The Sunday Herald | By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor
More than 140,000 glossy brochures sponsored by the US corporate giants of genetic modification such as Monsanto are being pushed into Scotland's schools by Scottish Enterprise, with the enthusiastic backing of the schools
watchdog HM Inspectorate of Education.
The brochures, which sing the praises of GM technology in medicine and marine science, have provoked widespread protests from teachers, consumer groups and environmentalists. They are suspicious that GM companies are
trying to soften up students as part of a campaign to quell mounting public fears about the dangers of genetic engineering.
The 'infiltration' of industry into the curriculum worried the Educational Institute of Scotland, the trade union representing teachers. The institute's general secretary, Ronnie Smith, wanted Scottish Enterprise and HM
Inspectorate of Education to exercise more critical judgement, and urged teachers to do the same.
"I think every product of industry that purports to be a curriculum resource should be viewed carefully by teachers before they use it,", he said. "Most commercial organisations do not involve themselves in this area out of a charitable concern to help education."
"Your World - Biotechnology And You" is a 16-page full-colour magazine produced in the US by the Biotechnology Institute. The institute was founded two years ago in Pennsylvania to promote public understanding of GM science.
It is funded by Monsanto, Novartis, Pfizer, Rhone-Poulenc, Merck, Amgen and the 900-member Bio technology Industry Organisation.
Up to 20,000 copies of seven editions of Your World are this month being sent to 600 schools and colleges throughout Scotland as a "teacher's resource for biotechnology education". In promoting the magazine, neither
Scottish Enterprise nor HM Inspectorate of Education mentioned the fact that it has been sponsored by multinational GM companies.
Those who represent the interests of parents also expressed alarm. "Pressure is increasing on schools to accept industry-led sponsorship and marketing" observed Martyn Evans, the director of the Scottish Consumer Council. He said that was why, along with the National Consumer Council in London, his organisation was now updating guidelines for schools on industrial sponsorship. "Schools have to be particularly careful in accepting sponsored materials or products", he said. "The biotech companies behind the magazine are using the provision of education as a marketing opportunity to influence pupils."
However, in the blurb accompanying the magazine, Dr Jack Jackson, HM Inspector of Schools, writes: " 'Your World' is a valuable resource for Scottish Science teachers and should help inform pupils and raise their awareness of the many benefits and issues which surround the development of
this exciting new technology."
The magazines cover genes and medicine, tissue engineering, Aids, the brain, diagnostics, computing and marine biotechnology. They are peppered with quotes and profiles of industrialists and ideas for classroom activities and often end with positive accounts of recent developments in gene science."
The most recent "Your World", which the Biotechnology Institute hopes will be circulated to Scottish schools in the future, covers the controversial area of GM food. It has enthusiastic articles on "creating better plants" as well as a piece knocking organic farming, and suggests children should experiment by growing Monsanto's GM soybean seeds.
"We want to make these magazines available to Scottish teachers on a regular basis," the Biotechnology Institute's Jeff Davidson told the Sunday Herald from Pennsylvania last week.
He argued that the use of GM in medicine was uncontroversial, and pointed out that "Your World", though sponsored by GM companies, was actually produced by academics and science writers. He accepted, however, that GM foods aroused more fears in Europe than they did in the US, and suggested the presentation of the issue in Scotland might need rethinking.
One anti-GM group, Glasgow-based Scottish Genetix Action, is so angry about what it sees as the bias and prejudice of the brochures that it has demanded they be withdrawn immediately from classrooms. "Corporations are taking
hold of our education system", said the group's Scott Armstrong.
Neither the Scottish Executive nor HM Inspectorate were willing to comment last week, referring questions to the Executive's Dundee-based agency, Learning and Teaching Scotland. It too was unable to make any public statements, though insiders privately defended the use of "Your World" on the grounds that its articles were directly related to parts of the fifth and sixth-year biology curriculum.
Scottish Enterprise's biotechnology director, Peter Lennox, dismissed criticisms of the involvement of GM companies as nonsense. "I'm flabbergasted that anyone should raise this,", he said. "It didn't even cross our minds. I thought it was just knowledge. Biotechnology is an enigma wrapped in a mystery and there is a lack of knowledge about it."