GE Debate Provokes Political Crisis in the UK

GE Debate Provokes Political Crisis in the UK

Government turns on its GM allies
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
20 May 2001

Agriculture ministers have turned on their allies in the genetic
modification industry to try to save Europe's largest organic farming
research centre.

In an unprecedented volte-face they are pressuring the industry to abandon
an officially sanctioned trial of GM maize which - as The Independent on
Sunday exclusively revealed two weeks ago - is two miles from the Henry
Doubleday Research Association's organic farming centre at Ryton near
Coventry. They have the backing of Tony Blair, another committed supporter
of GM crops.

The industry - which was on the point of sowing the maize, at Wolston, early
in the week - has been thrown into confusion by the way its patrons in the
Government have switched sides and has spent days dithering as to how to
respond. It believes that whatever it does will now endanger its plans for
growing GM crops commercially in Britain.

Senior sources at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff)
agree with environmentalists that the industry deliberately sought to pick a
fight by choosing the site. The row is developing into a crucial showdown
between the industry and environmentalists, one that it seems likely to

The row became an election issue yesterday when the Conservatives described
the choosing of the site as "bizarrely insensitive'' and promised to stop
the trial if elected. The research centre lies in one of the most marginal
seats in the country where Andy King, the Labour MP, is defending a majority
of just 495, making it eighth on the Tories' hit-list.

Neither the Government nor the Scientific Steering Committee, which approved
the site, were informed of its proximity to the centre when they gave it the
go-ahead last month. When he was told, Michael Meacher, the Environment
minister, called it "highly provocative'' and wrote to the committee,
Aventis (the firm responsible) and Scimac, the industry body conducting the
trials, to ask them to abandon it.

Professor Chris Pollock, the committee chairman, wrote to Mr Meacher on
Wednesday refusing to withdraw the committee's approval. That provoked one
member, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to threaten to
resign. The industry was also ready by midweek to reject Mr Meacher's
appeal, confident that he would lose his job after the election, but has
been astounded to come under pressure from Maff and the Prime Minister, on
whose support it has always been able to count.

Industry sources privately recognise that it is now in deep trouble whatever
it decides. If it submits to the pressure and scraps the trial it would set
a damaging precedent. Research by Greenpeace and the Soil Association show
that 36 organic farms lie within two miles of trial sites all over the
country. And if it was accepted that no GM crops could be grown that close
to organic produce it would become impossible to grow them commercially in

On the other hand, if it ignores the pressure it will provoke the
Government's anger and cause the RSPB and possibly English Nature, the
Government's official wildlife watchdog, to resign from the committee,
destroying its credibility and undermining the trial programme. And if the
crops grew they would be bound to be destroyed by protesters later in the

Aventis blamed "election fever'' for the crisis and accused the Government
of "changing the rules'' on the trials. Scimac said that the scientific
procedures followed in choosing the site should be kept "sacrosanct''.

Tim Yeo, the Conservative agriculture spokesman, has written to Mr Meacher
to say that going ahead with the trial "would send out a signal to the world
that the British Government has no regard for the integrity of Britain's
organic produce". He called on the Government to abandon the trial and said
that the RSPB would be "entirely justified in resigning should it go

Lord David Sainsbury

Lord David Sainsbury gave £2 million to the Labour Party in 1996, £1 million
in 1997 and £2 million in 1999. He gave a further £2 million in January
2001, making a total of £7 million in 5 years. He was given his peerage in
1997 and made Government Minister for Science in 1998, at which point he
resigned as Chairman of the Sainsbury's supermarket chain. He put his £1.3
billion worth of shares (a 13% stake in Sainsburys) into a 'blind trust' run
by Judith Portrait of Portrait Solicitors (who have been solicitors for
Sainsburys since 1988). Sainsbury's paid the Labour Party more than £5,000
for sponsorship in 1997.

Sainsbury's was enveloped in a row in 1998 when planning decisions for
out-of-town supermarkets (including a development in Richmond upon Thames)
started to go their way after local councils had refused them. Tony Blair
has made sympathetic comments about out-of-town supermarkets, although
Party policy is 'tough' on them.

In 1998 an Inquest jury found that Maurice Disney, a forklift truck driver
for Sainsbury's, had been unlawfully killed in an accident at work. A safety
switch on his forklift had been disconnected and it went out of control and
crushed him. An independent engineer told the Inquest that the accident
would never have happened if the truck had been properly maintained.
Sainsbury's admitted the safety breaches and were fined £425,000.

During his six years as Chairman of Sainbury's, he championed Genetically
Modified (GM) food, although since his resignation the company has dropped
GM food completely. He owns 2 genetics companies, Diatech and Innotech
Investments (his shares in these companies were also put into a 'blind
trust' when he became a minister). He has put millions of pounds into the
study of Genetically Modified organisms (GMO) through his Gatsby Charitable
Foundation (Judith Portrait is a trustee), set up in 1987 and which gives £2
million a year to the Sainsbury Laboratory/John Innes Institute in Norwich.

Since 1998 the Sainsbury Laboratory has also received 6 Government grants,
worth £1.1 million, from the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council
(BBSRC). The BBSRC is part of the Government Office of Science and
Technology, which answers to Sainsbury as Science Minister and has won an
extra £50 million in funding since he became Minister. Officially he is
supposed to leave the room when GMOs are discussed at meetings. The
Chairman of the BBSRC is another of Tony Blair's friends, Peter Doyle, former
Executive Director of biotech company Zeneca (which also gives money to the
John Innes Institute).

When Lord Sainsbury travelled to America in 1999, to research a report into
Biotechnology, he was accompanied by members of the BioIndustry Association,
a lobbying group for companies involved in GM food (the DTI helped pay their
costs). Christine Soden is the Chair of their Finance Committee. Diatech is
a member of the BioIndustry Association. 8 days before he became Science
Minister he loaned Diatech money to buy a £2 million office in Westminster.

Diatech have registered a patent for a genetic sequence taken from the
tobacco mosaic virus, considered essential for enhancing the development of
protein in a GMO, which is used in most GM foods worldwide. The Chief
Executive of Diatech, Christopher Stone, owns 5% of Sainsbury's shares
(worth £354,676,000). Diatech helped pay for repairs to Lord Sainsbury's
country house several months after he became a Minister.

Innotech Investments, solely funded by Lord Sainsbury (he was a Director
until becoming a minister), has £20 million worth of investments. It owns
Floranova, a Norfolk-based company that develops GMOs. Floranova in turn
owns the Floranova Service Coporation in America, Floranova SA in Costa Rica
and Elite Seeds, a flower seed and young plant marketing company based in
Norfolk. Innotech is a major investor in Paradigm Genetics, an American

Lord Sainsbury was a supporter of the SDP, remaining a trustee until 1990.
He is the beneficiary of off-shore trusts held in the British Virgin
Islands, a well-known tax haven. He is Chair of the Board of the
Government's University for Industry, alongside other businessmen like David
Brown, the boss of Motorola. Sainsbury funds Progress magazine, which is
mailed to Labour Party activists. Progress, founded by the infamous
Lobbygate adviser Derek Draper, pushes the Blairite line and received the
money from Lord Sainsbury (through the Progress Political Education Trust)
after 'a single phone call from Tony Blair.'

He is Chairman of the Cluster Policy Steering Group, which includes popular
New Labour businessmen like Herman Hauser and is supported by a team that
includes Dr Chris Evans.

Jeff Rooker, MAFF minister of state for food safety in the House of Commons,
30th July 1998:

"I accept the argument that genetic modification is not simply speeding up
the natural process. It cannot be when genes are mixed from different
species. There is some comfort in the regulatory process for medicine
which, I admit, is not in place for food and agriculture....."

"I want to make it absolutely clear that my Ministry and the Department of
the Environment, Transport and the Regions will be working with the farming
community and representatives of organic farming to ensure that the
expansion of organic farming is not compromised by the introduction of
genetically modified crops. I might have rambled in my introduction and
deviated from my brief, but I want to make it clear that that is the most
important sentence that I shall say this evening. I genuinely mean that -
those are not words to be put in Hansard and forgotten about; I shall follow

"All that does not gainsay what I have said about our desire to ensure that
the introduction of GMOs on a trial basis, an experimental basis, or even a
full-crop basis, in no way damages organic farming. Given the extremely
tight public expenditure restrictions to which we are subject as part of our
contract with the electorate, it would be stupid for the Government to push
more money into converting to organic farming while allowing the farmers who
take that brave step to be damaged by other actions within the process that
I have described.."

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