US & UK political backing for GM technology – but Wales stands firm

16 Jul

November 2009

There is another ‘wave’ of pressure for the growing of GM crops in England, but Wales has taken an unprecedented stand – see final paragraph.  It is coming under great pressure to  reverse its decision.

The National Farmers Union has backed calls for politicians in Europe to give farmers the chance to grow GM crops after recent surveys showed a majority of farmers in favour of the technology.

Pressure is mounting from some scientists for Europe to end its resistance to genetically modified (GM) crops and on the 3rd March there was a failed attempt by the European Commission supported by the UK government – to force two EU member states to drop their ban on the cultivation of a genetically modified maize.

Instead of the usual debates about GM the focus here is on the power of vested interest and lack of independent political scrutiny which enabled the technology to get firm hold in USA.

The drive for GM in the US had powerful support :

  • Clarence Thomas, one of the Supreme Court Judges who voted for the legality of George Bush’s election, was Monsanto’s lawyer.
  • The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Anne Veneman, was on the Board of Directors of Monsanto’s Calgene Corporation.
  • The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was on the Board of Directors of Monsanto’s Searle pharmaceuticals.
  • The U.S. Secretary of Health, Tommy Thompson, received $50,000 in donations from Monsanto during his winning campaign for Wisconsin’s governor.
  • The two congressmen receiving the most donations from Monsanto during the last election were Larry Combest (Chairman of the House Agricultural Committee) and Attorney General John Ashcroft. (Source: Dairy Education Board)
  • The man in charge of overseeing the GMO evaluations at the FDA, Michael Taylor, was not a scientist but a lawyer who had previously represented US biotechnology giant Monsanto. After leaving the FDA he went back to his private practice, eventually becoming Monsanto’s vice president.

The US Center for Responsive Politics points out that this is a classic case of the revolving door syndrome, the conflict of interest caused by the constant movement of professionals back and forth between the private and public sectors.

Britain does not give similar access to information, so there are relatively low numbers of known political links with the industry

In 1999 The Observer reported that Bell Pottinger, the lobbying firm acting for Monsanto was paying up to £10,000 a year to Peter Luff, the chairman of the influential House of Commons Agriculture Select Committee which policed Government food policy.

A year later concerns were recorded about Dr Lutman, who works at the Institute of Arable Crops Research (IACR), where he heads the weed biology and control research programme. He is also on the panel of CropGen, whose chairman has said it exists “to provide a voice for crop biotechnology in UK”. CropGen is being funded initially by a group of biotechnology companies, among them Monsanto.

IACR is part of a consortium of research groups carrying out government work on farm-scale trials of GM crops, undertaking contracts worth £3.3 million. Dr Lutman is co-author of a report to the government on progress on the trials.

In 2002 Andrew Bennett, a senior civil servant in the Department for International Development [DFID] – director of rural livelihoods and environment at the department and principal policy adviser to ministers – left to join Syngenta, the world’s largest agribusiness and second largest GM food company, formed by the merger in 2000 of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis Agribusiness and the British GM company Zeneca.

Mr Bennett helped to frame the department’s policies and influenced its decision to contribute £600,000 a year to GM crop research in poor countries. DFID backed Vision 2020, a British aid programme in Andra Pradesh, India, funding the McKinsey report that advocated a state plan to introduce prairie-style farming and GM crops – rejected and reversed after the next state election.

The Register of Lords’ Interests gave other leads.

Lord Smith is a director of the Clore Leadership Programme, and there are indirect links to the GM industry via two of the Programme’s funders.

The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, one of the Sainsbury foundations, was the first funder. In 1998 Lord Sainsbury was appointed as Minister of Science and Technology. He was the largest backer of biotechnology company Diatech whilst in charge of promoting biotechnology at the Department of Trade and Industry and a member of the Cabinet Biotechnology Committee. For many years the company controlled the worldwide patent rights over a key gene currently used in the genetic modification process, He resigned from his ministerial post in 2005 after repeated concerns were voiced about the extent of his role in dealing with GM issues within government and the potential conflict with his private business interests.

The other funder, the Kings Fund, is a less direct link. Its trustee, Dr Penny Dash, is a partner of McKinsey & Co and adviser to pharma companies and private equity groups, three sectors which have an interest in the widest possible use of genetic technology.

Another link between Lord Smith and the GM industry is his non-executive directorship of Zamyn. This company focusses on how globalisation is repositioning major corporations. It has the uphill task of highlighting them as ‘agents of cultural change’ and demonstrating that  they are ‘proactive benefactors’ as well as beneficiaries of a truly globalised society in which central, emerging and peripheral cultures would be interconnected to mutual benefit.

Zamyn’s directors have worked for Saatchi [PR], Syngenta [GM products], Shell & BP [oil is a base for agrochemicals] and Goldman Sachs and Barclays [finance].

The devolved governments are made of sterner stuff

In 2007 the Scottish government announced: “The Executive’s intention is to maintain a moratorium on the planting of GM crops in Scotland. GM crops are not grown in Scotland and we believe this respects the wishes of Scottish consumers who want local, high-quality produce. Scotland has a wonderful and varied environment, rich in biodiversity and we do not wish to jeopardise this.” The moratorium has been maintained to date.

On 4 March, 2009 came the announcement of a Welsh Assembly consultation document, aimed at making Wales one of the most difficult places in the world to grow genetically modified crops.  While Assembly Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones, accepts that it is not legally possible to declare Wales GM-free, the intention is to introduce regulation far more restrictive than in other parts of the UK. Farmers growing GM crops would have to inform all their neighbours and would also be legally liable to compensate any whose crops became contaminated.

The ‘polluter-pays’ principle in relation to GM crops exists nowhere else in the world.#

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