ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

19 August 2002


"Labour has, it appears, been bought - politically, at the very least - by the GM companies. For most of the 20th century Labour was, at best, ambivalent about business. So desperate is it now to prove that it has become business-friendly that it has lost any sense of proportion; the fact that the GM food industry wants trials is treated as reason enough for them to go ahead, however compelling the opposing arguments." (from item 1)

1. This business of Labour's commitment to GM crops
2. Meacher attacks US 'pressure' over GM
3. Frankenstein foods: Blair's great betrayal


1. This business of Labour's commitment to GM crops

Leading article, The Independent, 19 August 2002

What is it with Labour and genetically modified crops? So doggedly does the Government stick to its line that all is for the best in this best of all possible trials that reason seems to have disappeared from view.

Labour has, it appears, been bought - politically, at the very least - by the GM companies. For most of the 20th century Labour was, at best, ambivalent about business. So desperate is it now to prove that it has become business-friendly that it has lost any sense of proportion; the fact that the GM food industry wants trials is treated as reason enough for them to go ahead, however compelling the opposing arguments.

One exception, however, to this appetite for all things GM stands out: Michael Meacher. Mr Meacher has, as his interview with us today shows, been given what amounts to licensed-jester status within the Government. Most observers expected him to survive only until the first reshuffle. Instead, he has become the only minister outside the Cabinet to remain in post for all of Labour's five years in power. That is, not least, because he provides a useful foil for the Prime Minister

It is unusual for any minister to be kept in post after making it obvious that he is against government policy. For that minister to be the Environment Minister, and for his difference with policy to be over a part of his brief as sensitive as GM crops, is, in normal circumstances, astonishing. (Indeed, Mr Meacher makes clear his opposition to action against Iraq, which is not remotely part of his brief.) But the Prime Minister seems to think that, so long as Mr Meacher is given the freedom to sound off, opposition from environmentalists can be bought off.

He is wrong. The Environment Minister is not speaking for himself alone, but also for others within the Government yet without his license to roam; and, more importantly, for most of the electorate, who do not share Mr Blair's belief that anything backed by a large business must be right.

Mr Meacher has earned the respect of environmentalists; it is not his fault that his position is used by the Prime Minister to such cynical ends.


2. Meacher attacks US 'pressure' over GM

By Marie Woolf Chief Political Correspondent
The Independent, 19 August 2002

Michael Meacher reignited the row over genetically modified crops yesterday, admitting that Britain was being pressed by the US to allow commercial planting. However, the Environment minister insisted he was "sceptical" of the benefits of GM and insisted: "We are not going to be bounced into this by the Americans."

Any decision to open up commercial planting of GM crops would be based on hard evidence, he said in an interview with The Independent.

Mr Meacher acknowledged that opponents of GM technology believed the changes were being "steamrollered through", but insisted that the public would be able to see all evidence on the impact of GM crops before widespread planting went ahead.

Asked whether America was pressing for expanded GM production, Mr Meacher said: "Well, you know there is. The Americans are very keen. The amount of the prairies which have been cultivated with GM is colossal."

Mr Meacher insisted that he was "on the sceptical wing" of the argument over GM. "Those people who do feel very strongly about it, to the extent of going around ripping up crops, they may continue to do so

"But what I think many of them object to is the feeling that the Government is steam rolling it through. There has been intense hostility expressed in many quarters. However, it is fair to say there has never really been a controlled and balanced debate."

The Environment minister's remarks are likely to inflame the controversy over the Government's handling of the GM issue, which received a blow last week when it emerged that trial crops have been contaminated with unauthorised GM seeds since the trials began.

Mr Meacher acknowledged that the decision would be "sensitive" But, he said: "We are not saying we have a little closed group of five people, and we are going to take a decision and tell you in our wisdom what we are going to do. We are going to tell you what the evidence is."

The Government's farm-scale trials may not give an accurate picture of the impact GM crops may have on the environment, he admitted. "We are talking about the impact on plants, on invertebrates, on birds, on insects," he said. "It's, what, 100 sites each year? But if you have general commercialisation you may get different effects over and above what these isolated fields will show."

Some of the herbicides which would be used on GM crops if they were grown in Britain could "wipe out" a whole swathe of conventional crops, he warned.


3. Frankenstein foods: Blair's great betrayal

As evidence grows of widespread GM crop
contamination . . .

Geoffrey Lean
DAILY MAIL (London) August 16, 2002

DAY BY day, powerful new evidence mounts that GM crops and food endanger health and nature. Yet the Government is growing ever more determined to force the British public, literally, to swallow them. Yesterday, fields in England and Scotland were found to be contaminated with unauthorised GM material, containing illegal antibiotic genes. The day before, news emerged of an American study showing that weeds became hardier when they received genes from genetically modified crops, confirming long- established fears that the technology would breed 'superweeds'. These alarms closely follow French research which demonstrated that GM beets swopped genes with weeds far more readily than had been thought. Only last month, a disturbing official British study revealed that genetically modified DNA material from GM food was getting into bacteria in the guts of people who ate it - something advocates of the technology have repeatedly insisted was 'impossible'. Yet none of these developments - nor a host of previous, equally worrying findings - show any sign of deflecting Tony Blair and his ministers. The Prime Minister, his Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett, and his science minister, Lord Sainsbury, all strongly support the controversial technology. Two weeks ago Mrs Beckett announced a 'public debate' on whether to grow the GM crops. But a senior official in her own department admitted the real purpose of the 'debate' was to 'dispel the myths that GM crops damage health and the environment'. And a government minister privately acknowledged that the decision to grow the crops had already been taken. But in the real world, the dangers of the Government's obduracy become ever clearer. For 21 official GM seed trials, stretching over 244 acres from Dorset to Aberdeenshire during the past four years, have been polluted by a variety of GM oilseed rape that includes genes from antibiotics used to treat human illnesses. There are fears that these genes could be transferred to people, causing them to be resistant to treatment for serious disease. (The antibiotic gene fragments are used as 'marker' genes so that scientists know whether or not genetic modification has taken place.) The industry has always denied such a transfer could happen. But its denials have been seriously undermined now it is known that GM genes can be transferred into bacteria in the human gut.

 Although none of the polluted crops will have been eaten by people, this 'very serious breach of regulations', as the Scottish Executive puts it, casts the gravest suspicion over the way the trials are being conducted. Yet the Government is planning to cite the trials as proof that growing GM crops is safe, so it can proceed with their commercial cultivation. In fact, even if there are no more incidents, the trials will prove nothing of the kind, for they are not even designed to test the greatest danger to the environment: the flow of genes from GM species into weeds and other crops. And it is a very real danger.

 Research at Ohio State University showed that wild sunflowers (seen as a weed in the U.S.) became much stronger and more prolific - producing 50 per cent more seeds - when they were crossed with a GM sunflower. A French study, at the University of Lille, discovered that GM genes from beet grown in similar field trials transferred to weeds, while genes from the weeds found their way into the GM crop, reducing its yield. A massive EU study in March showed that some GM crops bred with conventional ones 'at higher frequencies and greater distances than had previously been thought'. For good measure, it found that the three GM crops now being grown in field trials in Britain - sugar beet, maize, and oilseed rape - posed the greatest danger. The Government's own official wildlife body, English Nature, has reported that, in Canada, pollen from GM oilseed rape had 'travelled far' to create superweeds - and that it was 'inevitable' that the superweeds would emerge in Britain, too, if the rape was grown here. Superweeds would eliminate many of the advantages claimed for GM crops. They would require increasing doses of weedkillers, far outweighing the reductions that the industry claims would be gained by growing herbicide-resistant crops. And they would put at risk the increases in yields claimed by GM advocates.

 Despite the accumulation of Pastoral protest: Greenpeace members attack a field of genetically modified maize alarming evidence, those who oppose GM foods - including Prince Charles, who said in June that the crops 'pose an acute threat to organic farming and to all those consumers who wish to exercise a right of choice about what they eat' - are disregarded. A month earlier, Brussels bureaucrats tried to suppress another EU study as too ' sensitive'. It concluded that organic farming would be forced out of business if GM crops became widespread because GM genes would contaminate organic crops. And English Nature says that 'contamination is almost impossible to prevent unless the crops are very widely spread'. This already seems to have happened in Mexico, where GM grain imported for food has been sown illegally. The genes have spread so widely that scientists found evidence of GM contamination on 95 per cent of the indigenous crops it examined in the states of Oaxaca and Puebla. A senior Mexican official told me that he believes it is now 'too late' to save non-GM agriculture in his country. This poses huge dangers for farming across the Earth, for Mexico is the world's greatest maize nursery, home to hundreds of varieties that have long been conventionally interbred to produce improved strains. Presumably Mr Blair knows at least some of this, for he has admitted that there were 'genuine and real concerns' about gene contamination. The increasing worries about the effects of GM foods on health should give him even greater grounds for reflection. Even the Royal Society, one of Britain's main advocates of the technology, has admitted that GM foods could one day damage health. The public has forced GM foods off some supermarket shelves by refusing to buy them. But the Government steadfastly refuses even to acknowledge this. In a recent briefing to MEPs, it claimed that 'GM is very far down the list of consumer considerations with regard to food'. This is as wrong as it is arrogant. Mr Blair should learn a lesson from the other side of the world, where GM issues dominated last month's New Zealand general election. For Britons will not easily forgive a government that so scandalously persists in ignoring the mounting warnings about a technology that they have so wisely come to fear.

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