Burke attacks Blair over GM (31/10/2003)

One can imagine who many of the "100 scientists" - at the heart will be the campaigning group he described in an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement in March 2003 (see item 2)

*Burke rallies the troops
*profile of Derek Burke
Scientists attack Blair over GM
BBC, Friday, 31 October, 2003, 09:36 GMT

More than a hundred scientists have written to Tony Blair, complaining about the handling of the public debate on genetically modified crops.  The group criticised ministers for not correcting "misleading" reports about GM technology in the media.

They say they have been "demoralised" by the hostility to their work, and said public meetings had been hijacked.

Downing Street said it was awaiting a report from its scientific advisers on GM before it could comment on studies.

False claims

The scientists said their letter is an indication of the frustration felt by many in the research community.

The signatories said they had hoped that participating in the GM debate would help inform the public.

But they feel "undermined" by the government's failure to correct false claims, the letter added.

  They set up meetings which were rallying groups for the anti-GM people, and they were hijacked

Professor Derek Burke 
They felt the process of consultation had been hijacked by anti-GM groups, with scientists, in the words of one of the signatories, "hung out to dry".

If the same method of public consultation continues to be used other technologies could lose out to "prejudice and procrastination", they added.

Downing Street added that it recognised the vital contribution of the biotechnology industry, but said that its approach to GM was a precautionary one.

'Rallying groups'

A three-year trial of GM crops recently concluded that two out of three of the varieties tested were worse for wildlife than ordinary crops.

Professor Derek Burke, one of those involved in the letter to Mr Blair, said scientists had not had the chance to put their case properly.

He said: "The fault lies with the politicians who have not set up a level playing field for the debate."

Professor Burke told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "They set up meetings which were rallying groups for the anti-GM people, and they were hijacked.

"We want arguments based on evidence and what we are getting is arguments based on opinion.

"We are saying to Tony Blair loud and clear that the science community is disaffected."

'Case by case'

A Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said the government had not commented on the results of the farm-scale evaluation because they were being considered by the expert committee Acre (Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment).

"Acre's advice will inform the decision the government has to make on whether GM crops should be grown commercially in the UK," the spokesman said.

"We recognise that the bio-technology industry is a vital part of the country's economy. However our approach to GM is based on the precautionary principle.

"Each GM crop application is considered on a case by case basis."
Prof Derek Burke was chair of the UK regulatory committee on GM foods (Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes - ACNFP) for almost a decade (1988-97), during which time the first GM foods were approved for the UK. In the 1980s he worked for a biotech company (Allelix Inc of Toronto) and until 1998 was a director of Genome Research Ltd. 

During much of his time at ACNFP, Prof Burke was also Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (1987-1995)  and a member of the governing council of the John Innes Centre (JIC). Both institutions have benefited from investment in GM research, with the JIC enjoying multi-million pound investments from biotechnology corporations like Syngenta and Dupont.  

Burke participated in the UK government's 'Technology Foresight' exercise to decide how science could best contribute to the UK's economic competitiveness. He was then charged with incorporating the Foresight proposal to build businesses from genetics into the corporate plan of the UK's public funding body, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). As a result, BBSRC developed a strategy for integrating scientific opportunity with the needs of industry.  

Prof Burke was a member of the Royal Society working group on GM foods whose report, 'Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use', is said to have reassured ministers on this issue. He was also a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics group that produced the report 'Genetically modified crops: the social and ethical issues'. The rerport was described by Guardian columnist George Monbiot as 'perhaps the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written. The stain it leaves on the Nuffield Council's excellent reputation will last for years. ' 

Prof Burke has been a keen propagandist for GM foods. In 1999, for instance, he published a 10-point rebuttal of criticisms by the Prince of Wales of GM food.  In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement in March 2003, he gave advice on campaigning to scientists wishing to defend nanotechnology. Burke told his readers, 'I have spent about half my time over the past six years speaking, writing, giving radio and television interviews about GM.' He advised them to form a rebuttal group, 'You need a group of people, in constant email contact, who are prepared to spend, say, 10 per cent of their week dealing with the issues that have just been raised. We have one now for GM, but it took us a long time to get that going.'    

He warned his readers, 'Don't hype. We made that mistake about biotechnology in the early 1980s, and it did us great harm. Achievements were too slow in coming, cost more than originally estimated and delivered less in consumer benefits than we had promised. We were bullish, but if you overdo it, you will regret it. Some of this is driven by over-confidence, some by a desperate thirst for funds. Quick money can easily mislead inexperienced managers into spending too freely and uncritically, and credibility is quickly lost.' Financial considerations are the key according to Burke, '...the consequence of the loss of this technology for society is the loss of the ability to create new wealth. It's my grandchildren that I'm concerned about. How will they earn their living in 20 years? The answer may lie partly in your hands.'

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