Prof David Baulcombe is a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and in 2008 was appointed chair of a controversial Royal Society Working Group on how "science" and "biological approaches" can enhance global food crop production. While the Royal Society's press release announcing the initiative made no mention of the words "genetic engineering", it proved to be a significant part of what was meant.
After hearing of Baulcombe's appointment to this post, a group of environmental and development NGOs wrote an open letter to him to express their concern that "there are major overlaps between this Royal Society study and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the reports of which were published in April 2008." The NGOs continue, "We see no reason to justify this duplication of scientific assessment carried out by the IAASTD which extended over 4 years."
For those supportive of biotechnology industry interests, there may be reason enough in the conclusions of the 2500-page IAASTD report on GM crops (published 2008). The IAASTD report, authored by over 400 international scientists and experts, and based on peer reviewed publications, concluded that the yield gains in GM crops "were highly variable" and in some cases, "yields declined". It added that uncertainty about GM's "possible benefits and damage is unavoidable". Instead, the report champions “agroecological” methods as the best route to food security.
Representatives of the biotechnology industry were invited to take part in the IAASTD process and participated in the earlier meetings. But according to a report in New Scientist, they "stormed out of the negotiations earlier this year , arguing that the potential of genetically modified crops to help poor farmers and combat global warming was being overlooked, and undue weight given to alternatives such as organic farming."
Baulcombe has been professor of botany at Cambridge University since September 2007. He joined the Sainsbury Laboratory as a Senior Research Scientist, and also served as Head of Laboratory between 1990-1993 and 1999-2003. The Sainsbury Laboratory is based at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, with which it is "closely linked".
The JIC is often described as Europe's leading plant biotechnology institute. It represents itself as an independent, charitable and mainly publicly funded institution. It has, however, done deals with major biotech corporations, such as Syngenta (originally Zeneca) and DuPont, worth tens of millions of pounds. It has also received millions in donations from the pro-biotech billionaire Lord David Sainsbury, after whom the Sainsbury Laboratory is named.
In 1999 Professor Baulcombe told a public meeting on GM crops that US government research 'to be released shortly' had shown that GM crops brought enormous environmental benefits. However, what Baulcombe presented as official US research has been shown subsequently never to have existed.
Prof Baulcombe also claimed with regard to Dr John Losey's Monarch butterfly study (which showed that Monarch butterfly larvae were killed by eating GM pollen), that 'it was actually that non-genetically modified maize pollen had damaged the butterfly'. He further claimed that 'there were no real differences' between the damage caused to the Monarch butterflies by the GM maize pollen and the non-GM pollen. Losey has pointed out that Baulcombe's claims are 'completely without merit'. Losey notes, 'Caterpillars fed on milkweed leaves with untransformed [non-GM] corn pollen suffered NO mortality while 44% of those that fed on leaves dusted with Bt-corn pollen died within 4 days.' Losey concludes, 'I assume the person who actually made this quote did not read the paper.'
Prof Baulcombe has not been alone in promoting GM crops by means that bear little scrutiny. Jonathan Jones and Mike Gale were also members of the Royal Society's Working group on biological approaches to enhance food-crop production.
- "The Royal Society asks: How can science help secure the world’s food supply?", press release, The Royal Society, 7 August 2008, accessed November 2008
- "Biological approaches to enhance food crop production", letter to Prof David Baulcombe from ActionAid, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth Intnl., GM Freeze, Greenpeace UK, Pesticides Action Network Intnl., Third World Network, 24 September 2008, accessed December 2008
- International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development: Global Summary for Decision Makers (IAASTD); Beintema, N. et al., 2008. http://www.agassessment.org/index.cfm?Page=IAASTD%20Reports&ItemID=2713
- Andy Coghlan, "How to kickstart an agricultural revolution", New Scientist, 6 April 2008, accessed November 2008
- About TSL, The Sainsbury Laboratory website, accessed 26 October 2009
- Jonathan Matthews, "False reports and the smears of men", 1999, NGIN website, accessed December 2008
- Personal communication, 30 July 1999, posted to the Cornell list: BIOTECH-L@cornell.edu; Losey's comments are archived here.
- Jonathan Matthews, "BIOSPINOLOGY IN OUR SCIENCE COMMUNICATION? Report on the science communication activities of the John Innes Centre (JIC)", 2001, Lobbywatch website, accessed November 2008
- "Biological approaches to enhance food-crop production: working group membership", The Royal Society website, accessed November 2008