UK Doubts

For over a decade now, GM food has met with intense opposition in the UK from both consumers and environmentalists. At a landmark event in the Savoy in London in 1999, 150 of Britain’s top food writers and chefs, in partnership with Greenpeace, launched “Food Writers Against GM Food.” The anti-GM message was taken up by the influential newspaper The Daily Mail, which ran lists of GM foods that could be on sale, unlabelled, on supermarket shelves. Public concern became acute and, almost overnight, the supermarkets took fright and started delisting products with GM ingredients and those made using GM processes.
Since then, public opposition has hardened. A recent government consultation found that 95 percent of Britons don’t want to eat GM food. Dino Adriano, a former chief executive for a supermarket chain, has recently gone on record as saying that “GM is invasive, and if allowed to develop freely, will deny alternative choices for ever to those who wish to avoid it… I remain doubtful that such a fundamental step should ever be taken.” Even with steeply rising prices, any UK chain embracing GM food would be committing commercial folly.

Profit and Preoccupation
The food industry and retailers are doing rather nicely out of the growth in organic and ethical foods and are not at all keen to get involved with a campaign that giant pharmaceutical companies have fought and lost. Any company that embraces this controversial technology would send out all the wrong messages in the UK and put red hazard warning lights around its brand. The status quo is that food retailers are keen to disassociate themselves from GM food. The retailer Marks & Spencer even guarantees that none of its meat, dairy or eggs come from livestock fed on genetically-modified cereals.
However, the biotech lobby now senses a new opportunity to represent GM food to an unwilling public by exploiting fears about rising food prices and global food shortages. As his parting shot before retiring from his post, the government’s Chief Scientist, Sir David King, went on the high-profile Radio 4 Today programme to argue that GM food would feed the world and save the planet. In the habitual manner, he dismissed opponents of GM as irrational hysterics stumbling around in a sea of superstition, and also had a go at the media for listening to them. Then he went on to give listeners a patronising pep talk about how GM food could feed the world and save the planet, offering up the supposed example of crop trials around Lake Victoria in Kenya.
One week on, Sir David had egg on his face when his office had to admit that these trials did not involve the use of GM technology at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. This successful project actually uses green farming methods – a sort of companion planting approach – using plants that can be cultivated alongside food crops to naturally boost yields. Researchers identified one set of plants that naturally deters parasitic weeds, while another, a species of grass, attracts the pests. Known as a the “Push-pull Project”, this is in fact a glowing example of how simple, cheap crop management can achieve results, without any of the potential health and environmental impacts of genetic modification or pesticides.

Safe Governments
Environmentalists continue to put pressure on government over GM. The Food Standards Agency has been forced to declare that illegal GM rice from China found in the UK food chain is “unsafe” and belatedly told food companies to recall any affected products, following a court case brought against it by Friends of the Earth.
First the Blair and now the Brown (Labour) governments, however, have sought to encourage GM and develop the UK biotech sector. Proposals for Britain set no separation time between growing a GM and non-GM crop, although 95 percent of public respondents to DEFRA’s consultation opposed that, saying that this would lead to unavoidable contamination of the food chain. Further evidence of this risk emerged recently with the news that Swedish researchers have found that GM crops can persist in the soil for at least ten years.
So environmentalists are demanding that the government implement tough rules to protect GM-free food and farming from contamination, along with a strengthening of environmental liability laws to force biotech companies to stump up for any damage they cause to the environment or farmers’ livelihoods. GM companies steadfastly resist all measures to make them financially responsible for any contamination to conventional or organic crops by GM escapees. Nevertheless, environment minister Phil Woolas has it that “GM crops may be approved for cultivation here in the future, if they pass the rigorous [sic!] safety assessment procedure that is in place.”

Autonomous Rubbish
This puts him on a collision course with the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland. Wales currently has GM-free status and new proposals by the Welsh Assembly Government will protect this by effectively banning genetically modified crops from the region by applying a strict “polluter pays” principle that will put an end even to trial plantings. The proposals, which are supported by the Farmers’ Union of Wales, make GM companies and the farmers who plant GM crops legally liable for contamination or “genetic trespass” – even if they have a licence and even if scientific knowledge at the time leads them to believe the material was harmless.
In Scotland, the SNP government’s clear position is that it intends to resolutely maintain the current moratorium on planting GM crops in Scotland. “GM crops are not grown in Scotland and we believe this respects the wishes of Scottish consumers who want local, high quality produce. Scotland has a wonderful and varied environment, rich in biodiversity and we do not wish to jeopardise this,” says environment minister, Mike Russell.

Joanna Blythman
UK, Edinburgh-based journalist and food writer.

This article is published in the Slow Food Almanac. Click here to read the whole issue.

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