ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

19 May 2002


1. Outrage at Labour gag on protests
2. GM crop protesters to be silenced


1. Outrage at Labour gag on protests (front page)
Rob Edwards, Environment Editor
The Sunday Herald, 19 May 2002

THE government has drawn up secret plans to clear the way for home-grown GM foods to go on sale by removing the public's right to object to them.

And to counter the furore that such a proposal will inevitably provoke, civil servants are already preparing a spin campaign to mislead the public.

A leaked Westminster memo obtained by the Sunday Herald reveals that ministers have lost patience after two years of legal objections which have prevented the first GM crop, known as Chardon maize, being grown by farmers.

The only means by which the public can currently object to a GM crop is to oppose its inclusion on the national list of seeds that farmers are allowed to grow. If it is not included on this list it cannot be grown commercially and so cannot be marketed.

The hearings into Chardon maize are still ongoing because hundreds of environmentalists objected to its inclusion on the list. Now the government wants to smooth the way for another GM maize, known as Sheridan, to get on the list by removing the public right to object on safety grounds.

The plan is outlined in a government memo which was leaked to the environmental group Friends of the Earth in a plain brown envelope last week.

It states: ''Any proposal to remove the GM safety issues from the scope of the national list representations and hearings will be criticised because it will seem that we are trying to silence GM objections.

''However, we believe that an effective presentation strategy can be prepared in advance.' Such a strategy would say that: 'We are clarifying the structure of appeals procedures so that concerned members of the public may raise questions and bring forward relevant data at the most appropriate time.'

The changes would mean that consideration of GM safety would revert solely to the advisory committees -- which have repeatedly given the green light to GM crop trials in the past.

To avoid public concern and media attention ''a fully fledged presentation strategy will be prepared in consultation with the Communications Directorate, for clearance with ministers,'' the memo promises.

''This is genuinely scandalous,'' said the Green MSP, Robin Harper, yesterday. ''Not only is the government allowing the multinational GM industry to trample all over it, but it is planning to disguise the fact. The cynicism is breathtaking.''

He added: ''The prospect of losing the only legal method of objecting to GM crops is one that will appall and anger most people in this country. It transforms the whole heated argument over GM. It is no longer just about science or public safety or genetic contamination: it is now about democracy itself.''

The three-page draft memo suggests that the Scottish Executive -- presumably including environment and rural affairs minister Ross Finnie -- is being consulted on the planned changes. But all an Executive spokesman would say was: ''We don't comment on leaked documents.''

This further infuriated Harper. ''How dare civil servants secretly try to remove the public's right to object to GM? If Ross Finnie and the Executive fail to renounce this move, immediately and totally, their environmental credibility and their democratic credentials will be in tatters.''

The Sunday Herald's revelation comes in the wake of mounting pressure on Finnie to abandon his unswerving support for GM crop trials. Opposition parties, the Highland Council, the Scottish parliament's transport and environment committee and even his own Liberal Democrat party have all called on the minister to stop the trials.

Opposition has been at its fiercest at Munlochy on the Black Isle, where up to half of a huge field of GM oilseed rape has been trashed by protesters.

In one of the biggest campaigns of civil disobedience in the Highlands for years, 28 people have been arrested and charged, and an organic farmer has spent 11 days in jail.

''Ross Finnie has gone on the record as saying he wants to see more consultation, not less, on GM crops. Yet if he agrees to these new changes under discussion he will be effectively strangling the only legal route by which the public can currently raise concerns,' said Kevin Dunion, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.

''It is time that the Scottish Executive distanced itself from the Westminster approach which seems hell-bent on clearing the path for commercial introduction of GM crops,' he said. 'Had it not been for the national list hearings much of what we know about the potential pitfalls of GM crops would not have come to light.'

The public hearing into the objections to Chardon maize started in 2000 but had to be adjourned after a few weeks because of irregularities that emerged. Aventis, the company that promotes the maize as well as the GM oilseed rape at Munlochy, had to conduct an extra year of testing.

The leaked memo makes plain the government's desire not to allow national list hearings to be used in the same way again. Their criteria should be restricted to ''distinctiveness, uniformity and stability and value for cultivation and use,' it recommends.

''If we are to avoid repeating the huge costs of the Chardon hearing we need to make the change before the next proposal to add a GM variety,'' the memo says.

This should be done at once, and then be backed up urgently by new legislation, the memo concludes.

Bruce Crawford, the Scottish National Party's shadow environment minister, was horrified. ''They will go to any lengths to ensure that GM is given an easy ride. It fits in with Ross Finnie shuffling off powers on GM foods to Westminster,'' he said.

''They cannot be allowed to get away with this. Ross Finnie must say that he will not accept this shoddy deal.''

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London confirmed that ministers were planning to review the system of hearings for the national list. ''No decisions have been taken and any proposed changes will be the subject of public consultation,'' said a spokesman.

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2. GM crop protesters to be silenced

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
19 May 2002

Secret plans are being prepared to stop Britons challenging the safety of GM crops at public hearings, a confidential document seen by The Independent on Sunday reveals.

The internal memorandum circulating in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, proposes an "urgent" change in the law by November to crack down on objections to the crops, before they are grown in Britain.

The disclosure comes as public hearings open in London tomorrow overcorn developed by Aventis, the first GM variety grown commercially here. Environmentalists, including Friends of the Earth, are challenging this.

The document urges the Government to "proceed rapidly" to amend the law, straight after hearings into GM corn end this month. It admits the plans ''will be criticised because it will seem we are trying to silence GM objections''.

The Government's move follows proposals to stop the public challenging the need for nuclear waste dumps, and other controversial developments, at public inquiries.

Last night, Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth said: "The Government pretends to be neutral ... but this memo unveils the real agenda, to force GM food on to a reluctant public, while removing the only legal opportunity to object."

Meanwhile, Tony Blair will warn scientists this week that they have to do more to persuade the public of the benefits of scientific advances. The Prime Minister has previously warned that Britain was in danger of developing an "anti-science" culture.

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