Debate, what debate? (25/7/2003)

An Andy Rowell piece from the current GM SPECIAL edition of The Ecologist.

Rowell's article, written well before the sacking of Meacher and the publication of the government's economic and science reviews, provides useful and sometimes prescient background.

A quote from the article from Labour Member of Parliament, Alan Simpson:

'There is no doubt inside the corridors of power that the agenda is effectively being driven by Sainsbury and the biotech corporations. It is being aided and abetted by the FSA, where [the agency's chair] Sir John Krebs is now unaffectionately known as "GM Joe" '

Another article in the current edition available online is: '5 reasons to keep Britain GM-free - why the commercialisation of GM crops should never be permitted in the UK' http://www.theecologist.org/article.html?article=432
The GM public debate - legitimate discussion of the concerns, or political gameplaying?
by Andy Rowell
The Ecologist, July/August 2003, GM SPECIAL

The GM public debate, which runs throughout June and July, is the public's chance to express any concerns it may have over the growing of GM crops in Britain. Andy Rowell explains why your participation is vital

We've been here before. In 1998 the government was all set to start growing GM crops commercially in Britain. Many farmers, desperate for revenue and lured by the industry's outspoken promises, were willing. Yet Britain remained GM-free, and has done to this day. Why?

Simple; consumers said they didn't want the technology.

That same year the government agreed under pressure from English Nature to undertake a series of crop trials - known as farm-scale trials - to assess the potential environmental impacts of growing GM crops. There was a voluntary agreement with industry that the latter would not commercialise until the results of the farm-scale trials were known.

In September 2001 the government advisory body on GM - the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) - produced a report called Crops  on Trial, which argued that the trials should not form the sole basis of the decision about whether to grow GM crops or not, and that there should be a public debate on the subject. Crops on Trial also said that the public should evaluate the farm-scale trial results.

The AEBC's stance led the government to announce in July 2002 that a national GM debate would be held that would consist of three strands: first, an investigation chaired by the government's chief scientific adviser, professor Sir David King, into the scientific basis for GM; second, an economic review coordinated by 10 Downing Street's Strategy Unit; and finally, a public debate coordinated by an independent steering group headed by AEBC chair Malcolm Grant.

However, the scientific and economic studies started long before the public debate, and they are likely to publish their results too late for the public to take them into account. Hence, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's chair Sir Tom Blundell has called the public debate a wasted opportunity that will generate an 'artificial' result.

Modifying public opinion

Speaking last month, environment minister Michael Meacher insisted that the 'key and sole criteria' on whether to push ahead with GM commercialisation was whether GM organisms could be proven to be harmful to the environment and human health. This would suggest that economics and the public's attitude were irrelevant. Indeed, Meacher also admitted that public opinion had to be 'managed' to 'try to win over public support to whatever the science is taking'. He went on to make it clear that if the EU decided we had to go ahead, we would - whatever anyone said.

This is from a man who has admitted in an interview with this magazine that 'GM is not necessary', and that 'the real problem [with GM] is whether 10, 20, 30 years down the track serious and worrying things happen that none of us predicted'.

So, if human health risks are seen by the government as a key factor why aren't they being tested for in the farm-scale trials, which are only analysing the technology's short-term effects on wildlife?

Furthermore, can we really expect a panel so heavily stacked in favour of GM to come out against the technology it is set to evaluate? Of the 25 scientists on the GM Science Review Panel, only three can truly be said to be GM sceptics. Furthermore, as my and Jonathan Matthews earlier article in The Ecologist ('Strange bedfellows', April 2003) showed, the Royal Society - where most of the science debates are held and a key organiser of the process - has been working behind closed doors with some staunchly pro-GM groups.

Last month the society announced: 'We have examined the results of published research, and have found nothing to indicate that GM foods are inherently unsafe.' In doing so the society allied itself closely with Tony Blair's stance. In a speech to the Royal Society in May 2002, Blair declared: 'In GM crops I can find no serious evidence of health risks'. As the field-scale trials haven't been looking for health impacts, that is hardly surprising.

Government enthusiasm

In that same speech, Blair praised the biotech industry. He said: '[Its] market in Europe alone is expected to be worth $100 billion by 2005. The number of people employed in biotech and associated companies could be as high as  three million, as we catch up with the US industry - currently eight times the size of Europe's.'

GM has long been seen as a key economic engine driver by the Labour government. Led by the Department of Trade and Industry's science minister Lord Sainsbury, government white paper after white paper has talked about the importance of science and biotechnology.

Sainsbury is an ardent supporter of biotech. Until they were placed in a blind trust when he became science minister, he also held large share holdings in biotech companies Diatech and Innotech. He is also New Labour's largest single donor, having donated over GBP8m since the party came to power in 1997.

But he is not the only member of the government pushing GM. Clare Short, seen by some as a cabinet radical before she resigned, presided over a government department that quietly funded a GBP13.4m programme to create a new generation of GM animals, crops and drugs in over 24 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.

'There is enormous international pressure to allow GM crops and seeds in this country from the biotech corporations,' admits UK fisheries and nature protection minister Eliot Morley. In Labour's first two years in power alone, GM firms met government officials and ministers 81 times.

It is widely accepted that Blair was persuaded to back GM by Bill Clinton, leading the BBC to remark that in the GM debate 'a question mark remains over the government's independence from Washington'.

US pressure is now a lot more publicly visible. After months of sabre rattling, the US announced last month that it would take the EU to the WTO over the former's continuing moratorium on growing GM crops. US trade representative Robert Zoellick and agriculture secretary Ann Veneman held a press conference in which they denounced the moratorium as 'illegal'. 'With this case, we are fighting for the interests of US agriculture,' said Veneman, who was joined on the podium by Dr CS Prakash - one of the US's most pro-biotech scientists - and TJ Buthelezi, a farmer from Makhatini Flats in South Africa.

Zoellick's tactics are simple. In the last two years he has met every African trade minister in a bid to get them to accept GM and isolate the EU. But with no African governments supporting the US's WTO action, now that Egypt has pulled out, African farmers are being used as PR pawns to convince regulators here that the South needs this 'beneficial' technology.

NGOs concerned with African food security are alarmed by the extent of these biotech lobbying efforts. 'They are popping up everywhere,' says ActionAid's Alex Wijeratna. 'I have just come back from Mozambique, and their representatives were there. Their influence is very pervasive'. The same is happening in Europe, where the industry is lobbying member states to get rid of the moratorium. And in the UK that lobbying is set to intensify.

Revolving doors

Monsanto's PR company in the UK is Good Relations. The firm has close ties with New Labour. Its director is David Hill, who was chief media spokesperson for the Labour Party from 1993 to 1998 and ran the Labour media operations for the 1997 and 2001 general elections.

Another biotech lobby group is the Agriculture Biotechnology Council (ABC). Stephen Smith, from Syngenta is the ABC's chair. In the autumn of last year, the ABC moved its PR account to Lexington Communications, whose director is Mike Craven - Hill's successor as the Labour Party's chief media spokesperson. Craven worked with deputy prime minister John Prescott as recently as the last general election.

Lexington has now hired Bernard Marantelli, who used to work for Monsanto, to organise a £250,000 PR campaign aimed at 'regulators, legislators, retailers and consumer groups' once the field-scale trials are published. The revised budget for the whole public debate is only GBP500,000.

It is clear from the amount of money being piled into the promotion of GM, that its supporters have to win the debate. GM companies are not in a good financial condition. They need the the commercialisation of technology for their survival.

Nonetheless, the early drafts of the Strategy Unit's economic review suggest that when the unit's results are announced at the end of June, or soon afterwards, there will be no clear signs that GM will be good for the economy. Furthermore, the unit will state that should any of the many possible risks materialise, the financial implications could be devastating.

Persuading the public

Which leaves only the public debate. Environment secretary Margaret Beckett has said: 'The government wants a genuinely open and balanced discussion on GM. There is clearly a wide range of views on this issue and we want to ensure all voices are heard.'

Don't believe a word of it. The public debate lasts from the beginning of June to the middle of July, consists of only six regional meetings and, contrary to the AEBC's recommendations, will finish before the results of the farm-scale trials are published.

This is hardly surprising, as Labour MP Alan Simpson explains. 'The political establishment wants commercialisation yesterday,' Simpson says. 'It is just having to work out how to get past the two main obstacles - Meacher and the public. Meacher is Labour's only environmental credibility; the whole strategy has been to box him into a position where he has run out of space to say no.' With Meacher rapidly losing credibility in the eyes of the environment movement, there is only the public left to persuade.

Those doing the persuading are a powerful bunch. Alongside the biotech industry, the Royal Society, the WTO, the prime minister and his science minister, another unlikely GM advocate has emerged. According to its website, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) 'is an independent food safety watchdog set up by an act of Parliament in 2000 to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food'. Yet this same website has been criticised by the Soil Association for publishing 'highly-biased GM education material'.

In February the FSA announced its own programme to 'assess people's views of genetically-modified food'. Considering the government had already committed GBP500,000 to the same end, why did the agency feel the need to spend a further GBP120,000 of taxpayers' money on repeating the exercise? Critics of the FSA have dismissed its consultation process as a pro-GM exercise. Those critics are not just environmentalists; they include the Women's Institutes and the largest trade union in the country, Unison, among many others.

Furthermore, last month Genewatch UK director and AEBC member Dr Sue Mayer accused the FSA of hiding the unanimous verdict of its own Citizens Jury that GM crops should not yet be grown commercially. Likewise, the FSA (along with the Labour government) has been criticised by consumer organisations for backing the US government/biotech position in opposing the EU's traceability and labelling regulations.

'There is no doubt inside the corridors of power,' says Simpson, 'that the agenda is effectively being driven by Sainsbury and the biotech corporations. It is being aided and abetted by the FSA, where [the agency's chair] Sir John Krebs is now unaffectionately known as "GM Joe".'

But in spite of appearances, those pushing to commercialise GM are powerless in the face of concerted public pressure. Three of the largest consumer organisations in the country - food and farming campaign Sustain, the Consumers' Association and the National Consumer Council - have all criticised the FSA for not listening to consumers. All the supermarkets have stated that they will not stock food that contains GM ingredients. And three county councils - Cornwall, South Gloucestershire and Warwickshire - have declared themselves GM-free. Now it's your turn to be heard. Join the debate.

Andy Rowell is author of Don't Worry, it is Safe to Eat: the true story of GM food, BSE and foot and mouth, published by Earthscan this month. The book is available at a special 15 per cent discounted price of GBP14.44 for Ecologist readers. Phone 01903 828 800, or fax 020 727 81142
*Naive, narrow and biased...
Carlo Leifert explains why he resigned from the government's GM science review panel

*Dissenting adviser quits GM panel

*GM inquiry exposed as top scientist quits

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