Sowing seeds of resistance to GM
THE past 12 months have seen some extraordinary developments in the sorry
saga of genetically modified crops. A series of government reports have, mostly
to our - and the Government’s - surprise, come out with verdicts on GM that
range from neutral to downright hostile.
In the space of a few months
we’ve had: a government review of the science; an economic study by Tony Blair’s
Strategy Unit; the results of the Farm Scale evaluations of GM crops and
wildlife; a report on co-existence between GM and organic, and on liability for
damage from GM crops; and last, but certainly not least, the GM public debate.
The Government’s science review, undertaken by a panel outrageously
stacked with pro-GM scientists, still concluded that there are key uncertainties
and unknowns in our understanding of GM. For example, the report says that in
respect of research detecting "the potential human health effects of food...
there is nothing yet available for GM foods in any country".
the British Medical Association says it is "concerned that at present not enough
evidence has been presented in order for us to be sure that GM food is safe".
Even more surprising than the scientists’ acknowledgement of uncertainty
were the Farm Scale trial results. The fact that two crops, GM oilseed rape and
sugar beet, will do even more harm to wildlife than their conventional
equivalents shocked the Government and the pro-GM lobby, and made global
GM maize came out ahead of conventional maize, but here the
trials have been criticised for failing to use realistic chemical treatments.
In commercial use, GM maize is generally sprayed with at least two
weedkillers, but only one was used in the trials. And the GM crop was compared
with non-GM maize sprayed with a weedkiller so poisonous that is now being
banned by the EU. It’s hardly surprising the GM maize came out better - but
hardly relevant to the real world either.
Tony Blair’s own strategy unit
did a thorough and fair job looking at the economic impact of growing, or not
growing, GM crops. They concluded that there is no immediate economic case for
GM crops. This is because there is no market for GM crops.
stated that those farmers who choose to grow GM could face a "low market price,
or in the extreme, no market at all". It also said that growing GM crops would
lead to contamination of other crops, with associated costs to non-GM farmers.
TO no-one’s surprise, the public debate on GM clearly showed that the
British people don’t want the crops and won’t eat the food. The debate concluded
that people are "generally uneasy about GM". Worse for the pro lobby, the more
people look into GM issues "the harder their attitudes become and the more
intense their concerns". So much for the GM industry libel that public
opposition is based on ignorance - in fact, the more we know, the less we like
It is worth remembering that this is neither an honest nor a fair
struggle. For example, the representative of the GM industry signed-up to a
unanimously agreed report on the GM public debate - then rubbished the report
just before it was published.
For bare-faced cheek, the prize goes to
the pro-GM members of the Government’s Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology
Commission, who, when faced with the fact that it would be impossible to stop GM
crops contaminating organic farms, simply decided that the definition of
"organic" must be changed. Out would go the consumer-supported "organic food
means no GM" definition; in would come the new, GM-friendly definition of
organic food where almost one in a hundred mouthfuls can be GM.
the 26 scientists appointed to the Government’s Science Review Panel, groups
like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Soil Association were between them
allowed to nominate just two scientists. One resigned saying he feared for
future funding of his work if he continued to speak out against GM on the panel.
This may sound far-fetched, until you discover from the Government’s own
minutes of the Science Panel that the second scientist nominated by the anti-GM
groups had indeed had his funding in EU science threatened by another, pro-GM
scientist associated with the Science Review.
If the Government does
push ahead with the commercialisation of GM crops, it has to make two crucial
decisions: first, how to ensure that non-GM and organic crops can continue to be
grown, and second, when GM crops cause damage to non-GM and organic farmers, who
In November, the Government got advice on both these questions
from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission. This Commission
includes strongly pro and anti-GM members, and, of course, they didn’t agree
about everything - in fact, they set out two visions of the future.
first, supported by the Soil Association, is one where organic farmers can
continue to produce food that is free of GM down to the levels it can be
reliably detected, and where any damage caused by GM is paid for by the GM
companies who stand to profit.
The alternative, proposed by GM industry
representatives and their allies, would lead us into a nightmare world. In this
future, GM would be everywhere. Everyone could end up eating GM whether they
like it or not. Organic farmers and consumers would have to pay all the extra
costs of trying to avoid GM contamination - and for any damage GM caused them.
Now the Government must choose between these two alternatives. If you
want to influence them, write to your MP asking him or her to pass it on to
Environment Minister Margaret Beckett and ask them to let you see the
Many people will assume that the Government has
already made up its mind, and certainly some ministers and particularly their
scientific advisors are determined pro-GM campaigners. But the story of GM food
has, so far, been a story of the triumph of ordinary citizens over multinational
companies and some of the world’s most powerful governments.
determination, and a willingness to go on fighting, we can continue to win. At
the end of the day, it is not President Bush, Monsanto, the EU or the British
Government who decide what you eat - you do.
Peter Melchett is policy
director of the Soil Association.
• The Soil
Association’s Annual Conference takes place tomorrow and Saturday at Heriot-Watt