UK government ignores science, Parliament and public concerns on GM crops (9/3/2004)

At 12.30 today the Secretary of State for the Environment gave the go ahead for the commercial growing of Bayer's GM maize. This amounts to a declaration of war not just on the British people but all those, particularly in the poor world, faced with the corporate power of the biotech industry backed US.

1.GeneWatch UK Press Release
2.The shape of thing to come
3.FoE press release

GeneWatch UK Press Release
Tuesday 9th March 2004:  For immediate release

Today, the UK Government announced its intention in principle to proceed with GM crop growing in a move which manages to simultaneously ignore:
* its own science review;
* the PM's Strategy Unit assessment of the costs and benefits;
* the House of Commons' Environmental Audit Committee;
* and the 'GM Nation?' public debate.

"The Government has ignored the conclusions of the public debate, had no debate in parliament, and given the biotech industry the benefit of the doubt about scientific uncertainty." said Dr Sue Mayer, GeneWatch UK's Director. "They've betrayed the public's trust, no wonder people are cynical about our political system".

"The Government is behaving very arrogantly with GM crops.  They claim to be taking a scientific approach, but have closed their eyes to the limitations of our knowledge," said Dr Mayer. "The Science Review concluded that the public were not anti-science and that there are gaps in our knowledge about the issues worrying people.  Clearly, the Government is more interested in the profits of the biotech industry than good science. Giving the go-ahead before any rules are in place to deal with contamination or if other things go wrong, shows how little regard the Government has for the public, non-GM farmers or the environment."

"Questions still hang over the GM maize and the FSE results" said Dr. Mayer. "The FSE's have been re-analysed to look at the non-GM trials that didn't used atrazine, but this was only four sites which is a very limited number. If this was a clinical test for a new drug we would go back and do the trials again, our farm wildlife is in such a precarious state we need to be very careful. And farm scale trials are only one part of the GM safety jigsaw."

For further information please contact Sue Mayer on 01298 871898 (office) or 07930 308807


1. The Second Report of the Science Review Panel underlined the rational nature of the public's concerns: "Far from being 'anti-science', there was a strong theme in the Public Debate for further research to be done."  And "[a]n important outcome of the Science Review is that many of the uncertainties and gaps in knowledge it addressed, for example in long-term impacts on health or the environment and the co-existence of GM crops with other crops, coincide with concerns expressed during the Public Debate."  See: www.gmsciencedebate.org.uk

2. One of the conclusions of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit review of the costs and benefits of GM crops was that: "But no procedures can be 100% effective, and there will always be the possibility - however small, or disputed - that some unforeseen (and possibly unforeseeable) adverse impacts to the environment or human health may occur, particularly in the longer-term. The potential irreversibility of some of these impacts also has to be taken into account when considering this possibility". (Field Work. Weighing up the costs and benefits of GM crops. p16)

3. In its conclusions the Environmental Audit Committee stated:  "We are concerned that the GMHT forage maize trials were based on an unsatisfactory, indeed invalid, comparison. It is vital that the Government permit no commercial planting of GMHT forage maize until that crop is thoroughly re-trialled against a non-GM equivalent grown without the use of atrazine." See: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmenvaud.htm

4. The public debate conclusions included that: ".... the general population would prefer caution: commercialisation of GM crop technology should not go ahead without further trials and tests, firm regulation, demonstrated benefits to society (not just for producers) and, above all, clear and trusted answers to unresolved questions about health and the environment" 'GM Nation? The findings of the public debate'.

Western Morning News, 9 March 2004

Twelve cows being fed GM maize die inexplicably, farmer paid compensation, the only available laboratory samples go missing, cow skeletons paraded outside Parliament buildings by Greenpeace protesters.  It’s Germany not here, as yet, and admittedly connected with a different sort of GM maize to the one likely to be approved in the UK.  But there are very good reasons why it could be the UK in a few years’ time.

The present furore over environmental issues related to the very limited field scale trials must be filling the biotech industry with joy.  By entering into nitpicking disputes over the interpretation of so-called scientific but very inadequate trials measuring the effect of GM crops on wild life, they divert attention from the numerous serious questions that remain unanswered.

The classic detective Sherlock Holmes solved one of his cases by drawing attention to the dog that did not bark when it ought to have done. Therefore it is the trials that have not been produced when they should have been that are particularly remarkable.  The most obvious fact is that no trial evidence has been produced of the feeding of the Chardon GM forage maize to ruminant animals, for which it is designed and intended.

The government confirmed on Friday, in answer to a parliamentary question, that no such trial results were available.  The plant breeders once claimed to have spent £600,000 developing the variety.  According to experts feeding trials could have been completed in a year.

You will say "But there must have been some safety tests done for it to pass all those committees".  These committees are filled with experts who nevertheless usually have an interest in promoting biotechnology.  The fact is the Chardon maize made progress before procedures were tightened up to their present standards.  It takes a spectacular level of scientific arrogance to claim that the novel genetic construct in Chardon maize is safe on the basis of tests done in a glass dish with the stomach juices of rats at an abnormal acidity using the genetic construct obtained from rapeseed not the GM maize.  A further small sample of live rats were also fed the rape seed for 14 days when  trials would normally last for 90 days.  This was cited as evidence of proof for the safety of Chardon maize.  In the only trial on farm animals, broiler chickens were fed the GM maize in a badly designed trial where the death rate of the GM fed chickens was twice that of the conventionally fed ones.  Further investigation was clearly called for.

All this information came to light at the hearing to establish whether Chardon GM maize should be approved for the national seed list.  This is the variety which is near to approval for planting in the UK and which was grown in trials near Totnes.  The barrister appointed to hold the hearing was nonplussed when the GM plant breeding company refused to be cross-examined verbally or to cross-examine others.  At the hearing other concerns included instability and unpredictability of the genetic construct and the potential for that part of it called a promoter, the cauliflower mosaic virus stripped of its natural protective coating, to re-combine to form dangerous and novel products.

The plant breeding company seem particularly sensitive to publicity on the toxic nature of glufosinate, which is the herbicide that has to be used with Chardon maize to destroy all other growth.  They took out a legal injunction on the Pesticide Safety Directorate to prevent them releasing information about glufosinate to Friends of the Earth researchers.  This arouses suspicion.  Despite claims by the company that glufosinate is proven safe, suspicion appears to be justified.  Professor Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Sunderland, says of glufosinate "It is difficult to imagine a compound with greater potential threat to human and environmental health than glufosinate".  It has been shown to cause neurological and birth defects, to be particularly harmful to soil microflora and marine life and to be hazardous to water courses.  It is classed as a persistent and mobile contaminant by the US Environment agency. The Dutch Pesticide Board has failed to approve its use on Chardon maize and one US State has set a limit of 20 parts per billion for glufosinate in drinking water.

As a farmer I have spent my life looking over the fence and assessing other farmers’ practices so the experience of growing GM crops for over six years in the US and Canada is particularly interesting.  Independent research shows that, contrary to corporate claims, yields are lower in GM varieties by 5% to 6% except for maize grain, where they were up by 2.5% - insufficient to cover the increased seed costs.  The much-vaunted savings in chemical use did occur in the early years but from year 3 – 6 they have increased steadily overall to well above the original usage level due to predicted development of weed resistance and gene flow.  Indeed the very harmful herbicide atrazine, recently banned in the EU, is now said to be recommended in conjunction with glufosinate in the majority of maize sites in the US.  It was this harmful chemical that the introduction of GM maize was claimed to avoid.

It has become almost impossible to grow GM free or organic crops in many areas.  Corporate power has increased due to the biotech’s purchase of seed companies and availability and improvement of non GM varieties are being phased out.  Due to GM contamination of the land and threat of prosecution by the biotech companies, farmers have frequently resigned themselves to growing GM whilst through their farming unions they plead with governments not to permit the growing of GM wheat to proceed.

Contrary to the impression they would have us accept, the use of science and scientifically established facts has been the provenance of the critics of plant genetic engineering rather than of those promoting it.

Immediate Release: Tuesday 9 March 2004

Friends of the Earth today attacked the Government after it gave qualified approval to the commercial development of GM maize.  The decision ignores the views of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, public opinion and considerable scientific uncertainties [1,2].

The Government today announced that GM maize can be grown in the UK - provided it gets national seed list approval and pesticide approval (see below). It said that the maize, Chardon LL, will have to be grown under strict conditions, with only one application of the pesticide Liberty (Glufosinate Ammonium) being permitted. Friends of the Earth challenged the Government to say how it would enforce this.

The Government also announced a consultation on GM contamination and liability. But it has refused to back a Private Members Bill by Greg Barker MP aimed at addressing this issue, which will get its Second Reading in Parliament later this month [3].

Friends of the Earth's director, Tony Juniper, said

"The Government has given the thumbs up to GM maize, and shown two fingers to the British public.  In demonstrating its pro-GM credentials, the Government has ignored considerable scientific uncertainties, shown contempt to Parliament and utterly disregarded public opinion. Moreover, this crop will be fed to cows to make milk that will not be labelled as GM, thereby making a mockery of official claims that policy will preserve consumer choice. We will now fight this all the way - through the remaining official approval stages and through the market".

GM maize will still need National List approval before it can be added to the 'seed list' and sold to farmers. This requires permission from not only the UK Government, but the devolved governments in Wales and Scotland (Northern Ireland is directly ruled from Westminster at present). The Scottish Parliament and, particularly the National Assembly of Wales, are thought to be reluctant to agree.

Tony Juniper continued "The Welsh and Scottish executives must stand firm on GM. The best way to protect their food and farming from GM pollution is to refuse to allow GM maize to be added to the national seed list."

A background briefing on GM decisions still outstanding is available online at:  http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefing_notes/gm_decisions_2004.html

A briefing on GM fodder maize:  http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefing_notes/gm_fodder_maize.pdf


[1] Last Friday the Environmental Audit Committee urged the Government not to allow GM maize to be commercially grown in the UK. It also called for thorough research into the experience of GM crops in North America.

[2] Last year the Government held a national debate on GM issues called GM Nation? The debate consisted of three elements - a science review, economic assessment and the debate itself. All three strands highlight reasons why GM crops should not be given commercial approval.  Economics: A report by the Government's Strategy Unit on the 11 July, concluded that public refusal to eat GM food means that there is little economic value in the current generation of GM crops, and that continuing public opposition would also affect their long-term future.

 Science:: The science review, led by Professor Sir David King (the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser), and published on 21 July, raised serious questions about significant gaps in our scientific knowledge on the potential impacts GM food and crops on our health and the environment.

 GM Nation and public opinion: More than half (54 per cent) said they never want to see GM crops grown in the UK. A further 18 per cent would find GM crops acceptable only if there was no risk of cross-contamination, and 13 per cent wanted more research before any decision was made. A mere two per cent said that GM crops were acceptable "in any circumstances" and only eight per cent were happy to eat GM food (86 per cent were not).

[3]  Greg Barker's Bill would introduce separation distances between GM and non-GM crops, and provide strict liability (and liability funds) to ensure that if organic or conventional crops suffer GM contamination, those affected can be compensated. Parliament will debate the Bill on 26th March 2004.

Pete Riley, GM campaigner, 07712 843 210 (m)
Neil Verlander, Press Office, 020 7566 1649/ 07712 843 209 (m)

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