5 June 2002

GM foods plot a myth, says critic of TV show

By Tom Leonard, Media Editor

A scientific adviser on a BBC1 drama about genetically modified crops rejected its creators' claims yesterday that he was part of a multinational "conspiracy to undermine the truth."

Dr Mark Tester, a GM researcher at Cambridge University, was attacked simultaneously yesterday by Alan Rusbridger and Ronan Bennett, the co-writers of Fields of Gold, after he said that they had ignored his criticisms and produced a programme "to inflame uninformed anti-GM hysteria".

Dr Tester's rubbishing of the scientific credibility of the thriller, in which a lethal GM-created superbug runs rampant through the human and animal population, was repeated by other senior scientists who were shown a preview of the programme.

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, Mr Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, insisted Dr Tester had changed his mind during the making of the programme. He not been nearly so critical of the plot when he was shown a script last July, claimed Mr Rusbridger, and had admitted that some scientists believed such a scenario could happen.

Writing in the Observer, the Guardian's sister paper, Bennett claimed the criticism of his drama - which will be shown over two nights next weekend - was part of an "ugly little conspiracy by those with a vested interest in discrediting it".

He said that newspapers, including the Telegraph, which had reported Dr Tester's views last week, had been given the story by the Science Media Centre, an organisation part-funded by pro-GM bio-tech companies such as Dupont and Merlin Biosciences.

However, Dr Tester, a former Green Party worker who describes himself as a Green socialist, insisted yesterday that he had neither changed his mind about the programme nor been used as a stooge of the GM lobby.

While he conceded he had admitted that the drama's core premise - the transfer of genes from plants to humans - was possible, he had stressed that it was very rare and difficult to transmit.

"They (Rusbridger and Bennett) have of course ignored the crucial point of my advice - that while it was a possibility, I always emphasised its improbability," he said.

"They admit they're not scientists but if they really do want a balanced debate they have to appreciate the scientific difference between possibility and probability. Their programme is not plausible - as I warned them, they went too far."

Dr Tester said his involvement with the drama began last July when he was contacted by a Guardian journalist and asked to vet the script and tell producers "which bits are daft, which dodgy and which they can get away with".

However, "warning bells started to ring" when he was later contacted by the BBC informing him that he was the scientific adviser on a drama "which was going to show the GM conspiracy as it really is".

He was also worried when the script editor said that Dr Tester's suggestion as to how an elderly character could realistically be infected would not have sufficient "dramatic impact". He demanded to see the finished programme and realised, he said, that they had taken none of what he had said on board.

Specific criticisms - such as the superbug's ability to spread in the dust at harvest time - had been left in the finished programme and the bug was so rampant that even a fox trotting through a field dropped dead.

Horrified but unsure how to proceed as he had never before advised on a programme, he approached the Science Media Centre, an avowedly independent organisation set up by the Royal Institution to "facilitate dialogue between science and the media".

The SMC suggested he write a 1,000 word article about his concerns. It was offered first to the Guardian, and then to other national newspapers.

The centre stressed that all donations were limited to no more than five per cent of its annual running costs in order to safeguard its independence.

Dr Tester said he believed he had originally been approached to help by the Guardian because he was neither strongly pro or anti GM crops. "If I am a pawn of the big pro-GM industry giants, then it's a bit funny to use a Green socialist," he said.