GM Manifesto: Not just a question of science

In the midst of a growing list of bizarre decisions taken by the current UK government - particularly with regard to the environment - the recent commitment to growing more genetically modified crops must surely come out on top, argues Pat Thomas...

As environment secretary Owen Paterson made his speech at Rothamstead, the location of the current GM wheat trials, the twittersphere exploded with outrage but also shame and bewilderment that our government should lend its backing to some of the boldest lies ever uttered on the subject.

Paterson's speech read like something that would have been written at the beginning of our GM learning curve rather than here at the end, when we know so much better. Given the fact that most of the rest of the world is trying to get rid of GMOs this controversial UK commitment to growing more of them seems almost inexplicable.

Two days after his speech, and perhaps not to anyone's surprise, the Daily Mail revealed the extent to which our government ministers and regulators have crawled into bed with the biotech lobby. Now, at least, we can fully understand their enthusiasm.

Genetically modified food is being driven through not because we need it, not because our problems are caused by some terrible lack of GM food, but because people with their eyes on short-term financial gains see it as a potentially profitable niche market.

Haven't we all had enough of that scenario - and the terrible damage that it does?

Beyond science

While social media is awash with people who are anti-GM, vocal public engagement with GM has been extremely difficult to whip up. An amazing situation when you consider that we all have to eat and that eating GM could end up making us very sick indeed.

It's hard to understand why, though it is likely that many think it is too technical or complicated for them and they shy away from speaking out in case they look stupid by speaking out.

This is as much the fault of the pro-GM lobby - which has steadily directed the GM debate away from the public arena and into the muddy waters of modern corporate-funded science - as it is activists who have allowed this drift to take place. It's a drift as toxic as the drift of GM pollen and seeds from one field to another and it must be challenged.

That's one of the reasons why I came up with my own GM Manifesto - an attempt to remind myself, and others, that GM is not simply a science issue, and therefore primarily the 'property' of science. It is a social, political, economic, moral and ethical issue and we all have the right - and increasingly the duty - to take issue with it on whatever level we wish to.

Genetically modified food is everyone's business. Those campaigners who have continued to keep the pressure up do so because they understand that it is one of the most profound social issues of our time. The outcome of this debate dictates the direction of travel for our farmers, our environment, our money, our government policies, our foreign aid, our media mindsets, our diet, our health and our future.

It is also a keen test of democracy and how well politicians are in tune with the will of the people and how willing they are to bend to it.

The people have spoken

The people may not be out there storming Parliament and holding up placards (yet) but poll after poll tells the story of how the public feels about GM.

One conducted last year by the TV programme Countryfile asked viewers if GM trials should be allowed to go ahead in the UK; 79% said no.

In an MSN poll 67% said they did not want GM crops grown in this country.

A survey by food industry magazine Food Navigator found that 73% said they favoured a ban on GM food in the UK.

Last year in a poll in the increasingly pro-GM Guardian newspaper 72% of readers said they do not believe GM food is either safe or beneficial. This year the Guardian ran another poll - should restrictions on GM crops be relaxed? - 71% said no.

Even farmers don't buy this GM spin. The results of an online straw poll taken by Farmer's Weekly found that 61% of respondents said they "would like to grow GM crops". However 26% of respondents said they "would not cultivate [GM] under any circumstances", and even among those who said they would like to grow GM crops nearly a quarter (24%) said they see "no advantage in growing GM crops" - which begs the question of why they would want to grow them in the first place.

More telling was the fact that only 15% of farmers said they would eat GM, and investment in GM was ranked last among farmers' priorities for Government attention.

Public opinion counts - or at least it should - and when it comes to genetically modified food the public has spoken: we don't need it and we don't want it.

The question is: are our politicians going to follow our agenda - or their own?

Pat Thomas is a former editor of the Ecologist. She is a journalist, author and campaigner and currently a trustee of the UK's Soil Association. 

Image courtesy of


More from this author