Science in Society Archive

UK Government's Dirty GM Secrets

UK Government funding genetically modified (GM) crop projects at tens of millions of pound and colluding with a biotech company to ease its GM field trials

Damning evidence contained in documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act
(Based on Geoffrey Lean in the Independent on Sunday (28 October 2007)

Sweet exchanges of e-mails

Publicly, ministers claim to be neutral over GM. But the documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show otherwise. One set obtained by the campaigning group GM Freeze clearly demonstrate that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had allowed the biotech giant BASF to effectively set the conditions for field trials it has conducted on modified potatoes. On 1 December last year the company was given permission to plant 450 000 modified potatoes in British fields over the next five years, in a series of 10 trials [1] (Universal Condemnation Meets UK Government's Green Light for GM Potato Trials. SiS 33) Emails and letters between Defra and the company reveal that officials repeatedly went to remarkable lengths to make sure the trial conditions, supposed to protect the environment and farmers, were "agreeable" to BASF.

The e-mail sent 29 September from a Defra official to BASF to inform the company of a recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) that "the land should be left fallow for two years following each trial" said, "I would like to know whether you think that this is workable for you". The writer pointed out that other EU countries had specified that "berries/true seed should be removed from the trial", but that Acre had "not specified this because the committee believes that this would be a very big job". The email went on: "If you think this is completely unworkable, I think the committee may be prepared to accommodate a reduction of this fallow period to one year but there may be other conditions (eg removal of flowers/berries)." And again: "In addition to this, Acre has recommended a particular tillage regime, hopefully you are able to accommodate this."

On 6 October Defra sent BASF a draft of the consent to the trials, with the helpful statement: "Please let me know whether or not the conditions as they stand would be agreeable to BASF or whether there are any conditions that would be difficult to meet."

BASF replied on 26 October that it believed the "probable conditions" were "very agreeable to us", adding: "We hope that the final conditions will not change too much."

On 9 November Defra again emailed BASF to check that one of the conditions "does not affect your plans", and five days later was in touch again to say that it had "redrafted" another "in response to your concerns".

But the department had insisted in a written statement a week before the revelation: "There is no truth in any allegation that Defra was in any way influenced by BASF in relation to the terms under which BASF could conduct trials on GM potatoes in the UK."

Pete Riley, campaign director of GM Freeze, said: "That is simply not correct. The documents clearly show that Defra colluded with BASF to ensure that Acre's conditions for growing their GM crop were to their liking. Its role is to protect the environment and public health. It is supposed to be a watchdog, but the documents reveal it to be the industry's lapdog."

Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative environment spokesman, added: "This is a government department that claims to be objective and science-based in its approach to biotechnology, but clearly it has bent over backwards to model its conditions on the requirements of BASF."

A spokesman for BASF said: "I do not think that they granted us any concessions that would not normally have been granted."

Massive funding of GM despite overwhelming rejection by UK citizens

The documents on GM funding proved extraordinarily difficult to get, it took three months of investigation by an environmental pressure group, a series of parliamentary questions, and three applications for the information.

Friends of the Earth finally obtained still partial information in October 2007 which shows that the Government gave at least £50 m a year for research into GM crops and food, compared with £1.6 m for research into organic agriculture last year, in spite of repeated promises to promote environmentally friendly, sustainable farming.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) gave £39.3m to its seven sponsored institutes for research on agricultural biotechnology in 2006-07. Besides this "core strategic grant", the BBSRC also gives tens of millions of pounds a year for similar research to universities and other institutes.

The BBSRC told Friends of the Earth that it could not provide up-to-date information until January, unless it paid a fee of £750, because this "would take considerable effort, beyond the appropriate limit" to assemble.

On top of the BBSRC funding, Defra provided £12.6m for agricultural biotechnology research in 2005-06, the last year for which figures are available.

It is not clear how much money goes to genetic modification, as the BBSRC defines agricultural biotechnology as "the application of molecular genetic and other modern biological techniques to crops, livestock and disease-causing organisms". It says it is not yet able to provide information on the proportion that has recently been devoted to GM, as opposed to other techniques. But figures on its website show that in 2000-01 about half of its core strategic grant to the seven institutes was spent on the technology.

In contrast, Defra spent £1.6m on research "relating to organic farming", while BBSRC refuses to provide any funds at all, saying it "does not fund applied work on entire farming systems".

When the Government officially asked the public four years ago, 86 per cent said they would not be happy to eat GM foods. By contrast, sales of organic produce rose by 22 per cent last year to more than £2 bn. Over half of Britons now buy organic, at least from time to time.

The BBSRC says that its funding for the research on GM crops would continue even if there was "a Europe-wide ban" on growing them commercially.

Article first published 06/11/07

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a duck?