The Rt. Hon. Tony Blair MP
10 Downing Street
12th February 2004
Dear Prime Minister,
Re: any imminent decision on the Commercial Growing of GM Crops in the UK
We are writing to you as a group of working farmers and campaigners, who in November 2002 joined forces to launch – FARM, The Independent Voice of Farmers.
A key impetus behind FARM’s formation was the fact that despite the National Farmers Union describing itself as ‘the voice of British farming’; it actually represents only one-third of farmers in the country. Therefore, it is not ‘the’, but rather ‘a’ voice. The majority of farmers and growers do not belong to the NFU and therefore we urge Government to consider the views and voices of the greater farming community beyond the NFU.
FARM is just one of those voices, others include the Family Farmers Association, the Small Farmers Association, and the Soil Association. Despite there seeming to be a plethora of such groups, a common thread uniting them all is the shared view that the commercialisation of the present generation of GM crops is not in the best interests of the majority of UK farmers or the wider public.
FARM is not opposed to the science or application of Biotechnology per se. We recognise and welcome advances made due to biotechnology in the field of human medicines and diagnostics. There may come to be useful and acceptable applications in agriculture – such as the use of Marker Assisted Selection to speed up and improve the accuracy of traditional plant breeding.
However, we can see no overriding public interest, environmental or agronomic reasons for pushing ahead with commercialisation of the GM herbicide tolerant oil-seed rape, sugar beet or maize crops.
Nor can the majority of farmers. Before we launched FARM, we carried out a detailed survey conducted by an independent market research company, Buckingham Research Associates over January/February 2002 of c. 550 farmers across the English regions and Welsh Borders. These farmers were selected by the research company and were previously known to us. One of the questions asked was:
‘Do you think that the development of GM crops will overall benefit farmers?’
· 51% thought not, with 11% strongly disagreeing there were any benefits.
· 31% thought there would be benefits, but with just 3% strongly agreeing.
Since the time of the survey, the reasons for farmers to be concerned as to the possible negative impacts upon their businesses, markets and public image have greatly increased.
These reasons include:
The key concern being almost unanimous UK consumer opposition to GM crops and products containing or derived from GM.
The government’s welcome initiative, the GM Nation Debate, as you’ll be aware, found that 86% of respondents were not happy with the idea of eating GM food and that 87% didn’t feel the development of GM crops was being properly regulated.
Such overwhelming public and consumer rejection of GM crops has been confirmed by the likes of the British Retail Consortium, who represent all the main retail outlets:
‘The customer is where the real power lies. Supermarkets are not going to give shelf space to something that doesn’t sell.’
David Southwell, BRC, 2002
With such strong market rejection, why would farmers sow something they can’t sell?
Exposure of exaggerated claims
Some farmers might be prepared to go against the market in the hope that the GM crops will cut their costs, increase their profitability and generally make life easier for them. The companies, which developed GM crops, have keenly promoted them to farmers on such claims of increased yields, reduced pesticide use and so reduced costs.
In practice, these claims have not been borne out – quite the contrary. A comprehensive study in the US, where they have had 8 years of growing GM crops, has shown that after an initial, short period of some reduction in agrochemical use, the amount of pesticides used goes up to levels and rates higher than on conventional varieties. This study was conducted by Dr Charles Benbrook, formerly Executive Director of the US National Academy of Sciences.
FARM analysed claims made in the UK for GM sugar-beet by the Brooms Barn experimental research station. Our working farmers, growers of conventional sugar-beet, showed with the assistance of their agronomists, that the research scientists’ claims of improved margins were exaggerated, being based on inaccurate costings, and on practices unrelated to the real farming situation.
Contamination of conventional crops, with consequent financial losses
No doubt some farmers would be prepared to go ahead despite such overwhelming market forces. It might be argued that this tiny minority (3% as above?) should have the right to make that choice. However, the freedom of choice of this minority would damage and curtail the freedom of choice of the majority of farmers and consumers.
Given the clear evidence of cross-contamination of conventional crops by neighbouring GM varieties, proceeding to commercialisation would mean the majority of farmers, (conventional and organic) growing for an existing, strong public demand for GM-free foods would have their businesses and market opportunities threatened and undermined.
The potential competitive advantage of UK farming PLC as a GM-free producer for burgeoning world markets would be invalidated.
Having examined the proposed SCIMAC regulations for preventing contamination, our working farmers have no confidence in their efficacy or farmers having the time and resources to follow them to the letter under real farming conditions and pressures.
Lack of Liability Regime
Resolving any claims over loss of earnings from GM contaminated crops would be hampered by the present lack of any liability regime in place. The seeds would literally be sown for setting farmer against farmer in costly and divisive legal battles across the countryside.
Absence of any Insurer willing to cover GM crops
Nor would farmers be able to insure themselves against such costly legal challenges and counter-challenges. FARM’s survey in 2003 of the principle insurance underwriters in the UK, found that neither farmers considering growing GM crops or non-GM farmers seeking to protect their businesses from contamination by GM crops would be able to find anyone willing to give them insurance.
The survey conducted by FARM staff and working farmer members revealed a level of opposition from companies taking on the risks of insuring GM crops, comparable to the public’s hostility to purchasing and eating them. Insurance company spokespeople compared GM crops to ‘Thalidomide’, ‘Asbestos’ and ‘Acts of Terrorism’.
For all the foregoing reasons and more, we urge you to act in the interests of the public and UK agriculture by maintaining the de facto moratorium on the commercial growing of GM crops in the UK.
If you personally and/or any of your staff and advisors wished to meet with a group of real working farmers offering a perspective and range of views different to those presented by the NFU, we would be very pleased to do so.
FARM has produced a briefing on GM crops aimed specifically at working farmers and which sets out the above points in more detail and with references, we enclose that for your information.
National Coordinator, FARM
On behalf of the FARM Board of working farmers and our wider membership of farmers and general public supporters