THE ENFORCER: DR JACK THE COMPANY HE KEEPS
Th e Biotec h Champio n Monsanto is acutely conscious of the importance of political lobbying in such a regulated area. I f the government bans its genetically-modified food, it will be a major blow to its £450 million per year profits. One tactic is to deceive the regulators. According to Carl Jenkins of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): "Monsanto has submitted false information to the EPA which directly resulted in weakened regulations".
In the UK, the government and media is the target, and so in early 1998 Monsanto launched a major PR and lobbying offensive to win over hearts and minds. A battery of operators has been hired. They play different roles but are connected at the highest echelons of government. The Monsanto network is all-consuming.
Monitoring of parliament has been done by Charles Barker BSMG which organised the conference at Chevening. A key
He strongly opposes a moratorium on engineered crops. "Some of these same people (who advocate a ban) were saying something similar 20 years ago about an industry not a million miles from my constituency", said Cunningham earlier this year. "If these people had had their way at the time, the nuclear industry would have been stopped in its tracks and closed".
Monsanto consultant is Stan Greenberg, an American pollster who worked for President Clinton during his 1992 campaign. His business partner is Philip Gould, an influential Labour strategist, advertising guru and close aide to Tony Blair. The two run a private polling company (together with James Carville, another top Clinton advisor) which was contracted to the Labour Party. This is 25 per cent owned by National Opinion Polling, which in turn is owned by Lord Hollick, proprietor of Express Newspapers and a strong supporter of New Labour.
On the publicity and lobbying side, Monsanto hired BellPottinger Good Relations Ltd, part of the communications empire run by Lord Bell, the renowned former media guru to former Prime Minister Lady Thatcher. Its brief is "to gain public and opinion-former acceptance of genetically modified food and promote the benefits of biotechnology".
Bell-Pottinger was chosen because one of its executives is Dave Hill, Labour communications director from 1992 until he resigned soon after the 1997 General Election. Hill worked for Labour for 25 years at all levels and knows every Cabinet Minister extremely well. In effect, Monsanto's aim was, presumably, to buy political influence to guarantee regulatory acceptance for its transgenic crops.
An even more significant Labour advisor hired by Monsanto's lobbyists is Cathy McGlynn. For six years she was Special Advisor to Jack Cunningham, covering the period when he was Agriculture Secretary. In March 1998, she resigned from Cunningham's private office, but six months later signed a lucrative contract with Bell-Pottinger. She was appointed a mere week after Cunningham became Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on GM. Needless to say, McGlynn works closely with Hill on the Monsanto business.
An illustration of how Hill and Bell-Pottinger lobby Cunningham directly is contained in an internal company memo. On 5 November 1998, three weeks after the Cabinet Committee on biotechnology was set up, Alex Woolfall, a Bell-Pottinger consultant, wrote to Hill : "Regarding the new ministerial group. Would it not be a good idea for us to either write or phone Cunningham and offer some sort of briefing?".
This memo was followed by several private meetings between Monsanto executives, Cunningham and Jeff Rooker, the Minister of State for Agriculture. Since Labour was elected to office in May 1997, government officials or ministers have met Monsanto representatives on 22 occasions.
Bell-Pottinger put no less than five consultants on the Monsanto account: more than for any other client. But its executives have found it difficult persuading the public of the "merits" of GM. In that same memo to Hill, Woolfall lamented: "We have reached a bit of a hiatus with Monsanto, having lurched from crisis to crisis. It would be sensible to get a meeting with Dan Verakis (Monsanto's Director of Corporate Relations) and identify their priorities, so we can determine what our plot should be".
By early 1999, the crisis showed no signs of abeyance. On 17 February, Monsanto was fined £17,000 plus £6,000 costs for failing to ensure its controversial trial crops did not contaminate surrounding fields. Publicly, the company claimed it had taken adequate steps to "stop similar breaches occurring in the future". But privately, Monsanto's PR consultants admitted that the corporation was powerless to stop its GM crops spreading. In a secret note, a Bell-Pottinger executive stated: "My concern is that Monsanto are unable to say publicly what practical steps they are taking to stop this happening again. In reality, there is probably little they can do, but they are likely to be severely criticised i f they are unable to at least appear to be working on a programme to tighten up monitoring of GM field trials". In essence, this was an admission by Monsanto that there is nothing it can do to prevent a recurrence of cross-fertilisation.
Crucially, Monsanto has been busy in parliament. The Labour MP Stuart Bell is a paid consultant to Bell-Pottinger, on a fee of up to £10,000 per year. As he does not declare any clients, it is unclear whether he works on the Monsanto account. Just before Stuart Bell joined the PR company, he was asked in the Commons for his assessment of the Church Commissioners' investment in Monsanto. The MP, a Church Commissioner, quoted approvingly from a Monsanto letter which said that "the life science company" is "playing a pivotal role in improving the health and nutritional needs of future generations".
Another MP on the Bell-Pottinger payroll is the Conservative Peter Luff who states that he "provides advice on political affairs only on new business". He also advises on "corporate public relations on new business work". As he is chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Agriculture, there is an appearance of a conflict of interests. But Luff fiercely and vehemently denies that he has ever worked on the Monsanto account, insisting that his only client is the Chamber of Shipping. "Of course I don't lobby for Monsanto", he insists testily.
In the House of Lords, Monsanto has hired Lord Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1990 until 1993. Prior to that he was Financial and then Chief Secretary to the Treasury and has been a senior minister in the departments of Energy, Industry and Defence. Lamont has been on the Monsanto payroll as an advisor since 1998 but has not spoken about the GM
The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 6, October 1999 THE ENFORCER: DR JACK THE COMPANY HE KEEPS
Cunningham shows his pleasure at being promoted to 'Cabinet Enforcer' last year
issue in the peers chamber. As he has no professional background in biotechnology (he was and is a merchant banker with N.M. Rothschilds), that can only mean he is privately counselling Monsanto on how to persuade the government that their product should not be regulated against or banned.
As chairman of the powerful Cabinet Committee on GM, Cunningham remains the focus of this network of former cabinet ministers, lobbyists, pollsters and PR consultants, several of whom are in Monsanto's pocket. And the Cabinet Enforcer has been receptive to their support for GM. He strongly
While Cunningham remains the most influential Cabinet Minister on GM and ecological issues, there is little room for optimism. opposes a moratorium on engineered crops. "Some of these same people (who advocate a ban) were saying something similar 20 years ago about an industry not a million miles from my constituency", said Cunningham earlier this year. "I f these people had had their way at the time, the nuclear industry would have been stopped in its tracks and closed".
Despite opinion polls revealing serious public concern about GM, Cunningham has remained staunchly loyal to the biotech lobby: "There is no question over the safety of GM products on sale for human consumption", he insists. This is reminiscent of John Gummer, Agriculture Minister in the last Conservative government, who sought to calm unease over the quality of British beef by feeding a hamburger to his daughter on TV. Shortly afterwards he was embarrassed by evidence which showed that BSE was a genuine problem. Blair adopted a similar approach, announcing that he and his wife were happy to eat GM food, although privately Cherie avoids it.
Faced with public and media concern, the government set up a special unit called the 'Biotechnology Presentation Group'. Based in the Cabinet Office, it is chaired by Cunningham and attended by senior Health, Agriculture and Environment ministers. It acts as a rebuttal unit to discredit "old stories" released by environmentalists and promote the benefits of biotechnology. According to the minutes of a meeting on 9 May 1999, the group decided to "identify an independent scientist to appear on the 'Today Programme'" to refute the findings of a Christian Aid report on the impact of GM foods in the Third World.
Ministers and their officials also decided to revise a key secret paper by the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor on the health and environmental risks of GM. The original draft concluded that not enough was yet known about the dangers of growing GM food. The 'Presentation Group' concluded: "The paper should be revised to make sure it is intelligible to the lay reader and so that it contains clear recommendations. But Ministers needed to guard against the charge that the Government was seeking to influence the findings of the paper. The revised draft should be cleared by a future meeting of the Presentation Group".
Two weeks later, Cunningham announced voluntary guidelines on monitoring and surveillance checks on genetically engineered crops and new advisory groups. These were dismissed as "miserably inadequate" by doctors who said they failed to meet safety concerns. But the Cabinet Enforcer remained defiant. "Biotechnology has the potential to improve our quality of life in many ways", he told the Commons.
Ne w Labour , Ne w Lobbyin g While Cunningham remains the most influential Cabinet Minister on GM and ecological issues, there is little room for optimism. But it is simplistic to believe that one man's prejudices are moulding and controlling all government policies on the environment. The more complex truth is that Monsanto, BNFL and others have devoted millions lobbying officials and ministers, and promoting their products. There is no free market or fair competition when it comes to influencing legislation which affects the health and safety of this planet. It is a lopsided debate because of the force and wealth of the corporate juggernaut.
The Monsanto campaign of PR spin-doctoring and influence-peddling has also received a bonus in that New Labour is a government of and for Big Business. It is mesmerised by the power and money of multinationals whose allegiance, as they freely admit, is to their shareholders not the public. Just as it was seduced by the cash of Formula One, Labour was receptive to Monsanto. As its own 'Invest in Britain Bureau' acknowledged this year:
"The UK leads the way in Europe in ensuring that regulations and other measures affecting the development of biotechnology take full account of the concerns of business".
Cunningham's career and record is a testament to the fact that when it comes to the environment, political expediency and the interests of commerce will always be a major influence.
Mark Hollingsworth is a freelance journalist and writer. He is the author of MPs For Hire - The Secret World of Political Lobbying. His latest book is Defending the Realm - MI5 and the Shayler Affair.
The author would like to thank Stephanie Roth and Emmett Borcikfor their excellent research in the preparation of this article.
The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 6, October 1999