ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
8 July 2002


1. GM Crops - Tony Blair's "Poll Tax"?


1. GM Crops - Tony Blair's "Poll Tax"?

by Marcus Williamson
Editor, Genetically Modified Food - UK and World News - 30 June 2002

Genetically modified (GM) crops and food are threatening to become Tony Blair's "poll-tax" - with some ministers reportedly warning him that any attempt to impose the commercialisation of GM crops would lead to "civil unrest" [1].

The Peasants Revolt of 1381 was a direct result of the levying of a "poll-tax" by the parliament of the time. More than 600 years later another attempt was made to impose a poll-tax on the British people. By the end of March 1990 this flagship Thatcherite policy had led to widescale civil disobedience including a massive demonstration in London. Ultimately, the unpopularity of a policy, with which Margaret Thatcher was so identified, helped undermine her position as both Prime Minister and party leader.

The writing has been on the wall for the Blair Government since February 1999 when there was an explosion in public awareness of the moves to impose GM crops and food on the population. Media and public interest had become focused on the campaign to discredit Arpad Pusztai, a scientist who had discovered that GM potatoes caused harm to rats in experimental trials [2]. Tony Blair at the time attempted to defend GM foods by saying that he and his family ate products he regarded as safe [3]. In doing so he invited comparison with Margaret Thatcher's agriculture minister, John Gummer, who insisted during the BSE crisis that beef was "perfectly safe", and fed a hamburger to his four-year-old in front of the cameras [4].

Since then the UK government has tried repeatedly to convince the public of the safety of GM food and GM crops, despite the fact that no proof exists that these new foods are safe. The government's Food Standards Agency, chaired by GM proponent Sir John Krebs, has been used to promote GM foods and denigrate organic foods [5]. Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, is an enthusiastic supporter of GM foods and has profited from shares in a GM food company [6]. From 1999 onwards the UK public has avoided GM foods, to the extent that no UK supermarket uses GM ingredients in any of its own-brand products.

GM crop plantings, in the guise of open-air trials, have gone ahead in spite of enormous opposition of people across the UK. In actions reminiscent of Greenham Common peace camp of the 1980's, August 2001 saw the establishment of an anti-GM protest camp at Munlochy on the Black Isle [7]. In April 2002, a Pink Castle sprang up on a GM crop trial site at Littlemoor in Dorset, as part of a protest camp aimed at highlighting the planting of GM maize by a local farmer [8]. The field of GM maize has since been destroyed by protestors and local people.

Democratically-elected local and national politicians seemingly have no powers to stop the crop trials from proceeding even where they want to [9]. When at public meetings and in local referenda, people have voted overwhelmingly against GM crops and have appealed to their local councillors and MPs to have the crop trials stopped, they've been told the trials are required by the EU.

For some who perceive that democracy has failed them, destruction of the crop remains one of the few available options. Uprooting of GM crops has become a routine activity at trial sites across the UK. Actions have been carried out by individuals and by groups, by day and night, overtly and covertly, since the first GM crops were planted. Of those arrested for this activity, not one protestor has yet been convicted by a jury of "criminal damage", one of the charges used often by the police against such actions [10, 11]. Juries have acquitted those who use the defence of trying to prevent a "greater crime", that of damage to the environment, from being committed [12].

The government has stated that the GM crop field trials are a necessary step prior to possible commercialisation of GM crops in 2003. Yet, a MORI poll from June 1998 shows 77% opposed to field trials of GM crops [13]. Furthermore, according to a MORI poll carried out in May 2002, the majority of the public would prefer not to eat GM food [14].

On 24 July 2002, anti-GM activists will converge on the offices of the Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in London [15]. The demonstration will remind the government of the public's widespread opposition to GM crops and GM food, and emphasise that commercialisation of GM crops should not be allowed to proceed.

Any attempt by the government to commercialise GM crops, in the face of such massive consumer resistance, would be a mistake on the scale of the poll-tax which brought down Margaret Thatcher.

So, will Tony Blair and his ministers learn from history and listen to the opinions of UK citizens? Or will he, like his erring predecessors, try to impose his wishes on a public which remains wholeheartedly opposed to GM crops and GM food?

1. Cabinet split over seeking GM crop view - Independent, 13 April 2002
2. GM safety row - BBC News, 12 February 1999
3. Blair backs modified food - BBC News, 15 February 1999
4. John Gummer: Beef eater - BBC News, 18 June 1999
5. Organic food 'no healthier' - BBC News, 1 September 2000
6. Sainsbury is attacked for GM share 'profits' - Independent - 26 May 2000
7. Harper rallies GM protesters - BBC News, 24 November 2001
8. Pink Castle 'blocks' GM crop tests - BBC News, 6 May 2002
9. MSPs want GM trial halted - BBC News, 17 April 2002
10. GM protesters cleared - BBC News, 27 June 2001
11. GM protesters win legal challenge - BBC News, 16 October 2001
12. GM protesters plead not guilty - BBC News, 20 September 1999
13. MORI - June 1998, Genewatch
14. MORI - May 2002, Greenpeace
15. No GM crop commercialisation - Deliver your message to DEFRA



-----Original Message-----
Sent: 08 July 2002 12:26
271/02                                                    8 July 2002
Sites for the autumn trials of oilseed rape in the Government's programme of Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSEs) of herbicide tolerant   genetically modified (GM) crops were published today.
Depending on weather and soil conditions, sowing of the GM oilseed rape is expected from 19 August onwards.
Details (including six-figure grid references) are available on the DEFRA web site,
This is the last year of the three-year programme of FSEs.
The independent Scientific Steering Committee (SSC), which oversees the FSE programme, has approved the selection of 18 oilseed rape sites to be included in the autumn 2002 sowing round. The total number of sites over the three-year programme (60-75 for each crop) is unchanged.
The list of autumn locations was agreed between the SSC, the research consortium, SCIMAC (the farming and biotechnology industry body) and farmers.
The Government believes that it is important for people to know as soon as possible what is happening in their neighbourhoods. Today's announcement comes six weeks before the first seeds are to be sown in order to give people time to find out about the FSEs in their area.   Detailed information on the FSE programme is being sent by DEFRA to parish councils and local authorities in host areas today.
All the seeds in the trials have been through years of rigorous safety tests. The trials are designed to investigate the effects on biodiversity from the farming practices associated with the particular GM crops in the study.
The GM crops used in the FSEs are separated from any nearby conventional or organic crops to minimise cross-pollination.
There will be no commercial growing of GM crops until the FSEs are completed and only then if the crops and associated farming practices are assessed as causing no unacceptable effects on the environment.
The Government expects that the first results of the FSEs for spring-sown crops will be published in a peer reviewed scientific journal in the summer of 2003. The SSC will publish its advice to Government at the same time.
1. The table below lists 16 oilseed rape sites in England. Details of the sites in Scotland are available on the Scottish Executive website at
  6 Figure Grid Reference        Parish          County/Authority
  NZ 205 367                    Oakenshaw             Durham
  NZ 394 524                 Near Burdon village City of Sunderland
  SE 792 276                    Kilpin       East Riding of Yorkshire
  SE 841 497                  Nunburnholme   East Riding of Yorkshire
  SJ 398 268                    Hordley              Shropshire
  SJ 714 872                     Lymm                Warrington
  SP 231 535                Stratford upon Avon      Warwickshire
  SU 379 993                 Hinton Waldrist         Oxfordshire
  SY 692 841                    Bincombe              Dorset
  TA 087 602                    Harpham      East Riding of Yorkshire
  TF 213 972                    Thorganby            Lincolnshire
  TF 227 876                    Ludford, East Wykeham & Ludford Magna               Lincolnshire
  TL 048 098                 Great Gaddesden         Hertfordshire
  TM 165 902                 Great Moulton            Norfolk
  TQ 882 397                 High Halden              Kent
  TQ 995 250                 Ivychurch                Kent
2. The Farm-Scale Evaluations are a three-year programme allowing independent researchers to study the effect, if any, that the   management practices associated with Genetically Modified Herbicide Tolerant (GMHT) crops might have on farmland biodiversity, when   compared with weed control used with non-GM crops.
3. Researchers are studying differences in the number and types of weeds and insects (including bees and butterflies) in GM and non-GM halves of the trial sites. The FSE programme includes a project to monitor gene-flow, including cross-pollination. Three crops are involved: oilseed rape (both spring and autumn sown); beet (fodder and sugar varieties); and maize. In total, the project will involve between 60 and 75 fields of each crop type.
4. The FSEs are overseen by an independent Scientific Steering Committee (SSC). The Committee is chaired by Professor Chris Pollock (Institute of Grassland & Environmental Research) and includes academics and conservation experts. The research is carried out by a consortium of research institutions: the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Scottish Crop Research Institute and the Institute of Arable Crops Research. The SSC has reviewed the distribution of the third year locations for autumn sown oilseed rape proposed by the industry body SCIMAC and shortlisted against scientific criteria by the research consortium. Ministers have no involvement in site selection.
5. The GM oilseed rape used in the FSEs is tolerant to the herbicide (weedkiller) called glufosinate ammonium (known as Liberty). This herbicide is already approved for use with conventional varieties of oilseed rape and is used in a number of agricultural and domestic applications, many available from garden centres. The Advisory Committee on Pesticides has approved the use of this herbicide in the Farm Scale Evaluations with Genetically Modified Herbicide Tolerant (GMHT) autumn-sown oilseed rape. In the Committee's view the nature and scale of the use of this herbicide in the Farm Scale Evaluations gives rise to no risk of water contamination either in excess of the limit set by the EU Drinking Water Directive or at a level which would cause concern about effects on human health or on the environment.
6. So far, researchers have investigated the effects on wildlife of the herbicide management associated with GMHT crops at 34 maize, 43 spring sown oilseed rape, 50 autumn sown rape and 50 beet sites.   The SSC has recommended that around 17-20 oilseed rape sites are sown this autumn across the UK.
7. Locations of the Farm-Scale Evaluation sites (six-figure grid references) are published on the DEFRA web site   The government will write to all Parish Councils in whose areas the sites are to be located to explain the nature and the purpose of the FSEs in England.
8. DEFRA officials will assess proposed sites against the risk assessment in the research consent for the autumn-sown oilseed. The assessments may involve a visit. The assessments are intended to verify the locations and sizes of the sites, the description of the site ecosystem and its proximity to sites of special scientific interest. These assessments will be made available on the DEFRA website. None of the FSE crops has all the UK approvals necessary for commercial cultivation.
9. Separation distances are applied to the GM crops in the FSE programme to reduce cross-pollination with neighbouring conventional and organic production. Separation distances are not about safety - the GM crops in the FSEs have already been through a detailed safety assessment under the regulatory process. Separation distances help to ensure that any cross-pollination with nearby compatible non-GM crops is minimised but do not rule out pollen   transfer completely. The separation distances applied to the GM crops in the FSEs should mean that cross-pollination of nearby compatible crops does not exceed 1% on a worse- case basis. In the large majority of cases it will be much lower than 1%.
10. The GM crops in the FSE programme have already been through years of tests in laboratories, greenhouses and small plots of land. The independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) has assessed the crops as safe for human or animal health and for the environment.
11. On 31 May the Government announced that it would encourage an open and informed public debate on GM issues, including GM crops. We are now considering detailed advice from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission on how the debate might be conducted. Further information may be found on the DEFRA website at:
                   Press Enquiries: 020 7238 6293
                   Public Enquiries: 08459 335577
              Press Notices available via DEFRA website
           Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London, SW1P 3JR
   Tel: 020 7238 1133/1134/1128 Fax: 020 7238 5502/5506/5529/6134
   Out of Hours Tel: 020 7270 8960 Out of Hours Fax: 020 7270 8125
COIREF: 52178
Issued by: DEFRA Press Office
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