No GM please, we are British! / Protesters vow to root out GM crops (27/9/2003)

"The rejection of the GM crops and foods in Britain will soon have repercussions in India, where in the name of foreign investment the multinational industry has managed to seek political patronage for a risky science."

"For an industry, which is being driven out of the rich and industrialised countries, translocation to some of the fast emerging economies and countries like India, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand and Malaysia, among others, remains the only option."
- Devinder Sharma (item 3)

1.Pull together ... protesters vow to root out GM crops - The Guardian
2.The government hopes to dodge the GM issue - The Guardian
3.No GM please, we are British! - Devinder Sharma
1.Pull together ... protesters vow to root out GM crops
John Vidal
The Guardian, Saturday September 27, 2003

Professors, clergymen, politicians and professionals have signed a pledge to pull up any genetically modified crops that may be grown commercially in Britain, according to a new national group that is hoping to get 10,000 people to register their strong disapproval to the government. Buoyed by the 5 to 1 public rejection of the crops recorded in this week's national debate results, Oxford-based group Greengloves said it was hoping to get people to pledge to non-violently pull up the crops or to financially support others who do.

It claims to have signed hundreds of people within days of launching the idea on the internet.  The group, which includes several people who have been acquitted in the courts for damaging trial crops as well as activists from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other organisations, said yesterday that it intended to signal to the government the depth of feeling at the grassroots.

"The idea is to let people register their intentions in advance of a decision being made," said a spokesman yesterday. "The scale of dedicated opposition at the grassroots is enormous".

He added that more than 3,000 people had recently signed a similar pledge in New Zealand. "We would expect to get very many more in Britain." The Agriculture Biotechnology Council, which represents the GM industry, yesterday said that it doubted whether people would actually do anything.

"When are we going to see a commercial GM crop cultivated in Britain? It's a long time away. Some of the heat may have dissipated by then," said an ABC spokesman. "We are opposed to activities and pledges which are issued with little regard for the regulatory process or the law."

More than 50 of the government's trial crops were partly or wholly destroyed by activists, but the industry is hoping that farmers will not be forced to register where they are growing them.

The Greengloves statement says: "If the UK government gives the go-ahead to commercialise the growing of GM crops against the overwhelming wishes of the British public, I pledge to non-violently remove GM crops from the ground or support those who take action to remove GM crops."

The group points to a Mori poll earlier this year which found that only 14% of the British public support GM food.

Four countries - the US, Canada, Argentina and China - grow the overwhelming majority of GM crops.
Genetically modified fudge
Faced by public fears, the government hopes it can dodge the GM issue
Emily Wilson
The Guardian, Saturday September 27, 2003

This summer's public debate on GM crops was a curiously private affair. Unless you are an avid reader of government websites, or a member of an anti-GM group, it's quite likely you had no idea the debate was taking place. Even if you did hear talk of an opening event at Birmingham's NEC, you may have been foxed - the meeting was not listed in the centre's list of upcoming events.

Given the lack of fanfare, it's impressive that 20,000 people turned out to meetings and that 37,000 people filled in questionnaires. But it's no surprise that many of them were already hostile to GM crops. People have accused environmental groups and even the Women's Institute of sabotaging the debate with a flood of foot soldiers, but how else was anyone to hear about what was going on, if not from those groups?

Anyway, the people spoke, and just over half said GM crops must never be grown in this country. Most of the remainder called for delays. Not such a big surprise, given the mix of voters. What was interesting, though, was the response of the focus groups. These were made up of people who had no links with biotech or anti-GM groups, plucked from across the social spectrum and deposited in workshops. After they had spent time learning about GM, their views evolved from uncertainty to concern.

As the official report puts it: "When people in the general population become more engaged in GM issues, and choose to discover more about them, they harden their attitudes to GM. Although they are more willing to accept some potential benefits from GM (especially medical benefits and other advantages for developing countries) they ... express more concern/greater unease about all of the risks ... In particular, the more they choose to discover about GM, the more convinced they are that no one knows enough about the long-term effects on human health."

So what now? Britain's long deliberations over GM crops are almost at an end. We have had the economics review. That found that growing GM crops here would have little, if any, benefit for consumers. As for the risk of driving away the biotech companies, well, most of them have already washed their hands of us. We have also had the public debate, and that produced an equally unenthusiastic response.

But neither exercise was ever going to provide the legal reason the government says it needs to ban GM crops. That reason needs to be proof of a risk to human health or the environment, and if it is to be found, it must come out of the science review, which isn't over yet. The main chunk, a review of the research so far, found no evidence of a risk to human health (although of course we still have no idea of the long-term effects) and no serious risk to the environment, although it did urge caution.

However, we are still waiting for the results of some "field-scale trials". They were commissioned to study the effects on biodiversity of a particular herbicide used with some GM crops. The results, some of which will be published next month, may raise concerns. They may well not, though, and if they don't, we will, according to the official line on the subject, be out of excuses. The EU says we must allow GM crops, and so we must.

It is a genuine pickle for the government, given the results of the public debate, and also the complicated issue of who takes legal responsibility if anything goes wrong - for example, if a non-GM organic farm becomes polluted with GM genes. But the received wisdom is that the voluntary moratorium on commercial growing will be lifted and then, after that, no one will grow any crops anyway. At least, not for a few years, until all the people who have sworn to track down and pull up any GM crops have relaxed their vigilance.

Which is all pretty weedy, really. The government gets out of having to make a decision by wibbling about "EU directives". But no one dares to plant the stuff, at least until the dust has settled, so there will be no big outcry.

You never know, of course: Mr Blair may astonish us. How much does he really need the biotech industry anyway? And would Mr Bush really care if Britain extended the moratorium? Sure, it would annoy Tony's friends in science. But it wouldn't be the first time a PM has shafted his scientist friends. Or stuck a finger up at the EU. And just count those votes, baby...

· Emily Wilson is editor of Life, the Guardian's science supplement

[email protected]
No GM please, we are British!
By Devinder Sharma

Britain has done it. In a historic verdict, the British people have rejected genetically modified crops (GM crops) and foods.

With only 2 per cent of the population saying yes to GM foods, and just another 8 per cent not averse to eating GM foods, an overwhelming percentage of the people who participated in one of the biggest ever public debates in Britain have rejected the modified foods. "The GM Nation" report, based on the response received from more than 37,000 people, has not only 'expressed caution and doubt, but also thorough suspicion and scepticism, and even hostility and rejection'.

The rejection of the GM crops and foods in Britain will soon have repercussions in India, where in the name of foreign investment the multinational industry has managed to seek political patronage for a risky science. Despite public outcry, at least ten States have made available prime land at a throwaway price for a nascent biotechnology industry -- a scandal that is sure to be a hundred times bigger than the infamous Taj Mahal corridor scam in Uttar Pradesh that has invited Supreme Court's ire against the former chief minister, Ms Mayawati.

The British outcry against GM crops is also a clear warning for the Indian agricultural scientists. By not listening to the farmers and the civil society, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) too invites scepticism and scorn about the need and relevance of the direction of research in the world's second biggest public sector research infrastructure. In Britain, agricultural biotechnologists have already begun to flee. Aware of the public's mistrust over a science, which has tragically been allowed to slip into the hands of multinational companies, newspapers report that leading biotechnologists have already left the country searching for greener pastures.

The United States too is faced with almost a similar crisis, with many universities unable to fill the vacancies created by molecular biologists opting for the private sector, already in the thick of a recession. For an emerging workforce of molecular biologists in India, unable to find suitable placements abroad, the GM bubble (unlike the IT industry) has burst even before it grew to a respectable size.

A stream of leading GM crop researchers, reports The Guardian, have quit the country, while others are preparing to leave in the next few months, threatening to damage Britain's world-class reputation in the field. "The really committed people who have underpinned our excellence are moving out and that's a real worry," said Professor Chris Leaver, head of plant sciences at the University of Oxford.

Such is the public hatred for anything associated with genetic manipulation that even the multinational plant biotechnology industry has not been spared. "High-profile GM research companies such as Monsanto, Bayer and Dow have all closed down research facilities in Britain in recent years, drastically diminishing the career prospects of scientists working on GM crops. Only one multinational company, Syngenta, remains", says John Vidal in the Guardian.

The public mistrust against genetic engineering is the outcome of the aggressiveness with which distinguished agricultural scientists joined the multinational industry in blindly promoting an untested and risky technology at the cost of human health and environment. Not realising that the art of public deception cannot last for long, agricultural scientists  -- and that includes the Royal Society in Britain and the National Academy for Agricultural Sciences in India - actually turned into a mouthpiece for the discredited industry.

Scientists (and politicians joined them later) used emotional arguments of eradicating hunger and malnutrition as a justification for introducing modified crops, which actually have nothing to do with hunger. Developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, have been very cleverly forced by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Bank to accept agricultural biotechnology as "the tool for eradicating hunger". And as Dr Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, once said: "Seeking a technological food fix for world hunger may be... the most commercially malevolent wild goose chase of the new century."

The hunger argument continued to flourish and gain ground. As American President George Bush told the June BIO 2003 industry convention, "America and other wealthy nations have a special responsibility to combat hunger and disease in desperate lands". So much so that the United States had actually created a scare of an impending famine in some of the southern African countries in 2002 so as to justify the offloading of GM food grains for which there were no takers.

For an industry, which is being driven out of the rich and industrialised countries, translocation to some of the fast emerging economies and countries like India, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand and Malaysia, among others, remains the only option. Except for South Africa and Egypt, none of the African countries seem suitable because of the absence of an adequate public infrastructure. The focus of the industry therefore is to make the developing countries accept more and more investment in genetic engineering, and at the same time provide markets for the GM products and crops. Such are the high stakes involved that the hunger card still continues to be used with impunity.

No wonder, India is busy preparing a national agricultural biotechnology policy before even ascertaining the national research priorities. Pakistan and Bangladesh have recently been forced to accept genetic engineering as part of a restructuring that is being advised as a pre-condition for financial credit. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and even the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal are being made to accept genetic engineering. Much of the pressure is coming through the donor agencies, which are bringing in development projects weaving in biotechnology and genetic engineering. #

(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Responses can be mailed at: [email protected])

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