Manipulated Facts

Genes aren’t the only things being engineered by the biotech companies.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 5th April 2001

On the evening of March 27th, six anti-genetics protestors knocked at the door of a farmer called Jeremy Courtney. They had come to plead with him not to allow his fields, in East Hoathly in Sussex, to be used for a government trial of genetically modified rape. The farmer was out, but his wife said she would pass on their concerns. The protestors went home.

Though the six campaigners didn’t know it, they were pushing at an open door. The following day, Jeremy Courtney contacted the local newspaper, the Crowborough Courier, to announce that he was withdrawing from the trial, as he was worried that the scientists conducting it might bring foot and mouth onto his property.

This was surely a sensible precaution. Though the field testing of non-GM crops has been suspended, though the countryside has been closed and the general election postponed, on Tuesday the government announced, bizarrely, that a new series of GM field trials would begin at the end of this month. Mr Courtney assured the Courier that his decision had nothing to do with the protesters. “I’m not bothered about the antis. I enjoy a good debate”.

A few hours later, he faxed the paper a rather different statement. He was pulling out, he now claimed, “due to the unbearable level of intimidation and threatening behaviour that has been targetted towards me [and] my family.” Protesters, he alleged, had also damaged his machinery. The statement’s content was not its only curious feature. At the top of the sheet there was not one fax identification line, but two. The first was Jeremy Courtney’s. The second said “From Aventis Crop Science”. Aventis is the biotech firm whose crops were to have been tested on Mr Courtney’s land.

On Tuesday I phoned Aventis and spoke to its press officer. Why, I asked him, did his company’s name appear on the top of the farmer’s fax? “I’ll leave you to work it out for yourself,” he replied. “You’re not prepared to tell me why your name was on top of the statement?” “I don’t believe I need to give you an explanation.” “Did Aventis write the statement?,” I asked. “It’s the farmer’s statement.” “That’s not a direct answer to my question. Did Aventis write the statement?” “It’s the farmer’s statement, Mr Monbiot.” I rang Mr Courtney and asked him what intimidation he had suffered and what had happened to his machinery. “I’d rather not talk about it”, he told me. “Why ever not?”. “I’m not prepared to go into it”.

The Courier asked Mr Courtney why he had changed his position. His answer was revealing. “This is the way the government wishes to tackle this. It’s agreed it will be handled by the government point of view”. Further questioning established that Mr Courtney believed that Scimac — the industry body representing the companies testing GM crops in Britain — was the government. It’s an easy mistake to make, as the government has granted Scimac some extraordinary concessions.

All this is rather puzzling, not least because the advocates of GM research, Scimac and Aventis among them, frequently accuse their opponents of manipulating facts. The government appears similarly reluctant to stick to the high principles it demands of other people.

The press release the department of environment issued on Tuesday, announcing the new field trials, insisted that “all of the seeds in the trials have been through years of rigorous safety tests.” This is simply untrue. A survey for Science magazine found only four peer-reviewed animal feeding trials of GM products of any kind, anywhere in the scientific literature.

The government’s insistence that the field trials will not contaminate surrounding crops relies on a similarly scrupulous adherence to the facts. While ministers warn that foot and mouth disease can travel for miles on the wind, they also assure us that pollen from GM crops obediently stays where it’s told. There is surely no clearer sign of the government’s resolve, against all precautionary advice, to press ahead with genetic engineering than the special exemption from foot and mouth restrictions it has granted for GM crop testing.

If foot and mouth disease has taught us anything, it’s surely that once a living organism is out of the bag, there’s not much we can do to stuff it back in again. One day, some rigorous GM safety tests might finally be conducted. And those tests might show us that there is, indeed, a problem. By then, GM pollen is likely to have contaminated conventional crops almost everywhere, and there will be nothing we can do to recall it. Having manipulated the facts they claim to defend, the government and the biotech companies will have no one to blame but themselves.