Public suspicion forces GM rethink (18/7/2003)

1.Public suspicion forces GM rethink
2.GM PUBLIC DEBATE ENDS - now Government must act on the results
Public suspicion forces GM rethink
Ministers see political risks as outweighing any advantages
Paul Brown, environment Correspondent, Friday July 18, 2003
The Guardian

The government is rethinking its plans to go full ahead with the introduction of genetically modified crops this autumn because of continued overwhelming public suspicion of the technology and ministers' motives for introducing it.

Cabinet ministers have decided that the political risks of introducing GM increasingly outweigh any advantages, the Guardian has been told. Confidence was badly shaken last week by the Cabinet Office strategy unit's forecast of civil unrest unless the strictest rules were enforced to prevent contamination of conventional and organic crops. 

Tony Blair, who has been unswerving in his enthusiasm for GM technology, is said by government sources to have changed his mind about the early introduction of crops in the light of public hostility. 

He remains concerned about the potential loss to the UK's scientific research and development base if the country turns against GM. But that is set against fears that the real impact of GM on a sceptical public would come in two years - just as he may be facing a general election. 

Ministers' doubts have been fuelled by the results of a nationwide debate, GM Nation, which ends today. They show that despite huge efforts from the science lobby and the industry the public still believes that not enough is known about the risks to both health and the environment for the government to go ahead with the technology. 

More than 450 public meetings have been held and up to 23,000 formal responses will have been submitted. Full analysis of the results will not be known until the autumn but the majority of meetings concluded that it is too soon to let the technology loose on the British countryside. 

The fact that the US government has threatened a trade war if the EU blocks the import of GM foods has fuelled public opposition. The political risks of siding with the GM lobby against the British public have alarmed ministers. 

On Monday, when the scientific report on the possible health effects of GM is published, it too will strike a more cautious note than expected. Some members of the committee have objected to what they perceive as the gung-ho advocacy of GM of the government's chief scientist, Professor Sir David King, Sir John Krebs, chairman of the food standards agency, and Professor Howard Dalton, the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. 

Instead of giving GM a complete endorsement the report will now say there are still gaps in knowledge and potential for nasty surprises. 

Prof King had strongly influenced the prime minister to support the technology as being vital to feed the third world and to help maintain Britain's science base. 

But in electoral terms Mr Blair faces stiff opposition from middle England. Among those demanding more time for public information are the Women's Institute and the Consumers' Association that have both called for a more extensive public debate. 

A coalition including Action Aid, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children say that claims that GM are needed to feed the developing world are misleading and should not be used for its promotion. 

Recent EU decisions on labelling of GM foods and the need to create rules for growing GM crops has raised further complications. The government has to decide how to segregate conventional groups and GM crops to safeguard against contamination. There is also the question a liability regime so that if contamination takes place the injured party can claim compensation. 

However, the potential financial risks this regime might place on the farmer would make growing GM crops extremely unattractive. 

Ministers' enthusiasm has been further eroded this week by the UK supermarkets, who told Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, that they still had no intention of selling modified products. This would leave little home market for GM crops grown in the UK. 

A further problem is that the result of trials on GM crops are due in September and are thought to be inconclusive, leaving the government with a another headache.

What next?

Last day of GM Nation debate chaired by Professor Malcolm Grant, who declared himself encouraged by 450 public meetings and 23,000 individual forms returned by the end of last week 

Review of GM to summarise the state of scientific knowledge, consensus and areas of uncertainty. Key issues are food and feed safety, gene flow, detection and environmental impact of GM 

Summary of public debate and focus groups on whether and when GM should be introduced into the UK both for growing of crops and in food. It will include dicussion of possible safeguards. 

Results of three years of scientific trials into the effect of GM crops on the UK environment will be published in a scientific journal. 

Comments on the Cabinet Office strategy unit' s economic assessment of GM crops. 

Government must decide whether to allow import and growing of GM crops in Britain
2. GM PUBLIC DEBATE ENDS - now Government must act on the results
PRESS RELEASE, 17th July 2003

GM Nation?  The Public Debate closes this Friday 18th July, after running for only six weeks.  In spite of the lack of time and the poor publicity, some 400 - 500 debates have taken place across the country and over 20,000 people have responded, in a public consultation exercise far larger than anything previously carried out by Government.  Because of the short time scale many people are only just finding out about the debate as it closes, and will miss their opportunity to participate.  It also ends before the appearance of the Government's review of the science of GM crops and the results of the farm scale evaluations.

Clare Devereux, Director of the Five Year Freeze and a member of the Public Debate Steering Board, said:

'Response has been excellent, showing how important this issue is to people all over the country.  We now urge Margaret Beckett to commit to incorporating the results of this massive public response into Government decision-making, something she has so far failed to do.

The public has been debating GM crops for five years now and we urge people to continue to do so - even if the 'official' debate organised by the Government is ending.  This is after all the 'public's debate' and the public should carry it on as long as necessary'.


[1] List of Five Year Freeze members attached
[2] For more information contact Clare Devereux, 020 7837 0642 (office), 07803 002825 (mobile)

[1] Supporters of the Five Year Freeze (founders in bold) are:

Action Aid
Action Against Allergy
Additives Survivors' Network
Agricultural Christian Fellowship
Baby Milk Action
Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union
Biodynamic Agricultural Association
Black Environmental Network
Body Shop International PLC
British Allergy Foundation
British Association of Fair Trade Shops
British Association of Nature Conservation
British Naturopathic Association
Catholic Institute International Relations
Centre for Alternative Technology
Chartered Institute of Environmental Health
Christian Aid
Christian Ecology Link
Communities Against Toxics
Compassion In World Farming
Corporate Watch
Council for the Protection of Rural England
Ecology Building Society
Elm Farm Research Centre
Ethical Consumer
Farm-A-Round Ltd
Farming and Livestock Concern
Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens
Find Your Feet
Food Commission
Food for Health Network
Food Poverty Network
Forum for the Future
Fresh Food Company
Freshlands UK
Friends of the Earth
Friends of the Earth Scotland
Gaia Foundation
Gardeners GMO Group
GE Free Forests
Genetics Food Alert
Genetics Forum
GeneWatch UK
GM-Free Cymru
GMO Campaign
Good Gardeners Association
Green & Blacks
Green Books
Green Network
Green Party
Guild of Fine Food Retailers
Guild of Food Writers
Harvest Help
Health Food Manufacturer's Association
Help International Plant Protein Organisation (HIPPO)
Hyperactive Children's Support Group
Iceland Foods
Institute for Science in Society
Intermediate Technology Development Group
International Society for Ecology and Culture
Islamic Concern
Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environment Sciences
Living Lightly
Local Government Association
Longhouse Food Consultancy
Maternity Alliance
National Association of Health Stores
National Federation of Women's Institutes
National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners Ltd
Natural Law Party
Natures Store Ltd.
Neal's Yard Bakery
Neal's Yard Remedies
New Economics Foundation
New Internationalist
Noah Project
Organic Farm Foods Wales
Organic Gardening
Organic Shop
Organics Direct
People & Planet
Permaculture Association UK
Permaculture Magazine
Permanent Publications
Pesticides Action Network UK
Plamil Food
Planet Organic
Positive News
Pret A Manger
Pro-natural Food Scotland
Scientists for Global Responsibility
Scottish Beekeepers Association
Small Farms Association
Soil Association
Student Environment Network
The Harbour
Townswomen's Guilds
Traidcraft Plc
Triodos Bank
Vegan Society
Vegetarian Society
Vetwork UK
Vinceremos Wines & Spirits Ltd
Welsh Beekeepers Association
Whole Earth Foods Ltd
 Wholesome Food Association
Wildlife Trusts
Womankind Worldwide
Women's Environmental Network
Woodland Trust
World Development Movement
World Wide Fund for Nature

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