous GE crop trials going on across the UK which English Nature has warned are not being properly regulated or monitored;  

* to implement Norwich MP Ian Gibson’s call for a similar ban on all the genetically engineered food in the shops until the long term risks to human health have been properly researched.  

- corporate links fully exposed: pages 2 & 3  


The UK’s leading institute for the genetic engineering (GE) of crops, Norwich’s John Innes Centre (JIC), has long presented itself as an independent institute largely publicly and charitably funded.  The recent announcement of a £60 million plus investment in the JIC by two major chemical companies, DuPont and Zeneca, has blown the lid off this pretence.  

Zeneca’s massive £50m investment in John Innes includes plans for the construction of a special laboratory where 30 Zeneca scientists will be based, working in tandem with JIC staff, including 20 new JIC researchers financed by Zeneca. The goal of Zeneca and DuPont is to develop a genetically engineered wheat which, as the world’s most widely grown crop, could offer massive commercial returns.  


John Innes Centre (JIC) scientist, Prof Jonathan Jones, was at great pains at the foodfuture debate in Norwich in September to explain that despite its name the Sainsbury Laboratory at the JIC, where he worked, was not established by the supermarket giant, J Sainsbury plc, but rather by a Sainsbury family charitable trust. The point seemed clear -  a John Innes scientist like himself should be listened to as an independent expert and not as one sullied by food industry ties.  In fact, the Sainsbury Laboratory has long received a string of highly lucrative sponsorships from biotech companies of the likes of the giant Monsanto Corporation and the JIC biotechnicians’ career development and research direction is intimately tied into large-scale commercial interests.  

There is also a revolving door of fully commercial and quasi-independent employment. Prof Flavell, former director of the JIC, has just left to take up a post with an American biotech company. Professor Jones spent five years with an American company before joining the JIC. No wonder JIC scientists are so loath to rock the corporate boat!  

- a guide to GM-free: page 4
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Zeneca, one of the companies with whom the John Innes Centre (JIC) are collaborating in return for a £50m investment, has been accused of developing the means for “biological warfare” against Third World farmers and their vital age-old practice of saving seed. This is because Zeneca has developed its own alternative to Monsanto’s much feared Terminator Technology which prevents plants producing seed that will germinate.  

Zeneca are now seeking to patent their version of this technology. The patent shows one of Zeneca’s seed "killer" genes to be a rodent fat gene, which is why this UK chemical and seed company with an annual turn-over of £5 billion has been dubbed ‘the fat cat corporation with the fat rat genes’, and its seed-killer technology:  ‘the Verminator.’  

1.4 billion poor people world-wide depend on farm-saved seed for their food security.  The farmers involved often grow their food under unfavourable conditions of little commercial interest to global seed companies.  Thus, the farmers adapt or breed their own varieties that meet their own conditions and needs.  The Verminator could make it impossible for these farmers not only to save seed but to create the varieties they need to feed people.  

Kenyan, Monica Opole of the Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation project has said "The flexibility of the Verminator is scary. In practice, farmers could buy seed believing it can be reused a second season only to find that it cannot or that it is debilitated by inherited Verminator genes.  Worse still, the farmer could find that their neighbour bought the Verminator and it outcrossed into their field, leaving them with dead seeds.  The farmer loses her crop, the family loses their food.  Who knows how the Verminator will interact with nature."  

The Verminator will ensure that Third World farmers have to pay for seed year on year which for many could mean debt or worse. In Manila, Neth Daño, executive director of the Southeast Asian Regional Institute for Community Education, is furious.  "Monsanto and Zeneca have a large chunk of the global seed industry. Farmers are under attack. Acting like God, these companies are pulling farmers to their knees to pray 'Give us our daily bread' by forcing them to buy seeds every season.”  

To get a good return on its large investment, Zeneca will almost certainly wish to incorporate the Verminator technology into the GE wheat seeds that are to be developed at the JIC.


Prof Colin Blakemore recently called, as the retiring president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, for the Science Minister to no longer be based  in the Department of Trade and Industry so that he could receive more independent scientific advice on important issues like the genetic engineering of food.  The problem of the industrial alignment of scientific advice, however, runs far deeper than a ministerial base in the DTI, as a careful look at the John Innes Centre reveals  -  read on!  


Biotechnicians at John Innes, presenting themselves as independent experts, receive favourable access and treatment in the media and in regulatory and advisory circles, where they appear to be extremely influential. 4 JIC scientists were part of the Royal Society group that recently advised ministers not to worry about GE while Dr Phil Dale of the JIC is the only  scientist to serve on both the key UK regulatory committees on GE  crops and food.  

There is a great need for truly independent expertise free of commercial ties because only then can we be secure that the public interest is being properly represented and our legislators enabled to make fairly and fully informed decisions. The work of the JIC biotechnicians, however, far from being independent, is largely aligned to the big corporations that mostly sponsor it and their public comments and advice consistently supports the status quo and the interests of those same companies.  

With the link up with Dupont and Zeneca, any pretence of JIC independence seems to be disappearing out of the Sainsbury laboratory window. Their work is independent only in the sense of being increasingly independent of the public purse, not to say the public interest and the public good. The time has, therefore, come for the media, the public and most of all our legislators to wake up to this fact and begin attaching the same kind of ‘health warnings’ to their advice that one would attach to that emanating from the likes of Monsanto. Not least as the advice seems so entirely similar.  (see page 3 


Lost in their enthusiasm for the apparent power of their specialty, JIC biotechnicians often appear completely blind to the significance of the JIC’s activities in a wider context, whether ethical, social, or ecological (see page 3). This molecular myopia, however, certainly does not extend to the commercial pay-offs that may arise from their work. Thus, an analysis by Dr Phil Dale and a fellow John Innes’ scientist of a transgenic process (plant transgene silencing) makes repeated and enthusiastic reference to its generating “valuable new products” and “greater commercial advantage”, as well as to its “ industry a valuable opportunity to recoup its investment made in plant biotechnology at an increased rate”. JIC biotechnicians know all too well, it seems,  that nowadays there are no prizes at all for research which is not perceived to be, in Dale and Senior’s words, both “academically interesting and commercially valuable.” 

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When Prince Charles publicly criticised the genetic engineering of food, Prof Hull of John Innes responded with a letter to The Daily Telegraph warning that the new technology was “a necessity” in many developing countries. GE, he argued, would result in an increase in the yield of rice of 30% plus, so creating much greater food security in a critical area of world population growth. 

According to Prof Hull, this remarkable increase in yield could be achieved through genetically engineering disease and pest resistance. Hull’s own specialist area is, in fact, virus disease resistance. Yet his letter makes no mention of the fact that the mechanisms underlying such disease resistance are still only poorly understood, or that very little is known about the ecological role of plant viruses. He similarly makes no reference to the concern about the possible recombination of virus resistant genes leading to new and possibly more virulent strains of disease (as has already occurred in the laboratory).  Nor does he refer to the danger of genes for virus resistance spreading to wild plant relatives and our complete inability to predict and, in all likelihood, control the consequences.  He similarly ignores the question of the current use of many different strains of rice in the often radically different conditions that affect various parts of the Third World, and of the difficulty of sustainably replacing this appropriate diversity with just a few genetically engineered varieties. Nor does he mention the extreme vulnerability of vast areas of non-diverse ‘moncrops’ to  attack by  disease. 

The effect of Prof Hull ignoring all of these known agricultural, pathological and ecological complications is to promote the image of genetic engineering as an apparently miraculous technology that can massively increase yields and so save the world.  His expert view, in essence,  is no different to the hype dispensed to the public by the big biotech corporations (as in Monsanto’s series of press advertisements). 

It is a line of argument that the aid agencies and experts with detailed experience of agriculture in the Third World have united to condemn as arising from either a somewhat arrogant and ill-informed naivete, or a cynical desire to mislead. Biotechnology, such critics argue, is far more likely to lead to a decline in sustainable farming and the further impoverishment of poor farmers than to significantly contribute to the resolution of world hunger. 

Prof Hull’s letter, then, is not so much a JIC scientist’s cautious expression of expertise as the evangelical statement of an ideological position for which there is little actual evidence.  Indeed, those GE crops that have already gone into production have often resulted in actual  reductions in yield! 

But while Prof Hull holds out to  the public nothing more than the Monsanto myth of a miraculous high-tech fix to the world’s problems, unlike Monsanto, he and his JIC colleagues benefit in public perception from another myth, that John Innes is a centre of independent expertise.


Prof Mike Gale, Acting Director at the John Innes Centre, recently told The Times that the concern about a few huge corporations controlling GE food crops was being met by the JIC’s role in training students form the Third World to take “the technology back to their own countries.” 

Given the massive investment required in research and development, the idea that the JIC is seriously helping poor Third World countries to independently proliferate their own biotech alternatives to the likes of the major corporate players is, of course, absurd. 

Still more alarming is Prof Gale’s apparent lack of concern about the way that the JIC’s training might actually be applied in those countries which could afford it, eg China or Iraq. The very real worries people have about lax regulation in the UK are dwarfed by those regarding the lack of any adequate regulation in many parts of the world, and that’s without taking into account regimes that may be highly authoritarian. 

Prof Gale’s lack of awareness of the inherent dangers, for human and environmental safety, is perhaps less forgivable in a scientist working in such close proximity to the University of East Anglia, given that an Iraqi chemist who received her post-graduate training at UEA has been identified as playing a significant role in Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons programme, achieving infamy through her alleged use of human subjects. 

If that seems extreme, then consider an example that is already known to have occurred with genetic engineering. Chinese researchers applied gene therapy techniques still being developed in the West, to human subjects - twin children, one of whom has subsequently died.  One need only refer, in addition,  to the discussion of the  uses of GE crops which is known to be occurring in military and intelligence circles around the world. 

Perhaps it is not surprising that scientists who have so lamentably failed to raise their voice in public protest at the violation of people’s fundamental right to know or determine the nature of the food that they and their families are eating, should so complacently help to spread around the world a technology that could well be used abusively. 


During the ‘cash for access’ scandal involving Labour lobbyists, it emerged that Zeneca, big investors in the JIC, had appointees on five different Government working parties, making it one of the UK’s most represented companies. The working parties’ appointees were mainly proposed by ministers. Which particular minister is so enamoured of Zeneca is unknown but Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, is presumably very well disposed to the JIC given the very large sums invested in the centre by his family’s Gatsby trust. Both Zeneca and the JIC, incidentally, have scientists sitting on the key UK committee which advises ministers on GE crop releases.

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Say no to those GMOs!
How to not be a part of the genetic experiment!
a guide to avoiding genetically modified (GM) foods 
Why avoid GM foods? 

GM foods have had no long term safety testing. They contain inserted genes from foreign organisms. These often include genetic elements of viruses and bacteria (including in the case of GM maize an antibiotic resistant gene). These foods may have allergic or toxic properties. We will only fully discover over time, and even that will be difficult to track in the absence of clear labelling! 

What can you tell from the labels? 

Not a lot, because 95% of foods with GM ingredients are unlabelled as such even under the new EU rules introduced in early September (more detail on this in the next issue). 

What about the Vegetarian Society symbol? 

The Vegetarian Society are banning its use on products containing GMOs (except GM vegetarian cheeses) BUT this policy does not come into effect until August 1999. 

So what should I watch out for? 

The main things are: 

soya:  the main GM crop that is coming into our food supply. It’s included in 60% of processed foods - everything from bread to baby milk. 

Other contaminated foods are maize, tomato purees (but at least they are clearly labelled if GM) , and some vegetarian cheeses (not always labelled GM so watch out!) 

How can I avoid it? 

If you can, cut down on processed foods because they are more likely to contain GM  ingredients. 

Go organic - organic foods, particularly those bearing the Soil Association symbol, should not contain any GM ingredients. 

Unless you know they are GM free, try and avoid soya and  soya-based ingredients such as soya flour, soya oil, vegetable oil, lecithin and hydrolysed vegetable protein. And avoid maize-based ingredients such as modified starch, cornflour, corn starch, corn oil and polenta. 

Avoid margarine unless it clearly states it is GM free, and avoid oils which state "vegetable oil" or "cooking oil" on the label 

Avoid "fast food" and "low budget" products as these are very likely to contain GM  ingredients. 

Wholefoods - most of the Wholefood trade has gone GM  free, but not all so shop carefully. Watch out for Granose/Haldane products as they are not guaranteed GM free.  Rainbow Wholefoods in Norwich only deal in foods guaranteed GMO free.

Any other Norfolk shops or eating places that are guaranteed GM free, please let us know so we can tell the world! 

What about baby milk? 

Cow & Gate, Farley and Sainsbury's have banned GM-soya from their baby milk formula.

What about supermarkets etc? 

Iceland is the only big store that has completely banned GM ingredients from all its own brand products. (NB other goods on sale in Iceland are not guaranteed.) In addition to frozen foods, Iceland's own-brand products include bread, biscuits, chocolate, sweets and crisps etc. Their sales are up 15%! 

ASDA has just banned all GM ingredients from any new "own brand" products.It is also asking its suppliers to find alternatives to soya and maize for its existing foods and it says it will in the future label clearly where it has to use GMOs. So shop with care. 

Sainsbury's appear to be moving almost entirely to GM free soya sources.  However, they are not able to guarantee non-GM soya oils/lecithin/etc, only soya proteins. 

Tesco say they will label all products containing any GM ingredients and not just GM protein. They also claim that a lot of their own brand products are increasingly GM  free. 

Marks & Sparks have set their face against providing any GM free own brand foods, claiming it is just too difficult! Avoid St Michael products at all costs. 

What about the big food manufacturers? 

The bad guys: 
Unilever and Nestle (UK) are very positive about the use of GM. Trading under the name Van den Bergh, Unilever are responsible for a wide range of products including Flora, Stork, Birds-Eye, Walls, Vesta, Colman's, Oxo, Elmlea (cream alternative), and Batchelors Beanfeast (which is Unilever's first product to be labelled as containing GM soya). Boycott Unilever products. 

The good guys? 
Kelloggs and Heinz both say their products are GM free, but to what extent? The suspicion is that, like Sainsbury’s, it’s only the GM protein, which has to be labelled, which they are avoiding. 

Why are they afraid to label it clearly? You know why! 
It’s why you need a magnifying glass to spot the unwanted ingredients!
77% of the British public say ban GM food!

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Norfolk Genetic Information Network needs your help to spread the word. If you’d like to give some of your time, your expertise or make a financial contribution to the campaign, you can contact us by: 
tel :  01603 624021 (ask for Jonathan) 
fax:    01603 766552 
mail: 26 Pottergate, Norwich, NR2 1DX 

Norfolk Genetics Concern can be reached via the above.

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