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Green light for GM crop, but rift threatens planting
Government and industry divided over compensation
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Wednesday March 10, 2004
A chasm opened up between the government and the biotech industry yesterday over compensation for conventional and organic farmers should their crops become contaminated with GM material. The disagreement could scupper plans to plant GM maize in Britain.
Giving the go-ahead for the first commercial GM crop in Britain, Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, said GM companies would foot the bill if anything went wrong. The industry says that is not acceptable.
Mrs Beckett said there must be compensation to non-GM farmers who suffered financial loss through no fault of their own. "But I must make it clear that any such compensation scheme would need to be funded by the GM sector itself, rather than by government or producers of non-GM crops," she said.
But Paul Rylott, the head of BioScience UK at Bayer CropScience, which owns Chardon LL, the GM maize given the go-ahead, told the Guardian that the industry would never agree to such an idea. There was no evidence genetic modification was harmful and therefore no grounds for a compensation fund, he said.
"We have not been asked to do anything of the kind anywhere else in the world, we do not intend to start in the UK," he said.
The Agricultural Biotechnology Council, representing the industry, was anxious to avoid an open rift on the day it finally got permission for the first crop after six years of debate and scientific trials. Bernard Marantelli, a spokesman, said if anything went wrong when a GM crop was planted, farmers had normal redress through the law.
"The industry has no intention of setting up a fund in advance, but we are prepared to talk to the government and see if some suitable arrangement can be made," he said.
The government has the summer to develop a system for separating GM crops from conventional and organic crops which satisfies all sides - and to provide compensation if something goes wrong.
Mrs Beckett said the government was determined that no farmer should suffer because a neighbour decided to grow a GM crop.
"It is for the GM companies or the GM farmer to compensate if things go wrong, either through malpractice by the farmer or mistakes by a company," she said.
The Royal Society and government advisers on the issue of liability were clear yesterday that both separation distances between crops and compensation were crucial if GM crops were to be successfully introduced.
With more than 2,000 people vowing to pull up GM crops if they are planted, the government yesterday refused to commit itself on whether the locations of GM maize crops would be published.
Malcolm Grant, the chairman of the Biotechnology Commission, said: "I am concerned that there is no guarantee that the cultivation of GM crops will be delayed until a proper coexistence regime has been finalised, and a compensation system is in place for conventional and organic farmers whose crops are contaminated.
"And the question of liability in the event of environmental damage by GM crops remains unresolved. It is essential that these issues are addressed as a matter of urgency."
Tim Bennett, president of the National Farmers Union, said: "We support the decision by Margaret Beckett to adopt a science-based position on this controversial issue but we ask the government to proceed with caution. Farmers and growers should not be excluded from technologies that have received regulatory and scientific approval, but it is essential that systems are established to allow GM and non GM production to co-exist."
Sarah North, Greenpeace GM campaigner, said: "Who on earth is Tony Blair listening to? He's given the nod to GM maize based on trials that anybody with a passing knowledge of A-level science would be able to tell you were flawed."
Anti-GM movement vows to fight maize approval
Even some normally in favour express doubts as campaigners accuse the government of betraying public trust and threaten direct action
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Wednesday March 10, 2004
Anger at the government's approval for the commercial growing of GM maize and pledges to continue to fight it were widespread yesterday, but biotech companies and some in the scientific community welcomed the decision. The government was accused of ignoring public opinion and some groups promised direct action against the crops.
The director of Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper, said: "The government has given the thumbs up to GM maize, and shown two fingers to the British public. Moreover, this crop will be fed to cows to make milk that will not be labelled as GM, making a mockery of official claims that policy will preserve consumer choice."
Dr Sue Mayer, GeneWatch UK's director, said: "They've betrayed the public's trust, no wonder people are cynical about our political system. The government has ignored the conclusions of the public debate, has had no debate in parliament, and given the biotech industry the benefit of the doubt about scientific uncertainty."
Professor Chris Lamb, director of the John Innes Centre, Norwich, said: "I warmly welcome the government's decision, not least because they have chosen to make policy based on scientific evidence, rather than campaigning rhetoric."
Greenpeace GM campaigner Sarah North warned: "Downing Street should know that there are thousands upon thousands of people ready to fight Tony Blair on this. The end result could be chaos in the countryside during an election year. Today isn't the end - it's just the start of it."
Opposition from political parties was also strong. Ministers in Wales and Scotland have already said they will be as restrictive as possible on GM crops without breaking the law.
At the National Assembly for Wales, the environment minister, Carwyn Jones, said: "We have consistently endorsed taking the most restrictive approach possible to the growing and commercialisation of GM crops within current UK and EU legislation.
The shadow agriculture secretary, John Whittingdale, said: "The government has chosen to ignore its own consultation process which demonstrated that 90% of public opinion was against the growth of GM produce."
Even the normally pro-GM Royal Society was cautious. It said long-term monitoring of the environmental impact must be undertaken urgently.
The National Farmers' Union has always been in favour of farmers being allowed to grow GM crops. But yesterday its president, Tim Bennett, said: "The farming industry, as always, will strive to provide a safe and diverse choice for the consumer, but it is important to develop measures to protect businesses that choose not to explore the GM option."
Sir David Carter of the British Medical Association also struck a note of caution. "Our assessment ... is that there is very little potential for GM foods to cause harmful health effects. However, the BMA recognises the huge public concern over the impact of GM foods and believes that research is still needed in key areas."
Professor Jules Pretty of the government's advisory committee on releases to the environment, who chaired the body set up to evaluate the three years of GM crop trials, said: "This decision by government correctly shows that GM crops should be treated on a case by case basis.
"This particular GM, herbicide-tolerant maize, is better for wildlife than its conventional equivalents, and given no other concerns, risks to consumers or the environment, the scientific community has concluded that it should be made available to farmers."
Major stumbling blocks remain
Although GM maize was given the go-ahead in 1997, all the necessary consents for it to be grown have still to be given.
· Spring 2004 First the seed itself, a GM maize variety known as Chardon LL, has to be added to the national seed list as suitable for growing. This could be a formality, but the Scottish and Welsh administrations have to agree and have not yet done so.
The patented herbicide that is sprayed on the maize also has to be given formal approval for commercial use.
The government has developed a proposed regime for separation distances between crops, to avoid cross pollination or contamination. It has also to come up with an idea to compensate any conventional or organic farmers who lose financially because of contamination by GM crops.
This is a major stumbling block.
· Summer 2004 In the summer a new public consultation exercise will take place on both the separation distances and the compensation regimes needed before crops can be planted. Proposals on how to legally enforce these will be developed.
· December 2004 The government is to announce the results of scientific and public consultation on separation and compensation schemes.
· January/February 2005 Legislation to give statutory backing to a regime for growing GM crops, including protection for conventional and organic farmers who suffer as a result. GM farmers and the companies will be made liable for malpractice and monitoring.
· Spring 2005 (at the earliest) GM maize could be planted - if all the above goes according to plan and does not get delayed by legal challenges from organic farming organisations and environmental groups.
· Spring 2006 The latest that GM maize can be planted before its licence runs out in October 2006. The government says it will have to reapply for a new licence. New trials take place to assess whether GM maize is better or worse than conventional maize for the environment, and whether more weeds and insects survive in the fields. By then atrazine, which is currently used to treat conventional maize, will have been phased out and a less damaging alternative will be in use.
Misappliance of science
Wednesday March 10, 2004
There is, the environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, told parliament yesterday, "no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of genetic modification". Even if that were true - and it is a contentious claim - the government and the pro-GM lobby have failed to win over the public in significant numbers, partly because the scientific evidence is mixed. Take, for example, the review of GM science commissioned by the government, published in July 2003. It stated, among other things, that "the absence of readily observable adverse effects does not mean that these can be completely ruled out" in the case of GM foods. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but then serious scientific research tends not to dissolve easily into simplistic sound bites.
Successive governments have too often relied upon the imprimatur of science to win support for controversial policy ends, or simply to avoid embarrassment. The examples of BSE and human variant-CJD are fresh in the collective memory. As a result, claiming unalloyed scientific support for the planting of GM crops is unlikely to be persuasive - especially if the government is also seen to be twisting the arms of its supposedly objective scientific advisers.
One of the authors of the July 2003 GM review was Sir David King, the government's chief scientific adviser. In January this year Sir David wrote an article for the respected journal Science, in which he stated: "In my view, climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism." This is a controversial claim, but Sir David had every right to make it as a distinguished scientist, being a fellow of the Royal Society and a professor of chemistry at Cambridge University.
The government's reaction, however, has been less than distinguished: the prime minister's principal private secretary wrote to Sir David, ordering him to avoid media interviews, and characterising the issue as "a sterile debate". Fortunately, Sir David seems to be made of sterner stuff, and promptly appeared on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday - a branch of the media he was specifically warned to avoid.
Sir David was right to say: "I don't believe we can keep the public on our side if it's not understood by the public that our scientists are prepared to go out and say what they mean." If the government is willing to try and muzzle a leading scientific adviser to stop a mildly inconvenient debate, then the public will rightly be wary of ministers playing "science" as a trump card.
Sowing the seeds of discord
Wednesday March 10, 2004
George Monbiot (Starved of the truth, March 9) says the Nuffield Council on Bioethics cites Golden Rice as a miracle cure for global hunger. We make no such claim. Whether or not the rice will help in reducing vitamin A deficiency willdepend on further scientific assessment. It is too early to say the approach will fail, particularly as the need being addressed is an urgent one.
What matters is to find solutions that best improve health and agriculture in developing countries in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way. GM crops may well have a contribution to make, as we have described in a recent discussion paper, and there is an ethical obligation to explore the potential benefits responsibly.
We share concerns that commercial firms which own intellectual property rights could have undue influence over the availability of GM crops. Access to this technology and the plant breeding material is crucial for further research. But the example of Golden Rice, with a successful collaboration between indus try and public sector, shows that patented technologies and plant materials need not necessarily be a barrier.
Dr Sandy Thomas
Director, Nuffield Council on Bioethics
For 20 years I have spent a large amount of time Asia, Africa and South America, working on rural development and poverty alleviation for international and national organisations. I have yet to see a situation where problems could be solved by the introduction of GM crops. This premise is used as a convenient justification by GM advocates - their problem is not one of world hunger, but of power and profit to satisfy shareholders.
There are so many solutions which are better and environmentally sustainable, such as multicropping, already used effectively in many countries, where complementary crops are grown together - eg leguminous with non-leguminous crops. Harvesting times may not be the same and so more labour-intensive, but if labour is not a problem, then a labour saving device is not the solution.
Prof ER Orskov
Head of the international feed resource unit, Aberdeen
The experience of the first eight years of GM up to 2003, during which a cumulative total of over 300m hectares of GM crops were planted in 21 countries - has met the expectations of millions of large and small farmers in both industrial and developing countries. Adoption rates for are unprecedented and are the highest for any new agricultural technologies.
Thus it is imperative that creative initiatives be developed that will allow potential beneficiary small countries to have the option to participate in a coordinated initiative, designed to deliver responsible and cost-effective solutions for resource-poor farmers. These countries should not be denied access to new technologies.
Chairman, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
Dick Taverne (Comment, March 3) asks why activists oppose GM crops but not the use of genetic modification in the production of drugs such as insulin.
The two are not comparable. GM insulin is produced in a closed laboratory/factory system. All drugs are subjected to a rigorous testing regime and patients are properly monitored. No such testing has been done for GM foods, nor is there any long-term monitoring of those eating the product.
The growing of GM crops poses potential risks to the environment, as evidenced by the farm-scale trials in the UK. Pharmaceutical GM crops pose a particular hazard, with the potential to introduce drugs into the food chain. The contamination - and subsequent withdrawal - of $2.7m worth of soybeans with Prodigene's pharmcrop GM maize in Nebraska in 2002 should be a warning to all who see GM as the saviour of the world's poor.
Joan Ruddock MP
Lab, Lewisham Deptford
Dick Taverne suggests NGO opposition to GM crops is incomprehensible of the face of scientific advances. Harvest Help, an NGO working with impoverished communities in southern Africa, supports local opposition to GM crops, which is for sound practical and economic reasons. Most farmers with whom we work would be unable to afford expensive GM seed and lack the labour required for such high maintenance crops. Southern Africa is quite capable of feeding itself with support for current technologies. Investment in simple, sustainable agricultural improvement would achieve this at far less cost than more hi-tech solutions.
Acting director, Harvest Help
In Africa, there are ongoing projects to develop weed- and pest-resistant varieties of food crops widely grown and consumed by small farmers. These technologies - many of which do not involve GM - can dramatically improve the livelihoods of millions.
There are numerous other instances of science and technology improving crop yields and livelihoods, many of which do not involve genetic modification. Of course all these new technologies must be subject to stringent testing and strict regulation, but today the biggest risk to the potential being realised is the unreasoning hostility of some NGOs.
Cambridge Economic Policy Associates
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