Biotech lobby shuns consumers at “GMO consumer benefit” event

Things can get quite surreal in Brussels' EU quarter. On 22 January EuropaBio – the biotech lobby hub – organised an event to “explain the consumer benefits of GMOs”. But no consumer could possibly have learned about it: the event was confidential and no consumer group had been invited. A former Greenpeace member turned industry consultant and obsessional Greenpeace critic (he accuses them of being responsible for “crimes against humanity” for their opposition to a GM rice) was also invited. This did not stop some MEPs and high level Commission officials from speaking at the event.

The event – titled “Healthy Food - the untold story of GM crops” – was held in the Renaissance Hotel, conveniently located just around the corner from the European Parliament.(1)

The organisers had kept remarkably quiet about an event that promised to demonstrate once and for all the benefits agricultural genetic engineering had brought humanity so far. The event was not even announced on EuropaBio's website. CEO only learned about it by stumbling upon the unusual website, run by industry consultant Patrick Moore whose main occupation since 1986 seems to be 'former early member of Greenpeace'.

On his website, Moore accuses Greenpeace of literally being responsible for the death of eight million children as a result of their criticism of the Golden Rice project. Moore is currently on tour staging 'demonstrations' in front of Greenpeace offices in various countries, with limited success judging by the attendance (according to Facebook, 3 persons went in Hamburg, 4 in Amsterdam and 1 in Brussels).

Moore was one of the speakers at the event, along with Julie Girling (MEP), UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, and representatives of various biotech institutes and companies, including Brussels lobbyists Mella Frewen of FoodDrinkEurope – defending the interests of all big food brands – and Romão Braz, of animal feed (and factory farming) club FEFAC. More suprisingly, one of the most senior civil servants of the EU Commission, Paola Testori Coggi (Director General for Health and Consumers at the Commission), whose administration is in charge of regulating GMOs, also spoke at the event.

Consumers (and NGOs in general) were neither represented nor invited: BEUC, the largest consumer organisation federation in Brussels, confirmed to CEO they had not been invited and so did EUROCOOP. CEO actually managed to register but the confirmation was withdrawn by EuropaBio a few days later.

EuropaBio is nevertheless saying that it is “stepping up" its engagement with the European public to explain alleged consumer benefits of GM crops. It's new PR campaign that was launched that day is called Growing Voices. The online platform will highlight “growing voices calling for an EU rethink on GM crops”. This campaign comes years after their leaked and failed efforts to recruit celebrity 'ambassadors' including Kofi Annan and Bob Geldof to win over consumers for GM food.

So if consumers were not the target of the 'GMO benefit' message, then who was? The participant list (15 speakers and 144 participants) provides a telling image:

  • Over 20 representatives were from embassies, missions or ministries of countries with an outspoken pro-GM government like Argentina, Brazil, the US and Spain.

  • 20 participants represented agribusiness lobby federations including EuropaBio itself, the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), the European Feed Manufacturers Federation (FEFAC), the American Soybean Association, etc.

  • Bayer sent 9 lobbyists and representatives, Monsanto 7, Syngenta 6, and BASF and Dow 1 each. Dupont Pioneer had a speaker on the panel. Grain traders Cargill, Bunge and ADM each sent 1 person. Three other biotech companies sent one lobbyist each.

  • Consultancies and lobby firms like Cabinet DN together brought in 5 participants.

  • The European Commission was well represented by no less than 6 staff.

  • Besides FoodDrinkEurope (on the panel), only one food company turned up, Kellog, with one lobbyist.

  • Organisations representing mainstream farmers totalled 3 people in the room.

  • 4 prominent members of fake 'public researchers' lobby group PRRI (see below for more detail on this group) were in the room, but not indicated as such (Marc van Montagu, Piet van der Meer, Klaus Amman, and GM Golden Rice developer Ingo Potrykus)

  • The rest of the participants were from the European Parliament, other governments, the UK Environment department (DEFRA), universities or academic or technological institutes.

Paterson in his speech claimed that “European consumers already benefit hugely from GM technology. It’s an integral part of our food supply network. We import and consume large volumes of GM material, particularly animal feed … The global success story of GM crops to date has been based around either herbicide tolerant or insect resistant crops. Most consumers don’t understand the great benefits that these traits deliver.” Find the text of Paterson's speech here.

Unfortunately there was no consumer in the room to point out the absurdity of this statement, since there is no consumer benefit whatsoever in GM soy or maize for animal feed, resistant to herbicide and/or producing its own insecticides. Factory farmed meat using GM feed might be the very cheapest to produce, which some consumers might value if this price difference was passed on to them, but an internalisation of the true costs of cheap meat to society at large would change that picture entirely. Just to mention one example: the massive use of antibiotics in factory farms is creating resistant strains of bacteria, presenting a very serious threat to public health. The earlier mentioned animal feed industry lobbyist José Romão Braz (FEFAC) however, was there to make the old case for a 'synchronized approval system', meaning that the EU should accept any GMO that has been approved in the countries where it's produced, in South and North America. So why have EU regulation anyway?

Paterson also referred to a letter sent to the EU institutions by “a worldwide organisation of public sector scientists” about the damaging consequences of the EU’s stance towards GM. Here he can only be referring to a letter by the fake 'public researchers' organisation Public Research Regulation Initiative (PRRI), exposed by CEO for its membership (many scientists with industry links), industry funding and industry-minded positions. PRRI member Amman joined one of the protests at Greenpeace offices staged by Moore, and PRRI tweeted about it.

Paterson and Moore repeated the old story that GM Golden Rice will be an effective tool to fight blindness in poor regions. Both have portrayed those criticising this GM rice as criminal in the media. Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and one of the developers of the GM Golden Rice was on the panel as well. He said:“Scientifically unjustified regulation provides a lever for ideological activists to hold millions of poor hostage in a campaign for political power and money. As long as society listens to activists instead of to scientific consensus the technology cannot fulfil its social promise.” Potrykus too is a member of PRRI.

The point is that rice is not a natural source of vitamin A, whereas many plants growing in the wild or on the fields, like carrots, are. The most effective – and culturally desirable – solution would be to ensure communities regain access to these varieties of foods. Monoculture farming has displaced many people to urban slums. Land grabbing is depriving them of access to natural vitamin sources themselves. Replacing local varieties of rice, where they have remained, by GM Golden rice moreover could deteriorate the genetic diversity of rice even further. Indian activist and scientist Vandana Shiva in her article
'Golden Rice will worsen the malnutrition crisis', calls the Golden Rice campaign “a blind approach to blindness prevention”.

Macy Merriman, a DuPont Pioneer lobbyist went on stage to promote its Plenish soybean as a source of healthier soybean oil, said to be free of transfats. However, in 2007 Pioneer submitted an application for the import and processing of the Plenish soybean for food and feed. That same year, EFSA asked for additional information from Pioneer. Since then there has been no more news, and the application has been “suspended” according to GMO Compass.

Then there was Dr. Claude Fauquet of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century who said that cassava diseases cause a substantial loss of food in African countries. “Employing genetic engineering [..] for these diseases would be highly beneficial for both consumers and farmers.”

Some years back, Fauquet led a GM cassava project. Jonathan Latham in his excellent article 'Fakethrough! GMOs and the capitulation of science journalism' relates how Fauquet's cassava, developed at the Monsanto-sponsored Donald Danforth Center in St Louis, USA, was supposed to have a synthetic protein (called zeolin) added to it. This would elevate the crop's protein level by a factor of four, as reported by New Scientist in 2011. But a subsequent investigation at the Danforth Center found that the modified cassava plants in their greenhouses had no zeolin gene in them. The study was retracted. As Retraction Watch found, that appears to have been the end of high-protein cassava as apparently the Bill Gates grant that funded the project had ended.

Yet despite the reality of these products not living up to the hype, many excited tweets from a variety of participating organisations and vested interests fluttered through cyber surreality in response to the event, none of them questioning the '8 million dead children' accusation of Moore.

GrowingVoicesEU regulation is preventing efficient use of biotech by the public sector 4 public good - irresponsible

MEP Julie Girling says European politicians should show leadership against anti-
#GMO insanity. Lead not follow. #GrowingVoicesEU

European Seeds Association:
excellent debate at
#GrowingVoicesEU about the public perception of #GM in #Europe in Brussels today! thanks to EuropaBio for organising

Telling an 'untold story' behind closed doors, away from the public, seems to us sufficiently telling of the real intentions of the organisers.

(1) EuropaBio used the same venue for it's “GM food tasting event" a couple of years ago. On that occasion, the lobby group hid behind a “Farmers Biotech Network” that existed of less than 20 actual farmers across Europe and was organised by PR firm Edelman.


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