Return of GM: ministers back moves to grow crops in UK (16/9/2007)

1.Return of GM: ministers back moves to grow crops in UK
2.The GM years: raids, reviews and a princely protest


1.Return of GM: ministers back moves to grow crops in UK
Climate concerns will reduce chance of new public backlash, says industry
Alok Jha, science correspondent
The Guardian, September 17 2007

Government ministers have given their backing to a renewed campaign by farmers and industry to introduce genetically modified crops to the UK, the Guardian has learned.

They believe the public will now accept that the technology is vital to the development of higher-yield and hardier food for the world's increasing population and will help produce crops that can be used as biofuels in the fight against climate change.

"GM will come back to the UK; the question is how it comes back, not whether it's coming back," said a senior government source.

Attempts to introduce GM to Britain in the late 1990s met a wave of direct action from activists tearing up crops. At the same time supermarkets such as Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer barred GM ingredients from their ranges for fear of provoking a consumer backlash.

In 2004, the government announced that no GM crops would be grown in the country for the "foreseeable future", prompting Lord Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association to declare: "This is the end of GM in Britain."

Recent polls also revealed that about 70% of the European public remained opposed to GM foods.

However, ministers are confident that the technology's virtues will be more apparent this time because of increased public awareness of pressing environmental concerns.

"The ability to have drought-resistant crops is important not only for the UK but for other parts of the world," said the source. "And the fact that some GM crops can produce higher yields in more difficult climactic conditions is going to be important if we're going to feed the growing world population."

Ministers are reluctant to publicly back the effort at this stage, admitting that a previous attempt to introduce GM crops to the UK in 2004 fell victim to poor public relations. "We had a bad consultation on GM and it set research back in the UK a very long way indeed," the source added.

In that year, scientists published the results of several field scale trials of GM crops, which assessed their impact on the environment. Although the technology was subsequently cleared by the government, biotech companies in the UK decided to lie low after backlashes from the media, NGOs and consumers.

But industry attempts to reverse the situation are now gathering momentum. Earlier this year, the plant science company BASF began field trials in Cambridge and Yorkshire of a potato that has been genetically modified to resist blight, the fungus that devastated Ireland's potato crop and caused the famine of the 1840s. A successful result could lead to the potato being the first in a line of GM crops grown in the UK.

"We have absolutely every confidence that GM will be used in the UK," said Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, which represents several major biotechnology companies that produce GM crops.

"It's worth remembering that there are approximately 100m hectares (247m acres) of GM crops being grown around the world by about 10 million farmers. There is absolutely no question at all that this is technology that is being seen to work in other countries and why on earth would you not want to be interested in the UK?"

Farmers have been lobbying ministers over a way to bring back GM technology. Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), has written to ministers asking them to have a national debate to highlight the benefits.

Helen Ferrier, chief scientist at the NFU, said: "We have written to ministers on various topics related to GM - including the more general issues of we've got to look at this more sensibly and try and have a conversation about it based on what's happening and not on emotions and what happened five years ago."

Environment groups accused the government yesterday of putting industry wishes above the concerns of the public. "Unfortunately the public and media have thought we've won the battle and GM's gone away and people aren't really worrying about it at the moment. It certainly hasn't gone away," said Clare Oxborrow, a GM campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Graham Thompson, of Greenpeace UK, said the government still saw GM as a public relations issue. "The population has comprehensively rejected GM in the UK and over most of Europe so they're constantly having to be as bullish as possible.The purpose of the crops primarily is to give intellectual property rights to biotech companies. They're fulfilling their purpose perfectly in those terms. But they're not really doing much for the farmer."

But Mr Little said environment campaigners had misled the public into fearing GM. "All of the suggestions that they've made about the horrible things that could happen, nothing's happened."

He pointed to Australia as a place where public opinion on GM technology was turned around. "There's a country that has gone through the moratoriums, has gone through the we're-not-sure, the NGOs have been in there and caused mayhem, and come out the other end saying this is a useful technology and the public support it."

"There is no question in our minds that we'll win," said Mr Little. "This is a safe, high-quality technology that's been proven to work."


2.The GM years: raids, reviews and a princely protest
· Widespread concerns led to voluntary moratorium
· Study highlighted risks to farmland wildlife
Ian Sample, science correspondent
The Guardian, September 17 2007

Dawn was breaking over the Norfolk farmlands when Eddie Brigham steered his tractor into the path of an oncoming mower that had been let loose to damage his six-acre crop of maize.

To the disappointment of 28 Greenpeace activists, the collision crumpled the mower, but the events at Walnut Tree Farm left an indelible mark on the history of anti-GM crop campaigning. The year was 1999 and the raid targeted one of the most controversial experiments Britain has seen: field-scale trials of GM crops.

Eight years on, the government is paving the way for GM crops to be planted once again. Ministers believe that the case has been strengthened by the global food shortage and the need to grow crops for biofuels to combat climate change.

Strong opposition to GM emerged in Britain in the early 1990s as crop varieties created by multinationals such as Monsanto began to clear regulatory hurdles.

Pressure groups seized on the issue and English Nature was worried that herbicides to be used with GM crops would be so effective that they would leave no weeds or seeds for bugs or butterflies on the farmland margins. If they took a hit the knock-on effects further up the food chain could be devastating, they feared.

In 1997 it became clear that GM soya from Monsanto had reached British supermarkets unlabelled, in processed food. A year later the Prince of Wales suggested consumers boycot GM entirely.

In the face of growing opposition, Michael Meacher, then environment minister, negotiated a voluntary moratorium with the GM industry, which agreed not to plant crops until broad farm-scale trials had been carried out to assess the ecological impact. Europe imposed its own moratorium, banning the import or growing of GM crops. In spring 1999 the first GM trial began in Wiltshire.

Before the trials were complete the government commissioned two reviews Sir David King, the chief science adviser, gathered 24 scientists to sift through scientific literature, looking for dangers. The Cabinet Office, meanwhile, conducted a costs and benefits assessment.

In July 2003 the science review concluded that weedkillers posed a potential threat to wildlife and that if GM crops were planted widely throughout Britain traditional and organic farms could become contaminated because GM pollen would carry on the wind. The Cabinet Office report concluded that any benefits for consumers would be minimal.

The government launched a public debate on GM, involving 675 public meetings and nearly 40,000 written responses. The consultation was dominated by groups firmly for or against GM, and found that 86% were unhappy to eat GM and 91% feared for its effects on the environment.

When results from the farm-scale trials were published later in the year they revealed that the powerful weedkillers used with some GM crops led to drops in farmland bees and butterflies.

In 2004 the government approved GM maize for planting, but by this time many biotech companies had scaled down their plans in Britain or pulled out entirely.

But it now appears that the industry was biding its time in the hope that anti-GM sentiment would die down. Last year the German company BASF gained permission for the first GM crop trial in Britain since the government's own Its blight-resistant potato will be planted at two fields as part of a five-year evaluation.


1983 Scientists genetically modify a plant, creating tobacco that is resistant to an antibiotic.

1992 The phrase "Frankenfood" is coined by Paul Lewis, an English professor at Boston College.

1994 The first GM food, the Flavr Savr tomato, is approved in the US.

1996 GM tomato paste arrives on British supermarket shelves.

1999 The field scale trials of GM crops begin across Britain.

2003 Farm scale trials conclude that herbicides used with some GM crops can reduce weeds and seeds for farmland wildlife.

2004 GM maize is approved for planting in Britain.

2006 German biotech firm BASF gets permission to plant blight-resistant GM potatoes at two trial sites in Britain.

2007 Government backs call from industry and farmers to bring GM to Britain.

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