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Pro-GM scientists and the right

"Tell me what company thou keepst, and I'll tell thee what thou art"-  Cervantes

In the wake of the massive defeats suffered over their promotion of GM foods, pro-GM lobbyists in the UK have regrouped and with the help of a clique of right wing journalists and academics are coordinating a still more aggressive campaign of disinformation.

BBC coverage well illustrates what's been going on. Three BBC programmes in early 2000 gave prominence to extreme anti-organic views ('Costing the Earth', 'Counterblast', and to a lesser extent the 'Food and Drink' programme).

It appears that a strategy proven effective in the US is being carefully replicated here: the use of right wing journalists and academics to smear GM critics and alternatives to agricultural biotechnology. In the US figures like Dennis Avery and Michael Fumento have helped fulfil this role. In the UK significant use is now being made of a similar clique of extreme anti-environmentalists who draw heavily on the ideas and tactics of Avery, in particular.

A key contributor to each of the BBC programmes raising questions about organic food has been Julian Morris, the Director of the Environment and Technology Programme of the far right think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs. One of the programmes ('Counterblast', broadcast  on BBC 2 on 31 January 2000) was presented by Roger Bate in his then role as the Director of the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF).

Although the ESEF describes itself as  "a non-partisan group of scientists", in reality it appears to be extremely closely linked to the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), where Bate co-directs its Environment and Technology Programme. In fact, Bate founded the Environment Unit at the IEA in 1993 and then co-founded the European Science and Environment Forum a year later.

Athough this fact was never disclosed at any point in the 'Counterblast' programme, several other contributors to the programme (notably Prof Phillip Stott - an IEA intimate, though not a formal member, who shares its anti-environmentalist agenda - and the journalist Richard D. North) also seem to be closely associated with the same IEA-connected clique.

While equivalent right wing think tanks in the US, such as the Hudson Institute where Avery and Fumento have a base, are known to receive funding from the usual A-Z of biotech interests: from AgrEvo to Zeneca, both the ESEF and IEA are vague about their funding sources. However, a certain amount is known about the funding that established both and in each case it is highly revealing.

The IEA, since its inception, has had good reason to have the interests of industrial agriculture close to its heart, having been founded in the 1950s out of a fortune made from intensive farming. Before founding the IEA, Anthony Fisher had successfully started Britain's very first broiler chicken farm.

Established by a pioneer of factory farming who was also an extreme free marketeer, it is hardly surprising that the IEA promotes the view that deregulated intensive farming and unfettered free trade are both of great environmental benefit. The IEA's extremist disdain of environmental protection is well reflected in its various publications and, needless to say, the pro-GM lobby are prominent amongst its published authors. For instance, a book on tropical rainforests by biotech supporter and Counterblast contributor Prof Philip Stott, claims to debunk "the eco-imperialist vision" which threatens the world, while a paper attacking the Biosafety Protocol is authored by none other than Henry Miller, the rabid deregulator who once presided over the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Biotech propagandist CS Prakash, who organised the recent petition among  researchers in support of GM foods, is another contributor to an IEA publication, and the IEA have also provided Prakash with a London platform.

ESEF's financial origins are still more revealing. Although ESEF claimed, "To maintain its independence and impartiality, the ESEF does not accept outside funding from whatever source, the only income it receives is from the sale of its publications" 
[http://web.archive.org/web/19970212024340/www.esef.org/mission.htm], documents released by tobacco giant Philip Morris, in fact, show that ESEF was established with money from Big Tobacco as part of a world wide campaign to undermine industry-critical research.

As Big Tobacco's European front organization -- its US equivalent was TASSC: The Association for Sound Science, which gave birth to Steven Milloy's infamous 'Junk-science' internet mission -- ESEF's task was to smuggle tobacco advocacy into a larger bundle of "sound science" issues, including attacking such problematic areas for US corporate interests as the "ban on growth hormone for livestock; ban on [genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone] to improve milk production; pesticide restrictions; ban on indoor smoking; restrictions on use of chlorine; ban on certain pharmaceutical products; restrictions on the use of biotechnology."  [quoted in  'How Big Tobacco Helped Create "the Junkman"' in PR Watch, Volume 7, No. 3: http://www.prwatch.org]

Perhaps it is no surprise then that the Director of the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health should be found complaining that "Roger Bate of the Institute of Economic Affairs produces new variants of the familiar argument of the tobacco industry". This complaint followed Bate's involvement in an IEA launch of non peer-reviewed "research" that, according to ASH, required careful inspection "for the fingerprints of a commercially-interested sponsor." In other words, "it must be legitimate to ask if [the researcher] or the IEA are benefiting directly or indirectly from tobacco industry money".

In pursuing  the question of "who is funding this work at the IEA" ASH noted ESEF's role:

"The organiser of the seminar at the IEA, Roger Bate is also a key member of something called the "European Science and Environment Forum". This body has recently published analysis that amounts to an attack on... findings on passive smoking."

ASH also noted that tobacco rersearch was not the only area where these players had been involved in promoting dubious science for corporate purposes:

"Both Bate, the ESEF and the IEA have had a dry run for their work on tobacco. Roger Bate came to fame as the author of an IEA book dismissing the widespread scientific consensus on global warming "Global warming or hot air?". The ESEF also published a book of so-called sceptical science - this was the work of a small group of scientists. The word 'sceptical' dignifies something that was much more cynical. The aim was to create controversy and deflect public policy measures to combat climate change - something very similar appears to be happening with tobacco."  [http://www.ash.org.uk/html/press/980420.html]

Recently Bate suddenly resigned as Director of ESEF and shortly afterwards the ESEF website: www.esef.org was no longer accessible. The domain name appears to have been sold off or reassigned. Bate's IEA Environment and Technology Programme co-Director, Julian Morris, had to all intents and purposes had no direct connection with ESEF, but an ESEF domain inquiry prior to the website's disappearance revealed the following:

[whois.networksolutions.com:43]
Registrant: European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF-DOM) UK
Domain Name: ESEF.ORG
Administrative Contact: Morris, Julian  (JM4309)  101603.3004@COMPUSERVE.COM
European Science and Environment Forum
Kersfield Road
London, SW15 3HE

ESEF, then, seems to have been more or less synonymous with Bate and Morris. Bate and Morris have also co-edited a book, 'Fearing Food: Risk, Health and the Environment', amongst whose contributors is Dennis Avery. Avery, of the Hudson Institute, has been at the very heart of the anti-organic smear campaign  - see: Saving the Planet With Pestilent Statistics

Bate and Morris, needless to say, appear entirely unembarrased by the dubious quality of Avery's scholarship or the bogus nature of his claims - claims from which the US's Centers for Disease Control have disassociated themselves, despite the fact that Avery says that it is their data on which his health warnings about organic agriculture are based!

In fact, Bate and Morris, far from disassociating themselves from Avery's smears, have revelled in his assertions -- not just repeating them in the various BBC programmes they've contributed to but even using his bogus e-coli claims in a publicity stunt to launch their book. According to right wing libertarian Matt Ridley of the Telegraph, part of the stunt involved telling people that "according to the United States Centers for Disease Control, people who eat the products of...[organic agriculture] are eight times more likely to contract the strain of E-coli that killed 21 people in Lanarkshire in 1997" ['Unsavoury facts about organic food' August 16, 1999] This despite the fact that, as Bate and Morris must surely know, the CDC has stated,  "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not conducted any study that compares or quantitates the specific risk for infection with E. coli 0157:H7 and eating either conventionally grown or organic/natural foods." [see: Saving the Planet With Pestilent Statistics ]

In a press release ('Londoners demand regulation of potentially deadly organic food') to accompany the book's launch, and their organics-are-dangerous-survey stunt, Bate and Morris wrote, "organic food may well present a danger to children, the elderly and the sick... such people should be discouraged from eating so-called 'organic' or 'natural' foods."

On the BBC website, Bate is quoted, as Director of the ESEF, as saying, "...some researchers say that in many ways it's worse for you, worse for the environment and if embraced globally would condemn millions of people to starvation."
[http://www.bbc.co.uk/knowledge/havewords/bbc2/bbc2archive/bbc2prog4/bbc2arg2.shtml]

Bates also quotes Prof Stott, another climate-change denier as well as pro-GM campaigner, "The idea that it can replace other forms of agriculture is a dangerous lie..."

The savage antipathy of the likes of Bate, Morris and Stott to organic farming, and the real reason for their concern, is perhaps best captured in an article on The European Science and Environment Forum website which referred to organics as "a mainstay of the Luddites these past decades and... a staple of the anti-GM battle."

As with Bate's tobacco advocacy it remains an interesting question as to where the support for the anti-organic pro-GM campaigning is coming from. Another IEA member who has taken part in this campaign, Richard D North, is said to have acted as a paid apologist for industry. As an article in the Ecologist notes:

"He isn't merely happy to extol the wonders of multinational companies; he's happy to take their money too. Much of the research for his 1995 greenbashing book Life On A Modern Planet was funded by ICI. Shell paid him to pop over to Ogoniland in Nigeria in the
wake of the murder of Ken SaroWiwa and write puffpieces in British papers about how responsible the oil company was being."
[http://www.theecologist.org/Grim.htm]

It is obviously no surprise that the likes of North or Matt Ridley (a Research Fellow at the IEA with 2 volumes of his anti-environmentalist pieces amongst the Institute's publications) should be pleased to publicise the IEA's disinformation campaign. What is more revealing is the way in which the BBC's science and technology unit and senior academics like Prof Hillman or Prof Anthony Trewavas, another contributor to Counterblast, have apparently been happy to promote such views without serious critical scrutiny of the evidence on which they are based.

Prof Trewavas, for example, has made repeated reference to Avery's claims, as made in Avery's chapter in the Morris' and Bate's book, in an article published in the scientific journal Nature (Nature 402, 231 [1999]). Thus, Prof Trewavas tells us:

"Going organic worldwide, as Greenpeace wants, would destroy even more wilderness, much of it of marginal agricultural quality15."

"Mycotoxin contamination, and infection from the potentially lethal Escherichia coli O157, are additional problems15."

"average crop yields [for organics] on a variety of soils are about half those of intensive farming15-17"

Avery's chapter is the reference (15) given for all three points: "15. Avery, D. in Fearing Food. Risk, Health and Environment (eds Morris, J. & Bate, R.) 3-18 (Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 1999)" However, anyone who actually follows up this reference discovers that all Avery's highly partisan claims about organic agriculture lack specific references to supporting evidence. In other words, Trewavas's trail of evidence leads nowhere but to Avery's assertions!

Nothing could expose more starkly the bogus nature of the biotech brigade's claims to base their promotion of GM crops on sound science, nor the vacuous nature of their complaints against Pusztai, and other researchers that have raised questions about GM crops, not to mention their fury with journals that have published such papers.

If such scientists are really so passionate about "sound science" as they claim, why haven't they been busy denouncing the bogus claims of Avery and his admirers (claims, after all, that seem to involve a far more outrageous treatment of research evidence than anything of which scientists critical of GM have been accused) ?

The answer, of course, is all too plain. They've either been too busy repeating these bogus claims themselves and trying to lend them credibility, or else they recognise that as these claims forward rather than hinder their own interests it is better to remain silent and not enquire too deeply into them.  Either way, we once again pay the price of science having become so industrially aligned that many of its practitioners are far more preoccupied with serving private interests than they are with the public good.

The Bate and Morris book also contains a chapter on GM by Prof John Hillman, who has also engaged in highly dubious public criticism of organic agriculture (see: Professor Hillman and his associates! and FIRST THEY TRIED TO MISLEAD US OVER GM - NOW IT'S ORGANIC ) One of Hillman's co-author is none other than Professor T Michael Wilson, whose highly inaccurate public promotion of GM has also drawn criticism - see false reports . Wilson and Hillman's chapter contains very similar claims of benefits from GM to the ones which have already come under fire for their lack of substantiation - see false reports .  Hillman and Wilson actually describe these claims as "now proven," though they produce no new evidence in support of this, and to cap it all, Wilson and Hillman end their chapter with a prolonged rant about "disinformation." That Hillman who has made the most lurid claims in relation to organic farming (see: FIRST THEY TRIED TO MISLEAD US OVER GM - NOW IT'S ORGANIC ) can complain, as he and his co-authors do, without any apparent sense of irony,  about those "who raise speculative risks" and "promote public fear", or that he and Wilson can complain about "media disinformation" (see: false reports ) is quite remarkable.

And yet there is something peculiarly fitting about these GM zealots having found such a comfortable home among the radical right, not only in the light of the latter's passion for unbridled capitalism and antipathy to environmental protection, but also a tendency to "contrarian" assertion of causes that are often ludicrous, lost, or just downright dangerous.

For more on: industrial alignment of public science in the UK


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