I was very surprised to be phoned up yesterday by a reporter for The Guardian, who asked for a comment on my decision to become a behind-the-scenes pro-GM ‘ambassador’ for EuropaBio, the European biotechnology business association. She sent through some leaked documents prepared for EuropaBio by a PR agency called Aspect Consulting, based in Brussels. These documents did indeed seem to be genuine – and my name was indeed on the list of “high profile individuals” who were supposedly interested in becoming ‘ambassadors’.
The Guardian duly ran a story on leak, including a comment from myself denying any involvement. I have since spoken to EuropaBio’s Director for Agricultural Biotechnology, Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, to seek some clarification of why my name came to be mentioned in association with this story. For background, here is what the letter from the PR agency said in the crucial sentence:
For your information, to date we have interest from Sir Bob Geldof, Lord Chris Patten, David Byrne, and former French Minister Claude Allegre and potentially the involvement of Mr Kofi Annan and Mark Lynas.
Mr du Marchie Sarvaas was extremely apologetic, and confirmed that my name should not have been on this list – no-one from EuropaBio, the PR agency or anyone else had approached me with the request to become an ‘ambassador’ for EuropaBio. This was simply an error: someone, somewhere had made a mistake, and my name should not have been linked with this industry initiative.
Update: EuropaBio has put a note on its website confirming that I was never approached by them.
This is all rather unfortunate, because mud tends to stick, and the best weapon the anti-GMO lobby has to beat me with for taking a different line on this is to put about the story that I am in the pocket of the big, bad biotech companies. I cannot blame the anti-GM campaigners, however, or the Guardian, for this: the fault entirely belongs with EuropaBio and its PR agency, who got themselves into a situation where the strongest and most persistent argument against GM – that it is simply a technology to increase to profits of big seed/agro companies like Monsanto – became centre stage once again.
I am happy that EuropaBio has apologised, but some damage will have been done. For me the great potential for GM technology lies mainly in public sector developments, to increase yields in developing countries via drought tolerance and pest resistant staple crops; to improve environmental outcomes with better nitrogen-use efficiency; more nutritional varieties of subsistence crops, and so on. I know increasing numbers of people – including in the environmental movement – now realise that GM is just a technology like any other, and that to reject it for superstitious or ideological reasons is potentially damaging both to the environment and to the interests of poorer people.
For the record, let me say loud and clear: I do not, and will never, work behind the scenes for any industry or interest group whose issues I comment on. And for the record, my only current income comes from books sales, the Maldives government (for my half-time role as advisor to the President, totalling about $1,500 a month) and the occasional paid lecture. That I would never work for industry should be obvious anyway, as such a thing would inevitably become public, and my credibility to speak as an independent commentator would in the eyes of everyone disappear.
I hope the biotech industry learns a lesson from this – that anything they do which could be seen as being an attempt to manipulate public or media opinion will inevitably come back to haunt them. It would be far better if they want to convince us all of the justice of their cause for them to speak through their actions, and via scientifically-published information rather than any PR campaigns.