ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network


In September 1998 a multi-million pound research alliance was announced between AstraZeneca (then Zeneca), most famous for its genetically modified tomatoes, and the UK's plant science institute the John Innes Centre, whose research helps underpin the biotech industry worldwide.

According to Professor Ray Baker, Fellow of the Royal Society and Chief Executive of the UK's pro-GE public funding body the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), this deal, together with one involving the biotech company Dupont, represented the kind of commercially supported project which would "benefit UK businesses" and contribute to "the UK's economic competitiveness."

Prof Baker's comments typify the long standing obsession among many bureaucrats, bio-scientists and corporations, with BIOBIZ - building businesses and national economic competitiveness from genetics, and most especially genetic engineering.

Less than 18 months on it's all looking remarkably different to Prof Baker's bullish predictions.

Despite the GE economic debacle, however, most of the same public servants and leading bio-scientists who got it so horribly wrong remain in position to continue to misdirect our public research strategy and our political leaders. The UK Government's new chief spokesperson on GE, Mo Mowlam, shows the same hopeless obsession with the economic benefits of GE as her failed predecessor (Jack Cunningham). Mowlam recently proclaimed: "Rest assured, the government is ready to support and enhance the competitiveness of the biotechnology industry. We believe you are a real success story in the UK...We want the UK to remain a leader in this field.." [Mowlam tells UK biotech firms to defend products, Wire Service: RTw (Reuters World Report), Date: Tue, Jan 25, 2000]

A success story? A more realistic assessment comes from a FINANCIAL TIMES feature on the UK's "biotech capital", Cambridge: "The road to profitability in this sector is long and hard... Even though Cambridge biotechnology employs thousands of people and has 10 good years behind it, few of its companies make any money." SURVEY - CAMBRIDGE AND ITS REGION: Overcoming the infrastructure problems: BIOTECHNOLOGY by David Pilling: Financial Times ; 27-Jan-2000

And it's not just a short term blip as the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out:

"With the controversy over genetically modified foods spreading across the globe and taking a toll on the stocks of companies with agricultural-biotechnology businesses, it's hard to see those companies as a good investment, even in the long term."
The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 7, 2000

But still the speculators' dream on...

Here are 20 FACTS about the rise and fall of what might be termed "the GM tomato economy."


1. Zeneca (now AstraZeneca), by some calculations the world's
third-largest agrochemicals group, has often been cited as the model for
the development of a life science (GE) company.

2. This Anglo-Swedish biotech pioneer produced its first commercial GE
product by genetically modifying the tomato to make it produce more bulk
and less water content, thus making a cheaper tomato paste possible.

3. AstraZeneca grew its first GM tomato crops near Fresno, California,
banking on permission to eventually grow them in Italy and Spain

4. Two major UK supermarket chains, one Sainsbury's under the guidance
of GE enthusiast Lord Sainsbury and the other Safeway, agreed to offer
AstraZeneca's GM tomato paste for sale in 1996. The prospects for
commercial success were said to be excellent.

5. As well as such GE products as GM tomato paste, AstraZeneca has (like
Monsanto) been developing its own 'Terminator' style technology
(AstraZeneca's is nicknamed 'the Verminator' because it makes use of a
gene from a rat's fat cell) which will prevent farmers from saving seed
from the crops they grow. 1.4 billion poor people world-wide depend on
farm-saved seed for their food security.

6. AstraZeneca currently spends 60 million dollars a year on ag-biotechnology.

7. Its investment in GM-related research at the John Innes Centre over
the next decade is expected to be of the order of 50 million pounds.

8. Professor Ray Baker FRS, Chief Executive of The Biotechnology and Biological
Sciences Research Council was quoted as saying of this alliance: "...
they have the Research Council's full support and build on the major
investment made by the Council over the past few years. These
developments reflect closely the aims of the Government White paper
"Realising our Potential", published in 1993."

Prof Baker also stated that such "commercially supported strategic projects"
would benefit UK businesses, and contribute to UK economic competitiveness.

9. Within a matter of months of Baker's bullish predictions, the two
major UK retailers selling AstraZeneca's GM tomato paste both had to
withdraw it as consumer awareness of the GM foods issue grew and their
sales of the product plummeted.

10. European regulators have still not given their OK for growing
AstraZeneca's GM tomatoes anywhere in Europe.

11. AstraZeneca sold the last can of its GM tomato paste in June 1999.

12. AstraZeneca's GM tomatoes are now no longer grown, processed or
marketed anywhere in the world.

13. Despite its massive investments in the sector (see above),
AstraZeneca's total revenue from agriculture biotechnology is *zero*

14. AstraZeneca's stock (like that of the other gene giants Monsanto,
Novartis and Dupont) has fallen over recent months.

"With the controversy over genetically modified foods spreading across
the globe and taking a toll on the stocks of companies with agricultural-biotechnology
businesses, it's hard to see those companies as a good investment, even in the long term."
The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 7, 2000

15. The life science model, which Zeneca pioneered, is now widely agreed
by investment experts to be "dead"

16. Dr Nigel Poole, former external relations chief at AstraZeneca's
agrochemical division, who like Dr Phil Dale of the John Innes Centre
was removed from the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment
(the UK's key GM crop regulatory body) because of his direct involvement
with the biotech industry, says of the future: ''maybe common sense will

It seems it already has:

17. AstraZeneca after looking, without any success, for a buyer for
their ailing agrochemical/life science division ,are spinning it off as
part of SYNGENTA, a collaboration with fellow troubled gene giant
Novartis. The hope is that by separating this sector of their operations
off in this way, SYNGENTA can either be sold off more easily or else its
continued poor performance will do less damage to the rest of the parent companies.

18. Despite the death of the life science model, German life-science
company AgrEvo has still recently got into bed with France's
Rhone-Poulenc to form the world's largest such group under the name
Aventis. AgrEvo/Aventis has been declared public enemy no. 1 in the UK
because of its aggressive promotion of its GM crops in the face of
community resistance -

19. Relations between AgrEvo and John Innes Centre scientists appear
very warm with JIC scientists turning out to explain to sceptical
communities the benefits of having AgrEvo's GM crops (banned in some
other countries -, trialed in
their locality. However, the reliability of the pro-GE public statements
of some JIC scientists has been seriously brought into question -

20. The membership of the committees of the UK's public funding body the
BBSRC, which is the JIC's principal sponsor, heavily reflects the
interests of industry. Many representatives of companies and large
corporations sit on the BBSRC's boards giving them the ability to
influence its research and direction (

Among the big corporations represented are AgrEvo, Rhone-Poulenc and AstraZeneca.
The BBSRC's Chairman was, until very recently, the Chief Executive of Zeneca

QUESTION: if it weren't for the wisdom of the humble consumer, just how
long would it be before we were all living in a GM tomato republic?


Public investments in science should no longer serve to subsidise
private interests and outcomes that have no public mandate!

"Civil society must demand a response of who the university and other
public organizations are to serve and request more research on
alternatives to biotechnology." - Miguel A. Altieri, Department of
Environmental Science, Policy and Management, Division of Insect
Biology, University of California

Notes on BBSRC and the culture of commercialisation:

BBSRC funding goes into 98 UK research establishments and universities  Institutes sponsored by the BBSRC include
John Innes Centre (JIC) [UK’s leading plant biotech institute]
Roslin Institute [cloning technology: Dolly the sheep]
Institute of Food Research (IFR) [Prof Mike Gale, Director of the JIC has said IFR would suffer badly from a moratorium on GM - Eastern Daily Press 15/2/99]
Institute of Arable Crops Research (IACR) [involved in GM research]

Boards and Committees

Council Members - out of 15, 5 including the chairman are directly industry linked, industrial ‘interests’ of other members have not as yet been disclosed. The 5 include:

Peter Doyle, Chairman BBSRC, until recently Chief Exec of Zeneca
Guy Walker CBE, Unilever and President of Food and Drink Federation
Peter Schroeder, previously Director of Research and Development, Nestle  [now the Director of the Inst. of Food Research]

In addition, BBSRC committee members also include (other) representatives of such firms as:

AgrEvo UK Ltd
Unilever Research
Advanced Technologies (Cambridge) Ltd
Rhone-Poulenc Ltd
Dyfed Seed
Consultant in Agrochemicals and Pharmaceuticals
Powis Hughes Associates
Weetabix Ltd
Cerebrus Ltd
Merck Sharpe & Dohme
SmithKline Beecham

On the Strategy Board out of 16 members, 6 are directly industry linked. For more on the BBSRC click here