It’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’.