Melchett on Blair's contaminated legacy (24/7/2006)

Blair's contaminated legacy
GM crops are well past their sell-by date. So why does the prime minister remain such a fan? The Guardian, July 24 2006

Does this sound vaguely familiar? The prime minister has decided that the UK should side with President Bush and US interests on an issue that is deeply unpopular with the British people. He is out of step with most EU governments. However, he is sure that he is right, and that he understands Britain's long-term interests, and he has a higher duty to take this line. He seems to relish the fact that he faces strong public opposition. Since Tony Blair took this stand (in this case in 1999), none of the benefits he then confidently predicted have happened. In fact, many of the negative consequences predicted by his opponents have emerged.

Back in 1999, the Soil Association had a meeting with the prime minister to discuss GM food, and the threat it posed to organic farming and food. The prime minister listened, accepted that there was widespread public opposition to GM food, but insisted that GM food would become a major part of the British economy in a few years time. Indeed, the future success of the British economy could rest on the "genetic revolution", and GM food would be the norm in five to 10 years time. So he had a duty as prime minister to be in favour of it, even if the British people were against.

Since then, despite receiving huge amounts of public research funding, GM crops have contributed nothing to the UK economy. More and more scientific evidence of the risk to human health posed by genetic engineering has emerged. http://www.soilassociation.org/web/sa/saweb.nsf/848d689047cb466780256a6b00298980/94dada85ebee057180257194005ca7d0!OpenDocument

The British people have overwhelmingly rejected GM food, and none is sold in the UK. It is clear that GM has no part to play in the future of British food and farming.

In the United States, where four GM crops are widely grown, the agricultural industry has lost almost all of its $300 million annual maize export market to Europe due to widespread GM contamination. The widely predicted "superweeds" (GM crop varieties that stack up resistance to two or more weedkillers and seed themselves to become hard-to-kill weeds) have indeed emerged as significant problems. Spray use fell initially, but climbed back up to deal with the spread of weeds and insects resistant to the sprays used on the GM crops. No increase in yields has been achieved, and some crops have failed. US taxpayers' subsidies for the main GM crops have grown significantly. US and Canadian farmers have seen the light and stopped the introduction of what was to be the next major GM crop (wheat). GM contamination of the non-GM crops where GM varieties have been grown (maize, oil seed rape, soya and cotton) is ubiquitous, and has led to an increase in the area of GM cropping.

However, no significant GM cropping takes place outside the three countries that were first to adopt GM - the US, Canada and Argentina. China, widely predicted by the pro-GM lobby as a danger because they would "overtake" the west in GM technology, actually reduced their area under GM crops by 11% last year.

The prime minister is promoting a technology that is well past its sell-by date, but this does not seem to have dented his conviction that he knows best on GM. Last week, the government published a consultation document on the steps they are proposing to protect non-GM crops (organic and non-organic) from GM contamination. In the past, the government have promised to protect organic farmers from GM contamination.

Indeed back in 1998, Jeff Rooker was a minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, now merged into the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, where since the last reshuffle, Rooker against finds himself a minister. In the House of Commons, on 30th July 1998, he said:

"I accept the argument that genetic modification is not simply speeding up the natural process. It cannot be when genes are mixed from different species. There is some comfort in the regulatory process for medicine which, I admit, is not in place for food and agriculture ... I want to make it absolutely clear that my ministry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will be working with the farming community and representatives of organic farming to ensure that the expansion of organic farming is not compromised by the introduction of genetically modified crops. I might have rambled in my introduction and deviated from my brief, but I want to make it clear that that is the most important sentence that I shall say this evening. I genuinely mean that - those are not words to be put in Hansard and forgotten about; I shall follow through ... All that does not gainsay what I have said about our desire to ensure that the introduction of GMOs on a trial basis, an experimental basis, or even a full-crop basis, in no way damages organic farming. Given the extremely tight public expenditure restrictions to which we are subject as part of our contract with the electorate, it would be stupid for the government to push more money into converting to organic farming while allowing the farmers who take that brave step to be damaged by other actions within the process that I have described."

Even last week the government claimed to recognise that the "introduction of GM crops should take due account of the needs of the organic sector". However, the consultation document shows that the government are not committed to protecting organic food from all GM contamination. They want to allow a 0.9% limit on GM in organic food - if they have their way, nearly 1 in a 100 mouthfuls of organic food could actually be GM. They want this because they are assuming that GM crops will be 'widespread' in the UK. This is a political decision, and basing their policy on this assumption of "widespread" growing of GM requires us to accept inevitable GM contamination of organic farming if GM crops are grown here.

The government's latest proposals in effect threaten the right of all consumers, organic or non-organic, to choose non-GM food. It is outrageous that the market for organic food - which has strong public support and is growing at 30% a year - is being threatened by these proposals to allow GM contamination.

The Soil Association believes that there should be no GM in organic food and we will work to ensure that Soil Association-certified organic food remains GM-free. I hope anyone who agrees with us will respond to this consultation asserting their right to choose GM-free organic food and demanding that the GM contamination limit for organic food should be 0.1% (the lowest reliable level of detection).

What makes GM different from many issues where the government are at odds with the British people is that as long as we have a choice, it is each of us, and not Tony Blair, not George Bush and not Monsanto, who decides what we eat. That is why the campaign for GM, despite the backing of the world's most powerful government and some of the world's most powerful corporations, is failing. Still, it is a depressing thought that if the government sticks to its current policy, the prime minister seems determined that a part of his legacy will be to leave a potentially GM-contaminated country behind him.

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