Nuffield Council on Bioethics

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The Nuffield Council on Bioethics says it is an independent body which examines the ethical issues raised by developments in medicine and biology. Established in 1991, it is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

In 1999 no less than four newsworthy reports on GM were published in the UK in the space of just two days. All asserted the safety of GM foods and crops, and all strongly criticised the research of Dr Arpad Pusztai which had raised considerable doubts about the safety of GM foods. Their publication also followed hard on the heels of a British Medical Association report calling for an indefinite moratorium on GM crops.

One of these reports was the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report, Genetically modified crops: the social and ethical issues, published in May 1999. The attack on Dr Pusztai was contained in an appendix to the report which Pusztai characterised as 'misleading and full of inaccuracies... unscientific and most unfair.'

The Nuffield report declared that all GM foods currently on the market were 'safe' and that there was a moral imperative to make GM crops available to developing countries. Though the panel that drew up the report was presented as 'a group of independent scientists', this does not bear examination.

Among those on the panel were:

Mike Gale FRS: biotechnologist at the John Innes Centre (JIC), which at that time was negotiating a deal with biotech giants Zeneca and DuPont promising some GBP60-70m in investment. Gale, while serving as the JIC's acting director, said of the financial impact of a GM moratorium on the JIC, 'It would be very, very serious for us.'
Derek Burke: former vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA), and former chair of the governing council of the JIC (see above), both of which have benefited from biotech industry funding. Burke was chairman for nearly a decade (1988-97) of the Advisory Committee for Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP), the regulatory body which approved the UK's first GM foods.
Brian Heap FRS: then Vice President of the Royal Society. Like Burke and Gale, Heap helped produce the Royal Society's report 'Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use' which was used at an earlier stage to reassure government ministers that there were no significant problems with GM. He was also on the Royal Society group that organised a partial 'peer review' of Pusztai's work while it was still unpublished - an act The Lancet described as 'a gesture of breathtaking impertinence.'
Michael Lipton: development economist at the Poverty Research Unit, University of Sussex. Lipton is a strong supporter of GM and of genetically modified 'golden rice'. He warns that it is threatened by 'a great anti-scientific wave' and says NGOs which oppose it should have their charitable status brought into question. He does not appear to consider the large amount of money being invested in 'golden rice' could better be spent on the cheap and effective approaches already available, nor that those likely to be most directly affected by this technology should be centrally involved in decision making about it.

In drawing up its report, the Nuffield panel consulted, among others, the biotech corporations Monsanto and Zeneca. The Scottish Herald (30 May 99) reported that an early draft of the report had warned of possible environmental problems with GM crops and suggested leaving large GM-free tracts of the UK as an 'insurance policy'. This suggestion did not survive consultation with the industry and was edited out before publication.

Although the report made such strong recommendations on the use of GM crops in the developing world, curiously there was no consultation with anyone from the developing world, nor was a single well-known scientific critic of GM consulted.

The environmental writer George Monbiot described the Nuffield report as 'perhaps the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written. The stain it leaves on the Nuffield Council's excellent reputation will last for years.'

According to Monbiot, the panel made three fundamental mistakes.

'The first was to assume that the technology is neutral' whereas 'control of the foodchain remains with the corporation at every stage of production'.
The second mistake was 'its crude, even childish supposition that any technology which produces more will feed the starving. The world is littered with the wreckage of such assumptions. Ethiopia's modern agro-industrialists were exporting animal feed to Europe throughout its devastating famine... starvation happens because the wrong people own the foodchain.'
The third mistake was 'its inexplicable premise that biotechnology will somehow boost employment. Monsanto's leading biotech products - herbicide resistant crops - are sold with the promise that they reduce the need for labour: farmers give their money not to local labourers but to one of the biggest corporations on earth.'

The fact that the Nuffield panel did not consult even 1 person from a developing country, out of the 87 or so experts they met, proved particularly controversial. A group representing Indian farmers even turned up uninvited at the Nuffield offices in London to express their unhappiness with the report and frustration at their point of view not being heard. The Nuffield's director eventually agreed to speak to them, though not before calling the police.

Four years on, in 2003, a group within the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' produced a follow up report to coincide with the UK's national GM Public Debate. The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries (published in January 2004 after a period of consultation) again strongly supported GM crops. The BBC's Pallab Ghosh reported, 'GM crops can contribute substantially to improving agriculture in developing countries, an independent scientific think-tank has concluded.'

The follow up report was produced by a much smaller group than the 1999 report. The 5-member group included only one person who had not contributed to the 1999 report. The remaining four were the Council's director plus Derek Burke, Mike Gale and Michael Lipton.

Like the'public-good plant breeding' campaign launched in autumn 2003 by the John Innes Centre in consort with the controversial lobby group Sense About Science, the 2003 report called for a massive increase in public investment in GM crops. That kind of investment would notably benefit Mike Gale's institute - the JIC - an institute with which Derek Burke also has strong associations (as former chair of the JIC's governing council). The JIC's corporate investors have been in retreat with the JIC's principal corporate investor, Syngenta, pulling out completely, abandoning a �50m investment.

Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, the head of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority, [1], 'The Nuffield report suggests that there is a moral imperative for investment into GM crop research in developing countries. But the moral imperative is in fact the opposite. The policy of drawing funds away from low-cost sustainable agriculture research, towards hi-tech, exclusive, expensive and unsafe technology is itself ethically questionable. There is a strong moral argument that the funding of GM technology in agriculture is harming the long-term sustainability of agriculture in the developing world.'

New-Delhi based trade and policy analyst, Devinder Sharma, sees the Nuffield Council's plea for massive funding for GM research as more about job security for their fellow scientists than food security for the hungry. The panel, Sharma suggests, is guilty of exploiting hunger in the poor world for the sake of employment opportunities for the rich.

The Nuffield report's vision is also notably at odds with the 2003 report on GM crops in Africa by Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. DeGrassi assesses empirically the major GM showcase projects in Africa and finds they have little to offer in terms of serious poverty alleviation. The report concludes, 'genetic modification may constitute a novel tool but it is a relatively ineffective and expensive one in Africa.' The report supports the judgement of a South African commentator, 'There are better ways to feed Africa than GM crops.'

Interestingly, one of the limited number of case studies the Nuffield report uses is one of the showcase projects deGrassi considers - a Monsanto-initiated project to breed a GM virus-resistant sweet potato for use in Kenyan agriculture. The Nuffield report says of the likely result of the project, 'it is expected that yields will increase by 18-25%' and that, where sold, 'the increased income will be between 28-39%' (p.39). Overall, the report says that the project shows that 'the use of GM virus-resistant sweet potatoes could prevent dramatic and frequent reductions in yield of one of the major food crops of many poor people in Africa.' (p.43)

The final version of the Nuffield report was published in the same month as the results of 3 years of crop trials in Kenya on the GM sweet potato. These showed the project to have been a complete failure with the supposedly virus-resistant GM sweet potatoes being outperformed by conventional sweet potatoes ('Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails', New Scientist).

The Nuffield authors can, of course, be forgiven for not knowing the results of the trials in advance, but not for ignoring deGrassi's report which pointed to the complete lack of reliable scientific evidence to support the claims being made for the Kenyan project and which were repeated by the Nuffield authors. DeGrassi pointed to a whole series of reasons for extreme caution about the project's likely outcome.

It is extremely difficult to see the Nuffield authors' failure to make any reference to deGrassi's work as anything other than deliberate. DeGrassi's report was not only widely circulated on the Internet, but was repeatedly referred to in press articles in the months prior to the production of the final version of the Nuffield report, eg in pieces by Rob Edwards (GM-free food is contaminated, Sunday Herald - 29 June 2003), John Vidal (Tattered Fagships, The Guardian, 24 September 2003) and George Monbiot (Force-fed a diet of hype, The Guardian 7 October, 2003) Indeed, George Monbiot's piece specifically referred to deGrassi's criticisms of the GM sweet potato project while John Vidal dirtectly pointed to the relevance of deGrassi's findings to the Nuffield Council's work:

'[the Nuffield] authors should consider the work of Aaron deGrassi, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. DeGrassi has analysed three flagship GM projects in Africa - including Monsanto's GM cotton in South Africa, Syngenta's maize project in Kenya, and another Kenyan project with GM sweet potatoes involving Monsanto, the World Bank and USAid. The industry claims that all three are showcase successes for small farmers, but DeGrassi finds the benefits much lower than could be obtained with conventional breeding at a fraction of the investment in GM research.' (Tattered Fagships, The Guardian, 24 September 2003)

Vidal's piece concluded by telling the Nuffield authors how to obtain a copy of the report: "Details at: "

In addition, the only development specialist on the Nuffield Working Party (Michael Lipton) is based, like deGrassi, at the University of Sussex. Indeed, Lipton and deGrassi were both among those at a two-day conference on GM and development at the Institute of Development Studies at the beginning of October 2003 - some 3 months before the publication of the Nuffield report.

The Nuffield authors not only overlook deGrassi's warnings about the lack of verifiable evidence to support the claims about the project in Kenya, they even quote a yield figure for conventional sweet potato production in Africa of 6 tons per hectare which deGrassi points out lacks any credible basis. The figure is completely at odds with FAO and Kenyan official statistics which give average yields in Kenya as around 10 tons per hectare. The figure of 6 tons, which the Nuffield report uses, has been promoted, deGrassi says, as a means of making the potential yields from the GM sweet potato look comparatively good.

Similarly, the Nuffield Report says that effective controls for the pathogens the Kenyan project aims to tackle are 'not available'. But, as George Monbiot noted in an article published three months before Nuffield, deGrassi reports a conventionally bred sweet potato with viral resistance in Uganda which has successfully increased yields for farmers by roughly 100% at a fraction of the cost of the GM project.

The Nuffield report also ignores deGrassi's findings in relation to another project featured amongst its case studies. This case study focuses, in part, on the success of Bt cotton in South Africa - another project which deGrassi's report challenges on the basis, once again, of careful scrutiny of the available evidence. In the same case study, the Nuffield authors claim economic benefits for small farmers in China from Bt cotton, even though Prof. Dayuan Xue, of the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science in China, told Lipton and others attending the IDS confernce back in October that, 'Modern agri-biotechnology has produced significant benefits for commercial companies but not for small farmers in China.' Similarly, no reference is made to the multiple problems experienced by small farmers growing Bt cotton in India or Indonesia.

DeGrassi's report carefully sifts out biotech industry hype from reliable evidence. It is difficult not to view the Nuffield report's failure to follow suit as reflecting the make up of the Working Party.

It is also revealing that ministers in the Blair Government have repeatedly turned to the Nuffield Report - both the 99 report and the update - for support for their pro-GM position while ignoring the views and reports of the British Overseas Aid Group (BOAG) member organisations - Action Aid, CAFOD, Christian Aid, OXFAM and Save the Children. The latter have said, 'Claims that GMOs are necessary for the food security of poor people in developing countries should not be used to promote public acceptance of GM by the UK public. We believe such claims are misleading and fail to acknowledge the complexities of poverty reduction and household food security in developing countries.'


Chair: Albert Weale, Professor of Government at the University of Essex (since January 2008)