Open letter to National Farmers' Union on GM policy paper (20/6/2006)

Today, the Council of the UK's National Farmers Union voted on a GM policy paper on 'co-existence' that would pave the way for the introduction of GM crops in the UK and routine contamination of non-GM crops. In response to concerns raised by several NFU and Soil Association farming members, the Soil Association wrote to the NFU President yesterday urging the NFU Council to reject the paper. Their concerns were discussed on the radio on BBC's Farming Today this morning. It will be covered in Farmers Guardian and maybe Farmers Weekly.

Elements in the leadership of the UK's National Farmers Union have long taken an extreme pro-GM position. Its former President - Ben Gill, who is on the Board of the plant biotech institute, the John Innes Centre - was even nicknamed 'Biotech Ben' by the famous satirical magazine Private Eye because of the extremity of his support.

Peter Kendall
National Farmers Union


16 June, 2006

Dear Peter,

Open letter to the NFU President on the NFU’s GM policy paper

The Soil Association has been approached by several of your members, who are deeply concerned about a proposed NFU policy paper on GM, which is being voted on by the NFU Council on Tuesday, 20 June.

Their main objections are that the overall thrust of the paper shows no understanding or sympathy for organic farming and reflects an overtly pro-GM stance. They do not believe that the paper's position on 'co-existence' is representative of the majority of organic farmers. They also disagree strongly with the supporting statement, "many see GM technology as a future part of their organic farming."

As NFU members, they want their representative body to reject this policy paper and instead support their demand that no GM crops should be allowed in the UK if the contamination of non-GM crops organic or other - cannot be prevented.

Having read the paper, the Soil Association agrees with your members’ concerns and is dismayed at its apparent bias and rose-tinted view of GM crops. The paper displays serious ignorance of the realities of GM production, as well as of recent developments in scientific understanding. It appears to be based on a misconceived fear that British farmers are somehow missing out on, "the potential for benefits"; yet fails to mention any of the negative facts of contamination that affect farmers in the few countries that have adopted wide-scale GM production.

For example, in North America, any gains from being able to spray GM crops without restrictions, pale against the major market losses and weed problems now affecting all farmers. Widespread contamination of non-GM crops and the lack of any significant food market for GMOs in Europe resulted in the US losing its $300 million annual export market of maize and Canada losing its C$300 million export market of oilseed rape.

As things stand, British farmers have a significant competitive advantage in the UK market place over producers in GM-growing countries. But if GM crops were grown in the UK, the consequences of contamination of non-GM crops would be far worse than in North America. Yet the NFU paper shows no awareness of these serious issues. All UK supermarkets and most major food manufacturers have non-GM sourcing policies, based on the rejection of GMOs by British consumers. Additionally, European regulations require any food or feed products which are known to contain any amount of GMOs to be labelled ‘GM’ (the 0.9% limit only applies to accidental or unavoidable contamination).

Further, the developing body of scientific research into the effects of genetic engineering is revealing a wide range of unanticipated and highly undesirable biological side-effects (a list of recent research is enclosed).

I cannot understand why the NFU would want to impose the problems posed by this technology on British farmers, rather than taking heed of the clear market signals, growing scientific evidence of risks and strong public antipathy to GM. The NFU’s new leadership is in danger of ignoring the key conclusion of the Curry Commission that UK agriculture must reconnect with the market.

As the leading body representing organic producers and consumers in the UK, the Soil Association completely rejects the NFU’s proposed position on GMOs and organic farming as set out in the paper. Organic farming’s basic principle is that it is based on natural biological processes GM production fundamentally breaches that. Consumers buying organic produce rightly expect it to be free from GM contamination. The integrity of organic farming and the livelihoods of our producers depend on meeting that expectation.

However, it is not just organic farmers, but all farmers who are producing for the existing GM-free markets, who need the strictest controls on GM production to avoid contamination and so loss of sales. That is why the Soil Association believes that the UK co-existence regime must ensure that the maximum contamination level of non-GM crops would be 0.1% - the level of detection widely used by the industry (we are not advocating a 0.1% threshold in the organic regulation the only option regarding organic farming in the paper). In addition, it would be essential that a dedicated liability and compensation scheme were in place.

If the NFU Council approve the proposed policy paper on GMOs, they will be abandoning their responsibility to British farmers in pursuing an outdated and totally unrealistic vision of GM crops. Therefore, I urge the NFU Council to reject this paper.

Yours sincerely,
Patrick Holden


Back to the Archive