In 1997, genetically modified (GM) oilseed rape was a pen's stroke away from being approved for commercial cultivation in the UK. The following years saw massive public protest across the country, large-scale publicly-funded environmental trials and an official Government debate.
By the end of 2005, the Government seemed to have given up on GM crops and the industry had stopped pushing for commercialisation, but in recent months proponents of GM have become more vocal in arguing for GM crops, particularly associating them with an ability to solve the global food crisis. To understand this apparent turnaround, it is worth revisiting some of the key events of those years.
Back in 1996, the first GM soya shipments arrived from the US. Within months, as much as 60 per cent of processed food on sale in the UK was thought to contain some GM soya. There was little publicity and no consultation. Since 1989, a growing number of field trials for GM crops had been taking place, many involving herbicide-tolerant crops.
GM-herbicide tolerant crops have had a gene inserted that enables the plants to withstand the application of a 'broad-spectrum' herbicide, such as Monsanto's Roundup. These herbicides kill off every plant in the field except the GM crop engineered to resist them. Over-reliance on Roundup with regard to GM crops in America and Argentina has, over the years, resulted in resistant weeds emerging, with the knock on effect that farmers have had to use more, and more damaging, weedkillers.
By the late 1990s, varieties of GM herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape were completing National Seed List trials to determine whether they would be suitable for UK farmers. On 19 March 1997, the Government's advisory committee for GMOs (genetically modified organisms) stated that the cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape line MS8xRF3 did 'not pose a risk in terms of human health and environmental safety for the UK,' and it had no objection to the product being placed on the market. The UK looked set to have its first commercial GM crops for the 1998 planting season.
Public awareness and concern over GM crops was heightened when Granada’s World in Action programme interviewed Dr Árpád Pusztai, from the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, whose research suggested that GM potatoes could impair the growth and damage the immune system of rats. Nobody could have predicted the response: his institute quickly disassociated itself from Pusztai, and confiscated his computer and research results. It later emerged that this drastic reaction was triggered by international political intervention at the highest level.
Public opposition continued to grow as GM proponents failed to provide convincing answers to basic questions, such as how far pollen travels, the fate of transgenic DNA in the
human gut and to what extent GM crops would crosspollinate with wild species. A MORI survey from June 1998 showed that two-thirds of people didn’t want to eat GM food.
Across Europe, calls were made for new regulations to tighten the assessments of health and environmental risk, and ensure traceability and labelling of GM in the food chain.
In September 1998, a new European law came into force that obliged food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants to label any food that contained genetically modified ingredients. This allowed consumers to avoid GM food if they chose. Public opinion was already having an impact, however. Iceland was the first supermarket to commit to removing GM ingredients from its foods from May 1998; within months practically all the UK’s leading supermarkets bowed to consumer pressure and cleared their shelves of GM food. In July 1998, a statement from the House of Commons Refreshment Department confirmed that MPs in the House of Commons were being served food that avoided GM ingredients ‘in response to the general unease about such foods expressed by significant numbers of our customers’. By December 1999, Friends of the Earth revealed that even Monsanto’s staff canteen was effectively a GMfree zone.
By February 1999, opposition to GM foods and crops had extended well beyond the environment and organic farming movements, and the Five-Year Freeze campaign was launched. It called for an immediate moratorium on all GM development, pending satisfactory answers to questions on safety, socioeconomic impacts and consumer/farmer choice. More than 120 organisations eventually signed up in support of the coalition, including consumer, environmental, church and farming groups, unions and food companies.
Others decided that the only course of action in the face of massive corporate power and influence was to take direct action against GM crops, by pulling them out of the ground. Several juries decided the protesters’ action was justified, and they were found not guilty.
A groundswell of concern
Opinion among Government advisors was also changing. In March 1998, even the chair of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which a year earlier had approved the commercial growing of GM oilseed rape, now acknowledged that the increased herbicide use associated with GM herbicide-tolerant crops, such as maize, sugar beet and oilseed rape, could put yet more pressure on farmland wildlife .
In October 1998, as a response to growing public concern over GM crops and food, and a call by English Nature for a moratorium on commercial release, Michael Meacher, then
environment minister, announced a four-year programme of Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs), where GM sugar and fodder beet, maize and oilseed rape (winter and spring) would be grown alongside conventional crops to monitor the effects on farmland wildlife . The GM industry reluctantly agreed to a voluntary moratorium on commercial cultivation while the trials lasted.
Far from taking the heat out of the debate, the FSEs became another focus for public concern. Numerous groups formed to oppose the trials in their local areas; meetings and actions were held across rural Britain, from Dorset to Wivenhoe in Essex and from Munlochy in Inverness-shire to the Welsh Marches.
In August 1998, the biotech company Aventis (now Bayer) received approval from the EU to grow a herbicide-tolerant GM maize known as T25. By 2000, the UK Government proposed that a variety of T25, known as Chardon LL, be licensed for commercial growing. This was the first GM seed to be proposed for the National Seed List in the UK, the final regulatory hurdle before the biotech company could sell GM seeds to farmers. This process too became the focus of public protest; more than 200 people submitted written or oral evidence objecting to Chardon LL at a public hearing. Expert evidence exposed the poor science behind the EU decision to approve T25 maize and the listing process for the UK’s first GM crop stalled.
In the spring of 2003, the Government launched its GM ‘dialogue’ comprising three strands.
The first was the ‘GM Nation?’ public debate. Tens of thousands of people got involved through, among other means, more than 600 public meetings. This left little doubt as to the public’s views: 85 per cent did not want to see GM crops grown in the UK, at least until key questions were answered: ‘[T]he 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’.
Strand two was the GM science review, the second report of which acknowledged that ‘many of the uncertainties and gaps in knowledge addressed [by the science review], for
example in long-term impacts on health or the environment and the coexistence of GM crops with other crops, coincide with concerns expressed during the Public Debate’.
Finally, a cost-benefit analysis by the Government’s Strategy Unit found that: any economic benefit of GM crops was likely to be limited, at least in the short-term; the overall balance of future costs and benefits would depend on public attitudes and on the ability of the regulatory system to manage uncertainties; any economic benefits were likely to be outweighed by other developments.
The results of the FSEs for spring oilseed rape, sugar and fodder beet and maize were also published in 2003, followed by those for winter oilseed rape in 2005. They found that growing GM oilseed rape and beet had more detrimental effects on farmland biodiversity than growing the conventional equivalents. For maize, the GM crops fared slightly better than the non-GM, but these results were tarnished by the fact that the herbicide used on the conventional crops, Atrazine, was considered so damaging that it was banned in the EU soon after the FSEs ended.
In March 2004, Margaret Beckett, then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, announced the Government’s GM policy. On the basis of the FSE results,
she said: ‘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 [subject to certain conditions] we should agree in principle to the commercial cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant maize’.
Just three weeks later, on 1 April, biotech company Bayer pulled Chardon LL maize from production, stating that it was commercially ‘non-viable’. The eventual decision to ban
GM crops was only possible because of new tougher EU legislation that came into force in 2001.
Where are we now?
Recent months have seen a rise in the number of media reports on the necessity of GM crops in finding a solution to the global food crisis. But for those who have followed
this debate for the past 11 years, the reinvention of the necessity of genetically modified crops is nothing new.
Since the first GM soya of 1996, only two GM traits have been commercialised anywhere in the world: herbicidetolerance and insect-resistance. GM crops are confined to a handful of commodity crops (soya, maize, oilseed rape and cotton), most of which are used for animal feed, the rest for biofuels and processed food in countries where there is no labelling. Globally, GM crops are grown on just 2.4 per cent of agricultural land. They do not yield more than their conventional equivalents, as recognised by the UN’s recent International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This prestigious report, written by 400 scientists and endorsed by 60 countries, was so unconvinced about the ability of GM crops to meet future food needs that the GM industry, which had helped fund the process from the start, pulled out.
Despite claims from industry and publicly-funded scientists that GM ‘golden rice’ would put an end to blindness caused by Vitamin A-deficiency, it has yet to become a commercial reality. There are no GM drought- or salt-tolerant crops, or GM crops producing a new generation of cheap pharmaceuticals. The reports that follow in this special edition of the Ecologist shed further light on the most recent claims of the biotech industry, namely that genetic modification will feed the world through increased yields and specialist traits, while at the same time showing that the lobbying of Big Biotech is focused on gaining a commercial foothold in the world of international patents, rather than a concern for human wellbeing.
After years of debate and public opposition, the UK Government continues to back agricultural biotechnology – to the tune of £50 million a year – compared with just £2 million for straight organic research . Worryingly, environment minister Phil Woolas [who became immigration minister in the October Cabinet reshuffle] recently issued campaigners with a challenge: one year to come up with evidence against GM crops. It is nonsense to suggest that average citizens and underfunded NGOs should engage in such an undertaking, however. The precautionary approach, enshrined in EU and UK law, requires that industry provide evidence of safety and the Government provide an independent assessment of that evidence.
GM crops are not grown in the UK because those crops that were ready for commercialisation did not perform well in the FSEs, as well as the fact that industry and Government
failed to convince the public of their safety or utility.
One of our key concerns in this debate has been that the Government has consistently supported GM because such a technology provides an opportunity to make money. In the meantime, other techniques and knowledge have been ignored and underfunded. It is often said that to feed a growing population in a changing climate we will need all the techniques available to us. This is true, and it’s time to make sure we use that human knowledge to find a safe and sustainable way to feed the many, not to line the pockets of the few.
Clare Oxborrow is a food campaigner with Friends of the Earth; Becky Price is a researcher with GeneWatch UK; Peter Riley is director of the GM Freeze campaign
This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2008