Life Sciences Network
Based in Wellington, New Zealand, the Life Sciences Network (LSN) is a well-heeled pro-biotech PR group which lobbies aggressively for GM food and crops.
Founded in May 2000, LSN claims to have been instrumental in subsequently 'shifting the public and policy debate (on GM) onto a much sounder basis' and in achieving what it terms 'balanced' media coverage on GM in New Zealand.
The organisation appears highly secretive. Its website - www.lifesciencesnetwork.com/, until it was withdrawn in 2004, provided almost no information about itself - its members, staff, funding etc.
This may reflect its origins. Nicky Hager, author of a book on 'corn-gate' - New Zealand's GM sweetcorn scandal, has referred to a link between LSN and Communications Trumps, the PR company for Novartis that played such a leading role in 'corn-gate'.
Communications Trumps, now part of Four Winds Communications, was co-founded by Norrey Simmons in 1987. The company is no stranger to controversy. It was allegedly involved in telling New Zealand's King Salmon that in relation to its genetic engineering programme on salmon, "issues such as deformities, lumps on heads etc should not be mentioned at any point to any outside"
At the same time Norrey Simmons' PR firm seems to have been behind New Zealand's orginal GM PR outfit, Gene Technology Information Trust, more commonly known as GenePool. GenePool claimed to be an independent educational trust while being funded by Monsanto and other pro-GM organisations. According to a parliamentary select committee report, this funding mostly went to Communications Trumps which shared office facilities and staff with GenePool. (Green Party issues details of report on GenePool, October 1999)
By 1999 GenePool was so embroiled in controversy over its funding that it had outlived its usefulness. When GenePool was being wound up, New Zealand's Green Party predicted a new 'front' would soon be set up in New Zealand by the likes of Monsanto (Taxpayer's money used in Monsanto's PR). According to Nicky Hager, 'Simmons was then involved in confidential meetings at the Wellington offices of the legal firm Russell McVeagh in which the successor lobby group, Life Sciences Network, was devised.' (Seeds of Distrust, 2002, p.34)
Up until early December 2003, the homepage of the LSN website at http://www.lifesciencesnetwork.com was attributed to Life Sciences Network (Inc), but this was then changed to BioScience Communications Ltd. The website title was also changed to ' BioScience News and Advocate' and the site could also be found via a new domain www.bioscinews.com. BioScience News appeared to have the same staff and to be run out of the same office as the Life Sciences Network.
However, in May 2004 the New Zealand Herald reported that the BioScience 'lobby institute' '...has closed down because of "insufficient support"'. According to the Herald, 'Lobbyist Francis Wevers set up the Bioscience Policy Institute last year... The institute was chaired by former Prime Minister Jim Bolger. Mr Wevers is now out of a job after working since January 2000 first for the Life Sciences Network, which campaigned for lifting the moratorium on genetic modification until the moratorium ended last October, and then for the institute and a daily bioscience email news service.'
Wevers, LSN's former executive director, was previously described by LSN as 'a former broadcaster, journalist, union official, PR consultant and businessman'. At one stage in his career Wevers moved from being a union official to assisting the corporations on the other side of the negotiating table via his own industrial relations consultancy. Among those Wevers helped in their battles with the unions was Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation . Wevers was assisted at LSN and the 'Institute' by Christine Ross.
According to the Herald, 'Life Sciences Network chairman William Rolleston said his organisation would continue' although without paid staff. Confusingly, however, it is the Life Sciences Network website which appears to have been pulled while, as of May 2004, the Bioscience website was still available.
Some of LSN's press releases in the past have been joint with Biotenz - a biotech trade lobby in New Zealand. LSN's chairman, William Rolleston, is an executive member and former president of Biotenz.
LSN was formed just 6 months before New Zealand's Royal Commission on Genetic Modification began its work. It hired offices in the same building as the Royal Commission from which to run its campaign. It was said to 'have a large budget from undisclosed sources' and to 'have coordinated most of the political pressure in favour of genetic engineering in New Zealand'. (Seeds of Distrust, 2002, p.12)
In the run up to voting in New Zealand's 2002 general election a big pro-GM advertising campaign was launched by LSN. New Zealand's Green Party called on LSN to come clean on whether multinational corporations were funding its activities. Green Party Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons commented, 'New Zealanders will be subjected to an intensive advertising campaign to influence the outcome of the election by portraying GE as safe and beneficial. Pro-GE interests will trot out their usual litany of bad science, half-truths and misleading information. What they won't be saying is how much this ad campaign costs and who is ultimately footing the bill. A talented young scientist may be the image on the front of their ads but New Zealanders might find the faces of the multinational money men behind the campaign far less attractive.' (Press Release From the Green Party, 23 July 2002)
Although primarily focused on New Zealand, LSN has been a collaborator in the wider global PR battle to promote GM and viliofy the critics. A month pre-publication of the journal Nature's editorial 'retracting' Quist and Chapela's Mexican maize-contamination paper, the comments of the only peer reviewer who called for retraction were leaked, thus greatly increasing the critical pressure on Nature, which finally went with this minority position.
They were leaked via the LSN website, with the executive director of LSN, Francis Wevers, claiming to have received them from an anonymous source:
- 'This was posted March 1. The anon messsage begins: 'Dr. Wevers, This is circulating on the internet. The text is below. "It looks like the Quist and Chapela claims regarding maize in Mexico is junk science and the editors of Nature know that. Send this on to those you trust, or call Nature for confirmation first -- I can't tell you how I got this, but I CAN tell you that Nature can't deny the authenticity of the memo." '
If the authorial style seems remarkably similar to Monsanto's PR cyphers, Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek, who played such a critical role in the anti-Chapela campaign, then interestingly Wevers can be found among the early signatories of Andura Smetacek's petition calling for the jailing of Jose Bove.
Another early signatory of Smetacek's petition was CS Prakash whose AgBioWorld organisation is a member of Wevers' LSN. Prakash's AgBioWorld has been shown to operate hand in glove with Monsanto's PR campaign.
Also a member of LSN is the state funded Crown Research Institute, Crop & Food Research, which played a significant part in attacks on Nicky Hager's book. Crop & Food Research issued pro-GM press releases even during the 2002 election campaign. One was headed, GM moratoriums, regulations, may cost lives.
Crop & Food Research are not the only publicly funded institute that has been part of LSN. HortResearch, AgResearch, and ForestResearch have also been listed as members. As the GM issue was a key issue in the election, the Green Party demanded to know, 'How can they justify their involvement in an ad campaign aimed at influencing voters just days out from an election?' (Press Release from the Green Party , 23 July 2002)
According to the New Zealand Herald, 'AgResearch and Crop and Food Research, contributed to a $180,000 election fund at the lobby group Life Sciences Network, which paid for full-page pro-GM advertisements in 21 newspapers... The group also advertised on television.' The leader of the main opposition party (National Party) said ' to have Government organisations taking paid advertising is a gross interference in the democratic process.' The Herald also reported that New Zealand First leader Winston Peters 'effectively called for the resignations of the heads of the two institutes, saying their actions were "simply not excusable. The use of taxpayers' money in that way would not be acceptable in any other democracy."' (Taxpayer cash in pro-GE adverts)
LSN's predecessor GenePool was at the centre of a similar controversy over 'using public science funds' for promoting GM (Seeds of Distrust, 2002, p.34). This contributed to GenePool's demise and the emergence of LSN. The controversy over the public funding of LSN, and the election row it helped to generate, may in turn have contributed to LSN's rebranding as BioScience Communications and in donors being apparently wary of continuing to overtly support it.
- "Green Party issues details of report on GenePool", press release, Green Party, 12 October 1999, accessed in the Wayback Machine February 2009. Also see Nicky Hager, Seeds of Distrust: The Story of a GE Cover-Up, Craig Potton Publishing, 2002, p.15