Government hiding behind Nuffield's dodgy dossier (2/3/2004)

1.Government hiding behind Nuffield's dodgy dossier
2.Written answers to parliamentary questions - GM crops
3.Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails - New Scientist

1.Government hiding behind Nuffield's dodgy dossier

When in 1999 the Nuffield Council on Bioethics reported that it was a "moral imperative" GM crops be grown in developing countries, George Monbiot found its arguments so badly flawed he called it "the most asinine biotechnology report ever written", adding, "The stain it leaves on the Nuffield Council's excellent reputation will last for years."

George Monbiot was far from alone in rejecting the report. Particular exception was taken to the fact that not only was nobody from the developing world included in the panel which drew it up but the same went for the expert witnesses to whom the Nuffield Council turned for independent advice. That didn't stop the report being warmly welcomed by the British Government, however, with Tony Blair proclaiming it a vindication of GM and of the Government's stance on the issue.

More recently, it emerged from leaked Cabinet documents that Government ministers, including Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, are planning to try and sell the public GM crop commercialisation on the basis of the technology's benefits for the developing world. In response, Labour Member of Parliament, Joan Ruddock asked for evidence of those benefits; specifically, a list of the GM crops which could be shown to have assisted development and of the relevant peer-reviewed research to back that up. In his reply (see below), Environment Minister, Elliott Morley, refers her to, "A recently published report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics". This Morley says, "contains a number of case studies detailing the actual and potential benefits of GM crops for developing countries." Morley's reference is to a an update of the 1999 Nuffield report - 'The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries: a follow up discussion paper' (January 2004).

So how reliable is the latest version of Nuffield that the Government appears to be once again relying upon?

One of the limited number of case studies the new report uses is a Monsanto-initiated project to breed a GM virus-resistant sweet potato for use in Kenyan agriculture. On the face of it, this project appears to provide some of the evidence for increased crop yields that Joan Ruddock asks about. The report says, "it is expected that yields will increase by 18-25%" and that, where sold, "the increased income will be between 28-39%" (p.39).  Overall, the report says that this project shows that "the use of GM virus-resistant sweet potatoes could prevent dramatic and frequent reductions in yield of one of the major food crops of many poor people in Africa." (p.43)

That sounds impressive but the Nuffield report was released in the same month as the results of 3 years of crop trials on the GM sweet potato. These show the project to have been a complete failure with the supposedly virus-resistant GM sweet potatoes actually being outperformed by conventional sweet potatoes (see the New Scientist article below, 'Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails').

The Nuffield authors can, of course, be forgiven for not knowing the results of the trials in advance, but a report by Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies, produced well ahead of the final version of the Nuffield report, pointed to the complete lack of reliable scientific evidence to support the claims being made for the Kenyan project. It also pointed to a series of reasons for extreme caution about its likely outcome.

DeGrassi's report was not only widely circulated on the Internet, but it was repeatedly referred to in press articles in the months prior to the production of the final version of the Nuffield report, eg in pieces by Rob Edwards (GM-free food is contaminated, Sunday Herald - 29 June 2003), John Vidal (Tattered Fagships, The Guardian, 24 September 2003) and George Monbiot (Force-fed a diet of hype, The Guardian 7 October, 2003)

Not only did George Monbiot's piece specifically refer to deGrassi's criticisms of the GM sweet potato project but John Vidal pointed out the relevance of deGrassi's findings to the Nuffield Council's work:

"[the Nuffield] authors should consider the work of Aaron deGrassi, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.  DeGrassi has analysed three flagship GM projects in Africa - including Monsanto's GM cotton in South Africa, Syngenta's maize project in Kenya, and another Kenyan project with GM sweet potatoes involving Monsanto, the World Bank and USAid. The industry claims that all three are showcase successes for small farmers, but DeGrassi finds the benefits much lower than could be obtained with conventional breeding at a fraction of the investment in GM research."

Vidal's piece even told the Nuffield authors where to find the report: "Details at:",7843,1047994,00.html

In addition, the only development specialist on the Nuffield Working Party (Michael Lipton) is based, like deGrassi, at the University of Sussex. Indeed, Lipton and deGrassi were both among those at a two-day conference on GM and development at the Institute of Development Studies at the beginning of October 2003 - some 3 months before the publication of the Nuffield report.

It is, therefore, extremely difficult to see the Nuffield authors' failure to make any reference to deGrassi's work as anything other than deliberate. What makes this particularly questionable is that the Nuffield authors not only overlook deGrassi's warnings about the lack of verifiable evidence to support the claims about the project in Kenya, they even quote a yield figure for conventional sweet potato production in Africa of 6 tons per hectare which deGrassi points out lacks any credible basis. The figure is completely at odds with FAO and Kenyan official statistics which give average yields in Kenya as around 10 tons per hectare. The figure of 6 tons, which the Nuffield report uses, has been promoted, deGrassi says, as a means of making the potential yields from the GM sweet potato look comparatively good.

Similarly, the Nuffield Report says that effective controls for the pathogens the Kenyan project aims to tackle are "not available". But, as George Monbiot noted in an article published three m


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