|Source of error on GM crops returning to Britain (19/9/2007)|
1.Source of error
1.Source of error
The front page of Monday's Guardian announced firmly "Return of GM: ministers back moves to grow crops in the UK". The story alleges that ministers have suddenly decided we will all love GM crops and want them grown in the UK. This is nonsense.
It is based on an anonymous briefing by one individual, who, because he or she is described as being "a senior government source" (code for a civil servant) is not actually a minister at all. The story by the Guardian's science correspondent neatly coincides with the departure of one of the government's longest standing pro-GM campaigners, Professor Howard Dalton, who finishes his job as the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' chief scientist this week. I've no idea if Howard Dalton is the Guardian's source. But the story certainly contains enough pro-GM fantasy and inaccuracies to indicate that it came from someone inside the government with a very strong desire to impose GM on the British public, and maybe even a burning resentment that they have so far miserably failed to do so.
For example, the anonymous source of the story is quoted as saying that it is a fact "that some GM crops can produce higher yields in more difficult climatic conditions". I know of no published science that supports this assertion. Indeed, some years ago, the US government's strongly pro-GM department of agriculture said that existing GM crops had not increased yields. As for "difficult climatic conditions", the only evidence we have is that some GM crops have done particularly badly when stressed, for example by drought. Genetically engineered cotton has gone brittle and lost its cotton buds when subject particularly dry and hot weather. The article also claims that the small-scale trial of GM potatoes currently under way in the UK "could lead to the potato being the first in a line of GM crops grown in the UK". Again, absolutely no evidence is produced for this assertion. In fact, every large-scale buyer of potatoes, in both North America and the UK, has said for many years now that they would not countenance buying GM potatoes. That's true, for example, of McCain's in the US and McDonald's in Europe. The GM potato trials are even opposed by the body representing British potato farmers, the British Potato Council. The article says that GM crops were barred by supermarkets "such as Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer" - in fact GM was, and still is, barred by all supermarkets, in response to their customers' views.
What the article omits to say is as telling as what is included. For example, we are told that in 2004 GM crops fell foul of "poor public relations". No mention that this was the result of the government-sponsored "GM debate", organised by the scrupulously neutral (because it contained strong scientific representation from both the pro- and anti-GM camps), government appointed, Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission. The source says this was a "bad public consultation", presumably because it did not deliver the answer the source wanted. How inconvenient of the public! The article says that GM potatoes are modified to resist blight: "the fungus that devastated Ireland's potato crop and caused famine back in the 1840s". No mention of the surely relevant fact that these trials came to the UK because they were banned in Ireland. We are also told that the field scale trials of GM "assessed their impact on the environment" - but there is no mention of the important fact that the results showed that most of the crops trialled had even more negative effects on farmland wildlife than the industrial crops they were compared to.
Reading this nonsense left me with two questions. First, how on earth could the Guardian give over its front page to a story based on the musings of one anonymous source, claiming to speak on behalf of ministers but clearly not a minister? Second, how many other commercial products could expect to get a huge plug on the front page of a national newspaper on the basis of one anonymous briefing? If some unnamed person working in or "close to" the government rang up the Guardian science correspondent and told them that ministers had decided that Sir Clive Sinclair's C5 electric three-wheeler was needed in the UK to help combat climate change, would the product get a front page free ad? I know the Guardian likes to wind up its anti-GM readers, but in future I really think it should have a bit more evidence to back up a free plug for Monsanto's and BASF's products.
2.Britain losing out on GM crops, says expert
GM crops: Your questions answered
Professor Sir Howard Dalton, chief scientific advisor to the Department for the Environment, told the Daily Telegraph that developing GM produce would bring enormous environmental benefits.
He spoke out after a Government source reignited the whole debate by saying that the introduction of GM crops was not a question of "whether" but "how".
Moves to grow GM crops have proved hugely controversial and in 2004, mindful of the public concern, the Government announced no GM crops would be grown in the "foreseeable" future.
But now Prof Dalton claimed the public was now broadly supportive of GM crops.
No such crops are currently grown in Britain but Defra - the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - has said that they could conceivably be produced from 2009 onwards.
Only one GM crop, a form of maize, is approved for use in Europe, and even that is only grown in Spain.
The USA and developing countries such as India and China, along with some South American countries, are all way ahead of Britain in adopting the technology.
Prof Dalton said: "We are being left behind. Most companies have gone to the United States or China.
"Having developed the science in the UK we are losing out in the development and utilisation of it. Farmers in the US are benefiting significantly from this - their yields are dramatically improved."
Prof Dalton, who was part of a committee that produced a report on the health effects of GM four years ago, said that public opinion had been affected by the use of the term "genetic modification".
He said that standard crops such as oats and barley now had higher yields compared to centuries ago because of breeding techniques and said GM was merely a speeding up of this process.
Prof Dalton, who is stepping down at the end of the month to return to Warwick University, said the public would support GM once the benefits became clear.
"If people go the petrol station and have a choice between buying ethanol at 50p a litre and gas a 99p a litre it;s obvious which one they would choose. If they see it benefitting them they will accept it."
The environmental advantages would also sway people, he said.
"We can generate GM plants that have low water requirements, low nutrient requirements and are resistant to a variety of pesticides.
"You can use far fewer pesticides which makes a significant difference to workers and the environment," he said.
A year ago the Government announced the circumstances under which GM plants could be grown in Britain, with farmers only having to notify neighbours of their intentions if they were as little as 35 metres (38yds) away in the case of oil seed rape. The effects of GM pollen can be measured over a kilometre (0.6 miles) away.
The combination of European Union opposition to GM and the time it would take to gain approval for GM crops means that none are likely to be grown here commercially until at least 2009 and probably later.
However, the Government has sought to move the issue back up the political agenda.
A source told the Guardian: "GM will come back to the UK. The question is how it comes back, not whether it's coming back."
The source added: "The ability to have drought resistant crops is important not only for the UK but for other parts of the world.
"And the fact that some GM crops can produce higher yields in more difficult climatic conditions is going to be important if we're going to feed the growing world population."
Dr Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council which represents biotech companies, echoed concerns that Britain was lagging behind other countries.
"Ten million farmers around the world are benefitting from this - 9m in developing countries. This tehcnology is going on without the European Union and clearly Europe and the UK is falling behind. If we are serious about food security and biofuel security and serious about climate change we should not put technology like this to one side," he said.
However, the Soil Association, the main campaigners for organic food in Britain, poured scorn on fresh moves to introduce GM crops.
Lord Melchett, policy director, said: "Everyone knows it definitely won't happen. If you take genetically modified potatoes, Walkers crisps and McDonald's, who buy large volumes of potatoes, won't have anything to do with it.
"Unless someone is prepared to come out of the GM closet it's not worth taking seriously. No actual GM crops have yielded more than normal crops."
A Defra spokesman said: "GM technology is not wholly good or bad and the only sensible approach is to consider GM crops on a case-by-case basis.
"Each proposed crop will go through a detailed risk assessment that involves careful scrutiny by independent scientists - not only here but throughout the EU."