The Murky Front Group Pushing GM on Scotland

scotland_grungy_flag_by_think0bIt’s well-known that the ‘corporate lobby’ are a powerful force in politics. Nowhere is this clearer than in the debate on TTIP, the free trade treaty between the US and EU currently going through the European Parliament. Between 2012 and 2013, 92 per cent of the lobbying on TTIP came from the private sector. Just 4 per cent was public interest groups.

Though the networks and organisations involved can be complex in structure and very well-hidden, the motive isn’t exactly hard to fathom. It’s a question of ‘follow the money’; naked capitalism at work in a rather predictable fashion.

But when the Scottish government’s recent decision to ban GM crops provoked an outcry from a self-titled ‘scientific community’, it revealed a rather strange group of movers and shakers at work.

The open letter to Richard Lochhead, Minister of Rural Affairs, criticises the ‘political’ and ‘uninformed’ decision to ban cultivation of GM crops, and is signed by a variety of academic and other organisations. Several of these signatories, including the John Innes Centre, NFU Scotland and the Physiological Society* confirmed that the letter came from the group ‘Sense About Science’.

It’s a persuasive piece of copywriting, going from the Scottish Enlightenment right through to our shared future and the ‘freedom and integrity of science’. It all sounds very sensible. Even the group’s name is reassuring – Sense About Science. A bit of plain-talking, isn’t that what these complicated debates need? Their aim to ‘equip people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion’ sounds absolutely laudable. It seems, at first, absolutely right that such a body would promote a campaign to make sure scientists are being listened to on momentous decisions like GM crop cultivation.

The problem is, a nice professional website and good charitable aims should not prevent commentators and policy-makers from questioning the motive – or indeed, funding – behind a campaign. But in this case the PR seems to have done the trick, as the ‘open letter’ provoked a ream of newspaper articles quoting it word-for-word, casting doubt on the Scottish government’s ability to legislate – just as it was intended to. But behind the shiny website is an organisation which does not seem to value objectivity or science at all. It is ideologically further to the right than even its corporate sponsors, and bizarrely, originates in a tiny Trotskyist splinter group.

Sense About Science is closely linked to individuals who have become prominent in public debate and occupy board positions in areas of medical and agricultural science and public health. They were all in the splinter group RCP in the 1970s. Their magazine was ‘Living Marxism’, which became simply ‘LM’, then transformed into the online site Spiked. There are of course lots of left-wing sects in the UK, and they all have their own papers. Lots of them practised entrism, or the covert infiltration of existing parties or groups. But a big difference here is that this group, the so-called ‘LM Network’, are on not even vaguely Marxist. They are on the extreme, libertarian right. The other difference is that, unlike the other myriad leftist splinter groups, members of the LM Network are now extremely influential.

Anti-capitalist writer George Monbiot first started investigating the LM Network in the late 1990s when they were starting to gain positions in various think tanks. He has established their links to far-right groups such as the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise and the Cato Institute. Their virulently anti-green views were aired in a 3-part Channel 4 documentary in 1998; it provoked hundreds of complaints and was eventually ruled to be misleading and distorted, forcing the broadcaster to issue an apology. Monbiot describes their position on GM as ‘far to the right of the government . . . even to the right of some of the industry lobby groups . . . more extreme than Monsanto or Europa Bio or people like that.’

Slick front groups are becoming commonplace when momentous government decisions loom. In the U.S. recently the FDA approved the sale of Flibanserin’s, or ‘female viagra’. Despite it being both dangerous and completely ineffective, the drug was approved after a huge campaign called ‘Even the Score’ presented the argument as one of women’s rights and equality. Big names and respected organisations signed up, and dissenting voices were drowned out as ‘Even the Score’ steamrolled through the debate, branding and fake feminism firmly in place.

As with Sense About Science, Even the Score weren’t too keen on transparency when it came to their funding. It transpired, however, that a major backer was Sprout – the pharmaceutical company which made one billion dollars selling its ‘female viagra’ to a much larger company. If anyone was surprised, it didn’t really show.

Similarly, the LM Network which is behind Sense About Science has long had links with the corporate lobby for genetic modification, as well as the nuclear and anti-green lobbies. Another front organisation, the Science Media Centre, tried to bring a BBC documentary off the air because it looked at the issue of GM contamination. If you look at the anti-GM open letter sent to the Scottish government you’ll see Rothamstead Research on there. This was where, in 2012, protestors attempted to destroy the GM crops, with one partially succeeding; he was tried and charged £4,000. Sense About Science responded with the ‘Don’t Destroy Research’ campaign, complete with public petition, VIP quotes and videos of ‘stay-at-home mums’ backing GM research. Just as well there was all that public support, as the taxpayer-funded research council provided an extra £1.7m for extra security. In the end the GM trials being carried out there eventually reported, showing no positive results at all.

In this worrying context, then, it’s worth commending the Scottish government on their firm GM stance. The open letter is almost entirely concerned with the effect the ban will have on cutting-edge research – but it’s a ban on cultivation, not research. The letter is pure spin, and either the scientists signed up to it know this or they’ve been hoodwinked by a slick PR exercise. Scotland’s agricultural strengths are in its diversity – for instance, seed potatoes, of which many blight-resistant strains are produced here through conventional means. The introduction of corporate GM cultivation would mean monoculture – the opposite of what we should be aiming for. With a virulently pro-GM government in Westminster, and the threat of TTIP’s ‘regulatory harmonization’ round the corner, we can take some solace in the Scottish government’s decision not to heed the spin of this powerful lobby.

  • In Scotland GM crop research is carried out at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee. When asked for comment they confirmed that Sense About Science had asked if they would sign the letter, but the institute declined, as they ‘felt the wording wasn’t the best’ and intend to ‘focus on the consultation’.

Comments (22)

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  1. Hugh thomson says:

    What a great post from bellacaledonia, keep me posted,gm by the back door,we the people are not hoodwinked !

  2. John Page says:

    Thank you very much for doing this digging
    John Page

  3. John Mooney says:

    I wonder if Murdo Fraser has any connection to this motley crew as he seems to be the main mouthpiece leading the charge against the Scottish Governments stance on G.M. Excellent article,thank you Bella.

  4. Sandy H. says:

    Hmm. I came across this article in the New England Journal of Medicine – “GMO’s, Herbicides and Public Health” dated 20 August 2015 – http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1505660

    1. Ian says:

      The co-author of that article was research director of The Organic Center, which is funded by the organic industry and part of the Organic Trade Association. He stands to gain from increasing fear of GM products.

      Yet he clearly states that he has no conflict of interest.

  5. John Bryden says:

    I very much appreciated this piece, and hope that those Scientists against GMO and its supporters will now speak out as well. Or has academic freedom been eroded so much by new-liberalism and growing insecurity that they are afraid to do so?

    1. Ian says:

      There are very few scientists speaking out against GMO because they understand what GM is, hoiw it differs from previous technologies (such as mutation breeding) used to produce the plants we currently grow and what the real risks actually are; therefore they know there really isn’t much to speak out against.

      It’s not fear (fear of what? Being popular with the Minister of Rural Affairs?) – it’s understanding.

  6. Ian says:

    Oh great – an ad hominem attack on Sense About Science, that’s what this debate really needs – mudslinging. All this article is missing is the word ‘shill’.

    If Richard Lochheads’ decision had been made one the basis of evidence after a period of consultation I might be able to accept it (while disagreeing with it). But it wasn’t.

    He announced a consultation on the future of Scottish Agriculture to be held at an agricultural show in Turiff and… that was it. The decision was then quietly slipped out to the press a few days later. On a Sunday. While the Holyrood Parliament was shut.

    There was no consultation and no debate – hence the letter signed by almost every biotech company and research institute in the UK complaining about lack of consultation.

    This wasn’t a well-informed decision; it was one politician pushing his own agenda.

    1. John Page says:

      Is it possible to have an ad hominem attack on a front organisation with opaque funding?
      John Page

  7. Mrs Grimble says:

    Would you allow Sense Sbout Science a right of reply?

  8. tartanfever says:

    While I agree with the main thrust of this article, it seems to me that specifics of which people are involved are sorely lacking. We need names, affiliations, donation details to make a comprehensive argument.

    Spinwatch is an excellent website that does just that. Their GM reports can be found here:

    http://www.spinwatch.org/index.php/issues/science

  9. R. Eric Swanepoel says:

    Here’s something I wrote about the pro-G, nonsense on the ‘Sense About Science’ website: https://biowrite.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/pro-gm-anti-science/

  10. R. Eric Swanepoel says:

    Here’s something I wrote about the pro-GM nonsense on the ‘Sense About Science’ website: https://biowrite.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/pro-gm-anti-science/

  11. lorraine cleaver says:

    I asked for evidence via SenseAboutScience, was Levothyroxine a safe and effective treatment for hypothyroidism. Patients have been given this one drug since natural thyroid extract fell out of use in favour of the synthetics in the 1970s. No trials were done, it was just launched on the public, a public which doesn’t always recover on this prohormone. As SenseAboutScience have a ‘good relationship’ with the RCP and BritishThyroidFoundation, it must have been terribly embarrassing to have this response for me. http://www.askforevidence.org/ask-for-evidence/545b638a73657242372a0000

    Dear Lorraine Cleaver

    Thank you for your enquiry.

    The RCP’s guidance is based on the opinion of an expert panel which was temporarily formed for this purpose. The evidence they used to form their individual opinions has not been collated and therefore the RCP cannot provide a reference list.

    The panel included representatives from the Association for Clinical Biochemistry, the Society for Endocrinology, the British Thyroid Association, the British Thyroid Foundation Patient Support Group, and the British Society of Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes.

    Kind regards,
    Karen Reid

    Kind regards

    RCP Enquiries

    Of course, since then, a revised, referenced statement has been produced, still bizarrely lacking in actual evidence but heavy on assertions. I’d give up but my life depends on decent hormone replacement so I won’t.

  12. Steven says:

    The scientific community has an upward struggle to inform, educate and discuss GM technology in a sensible and engaging manner if it is to counter incoherent conspiracy theories, such as the one presented in this article. Just like the Scottish governments decision, this piece has completely ignored the views of genuine, hardworking, intelligent scientists who wish to advance this technology.

    The line (shared by the first minister) that this decision won’t affect academic research is, unfortunately, completely inaccurate. We live in the era of translational science, those groups who produce products which can be directly replicated on a mass scale will get the government funded research grants. That means the money will be heading south of the border, along with our talent.

    1. lorraine cleaver says:

      ‘Incoherent conspiracy theories’? Do elaborate Steven. When it’s clear the Sense About Science team are backed by certain interested parties, what’s conspiracy?

      1. Steven says:

        My incoherence comment derives from the construction of the argument. The opening and closing paragraph deals with TTIP? Although loosely relevant, starting a debate about GM in such a way is muddled and uncomfortably forced. It then continues to deteriorate into a very unbalanced and unsubstantiated attack on the Scottish bioscience industry (linking scientists to capitalism obsessed Marxists). In terms of the conspiracy, this argument focusses, almost obsessively, around ‘sense about science’. It’s a very narrow argument which I would contest is irrelevant to the wider debate on GM cultivation in Scotland. Indeed, there is more robust scientific evidence for the safety and untapped potential of GM than there is for global warming. In the face of such relentlessly positive evidence, the anti GM activists are becoming more and more desperate – targeting the origins and finances of a publication who barely register on the radar of the scientific community. Who are sense about science? How are they funded? It doesn’t matter, it’s unhelpfully obscuring the evidence! GM is safe, GM can save lives, GM can improve our bioscience and agricultural industries. This debate needs to be had, before the government completely bans an entire industry without thinking.

  13. Sense About Science says:

    Sense About Science is a registered charity based in Clerkenwell in London run by a small dedicated team. We are not a “Murky Front Group”! Our core mission is to engage the public in discourse about science and evidence — our popular Ask for Evidence campaign is a good example of this. We also run the AllTrials campaign, calling for all clinical trials to be registered and reported. And we were very involved in the Libel Reform Campaign.

    The accusations in this article are frustrating in that they tend to mask the actual subject under discussion — GM. It’s a highly emotive subject, and one that people feel very strongly about. Here is a link to our guide titled “Making Sense of GM”
    http://www.senseaboutscience.org/resources.php/9/making-sense-of-gm

    More information on our funding and charitable aims are available here:

    Our entry on the Charity Commission’s website which includes a description of our activities:
    http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk/Showcharity/RegisterOfCharities/CharityWithoutPartB.aspx?RegisteredCharityNumber=1146170&SubsidiaryNumber=0

    A list of our funders over the last two years:
    http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/funding.html

    Our board of directors:
    http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/board-of-trustees.html

    Thanks for listening.

    The Sense About Science Team

  14. Helena says:

    Excellent article. We have to keep questioning. The way in which organisations conduct their work has to be open, and any twisting of facts, and/or false claims has to be exposed.

  15. Peter Melchett says:

    I was one of those interviewed for the 1998 Channel 4 series mentioned in the article, when I worked at Greenpeace. The programme makers wanted to prove that environmentalists cared more about animals than people. When asked if Greenpeace wanted to reduce the human population, I (inconveniently) said ‘No, Greenpeace does not believe that we need to reduce the human population to save the planet’. When the programme aired, the first 6 words of my quote (‘No, Greenpeace does not believe that’) had been cut. This was one of the things Channel 4 were eventually forced to admit and apologise for.

    There are plenty of scientists who support the Scottish Government’s decision on GM crops – see a letter from 30 of them to Richard Lochhead at:
    http://gmwatch.org/news/latest-news/16390-scientists-support-scottish-gm-crop-ban

    A reasonable question for ‘Sense about Science’ would be why they have done nothing to promote the views of these scientists? Indeed, have they ever promoted any scientific research which throws doubt on the safety or efficacy of GM crops?

    Peter Melchett, Soil Association

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