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Coming soon: the great GM crops debate. But does the Government really want your views?

By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor

It's obscure. It's small scale. It's been starved of funds. It has not been nationally advertised. In fact, it hasn't been advertised at all. You could be forgiven for thinking the Government doesn't want you to know about it.

Yet this is the National GM Debate. Starting tomorrow, it will be the only official chance people will have to make their views known over whether genetically modified crops should be commercially grown in Britain.

Entitled "GM Nation" and based on a series of conferences and meetings around the country, the debate comes at a crucial moment. After four years of delay, the decision on whether or not widespread GM farming can go ahead in Britain will be taken at the end of the summer. It will have huge environmental, ethical and socio-economic implications.

Supporters say GM technology enables farmers to get better weed control and enhance crop yields, and that it may be a vital tool in enabling poor countries to feed themselves. They say it represents the way forward for agriculture, without risk to the environment or human health.

Opponents say that to press ahead may seriously damage the countryside and its wildlife; that it may be a risk to human health; that it may make enterprises such as organic farming virtually impossible; and that it interferes with nature in a way that is irresponsible and dangerous.

Tony Blair and some of his Cabinet are strongly in favour of GM technology, as are a large number of figures in the UK scientific establishment. Its biggest supporter of all is the US government of President George Bush, on behalf of the American agribusiness companies that have led the way in developing the technology and are now exporting it around the world. Last month, the United States lodged a complaint against the European Union at the World Trade Organisation over European foot-dragging over licensing new GM products.

Yet among the British, public opposition to GM technology remains solid, even though the issue has dropped out of the news since the row was at its height in 1999. Currently, opponents of GM outnumber supporters by four to one. The lack of headlines does not mean the issue has gone away; it has merely been put on hold while a four-year trial of the four GM crops proposed for Britain has been carried out. Its purpose has been to test the effects of the special, powerful weedkillers that the crops have been genetically engineered to tolerate on farmland wildlife.

English Nature, the Government's wildlife advisory body, fears the introduction of herbicide-tolerant GM crops into the countryside will be just a further intensification of the pesticide-based intensive farming that has already led to the loss of 40 per cent of Britain's farmland birds in the past 40 years. English Nature's scientists believe fields already denuded of insects, plants and birds will lose what remains: they will become "green concrete", with nothing in them but the farmer's crop.

The trials are a test of that hypothesis, and will conclude next month when the last test field of GM oilseed rape is harvested. The results will be known around September. As things stand, if they indicate that there is any increased harm to wildlife from GM crop weedkillers, it will be the one legal chance Britain has to halt the large-scale introduction of GM farming.

The Government is claiming that its hands are tied: approval for GM crops is given not in London but in Brussels, by a majority vote of all the EU member states, after a lengthy approval process; the decision is then binding across Europe.

One of the crops intended for Britain, Bayer's GM fodder maize, already has its EU approval. Under current Brussels law, the only way Britain could now prevent its commercial use would be to find new evidence of harm either to people or the environment.

The farm-scale trials could provide this; if they do, commercialisation of GM may be prevented. But if they do not, sometime this autumn the Government is likely to give the go-ahead for the GM age to begin in our countryside.

But tomorrow it is finally going ahead, and people can have their say on one of the most important decisions that will ever be taken about the environment in Britain.

Whether or not the Government takes heed is another question entirely.


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One chance to voice a protest, but will ministers listen?

By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor

02 June 2003

Britons will get their first and perhaps only chance to tell the Government what they think of genetically modified crops and food from tomorrow with the start of the national GM debate.

Fears that GM technology may harm human health and the environment will be weighed against claims that it represents the way forward for farming and food in conferences, meetings and discussions across Britain - if enough people take part.

The debate has been unadvertised, only modestly funded and, some critics allege, organised with great reluctance by the Government. For an issue of this magnitude, its public profile is extremely low.

It comes in advance of the long-delayed decision on whether or not GM crops can be grown commercially in Britain, which is now expected in the autumn. The decision has been put off for four years while large-scale trials have been carried out of the powerful weedkiller associated with all four GM crops proposed for growing in the UK, to see if they cause extra harm to wildlife. The trials finish next month and the results will probably be published in September.

Tony Blair and some ministers, such as Lord Sainsbury, the Science minister, are known to be strongly in favour of GM technology. But when the controversy was at its height in 1998 and 1999 there were widespread protests against it led by environmental pressure groups, and the major supermarkets decided to go (and have remained) GM-free.

A Mori poll published in The Independent a month ago revealed that a majority of the public remained solidly anti-GM. The poll showed that those in favour (14 per cent) were outnumbered four-to-one by those against (56 per cent) with 30 per cent undecided.

The debate will tap directly into these feelings and present them officially to the Government for the first time. It will thus go some way to assuaging one of the main political problems with the GM issue, the "democratic deficit".

Authorisation of the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is decided in Brussels, on an EU-wide basis, but the legislation governing it was very narrowly framed on questions of the immediate risk from individual GMOs to humans and the environment. Wider fears since expressed by large numbers of people - that they might not be able to avoid GM products even if they wished to, that the technology might make organic farming unviable because of contamination, that it is in essence unnatural and irresponsible - were not accommodated.

These and other concerns can now be brought to the Government's attention in the debate, which is entitled "GM Nation". It will last six weeks and is based around a series of six main regional conferences, which start tomorrow at the NEC in Birmingham. The others will be in Swansea (5 June), Taunton (7 June), Belfast (9 June), Glasgow (11 June) and Harrogate (13 June).

They will be followed by smaller local meetings organised by county and local councils, pressure groups and individuals. A debate "tool kit" of a handbook, a videotape and a CD-Rom has been produced to enable anyone to organise their own version of the debate, wherever they choose, with a helpline number for advice (020-7261 8616).

The debate will be launched tomorrow by Professor Malcolm Grant, chairman of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), the Government's GM farming advisory body. The AEBC called for the debate nearly two years ago, contending that the grounds on which the Government proposed to make its GM-commercialisation choice were far too narrow.

Professor Grant, a planning expert who is a former professor of land economy at Cambridge University, has promised that he will take account of public opinion in his report to the Government. It is far from clear, however, that the Government will take it into account when making its decision. Asked if she would do so, Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is believed to be a strong supporter of GM food, merely says that she will "respond publicly" to Professor Grant's report.

The issues dividing supporters and opponents of GM centre firstly around risk. Those pressing the GM case, including the mainly American, agri-business giants that have developed the technology and stand to reap billions of dollars from it, their supporters in the US government, and a fair number of scientists, say there is little or no risk.

Those calling for a halt to GM, led by environmental and consumer pressure groups and including a large section of the public, say there are real potential risks to human health and the environment.

The Royal Society recently discounted risks to human health, saying there was "no credible evidence" that people's health could be affected by eating any GM products. Environmental fears, however, are more solidly based, with the Government's wildlife adviser, English Nature, expressing concern that the introduction of weedkiller-tolerant GM crops may be a further intensification of modern farming methods that have already damaged the countryside enormously.

There is another dispute over whether or not GM represents a solution to hunger in poor countries by increasing crop yields. The GM companies claim that it does but last week a major development charity, Action Aid, dismissed the idea, saying that "there is no evidence that GM will help solve world hunger".

Finally, there are two more recent concerns which some observers now believe will be crucial in deciding the fate of GM in Britain: "co-existence and liability".

Opponents say that the contamination of other crops in the area by GM plants, which all sides accept can happen, will make it impossible for organic and conventional but GM-free farming to co-exist alongside GM agriculture. Supporters deny that this is the case.

The other issue is about who will pay compensation if, for example, an organic farm is driven out of business by a GM farm near by. This is so far undecided, but the AEBC is working on guidelines for both issues. The guidelines are expected to be published soon.

THE ARGUMENT FOR GM CROPS

  • Developing world farmers are readily adopting GM technology. More than six million farmers worldwide in 2002 chose to grow GM crops.
  • GM crops can produce more food from the same area of land. An 80 per cent increase in yields claimed for GM cotton grown in India.
  • In the future, GM products could help alleviate malnourishment and illness. GM products such as "Golden Rice" are being developed that are enriched with carotenoids, which humans convert to vitamin A.
  • Planting of herbicide-resistant oilseed rape and sugar beet did not result in any outcrossing or weed formation as "volunteers" during a 10-year study.
  • Despite 55,000 tests looking for gene transfer of herbicide resistance from oilseed rape to supposedly compatible weeds, such as charlock, surrounding and within the UK farm-scale trials, none were observed.
  • As much as 14 million kg of farm chemicals need not be used if half of the European Union's major crops (maize, oilseed rape, sugar beet and cotton) were converted to GM production.
  • GM sugar beet has shown increased levels of weed and insect biomass and biodiversity, without compromising yield.
  • A huge weight of evidence indicates improved yields from crops already commercialised and those being researched.
  • Economic benefits are immense and growing. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics suggests the worldwide adoption of GM crops could boost the overall income of all regions by US$316bn (#192bn) by 2015.
  • EU laws on GM have been strengthened over the decade to maintain protection of human health and the environment while maintaining a unified market for biotechnology.

Points made by a spokesman for companies producing GM crops, including Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta

THE ARGUMENT AGAINST

  • GM crops do not help farmers use fewer chemicals. American farmers of GM crops have shown that promises of higher yields, lower chemical use and profitability for farmers do not stand up in practice.
  • GM crops contaminate farmland. Research by the EU found that they would inevitably contaminate non-GM crops and some wild plants if they were widely grown in the UK. Contamination could threaten non-GM and organic farm businesses in Britain - this has happened in the US.
  • The introduction of GM may mean the eradication of consumer choice. You could lose the right to eat GM-free food.
  • GM crops will not feed the world. According to ActionAid, only 1 per cent of GM research is aimed at crops used by farmers in poor countries. GM crops are designed to make a few GM companies very rich andundermine farming methods crucial to meeting long-term, local food needs.
  • GM foods that taste better or that might stop you getting cancer do not exist. GM crops are used almost exclusively to make processed foods, cooking oils or animal feed.

      Points made by Ben Ayliffe, GM campaigner, Greenpeace UK

      • How will it be possible to avoid GM if the commercialisation of GM goes ahead?
      • Will the Government increase funds for research into non-GM approaches to food and farming?
      • Who will be liable for possible harm to health or the environment and compensate farmers and food manufacturers if their produce is contaminated with GM?
      • Will future generations be able to reverse genetic modification?

      Questions posed by Pete Riley, GM campaigner, Friends of the Earth