|Bob Geldof an 'interested' party. By IMF Photograph/Stephen Jaffe|
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Documents leaked from a PR company employed by biotech industry representative, 'EuropaBio' (see below) detailed how high-profile “ambassadors” such as Bob Geldof were to be recruited to lobby European leaders on GM policy.
EuropaBio, is the European Association for Bioindustries based in Brussels. It is the 'voice of the European biotech industry' made up of some 600 companies. Members include all of the major European multinationals who have significant biotechnology interests, such as Bayer, Novartis, Monsanto Europe, Nestlé, Rhone-Poulenc, Unilever, and GlaxoSmithKline.
The primary focus of EuropaBio's lobbying is the European Union, where it seeks to shape legislation in a way that suits its members' interests. It provides a steady flow of information about biotechnology to the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers.
Interestingly, the tactic has been tried before.
When Monsanto ditched its stake in rBGH (a GM-microbe-generated bovine growth hormone for injection into dairy cows to boost milk production), the new owners of the product, Elanco, set about trying to turn around the product's negative image. It commissioned a non-peer reviewed paper which was written by eight top scientists. This was presented at an annual meeting of three key organisations concerned with dairy animal science (American dairy Science Association, Canadian Society of Animal Science, American Society of Animal Science).
The paper argued strongly for the benefits and safety of rBGH and cited endorsements from three important bodies representing the US medical profession, the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Cancer Society (ACS).
On investigation, however, the very respectable 'endorsements' turned out not to exist. This left lingering doubts about the integrity of the paper and why the eight scientists were so happy to be ambassadors to promote a commercial product.
In the event, Elanco's tactic failed: the concerns about the drug and consumer rejection continued to grow.
EuropaBio's scheme is more sophisticated than Elanco's.
The plan is to distance itself from the 'ambassadors' to give their arguments more credibility: the high-profile lobbyists will not be paid directly, but will have articles placed in their name and will speak to the international media; they will then have lucrative speaking slots at major conferences secured for them. Also, the ambassadors will be introduced to the highest-level European bureaucrats and MEPs in order for them to make the case for GM within key EU institutions. It will be ensured that a breadth of positions on GM is presented so the ambassadors aren't seen to be singing from the biotech industry sheet.
Ten suggested 'interested' parties were identified in the leaked document. These included Bob Geldof, Chris Patten, David Byrne, and even Kofi Annan.
However, like Elanco's 'endorsing' bodies for rBGH, several of EuropaBio's would-be ambassadors said they hadn't been asked, and wouldn't take on the role if they were.
In November 2011, questions for written answer were put to the European Commission regarding the acceptability of EuropBio's leaked campaign.
The unwelcome publicity seems to have put blocks on EuropaBio's original scheme. There hasn't been much evidence of its deployment, but, did it nevertheless go forward in some other, lower-key, form?
Consider, for example, the speeches given at the Norfolk Farming Conference, February 2012, hosted by the UK's foremost agri-biotech research organisation, the John Innes Centre (JIC).
George Freeman (Norfolk MP and Chair of an all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture) called very loudly for a new debate on GM foods. He repeated all the usual biotech industry spin: how we need GM to feed the rising world population; how the developing world needs our support to adopt GM, how the planet needs agricultural breakthroughs (such as GM); how the rest of the world is making a fortune from GM; how the UK will be left behind (without GM), how our agricultural research needs a new direction (such as GM); how we need sustainable exports (such as GM) ... . He also trotted out the usual stream of insults: it is “criminally irresponsible”, “madness”, and un-enlightened of us not to grow GM crops ... We've heard it all before.
However, MP Freeman seems to have been part of a team:
- Chief scientist of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Ian Crute, took the position that the UK was falling behind Spain (Europe's only adopter of GM crops on any scale) and America with which it should, inexplicably, be competing by growing GM crops. He added in the insult that Europeans have “enormous complacency” about their food, and that their health and safety concerns about GM food were so spurious that they would become “technologically agnostic” when GM became (inexplicably) cheap food and non-GM (inexplicably) expensive.
- National Farmers' Union president, Peter Kendall took the position that it was “desperately worrying” that Europe was falling behind China, the US and other countries in not pressing ahead with GM crops.
- MEP/farmer Stewart Agnew gave a plug for the GM wheat being developed in the John Innes Centre, and took the position that the farmers were to blame for letting the anti-GM public stop them showing interest in GM crops, and further insulted them with accusations of cowardice.
- JIC director, Dale Sanders, took the position that both scientists and farmers were to blamed for not talking to each other about GM crops
- Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, gave dire warnings about the current water shortages in the UK and (inexplicably) used this as a spring-board to the position that (non-existent) drought-resistant GM crops will likely be part of the solution to the UK's drought.
“We need to shake off the complacency and embrace best farming and food production processes. We must seize the potential of all available technologies to enable us to do so, and no technology should be rejected on the basis of an initial emotional reaction or misinformation - including agricultural biotechnology. We want to produce more food in Europe, look after the environment and help our neighbours in other parts of the world, (so) isn't it time to think again about GM?”
The team speaking at the Norfolk Conference seem to have managed, between them, to put across a very good version of the letter to the Financial Times that never arrived.
Nothing new was presented, and insulting people who point out the actual, suspected and potential risks to human and environmental health from GM crops is normal part of the pro-biotech routine.
On the other hand, is it really possible that all these people whose business it is to be up-to-date on GM issues and who are in a position to make themselves heard, haven't done their homework?
The notion of being 'fed' by GM is currently a fantasy unless you eat animal feed, processed junk-food or car-fuel, and there's no sign of this changing: will people ever become technologically agnostic enough to make that switch in their diet?
The bottom line is that modern, non-GM, breeding methods are fast and inexpensive, hugely successful, and uniquely able to introduce stable complex changes in plants. GM crops have not progressed beyond two basic traits (herbicide-tolerance and Bt-insecticide generation), both of which are extensions of the existing, unsustainable, chemical-dependent model of agriculture. GM crop development remains, not only limited in scope, but expensive, inefficient, and monopoly-, and patent-dependent. The largest and most authoritative study to date, the International Assessment of Scientific Knowledge and Technology Development, pronounced GM as having no role in developing countries.
At the moment, all the signs are that the only thing Europe and the UK will be left behind in is not finding themselves with a terrifying range of GM-derived human disease, environmental collapse, market failure, and agricultural problems to deal with.
Remember the names mentioned above, because it just might be that they're part of the EuropaBio choir singing together in parts, and if so, these and others will appear in other shows.
Also, take a lesson from Elanco (but not the one it intended to deliver). The excuse for claiming AMA, the AAP and the ACS 'endorsement' of GM growth hormone was that they “counted endorsement as failure to oppose”:
Keep on opposing, lest ye be deemed to endorse GM!
- John Vidal and Hanna Gersmann, Biotech group bids to recruit high-0profile GM 'ambassadors', Guardian, 20.10.11
- Franz Obermayr (NI), Questionable genetic engineering campaign, Parliamentary questions, E-010966/2011, 24.11.11
- Chris Hill, Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman calls for new debate on GM foods, www.edp24.co.uk
- MP calls for more GM crops in the UK, www.farminguk.com, 24.02.12
- Fiona Harvey, Secretary Spelman favours GM crops for drought, Guardian, 24.02.12
- Strangely like Fiction Elanco-sponsored authors admit falsely claiming rBGH safety endorsement, The Bioscience Resource Project News Service, 22.02.10