Andrew Bennet is the Executive Director of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, which has as its declared goal 'contributing to sustainable food security for small-scale farmers'. Syngenta is the world's largest biotechnology company and Syngenta directors occupy 3 of the 5 seats on the Syngenta Foundation's board.
Immediately prior to joining the Syngenta Foundation Bennet was Director of Rural Livelihoods and Environment for the UK government's Department for International Development (DFID) where he directly advised UK government ministers on issues like environmental protection and sustainable development.
DFID has faced strong criticism both for the extent of its support for projects involving genetic engineering and for its lack of openness about the research. In September 2002, The Independent on Sunday reported that DFID had been running a '£13.4m programme to create a new generation of GM animals, crops and drugs throughout the Third World.The so far unpublicised programme has financed research in more than 24 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe into at least 80 GM projects ranging from long-life bananas to fast-growing pigs and fish...'
DfID was accused by Dr Sue Mayer of GeneWatch UK of having 'deceived' the public about the scale of the programme. In a Leader comment, the Independent on Sunday said that the revelation that DFID had funded such a huge programme of GM research across the Third World was deeply disturbing. 'The whole programme legitimises and promotes technology still opposed by many Third World governments and their peoples. Britain has no business doing this. And it certainly should not continue without subjecting the work to the kind of public debate that ministers have rightly decided must be completed before any decision is taken to commercialise the technology at home.' A significant number of DFID GM crop projects have been undertaken by the John Innes Centre which has also enjoyed tens of millions of pounds in investment from Syngenta.
Included in the DFID schemes were projects linked to a controversial £65m DFID aid programme in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh - a programme which critics allege will help push 20 million subsistence farmers off their land. The concerns about this DFID-backed project received wide-scale publicity as a result of media coverage of the findings of a citizens' jury with 'scenario workshops' (or 'prajapeertu') conducted among poor farmers and landless labourers in Andhra Pradesh who unanimously rejected the development proposals.
Andrew Bennet is understood to have been among those at DFID who encouraged criticism of those who conducted the research, Dr Michel Pimbert, of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and Dr Tom Wakeford, then of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). DFID, which provides around 70% of both institutes funding, even demanded the suppression of the report. Pimbert and Wakeford responded by accusing 'a few individuals within a major donor agency' of trying to 'silence critical reflections' by seeking to suppress a report that gave 'a bigger voice to poor and marginalised communities'.
Bennet left DFID for the Syngenta Foundation at the height of the controversy. But within months of taking up his new post he was involved in another after the Syngenta Foundation, in the words of The Guardian , 'pulled off a coup by gaining a place on the governing body of the consultative group on the international agricultural research centres (CGIAR). This is the network of international public research institutions which have been the target of biotech companies for years but, until now, escaped infiltration. Critics are appalled. "CGIAR has unabashedly adopted the corporate research agenda, thereby accepting that it ceases to follow the original mandate of conducting agricultural research for 'public good'." '
In fact, the CGIAR's own NGO Committee (NGOC) refused to tow the official line. It decided to freeze its relationship with the CGIAR pending a review of the CGIAR's research agenda. The NGOC observed, 'the CGIAR is deviating from [its] mandate and is adopting a corporate agenda for agricultural research and development. CGIAR's consideration of Syngenta Foundation's membership is a clear indication of the trend towards the corporatisation of public agricultural research.'