Bogus commercialisation?/What the science says - BBC/What Beckett actually said (9/3/2004)

Things may not be quite as grim as they seem with regard to GM Chardon LL maize commercialisation in the UK.

Carwyn Jones for the Welsh Assembly Administration has refused consent for Chardon LL to go on the National Seeds List "until the changes sought to the Part C consent are agreed with our European partners."

From what Margaret Beckett has indicated - see item 3 - this will involve future commercial growing involving exactly the same ineffectual (in agronomic terms) herbicide regime as used on the GM maize in the FSE programme.

Dr Brian John tells us that, "It is very unlikely that Bayer or the farmers will want to do this -- so I think this might be the end of the matter. This was one of the scenarios I was hoping for -- Beckett sounding conciliatory and saying things for the Americans (and her boss) to hear, and Carwyn acting as the bovver boy.  Presumably Scotland will take the same line."

In other words the Environment Secretary may have been boxed into a corner where the Government can only give Bush the headlines he wants to see - Brits approve GM! - without it actually leading anywhere in the foreseeable future.

1.Devinder Sharma on UK commercialisation
2.GM crops: What the science says
3.What Margaret Beckett actually said +  a few GM Watch comments!

1.Devinder Sharma on UK commercialisation

This is sad news.

The more I look around, the more I realise that the approval for GM crops is coming from those government that represent only the industry. GM crops is being promoted by a corrupt science, and endorsed by corrupt governments. GM crops is a weapon to exploit global hunger for the sake of profit of multinational corporations. GM crops, coming attached with strong intellectual property rights, is a powerful weapon to take control over the food chain. In return for the favour, these corporations finance the political parties in power.

Approving GM crops, and that too in the face of all the opposition from the people and from science, only goes to establish how corrupt -- morally, scientifically and financially -- governments have become.

Devinder Sharma

2.GM crops: What the science says
By Alex Kirby
BBC online

The UK government has defied fierce public opposition in deciding to allow GM maize to be grown commercially.  It says it bases its decision on sound science, and promises it will judge all GM crops on a clear case-by-case basis.

But the scientific argument for letting this particular maize crop be grown is so qualified it is open to challenge.

And anti-GM groups, insisting there will never be a case for growing the crops in the particular conditions that apply in the UK, will challenge it.

The first problem stems from the tests conducted on genetically modified maize, beet and oilseed rape, known as the farm-scale evaluations.  The GM maize, unlike the other two crops, outperformed similar fields of unmodified varieties: because it let more weeds flourish, it was judged friendlier to wildlife than conventional maize.

But the chemical used on the conventional crop was atrazine, soon to be banned across the European Union.

Knowledge gathered

There is now debate over how much of its apparent advantage the GM variety would keep when compared with unmodified fields treated with atrazine's less virulent replacements.

More damning than that is the fact that the tests themselves were very limited in scope.

They did not try to see whether genes could flow from GM plants to other crops, or whether their pollen would spread, or what effect they might have on soil organisms.

All they tested was the impact on food sources for wildlife.

And even then the tests did not reveal anything about the nature of genetic modification itself. They showed simply the impact of treating particular crops with specific pesticides in carefully monitored conditions.

Ministers never suggested there should be any tests to see whether GM crops could affect human or animal health, despite the earlier concerns of the British Medical Association.

They relied on the experience of other countries which have found no evidence of harm. That allows their opponents to say absence of evidence is far from evidence of absence.

Sceptical nation

And recent reports from the Philippines of people living near GM crops suffering respiratory problems, although they remain unconfirmed, will fuel the fears of GM technology.

The government did want to build up a persuasive case for GMs. But some commentators will argue its efforts have been lacklustre, leaving many questions unanswered.

Despite that, there may still be many arguments in favour of GM technology. What is not clear is that it should be used in the UK, where space is limited and the chance of gene-spread is higher than in, say, North America.

Even there, low-level contamination of ordinary crops is reported to be widespread. Its proponents say gene-spread will happen but will not matter.

Britain has in recent years developed a distrust of science; we have become risk-averse, not altogether without reason (remember mad cow disease?). And many people, judging by the opinion polls, believe science still has some way to go to prove GMs are risk-free.

Secretary of State Margaret Beckett's statement on GM policy
DEFRA, 9 March 2004

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the government's approach to the technology of genetic modification including its use in  crops.

2. The tool of GM has been used for at least 10 years across the world in the production of food and medicines - both human and animal.

3. In the UK only a handful of foods have been approved for use - GM soya and tomato puree and some forms of maize - the first two approved under the previous administration and the maize in 1997 and 1998. At present NO GM crop has all the approvals needed for commercial cultivation in the UK.

4. Decisions as to what can be consumed or grown in the EU as a whole have been taken throughout by member states collectively under a regime of safety testing, monitoring and control which itself dates back ten years.

5. This legal framework has recently been substantially strengthened, and that much strengthened regulatory regime came into effect in the UK last year. It is firmly based on the precautionary principle as applied on a strictly case-by-case basis. Every GMO for which authorisation is sought must receive a comprehensive prior assessment of any potential risk to human health or the environment.

6. In 1998 this government decided to go further. We were advised by English Nature of their concern about the effect of current GM herbicide-resistant crops on biodiversity. It was agreed that farm-scale trials would be conducted to assess these risks. Those trials were largely completed and reported by the end of last year, and their results referred to our independent advisory committee for their assessment.

7. In the meantime another advisory committee had advised the government to fund an independently-run public debate or dialogue on GM issues.

8. I accepted that advice and in May 2002 announced that the government and the devolved administrations would sponsor such a dialogue with three strands - the debate itself, a thorough review of the science, and an economic cost and benefit study by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit.

9. The public dialogue reported general unease about GM crops and food and little support for early commercialisation of GM crops. People already engaged with the issues were generally much more hostile. Those not so engaged were more open-minded, anxious to know more, but still very cautious and it was suggested that as they learned more their hostility deepened.

10. The costs and benefits study concluded that the GM crops currently available offer only some small and limited benefits to UK farmers, but that future developments in GM crops could potentially offer benefits of greater value and significance even in the United Kingdom.

11. The Science Review concluded that GM is not a single homogeneous technology and that applications should continue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

12. It reaffirmed that there are some gaps in scientific knowledge and in particular that it is important that the regulatory system is kept under review so that it keeps pace with any new developments. But it concluded that there was no scientific case for ruling out all GM crops or products.

13. It examined all the concerns generally raised [in a safety section written by a Monsanto scientist]. In particular it reported no verifiable ill-effects from extensive human and animal consumption of products from GM crops over 7 years [ie they're not dropping like flies in North America and it would be impossible to prove anyway given that GM products are unlabelled!], and it concluded too that current GM crops were very unlikely either to invade the countryside or to be toxic to wildlife. The most important environmental issue identified was indeed the effect on farmland wildlife which was the subject of our extensive trials - the largest carried out in the world.

Our independent advisers have now reported to us on these trials [and the Commons Environmental Audit committee, having considered their advice and heard from the advisory committee chairman, found their advice totally unconvincing and unanimously advised the government commercialisation could not be justified] and on the basis of that advice and having consulted the Devolved Administrations, I have concluded that:

- the UK should oppose the commercial cultivation of the relevant varieties of GM beet and oilseed rape anywhere in the European Union using the management regime tested in the Farm-Scale Evaluations

- but that we should agree in principle to the commercial cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant maize, but only subject to two further important conditions:

- first, that restrictions should be imposed on the existing EU marketing consent, which expires in October 2006, so that this maize can only be grown and managed as in the trials, or under such conditions as will not result in adverse effect on the environment.

- and second, in response to concerns which have been raised about the phase-out of atrazine in the European Union, that the consent holders should be required to carry out further scientific analysis to monitor changes in herbicide use on conventional maize and to submit new evidence if they seek to renew the existing EU marketing consent when it expires in 2006.

14. Before commercial cultivation of GM maize can proceed separate approval will also be required under seeds legislation, and also under pesticides legislation for the associated herbicide use. Chardon LL will not be added to the UK National List of seeds until the necessary amendments to the EU marketing consent are in place. We also anticipate that coexistence measures will be in place before any GM crops are grown commercially, and I do not in fact anticipate any commercial cultivation of GM maize before spring 2005 at the earliest.

      15. The Farm-Scale Evaluations also raised much more far reaching questions about crop management and the environment, questions which, incidentally reinforce the value of the case by case approach. There was no blanket difference between GM and non-GM crops. The trial crop with the 'best' results for the environment was a conventional crop. The one which was 'worst' was also a conventional crop [which had a now banned chemical used on it!].

16. Yet we have nothing like the influence over the growing and management of conventional crops that we have over GM, even though the effects may be just as far-reaching. And we are giving very careful consideration to these issues.

      17. I believe the approach I have outlined today is the right one. It is precautionary. It is evidence-based. In practice it means licensing one application, which runs till October 2006, and is subject to two further conditions.

      18. Apart from the scientific decisions which flow from the trials there is the related issue of GM and non-GM crops being grown in the same area - so-called coexistence. And the AEBC has recently produced advice on this issue.

      19. I propose that, as the AEBC advise, farmers who wish to grow GM crops should be required to comply with a code of practice based on the European Union's 0.9% labelling threshold, and that this code should have statutory backing.

      20. There are particular concerns of course for organic farming to which the Government has much increasing funding and to which we remain committed. The AEBC argued for a lower threshold for organic farming but could not agree on a figure. We will explore further with stakeholders whether a lower threshold should be applied on a crop-by-crop basis.

      21. I will also consult stakeholders on options for providing compensation to non-GM farmers who suffer financial loss through no fault of their own. But I must make 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. [the GM sector says it will not fund such a scheme]

      22. The Government will also provide guidance to farmers interested in establishing voluntary GM-free zones in their areas, consistent with EU legislation.

      23. Mr Speaker, this is a difficult issue bedevilled by confusion. There are many legitimate concerns - concerns about gene stacking, cross pollination, and much else. Reports which combine comment on all of these matters can be misleading.

      24. People worry that a GM crop could affect wild relatives and hence the gene pool. Maize (which is the crop we are prepared to licence) has no wild relatives in the UK. It is highly unlikely that any stray remaining plant or seed would survive a winter here to raise concerns about a subsequent crop. Equally there is very little organic maize grown here. So many of the concerns usually raised do not apply. This reinforces the value of a case-by-case approach.

      25. Some GM crops are already used though not grown here for animal feed. Several GM veterinary medicines are in use and much vegetarian cheese is produced using a GM processing aid.

      26. There is no scientific case for a blanket approval of all the uses of GM. Safety, human health and the environment must remain at the heart of our regulatory regime and rigorous and robust monitoring must be maintained.

      27. But equally there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of genetic modification. I know of no one who argues, for instance, that the GM tool alone can solve the problems of the developing world [obviously hasn't read Florence Wambugu]. But it is less than honest to pretend, especially against a background of climate change, that GM has not the potential to contribute to some solutions.

      28. This too was part of the outcome of the public dialogue. I thank those who ran it and those who took part. From that process and many other attempts to assess public opinion, it is clear that most people believe that the use of genetic modification should be approached with caution [a majority said they didn't want it in any circulmstances!]. They want strong regulation and monitoring and in addition farmers want a framework of rules for coexistence of GM and non-GM crops, and customers want a clear regime for traceability and labelling so that they can make their own choices. I believe the rules we now have and those which we shall put in place in the months ahead meet these criteria as well as being soundly based on the scientific evidence before us.

29. I commend this approach to the House.

Page published: 9 March 2004

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