Revealed - the private interests behind the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (24/5/2005)

Revealed - the private interests behind the Public Research and Regulation Initiative

1.Public Research and Regulation - a profile
2.Public Research and Regulation at the CPB Liability meeting and the CPB-MOP2


In 1997, in the midst of the Biosafety Protocol negotiations, the Global Industry Coalition flew in a panel of ''public researchers'' to lend support to the industry''s case.

The biotech industry''s attempt to influence the negotiations, although unsuccessful at the time, seems to have provided the model for the new Public Research and Regulation Initiative, whose supporters will be active in Montreal in the coming days (see item 2), seeking to make sure their voice is heard at MOP2 and beyond by promoting GM research and opposing strict regulation.

Our new GM Watch profile (item 1) makes clear the dubious backgrounds and behaviour of those driving forward this new initiative, and exposes the truth about their claims to being independent of the biotech industry.

1.Public Research and Regulation
- a GM Watch profile
[for links to sources etc.]

Established in December 2004 in the Netherlands, Public Research and Regulation is a foundation with the stated aim of involving ''the public research sector in regulations relevant to the development and application of biotechnology''. The implicit concern is that the ''development and application'' of genetically modified organisms will be obstructed if regulations are too extensive, too complex or too stringent.

The foundation''s focus is not just on national regulations, and how they are implemented, but on the international agreements that influence them, particularly the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which controls the trade in genetically modified organisms. It is the view of the foundation that while industry and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were well represented both at the the negotiations that led to the adoption of the Protocol and at the first Meeting of Parties to the Protocol (MOP1 in February 2004), a third group ''the public research sector involved in developing biotechnological applications'' should also have been given a voice. The aim of the foundation is to make sure this sector has a bigger say on the Protocol at MOP2 (May-June 2005) and beyond.

The foundation also wants to talk up the benefits of public research into genetically modified crops and, in particular, to counter the ''misconception'' that GM crops are ''the exclusive domain of a handful of big, western multinationals.'' The foundation contrasts this handful of big companies with a ''public research sector involved in developing biotechnological applications, which includes over a hundred thousand researchers in thousands of governmental, academic and international research institutions in developing and developed countries.''

It is unclear how reliable these figures are, however, particularly as the foundation uses the vague term ''biotechnological applications'', which could have relevance to a whole variety of fields (medical, industrial, environmental and agricultural) and to a wide range of biological processes. It seems likely that the number of researchers involved specifically in developing GM crops - the foundation''s main point of concern - is a small fraction of the figure the foundation quotes. Moreover, following the launch of the initiative, and in the run up to MOP2, the ''list of public sector scientists and others who support the initiative and wish to be actively involved in the activities'' of the foundation amounted to just 113 scientists (as at 19 May 2005).

The list of those supporting the initiative also undermines the foundation''s clear cut separation of public research and private companies. The list includes, for instance, Dr. Andrew Bennett of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. Yet, 3 of the 5 seats on the Syngenta Foundation''s board are occupied by directors of Syngenta, the world''s largest biotech corporation, and Syngenta''s Chairman is the Foundation''s President. The Syngenta Foundation has been accused, by Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies, of conducting showcase projects that are more about generating useful public relations for GM crops than meeting the real needs of poor farmers in the developing world. DeGrassi writes, ''The Syngenta Foundation - has a poor record of supporting client-driven public agricultural research institutes''.

The call for increased leverage for ''nonprofit'' ''public sector'' players, in fact, belies the heavy industrial-alignment of most public sector agricultural biotechnology, where there is a long history of involvement with intensive agricultural R&D, of collaboration with agribusiness multinationals and of significant dependence on commercial funding. The effect of this has inevitably been to generate a convergence of interests, views and even personnel, between private sector and public sector operators.

Other supporters of the initiative also point to this interpenetration of public and private. Dr. Gerard Barry, for instance, although now an employee of the International Rice Research Institute was formerly a research director at Monsanto. The Chairman of the Public Research and Regulation foundation, Prof. Phil Dale, works at an institute, the John Innes Centre, which has benefitted from tens of millions of pounds in funding from big biotechnology corporations.

This public-private convergence can also be seen in the way in which the initiative was launched. The formal launch took place at the Danforth Center in St. Louis, Missouri (3-4 March, 2005), hosted by Roger Beachy, the Center''s founding president. St Louis is the home town of Monsanto, and the Danforth Center was, in fact, established by Monsanto ''and academic partners'' with a $70-million pledge from the company. Monsanto also donated the 40-acre tract of land, valued at $11.4 million, on which the Center is built.

Similarly, Monsanto and other biotechnology companies have helped to fund the research of the Center''s founding president, Roger Beachy. As well as being on the Public Research and Regulation foundation''s Steering Committee, Beachy is also co-Chair of the scientific advisory board of the Akkadix Corporation, a global agricultural biotechnology company. He is also on the scientific advisory board of Spacehab, Inc. Beachy is also a consultant to the United Soybean Board which works to ''make U.S. soybeans the world leader'' . This clearly illustrates the extent to which a public sector biotechnologist can be enmeshed in a series of private sector interests.

The activities of the foundation are similarly enmeshed. Prior to the formal launch of the foundation, a number of ''awareness raising activities'' at events involving public sector scientists were undertaken with the financial support of the private sector. The private sector is also contributing to the running costs of the foundation. The foundation is even administered via a private sector company - Cambridge Biomedical Consultants Ltd.

Conflicting interests also enmesh the prime movers behind the initiative, Willy de Greef and Piet van der Meer, who are on the Foundation''s four-member Board as well as being the Vice-Chairs of its Steering Committee. De Greef is currently the Executive Director of his own private consultancy - International Biotech Regulatory Services - but until the end of 2002 he was the Global Head of Regulatory Affairs - Biotechnology for Syngenta.

Syngenta has been a key player in the Global Industry Coalition which has represented the biotechnology industry throughout the Biosafety Protocol negotiations. Although it has been claimed in relation to the initiative that,

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