GM Nation? You bet! - The conflicts driving commercialisation (8/3/2004)

On the eve of commercialisation of GM crops in the UK, GM WATCH would like to remind everybody of just where power and influence resides in this country.

GM Nation? You bet!

The overwhelming majority of the UK public are known to be strongly opposed to GM commecialisation. This was reflected in every aspect of the official "GM Nation?" public debate, and even in the skewed citizens' jury organised by the Food Standards Agency. Last week an report from the House of Commons' Environmmental Audit Committee called for commercialisation not to go ahead at this point and for much more testing to be done. The cross-party report was unanimous that GM commercialisation could not be justified. There was not one dissenting voice

Yet tomorrow an announcement is expected from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Margaret Beckett, giving the go ahead for the commercialisation of Bayer's (GM) Chardon LL fodder maize. Statements are also expected in Scotland and Wales indicating that a deal has been agreed to place Chardon LL on the national seed list, despite the many unresolved issues and controversies surrounding it.

One of those controversies arises from new scientific evidence from Norway on the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) promoter found in Chardon LL and other GM crops. But that research, like other research that has raised questions about the promoter, almost certainly never had a chance of being considered seriously.

To understand why just consider the whereabouts of Tony Blair's principal financial supporter, biotech advisor and Science Minister while the GM public debate in the UK was taking place. He was off in the United States attending the Biotech Industry Organisation's annual convention and studying how to make UK science still more commercially minded.

The results of the kind of industrial alignment that Lord Sainsbury has been working hard to encourage could be seen in the paper published by Perry et al. on Nature's website on Friday. The paper was clearly designed and timed - almost certainly with Government collusion - to undermine the conclusions of the Environmental Audit Committee's report published the same day.

The paper is, to say the very least, highly speculative in supporting its claim that there would be a marginal environmental benefit from GM maize. It was so speculative that the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committe dismissed it as "neither robust nor particularly credible science".

According to their declaration of competing financial interests, two of the scientists who provided this political fig leaf have had, and anticipate continuing to have, research contracts with Bayer Crop Protection - the division that sells the herbicide linked to Bayer's GM maize. The other authors declare they have "no competing financial interests". In reality, though, almost all work for institutes (Rothamsted, Brooms Barn, and the Scottish Crop Research Institute) which have strong financial ties to the biotech industry.

Take, for instance, the principal author of the paper, Prof Joe Perry, who works at Rothamsted. According to a statement previously available on the Rothamsted website, 'We look upon most of our arrangements with commercial companies as partnerships'. Rothamsted sees such partnerships as providing the opportunity for 'a seamless mix of basic research and practical applications.' The statement listed Aventis (Aventis Crop Science is now part of Bayer), DuPont, Novartis and Syngenta, as among Rothamsted's 'partners'. This statement, however, appears to have recently been removed from the site, leaving no way of currently identifying Rothamsted's industry partners.

Ironically, the current edition of the journal Nature, which was so obliging in the timing of its publication of the Perry et al paper, carries an article on the MMR scandal. This reports how the medical journal, The Lancet, has said it would never have published the MMR component of Dr Andrew Wakefield’s study if it had known about his having received money from the Legal Aid Board for investigating the MMR-autism link. Wakefield was vilified in the UK media over this conflict of interest with The Sunday Times, which broke the news of the conflict, saying in its report that scientific studies authored by researchers with possible conflicts of interest are "fatally flawed".

Yet, Wakefield's conflict of interest, as George Monbiot recently pointed out, is as nothing in comparison with those that impact on the UK's science establishment. And those conflicts go right to the heart of Tony Blair's Government and the process by which it has reviewed the scientific safety of this technology. Indeed, if you want to understand the commercial alignment of UK science there is no better place to start than with the UK's Science Minister.

The leading player in biotechnology research in this country is the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre. It's a joint venture between Lord Sainsbury's Gatsby Foundation, the University of East Anglia, the BBSRC and the John Innes Foundation. Funding for the Sainsbury Laboratory is primarily through grants from the Gatsby Foundation but it also gets public money via the public funding body for the bio-sciences, the BBSRC, whose grant is determined by Lord Sainsbury's department. Last year it was revealed that Sainsbury as Science Minister had overseen a massive 300 per cent increase in his department's funding for the Sainsbury Laboratory.

Sainsbury became Tony Blair's Science Minister in 1998. He is also a member of the cabinet biotechnology committee, Sci-Bio, responsible for national policy on biotechnology including GM crops and foods. Although a key adviser to Blair on biotech, he apparently absents himself from decisions impacting directly on GM foods because, it is said, of his connection to the Sainsbury supermarket chain.

When he was made Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury resigned as Chairman of the Sainsbury's supermarket chain and put into a blind trust major investments in two plant genetics-related investment companies (Diatech Ltd and Innotech Investments Ltd). Innotech is known to have a substantial stake in a firm called Paradigm Genetics involved in a joint GM-related venture with Monsanto.

Lord Sainsbury's GM investment company Diatech has funded research at the Sainsbury Laboratory. Dr Roger Freedman, the Director of Diatech approved the work. Dr. Freedman is also on the board of the Sainsbury Laboratory Council, which oversees the Sainsbury Laboratory. In short, Sainsbury heads a government department that gives money to the Laboratory (via the BBSRC) that he supports and which bears his name, and on whose board is the man who runs his company, currently held in a blind trust. But the story doesn't end there.

In 1987 the scientist Mike Wilson was named as the inventor of a UK patent (number 8801508) that could generate millions from GM commercialisation.

Diatech was listed as the patent applicant. The patent, which Wilson and Diatech also filed in the US in 1995, is seen as being crucial to the future of genetic engineering. Wilson and Diatech also filed two other similar patents in the US, which relate to what is known as translational enhances, which boost the amount of protein produced by a GM gene making it more effective. They enhance various viruses, one of which is called the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV), which works as an on-off switch for genetic engineering.

Mosaic viruses are widely used in genetic engineering, but their use, especially that of the cauliflower mosaic virus has been highly controversial. In addition to the new research questioning its safety, it was at the centre of the row over GM safety ignited when Dr Arpad Pusztai alleged in World in Action in the late nineties that his rats being fed GM potatoes had suffered growth retardation and a damaged immune system. Dr Pusztai alleged that an independent statistical analysis of his research showed that the cauliflower mosaic virus itself damaged the rats.

These days Mike Wilson, who is seen as being evangelically pro-biotech, and recently attacked the press in a letter to the Times for peddling "blatant anti-GM propaganda, unbridled conspiracy theories and scientifically-unfounded scare-stories", heads Horticulture Research International. Although HRI is responsible to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, three members of its board are chosen directly by Lord Sainsbury.

Wilson is a consultant to Diatech. He was also a key member of the Government's GM Science Review Panel that met over the summer, but he was far from the only scientist on the panel that is linked to Lord Sainsbury and his funding network.

Professor John Gray is from the Department of Plant Science, at the University of Cambridge. He is a council member and trustee of the Sainsbury Laboratory, as well as being on the Science Advisory Panel of the Gatsby Charitable Trust, along with Dr. Roger Freedman of Diatech. Professor Gray is also the chairman of the Trustees of the Gatsby organisation, Science and Plants for Schools, along with Miss Judith Portrait, who manages Lord Sainsbury's blind trusts.

The Science Review Panel also included 3 scientists with links to the John Innes Centre, which houses the Sainsbury Laboratory. The first is Professor Chris Leaver, from the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, who is also a trustee of the John Innes Foundation, the director of John Innes Bioprospects Ltd, the director of John Innes Agriculture. He is also a member of the John Innes Centre Governing Council and a Trustee of the John Innes Foundation.

Two review panel members work at the John Innes Centre. Professor Dale is the leader of Genetic Modification and Biosafety Research Group at the Centre and  Professor Michael Gale is the associate Research Director there. Gale though is also a director of John Innes Enterprises and a consultant to Plant Bioscience Ltd or PBL.

Based at the John Innes Centre, PBL is an independent technology management company, which is jointly owned by the JIC and Lord Sainsbury's Gatsby Foundation. It was set up by the Gatsby Foundation in 1994, when Lord Sainsbury himself headed the Foundation. Although Sainsbury does not have dealings with the Gatsby Foundation while he is a Minister, Dr. Roger Freedman from Diatech is still on the PBL board. Freedman is also named as an applicant and inventor along with Diatech and the John Innes Centre in a patent on the regulation of plant genes.

PBL also has a number of GM patents that could be exploited if GM commercialisation went ahead. Last year the Sunday Times reported how since Labour came to power in 1997, the Department of Trade and Industry had given GBP743,000 to PBL. The government payments to PBL were awarded in three tranches by an independent panel, but at least two were signed off by Sainsbury in his capacity as the minister responsible for the awards. PBL is described as 'a for-profit technology interaction and intellectual property management company specialising in plant and microbial science'.

In a Financial Times article last year, Lord Sainsbury lamented the nation's failure to celebrate the 'stunning change in the  entrepreneurial attitudes' of UK public science.  The nation may think it has its own reasons for lamentation, given a GM-enthusiast Science Minister who is also a major donor to Tony Blair's Labour Party.

Sainsbury gave Labour its biggest ever single donation in September 1997. On October 3 1997 he was made a life peer by Blair and a year later Minister for Science. By 2003 he had given over GBP11 million to the Labour Party.

Mark Seddon, a member of Labour's National Executive  Committee, told the BBC, "In any other country I think a government minister donating such vast amounts of money and effectively buying a political party would be seen for what it is, a form of corruption of the political process." Seddon said it was causing Labour to lose members amid criticism from the grassroots that the party was now "in the pockets of the powerful and the rich".

That perception will only be heightened when Margaret Beckett stands up to make her statement in the House of Commons.

GM Nation? You bet.


The following scientists on the GM Science Review can all be linked to Lord Sainsbury’s "empire":

Professor John Gray - Gatsby Charitable Foundation - Senior Plant Science Adviser; Chairman of the Trustees Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) - a Gatsby organisation - Trustees also include Judith Portrait -runs his blind trust; Council member and Trustee - Sainsbury Laboratory (Norwich); Horticulture Research International - Non-executive Director .

Professor Chris Leaver FRS - John Innes Foundation - Director, John Innes Bioprospects Ltd; Director, John Innes Agriculture; Member, John Innes Centre Governing Council; Trustee - John Innes Foundation; Science Media Centre, Royal Institution of G.B; Member of Science Advisory Panel

Michael Wilson; Diatech Ltd Consultant

Professor Michael Gale; Associate Research Director at the John Innes Centre; John Innes Enterprises - Director; Plant Bioscience Ltd., Norwich - Consultant -Freedman on the board

Professor Philip Dale; Leader of Genetic Modification and Biosafety Research Group at the John Innes Centre.    

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