How the Nuffield report was fixed
GM proponents in the UK are quick to trot
out the Nuffield report at any opportunity - not surprisingly, given that,
as we show below, their pals formed the core of those who wrote it! There
are also some useful links below to alternative
reports as well as articles on the Nuffield report from the
Sunday Herald and George Monbiot in the
The recent Nuffield report on GM has been warmly welcomed by the UK government with Tony Blair proclaiming it to be a vindication of GM and of the Government's policies.
The report's conclusions and proposals are certainly contrasting with those of the reports of Christian Aid and British Medical Association (BMA) which were published around the same time. Indeed they are in diametric opposition:
• whereas the BMA called for an indefinite moratorium on the commercial growing of GM crops, the Nuffield report opposes any sort of moratorium at all.
• whereas the BMA calls for comprehensive labeling, strict segregation and a ban on imports if crop segregation does not happen, the Nuffield report sees no need to extend even the widely criticised existing labelling requirements:
"We recommend that labeling of GM products
should only be statutorily required for foods and products that contain
identifiable GM material
(DNA and proteins) above an agreed threshold"
• whereas Christian Aid castigated GM for its likely negative impact on the South, the Nuffield report welcomes it as a saviour for developing countries, as long as it receives some judicious redirection.
Interestingly, in media coverage of the
Nuffield report it was generally described as having come from "an independent
group of scientists with no vested interests", or alternatively as from
"an independent group of experts." The Nuffield Council was itself largely
responsible for this
billing. At a press conference held to launch the report, the journalist Nick Ross, who chaired, told the assembled press:
"Nobody could say, of any of the members of the working party, that they would say this anyway."
Ross went on: "None of them has, in any form, a vested interest."
So let's take a look at this claim that "Nobody could say, of any of the members of the working party, that they would say this anyway":
1) Professor Mike Gale FRS:
biotechnologist and former Director of the The John Innes Centre (JIC),
the UK's leading plant biotech centre. The JIC is negotiating a deal with
biotech giants Zeneca and DuPont guaranteeing it 60-70 million pounds worth
of investment. It also
receives considerable monies via Lord Sainsbury's Gatsby trust for biotech projects involving developing countries. Prof Gale is on record
as saying that a GE moratorium would be a massive blow to the JIC and the Norwich Research Park and that it would choke off the grants it is currently getting from industry. Prof Gale has said of a moratorium, "It would be very, very serious for us."
The Nuffield report - in direct contrast to the British Medical Association in their report - came out strongly against any form of moratorium.
Is it true to say, "Nobody could say, of any of the members of the working party, that they would say this any way" ?
2) Professor Derek Burke: former Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA), and former chair of the Governing Council of the JIC (see above). Prior to UEA, Prof Burke worked on cloning for a biotech company. Most importantly of all, Burke was Chairman for nearly a decade (1988-97) of the Advisory Committee for Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP), the regulatory body which approved the first GM foods to come into the UK.
The report expressed complete confidence in thesafety ofall approved GM foods.
"Nobody could say, of any of the members of the working party, that they would say this any way" ?!
3) Brian Heap FRS: a leading member
of the Royal Society - its 'Foreign Secretary'. Like Burke and Gale, Heap
helped produce the Royal
Society's report 'Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use' (as did another 3 JIC scientists) which was used at an earlier stage to
reassure government ministers that there were no significant problems with GE. Heap was also on the RS group that organised a partial 'peer review' of Dr Pusztai's unpublished work - something the medical journal, the Lancet has described as "a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work."
The Nuffield report contains an appendix which is highly critical ofPusztai. (Pusztai has quite rightly characterised this appendix as "misleading and full of inaccuracies... unscientific and most unfair.")
"Nobody could say, of any of the members of the working party, that they would say this any way" ?
It is clearly a nonsense to say there were no vested interests in any form.
Much is made of the fact that among those on the Nuffield panel was Julie Hill of the Green Alliance. Hill was indeed there as the token environmentalist, just as Julie Hill was on the old ACRE - the UK's Advisory Committee on [GMO] Releases to the Environment, where she was able to make absolutely no difference to any of their conclusions either - remember not a single request for an experimental release was ever rejected by the old ACRE which was peopled by scientists from Zeneca, the John Innes Centre etc
The clear vested interests on the Nuffield panel could at least have been balanced to some degree by those experts and organisations the Nuffield panel chose to consult. Although Nuffield invited written submissions from anyone who cared to offer their views, the critical question is who did they actually choose to consult?
Appendix 3 of the report lists exactly who was consulted (see full list below) after the completion of the first draft of the report. Significantly, these consultations seem to have led to a number of interesting changes - see the Sunday Herald . Needless to say, the list doesn't contain a single well-known scientific critic of GE.
The only obvious 'witnesses' listed with concerns about GM crops are Avery from the RSPB and Johnson from English Nature. Their concerns are very specific - limited by their remit (ie they're not concerned with issues like patenting, food safety, and even with reference to the environment they don't remotely reflect the full range or strength of concerns, eg on gene flow) - and they, of course, unlike most environmental critics, are from about the only 2 environmental bodies which are at all supportive of the big GM farmscale trials.
By contrast, the pro-GM National Farmers Union and SCIMAC (the biotech industry and NFU body overseeing the introduction of GE crops into the UK) are very well represented, as are Monsanto (2 witnesses). Other meetings took place with biotech companies Pioneer and Zeneca. And like the House of Lords when compiling their pro-GE report earlier the same year, although Nuffield are highly prescriptive about the need of developing countries to have this technology, the panel don't appear from this list to have deigned to actually talk to anyone from those countries nor to any of the aid agencies with direct experience of the problems supposedly being addressed.
It is perhaps then no wonder that George
Monbiot has concluded that "This is perhaps the most asinine report
on biotechnology ever written. The stain it leaves on the Nuffield Council's
excellent reputation will last for years. "
By Pennie Taylor, health editor
EXCLUSIVE: CONSUMER groups and environmental
accused a prestigious scientific think-tank of misleading the public and
"watering down" its report on genetically modified crops, which was
published last week. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has declared that
the genetically modified food currently on the market is "safe", and has
criticised the media for whipping up public concern. But the Sunday
Herald understands that key recommendations contained in an earlier
draft of the working party's report were dropped following
"fact-finding" meetings with a range of bodies, including leading GM
The version of the report that was released
for limited consultation in
January expressed concerns about the potential impact modified crops
might have on the environment. It is understood to have called for the
government to consider setting aside tracts of farmland within which no
GM crops should be planted in order to protect the environment as an
"insurance policy" against future problems.
In the final version of the report, that
no longer exists. The council professes to favour the preservation of
choice for consumers who do not wish to eat genetically modified food,
but a hard-hitting recommendation that may have helped to ensure this
did not make it to the concluding chapter of the published version.
The draft seen by the Sunday Herald proposed
the establishment of "gene
parks" to preserve non-modified crop strains from the possibility of
cross -contamination. In the final version, this suggestion no longer
features. The report was changed following a consultation process that
included meetings with GM giants Monsanto and Zeneca. However, a
spokesman for the Nuffield Council on Bioethics told the
Sunday Herald that there was no interference from them in the report's
preparation. "Monsanto had no right of veto, but it was deemed helpful
that they have an input," said Chris Mihill, the council's spokesman.
"There is nothing sinister about this. Some of the early ideas were
simply seen to be impractical and unworkable."
Lang Banks, spokesman for Friends of the
Earth Scotland, said the
changes throw the credibility of the report into doubt. "Again another
so-called independent look at GM issues appears to be tainted in some
way," he said. "Again it appears the public is left with no independent
view on this."
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which
examines the implications of
scientific developments, formed a working party to investigate the
ethical questions surrounding GM foods 18 months ago. Despite a dearth
of independent research on the effects this food might have on humans,
the report declares: "The working party concludes that all the GM food
so far on the market in this country is safe for human consumption".
Friends of the Earth Scotland, which favours
a moratorium on GM food,
strongly disputes that. "No true scientist could put their hand on their
heart and make that claim," said spokesman Banks. "There are no
long-term studies on the effects of eating GM food on humans or animals
so the Nuffield Council on Bioethics ismisleading the public by saying it is safe.
The tests have simply not been done."
That view was echoed by Greenpeace, which
is calling for a full ban on
GM food. "There is a concerted attempt by establishment figures to
promote GM food," said campaign director Dr Douglas Parr. "The public
should continue to vote with their wallets."
The government warmly welcomed the report,
which backs its stance that
there should be no moratorium or ban on planting GM crops. On the day it
published, the Prime Minister attacked
the media for whipping up public
"hysteria" about the process, a view that is reflected throughout the
council's final report.
Acknowledging consumer "unease", the report
states: "Alarmist media
reports of negative health effects in animals fed with GM potatoes are
likely to have re -inforced such fears." That is a reference to the work
of eminent scientist Dr Arpad Pusztai, who conducted laboratory tests on
rats that appeared to indicate eating GM potatoes may have led to organ
damage and poor brain development.
The research, undertaken at the Rowett
Research Institute in Aberdeen,
is believed to be the first independent scientific investigation into
the effect of GMs on the health of mammals. As soon as he voiced his
concerns publicly on a World in Action television programme last August,
Dr Pusztai was suspended and gagged, and the research work stopped.
Since then, some of the UK's top scientists
have attempted to discredit
Dr Pusztai and his research. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is no
different. An appendix devoted to the 68-year-old biochemist's
controversial findings repeats many of the
criticisms levelled at him by certain members of the scientific
establishment over the past year.
"The appendix is misleading and full of
inaccuracies," said Dr Pusztai.
"It is unscientific and most unfair."
Two weeks ago, the Royal Society of London,
concluded that his work was
flawed, despite the fact it has never been published. In the most recent
edition of The Lancet medical journal, an editorial describes the Royal
Society's review as "a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the
Rowett Institute scientists, who should be judged only on the full and
final publication of their work".
Dr Pusztai continues to call for further
tests to be conducted on the
health effects of GM food, a stance backed by the British Medical
Association. The organisation, which represents Britain's doctors, has
recommended an open -ended moratorium until independent research
establishes whether or not GM foods are safe for humans.
Astonishingly, the council's report makes
no mention of the need for
further animal testing. In essence, it is in line with current
government thinking and was published just days after it had been
revealed that ministers had a strategy for spinning the
controversy to their advantage. A confidential document from the office
of Cabinet enforcer, Dr Jack Cunningham, spoke of trying to enlist
"eminent scientists" to "trail" its public relations "key messages".
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics strongly
denies that the government
had any influence on its conclusions. "Downing Street did not see this
report. It is ridiculous to suggest that we have been got at," said
Mihill. However, one of the members of the working party that prepared
the report is Professor Derek Burke, a former chairman of the Advisory
Committee for Novel Food and Processes, a body which informs the
government on GM food. "Whatever his roles in other fields of
government, this report stayed in-house," said Mihill. "There has been
no outside interference."
Environmental campaigners find that hard
to swallow. "We don't think
Professor Burke is an impartial judge," says Genetic Food Alert
spokesman Lindsay Keenan. "What we are seeing is government spin-driving
when they should be investigating the scientific facts. The Nuffield's
report doesn't change our view that the driving force behind the push to
introduce GM food is purely commercial. It is very unlikely that it will
succeed in calming public fears."
The Nuffield Council's strongest recommendations
concern the benefits GM
food might bring to the developing world. They call for increasing donor
aid to poor countries to allow them to benefit from the technology.
The Guardian, London, Thursday 3rd June 1999
Monsanto's advertising agency warned the company not to argue that genetic engineering would feed the world. But the temptation proved too great. "Worrying about starving future generations", its adverts informed us last year, "won't feed them. Food biotechnology will." It's hard to see how even a body with Monsanto's self-belief could have imagined that this claim would stand up.
For the corporation had already made its position quite clear. "What you are seeing", one its executives explained in 1997, as his company purchased scores of seed merchants and biotech firms, "is a consolidation of the entire food chain." The vertical integration it was engineering would grant it a control over food consumption that would have made Stalin writhe in envy.
Monsanto's argument was swiftly and comprehensively dismissed. Development agencies pointed out that people starve not because there is an absolute shortage of food (the world currently produces a surplus) but because food and the means to produce it are concentrated in the hands of the rich and powerful. Corporations seeking to consolidate the food chain threatened to make this situation far worse. Monsanto, sadder and perhaps a little wiser, slunk away. But seven days ago it acquired a new and unlikely champion.
The Nuffield Council for Bioethics is a highly respected independent body, whose recommendations frequently influence government policy. Last week, its panel on the ethics of genetic engineering published its long-awaited report. Research into GM crops, the panel acknowledged, has tended to favour producers in Europe and the US.
Patenting of the new technologies, it pointed out, presents "potentially serious difficulties for developing countries". But, the report maintained, if the research effort could only be directed a little more evenly, GM crops would "produce more food, or more employment or income for those who need it most urgently." "The moral imperative," it reasoned, "for making GM crops readily and economically available to developing countries who want them is compelling."
This is perhaps the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written. The stain it leaves on the Nuffield Council's excellent reputation will last for years.
The panel made three fundamental mistakes. The first was to assume that the technology is neutral and could, given the right conditions, be evenly deployed and distributed. In truth, genetic engineering is inseparable from its ownership. No genetically engineered crop reaches the market without a patent. Most of these forbid the farmer from saving seed for future plantings: control of the foodchain remains with the corporation at every stage of production.
The second was its crude, even childish supposition that any technology which produces more will feed the starving. The world is littered with the wreckage of such assumptions. Ethiopia's modern agro-industrialists were exporting animal feed to Europe throughout its devastating famine.
Latin America's Green Revolution, Christian Aid points out, raised food production by eight per cent per head, but malnutrition increased in the same period by 19 per cent. The Kalahandi region in India suffers repeated famines, but produces major surpluses every year. In every case, starvation happens because the wrong people own the foodchain.
The panel's third mistake was its inexplicable premise that biotechnology will somehow boost employment. Monsanto's leading biotech products - herbicide resistant crops - are sold with the promise that they reduce the need for labour: farmers give their money not to local labourers but to one of the biggest corporations on earth.
So why did such a distinguished panel make such evident mistakes? You don't have to look very far for an answer. While people of every kind sat on the committee, all its biotechnology experts were drawn from the same ideological pool. It is not hard to see how Prue Leith, for example, well meaning as she doubtless was, would have felt obliged to defer to the superior wisdom of the former Chairman of the Advisory Committee for Novel Foods and Processes, or the Unilever Research Professor of biological sciences.
So how do we feed the world? When I suggest
that the answer lies in a combination of land reform and organic or semi-organic
farming, you'll think I've gone soft in the head. But Jules Pretty of Essex
University has documented a quiet revolution sweeping across the developing
world, in which peasant farmers have doubled or tripled their yields by
means of modern organic techniques. They require few inputs, lots of labour,
no debt, and no help from predatory corporations. Only by such means can
the world's poor maintain control over their food supply,
and protect themselves from the technologies that the Nuffield panel celebrates.
GENETIC ENGINEERING: Can it feed the
world? by Dr Sue Mayer
This briefing examines the claims that GE foods are necessary to feed the world. Published as GeneWatch Briefing Number 3, August 1998
Selling Suicide farming, false promises
and genetic engineering in developing countries. Christian Aid's recent
CornerHouse Briefing No 10, October
1998: Food? Health? Hope? -- Genetic Engineering and World Hunger, by Sarah
Nicholas Hildyard and Larry Lohmann
FOR MORE REPORTS AND ARTICLES ON THIS THEME - CLICK
Appendix 3: Fact-finding meetings for the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report
The Working Party wishes to thank the following
individuals and their organisations for providing helpful information and
insight into the
subject of GM crops:
The British Society of Plant Breeders Ltd
Dr Penny Maplestone, Technical Liaison Manager
Department For international Development
Mr Andrew Bennett, Director, Natural Research Division
English Nature, Dr Brian Johnson
European Commission DG III, Mr Gwenole
European Commission DG IV, Ms Dorothee Andre-Schoboboda
European Commission DG XII, Mr Etienne Magnien
European Commission DG XII, Mrs Laurence Cordier
European Commission DG XXIV, Ms Patricia Brunko
European Commission DGI, Mr Ramiro Cibrian
European Commission SG, Mr Lars Mitek-Pedersen
Institute of Virology & Environmental
Dr Ian Cooper
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and
Dr John Bell, Joint Food Safety and Standards Group
MAFF, Mr Nick Tomlinson, Joint Food Safety and Standards Group
Monsanto Europe SA, Agricultural Sector,
Dr Stephen Waters, Regulatory Affairs Manager
Monsanto plc, Agricultural Sector,
Dr Colin Merritt, Technical Manager
National Farmers Union,
Dr Vernon Barber, Food Science Adviser
National Farmers Union,
Mr Archie Montgomery, Chairman of Biotechnology Working Group, NFU
representative to SCIMAC, Council member
National Farmers Union, Mr Bob Fiddaman, Member of Biotechnology Working
Group, NFU representative to SCIMAC, Council member
National Institute of Agricultural Botany,
Mr John MacLeod, Director
Mr Tim Stockton, Director of Government Affairs: Europe
The Royal Society for the Protection of
Dr Mark Avery, Head of Conservation
Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural
Mr Daniel Pearsall, Secretary
The Institute of Terrestrial Ecology,
Professor Alan Gray [ACRE member, but not identified as such]
University of Cambridge, Department ofBiochemistry,
Dr David Ellar and Dr Paul Davis
Professor Robert Evenson, Centre for Economic Growth
Zeneca Plant Sciences, Dr David Lawrence,
Head of Crop Research
PROFESSOR B: INDEX