Prof John Hillman is the former Director of the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI), an internationally renowned agricultural research centre based at Invergowrie, near Dundee, employing over 350 staff. It has an income in excess of £13m, the majority from public funding. However, any corporate backing is not disclosed either on its website or to enquirers.
Professor Hillman was formerly on the Board of Directors of the BioIndustry Association, of which SCRI is a member. The Association's tagline is 'Encouraging and Promoting the Biotechnology Sector of the UK Economy'.
Mike Wilson, who was SCRI's Acting Director until Hillman's appointment, co-authored an article with John Hillman defending GM crops for the book Fearing Food (1999), edited by Julian Morris and Roger Bate. 'Arguments against GMOs,' they argue, 'offer little scientific evidence, relying on shock and alarm to carry their case.' The critics are 'activists' who 'raise speculative risks, promote public fear and media misinformation' about 'their own imagined, improbable hazards'.
Another contributor to Fearing Food was Dennis Avery who attacked organic agriculture, and Avery was also amongst the references given for Wilson and Hillman's article. A few months later Hillman used the SCRI's annual report 1999/2000 (Feb 2000) and the media to promote attacks on organic farming along the lines advanced by Avery.
In an article on the BBC News website, Hillman is quoted as saying:
- Organic farming raises risks of faecal contamination not only of food but also of waterways, food poisoning, high levels of natural toxins and allergens, contamination by copper and sulphur-containing fungicides, production of diseased food, low productivity, and creation of reservoirs of pests and diseases.'
These claims follow the standard pattern of such attacks. 'Faecal contamination', for instance, relates to the use of manure by organic farmers which Dennis Avery has claimed makes organic food riskier than conventional food, but what this ignores is that conventional farmers also use manure, in addition to agrochemicals and sometimes sewage sludge containing contaminants like heavy metals and PCBs. As the Guardian journalist John Vidal notes:
- conventional UK farmers use about 80m tonnes of it (manure) a year as a fertiliser. Just 9,000 tonnes goes on organic land and crops. So why the attacks on organic foods and not conventional ones?
In addition, organic standards require the proper composting of manure, the heat of which tends to kill pathogenic bacteria. In contrast, conventional farming has no such requirement. Raw manure is known to be higher in pathogens.
The character of Hillman's attack on organic farming seems ironic given his apparent concern about the raising of 'speculative risks' and 'improbable hazards' backed by little scientific evidence. In the same report Hillman also complained, 'Deliberately pejorative language is obscuring the debate and encouraging people to pre-judge the issues before they have heard all the facts.' But when Prof Hillman was asked by BBC Radio 4's 'Food Programme' for the references to back up his perjorative statements about organic farming, Prof Hillman was said to be 'too busy' to provide any of the data.
Hillman's attack on organic farming was widely publicised thanks to the SCRI press releasing it (Leading expert reopens GM food debate, Press release, Scottish Crop Research Institute, Feb 2000). The head of the SCRI's information services at the time was Bill Macfarlane Smith who is still a Fellow and also serves on the panel of the biotech-industry funded pro-GM lobby group CropGen.
- FoE criticises organic 'risk' warning, BBC News, 2 Feb 2000, accessed 9 Sept 2009
- Is organic food dangerous? Not unless you ignore basic hygiene. So why is it getting such a bad press?, The Guardian, 16 May 2000, accessed 9 Sept 2009
- David Crohn et al., Composting Reduces Growers’ Concerns About Pathogens, California Integrated Waste Management Board, October 2000, accessed 9 Sept 2009