By Richard Pendlebury
As anyone who has lived downwind of a sugar beet processing plant will know, the smell produced is not as sweet as you might imagine.
A similarly unexpected stink is now wafting from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It can be followed to the door of the office of new the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman.
As we shall see, Ms Spelman, the former Tory Party chairman, knows an awful lot about sugar beet. But the fug caused by her appointment to Defra is rather more complex.
It is not just the lingering scent of dodgy expenses, which saw her brought to book in 2008 over ‘Nannygate’, and ordered to pay back £10,000 to the public purse after effectively charging child care to the taxpayer.
That scandal first suggested an inability to separate private interest and public responsibility.
Ms Spelman has since moved onwards and upwards. But a malodeur remains around this intriguing woman.
Test the air today and you might detect a worrying whiff emanating from her husband’s professional interest in Defra contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds and the puzzling status of their agri-business lobbying firm.
But perhaps most whiffy of all is that the Secretary of State apparently shares the same controversial beliefs as such biotech giants as Monsanto, the world’s leading producer of weedkiller and genetically modified crops.
Genetic modification (GM) of our foodstuffs remains a hugely contentious issue.
GM foods come from crops which have had their molecular structures altered in the laboratory.
This is done to improve particular traits, such as resistance to herbicide or drought.
But there are a number of recorded drawbacks, from the rampant growth of herbicideresistant ‘superweeds’ to wiping out insects vital to wildlife up the food chain.
There is also concern about the unknown risks to humans.
Those leading its advancement, such as Monsanto, whose gross profit for this financial year is predicted to be around the £4 billion mark, argue that it is the solution for an increasingly populated, heated and hungry planet.
But it is not just die-hard enviromentalists who fear that ‘Frankenstein Foods’ risk damaging with untold consequences the delicate balance of nature.
Dr Helen Wallace of GeneWatch UK and Lancaster University Professor Brian Wynne resigned recently from a Food Standards Agency group overseeing a public consultation on GM.
They quit claiming it was an exercise in state sponsored ‘GM propaganda’, to which they could not lend their name.
Professor Wynne said the FSA, a government quango, was ‘dogmatically entrenched’ in favour of GM.
A reason for caution? Or at least neutrality? Not as far as Ms Spelman is concerned.
Just last week and merely a few days into her new job, she pledged the coalition would be the most pro-GM government yet.
She told the Guardian newspaper that GM ‘can bring benefits to the marketplace’.
GM crops are as yet still forbidden from being grown commercially in the UK.
But the new secretary of state said that she supported their introduction under ‘ the right circumstances’.
If critics were hoping for a figure within the new coalition to act as a bulwark against the voracious appetite of big business and the zeal of scientists, they will find little comfort by delving into the background of Mrs Spelman.
They would find a professional career spent in or around the very same biotechnology industry.
Some would argue that it is refreshing to have a minister with detailed, working knowledge of the sector over which they have been put in charge.
But the disturbing question is whether Mrs Spelman is an expert witness, or a partisan one?
The new head of Defra is an agricultural scientist, specialising in sugar beet.
Some nine million tonnes of it are grown in this country every year.
The crop is one of the most important – and heavily EU subsidised – sectors of UK agriculture.
In the early 1980s Ms Spelman was Sugar Beet Commodity Secretary for the National Farmers Union.
From there, she moved on to become Deputy Director of the International Confederation of European Beetgrowers, based in Paris, a role she only relinquished at the end of the decade.
Her career then took a significant turn. She took a position as an unpaid research fellow at the Centre for European Agricultural Studies.
Her particular interest was biotechnology and her work there resulted in the 1994 publication of her book Non-Food Uses Of Agricultural Raw Materials: Economics, Biotechnology And Politics.
On the front cover is a photograph of a sugar beet. The picture is credited to the Broom’s Barn Experimental Station in Suffolk.
Mrs Spelman was a frequent visitor to Broom’s Barn in the Eighties and early Nineties, according to staff.
‘She has had a long association with this establishment through her work with both the NFU and the European Beet Growers in the Eighties,’ said its current director Bill Clark.
‘Both organisations have always held meetings here and were obviously very interested in the work we did here, which has traditionally been research with sugar beet.’
Since then Broom’s Barn has been the location of the first and, as yet, only trial crop of GM beet to be grown in this country.
The sponsor of the trial? Monsanto, the biotech giant, that would dearly love to be able to sell its herbicide-resistant GM beet seed in Britain and across Europe.
For the moment, the EU has only approved for commercial cultivation a variety of GM maize.
But Europe is the world’s largest market for sugar beet seed. Across in the United States almost 100 per cent of the crop is of a genetically modified strain.
The EU has recently allowed foodstuffs which contain sugar from American GM beet crops to be sold in Europe.
Lobbying is now being carried out on behalf of biotech firms and commercial growers, to be allowed to grow GM beet on this side of the Atlantic.
Monsanto claims that its introduction would save farmers £150 a hectare per year.
Opponents say it would devastate wildlife by allowing a massive increase in the use of herbicide.
A few days before Ms Spelman’s appointment last month the New York Times ran the latest in a series of stories which have questioned the enviromental impact of Monsanto’s market domination in the United States.
Widespread use of Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller, in tandem with its ‘Roundup Ready’ GM seeds, had led in fact to the mutation of ‘superweeds’ which were resistant to the chemicals, it reported.
The biggest concern is pigweed, which grows at a rate of more than one inch a day and reaches a height of three metres.
The so-called perfect super weed is extremely hardy, produces 10,000 seeds at a time and will smother food crops in the same field.
More than 130 types of weed have developed some level of resistance in more than 40 U.S. states and experts estimate these superweeds have infested close to 11 million acres so far.
Monsanto also went on the offensive in the Supreme Court, where it is seeking to overturn California’s ban on its genetically modified alfalfa.
Opponents said that it contaminated other crops. An attempt by a U.S. enviromental group to get a court injunction against further planting of Monsanto’s GM beet failed earlier this year.
Clearly, organisations like Monsanto need friends in high places. And that is where the lobbyists come in.
In 1989 when she took up the research she also, with her husband Marc Spelman, set up a commercial enterprise, to tap into her by now significant agricultural contacts.
Spelman Cormack and Associates was a lobbying firm focused on protecting and promoting the interests of the food and biotech industries (Cormack is Spelman’s maiden name).
One of its core tasks was to lobby the very government department which, two decades after the company was created, Mrs Spelman was to head.
Yet Spelman, Cormack and Associates still exists, albeit in a recently altered form.
Last year, Ms Spelman resigned her directorship and handed sole control of the firm to her husband.
Last month the Centre for Open Politics, which campaigns for political transparency, wrote to Defra’ s Permanent Secretary pointing out this very obvious conflict of interest.
One section of the letter is worth repeating at length: ‘The Secretary of State is in charge of negotiating subsidies, quotas and tariff barriers at the EU Agricultural Council, giving rise to a clear conflict of interest between this official role and her close links to a company which has in the past lobbied or may be intending to lobby over such matters.
‘The Secretary of State is also responsible for Genetically Modified food regulations at the same time as her husband’s firm deals with bio-tech industry clients.’
The letter added: ‘Mrs Spelman therefore remains linked to a farming and food lobbying firm that she set up, held shares in for ten years, and for which her husband is still using her name and home address for commercially.’
Mrs Spelman’s husband seems to have further interests in her new role as head of Defra.
He is also a senior executive at the global outsourcing firm Accenture, which is involved in the operation of the much-criticised ‘farm payments scheme’, which delivers EU subisidies to landowners.
It has been described by an official watchdog as a ‘masterclass of maladministration’.
Indeed, the scheme, administered by the Rural Payments Agency, has been run so badly that Britain faces having to pay some £280 million in EU fines.