Sir John Krebs, the former head of the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA), is the son of Hans Krebs, the German biochemist who described the uptake and release of energy in cells (the Krebs cycle).
Sir John is a leading Fellow of the Royal Society and since 1988 has held a Royal Society Research Professorship in the Department of Zoology, Oxford University. His speciality is bird behaviour.
Sir John is also a co-founder and non-executive Chairman of Oxford Risk Research and Analysis Ltd (ORRA). ORRA's work includes research and advice on risk and decision making for the oil and pharmaceutical industries, as well as a wide range of other businesses. According to Krebs, 'History is littered with examples of companies that were too risk averse or saw risk as a threat rather than an opportunity.'
In 2007 he was appointed to the House of Lords as a cross bencher.
In 2007 he became Chair of the National Network of Science Learning centres.
Before Sir John's appointment as head of the FSA, he had no direct involvement with food safety or farming issues. However, he had, at the request of the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries (MAFF), designed the so-called 'Krebs experiments' to investigate whether badgers are responsible for the increasing incidence of TB in cattle. Krebs' approach - one which ignored the important role of cattle husbandry in the disease - was one already favoured by the vets within MAFF, leading some to see the experiments as symptomatic of Krebs' willingness to toe the MAFF line. The experiments are alleged to have lead to the slaughter of 20,000 badgers. In November 2003 the government decided to end a badger cull after it was found that cases of bovine TB in the trial area had actually increased by 27 per cent against a control area where badgers were not slaughtered.
If the experiments had made Krebs controversial even prior to his appointment, things have got worse since. On the day it was announced that he was becoming the first head of the FSA, Krebs publicly endorsed GM food in a radio interview, saying all GM products approved for sale in the UK 'were as safe as their non-GM counterparts'.
But while Krebs was not prepared to reconsider the issue of approved GM foods, despite the high level of public concern, he quickly showed a willingness to tackle the issue of organic food which enjoyed a considerable degree of public confidence. Appearing on BBC TV in August 2000, Krebs announced that consumers who were buying organic food were 'not getting value for money, in my opinion and in the opinion of the FSA, if they think they are buying extra nutritional quality or extra nutritional safety, because we don't have the evidence.'
The Times reported his comments as dismissing organic food as 'an image-led fad' (The Times, September 2, 2000, 'Organic produce attacked by food agency'). A month later Dr Patrick Wall, the chief executive of the Irish counterpart agency, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, dismissed Kreb's views as extreme and reminded people to buy organic food because it was more 'environmentally friendly, more wholesome, and better produced'.
In March 2002, Krebs was again criticized on the organic issue. This time by John Paterson, a biochemist at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, for having attacked organic agriculture 'on the basis of very little information'. That autumn it was revealed that Krebs had been refusing to back the government's drive to promote organic food and farming, prompting the Environment Secretary to write to him to clarify his views. Sir John also admitted that comments he made that manure caused more air and water pollution than chemical fertilisers had been designed to undermine claims that organic farming is more environmentally friendly than conventional agriculture.
While Krebs brought a strongly sceptical, not to say combative, tone to the FSA's treatment of organic food, his attitude to GM contrasted markedly. Even prior to his appointment, he was on record as saying that criticisms of GM food were 'shrill, often ill-informed and dogma-driven'. Some speculate that this historic support for GM may have been a factor in his being offered the top job at the FSA.
Certainly, under Sir John's leadership the FSA, which claims representation of the interests of the consumer as one of its key roles, has backed the position of the US government and the biotechnology industry in opposing strict EU labelling and traceability rules on GM foods and animal feed. Its position has been condemned by the Consumers' Association who 'remain bitterly disappointed at the anti-consumer stance' taken by the FSA.
In March 2000 Sir John's chairing of the OECD conference on the Scientific and Health Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods also proved controversial. The event was described by Dr Arpad Pusztai, the only critical food scientist invited, as not so much a conference more 'a propaganda forum for airing the views and promoting the interests of the biotech industry.'
Shortly after joining the FSA, Krebs also aligned himself with the Oxford-based SIRC, Social Issues Research Centre, which has set itself up as an arbiter of what is good and bad in the media's reporting of health and science stories. Krebs, the SIRC, the Royal Institution, the Royal Society and others developed a set of 'Guidelines on Science and Health Communication'. Krebs' involvement was particularly controversial as the SIRC, as well as maintaining a pro-GM position, gets part of its funding from large food companies (eg Bestfoods, the giant ($8b) US food group later taken over by Unilever) as well as front organizations for the drinks and pharmaceutical industries. 'How seriously', asked the British Medical Journal of the SIRC's intiative, 'should journalists take an attack from an organization that is so closely linked to the drinks industry?' SIRC is also supported by its 'sister organisation, MCM Research Ltd' which is a commercial venture catering for a similar range of corporate clients.
When the science correspondent for Channel 4 News contacted Sir John to query the appropriateness of his involvement with an organisation with such links, Sir John denied any knowledge of the SIRC's links but refused to make any comment to camera. The SIRC's director stated that Sir John was aware of the organisation's funding background.
Sir John is also on the Science Advisory Panel of the Science Media Centre (SMC), an 'independent organisation' whose funders include BP Conoco, DuPont, Tesco, and Astra Zeneca, amongst others. The scientists whose views are promoted by the SMC are almost invariably pro-GM. It has also been accused of 'orchestrating a secret campaign aimed at discrediting' a TV drama highlighting the dangers of GM.
During the UK's Public Debate on GM in 2003, Sir John's role again proved controversial. 'Attack on food safety chief for GM crop "bias" ' ran a headline in the Daily Telegraph, reporting that the chairman of the Food Standards Agency had been accused of 'manipulating the Government's public debate on genetically modified foods and failing to be objective in his role as independent scientific adviser on GM crops.'
Nine organisations, including the National Federation of Women's Institutes and Unison, the UK's biggest trade union, had written to Sir John, accusing him of bias and of misrepresenting the views of the public. In the letter they said, 'There is a strong consensus amongst consumer and environment organisations that the published views and statements of the FSA and its Chair are indistinguishable from those of the pro-GM lobby and do not properly represent public health and consumer interests.'
In a letter to The Guardian the Policy Director of the Soil Association, Peter Melchett, wrote, 'Sir John's anti-organic prejudice is matched by his love of GMOs. The FSA's own consumer committee has described the FSA's GM literature as "biased" in favour of GM, and the FSA has been caught out deliberately suppressing a verdict of its own "citizens' jury" opposing commercial growing of GM crops in the UK. Sir John says the FSA only represents consumers' interests - in which case it seems a little careless to have lost the confidence of both the Consumers' Association and the National Consumers' Council over his pro-GM campaigns.'
- House of Lords Science and Technology Committee - chair
- Nuffield Foundation Trustee
- Obesity All-Party Parliamentary Group