|Scotland defies Blair/Shocking new evidence of dangers/GM: the closer it gets, the louder the protests (7/3/2004)|
1.GM: the closer it gets, the louder the protests
1.GM: the closer it gets, the louder the protests
It was supposed, in Blairspeak, to provide "closure" for the public debate over GM foods and to allow ministers and the nation to "move on". But this week's much-delayed announcement that the Government favours the first commercial planting of a modified crop in Britain is turning out to be another episode in its long GM nightmare.
Instead of peacefully coasting towards the announcement - scheduled for Tuesday - ministers are spending the weekend desperately trying to rescue it amid objections from almost every quarter. They have had to scale it down to a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of the crop. And if they are unable to overcome resistance from the Welsh and Scottish devolved governments, they may have to emasculate it further.
Senior parliamentarians are furious that the Cabinet agreed to give the green light to the planting of GM maize as they were about to produce a report saying no decision should be taken until more research is carried out. Top civil servants are angry that Downing Street pre-empted the announcement with a leak of the decision on Thursday, in an apparent attempt to spike the parliamentarians' guns.
The British Medical Association (BMA) is expected to issue a report this week reiterating concerns about the effects of GM food on health. A study on the environmental effects of growing the maize - which ministers plan to use to shore up their position - is under attack for being partially based on speculation. And research shows that two-thirds of US conventional crops are contaminated with modified genes.
The leaders of nine organisations representing eight million Britons - including the National Trust and the Women's Institute - have written to the Prime Minister demanding that the decision be postponed. Environmentalists are mobilising to pull up any crops that are planted. And even the GM industry is privately unhappy that it has not fully got its way.
However, the most serious threat to the Government's position is posed by the Welsh and Scottish administrations. Ministers desperately want them on board so that they can make a united announcement that, in principle, growing the maize is acceptable. Even more crucially, by law they have to have their assent before a definite go-ahead can be given to cultivating the GM crop commercially anywhere in Britain.
Both devolved governments are far more sceptical about GM than Tony Blair and his Cabinet. Two weeks ago, Carwyn Jones, the Welsh environment minister, said that Wales took "the most restrictive approach possible within current UK and European legislation". This opposition has already held up an announcement for weeks.
Ministers are putting pressure on both administrations. As a result, they are expected to make new policy statements this week - but it is not yet clear that they will toe the Downing Street line.
Already Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, is planning to give only muted backing in principle to the maize, saying that on the scientific advice available the Government can see no reason not to give it the go-ahead. But unless the Welsh and Scottish administrations can be brought into line she will be forced to weaken the announcement or to make one that applies only to England and Northern Ireland.
Worse, there is no sign that the devolved administrations will agree to approve the planting of the maize, called Chardon LL, and Mrs Beckett is planning to stop short of giving it specific clearance. Instead, she will indicate a further delay by announcing a period of public consultation into the distances that it should be grown from conventional maize to minimise cross-pollination, and into who should compensate non-GM farmers when contamination occurs.
She will also say that the maize will only be grown under tough new conditions that many believe will make it uneconomic. And she will make it clear that the Government wants the industry to meet the compensation bills - which GM companies reject.
Because of all this, no GM maize will be grown this year. Ministers are considering spinning out the consultation process to prevent planting next year and avoid controversy in the run-up to a general election. That would postpone it to 2006, when EU approval for the maize runs out - meaning that it will have to be tested all over again.
However, none of this will satisfy the Government's growing army of critics, which now includes the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. As The Independent on Sunday reported last week, the committee said it would be "irresponsible" to approve growing the maize until another four years of tests had been carried out.
Peter Ainsworth, the committee's chairman, is angry that the Cabinet leaked the Government's decision the day before the committee's report was published.
He also attacked a paper published in Nature last week, which is expected to be cited by Mrs Beckett as evidence that GM maize does less harm to the environment than cultivating conventional crops.
To add to ministers' troubles, the BMA is to report on the potential health risks of GM foods this week, and is expected to raise concerns that they could increase allergies and resistance to antibiotics.
Once the genes spread, there's no stopping them
Back in the autumn of 2000, the United States found to its horror that a GM maize not cleared as safe for human consumption was showing up in food products. Genes from Starlink, a modified crop approved only for animals, which had been planted in only 0.4 per cent of US maize, had spread to food all over the country and got into the seed supply. Despite an immense campaign the authorities have still not been able to eliminate it.
The episode shows how fast and pervasively genes from GM crops can spread, and how hard it is to eliminate them. And this sort of contamination has already occurred in the UK, even before any commercial growing has been approved. A year and a half ago, illegal oilseed rape was found to be growing in British GM trials. The oilseed contained a gene resistant to antibiotics, something that caused particular concern because of fears that people and animals that ate it could develop immunity to these essential drugs.
Dangers to human health from such contamination will increase with the next planned generation of GM crops, which will be modified to produce medicines and industrial chemicals, essentially turning the plants into biological factories. If these genes got into the ordinary food supplies, they could damage the health of people who eat them.
Contamination could also spell ruin for organic farmers, who rely on selling unmodified produce free of chemicals. Once the genes had spread - for example though pollen carried from nearby GM crops - they would no longer be able to sell their food as organic. In time, organic agriculture would become impossible and people would beunable to eat this food, which is growing in popularity.
Contamination also threatens the environment. Genes from crops modified to resist pesticides have already spread to wild relatives, creating superweeds.
And once the genes are out they cannot be recalled, but will go on spreading. Unlike most forms of pollution, genetic contamination is irreversible, as the Starlink experience has showed.
2.Scotland defies Blair and puts block on GM
The Scottish Executive will defy the Blair government by rejecting genetically modified crops, which this week will get the go-ahead in England. After years of not taking sides in one the fiercest environmental arguments of our times, Scottish ministers finally decided against GM crops on Friday. They accepted that the public had not been convinced of the need for GM by the biotechnology industry.
So when UK environment secretary, Margaret Beckett makes her long-awaited announcement this week allowing GM maize to be grown commercially, the Executive will take steps to ensure none is planted north of the Border.
Farmers in the south of Scotland, the only place where the crop can currently be grown, will be asked to create a GM-free zone.
According to sources close to ministers, the Executive has also fought hard behind the scenes to dilute the pro-GM tone of Becketts announcement, expected on Tuesday. The acting environment minister, Allan Wilson, has managed to get a statement included reflecting widespread public opposition to GM.
"Allan Wilson has been able to secure a more sceptical tone in the announcement that is going to be made this week," one well-placed source told the Sunday Herald. "And in the areas in the south of Scotland where GM maize could be grown, we will be proactively approaching farmers to get them to voluntarily declare a GM-free zone."
The Executive believes European law forbids it formally to declare the whole country a GM-free zone. But there is nothing to prevent it encouraging the only region in which GM maize could be grown to declare itself GM-free. That interpretation is confirmed by leaked minutes of the cabinet committee meeting which originally took the decision to approve GM maize on February 11.
"While a GM-free country was neither legally nor practically feasible, there was nothing to stop the government offering advice on the establishment of voluntary GM-free zones," Beckett is quoted as saying.
The Blair government will not permit the commercial growing of two other GM crops, oilseed rape and beet, because they were found to damage wildlife in farm-scale trials over the past three years. Only GM oilseed rape was grown in Scotland, provoking protests and arrests.
The Executive's move was welcomed yesterday by the chief whip of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, George Lyon MSP. "The Executive has firmly nailed its colours to the mast by saying that it wants Scotland to be a GM-free country," he said.
As a former president of the National Farmers Union in Scotland, Lyon said, he would be urging Scottish farmers not to grow GM maize. "It is in their interests commercially and it is in the interests of Scottish farming," he argued. "Weve been through enough food scares without shooting ourselves in the foot for a technology that consumers dont want." He thought the Executive was taking a step in the right direction, which he hoped would win cross-party support.
The Scottish Greens, who led the campaign against GM in the parliament, welcomed the Executives intentions. But their parliamentary spokesman on the environment, Mark Ruskell MSP, was scathing about the lack of action to back them up. "A voluntary GM-free zone in the south of Scotland will be unworkable and unenforceable. Its a rather poor attempt to pull off a PR exercise which should fool no-one," he said.
The Greens want the Executive to go further and stop the UK growing GM maize by vetoing its inclusion on the national list of seeds that farmers can grow. But others point out that Scotland cant dictate English policy.
The biotechnology industry was disappointed at the Executives stance, but indicated it wouldnt be hard-selling GM maize to Scottish farmers.
"If the Scottish Executive is able to convince them not to go for GM, thats fine. Thats Scotlands loss," said the spokesman for Bayer CropScience, which produces the GM maize that will be grown in England.
3.Revealed: Shocking new evidence of the dangers of GM crops
More than two-thirds of conventional crops in the United States are now contaminated with genetically modified material - dooming organic agriculture and posing a severe future risk to health - a new report concludes.
The report - which comes as ministers are on the verge of approving the planting of Britain's first GM crop, maize - concludes that traditional varieties of seed are "pervasively contaminated" by genetically engineered DNA. The US biotech industry says it is "not surprised" by the findings.
Because of the contamination, the report says, farmers unwittingly plant billions of GM seeds a year, spreading genetic modification throughout US agriculture. This would be likely to lead to danger to health with the next generation of GM crops, bred to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals - delivering "drug-laced cornflakes" to the breakfast table.
The report comes at the worst possible time for the Government, which is trying to overcome strong resistance from the Scottish and Welsh administrations to GM maize.
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee drew attention to the problem in North America in a report published on Friday, and said the Government had not paid enough attention to it. The MPs concluded: "No decision to proceed with the commercial growing of GM crops [in Britain] should be made until thorough research into the experience with GM crops in North America has been completed and published". It would be "irresponsible" for ministers to give the green light to the maize without further tests.
Peter Ainsworth, the committee chairman, accuses the Cabinet of "great discourtesy" to Parliament by making its decision on the maize last Thursday, the day before the report came out, and plans to raise the issue with the Speaker of the House.
This week's statement by Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for the Environment, is expected to fall short of authorising immediate planting of the maize, and provide only a muted endorsement for the technology. She will make it clear that the Government wants the GM industry to compensate farmers whose crops are contaminated. This could make cultivation uncommercial. The US study will increase the pressure on her to be tough.
Under the auspices of the green-tinged Union of Concerned Scientists, two separate independent laboratories tested supposedly non-GM seeds "representing a substantial proportion of the traditional seed supply" for maize, soya and oilseed rape, the three crops whose modified equivalents are grown widely in the United States.
The test found that at "the most conservative expression", half the maize and soyabeans and 83 per cent of the oilseed rape were contaminated with GM genes - just eight years after the modified varieties were first cultivated on a large scale in the US.
The degree of contamination is thought to be at a relatively low level of about 0.5 to 1 per cent. The reports says that "contamination ... is endemic to the system". It adds: "Heedlessly allowing the contamination of traditional plant varieties with genetically engineered sequences amounts to a huge wager on our ability to understand a complicated technology that manipulates life at the most elemental level." There could be "serious risks to health" if drugs and industrial chemicals from the next generation of GM crops got into food.
Lisa Dry, of the US Biotechnology Industry Association, said that the industry was "not surprised by this report, knowing that pollen travels and commodity grains might co-mingle at various places".
4.The seeds of discontent: Why now? Why the rush?
Why now? Why the rush? We hear the cries go up whenever the Prime Minister gets the Messianic bit between his teeth, on subjects from tuition fees to Iraq. Now they are going up over genetically modified crops and food, the latest issue where Mr Blair's passion for a cause is putting him on a collision course with public opinion. And it is harder than ever to come up with a convincing argument. [the rest of editorial requires subscription]
5.Peter Melchett: A sceptical public. Questionable evidence. A determined Prime Minister. Sound familiar?
The decision to allow the planting of GM maize, which the Government is expected to take this week, does not have quite the drama of deciding to go to war, nor does it cause the immediate death and destruction. But there are parallels to be found in the Government's behaviour, and maybe in the way it could come to haunt them.
The minutes of the Government's GM committee, agreed by the Cabinet last week, revealed a government determined to force GM crops on an unwilling British public, and a strong pro-GM bias among the ministers and government scientists present. But they also revealed major, unresolved problems including continuing public opposition, how to ensure coexistence between organic and GM farming, and who pays for damage caused by GM crops. Indeed, an optimistic reading of the Government's leaked deliberations might suggest that those opposed to GM farming and food are still, against all the odds, winning this particular war.
The influential Environmental Audit Select Committee's report suggests that, for the first time since the GM debate started, Parliament has smelt the GM rat. The report raised serious questions to which the Government has no answers. Why, for example, were GM crops tested for their impact on wildlife by comparing them with the most destructive types of farming, rather than the best? The Audit Committee recommend "that in future trials the biodiversity benchmark against which GM crops should be assessed should be that associated with the less intensive and more biodiversity-friendly end of the spectrum found in UK agriculture, such as organic crops". The Committee confirmed what those opposed to the trials said from the start, that "the scope of the trials was very narrow and the results cannot be regarded as adequate grounds for a decision to be taken in favour of commercialisation".
So Parliament now shares the public distrust of GM crops. The public also distrusts the Government's motives, to say nothing of its pronouncements about "sound science". What has distinguished the opposition to GM from, say, opposition to the Iraq war, is that in this case everyone can make a choice to eat or not to eat GM food. In all the endless discussions, the most often overlooked issue is that, crucially for a product that has to be sold on the open market, no one has produced a single supermarket or food manufacturer queuing up to buy the stuff. This is the missing link. With no real market, why bother with GM crops at all?
In 2003 the Government carried out probably the most wide-ranging review of GM crops anywhere, mainly because of pressure from its advisers, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) and English Nature. The review covered science, economic issues, the AEBC's report on coexistence and liability, farm-scale trials of GM crops, and a major public debate. Any impartial person looking at these results would conclude that: there is no case for commercialisation on market/ economic grounds; there are serious questions about environmental impact; coexistence of GM and non-GM crops is virtually impossible; there are uncertainties about the impact on human health; and the public is set against GM food.
The Cabinet's GM committee ignored most of this, beset by a deadly combination of blind faith in technology, ignorance about the real threats, and a willingness to bow to US political pressure. If GM crops take hold here, we will jeopardise not only the environment but also the rights of the vast majority who don't want to eat GM food or food contaminated with GM residues. Millions will lose their right to choose. The EU says that even organic food will have to have the equivalent of up to almost 1 in 100 mouthfuls of pure GM ingredients. This is not scaremongering, but genuinely scary. As this newspaper reveals today, going ahead with GM crops has already caused widespread and probably irreversible contamination in the US.
So where are the grounds for optimism? It is worth recalling the high point of GM incursions into British food, in 1998. At that time fewer people were concerned about GM. All the major food manufacturers and supermarkets were in favour, and two were selling GM tomato paste. The Government was unashamedly advocating the technology. GM soya and maize were flooding unnoticed into the UK and into farm animal feed. GM companies were the darlings of the world's stock exchanges, funding significant amounts of GM crop research in the UK. Organic farming and food was still a "niche" market.
Now most people don't want GM food, and no supermarket will sell it. Food manufacturers have gone GM-free. While GM ingredients are used in some animal feed, most British chickens and pigs have GM-free diets. Some supermarkets, like Marks and Spencer, avoid GM feed completely. GM crops have failed to live up to the hype of the 1990s, and corporate research funding is drying up. GM crop companies have been ditched by their pharmaceutical partners and sold off. Organic food sales and organic farms have continued to grow 75 per cent of our baby food market is now organic.
The Government's secret weapon to destroy this mass opposition is "sound science". Like Iraq's WMD, this does not exist. "Sound science" confuses science (unravelling DNA) with technology (GM crops). The leaked minutes say that politicians "with an interest in science" should make statements endorsing the commercial planting of GM crops. Clearly nothing has been learnt from the mad cow and foot-and-mouth fiascos. Sending government-approved scientists out to tell a sceptical public that GM food is good for them will help the anti-GM cause, while undermining what little public confidence is left in government science. Indeed, for a crass example of the abuse of science, it would be hard to beat the cabinet committee's statement that "science demands" a crop-by-crop approach to regulating GM crops (the Government and the GM industry's preferred option). Corporations demand lax regulation, the public demands a precautionary approach, the Government demands that public opposition be "worn down", but science insists on the pursuit of knowledge, not on one regulatory approach rather than another.
The decision expected this week to allow the planting of GM maize will be hailed as a government-delivered victory for GM. What of the aftermath? The issues of liability for damage, and protecting organic farming, still have to be dealt with. If dealt with honestly, either could rule out GM crops, which are inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable. If the market stays as GM-free as it is and given that this maize only has clearance for one year's planting failure is on the cards. In a year or two, with no GM crops being grown, and the worldwide market for GM-free food continuing to grow, it might be the Government, not the public, that is "worn down" and discredited.
The cabinet committee minutes make clear that there is one vital lesson the Government, or at least the Treasury, has learnt from recent, costly agricultural cock-ups. If anyone is going to pay for damage caused by GM crops, it will be the GM companies, not the taxpayer. A GM spokesperson said they'd never agree to this because GM crops pose no risk of damage, they could not possibly agree to pick up the tab for any damage GM crops cause. If you understand that, you're probably a genetic engineer.
Peter Melchett is the policy director of the Soil Association