UK ministers prepare for 2017 GM crop rollout

Coming to EU soon - unless the Parliament blocks it. Photo: Dawn One / © Linda and Mikael Hammond / via Flickr.
Coming to EU soon - unless the Parliament blocks it. Photo: Dawn One / © Linda and Mikael Hammond / via Flickr.
The Government is preparing 'rules' that will enable the planting of GM crops in the UK as soon as 2017, writes Lawrence Woodward. A ministerial letter also signals a significant weakening of GMO safeguards compared to the Tories' 2010 manifesto. Now is the time to exert maximum pressure and fight off a planned GMO invasion.
GM crops might not be ready for planting in the UK in 2015 or even 2016 - but the ground is being prepared for them now, as is the GMO creep onto our supermarket shelves and into our food.

The government is preparing for the planting of GM crops in the UK by putting in place 'rules' to govern their use once the EU has finalised its new regulation - which could take place next week.

In a letter to the Beyond GM campaign group, Lord de Mauley states that "the government will ensure that pragmatic rules are in place to segregate GM and non-GM production, so that choice is facilitated."

Alarming campaigners, this looks like a significant weakening of the Conservatives' 2010 manifesto which commits the party to "develop a legally-binding protocol covering the separation of GM and non-GM material, including clear industry liability."

He also makes the astonishing claim that "cross pollination is, again, a normal process between compatible plant species and there is nothing different about GM crops in this respect."

He is apparently unaware that cross pollination from GM crops introduces GM genes into nearby fields and the wider environment - undermining his later statement: "We support the principle that farmers should be free to choose whether to adopt GM cultivation."

The last time the UK government engaged in a serious consideration of co-existence of GM, organic and non-GM crops it commissioned Scimac, a pro-GMO industry body to write the rules - and adopted them wholesale in 2002.

There is now good reason to fear that the Government intends to brush the dust off Scimac's GMO industry focused, voluntary 'Code of Practice'. De Mauley's use of the term 'rules' rather than 'laws' or 'regulations' only adds to such suspicions.

The other danger is that the rules will be made "pragmatic" for the farmers of GM crops who want to be made exempt from liability if organic and non-GM crops and habitats are contaminated - rather than for organic producers and others who want to avoid contamination with GM seeds and pollen.

Commercial plantings 'at least a few years' away

The revelation comes in a letter to campaign group Beyond GM from junior environment minister Lord de Mauley, in response to the Beyond GM initiative The Letter from America which was delivered to the Prime Minister's office in November.

It also provides some reassurance to campaigners who have feared that proposed changes in the EU's GMO authorisation process would lead to GM crops being grown in England as early as the 2015 planting season:

GM crops might not be ready for planting in the UK in 2015 or even 2016 - but the ground is being prepared for them now, as is the GMO creep onto our supermarket shelves and into our food.

"We do not expect any commercial planting of GM crops in the UK for at least a few years as no GM crops in the EU approval pipeline are of major interest to UK farmers", writes de Mauley.

However the letter leaves no doubt that the Government intends to press ahead with growing GM crops in the UK as soon as it is expedient to do so - provided it wins the next general election. During its period in Government, the Conservative Party has become increasingly supportive of growing GM crops in the UK.

But even a Labour election victory could produce the same result. Its 2013 'Feeding the Nation' food policy review states: "Biotechnology cannot, by itself, increase the UK's domestic food supply, but it can be one of the tools used to ensure better resilience in the UK food chain, and to reduce environmental damage."

But at least Labour acknowledges the need for public acceptance: "GM may have a role in UK food security and environmental protection, but public views - informed by the science - must also be heard. Public and political acceptance is vital, as is proof of its benefits to the environment and producers."

European Parliament vote imminent after secret negotiations

It is likely that the European Parliament will vote in favour of the proposed GMO authorisation process in its imminent plenary session on the 13th of January and thereby open up the EU to GM cropping as early as spring 2015.

This so called 'opt-out' regulation is really an 'opt-in' measure, as its effect would be to breach the existing de facto moratorium on GMOs, and free up countries such as the UK which want to press ahead with the cultivation of GM crops.

The proposal has already been through a behind-closed-door, non-transparent process known as the trialogue - where the European Commission, Parliament and representatives of the Council of Ministers secretly wheel and deal to facilitate the passage of legislation.

Despite the efforts of the EP's Environment Committee representatives, the trialogue process stripped out all mandatory measures to prevent contamination of non-GM crops and establish liability rules to give non-GM farmers legal and financial protection.

These issues will be left to EU Member States. Some will put in place robust and legally binding arrangements to protect non-GM farmers and the countryside even if they constrain GMO production - but on current form, the UK is unlikely to be among them.

Action is needed now

The fact that there are virtually no commercial GM crops suitable for the UK in the pipeline does not mean that any of us can feel confident of a GM free future for the UK:

  • The EU's push to sweep away the 'Precautionary Principle', the 'polluter pays' principle, indeed all legal and technical obstacles to GMOs in our farming and food, will increase momentum from the start of 2015.
  • There is a possibility - albeit a remote one - that Syngenta's GM maize (GA21) with tolerance to glyphosate could find some uptake in the UK by 2016.
  • It is very likely that research institutions in the UK will gear up their GM crop trials and, using taxpayer money, plant more research field trials to benefit the GMO industry and private patent holders.
  • At the same time GM ingredients and products are increasingly finding their way into the UK food system.
  • And of course there is the long running and ongoing scandal that supermarkets refuse to put GM labels on livestock products where the animals have been fed genetically engineered feed.

Lord de Mauley's letter assures Beyond GM that "In the UK, the Government believes people should know what they are buying in shops or in restaurants."

But this form of words is much less robust than the 2010 manifesto promise to "ensure that consumers have the right to choose non-GM foods through clear labelling." Not that the 2010 promise has been kept - products from animals reared on GM feeds are not labelled nor does the government have any plan to require it.

His statement that the government "regards safety as paramount and will only agree to the planting of GM crops and the sale of GM foods if it is clear that people and the environment will not be harmed" also appears reassuring.

But it lacks the rigour of the 2010 manifesto promise to "not permit any commercial planting of GM crops until and unless it has been assessed as safe for people and the environment." Moreover he makes it clear that the UK will accept the EU's "robust evaluation system" for GM crops - widely criticised as grossly inadequate and subservient to industry wishes.

Again, this gives little cause for confidence that the Government will put in place effective GM labelling regulations, or measures to protect farmland, the countryside, and the food chain from GMO contamination.

Raising voices and getting heard

Individuals and organisations representing nearly 60 million US citizens - just under 25% of the total adult population - have signed and endorsed the Letter from America which sets out the US experience of GMO food and farming, and warns us not to follow this example.

This is just the tip of the mounting opposition to GMOs in the US, which follows years of growing environmental contamination with herbicides and the decimation of wildlife, including the near extinction of the Monarch butterfly.

The fact that David Cameron - the head of what was meant to be Britain's "greenest ever government" - has no interest in citizens' concerns about GMOs was made clear when he passed the Letter on to Defra. Environment Secretary Liz Truss indicated the same when she, in turn, passed the letter on to a junior minister.

Nonetheless, we are grateful for Lord de Mauley's reply because it highlights the need for more active and vocal citizen engagement - so that the next time a letter on the issue of GMOs is delivered to 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister is on the doorstep to receive it, and replies in person.

Through campaigns such as the Letter from America, GM Free Me, our support of networks such as Mums Say No to GMOs and other initiatives which will be rolled out during 2015, we aim to stimulate and facilitate an effective opposition to government- and industry-backed GMO invasion of the UK.

GM crops might not be ready for planting in the UK in 2015 or even 2016 - but the ground is being prepared for them now, as is the GMO creep onto our supermarket shelves and into our food.

That means that now is the time for citizens to find their voices, speak up and campaign effectively - especially in the run-up to the 2015 election.



Lawrence Woodward is founder and director of GM Education and a co-founder of Beyond GM, where a version of this article first appeared.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

Oxford Real Farming Conference: Lawrence Woodward and Pat Thomas will be discussing the issues raised in this article at the Oxford Real Farming Conference - tomorrow Tuesday 6th and Wednesday 7th of January 2015.

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