We’ve been here before. In 1998 the government was all set to start growing GM crops commercially in Britain. Many farmers, desperate for revenue and lured by the industry’s outspoken promises, were willing. Yet Britain remained GM-free, and has done to this day. Why?
Simple; consumers said they didn’t want the technology.
That same year the government agreed under pressure from English Nature to undertake a series of crop trials – known as farm-scale trials – to assess the potential environmental impacts of growing GM crops. There was a voluntary agreement with industry that the latter would not commercialise until the results of the farm-scale trials were known.
In September 2001 the government advisory body on GM – the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) – produced a report called Crops on Trial, which argued that the trials should not form the sole basis of the decision about whether to grow GM crops or not, and that there should be a public debate on the subject. Crops on Trial also said that the public should evaluate the farm-scale trial results.
The AEBC’s stance led the government to announce in July 2002 that a national GM debate would be held that would consist of three strands: first, an investigation chaired by the government’s chief scientific adviser, professor Sir David King, into the scientific basis for GM; second, an economic review coordinated by 10 Downing Street’s Strategy Unit; and finally, a public debate coordinated by an independent steering group headed by AEBC chair Malcolm Grant.
However, the scientific and economic studies started long before the public debate, and they are likely to publish their results too late for the public to take them into account. Hence, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s chair Sir Tom Blundell has called the public debate a wasted opportunity that will generate an ‘artificial’ result.
Modifying public opinion
Speaking last month, environment minister Michael Meacher insisted that the ‘key and sole criteria’ on whether to push ahead with GM commercialisation was whether GM organisms could be proven to be harmful to the environment and human health. This would suggest that economics and the public’s attitude were irrelevant. Indeed, Meacher also admitted that public opinion had to be ‘managed’ to ‘try to win over public support to whatever the science is taking’. He went on to make it clear that if the EU decided we had to go ahead, we would – whatever anyone said.
This is from a man who has admitted in an interview with this magazine that ‘GM is not necessary’, and that ‘the real problem [with GM] is whether 10, 20, 30 years down the track serious and worrying things happen that none of us predicted’.
So, if human health risks are seen by the government as a key factor why aren’t they being tested for in the farm-scale trials, which are only analysing the technology’s short-term effects on wildlife?
Furthermore, can we really expect a panel so heavily stacked in favour of GM to come out against the technology it is set to evaluate? Of the 25 scientists on the GM Science Review Panel, only three can truly be said to be GM sceptics. Furthermore, as my and Jonathan Matthews earlier article in The Ecologist (‘Strange bedfellows’, April 2003) showed, the Royal Society – where most of the science debates are held and a key organiser of the process – has been working behind closed doors with some staunchly pro-GM groups.
Last month the society announced: ‘We have examined the results of published research, and have found nothing to indicate that GM foods are inherently unsafe.’ In doing so the society allied itself closely with Tony Blair’s stance. In a speech to the Royal Society in May 2002, Blair declared: ‘In GM crops I can find no serious evidence of health risks’. As the field-scale trials haven’t been looking for health impacts, that is hardly surprising.
In that same speech, Blair praised the biotech industry. He said:
‘[Its] market in Europe alone is expected to be worth $100 billion by 2005. The number of people employed in biotech and associated companies could be as high as three million, as we catch up with the US industry – currently eight times the size of Europe’s.’
GM has long been seen as a key economic engine driver by the Labour government. Led by the Department of Trade and Industry’s science minister Lord Sainsbury, government white paper after white paper has talked about the importance of science and biotechnology.
Sainsbury is an ardent supporter of biotech. Until they were placed in a blind trust when he became science minister, he also held large share holdings in biotech companies Diatech and Innotech. He is also New Labour’s largest single donor, having donated over £8m since the party came to power in 1997.
But he is not the only member of the government pushing GM. Clare Short, seen by some as a cabinet radical before she resigned, presided over a government department that quietly funded a £13.4m programme to create a new generation of GM animals, crops and drugs in over 24 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.
‘There is enormous international pressure to allow GM crops and seeds in this country from the biotech corporations,’ admits UK fisheries and nature protection minister Eliot Morley. In Labour’s first two years in power alone, GM firms met government officials and ministers 81 times.
It is widely accepted that Blair was persuaded to back GM by Bill Clinton, leading the BBC to remark that in the GM debate ‘a question mark remains over the government’s independence from Washington’.
US pressure is now a lot more publicly visible. After months of sabre rattling, the US announced last month that it would take the EU to the WTO over the former’s continuing moratorium on growing GM crops. US trade representative Robert Zoellick and agriculture secretary Ann Veneman held a press conference in which they denounced the moratorium as ‘illegal’. ‘With this case, we are fighting for the interests of US agriculture,’ said Veneman, who was joined on the podium by Dr CS Prakash – one of the US's most pro-biotech scientists – and TJ Buthelezi, a farmer from Makhatini Flats in South Africa.
Zoellick’s tactics are simple. In the last two years he has met every African trade minister in a bid to get them to accept GM and isolate the EU. But with no African governments supporting the US’s WTO action, now that Egypt has pulled out, African farmers are being used as PR pawns to convince regulators here that the South needs this ‘beneficial’ technology.
NGOs concerned with African food security are alarmed by the extent of these biotech lobbying efforts. ‘They are popping up everywhere,’ says ActionAid’s Alex Wijeratna. ‘I have just come back from Mozambique, and their representatives were there. Their influence is very pervasive’. The same is happening in Europe, where the industry is lobbying member states to get rid of the moratorium. And in the UK that lobbying is set to intensify.
Monsanto’s PR company in the UK is Good Relations. The firm has close ties with New Labour. Its director is David Hill, who was chief media spokesperson for the Labour Party from 1993 to 1998 and ran the Labour media operations for the 1997 and 2001 general elections.
Another biotech lobby group is the Agriculture Biotechnology Council (ABC). Stephen Smith, from Syngenta is the ABC’s chair. In the autumn of last year, the ABC moved its PR account to Lexington Communications, whose director is Mike Craven – Hill’s successor as the Labour Party’s chief media spokesperson. Craven worked with deputy prime minister John Prescott as recently as the last general election.
Lexington has now hired Bernard Marantelli, who used to work for Monsanto, to organise a £250,000 PR campaign aimed at ‘regulators, legislators, retailers and consumer groups’ once the field-scale trials are published. The revised budget for the whole public debate is only £500,000.
It is clear from the amount of money being piled into the promotion of GM, that its supporters have to win the debate. GM companies are not in a good financial condition. They need the the commercialisation of technology for their survival. Nonetheless, the early drafts of the Strategy Unit’s economic review suggest that when the unit’s results are announced at the end of June, or soon afterwards, there will be no clear signs that GM will be good for the economy. Furthermore, the unit will state that should any of the many possible risks materialise, the financial implications could be devastating.
Persuading the public
Which leaves only the public debate. Environment secretary Margaret Beckett has said: ‘The government wants a genuinely open and balanced discussion on GM. There is clearly a wide range of views on this issue and we want to ensure all voices are heard.’
Don’t believe a word of it. The public debate lasts from the beginning of June to the middle of July, consists of only six regional meetings and, contrary to the AEBC’s recommendations, will finish before the results of the farm-scale trials are published.
This is hardly surprising, as Labour MP Alan Simpson explains. ‘The political establishment wants commercialisation yesterday,’ Simpson says. ‘It is just having to work out how to get past the two main obstacles – Meacher and the public. Meacher is Labour’s only environmental credibility; the whole strategy has been to box him into a position where he has run out of space to say no.’
With Meacher rapidly losing credibility in the eyes of the environment movement, there is only the public left to persuade.
Those doing the persuading are a powerful bunch. Alongside the biotech industry, the Royal Society, the WTO, the prime minister and his science minister, another unlikely GM advocate has emerged. According to its website, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) ‘is an independent food safety watchdog set up by an act of Parliament in 2000 to protect the public’s health and consumer interests in relation to food’. Yet this same website has been criticised by the Soil Association for publishing ‘highly-biased GM education material’.
In February the FSA announced its own programme to ‘assess people’s views of genetically-modified food’. Considering the government had already committed £500,000 to the same end, why did the agency feel the need to spend a further £120,000 of taxpayers’ money on repeating the exercise? Critics of the FSA have dismissed its consultation process as a pro-GM exercise. Those critics are not just environmentalists; they include the Women’s Institutes and the largest trade union in the country, Unison, among many others.
Furthermore, last month Genewatch UK director and AEBC member Dr Sue Mayer accused the FSA of hiding the unanimous verdict of its own Citizens Jury that GM crops should not yet be grown commercially. Likewise, the FSA (along with the Labour government) has been criticised by consumer organisations for backing the US government/biotech position in opposing the EU’s traceability and labelling regulations.
‘There is no doubt inside the corridors of power,’ says Simpson, ‘that the agenda is effectively being driven by Sainsbury and the biotech corporations. It is being aided and abetted by the FSA, where [the agency’s chair] Sir John Krebs is now unaffectionately known as “GM Joe”.’
But in spite of appearances, those pushing to commercialise GM are powerless in the face of concerted public pressure. Three of the largest consumer organisations in the country – food and farming campaign Sustain, the Consumers’ Association and the National Consumer Council – have all criticised the FSA for not listening to consumers. All the supermarkets have stated that they will not stock food that contains GM ingredients. And three county councils – Cornwall, South Gloucestershire and Warwickshire – have declared themselves GM-free. Now it’s your turn to be heard. Join the debate.
Andy Rowell is author of Don't Worry, it is Safe to Eat: the true story of GM food, BSE and foot and mouth – available at a special 15 per cent discounted price of £14.44 for Ecologist readers. Phone 01903 828 800, or fax 020 727 81142
UK Farm Scale Trials: Will They Prove Anything?
The purpose of the trials is to test the following hypothesis: that there is no significant difference between the biodiversity associated with the management of GM winter/spring oilseed rape/maize tolerant to herbicides and comparable non-GM crops at the farm-scale.
• The Government-sponsored farm-scale trials have been conducted on three GM herbicide tolerant crops.
GM Crop Tolerant to: Crop and herbicide
herbicide (brand) developed by
Forage (fodder) glufosinate (Liberty) Aventis
Spring oil seed rape glufosinate (Liberty) Aventis
Winter oil seed rape glufosinate (Liberty) Aventis
Sugar and fodder beet glyphosate (Roundup) Monsanto*
*in partnership with Novartis
• For each crop there were supposed to be between 60 and 75 field trials over the course of the three year programme.
• Fields were planted across the UK in locations meant to reflect the range of farming practice and geographical distribution of each crop in the UK.
• Each trial site was divided into two. One half was planted with the non-GM crop grown with conventional weed control, the other with the GM crop and its associated herbicide.
• Scientists monitored the effect of the different herbicides on diversity and abundance in plants and insects.
Critique of the UK Farm Scale Trials
From the outset the trials have been criticised by environmental organisations, local residents, and even the Government’s GM watchdog, the Agriculture Environmental Biotechnology Commission (AEBC).
1 No baseline data taken before trials began
A report by the Pesticide Safety Directorate, undertaken at the Government’s request, highlights the lack of basic knowledge concerning the biodiversity of the crops being tested. The report concludes, ‘it is not possible to make definitive statements as to the current biodiversity status of oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize fields.’
2 No monitoring of long term impacts
Crops will only be grown once in a field, meaning any effects of repeated growing will not be identified. If no significant differences are found in three years the crops will be given a clean bill of health. However, major changes may not become apparent until GM herbicide tolerant crops have been grown on the same farm over a prolonged period. For example, it took many years for the devastating effects of DDT on birds to be realised.
3 No investigation of effects on soil fungi, bacteria or earthworms
Given that microbes and earthworms are vital indicators of soil health, this is more than just an oversight. And the justification from the Scientific Steering Group, ‘this does not mean that they (earthworms) are unimportant, rather that there are more suitable experimental approaches which would address the issue of whether management of GM-modified (Sic) herbicide resistant crops affect earthworm diversity and soil functioning in general’. ‘Suitable’ or convenient…given that Roundup is already known to be toxic to earthworms.
4 Health risks not considered
In their report Crops on Trial, the AEBC concluded that the Government had misled the public by implying the trials would provide adequate information to assess the safety of the crops.
5 Real farming conditions not reflected
One of the key benefits claimed for the use of GM maize is that farmers will use less atrazine (an EU ‘Red List’ herbicide suspected of hormone disrupting effects) because they will switch to using glufosinate. However, recent US reports reveal that 75-90 per cent of US maize farmers are returning to atrazine due to poor performance of the GM crop with glufosinate.
6 Inadequate geographic representation
For the final round of maize plantings, there should have been over 20 trials in the South West, the main area in which fodder maize is grown. However, only 11 trials actually took place there and ten of them were in Dorset – four in one village.
7 Inadequate regulation of the trials
• GM oilseed rape used in the farm scale trials was contaminated with seeds of a different GM oilseed rape, which contained an antibiotic resistant gene. The contaminated seeds had been used in the trials since 1999 without consent. It is not known how the contamination occurred, or why inspectors failed to detect the mix up earlier.
• In Germany sugar beet trials have to be netted to prevent animals removing the seed – this is not a requirement in the UK.
• A 1999 report by the John Innes Centre (a pro-GM science research organisation) said contamination of non-GM crops with GM pollen was ‘inevitable’. Nonetheless, companies or farmers planting GM crops do not have to consult with neighbouring beekeepers, or even tell them that there is a GM crop nearby. And it is up to the beekeepers to test their honey for contamination.
8 No effort to promote sustainable farming
The trials make comparisons with intensive farming, itself very environmentally damaging, instead of more wildlife friendly farming, such as organic.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2003