WI response to claims they fixed the public debate (25/9/2003)

In their desperate effort to explain away the overwhelming rejection of GM crops in the public debate, the GM lobby has tried to claim that the debate has in some way been hijacked.

Although the Steering Board of the public debate has said that there is no evidence to support this, pro-GM New Scientist journalist Andy Coghlan claimed their report contained "evidence that opponents "hijacked" public meetings and sent most of the letters - so skewing the outcome. Observers at meetings counted five opponents for every supporter or neutral person who attended." This is not, in fact, in the report but is a claim made by biotech industry lobbyists!

Coghlan also claims, "Websites run by groups opposed to GM crops, such as the National Federation of Women's Institutes, had urged members to attend meetings in force, for example. And the report identifies middle-aged mothers as displaying the most "implacable" opposition."

Here's the WI's response to this bizarre allegation.
From: Barbara Gill
Chairman, National Federation of Women's Institutes

Letters to the Editor,
New Scientist,
151 Wardour St,

25 September 2003


Although the visual image you raise of WI members hijacking public debates across the country is amusing, it was not the case, even if we had wished it to be so. (UK public strongly rejects GM foods, new scientist.com news service, 24 September 2003)

Even if they had wished to do so, WI members could not have hijacked public debate meetings.  GM Nation was launched on 3 June, with a deadline for submissions of 18 July - a woefully inadequate time period for our members to find out about and attend debate meetings, let alone organise their own local events. Through our website, we encouraged our members to participate in the public debate - whatever their individual views on the merits or otherwise of GM crops. If a public debate required the engagement of the public, why is a membership organisation that encourages its members to take part accused of 'hijacking'?

Given the evidence that observers at the meetings counted five opponents for every supporter or neutral person who attended, could one not draw the simpler conclusion that this was a reflection of public opinion on the matter?

The National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) is not, and never has been opposed to GM crops per se. In 1999 our members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution calling for a minimum five year moratorium on the commercial growing and import of GM crops in the UK. WI members support the use of the precautionary principle until such time as reasonable assurances can be given on matters such as gene stacking and cross pollination. A precautionary approach is about using good science, considering, not ignoring, uncertainties and lack of knowledge, and including consideration of the alternatives. The WI is not looking for 100 per cent certainty, just to know that proper systems are in place, choice is maintained and human health and the environment are given priority over profit.

The overwhelming message of GM Nation was that GM technology is clearly perceived as being driven by profit rather than the public interest, would benefit producers rather than ordinary people and as being potentially harmful to health and the environment. Given the resounding verdict delivered by the British public the question is not, were the meetings hijacked, but will the verdict of the public be listened to?

Barbara Gill
Chairman, National Federation of Women's Institutes

Press  Release
Immediate release: Thursday 25th September

Opponents of GM crops are taking to the road over coming weeks with some 20 individuals from around the country embarking on a journey to London as part of pilgrimage for a GM-free Britain. Campaigners from around the country will journey by foot, bicycle and tractor to the capital where they will join together with hundreds of people in a Tractors and Trolleys Parade on Monday 13th October to demonstrate their opposition to GM crops and food.

The GM-free Britain pilgrimage follows the publication of the results of the Government's GM Nation debate, released yesterday, which showed high levels of opposition to GM crops and food among the general public.  The Government, under pressure from the United States and from the biotech industry, must soon decide on the future commercialisation of GM crops in the UK.

The event, organised by Friends of the Earth, the Five Year Freeze, GM-free Cymru and Genetic Engineering Network will highlight opposition to the activities of the biotech industry, and support for sustainable alternatives to GM crops and industrial agriculture.  The journeys will take in significant locations en route including GM crop test sites, biotech company offices, organic farms and local farmers markets, and will be supported by local activities and send-off actions. [2]

Travelling alone or in groups, the campaigners for a GM-free Britain, are all undertaking the journey to illustrate their deep opposition to the introduction of GM crops in our countryside and in our food.  They include:
. Two cyclists travelling from north east Scotland, one towing a coffin representing the death of organic agriculture;
. A organic farmer travelling from Pembrokeshire by tractor,
. A tractor towing a GM-free carnival float travelling from Coventry
. A founder member of Scarborough Against Genetic Engineering (SAGE) travelling on foot from North Yorkshire to London.

Organic farmer and GM-free Cymru member Gerald Miles, who is travelling from Pembrokeshire by tractor, said: "As a farmer I am concerned that no-one knows the impact of GM on our health or the environment. I believe planting GM crops on a commercial scale is not a risk we should be taking especially as consumer demand for non-GM food is overwhelming. GM crops, whether planted commercially or as trials, will inevitably contaminate both non-GM and organic crops.

"If the Government does go ahead with the commercialisation of GM, it will put our seed purchases and chemicals under corporate control and it will be another nail in the farming coffin. I am planning to drive my tractor all the way from Pembrokeshire to London to join the Tractors and Trolleys Parade to draw attention to our concerns".

Friends of the Earth regional campaigner Mike Birkin, who is cycling from Land's End, said: "I want to express the wishes of a diversity of people who want to produce and consume food with respect for nature and ethics. This choice could be denied us because of the machinations of a handful of very unscrupulous, very rich corporations and a prime minister who appears unwilling to listen."

Rowan Tilly from Brighton, who is travelling to London from Herefordshire, said: "I am bound on a pilgrimage to a GM free Britain.  A journey to bear witness to the land that has already been contaminated by crops, engineered out of greed and delusion.  A journey to celebrate the communities of resistance that have sprung up in response, wherever GM crops have been planted."

[1]  For more information go to www.tractorandtrolley.com
[2] Pilgrims' itineraries and biographies are available from the press office at Friends of the Earth.

Press Office  020 7566 1649

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