10 years of GM Watch (4/2/2008)

NOTE: 2008 sees the 10th anniversay of the founding of GM Watch, so over the next few weeks we'll be putting out some articles and material to mark our 10th birthday.

This wide ranging interview with GM Watch editor, Jonathan Matthews, takes in amongst other things: the history of GM Watch, the industry's attacks on GM-critical scientists, Monsanto's Internet dirty tricks campaign, the herd mentality that drives the uptake of GM crops, and the industry's current assault on the South.


Marina Littek of Italy's Green Planet interviews Jonathan Matthews of GM Watch

Q: When I first came across GM Watch, you seemed to have all the juiciest stories on GM and all the breaking news, and that's been really useful for what I do. But how did it all begin? Wasn't it a local campaign at the start?

We started out as Norfolk Genetic Information Network or NGIN (pronounced engine) in the Spring of 98. Our main concern was that while GM was rapidly going into farmers' fields and our food supply, little or no information was getting to the public and we wanted to remedy that.

Q: Of course, both sides say this - if only the public had more information.

Yes, but the people who support this technology mean 'if only they had more of our information'. That may sound cynical but it's something that I've observed over and over again. Whenever we - the critics - set up a debate on GM food and crops, it’s almost invariably even-handed - 2 speakers for and 2 against, and so on. When the supporters set up a debate, it's almost invariably fixed!

And when you look at the experience with citizen's juries around the world who've sat and deliberated on this technology, you see why that is. When people are genuinely exposed to both sides of this argument, they invariably come down on the side of caution. 'What's the rush?', they want to know. 'Why don't we check this out before rushing headlong into changing the molecular base of our farming and food supply'. And, of course, there's no answer to that. The only reason for rushing is money.

Q: So how did you try to remedy the lack of information?

We started by launching a regular news sheet - Genetic Network News - which looked at scientists' concerns about this technology, and that sort of thing. The focus was primarily local, with campaigns to get GM banned from school dinners and local supermarkets and the like, but some of our campaign activities, quickly began to attract wider attention.

This was also a period of intense campaigning against local GM crop trials in Norfolk . We worked closely with a lot of individuals and groups in local communities opposing them, including campaigners at Lyng in Norfolk who were faced with a particularly aggressive trial farmer who had a lot of support from the industry, and political support and so on. We helped link them up with Peter Melchett, the then head of Greenpeace UK who farmed in Norfolk, and the campaign culminated in 28 Greenpeace volunteers, including Melchett, being arrested during the attempted decontamination of the site.

That made headlines around the world, not just at the time but during the two court cases that followed here in Norwich in 2000. Throughout that period we worked in close liaison with other local campaigners to make Norfolk a notable hot-spot for the biotech industry, although our focus was also widening from the local to the global throughout that time.

Q: At what point did your campaign go online?

Quite early on. From the start the Internet was a great way of staying abreast of news, new reports and so on, and that flow of information really triggered our own campaign. Then a web-savvy reader of Genetic Network News set up a free NGIN website , in order to try and win a bigger readership for the news sheet . But he soon got fed up with all the stuff I kept asking him to stick on the site, so he gave me a quick lesson in how to edit a website and left me to it!

Then in January 99 we launched the daily NGIN e-mail list and it quickly started to attract subscribers from well beyond Norfolk. Part of its success seems to have stemmed from the comments, analysis and summaries of material we have always tended to put out with the items we post, to try and point up important new information, trends, interesting quotes and the like.

Q: What else has given your campaign its distinctive character?

Right at the start, in the very first issue of Genetic Network News, we said we were particularly concerned to counter the misleading information being put out by the biotech industry, and by its lobbyists and its powerful supporters, and that has never changed.

To start with much of our concern about questionable lobbying and misinformation by biotech proponents was triggered by the science communication activities of a number of scientists at the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory , which is Europe's leading plant biotech institute and happens to be based here in Norwich. That concern accelerated in autumn 98 when the JIC, which presents itself as a publicly and charitably funded institute, entered deals worth around £60m with Dupont and, Britain's then leading biotech company, Zeneca - later part of Syngenta.

We've also tracked the efforts of the pro-GM lobby to gain greater control over the media's reporting of controversial science issues like GM. This led to articles with the geneticist Mae-Wan Ho like The New Thought Police: Suppressing dissent in science .

And our research has repeatedly shown how some pro-GM scientists in their desperation to endorse GM will resort to totally bogus information and industry hype that really does not stand up to critical scrutiny. Yet these are exactly the same people whose constant refrain is that all opposition to GM is based on misinformation and emotion, while support for the technology is based on compelling scientific evidence! We've tried to draw attention to these extraordinary double standards .

Q: Is that what led to the Pants on Fire awards?

Yes, we launched the awards back in 2000 as part of our battle to expose the bias and misinformation promoted by pro-GM and anti-organic lobbyists . The name’s maybe a bit confusing for some non-Brits, but basically it was just a sly reference to the playground rhyme: Liar! Liar! Pants on Fire! The idea was to use humour to lubricate a carefully referenced indictment of bias.

Through the awards, and online characters that we created like Prof Bullsh*t , and also some of the articles I've written or helped others to write, we’ve tried to expose not just bogus hype but also the disgusting nature of the attacks that have been made on scientists who’ve raised questions about this technology. We’ve really tried to hold some of the people involved in the attacks to account and to publicise how they've sought to vilif

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