GM foods: unloved, unwanted and a rush to grow crops could cause civil unrest
Minsters try to put gloss on bleak view from strategy unit
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Saturday July 12, 2003
A bleak picture for the future of genetically modified crops in Britain was outlined by the Cabinet Office strategy unit yesterday, which said there was currently no benefit to the UK consumer or farmer in growing such foods because there was no market.
The unit also warned if there was a rush to grow GM crops the government was in danger of further damaging the trust between the public and food regulators, which could lead to civil unrest and the destruction of crops.
Before the report was published ministers and officials were out in force putting a "gloss" on the report, suggesting that existing GM crops could "offer some cost and convenience advantages to UK farmers".
However, the report makes clear that apart from the very limited possibility of selling crops for animal feed, UK farmers would have to export their crops if they were to find a market, since supermarkets and consumers had rejected GM food.
The report is an unexpected blow to government hopes of an early introduction of GM crops to Britain and it was greeted with delight by anti-GM campaigners. They said the report vindicated their reservations about the dangers of rushing into the technology.
The Cabinet Office report, which was commissioned by Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, to look at the costs and benefits of GM crops, made clear that without public acceptance the chances of a successful introduction were minimal.
In the long run, the report said, there might be benefits to the consumer, but there were none with the current GM crops, and there were still unknown and unforeseeable risks to health and the environment which current regulations did not cover. There was a danger of shocks and surprises on GM foods which could have a disastrous effect on public confidence
There were also dangers in the UK turning its back on GM altogether, including a possible trade war with the United States, but also of losing the UK's science base and potential business if the marketing prospects for GM improved.
Research and development jobs in GM had declined by 60% over three decades in the UK to 1,300 and there was danger of further contraction unless GM went ahead.
Five scenarios for GMs were investigated, including not growing any at all. With the current public debate on GM showing no softening of attitude by the consumer to eating or growing crops in the UK, two of the five scenarios seem non-starters because both require public acceptance of GM foods.
The best the pro-GM lobby can hope for at present is the Cabinet Office's third option, a strict regulatory regime which would lead to "very little" GM cultivation in the short-term but a gradual acceptance over a longer period. This depended on no health or other unexpected disasters in the meantime. The most likely outcome, if the government gives an early go-ahead to GM, is the one the strategy unit calls "tangled threads."
This is where the government allows GM growing to go ahead without proper protection for organic and conventional farmers.
This would mean there was no means of legal redress for farmers whose crops were contaminated by GM and regulations were weak. This would lead to higher prices in the shops for non-GM food. It would be unpopular and lead to civil unrest and huge costs in law and order.
Mrs Beckett in her forward to the report acknowledged this danger. She said: "As with any new technology potential benefits are also accompanied by risks and uncertainties - and these in turn bring about the public concern ...
"The challenge for any government is to regulate the use of this new technology in a way that safeguards the public and our planet, commands public confidence, but also ensures that our society does not necessarily throw away the benefits science can provide. This is no easy task."
Pete Riley, from Friends of the Earth ,said: "In the light of this report, I cannot see any businessman in the UK who owns a farm wanting to grow GM in the next five years. There is no market and no economic benefit unless, of course, farmers were paid to grow GM crops."
Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, said: "This report is dynamite and highlights the huge uncertainties in GM. The government spin just does not reflect what the strategy unit says - namely that the public just do not want to buy GM - and the uncertainties of the technology are just not covered by safety tests or regulatory procedures."
The Cabinet Office envisages five scenarios on the likely public reaction to GM crops:
1 The public accepts genetically modified crops and food, large cultivation of crops commences, with regulation increasingly treating GM like any other foodstuff
2 There is a stringent approvals process; post-marketing, monitoring and labelling leads to the public increasingly accepting GM crops and foods over time
3 The public continues to oppose GM foods, so a strict regulatory system is put in place, leading to very little GM cultivation on British soil - at least in the short term
4 There is a breakdown between the government, which has adopted lax regulations that fail to segregate GM crops, and the public, which remains negative to GM. There is damage to conventional and organic farming and activists destroy GM fields
5 An explicit decision is made against commercial cultivation in Britain with the public preferring conventional or organic produce. This non-GM status provides new niche markets for British farmers