When non-news is bad news

April 2013

The Westminster plot to get GM crops and food in to our fields and on to our dining tables continues to unfold.

It seems to have been hatched in the summer of 2012 with a low-key consultation about new “agri-tech” measures for our farms. The execution of the plot was placed in the capable hands of the newly-appointed, and very pro-GM, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. [2]

The strategy is becoming increasingly apparent: create “GM the brand”, GM the 'hot topic', GM the 'obvious solution' to all our key problems, GM desired by anyone with 'any sense'. So that, somehow, GM keeps hitting the headlines for no reason.

As already reported by GM-free Scotland, Paterson is backed in this venture by an army of government and non-government organisations moving in step to the beat of a PR company drum. [2] There are also signs of back-up actions performed by other enlisted guerrillas.

Target number one is the UK public although Scotland has received extra special attention.

Paterson kicked things off in December 2012 by getting a lot of sound bytes (all of which have been said before) into the 'news'. Just in case Scots didn't get the message, this was co-ordinated with a resounding echo from a handy Tory MP in Scotland. [1]

In January 2013, the influential and widely reported annual debate of the Oxford Farming Conference was put to good use.

The media was primed to pick up on Paterson's 2-paragraph mention of GM buried in a 58-paragraph speech, to the exclusion of just about everything else. [3]

That GM didn't feature particularly in the Environment Secretary's contribution seems to contradict the idea of a GM-the-brand plot. But, Paterson didn't have to elaborate any further because he had a henchman at the Conference. Author Mark Lynas also made a speech there. His views on GM caused a social media sensation with a global impact.

Lynas' qualifications are in history and politics. In days gone by, he was an environmentalist embroiled with anti-nuclear power activists and GM crop-trashers. He then decided his previous ideologies were anti-science, and found that writing about other misguided greens, and favourably about nuclear power in the context of climate change could very lucrative. His latest pro-scientific enlightenment seems to be biotech ideology. If history, politics and youthful rebellion don't seem the most appropriate qualifications for writing about complex scientific issues, Lynas explains that his (non-professional) reading of the scientific literature on climate change, has given him what it takes to understand GM technology.

The 'news' which Lynas broadcast during the Oxford Farming Conference, and which he made sure went out far and wide was, that now he is older and wiser, he is uncompromisingly pro-GM, and that he deeply regretted the anti-GM movement which he helped to start in the mid-1990s. The latter statement metamorphosed into his role as 'founder' and 'godfather' of the anti-GM movement as it wended its way around the world.

However, there's a somewhat rat-like aroma in this 'news'. For example:
  • Lynas GM-conversion happened way back in 2010; it's not news.
  • Crop-trashing was good theatre, but those who did it didn't start anything: many major environmental organisations, individuals and scientists were actively concerned long before there were any biotech crop trials to trash. Indeed, no one who was raising awareness of GM issues during the 1990s (including the GM-free Scotland team) remembers him. The key role he suggests for himself, and dramatically apologises for, simply isn't true.
  • Why was someone with no qualifications whatsoever in farming, agronomy or any relevant branch of science (such as biology, nutrition etc.) on the platform at a farming conference?
Hint. What happened at the Oxford Farming Conference was good theatre and this is what Lynas does best. In June 2012 he was on the platform at the World Potato Conference in Edinburgh where he was applauded by scientists for saying that GM (potatoes presumably) will help feed the world. Why a very intelligent audience should applaud a biotech PR sound-byte they've been hearing for years isn't obvious. However, this GM non-news might have been down to a well-placed press-man and a few hand-clapping plants in the audience. Lynas' qualifications for this speech were described in the Scotsman as having “studied at Edinburgh University” (potatoes presumably).

Was Lynas at the Oxford Farming Conference as a cog in Paterson's GM machine? Who knows?

However, suspicion has previously fallen on this repentant environmentalist back in 2011 after his name appeared in a leaked memo from Europabio. This GM-lobby group was planning to launch a volley of hush-hush, but influential ambassadors to convert Europeans to the GM faith. [5]

Lynas denies any involvement in this scheme, but the potential of such a strategy probably wasn't lost on Westminster.

Since the Oxford Farming Conference, the GM non-news has kept up a lively flow. Europe, which is the major stumbling block to Westminster's GM plans, became the focus of attention.

In February, the big GM 'news' was Paterson's wishful proposal for Britain to 'go it alone' on GM crops in Europe. [4]

In March, the big GM 'news' was that Paterson was preparing a speech about his February wish, while one of the generals in his army, MP George Freeman, jumped in to repeat last month's big GM news that Britain could 'go it alone' on GM crops. The Financial Times pointed out that this 'new' proposal had actually been put forward by the European Commission in 2010, but was abandoned after much debate and opposition from member states.

The other big GM 'news' in March was that Paterson's army was preparing to launch a new agri-tech strategy (that is, the one launched in summer 2012).

Close on the heels of Paterson's go-it-alone wish was the 'news' of another wish that more GM crops should be sold in Europe. Chancellor, George Osborne was drafted in to support this one.

Apparently, the Environment Secretary was quoted as desiring 
“a national conversation about (GM) based on scientific evidence ...”


Nothing in the Westminster/Paterson plot is new. However the scale of the orchestration, the carefully staged 'news' generation, and media channelling are unprecedented. And it's all designed to manipulate your views on GM.

Paterson's right about one thing: we do need a conversation based on science. But at the moment there's not enough science to talk about - the science needed to confirm or deny safety has barely reached the starting line. And the last thing we need is a conversation based on theatre concocted by a former environmental idealist who now says that everyone with GM concerns is ignorant about science.

Now that you're thoroughly aware of the Paterson performance put on for your benefit, you can mention it to the editor when the next Act appears in the press.

Background reading:
[1] A FAIRY TALE FOR CHRISTMAS - December 2012
[3] WESTMINSTER'S PRO-GM PUSH - January 2013

  • Jonathan Matthews, The Repentant Environmentalist: Part 1 and 11, 30.01.13 and 27.02.13,
  • True greens know GM is the answer, Sunday Times, 3.06.12
  • Andrew Arbuckle, There's something to this mad scientist notion after all, Scotsman, 4.06.12
  • UK set for GM food push in Europe, Financial times, 8.03.13
  • Owen Paterson “to call for EU to allow more GM crops to be sold”, Telegraph, 11.03.13

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