09:00 - 02 June 2003
 Against: Robert Vint, Totnes-based spokesman for the UK wholefood
trade, looks at evidence which exposes the risks of growing GM crops

The US Government and biotech industry have forced GM food and crops
upon the American people without any consultation with them. The British public therefore will welcome a public debate on GM crops in the UK before any decision is made to grow them here.

Surveys around the world have shown that the more people become informed about GM food and crops the less they like them. Sadly, our Government has failed to confirm that it will take any notice of the outcome of an informed debate and strongly hinted that the real decision will be made by Government "experts".

The public debate about commercialisation of GM crops is really a debate about the rights of farmers, consumers and the food industry. Because of consumer opposition to GM crops the vast majority of supermarkets and food manufacturers aim to keep GM contamination of foods below 0.1 percent - and ideally to eliminate it entirely. This has already become difficult because GM contamination is very common in ingredients imported from countries such as the US and Canada. A single contamination incident in the USA cost over 2.5 billion to clear up. In much of Canada, organic oilseed (canola) can no longer be grown in many places because pollen from GM crops can spread up to six miles. Will british farmers and manufacturers be given any more choice?

Growing GM crops in the UK would make contamination a risk for almost every farmer and food producer. Farmers and food producers would have today to avoid contamination of seeds, crops and foods during manufacture.The Food and Drink Federation thinks this might add five to ten per cent to ingredient costs. They will lose more money if their products end up contaminated anyway and so cannot be sold or get taken off the shelves.And they could suffer very costly "negative PR" if customers find out about GM contamination. American companies say they cannot afford to segregate GM and non-GM crops. If Britain grows GM crops, can we afford to keep them apart?

EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler in February proposed deliberately feeble plans for "co-existence". His suggestion - that each european nation creates its own voluntary code and that farmers voluntarily tell their neighbours if they are growing GM crops - was widely ridiculed. Such "co-existence" has failed expensively in the USA and Canada on many occasions. But what are the supposed benefits for which we are expected to pay this price?

In 2002, GM crops, after seven years of promotion, were still only grown in any significant quantity (over one per cent) in the USA, Canada,Argentina and China. There are still only four GM crops of any commercial significance - soya, maize, canola and cotton. There was no evidence that GM increased overall yields. Africa's food and agriculture spokesmen and western aid charities agree that GM crops are irrelevant to solving world hunger. Only one nation in Africa (South Africa) has chosen to commercialise any GM crops. In India, GM cotton has failed catastrophically and there is fear that a major GM cotton project will clear up to 20,000,000 cotton smallholders off their land to make way for vast automated farms that employ few people and only benefit the richest farmers.

ActionAid recently campaigned against a GM coffee designed to do away with the need to employ the 60,000,000 coffee pickers who work in many of the world's 50 poorest nations. Farmers' unions from India to the philippines to Brazil have organised the destruction of GM crop trial sand protests against Monsanto, while African farmers at the Earth Summit issued a joint declaration against GM crops.
Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs) of GM crops in the UK have been called fraudulent because they compared a commercially-grown non-GM crop with a Gm one grown to maximise wildlife rather than yield. The GM crops we regrown with the minimum possible amount of herbicides to maximise the amount of wild plants (weeds) whereas in America the farmers growing these same crops spray them more often and with a range of herbicides in order to kill the weeds and maintain yields. Related research at BroomsBarn in Suffolk was widely criticised for similar inadequacies and its results were dismissed by the RSPB and the Government's own ChiefScientist as inconclusive.

Information on GM food safety is woefully inadequate. There have been no long-term comparative studies of the effects of GM and non-GM food on humans or animals. The Government and GM industry have provided the public and independent experts with no access to data on feeding experiments. This is why Consumers International, the British Medical association, the Canadian Royal Society, the Zambian government and other organisations remain unconvinced about GM food safety.

We are sure that as the British public finds out more about GM a growing majority will want to defend their right to choose GM-free food.The great majority will lose this right if GM crops are forced on us. But how big a majority do we need for the Government to listen?