Fury over spin on GM crops
Protesters claim review is meaningless
Sunday March 9, 2003
A furious row has broken out between scientists and the Government over claims that Ministers have already decided to introduce genetically modified crops into Britain's countryside within the next 12 months.
Scientists and advisors close to the study into whether GM crops should be commercialised in the UK have told The Observer of increasing fears that Ministers have embarked on a sophisticated campaign of manipulation designed to railroad Britons into accepting GM products.
Such is the mounting level of concern that this week the Consumers' Association will launch a ferocious attack on the Government's Food Standards Agency (FSA), accusing it of ignoring the health fears of its 650,000 members.
It is precisely such disquiet that prompted Ministers to launch a public debate and scientific review of GM crops last summer. But seven months later, officials remain furious over the Government's reluctance to explain how the debate will actually influence the final decision.
Malcolm Bruce, chairman of the committee organising the debate, has become so exasperated he will write to the pro-GM Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett in the next fortnight demanding an answer.
For many others, her reticence is increasingly obvious. 'What is the point in proceeding if decisions are already made?' said Clare Devereux, spokesman for lobby group Five Year Freeze and member of the debate's steering board.
Her anger is fuelled by news that completion of the farm-scale crop trials - designed to discover whether GM crops affect the environment - has also been delayed, ensuring their potentially controversial findings cannot be discussed in the debate.
Concern also continues to escalate over the Government's GM science review. Its panel of experts have met only twice since last October, amid accusations it has sidestepped topics such as potential health effects.
One member of the review, Dr Andrew Stirling, of the science policy research unit at the University of Sussex, said: 'I am concerned that a number of uncertainties and unknowns like potential cross-pollination are in danger of being neglected. It's not a very balanced format.'
Of the 25 experts involved in the process, at least a third are known to have strong pro-GM views. These include consultants to Lord Sainsbury's biotech investment company Diatech Ltd, employees of Monsanto and Syngenta, and those who have attacked organic food - the nemesis of the GM lobby - as poisonous.
Professor Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University said: 'The general feeling - including some of those people who are pro-GM - is that the review is clearly designed to archive something other than an objective assessment of the issues.'
Last week a powerful coalition ranging from The Women's Institute to Greenpeace and Unison wrote to the FSA board claiming its spin on GM foods was virtually indistinguishable from that of the pro-GM lobby.
A further letter demanding material from the FSA's information on GM is ditched will be sent to the watchdog by Five Year Freeze this week.
Another letter, from Dr Brian John of GM Free Cymru to Health Secretary Alan Milburn, describes Professor Sir John Krebs, chairman of the FSA, as having 'embraced GM technology with an enthusiasm which is not just embarrassing, but positively dangerous'.
However, the FSA maintains it is 'neither pro nor anti GM', arguing it welcomes a rigorous scientific assessment of the technology. Further criticism has been directed at the FSA over its decision to resist attempts to ensure GM derivatives like oils and starches are not labelled for consumers. Its controversial stance was also adopted by the Government.
The Government recently decided to press ahead with licensing the commercial use of GM crops before the debate is completed in September.
In the past month, biotech companies including Monsanto have applied to import GM crops. Beckett decided that 18 applications to the EU for growing and importing GM maize, oil seed rape and sugar beet will be granted.
'Nothing has happened to shift the suspicion that commercialisation has been granted,' said Sue Mayer of Genewatch and a member of the public debate committee.
Although an unnamed Minister has warned that a decision on GM has already been taken, this was denied by a spokesman for the Department for Food Environment and Rural Affairs.
'There will not be any growing of [GM] crops in this country until the results of the farm-scale trials have been considered,' he said.