Sowing seeds of resistance to GM


Peter Melchett

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".

No wonder 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 headlines.

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.

The report 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.

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.

Out of 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 pays?

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.

THE 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 Government’s response.

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.

With 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 University.