A LEADING organic farming lobby organisation has accused a government-backed advisory body of being overly influenced by heavyweight biotechnology companies in supporting more tax payer funded research into genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The Soil Association says that about 100 million of public funds are spent annually on agricultural biotechnology research in the UK against only about 2m into organic farming, in spite of sales now topping 1 billion a year.
It says this will be compounded by a new report to be published tomorrow by the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), an independent body set up by the government.
It dismisses the commission’s initial analysis of the drivers for GMO research as failing to examine the concerns on environmental, health and socio-economic impacts as well as leaving huge gaps in the field of impacts of GM at sell/plant level.
"If the AEBC is investigating the drivers of the GM research agendas, it must produce answers to why these gaps exist, which its initial analysis does not," says Gundula Azeez, the Soil Association’s policy manager.
She says the AEBC had failed to address the informal pressures compared with official and positive drivers, particularly those from the GM companies, and claims the former were probably more important.
"Commercial interests are very powerful," she says. "Not only do they have a high presence on the boards of the research councils that decide research agendas ... but they have unique access to the farming community, the farming media and the scientific community."
She claims that the public, NGOs and the government did not have this same degree of influence and, in particular, the Soil Association had found it very difficult to gets its message out to wider audiences.
"It is absolutely incredible that, eight years after GMOs were introduced into the food chain and despite the massive public disquiet expressed over and over again, there has been no effort to research the health impacts."
She goes on to accuse GM companies of encouraging an atmosphere among researchers who oppose pro-GM messages.
"Fear of the inevitable hostility to any unwelcome findings is coupled with fear of even approaching the boards of research councils with such proposals."
She points out that while Defra funds organic farming research with an annual budget of 2 million, under the organic action plan a further 5 million was due to be provided under the LINK programme. "But the requirement for industry matching funding meant that projects could only be found to spend half the funds."
The AEBC is shortly to be wound up following a government review of its operations. Industry sources on both sides of the GM fence found it was unable to produce a meaningful consensus of opinion due to the widely diverging opinions of its membership.
Scots' watching brief on badgers
RADICALLY opposing views on the role played by badgers in contributing to the spread of bovine TB are being increasingly voiced south of the Border.
But both Scottish farming and political organisations continue to favour the traditional Scottish "not proven" verdict, tempered with a policy of prevention rather than cure.
James Withers, communications director with the National Farmers Union Scotland, said that with TB cases running at around 20 a year in Scotland against 100 times that in the south, the union saw its role as keeping a watching brief and it was continuing to work with the Scottish Badgers group.
"The vast majority of cases in Scotland have been linked to importation of cattle but we are keeping an open mind.
"There is a much more adversarial relationship between farmers and badger groups in the south but here in Scotland we are working very closely with these groups."