ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

10 November 2002


These two Observer articles speak volumes about the UK Government's sense of priorities:

1. Advisers brand Blair's GM debate a sham
2. Minister agrees to help promote food products linked to cancer as part of secret deal


Advisers brand Blair's GM debate a sham

Mark Townsend and Antony Barnett
Sunday November10, 2002
The Observer,2763,837288,00.html

Tony Blair's strategy on genetically-modified foods is in crisis after a series of extraordinary attacks by Whitehall's own communications arm and a panel of independent advisers.

The Prime Minister had hoped a national debate on GM crops would soothe widespread anxieties over their safety, paving the way for their commercialisation in the UK.

But The Observer has learnt that this process is on the brink of collapse, making it almost impossible for the Government to allay public suspicion about the technology.

Documents reveal the government body charged with promoting the project, the Central Office of Information, has warned that Ministers have failed to stump up sufficient funds for the debate.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett was only prepared to give £250,000 - much less than the £1 million thought to be necessary.

The COI, which runs Whitehall's public relations, also fears the debate is in danger of ending up as a meaningless exercise that could further undermine confidence in GM foods. It has urged Ministers to come clean on how the debate will actually influence GM policy amid growing suspicion it is merely a propaganda tool.

The unprecedented attack by the COI is echoed by a group of 11 independent advisers to the debate.

The advisory panel - which includes some of the UK's leading academics - believes the debate is now so flawed that Blair risks 'outright hostility and rejection' to GM.

If the much-trumpeted GM public debate is scrapped or goes ahead amid such reservations it would make it highly embarrassing for Blair to sanction the growing of GM crops in the UK.  At a meeting last Thursday some advisers said the Government should consider scrapping the debate entirely.

Alan Irwin, Professor of Sociol ogy at Brunel University, said: 'What message is this sending out? That Britain is incapable of organising a GM debate.'

Next summer the Government will decide on the commercialisation of the technology. Ministers have said they will take the results of the debate into account before making a decision.

Yet Beckett is accused of attempting to rush through the debate before the results of GM trials are known. She has asked for the debate's findings to be delivered next June - a month before trials are completed.

'This inevitably looks like an attempt to curtail the influence of this "public debate" on the Government's freedom to do what it has always appeared to want to do, namely to accept commercialisation,' warns a report by the advisers.

It also reveals that those in charge of structuring the debate have come under pressure by the Government to make it merely an exercise in information dissemination.

The COI yesterday confirmed that the £250,000 allocated was 'insufficient' to deliver a major national debate. The Netherlands spent 10 times that amount on their GM debate while a debate in New Zealand cost £2m.

Scrutiny is also mounting on the timescale of the debate: New Zealand's lasted 14 months. Experts expect a serious debate in the UK would last between two and three months. Because of the June deadline, it would need to start at the latest in February.

Irwin said: 'We are in November and given the range of issues that still need to be sorted it is unclear how we are going to go from here. Too many questions remain unanswered.'

Environmentalists said the issue was symptomatic of the Government's 'arrogance' over biotechnology. Doug Parr of Greenpeace said: 'They have to have a proper, well-financed debate and give people the option to say "no" to GM foods.'


UK forges £1bn secret arms deal with Thailand

Minister agrees to help promote food products linked to cancer
Antony Barnett, public affairs editor
Sunday November10, 2002
The Observer,6903,837136,00.html

Britain has struck a secret deal worth GBP1 billion to sell arms to Thailand in return for promoting food that has been linked to cancer-causing chemicals.

The deal, which was last night condemned as 'disgraceful' by opposition MPs and farmers, involves Britain selling guns, Hawk jets, riot control equipment and secondhand frigates from the Royal Navy to Thailand.

In return, Britain has agreed to provide financial help to Thailand to develop its farming industry and promote Thai food products in this country and abroad.

The deal was conceived in May, when the Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, visited the UK and met Defence Minister Geoff Hoon and Trade Minister Patricia Hewitt. Hewitt also agreed to help Thailand overturn the European Union ban on the import of Thai chickens.

The ban was introduced after it was discovered that the poultry contained cancer-causing chemicals after farmers had been using illegal veterinary drugs.

The agreement on the highly controversial arms deal was formally signed last month by the British ambassador in Bangkok.

Opposition MPs last night claimed the deal has strong echoes of the arms-for-aid scandals that plagued the Tories and were supposedly outlawed by the Labour government.

The Liberal Democrats have demanded full details of the agreement, questioning what taxpayers' money is being used to support the deal and whether it is compatible with EU free trade policy.

Vince Cable, Lib Dem trade and industry spokesman, who last night wrote to Hewitt, said: 'This is a deeply depressing and disgraceful deal. Linking arms sales with food production gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "swords to ploughshares".

'If the DTI is to promote actively the import of Thai food goods for the sole benefit of BAe Systems, then the Labour government has sunk   to a new low in its arms trade policies.'

A spokesman for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade said: 'Not only is this another example of pushing weapons sales on the developing world but to tie it with food production is outrageous and morally unacceptable. It's simply an arms-for-aid scandal in another guise.'

The farming community has also reacted with anger at the deal which it claims threatens jobs.

Ian Johnson, for the National Farmers Union in the South West, said: 'Aside from the moral question, it's extraordinary that the Government which appears to have abandoned British farmers seems to be doing all it can to help farmers in the Third World who will end up exporting cheaper - and some would argue - inferior products into our markets.'

According to reports in the Thai press, under the pact the British government would seek to increase imports of   Thai farm produce and help find new markets for Thai goods. In return the Thai government will buy arms from British Aerospace, now known as BAe Systems.

The Department of Trade and Industry last night refused to comment on the deal, but the Foreign Office defended it, saying it will modernise Thai armed forces and help it combat terrorism, at the same time alleviating poverty and improving its food production.

A Foreign Office spokesman denied it was an 'arms-for-aid' deal because it would be BAe Systems investing in Thailand's agriculture sector and not the British state. He said Britain would promote Thai food exports to other parts of the world and not the UK.

A spokesman for BAe said the deal was in an 'embryonic stage' and was a little 'unusual'. But he said it was similar to most major defence deals in which the company agrees to invest in local industry, known as 'offsets'.

In 1997, International Development Secretary Clare Short announced she was banning deals linking arms sales to aid, following the Pergau Dam scandal in which the Conservative government gave Malaysia GBP300m to help build a controversial dam in exchange for buying British arms. The High Court ruled that former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd acted unlawfully in allowing such a deal.

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