Farmers and GM research (21/3/2008)

1.Farmers and GM research

2.ESRC is criticised for 'biased' study

3.Readers' comment on the article above

EXTRACT: For Lane to claim that it was necessary to go to an organisation that promotes biotech for help in finding farmers is at best just lazy and at worst compromises the results - neither reflects well on The Open University or the ESRC, which funded Lane's study. (item 1)


1.Farmers and GM research
Times Higher Education, 20 March 2008

Congratulations on a balanced article that highlights the Economic and Social Research Council's handling of a study of farmers' opinions on GM crops ('ESRC is criticised for 'biased' study', 13 March [item 2 below]).

I'm a Lincolnshire farmer, and the conclusions of this research, conducted by Andy Lane of The Open University, definitely do not represent my opinions, nor, to look at a number of polls of farmer opinion, do they represent those of the majority of British farmers. The situation is far too complex for a simplistic headline such as 'UK farmers want to grow GM crops' (which was how one Sunday newspaper reported the study) and, furthermore, it threatens to alienate consumers and bring into question our trustworthiness as custodians of the countryside.

Also, in defending his decision to poll just 30 farmers as a representative sample, Lane said 'it was necessary to get help from the Supply Chain Initiative to gain access to farmers'. However, the National Farmers' Union, with its 50,000-odd members, is also an adviser to the researchers, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs keeps details on all farmers. For Lane to claim that it was necessary to go to an organisation that promotes biotech for help in finding farmers is at best just lazy and at worst compromises the results - neither reflects well on The Open University or the ESRC, which funded Lane's study.

Peter Lundgren, White Home Farm, Branston Fen, Lincoln


2.ESRC is criticised for 'biased' study
By Zoe Corbyn
Times Higher Education, 13 March 2008

Anti-GM scientist says survey of farmers is 'market research for biotech industry'. Zoe Corbyn reports

The Economic and Social Research Council has come under fire over its handling of a research project on farmers' attitudes to genetically modified food that critics say is biased in favour of the biotechnology industry.

The ESRC publicised the results of the project by issuing a media release that begins: 'Farmers are upbeat about genetically modified crops, according to new research.'

After the media release, the findings were reported by a number of newspapers, including one prominent Sunday paper whose report on the study was headlined: 'UK farmers want to grow GM crops'.

The press release detailed the results of a GBP131,000 ESRC-funded study led by Andy Lane at The Open University, entitled 'Farmers' understandings of GM crops as new technology'.

One of the four 'key findings' listed in the researchers' 'project findings leaflet' was that farmers 'believed that GM crops offer clear economic and environmental benefits to themselves and the wider public'.

But critics have pointed out that the results were based on interviews with 30 selected large-scale commodity farmers, half of whom had been participants in farm-scale evaluations of GM crops and could therefore be assumed to be favourably disposed towards GM.

The project was also advised by the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops, which describes itself as 'a grouping of industry organisations ... to support the carefully managed introduction of GM crops in the UK'.

'The researchers make statement after statement about what 'farmers' think ... but this cannot be justified on the basis of the research that was carried out,' said Peter Saunders, a professor of mathematics at King's College London and the co-founder of the Institute of Science in Society, a group that says it is dedicated to 'promoting social accountability and ecological sustainability in science'.

Professor Saunders said that the researchers were 'wrong' to extrapolate their work to represent the opinions of UK farmers, and that the ESRC was 'even more wrong' to issue the press release it did.

He questioned why the ESRC had funded the study, which he believed was, in effect, 'a piece of market research for the biotech industry'. He asked: 'Why did they accept ... a final report in which the researchers claim to have shown something they obviously have not?'

Carlo Leifert, a professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University, said: 'It is a very small sample size, and by selecting half (of the survey participants from among) farmers who made money from GM trial sites ... it is a bit of a biased approach.'

A letter issued by the ESRC to its critics, including an anti-GM pressure group, accepts that the 'phrasing of the opening line of the press release could have been more precise' but defends the work.

The ESRC told Times Higher Education that the research 'was never intended to be, nor presented as, a poll of the opinions of the UK farming community as a whole and it had a particular focus on the experiences of those who had participated in GM trials. The ESRC press release makes this very clear ... '.

It added: 'We are satisfied that no one funded or employed by the ESRC has misrepresented this research or acted in a way that could be described as deliberately misleading or dishonest.'

Both the initial research proposal and the final report had been subject to peer review, it added.

Professor Lane, the lead researcher, said it was necessary to get help from the Supply Chain Initiative to gain access to farmers.

Another of the researchers, Sue Oreszczyn, said: 'We have never claimed our research is representative of all farmers but that we researched a specific group (those with experience of growing GM crops and those likely to grow them if they become available) ... It is not unexpected that the anti-GM lobby have chosen to ignore this.'


3.Readers' comments [on the article above]
Brian John, Times Higher Education (website), 13 March 2008

Both the ESRC and the lead researchers are being thoroughly disingenuous. Either they were totally naive and allowed themselves to be manipulated by SCIMAC and the NFU, or they knowingly involved themselves in a piece of propaganda for the GM industry, thinly disguised as 'academic research.' If the latter was the case, we have to ask some serious questions about the substantial expenditure of public money. Should GBP131,000 from the public purse have been spent on a project which tells us that pro-GM farmers are broadly in favour of GM crops? The accessible project papers show us that the results obtained from a tiny sample of hand-picked farmers have been misapplied and have been flagged up as representative of UK farming as a whole. Time and again in the Reports from the project, the authors use phrases like 'Farmers think.....' and 'In the opinion of farmers.....', and they knew full well that the media would seize on these phrases and would fail to pick up on the small print relating to sample size. ESRC knew this too, and was culpable in the distribution of a thoroughly dishonest press release.

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