Michael Meacher: GM - yet another example of ministers listening to no one but themselves

22 February 2004

The Government has no moral, scientific or political authority to press ahead with the cultivation of genetically modified maize as Cabinet sub-committee minutes leaked this week indicate they intend to do. When Margaret Beckett says, as the minutes record, that there is no scientific case for a ban, she is raising the telescope to her blind eye.
This is another example of an emerging theme, where the Prime Minister and senior ministers neither listen to public opinion, nor take proper account of the evidence. What we have seen over Iraq, tuition fees and foundation hospitals, the minutes confirm is also happening over GM. It is an issue of scientific integrity and democratic accountability.
The GM maize trials, used by ministers to justify commercial planting, purport to show that it harmed the environment less than conventional (ie non-GM) maize. But the trials were doubly flawed. First, Atrazine, the chemical weedkiller used on conventional maize crops, has now been banned throughout the EU because of its toxicity. Since it will therefore never be used, the whole basis of the trial is invalidated. Second, the farmers were told to spray the GM crops only once in the trials, allowing more weeds to grow and thus reducing environmental damage. But in the real world it is unlikely that commercial GM maize growers would accept a significantly lower yield so as to enjoy more beetles and butterflies on their land.
Because of these flaws on both the GM and non-GM sides the trials cannot be cited to justify licensing GM maize cultivation. But even if that were not so, the Government cannot remotely claim that the trials - simply comparing the management of different weedkillers - constitute a proper assessment of the environmental impacts of GM crops. They included nothing about soil residues or soil bacteria, nothing about gene flow or transgenic contamination, nothing about "superweeds" or "superpests". Until these are fully investigated, the Government cannot claim it has any systematic knowledge of the most serious environmental consequences of GM pollution.
Even worse, no analysis has been done of the health impact of eating GM foods. The Government cites the absence of evidence of harm to show that GM is safe when no evidence has been sought. The biotech companies rely on the spurious principle of "substantial equivalence" whereby a new GM product is simply assumed to be safe if its toxins, allergens and nutrients are judged broadly similar to those of a non-GM counterpart. But when a new gene is inserted crudely into a plant out of a sequence that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years, it will interact with other genes in unknown ways and with unpredictable results.
A decision to commercialise GM in Britain would sound the death knell for organic farming through cross-contamination. This has happened in Canada, despite the wide open expanse of their prairies, and would be bound to be repeated here where farms are jostled so close together. The John Innes Centre in Norwich, Europe's leading GM research institute, admits that GM agriculture and organic food and farming cannot co-exist in Britain and that choice will have to be made between them. Are we going to sacrifice organic, which people increasingly demand, in favour of GM, which virtually nobody wants?
Of course the Government claims that GM crops will be very closely regulated. The emptiness of this inspection claim is exposed both by the minuscule size of the inspectorate - which has varied over the past four years from the equivalent of one to four people - and by the history of past failure to detect numerous breaches by the biotechnology companies. Inevitably, there are virtually no proactive inspections, and the inspectorate has to rely on paper audits supplied by the companies themselves.
The Government has no mandate to proceed with commercial GM crops, particularly if it eliminates the organic sector which is fast-growing and widely popular. Gambles may be justified if the benefit is huge and the risk is small. But the opposite applies with GM: there are no consumer benefits, but the potential risks to health and the environment are enormous. GM is not needed, it is not necessary to feed the world - and couldn't ever remotely do so. Why is the Government so hell-bent on taking irreversible risks with the nation's food supply which are profoundly distrusted and unpopular and where the science is largely untested?
Michael Meacher is a former Environment Minister