Farmers and Scientists Want Review of Publicly-Funded Science




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"Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food," said Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications. "Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job." 
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There are two articles on this page.

The Institute of Science in Society

Science Society Sustainability

General Enquiries Website/Mailing List ISIS Director

Farmers Want Review of Publicly-Funded Science

Independent and family farmers in the UK call for a new body to oversee publicly-funded science in place of the current funding council, to set priority for sustainable farming for Britain. Lim Li Ching reports.

FARM (, a group set up in 2002 in the wake of the foot and mouth epidemic to represent independent and family farmers, lays the blame for many of the UK's farming crises and the potential for similar problems in future on the failure of science to respond appropriately to the needs of agriculture, and to outline future research that meets the aspirations of farmers and consumers.

FARM points to the current debate on genetically modified (GM) crops, which is marred by an alarming lack of independent scientific understanding of the implications on human health, animals and the environment.

"Instead of objective, rigorous testing, we are presented with assumptions, projections and mathematical models, many of which have been produced directly or indirectly by the very companies seeking to introduce these crops." FARM says.

FARM is critical of the fact that Government-appointed bodies responsible for allocating research funding for food and farming are made up largely of scientists from the very same research establishments that receive much of the funding.

FARM's Board Member and Chair of its Science Review Committee John Turner wrote a letter to Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in September 2003, urging the Government to review its funding policy for scientific research in food and farming.

FARM goes as far as to call for a new, demonstrably independent, overarching science body to replace the existing Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

This new body would be called the Sustainable Food & Farming Scientific Research Council (SFFSRC), to reflect a focus and prioritising of scientific research towards a sustainable, long-term vision for food and farming.

The SFFSRC should, above all, remain independent of potentially conflicting commercial interests, FARM says. It wants to ensure that those responsible for allocating research funds represent the diverse range of social, economic, medical and environmental issues involved in the production, processing, consumption and use of food and non-food crops.

A diversity of scientific research establishments should be supported, including those dealing with relatively 'low-tech' solutions but with high intrinsic value (e.g. organic farming research stations).

Another key role for the SFFSRC is as a forum where scientists who hold divergent views are able to express them freely without fear of retribution.

The GM debate has exposed fundamental flaws in the way investment in farming methods is encouraged through scientific research, FARM argues. Vast resources have been directed towards developing GM crops, which are highly controversial, and are not wanted or needed by the majority of the public and farmers.

According to a paper from the Strategy Unit (The Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified (GM) Crops, Background working paper for the analysis of the costs and benefits to industry and science, 30 January 2003), the proportion of public money awarded by the BBSRC in 2001/2002 towards projects involving GM accounted for more than 40% (nearly £23 million) of the total agri-biotech investment. This fails to reflect the general public's wishes. Polls consistently show a majority do not want and will not buy GM foods.

Just recently, the government's national debate on GM, which collected responses from about 37,000 people, found that 86 per cent were unhappy with the idea of eating GM food and 91 per cent thought GM had potential negative effects on the environment. Only 8 per cent said they would be happy to eat GM foods.

An independent survey for FARM of nearly 600 farmers in 2002 included the question: "Do you think the development of GM crops will overall benefit farmers?" 51% thought not; 31% thought yes; 19% were undecided.

In the case of GM crops, it seems that the 'solution' was developed first and then, only at the point of commercial introduction are tests carried out to determine how appropriate they are to UK's agricultural systems. Technology being developed for agriculture is at best "science for the sake of science", as opposed to science being driven by an identifiable need and resulting in technology that has an immediate practical value to farmers and the public. FARM is not surprised that, given the close ties between those appointed to bodies like the BBSRC and the research institutions that receive the principal share of funding, the lack of independence has led to science becoming detached from modern farming practice.

FARM is critical of the apparent priority given to commercial technologies that can be 'owned' through Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) over and above other areas of research that would benefit the greater public good but have a value that is not so easily expressed in purely economic terms.

Large sums of public money have been allocated to developing technologies whose ownership is subsequently transferred to private corporations and research bodies. This is actively encouraged through funding councils such as the BBSRC, with the result that in many cases, as in the rush for commercialisation of GM crops, a fundamental conflict of interest has arisen between maximising commercial return and sustainable farming practice.

FARM adds that such a narrow interpretation of what constitutes good return on investment fails to include factors such as the role of food in health care; environmental benefits resulting from agricultural systems that adopt 'low impact' strategies; the social and community-based role that farming can play; energy and water consumption efficiencies; and more efficient use of minerals and nutrients through accurate budgeting.

FARM is concerned that independent scientists whose views challenge vested interests find themselves intimidated by threats to funding or risk being vilified by their peers, particularly so where significant commercial interests at stake. The GM debate exposes a significant failing of science where complex issues with significant areas of uncertainty are presented as 'black and white'. FARM cites the cases of unprofessional treatment of scientists such as Dr Arpad Pusztai, Dr Andrew Stirling and Professor Carlo Leifert, when they voiced concerns that could jeopardize the rapid commercialisation of GM crops.

Rather than being recognized as playing an important role in testing accepted scientific understanding, contrary views appear to be taken as a threat, to be discredited and dismissed without due consideration. This suppression of independent scientists could delay research and investigation into potentially damaging health and environmental effects of products or methods used in farming.

It welcomes the reported review of the future role of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and calls for it to include the role of scientific research and development in determining the direction that farming takes. While recognising that public representation on public and industry bodies is a good first step, FARM urges for more to be done to ensure that publicly funded science supports public, not private, interests. It refers to the recent controversy over the Food Standards Agency ignoring the views of its own appointed public and consumer representative body on GM crops.

Food and farming issues currently fall under the remit of the Departments of Health and Trade and Industry (DTI), and suffer through lack of effective coordination between the departments and their divergent interests. The BBSRC falls under the remit of the DTI and thus it is the interests of trade and industry that appear to be pre-eminent in its funding decisions on science and technology. In contrast, the proposed SFFSRC, primarily concerned with food and health, might have a different set of priorities.

FARM urges that publicly-funded science within the food and farming sector focuses on developing sustainable farming systems and a better understanding of health and the environmental impact of food production systems. In many instances, that doesn't necessarily require the application of 'cutting edge' technologies; rather, a refinement of current techniques and more efficient use of existing resources.

Techniques such as Integrated Pest Management, biological control and organic husbandry offer farmers knowledge-based systems for tackling many agronomic challenges in ways which dovetail with consumer interests and environmental concerns. Sadly, these have received disproportionately less research funding than product-based solutions, such as GM crops. FARM warns that "putting all our eggs in the biotech basket" may mean that we end up with an insufficient range of proven alternatives to cope with future challenges.

ISIS fully supports FARM's position. It is in line with the suggestions contained in the ISIS-TWN-INES-Tebtebba discussion paper, Towards a Convention on Knowledge (

To contribute your experiences or suggestions, e-mail

FARM are particularly interested in examples of research that could help sustainable farming systems, and also of alternative models for research funding that are used elsewhere in the world that deliver a system of open & honest science.

This article can be found on the I-SIS website at
  • If you would prefer to receive future mailings as plain text please let us know.

The Institute of Science in Society, PO Box 32097, London NW1 OXR
telephone: [44 20 8643 0681]   [44 20 7383 3376]   [44 20 7272 5636]

General Enquiries - Website/Mailing List - ISIS Director




The Institute of

 Science in Society

Science Society Sustainability

General Enquiries Website/Mailing List ISIS Director


Scientists Join Farmers to

 Call for Enquiry into

 Publicly Funded Science

Prominent scientists representing more than a thousand colleagues around the world are voicing their deep concerns at the lack of social accountability of publicly funded science, especially in genetically modified (GM) crops.

They are particularly incensed at the persistent denial and dismissal by the government's scientific advisors of the now extensive scientific evidence on the hazards of GM crops to health and the environment, and their total disregard for the precautionary principle.

The scientists will be speaking out at a special briefing in the Greater London Assembly between 2:00 to 4:00pm on Monday, 19 January 2003, where they will join representatives of independent and family farmers to call for a review of publicly funded science, and to set priority for non-GM sustainable farming in Britain.

The scientists belong to the London-based Institute of Science in Society, representing more than 670 scientists from 76 countries, Scientists for Global Responsibility, with a membership of 600, and the Independent Science Panel (ISP) on GM, launched 10 May 2003 at a public conference in London attended by the then environment minister Michael Meacher and 200 other participants.

The 24 scientists on the ISP published their report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World on 15 June 2003. The report is a complete dossier of evidence on the problems and hazards of GM crops as well as the proven successes of all forms of non-GM sustainable agriculture. It has been translated into Spanish, and French, Indonesian and Portuguese translations are on the way.

The evidence reviewed in this authoritative report, containing more than 200 references to primary and secondary sources, received ample corroboration from new data released recently. The US Department of Agriculture confirmed that GM crops increased pesticide use by 50 million tonnes since 1995. UK's Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs), much criticised for being limited in scope and biased in methodology, nevertheless confirmed that two of the three GM crops harmed wildlife. The third, GM maize tolerant to herbicide glufosinate, appeared to do better only because the conventional maize crop was sprayed with the deadly herbicide atrazine that Europe has banned a week before the FSEs Report was released.

"Scientific evidence has gone decisively against GM crops," says Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Director of the Institute of Science in Society, "It is incredible that our government's scientific advisors are still giving the green light to growing GM maize." She will be revealing at the briefing how 12 dairy cows died in a farm in Hesse, Germany, after being fed GM maize, that different GM feed also harmed other livestock and lab animals, suggesting there may be something seriously wrong with GM food and feed in general.

An important clue is to be found in the overwhelming instability of GM varieties. Practically every GM variety analysed by French and Belgian scientists recently, including the T25 GM maize that the UK government is authorising for growing in Britain, turned out to be unstable. "These results are telling us what many of us have been saying for years: the GM process itself is inherently uncontrollable and unsafe." Dr. Mae-Wan Ho states.

"We all want to benefit from what new technologies have to offer, but history shows that, all too often, we have failed to heed well-founded warnings and made very expensive mistakes, and GM could be one of these;" says Professor Peter Saunders, bio-mathematician, King's College, London, "Precaution is the key, and precaution is inseparable from good science."

Dr. Vyvyan Howard, medical toxi-pathologist, Liverpool University, reminds us: "The £1.6 million given by the UK Government to Dr. Pusztai was to develop hazard assessment techniques for novel foods. That tells us the regulators recognized that the methods in use then were not adequate to protect human health. Not much has changed, and it seems that line of research is no longer seriously pursued. Consequently, the current risk assessments are still totally inadequate."

Dr. Arpad Pusztai, formerly of Rowett Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland, agrees:
"Science is able to provide the tools for conducting thorough risk assessments on GM foods, yet this is not being done adequately. It leads one to ask, 'Who is responsible for not ensuring that GM foods are properly assessed, and why?'"

Emeritus Professor of Plant Genetics Joe Cummins, from University of Western Ontario, Canada, says of his country: "The Canadian government pumped millions of dollars into developing GM crops, especially GM wheat, owned by the corporations. In return, the corporations agreed to enhance the salaries of agricultural bureaucrats. The cosy relationship between the corporations and government has resulted in lax regulation and widespread pollution of non-GM crops. Worse still, scientists are intimidated into silence; they are afraid to speak out, let alone do experiments on the risks and hazards of GM."

Many scientists deplore the pervasive commercial and political conflicts of interests in both research and development and regulation of GM. Dr. Eva Novotny, astrophysicist, formerly from Cambridge University, and spokesperson for Scientists for Global Responsibility sums it up: "Vested interests must not override science, economics and what the public want."

The scientists are keen to work in partnership with farmers in research and development of sustainable agriculture. John Turner, organic farmer from FARM, a group set up in 2002 to represent independent and family farmers in the wake of the foot and mouth epidemic, is very enthusiastic about the possibility of forming a scientists-farmers coalition. He says: "This will ensure that science can respond to the present needs of agriculture, and anticipate future aspirations and needs of farmers and consumers."

For further details, contact Sam Burcher: Tel: 44-(0)-20-7383-3376 or

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho: Tel: 44-(0)-20-7272-5636.

This article can be found on the I-SIS website at
  • If you would prefer to receive future mailings as plain text please let us know.

The Institute of Science in Society, PO Box 32097, London NW1 OXR
telephone: [44 20 8643 0681]   [44 20 7383 3376]   [44 20 7272 5636]

General Enquiries - Website/Mailing List - ISIS Director





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