Europe's largest and most influential biotech industry group, whose members include Monsanto, Bayer and other GM companies, is recruiting high-profile "ambassadors" to lobby European leaders on GM policy.
Leaked documents from a PR company working for Brussels-based EuropaBio claim to have "had interest" from Sir Bob Geldof; the chancellor of Oxford University and BBC Trust chairman, Lord Patten; former Irish EU commissioner and attorney general David Byrne, and "potentially" the involvement of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and pro-GM science writer Mark Lynas.
The 10 or more ambassadors will not be paid directly, but the lobbyists have offered to write, research and place articles in their names, arrange interviews and speaking engagements with the Financial Times and other international media, and secure for them what could be lucrative speaking slots at major conferences.
In addition, EuropaBio says it will introduce them to the highest-level European bureaucrats and MEPs in order for them to make the case for GM within EU institutions.
Several people named in the documents denied all knowledge of EuropaBio. A spokesman for Annan said: "Mr Annan is not an ambassador for EuropaBio and has no intention of promoting the use of GMOs." Geldof told the Guardian: "I have no recollection of having any knowledge of EuropaBio and have no recollection of ever being asked to be an ambassador. GM, subject to all the known and usual caveats, does have a place for instance in the fight against starvation. The trick is to ensure that this technological advance is not simply a business opportunity but a human one to the benefit of the world's rapidly increasing population."
A spokeswoman at Oxford University said: "Lord Patten was approached about the EuropaBio outreach programme. He made it absolutely clear that given his position as chairman of the BBC Trust, he could have nothing to do with it. It would have been wholly inappropriate."
"I have never had any contact of any sort with EuropaBio, nor any 'Christopher Flores', who seems to have written this letter. I have not been asked to be an ambassador, nor would I accept such a request if asked," said Mark Lynas.
Flores told the Guardian: "These confidential documents should not have landed on your desk. We are exploring different options with different people. We identified people we thought could help us reach out to a broad international audience."
The six-month campaign, which will culminate in a dinner and meetings with the EU in May, will start next month when 10 ambassadors are expected to sign a letter to be placed in the Financial Times.
A draft of the letter reads: "We need to shake off the complacency and embrace best farming and food production processes. We must seize the potential of all available technologies to enable us to do so, and no technology should be rejected on the basis of an initial emotional reaction or misinformation – including agricultural biotechnology. We want to produce more food in Europe, look after the environment and help our neighbours in other parts of the world, [so] isn't it time to think again about GM?"
In a briefing document sent to potential ambassadors, Christopher Flores, a senior consultant working with Aspect Consulting in Brussels, says EuropaBio wants to distance itself from the ambassadors in order to give the industry arguments more credibility. "The most important factor in terms of ensuring the legitimacy and impact of this programme is the quality of the ambassadors and the breadth of positions represented and numbers involved. Provided that a sufficiently strong pool of ambassadors is established – we are very confident that this will be the case – then it will be very difficult for anybody to make the claim that these ambassadors are somehow 'in the pocket' of the agricultural science companies."
The document also seeks to persuade ambassadors that their position is widely shared. "Industry, the scientific community and NGOs are already playing an important role in making the case for GM. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been supporting and advocating the use of GM crops and recently outlined six reasons for them doing so. However, more needs to be done from an advocacy and communications perspective if significant and timely progress is to be made in relation to GM crops."
The lobbyists appear to want to split the green movement in Europe which has been traditionally been sceptical of the claims of the biotech companies. "A number of senior environmental NGO activists are very critical of the dogmatic and extreme position taken by much of the environmental NGO world in relation to GM. We will bring a panel of pro-GM environmental NGO activists to Brussels for a stakeholder event focused on GM sustainability," it says.
Green MP Caroline Lucas said: "This brazen attempt by EuropaBio to recruit covert 'ambassadors' to 'change the debate' on GM is yet further proof that the powerful GM lobby will stop at nothing to push its hugely unpopular and unnecessary products onto European citizens. We need far stronger regulation on corporate lobbyists across the EU to prevent this kind of insidious behind-the-scenes manoeuvring from seriously undermining our democratic system."
David Byrne could not be reached.