Professor Chris Leaver, is Emeritus Professor of Plant Science, and formerly Sibthorpian Professor and Head of Department of Plant Science, University of Oxford. He has been one of the most privileged voices in Britain on the subject of GM crops.
A leading Fellow of the Royal Society, Leaver was a member of the working group that produced the Society's 1998 report 'Genetically Modified Plants For Food Use'. He was the only contributor to the report to also be part of a second working group that produced the Society's follow-up report in 2001. After the 2001 report led to significant media focus on its call for more rigorous, explicit and comprehensive checks of foods made from GM crops, Leaver was anxious to assert, 'The report did clearly say there were no problems about the safety of GM food.'
Leaver was also a panel member of the government sponsored GM Science Review. He also contributed evidence, 'Transgenic cotton a winner in India', to the review's website. This made no mention of the severe problems experienced with GM cotton In India.
From spring 2000 to summer 2003 Leaver was on the senior decision making body (the Council ) of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the leading funding agency for academic research in the biosciences in the UK. For most of that time, the BBSRC's Chairman was Peter Doyle, a director of Syngenta.
Leaver is also a member of the Governing Council of the UK's leading plant biotechnology institute - for which the BBSRC is the principal funder - the John Innes Centre (JIC). He is also a Trustee of the John Innes Foundation, the director of John Innes Bioprospects Ltd, and the director of John Innes Agriculture. The JIC's biggest commercial investor has been biotechnology giant Syngenta.
Leaver says he is 'pleased to give lectures and inform debate on the current and future potential of the genetic manipulation of plants'. He took an active part in the UK's Public Debate on GM in 2003, despite claiming that it had been 'hijacked by NGOs'. At the beginning of a presentation in Oxfordshire County Hall in July 2003, he laid particular stress on the fact that he was paid out of public monies and not by the GM companies. However, his declaration of interests on the GM science review website lists at least 2 paid consultancies with GM companies: Rhone Poulenc (1993-1998) and Syngenta (1998-2002). He failed to reply to a subsequent request for an explanation of how this 9 years of paid consultancy did not amount to being paid by GM companies?
When the report on the Public Debate was published showing overwhelming public opposition to GM, Leaver complained that public hostility was leading to a brain drain. 'The way things are going,' Leaver told The Guardian, 'plant biotechnology is going to be stillborn here.' The writer George Monbiot retorted in his Guardian column, 'the way things are going is very much a result of the way he (Leaver) has directed them. Until this summer he sat on the BBSRC's governing council. At the university, he has engineered a brain drain of his own by closing the Oxford Forestry Institute (perhaps the best of its kind in the world) and shifting the focus of his department away from whole organisms and ecosystems towards molecular biology and genetic engineering. The undergraduates want to study whole systems, so the few remaining lecturers with this expertise are massively overworked, while the jobs of the rest are now threatened by the lack of demand for the technology he favours.'
In his efforts to 'inform debate' on GM, which have included opinion papers, press releases and public presentations, Leaver has often teamed up with other leading GM proponents, most notably with Anthony Trewavas, also a member of the John Innes Centre Governing Council, as well as Derek Burke, a former member of the JIC's Governing Council. In a paper presented at a British Crop Protection Council conference Leaver gave as the main source of the paper Dennis Avery's book (1995), Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic, (Hudson Institute).
As well as promoting GM crops, Leaver has also attacked organic agriculture. He told the New Scientist that organic farms can never expand significantly, as they benefit from the pesticides sprayed onto neighbouring fields. 'Organic agriculture thrives because it has a cordon sanitaire of conventional crops around it,' he said. 'If conventional crops fall in number, the yields of organic crops will drop, making them less economic.' Leaver presented no evidence to support this belief. Leaver has also attacked Prince Charles for his 'selective religious beliefs to suit his own lifestyle' - a reference to the Prince's championing of organic farming and scepticism of GM.
In an article in 2003, based around a survey by Sense about Science, Leaver claimed he had been 'the victim of personal threats as a result of taking part in the GM debate' but again presented no evidence in support of this claim. Leaver told the Times Higher Education Supplement that he was ' not particularly pro or anti-GM'.