Nuffield Council on Bioethics

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics says it is an independent body which examines the ethical issues raised by developments in medicine and biology. Established in 1991, it is funded by The Nuffield Foundation, the Medical  Research Council and The Wellcome Trust.

In 1999 no less than four newsworthy reports on GM were published in the UK in the space of just two days. All asserted the safety of GM foods and crops, and all strongly criticised the research of Dr Arpad Pusztai which had raised considerable doubts about the safety of GM foods. Their publication also followed hard on the heels of a British Medical Association report calling for an indefinite moratorium on GM crops. 

One of these reports was the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report, Genetically modified crops: the social and ethical issues , published in May 1999. The attack on Dr Pusztai was contained in an appendix to the report which Pusztai characterised as 'misleading and full of inaccuracies... unscientific and most unfair.'  

The Nuffield report declared that all GM foods currently on the market were 'safe' and that there was a moral imperative to make GM crops available to developing countries. Though the panel that drew up the report was presented as 'a group of independent scientists', this does not bear examination.

Among those on the panel were:

  • Mike Gale FRS: biotechnologist at the John Innes Centre (JIC), which at that time was negotiating a deal with biotech giants Zeneca and DuPont promising some £60-70m in investment. Gale, while serving as the JIC's acting director, said of the financial impact of a GM moratorium on the JIC, 'It would be very, very serious for us.'
  • Derek Burke: former vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA), and former chair of the governing council of the JIC (see above), both of which have benefited from biotech industry funding. Burke was chairman for nearly a decade (1988-97) of the Advisory Committee for Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP), the regulatory body which approved the UK's first GM foods.
  • Brian Heap FRS: then Vice President of the Royal Society. Like Burke and Gale, Heap helped produce the Royal Society's report 'Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use' which was used at an earlier stage to reassure government ministers that there were no significant problems with GM. He was also on the Royal Society group that organised a partial 'peer review' of Pusztai's work while it was still unpublished -­ an act The Lancet described as 'a gesture of breathtaking impertinence.'  
  • Michael Lipton: development economist at the Poverty Research Unit, University of Sussex. Lipton is a strong supporter of GM and of genetically modified 'golden rice'. He warns that it is threatened by 'a great anti-scientific wave' and says NGOs which oppose it should have their charitable status brought into question. He does not appear to consider the large amount of money being invested in 'golden rice' could better be spent on the cheap and effective approaches already available, nor that those likely to be most directly affected by this technology should be centrally involved in decision making about it.

In drawing up its report, the Nuffield panel consulted, among others, the biotech corporations Monsanto and Zeneca. The Scottish Herald (30 May 99) reported that an early draft of the report had warned of possible environmental problems  with GM crops and suggested leaving large GM-free tracts of the UK as an 'insurance policy'. This suggestion did not survive consultation with the industry and was edited out before publication.

Although the report made such strong recommendations on the use of GM crops in the developing world, curiously there was no consultation with anyone from the developing world, nor was a single well-known scientific critic of GM consulted.

The environmental writer George Monbiot described the Nuffield report as 'perhaps the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written. The stain it leaves on the Nuffield Council's excellent reputation will last for years.'

According to Monbiot, the panel made three fundamental mistakes.

  • 'The first was to assume that the technology is neutral' whereas 'control of the foodchain remains with the corporation at every stage of production'.
  • The second mistake was 'its crude, even childish supposition that any technology which produces more will feed the starving. The world is littered with the wreckage of such assumptions. Ethiopia's modern agro-industrialists were exporting animal feed to Europe throughout its devastating famine... starvation happens because the wrong people own the foodchain.'
  • The third mistake was 'its inexplicable premise that biotechnology will somehow boost employment. Monsanto's leading biotech products - herbicide resistant crops - are sold with the promise that they reduce the need for labour: farmers give their money not to local labourers but to one of the biggest corporations on earth.'

The fact that the Nuffield panel did not consult even 1 person from a developing country, out of the 87 or so experts they met, proved particularly controversial. A group representing Indian farmers even turned up uninvited at the Nuffield offices in London to express their unhappiness with the report and  frustration at their point of view not being heard. The Nuffield's director eventually agreed to speak to them, though not before calling the police.

Four years on, in 2003, a group within the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' produced a follow up report to coincide with the UK's national GM Public Debate. Go to a Printer Friendly Page

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