Documents released to Corporate Europe Observatory following a Freedom of Information request reveal how pro-biotech lobby platform Public Research Regulation Initiative (PRRI) unites industry, researchers and regulators in ‘like-minded’ groups to influence crucial international biosafety talks under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
By Nina Holland, a researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory. Based in Brussels, the focus of her work is to expose how agribusiness corporations capture political decisions made on food, farming and health issues.
A longer, well documented version of this article can be found at Corporate Europe Observatory
New genetic engineering techniques like gene editing, Synthetic Biology and gene drives are increasingly the subject of attention and debate at a global level. Environmental groups and many amongst the scientific and farming communities are calling for strict regulation of these new techniques and for a global moratorium on gene drives in the interest of public health and the environment. But biotech corporations are lobbying hard to avoid regulation and oppose any bans.
Important talks on these issues will take place at both EU and UN level in the immediate future. The EU is facing a crucial moment as the European Court of Justice is expected to issue a ruling on the matter this summer. Meanwhile expert groups of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety are meeting in Montreal in the first two weeks of July to discuss the biosafety risks of (Extreme) Genetic Engineering techniques, including synthetic biology and gene drives.
Emails released by the Dutch authorities under freedom of information laws illustrate how industry, researchers and some negotiators have been coordinating themselves ahead of the next UN talks in Montreal to promote less strict oversight of GMOs and such new genetic technologies.
Through dedicated email lists, the sharing of political intelligence, the mobilisation of student groups to participate in lobbying activities and side events at the UN negotiations, as well as attempts to influence the outcome of online consultations run by the CBD Secretariat, biotech lobby group the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI) has been pooling the efforts of the biotech industry and GMO-sympathetic delegates and academics.
Key actors of the PRRI network include regulators from the Dutch, Brazilian, Honduran and Canadian delegations to the UN talks, some of whom hold prominent negotiating roles, as well as lobbyists from Bayer, Monsanto, Croplife International, the J Craig Venter Institute and representatives of corporate-backed organisations like the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). PRRI members speak of their circle as a “like-minded” group, and refer to NGOs and less industry-friendly regulators the “precautionary types” that will “demonize” synbio or new techniques.
Box: PRRI, public researchers or industry lobbyists?
PRRI, based in Belgium and founded by a Dutch ex-official on biosafety regulations, also undertakes activities at EU level, for example organising events with biotech lobby group EuropaBio. The organisation was funded by Monsanto and Croplife in its early days, and later by the governments of Spain and Canada, and by the EU. There is no financial information to be found on PRRI’s website from 2012 onwards and the organisation has not replied to CEO’s query in the matter. (For further background on PRRI see Corporate Europe Observatory’s 2008 briefing here.)
In one of the emails PRRI founder Van der Meer boasted to a regulator that “the participation of PRRI members has had quite an impact in COPs, MOPs and AHTEGs”.4 During UN talks, he said, the PRRI network provides regulators with the services of a “’backup team’ who can give immediate feedback through email, or search for articles while you sleep”.
Implicated in these activities is an official from the Health Ministry of the Netherlands. She chaired EU talks on the endorsement of UN Guidance for GMO risk assessment and discussed these closed-door talks within the lobby network run by PRRI. PRRI encouraged the people on their email list to actively share negotiation positions with her.
As Third World Network (TWN), an organisation closely following these UN processes, has explained, this Guidance is a central pillar of the CartagenaProtocol. An adequate, thorough and informed risk assessment is the key tool which supports countries to take decisions on whether or not to import GMOs.
The Guidance was supposed to be endorsed at the 13th Conference of the Parties (COP13) of the CBD held in Cancún in December 2016. Over the years numerous attempts had been made to delay and derail the endorsement of the Guidance by countries with strong biotechnology and trade interests. These countries “have effectively blocked endorsement of the Guidance, and have continually insisted on having it reviewed and tested”, according to TWN.
Documents released by the Canadian authorities reveal how the attack on this Guidance was prepared at a covert meeting at the headquarters of the International Life Sciences Institute in Washington DC in February 2016, attended by several regulators, including the above-mentioned Dutch as well as regulators from Canada, Brazil and the USA. A representative from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also attended this meeting, despite the fact that EFSA has tried to ban too close ties between its experts and ILSI. The meeting was financed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), even though the US has not ratified the CBD or the Cartagena Protocol.
The EU finally did endorse the UN Guidance despite – in the words of the Dutch official – the “very valid reasons from other Parties not to endorse” that she had included in her draft position paper. She added: “There was not too much room for me to move on this topic.”
One day before the launch of COP13 in Cancún, PRRI and ISAAA jointly organised a preparatory meeting and a “pool-side/beach social event” for their delegates and lobbyists. Also invited to the social event were “like-minded” party delegations from countries like Mexico and Brazil, as well as “undecided” party delegations from Latin America, Africa and Asia.
The outcome was that under pressure from some of the same delegations participating in the PRRI groups, the risk assessment working group was shut down and the Guidance document was not officially endorsed. This meant also that ongoing biosafety work would be stalled for at least four years, and new topics like Synbio and GM fish would not be addressed.
PRRI’s attempts to also influence the outcome of online consultations by the CBD were reinforced when the lobby firm Emerging Ag was paid 1.6 million dollars by the Gates Foundation to skew a CBD consultation on Synthetic Biology, as shown by the Gene Drive Files published by NGOs in December 2017.
Following the release of these Gene Drive Files, civil society organisations called on Dr. Cristiana Paşca Palmer, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, to take urgent measures to address conflicts of interest in the CBD and its processes. The CBD Secretariat has since taken an important step forward by proposing to formalise procedures to avoid and manage conflicts of interest.
With the rapid pace of development of new genetic engineering techniques including SynBio and gene drives, it is crucially important to have international decisions to counter any potential damage to biodiversity or risk for food safety. It is unacceptable that some “like minded” negotiators exchange and collaborate with biotech companies and lobby groups to influence these decisions, when it is their job to regulate the activities of these actors. The far-reaching impact of UN decisions means any industry-bias will trickle down into biosafety measures taken globally.