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In June this year it hit the newspaper headlines. More than a hundred Nobel laureates call upon Greenpeace to immediately cease their resistance to genetic modification (GM). In specific the environmental organization was blasted for it’s campaign against so-called “Golden Rice”, a genetically engineered rice variety that according to it’s advocates has the potential to give the hundreds of thousands of children who suffer from vitamin A deficiency and consequently become blind, or even worse: die, a better chance: “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity’?”, concludes the letter signed by a total of 109 Nobel Prize winners. Regulatory barriers for GM-technology should therefore be eased, the letter urges, and calls on “governments of the world“ to make this happen.

“Greenpeace has done everything possible to delay the development of Golden Rice”, says Sir Richard Roberts, the 1993 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for the discovery of genetic sequences known as introns, and the initiator of the letter in an exchange of emails with OneWorld. “Millions have probably died needlessly had Greenpeace not been so aggressive towards the development [of Golden Rice].”

'Practical solution to huge public health problem'

Golden Rice is a genetically modified organism (GMO) to which a gene from corn has been added. As a result the rice contains more beta-carotene, a nutrient that the human body can convert into vitamin A. It is this nutrient that gives the rice its yellow; golden color. Golden Rice is developed in the Philippines by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a non-profit organization that collaborates with partners in Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Will Golden Rice deliver on it’s promises?

Glenn Stone, a professor at Washington University, has been studying rice issues in the Philippines for years and is skeptical about the promises of Golden Rice. He points to the fact that for beta-carotene to be metabolized into vitamin A, the body also needs additional nutrients like fat. According to Stone the only thing that has been proven is that Golden Rice works in children eating balanced diets, in other words: children that don’t need Golden Rice. Stone also emphasizes that by means of more conventional methods, such as food fortification of common ingredients with vitamin A, the incidence of childhood vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines has dropped from a peak of 40.1 %  in 2003 to 15.2 %  in 2008.

Jackie Hughes, a researcher at IRRI, emphasizes that Golden Rice could offer a very practical solution to a huge public health problem that is affecting the most vulnerable people in developing nations: “So many school children die just because of vitamin A deficiency” she says. “Their immune systems are breaking down. Maybe we could prevent up to 2.5 million deaths a year, knowing that for instance many Bangladeshis cannot afford anything else than rice for their kids.”

But oddly enough, in contradiction to what Nobel laureate Sir Richard Roberts claims, according to Hughes Greenpeace did never obstruct the development of this specific GM crop: ​“Greenpeace is active in the Philippines” Hughes, who is involved in the Golden Rice research project herself, tells, “and yes, we at the IRRI have interacted with them from time to time. But frustration of the work? No, not that.”

It is precisely this message, that the environmental organization has never hindered the development of Golden Rice, that Charlie Cray, a campaigner at Greenpeace USA, wants to point out when the Nobel letter is presented. He is present on June 30th when in the National Press Club in Washington DC Richard Roberts goes public with his initiative. However, Charlie Cray is never able to enter the press conference.

“My entry was blocked by a man named Jay Byrne”, Charlie Cray tells OneWorld. “He said that only accredited media were being allowed. I said I was with Greenpeace and that since the press conference was going to be about Greenpeace, that it was ridiculous not to let me in.”

PR firm biotech industry

Jay Byrne is not just anyone. He is the former head of corporate communications for Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of GMO seeds. Today, Byrne is the CEO of a public relations firm named v-Fluence, located just like Monsanto in St. Louis, Missouri. According to it’s website, v-Fluence specializes in “reputation management”, something the company does for companies that work with “Biotech, GMOs and cloning”. Their client list contains some “major brands” the website says, although no specific names are mentioned here.

When asked, Nobel Prize winner Sir Richard Roberts acknowledges that Jay Byrne was involved in the press conference. “He helped to organize the press conference, but had no part in obtaining the signatures of my fellow laureates”, he writes in an email, “I am totally responsible for that.” Then he flings a question back at me: “But I thought you had already asked him about that?”

Sir Richard Roberts (foto: twitter)

That last bit is true. At that moment, I have already emailed Jay Byrne with the same question about his involvement in the initiative of the Nobel laureates. The fact that Roberts is informed on this shows that he and Byrne are in close contact, and apparently scrutinize questions coming from journalists together. The reply I get from Byrne corresponds with Richard Roberts’ response: “My role was limited to simply volunteering my support to help the laureates with their announcement”, writes Byrne.

Professional relation stretches further

However, their professional relation stretches further than that Sir Richard Roberts leads me to believe. On September the 21st, the American magazine Forbes published an article that, based on a conversation with Byrne, makes clear that he did not only organize the press conference: “He provided public affairs guidance to Roberts” writes Kavin Senapathy, “over the year leading up to the #Nobels4GMOs going public”.

A second PR firm is also involved in the Nobel campaign

Besides Jay Byrne and v-Fluence, it turns out that also a second PR firm, the White House Writers Group (WHWG), is involved. This is shown by the fact that the press conference is opened by a women named Anneke Green, an employee of WHWG, and also a former speech writer to George W. Bush. Just like v-Fluence, the White House Writers Group does not make public who it’s clients are, but it is known that the company provides services to the biotech industry. In 2014 the New Yorker magazine publishes an article, featuring the WHWG involved in a campaign orchestrated by Syngenta to sow scientific doubt about the dangers of a widely used herbicide called atrazine.

Byrne admits this when I subsequently ask him about it. Has he perhaps been paid for his assistance to Roberts by clients of v-Fluence? This suggestion irritates Byrne, and he denies in the strongest terms: “I had ZERO communications about the Nobel laureates’ initiative with anyone at Monsanto”, he writes in an email full of capital letters and words typed in bold, “or in the biotech industry [in general].”

But is Byrne telling me the truth here? A fact is that Jay Byrne also has a more secretive side to his personality. Byrne has been a key figure in an undercover plan to transfer Monsanto funds to scientists and employ them for PR purposes. It is a scandal that came to light because of a batch of emails obtained in 2015 through the American Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background” one of them reads, “so as not to harm the credibility of the information”.

Byrne erases Monsanto fingerprints

The topic of the email conversation is the launch of Academics Review, a supposedly independent online scientific platform, but which in secret will receive money from Big Ag companies like Monsanto. Goal will be to to discredit the organic food industry. On March 11th 2010 Jay Byrne writes Bruce Chassy, one of the participating academics, that he will serve as a “commercial vehicle” between industry and scientists. This will enable them to retain their “credibility and independence (and thus value)”. What Byrne is offering here is to work as the fixer who erases the Monsanto finger prints.

E-mail sent by Jay Byrne to Bruce Chassy on March 11th 2010.

Jay Byrne writes Bruce Chassy that he is working on a list of “targets” for Academics Review. The list contains individuals and organization that the scientists will attack. Byrne mentions the Indian anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva, but also Michael Pollan, a well known American food writer who is also at times critical about GMOs. Byrne also mentions a couple of organization by name, amongst them…Greenpeace.

The email furthermore shows that Jay Byrne is collaborating with a person named “Val”. According to an article published by the Huffington Post this is Val Giddings, at that time vice president of BIO, the American industry group representing companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta. Nowadays Giddings is employed by a Washington DC based think tank involved in biotech issues, ITIF, but also up till recently has been working as a consultant for Monsanto. At least, that is what another email suggests. Coincidence or not, according to Tim Schwab from the NGO Food and Water Watch who is present in the National Press Club when Roberts presents the Nobel letter, Giddings is also amongst the small group of people attending.

Secret PR strategy

The emails are part of a series of documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know, an American consumer group that advocates a more transparent food system, and about which Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eric Lipton publishes in the New York Times in September 2015. In his article, Lipton describes a sophisticated PR strategy devised by Monsanto, which takes place fully under the radar. Key to this strategy is the involvement of “independent” scientists, the FOIA documents show, who receive research funding from Monsanto and are consequently asked to lobby the American government for the authorization of specific GMO crops, or travel around paid by Monsanto in order to voice their positive opinion about genetic engineering publicly.

Why did Sir Richard Roberts of all people ask this man, Jay Byrne, to help him with his campaign? The Nobel laureate does not want to respond to that question: “Go waste somebody else’s time”, he writes. It will be the last time he responds to my questions

I did then already ask Roberts about his own financial interests. The fact is that Roberts does not work for a public university. Instead, he is a member of the board of a biotech company called New England Biolabs. It is a corporation with branches across the globe: China, Singapore, France and Great Britain, and that also sells its products to biotech giants like Monsanto and Dow Agrosciences. In addition, Roberts owns shares in New England Biolabs: “Everyone who works here has a few shares”, he writes.

It is a classic example of a conflicting interests: New England Biolabs, and consequently Richard Roberts, has a financial interest in less regulation for GMOs. The Nobel laureates campaign, set up by Roberts in collaboration with Byrne, calls for exactly that.

Billions in profit

And who is most served by the plea Roberts is making? “Corporations are overhyping ‘Golden’ rice to pave the way for global approval of other more profitable genetically engineered crops’’, says Greenpeace in response to Roberts’ initiative. It is a fact that the majority of GMOs – mainly cultivated in the Americas and in Asia – are not “humanitarian crops” such as Golden Rice, but are agricultural plants that have been modified in order to become resistant to large quantities of pesticides. These crops are produced by the same companies selling the pesticides, the business model of Monsanto in a nutshell. It is a lucrative model that provides for billions of dollars in revenues yearly.

Boer sproeit bestrijdingsmiddel op akker (foto: Chafer Machinery

Jackie Hughes of IRRI, who as a scientist is actually involved in the development of Golden Rice, finds the letter unnecessarily polarizing: “I don’t like seeing a statement like that written down”, she says about the suggestion that opponents of GMOs are committing a “crime against humanity”. “Debate is terribly important. GM technology does need regulation. If everyone would be doing it for themselves you wouldn’t know what you are getting. With regulation you also need discussion.”

Roberts is currently traveling around to spread his message further. This September the Nobel laureate participated in an event in the European Parliament which was organized by the main EU lobbying group of the biotech industry, EuropaBio, where he called on members of parliament to embrace the ‘politically unwelcome’ GMO science, and ignore groups like Greenpeace and the European Green parties who keep pointing at long term risks for the ecosystem and for human health that they think is connected to GM technology. Roberts is also planning to meet with religious leaders, to convince them of the necessity of GM technology in agriculture, amongst them Pope Francis.

Translated by Elizabeth Verwey

Over de auteur


Vincent Harmsen is onderzoeksjournalist bij OneWorld en schrijft over voedsel, milieu en duurzame ontwikkeling.
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