Leaked letter reveals existence of Government GM foods presentation group

A confidential letter from the Cabinet Secretariat reveals the existence of a "Biotechnology Presentation Group", which exists to spin Government policy on genetically-modified (GM) food to the media.

The Group, made up of Jack Cunningham, Tessa Jowell, Jeff Rooker (Agriculture Minister), and Michael Meacher, met on the 10th of May. The note of the meeting shows:

  • Government attempts to “identify an ‘independent’ scientist to appear on the Today Programme” to refute the findings of the Christian Aid report on the impact of GM foods in the Third World
  • A decision to “present the Government’s stance as a single package by way of an oral statement in the House. This would allow the Government to get on the front foot”
  • A decision to revise a secret paper from the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser on health and environmental risks from GM food. The original draft of the paper concluded that not enough was yet known about the risks of growing GM food, but the ‘Presentation Group’ concluded that “The CMO/CSA paper should be revised to make sure it was intelligible to the lay reader and so that it contained 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”
  • It was decided that “contact should be made with the National Consumers Council in order to seek their endorsement of the Government’s approach”
  • Departments should “start working now to line up third parties to author articles in the media in the days before the announcement”
  • There should be a “central co-ordinated rebuttals strategy for use after the announcement”

The Presentation Group also noted that there was work to be done before the Government’s “line to take” was “robust enough” on issues including biodiversity, herbicide resistance and cross pollination. “It was agreed that it would be better to have a single paper which described the benefits of the technology, and how best to ensure that these featured in the public debate. The paper would need to cover mechanisms to get the industry and scientists more actively engaged with the media.”

The letter, leaked to Friends of the Earth, is dated 11th May 1999, and was sent from Cabinet Office official Paul Britton to the Private Secretaries of Tessa Jowell (Health Minister), Michael Meacher (Environment Minister), John Battle (DTI Minister), and to David North, Alun Evans, Peter Wilkinson and Liz Lloyd in the Number 10 Policy Unit.

“The Government is not interested in a genuine debate on GM food,” said FOE Executive Director Charles Secrett. “It wants to spin GM food down our throats whether we like it or not. To persuade us to love what the biotech companies want us to eat, ‘independent’ scientists will be lined up who can be relied on to say what the Government wants to hear. Ministers will rewrite advice from their most senior medical and scientific advisers so that the public gets the message that Jack Cunningham prefers.”

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