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UK News



Government advisers call for  monitoring of health risks of GM foods

The Government's most senior scientific advisers, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser have recommended that ministers set up a GM health monitoring unit, similar to the body of experts which discovered a link between BSE infected cows and human CJD. According to a report in the Independent on Sunday (2nd May 1999), T"hey believe not enough research has been done to determine whether eating
GM food could cause serious health problems in humans." The report calls for "the creation of a new unit to monitor the health effects of GMOs, similar to the unit monitoring CJD". It should examine "potential health effects" including "foetal abnormalities, new cancers, and effects on the human immune system".

"The reasons why we can't be specific about the health consequences of GM food is that we don't know enough," said Dr Michael Antoniou, senior lecturer in molecular pathology at London's Guy's Hospital. "Each genetic engineering event holds its own dangers. You could have acute toxicity or something that sneaks up over many years. Any of these things are possible."

Professor Arpad Pusztai and Professor Hugh Pennington (in separate interviews on Radio 4's 'Today' programme, 3rd May 1999) both made the point that while the monitoring was welcome it would be very difficult to track health effects, and it would make more sense to also improve the scrutiny of GM foods prior to approval. Professor Pusztai, who has previously said that it is very unfair to use one's "fellow citizens as guinea pigs," pointed out that despite continual claims of extensive research into the possible health effects of GM foods,  only one piece of actual research on the subject had been published in the last 15 years.

Minister admits GM foods unnecessary

Under pressure during an appearance before the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee in late April 1999, Jeff Rooker, the UK's Food Safety Minister, conceded that GM foods were "unnecessary". "Are genetically modified foods necessary?" he said. "When I'm asked that I say no - but the government's role is not to stop them, it's to regulate them." The admission that GM foods are unnecessary, as well as clearly unwanted, raises some interesting questions about a technology that even the UK's pro-GM Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, has admitted involves risk.

Food giants and UK's largest retailer going GM-free 

The world's two largest food production companies are trying to go GM free. Foods giant Unilever UK, part of the world's largest food manufacturing company with a turnover of over $56 billion, announced on Tuesday 27th March 1999 that it would phase out genetically engineered foods, a move that was closely followed by a similar announcement by Nestlé UK and Cadbury-Schweppes. Nestlé is the world's largest food production company with 495 factories around the world. Nestlé's produces for the entire European market and not for the UK alone. Unilever's chaiman said their decision would have a global impact. 

Also on Tuesday 27th March it was announced that the UK's leading supermarket chain Tesco's was following the lead of other supermarkets, like Sainsbury's and trying to go GM-free. Tesco also says it will provide increased GM-free options by adding to the number of items in its organic range. The company said in a statement, "We are already energetically seeking reliable sources of genuinely GM free ingredients and are pleased that Greenpeace has agreed to discuss working with us to meet this challenge."

The stance of these major companies sends a clear message from Europe to US farmers not to grow GM crops if they don't want to lose a major export market.

SCIMAC code slammed

A proposed code of practice (dated March 1999) for the commercial farming of GM crops which is under discussion by ministers has attracted severe criticism from environmentalists and others. The code produced by the biotech industry body, the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC), consisting of representatives from the biotech companies, seed breeders and the NFU, has attracted particular criticism because it would be purely voluntary, because the government says it hasn't time to introduce legislation. Friends of the Earth has made the following specific criticisms:

*    environmental monitoring of GM crops will be left to the industry
*    farmers do not have to take any steps to protect farm biodiversity 
*    evidence that GM crops are likely to cross-breed with wild relatives is ignored
*    safety barriers to prevent contamination of non-GM crops are inadequate
*    organic farmers crops will not be legally protected from GM contamination.

To date the SCIMAC code of practice has not been available to farmers or the general public for comment. But Friends of the Earth food campaigner Adrian Bebb who has seen a leaked copy described it as "feeble, unworkable and unenforceable." 

Monsanto admits genetic pollution

Monsanto has admitted that GM crops can cross-breed with native plants, creating hybrids. In the U.S. Monsanto has promised not to develop plants with related native species but in Britain the company has applied to market genetically-modified sugar beet, which, according to scientists, will cross-breed with wild and weed beets. Monsanto has been accused of dual standards. "If Monsanto is concerned about cross-pollination in the States, they haven't shown much sign of concern here," said a senior adviser to English Nature. Monsanto has also conceded that insects are capable of developing resistance to plants genetically engineered to kill them. 

New research confirms GM trials unsafe but Government refuses to call a halt

According to a government-sponsored study of the spread of live pollen, by scientists at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge, reported in mid-April,  pollen from AgrEvo's GM oilseed rape remains fertile over much greater distances than is allowed for by current rules governing the size of the "buffer" zones between transgenic and natural plants. 

"We were getting cross-pollination over large distances. There is no doubt that pollen from  genetically  modified crops will get out," Dr Crawford said. Even at 4,000 metres away, 5 per cent of flower buds on the test plants were pollinated. The team said in its paper to a conference at Keele University: "The results suggest that the farm-to-farm spread of oilseed rape transgenes will be widespread." Dr Crawford said bees could be the key to pollination at huge distances. "Bees carry a lot of pollen concentrated on their bodies. So the amount of pollen getting to a plant could be quite significant," he said.     

However, despite the new research evidence, the Government still refused to countenance changes to the large scale farm trials involving  oilseed rape and maize even though the  research suggests the precautions are inadequate to avoid genetic pollution.

Leading geneticist says GM trials not rigorous and warns of massive dangers

In mid-April a leading UK scientist, Steve Jones,  professor of genetics at University College, London, said he thinks genes from (GM) crops will inevitably escape into other plants. "Those genes are going to get out into other plants. Everybody knows that. And we have no idea what is going to happen." The prospect apparently haunts Professor Jones. What would happen, for instance, if a gene that conferred resistance against insects escaped, he asks. "Suddenly we have no insects. With no insects you have no ecology, no ecosystem, no
pollinators, no flowers, God knows what. Now this probably will not happen. But it certainly might. With GM plants, we are doing something new. We are moving genes around to where they've never been before.
And we don't seem to be considering the possibility that evolution may take advantage of those genes, as it has done previously, in ways that we don't like."

Professor Jones does not think the field trials of GM crops are "really rigorous enough". "A tiny accident, one gene leaking out, can have massive consequences."

Top chefs support new “Avoiding GM Foods” campaign

Some of the UK's top chefs backed a campaign being launched in April 1999 to promote menus which are free from genetically-modified (GM) foods.  Eighteen of the UK's most respected restaurants, including London's Savoy and the River Cafe, are involved.  Eminent chefs Antonio Carluccio, from the Neal Street Restaurant, and Philip Howard, from The Square restaurant, will unveil a new "Avoiding GM Foods" logo.  The logo is to assure that meals in their restaurants are free of GM foods.  Meanwhile a community picnic in a  London park designed to promote organic food and protest at GM food was cancelled after the organisers were overwhelmed with people wanting to attend. The picnic is being rearranged at a larger park for later in 1999. 

GM Food to go on trial

A civil legal action by Monsanto appears to have seriously backfired, when the company failed in the High Court on April 20, 1999 in their bid to permanently silence campaigners who pulled up the company's GM plants.

Last year Monsanto won an injunction against five supporters of genetiX snowball who had pulled up a token number of genetically  engineered plants at a trial site in Oxfordshire.  On Thursday April 15, 1999 at the High Court in London, AgrEvo and Plant Genetic Systems were granted a similar injunction. 

But in the High Court on April 20th 1999 a futher Monsanto action came unstuck on two counts.  Firstly, Monsanto found it necessary to drop a demand that genetiX snowball release the names and addresses of all recipients of its "Handbook for Action: A guide to safely removing genetically modified plants from release sites in Britain." This had been produced last December and copies were received by hundreds of people, including Prince Charles and Prime Minister Tony Blair. (You can browse the hanbook, or download it at the genetiX snowball website) 

Secondly, while Mr. Justice Klavan continued the existing temporary injunction, he said he could not issue a permanent injunction to stop the tearing up of GM crops  without a full trial as the defendants had an arguable case that they were acting in the public interest. Now Monsanto faces a high-profile trial in which the defence will be that campaigners were acting lawfully to protect society against the dangers posed by GM crops. The risk for the company is that if they proceed with the case, they could find that it is Monsanto and GM food that ends up on trial.

You can reach genetiX snowball at the One World Centre, 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS; phone: 0161 834 8187; e-mail:; or on the web

Prince calls for more funding of alternative research to GM
The Prince of Wales, during the opening of a bio-science centre at Cardiff University in April 1999, has once more voiced concern about genetic engineering and called for more environmentally-friendly methods of pest control.  The Prince also spoke out about the need for more research funding : "I do think there is an urgent need for much greater research into environmentally-friendly methods on pest control...   When you think how much money is spent in research terms on the genetic engineering research field - something in the region of 1.6 billion dollars per annum. It shows, I think, how little is being spent at the moment on alternative research..." A recent study by the Organic Farming Research Foundation in the U.S. found that, out of 30,000 federally financed research projects, those determined to be organic represent less than 0.1 percent.

The Prince also emphasised the need to adopt the precautionary approach “which I think is of immense importance."   At the end of his visit he was presented with a small glass box of lacewings to be released in his greenhouses on the ighgrove estate in Gloucestershire. The insect lava pray on pests and reduce the need for chemical pesticides and are endangered by GM crops (see Silent Spring poem).

GE campaigners acquitted 

On 29th March 1999 two genetic campaigners, Jacklyn Sheedy and Elizabeth Snook, who with others destroyed  a trial of GM maize at Dartington in  Devon had no evidence offered against them in court because, the prosecution said, the case had been undermined by, amog other things,  changing Government policy and the implied doubts about the safety of GM crops.  Michael Schwarz who defended the two women has commented that the real reasons for the trial's discontinuance was simple: "GM crops, not the defendants, would have been on trial. The defence evidence was compelling. The Government could not countenance a jury - a microcosm of society - hearing that evidence and finding GMs guilty."

Co-op pulls out of GM trials and National Trust bans GM crops from 700 farms

The Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), which farms 80,000 acres across the UK making it Britain's biggest farming organisation, announced on 29th March 1999 that it has pulled out of GM trials because it  didn't wish to take part in "flawed" farm-scale trials, in which whole fields are given over to GM crops.  It has criticised the design of such trials arguing that they could give rise to the very concerns about environmental
damage that they are designed to research. English Nature has also criticised the design of the farm-scale trials planned for 1999 as not scientifically valid. Two days after the CWS decision,  the National Trust, which is one of the largest owners of agricultural land in the UK, announced it was taking action to stop hundreds of its tenant farmers growing GMOs and that it would also be removing from sale all products labelled as containing GMOs because not enough was known about the risks.  The Local Government Association, see below, recently indicated its support for a 5-year freeze on the growing of GM crops for any commmercial purpose.

Soya allergies increasing?

On March 12th 1999 researchers at the York Nutritional Laboratory announced that soy food allergies had unexpectedly risen by 50% in 1998, coinciding with a large increase in imported genetically engineered soybeans. Last year Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans constituted 32% of the US soybean crop. Monsanto's GM soybeans: contain genes from a virus, a soil bacterium and from a petunia (plant), none of which have been in human food before. According to Dr Mae-Wan Ho, “The soil bacterium [in GM soya], Agrobacterium sp. (CP4EPSPS) is unlike any other protein that humans have eaten. And there is no reliable method for predicting its allergenic potential. Allergic reactions typically occur only some time after the subject is sensitized by initial exposure to the allergen."

GM crops threaten land values

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) - one of the largest professional bodies in the world whose members manage most of the land in the United Kingdom - has warned the Government that farmers who plant GM crops risk a fall in land values similar to the effect of an outbreak of disease or contamination. In their report they also warn that tenant farmers who grow GM crops could face picking up the bill for any shortfall in the price suffered by the landowner.  For more information on land management and valuation issues raised by GMOs see article in the RICS journal at the RICS website

UK supermarkets join Europe wide consortium to source GM-free food

UK food chains Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer are to join a Europe-wide consortium of food producers in an unprecedented move to source non GM-food, in particular soya, and to offer "a non-GM guarantee." The
consortium will include farmers and processors committed to offering GM free ingredients. Others in the group include the French hypermarket chain Carrefour, Superquinn of Ireland, Effelunga of Italy, Migros of Switzerland and Delhaiz of Belgium. The powerful buying power generated by the group - including some of the biggest retailers in France, Italy and Ireland - will be used to break the stranglehold of US GM-soya producers.

Most UK supermarkets going GM-free 

Following the Marks & Spencer announcement of their decision to go GM-free - see below, Sainsbury's announced on Wednesday 17th March 1999  that it intended to  remove all GM ingredients from its own-brand range by the summer. Sainsbury's announcement was followed by indications from all the main UK supermarkets,except TESCO and Somerfield/Kwiksave, that they too would be removing GM- soya and maize from their own brand foods.

Marks and Spencer's and other food outlets ban GM

Marks and Spencer's (M&S) announced on 15th March 1999 that it is to follow the ASDA supermarket chain and Iceland stores and go GM free as regards own-brand foods. As M&S only sell their own-brand “St. Michael” foods, this means that for the very first time in the UK entire stores belonging to a leading food retailer will be going GM-free. An NOP survey recently showed 65% of M&S customers, more than for any other UK store, wanted GM foods banned from their store. Sheila McKechnie of the UK's Consumers Association pointed out in the Daily Mail newspaper on Feb. 11th 1999 that grocery chains banning GM foods would "have an enormous competitive advantage" in the marketplace. Some 86% of consumers questioned in a poll for Here's Health magazine said they would switch to a different supermarket if it banned all such products. On top of this, 84% of the same sample of 1,030 shoppers said they would be willing to travel double the distance it normally takes to visit their supermarket if they could be sure of shopping in a GM-free environment. Almost half of the UK's leading fast-food outlets also recently announced that they were turning their backs on GM foods. 

UK local governments' big GM investments

Although the Local Government Association on February 24th 1999 unanimously voted to get GM foods off the menu for all council catering (see below), many councils across the country are believed to have millions of tax and rate payer derived monies invested in the very corporations which are trying to foist GM foods onto the public. One such council, which has lagged well behind many other councils across the country in getting GM foods off the school menu, is  known to have made a multi-million pound investment in the biotech giants.  Norfolk County Council’s pension fund, which covers not only its own employees but those of Norfolk’s seven District Councils as well as other bodies, is known to have purchased more than 11 million pounds worth of shares in companies like Novartis and Zeneca as well as having bought further holdings in a Biotechnology Venture Fund. For ngin's press release on this.

Public money is already being poured into programmes like the DTI’s "Biotechnology means Business programme" (a recent recipient of some £13 million pounds of tax payers’ money) while Lord Sainsbury, as Science Minister,  has just given an extra £50 million pounds of public money to the industry-dominated Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council which is known to favour plant biotech institutes like the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre (where Lord Sainsbury has already invested millions of his own). 

GM food ban for schools

GM food is likely to be taken off the menu in all schools, old people's homes and town halls after local government leaders at a meeting on February 24th 1999 unanimously recommended a five-year ban to allow proper scientific investigation. The recommendation, if implemented, will involve about 500 councils and will affect almost 10 million children in 26,000 schools in England and Wales as well as 1.5 million local government workers and thousands of people receiving meals-on-wheels.

The Local Government Association's public protection committee took its unanimous decision to advise English and Welsh authorities to wait until 2004 before deciding whether to use GM products after receiving a report detailing health concerns. The study, by the head of consumer protection  and environmental health,
Ian Foulkes, said that scientists did not "fully understand what happens when they fuse genes into the DNA of an other organism", and urged the Government to take "an even more  precautionary approach" because of the uncertainty of the long-term health impact.

The study states that inserting genes from organisms that have never before been eaten into food crops causes new proteins to be introduced into the human food chain. It notes that "Reaction to protein  is a major cause of allergic reaction in human beings." The report also notes that many foods contain genes which are resistant to antibiotics and that this resistance could be passed on to micro-organisms which inhabit the human gut. It concludes, "This would render much current medical treatment ineffective."

The committee is to write to Mr Blair about its fears. Councillor John Ryan, chairman of the committee, said: "As major  buyers and suppliers of food councils should be very cautious on behalf of the public many of
whom are vulnerable, such as schoolchildren and the.elderly" The association also noted the environmental concerns about GM crops and wanted the public to be involved in decisions on the use and regulation of these foodstuffs. CouncillorRyan noted that seven of the 13 members of the main advisory committee for approving releases of GM crops had links with GM companies. 

The advice is doubly embarassing for the Goverment since the Labour-led association is generally highly loyal and ministers, including the Prime Minister, have been trying to persuade the public that GM food is both safe and carefully regulated.

Breakfast in Downing Street

At 9.40 am on 18th February 1999 seven Greenpeace activists dumped four tons of genetically engineered soya beans from the USA outside the home of one of the very few in Britain who claim to want to eat it: Tony Blair. The British Prime Minister had declared a few days earlier that GM food was safe and that he would have no qualms feeding it to his family.

"Tony Blair has chosen to swallow Bill Clinton's promotion of Monsanto and other genetic engineering companies rather than listen to the wishes of the UK public. He should ban gene food now," said Greenpeace
Executive Director, Peter Melchett.  Greenpeace reportedly had difficulty obtaining the GM soya because of the widespread desire of consumers in the UK to avoid it.

Monsanto fined over GM crop trial

Monsanto was fined £17,000 with £6,159 costs in Lincolnshire on 17th February 1999 for failing to prevent pollen from an experimental crop being released into the environment, in the first case of its kind in Britain. The case involved the failure to provide a proper barrier between herbicide tolerant oil seed rape and surrounding crops. The seed producers for the trial, Perryfield Holdings, were fined £14,000 and ordered to pay £5,000 costs in a prosecution by the Health and Safety Inspectorate brought after an inspection of the site last year had revealed the breach. Both companies admitted the charges and Monsanto admitted in court that it had never even visited its GM crop trial. See below for more on this

International group of scientists speak out on the Pusztai case

More than twenty international scientists on Friday 12th January urged more research into genetically modified foods and demanded the reinstatement of a British researcher, Dr Arpad Pusztai, who found that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered a weakened immune system and vital organ damage. Dr Pusztai was last year forced to retire from the prestigious Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland two days after giving a television interview in which he said it was "very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs.''  The Guardian newspaper published the names of scientists from Britain, other European countries, the United States and Canada
who had signed a public statement in support of Pusztai. 

The scientists say they have examined all the published data and concluded that Dr Pusztai was right to be concerned. After 10 days of feeding trials rats fed on potatoes genetically engineered with a lectin previously thought to be harmless to mammals showed signs of harm to their kidneys, thymuses, spleens and guts. Rats fed on potatoes merely spiked with the same lectin showed no comparable ill effects. This suggests the harm may arise from something involved in the genetic modification process itself, in which case this research could have very far reaching implications. For more on the Pusztai case

Serious setback for GM trials after 'crop-squat' protest

According to the Daily Mail for January 30th 1999, "plans to grow genetically modified crops in Britain have suffered a serious setback" after trials on GM sugar beet for Novartis and Monsanto on fields owned by Sir Timothy Colman, Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, have been abandoned after a series of protests, including a three-week long 'crop squat'. 

Over a four-year period Sir Timothy's estate had run more GMO trials than any other privately owned farm or estate in the UK, bar only one. Novartis was licensed to continue planting on the estate until 2002, and Monsanto until 2003. 

Sir Timothy said "I welcome the debate on genetic modification - it is an important issue.' His agent said of the decision to pull out of the GM crop trials, "I think the public disquiet and the debate about GM crops that's been running in the national media is a factor." Novartis Seeds said it was becoming more difficult to find farmers willing to let land for trials.  For ngin's press release that broke this story.

Gene food labelling failing badly

Nick Brown the Minister for Agriculture said in an interview on 31st January 1999 that all food, whether on sale in UK shops, restaurants or other eating places, which contained GM ingredients would have to be labelled as such so consumers could have a choice as to whether to purchase it. However, a recent investigation by Worcestershire County Council's trading standards officers using DNA fingerprinting technology has shown that current EU labelling regulations, which require only the labelling of a small fraction of foods containing GM ingredients, are already proving inadequate to cope with the spread of GM  foods. The survey, assisted by the local authority's scientists, showed that just under a third of 200 items purchased across a number of local regions were found to contain genetically modified soya or maize when DNA-tested but just one of the offending items stated the fact that it contained GM ingredients despite the EU regulations. Scientists at Worcestershire County Council's Scientific Services found that many of the companies who had failed to  declare GM ingredients were not even aware that their products contained them. 

More than 100 chefs and food writers condemn GM

On the 26th January 1999 more than 100 chefs and food writers launched a campaign to oppose "freakish" genetically modified food. Antonio Carluccio, Antony Worrall Thompson, Fay Maschler, Nigella Lawson, Egon Ronay and  Derek Cooper were among those who pledged to secure a ban on the releaseof all genetically modified (GM) organisms into the food chain. The writers, who are backed by the environmental group Greenpeace, said they would not lend their names to any products including GM ingredients and would only endorse restaurants that do not use GM food. In a joint statement, the writers  said: "As food professionals we object to the introduction of [GM] foods into the food chain. This is imposing a genetic experiment on the public, which could have unpredictable and irreversible adverse consequences. " Eurotoques - the European association of top chefs - and the UK Guild of Food Writers have also drawn up a policy along similar lines. 

Joanna Blythman who is spearheading the writers' campaign has said, "Our action started with the realisation that gene foods are the single most important food issue of our lifetimes... Governments and bureaucrats are rolling over  for the biotech industry although every indicator of public opinion in Europe and the UK shows
that the more consumers know about gene foods, the less they want them.  Now foods with genetically-manipulated ingredients are on our shelves and it has become apparent that we were always going to get them, against our wishes and without our consent.  It makes a nonsense of any notion of democratic public control of our precious food chain."

Lord Sainsbury considering GM  supermarket propaganda blitz

A group of ministers, including Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, is considering a study, commissioned by a Government Dept, on selling food biotechnology to the public. The study recommends a Government video and leafleting campaign extolling the virtues of  GM foods  to shoppers.  Charles Secrett of Friends of the Earth, said: "This planned propaganda campaign is promoting potentially dangerous novel foods. The fact that Lord Sainsbury, with all his previous business interests, is also being allowed to continue in his job in charge of this is appalling." Lord Sainsbury, who has invested heavily in GE - see news item below  - said he rejected "the implication that I should relinquish all decision-making over biotechnology policy."

Science Minister challenged over  financial links with GE

In late January 1999 Lord Sainsbury, the UK's pro- biotechnology Science Minister who has recently substantially increased the grant to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), was challenged over his investments in the genetic engineering of food. Attention has been drawn to the fact that Lord Sainsbury, who is on a special Cabinet committee reviewing GM foods, established a trust which has contributed millions to the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre in Norwich which focuses on plant biotechnology and derives much of its income from the BBSRC. The JIC's work is said to underpin the biotech industry worldwide. The Sainsbury Laboratory’s main grant comes from the Sainsbury family trust, the Gatsby Foundation, established by Lord Sainsbury, the former boss of the supermarket giant and a major Sainsbury’s shareholder.  Lord Sainsbury also appoints the trustees of the Gatsby Foundation which contributed over 2 million pounds to the JIC last year alone.

The UK's shadow Trade and Industry spokesman, John Redwood, has dawn attention to Lord Sainsbury's financial connections with the Gatsby Foundation and its big investments in genetic engineering. He and others, like Friends of the Earth, also note Lord Sainsbury's history of business investments in biotechnology.
Friends of the Earth note that Lord Sainsbury  was boss of Sainsbury's, the supermarket chain, when the company was involved in the development of GM tomatoes, currently being sold in tinned tomato puree. He has also financed two companies involved in biotechnology research and development and promotion: Diatech Ltd. - set up with financial assistance from Lord Sainsbury; Innotech Investments Ltd. - funded by Lord Sainsbury, it owns Floranova Ltd., Elite Seeds and Castelhove. Furthermore, Paradigm Genetics, involved in 'Agrbio Product Development' has recently announced a $12 million finance package including money from Innotech Investments (described in a Paradigm press release as "funded by Lord David Sainsbury".)

House of Lords report on GM crops

A subcommittee of the UK's House of Lords' European Communities committee, in a controversial report issued on January 20th 1999, concluded that the potential benefits of GM crops outweigh the risks. Although the committee included the chairwoman of English Nature, Lady Young, it rejected English Nature's call for a moratorium. 9 of the 12 peers on the committee have farming interests and one is also a shareholder in Zeneca, one of the big biotech companies.

Consumer and environmental groups have united to condemn the report as muddled , inaccurate and above all biased. They have pointed out that the peers  took evidence overwhelmingly from people who had financial interests in the development of the technology. This included leading GE companies, lobby groups and institutes with industry research contracts, as well as the US Department of Agriculture, the US Soya Bean Association, companies like Unilever and Nestle, and in the words of the Guardian newspaper "academics who fiercely push the technology or sit on government advisory boards known to favour the technology." The committee also made a special visit to the John Innes Centre in Norwich. The Guardian goes on, "Among more than 50 witnesses the peers called on, there were only two consumer groups, three environment groups and one company known to be doubtful about the technology." 

Among other recommendations, the Lords endorsed the infamous Terminator Technology and said GE would bring great benefits to the poorest countries. Not one witness, however, was called from the developing world. The committee also astounded organic farmers by arguing that GE was "compatible with the principles of organic farming".

English Nature has criticised the Lords' report. More feedback :

Consumers' Association: "We are concerned about whether this was a genuinely independent inquiry into the use of genetic technology in agriculture. The industry and its friends are entitled to give evidence, but... the list [of those giving evidence] reflects overwhelmingly the interests of the food industry and of their associates."

RSPB: "A cautious approach is needed. We need harder scientific answers before these crops are released. Farmers would be very unwise to rush into this. They do not want another BSE or E.coli horror." (More on RSPB position)

Dr Mae-wan Ho,a bio-physicist and geneticist at the Open University told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If you look at the scientific evidence, there are already signs that some of the products marketed may be harmful for human beings as well as for beneficial species." Dr Ho went on, "And the genes can spread out of control, not only by ordinary pollination, but by horizontal transfer across species barriers." She also noted "The monitoring that goes on is derisory at the moment. There are lots and lots of violations."

Monsanto welcomed the report.

Tories and RSPB both want 3-year crop ban

While the Government has so far failed to deliver on anything more than a 12-month delay on the commercial introduction of GM crops into the UK, the Tories (the UK's Conservative Party) began 1999 by calling for a 3-year moratorium.  The Lib-Dems have already called for a 5-year crop ban and two other UK national parties, the Green Party and the Natural Law Party, have both called for a complete ban.  English Nature, the Government's own wildlife advisers have also called for a minimum 3-year moratorium as has the million-member Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Graham Wynne, chief executive of the RSPB, has said, "Any reasonable assessment of the enviromental safety of these crops will require a minimum of three years, but the government seems determined to permit the release of the crops after only one year.  The fact that Monsanto has now resorted to blaming cats for the decline in farmland birds simply adds to the impression that it is only the enviromental groups who are putting forward arguments based on Science." 

Top UK chefs call for GM ban

19 top chefs, who preside over restaurants which have won the highest rating in the prestigious 1999 Good Food Guide, say they will ban all GM foods from their kitchens and press the Government to introduce a 5-year moratorium on the sale of such food in the shops. The 1999 Good Food Guide itself expresses concern in an editorial.  "To introduce 'experimental' herbicide resistant crops without some soundly based assurance is madness, albeit perfectly legal madness. If BSE has taught us anything, it is surely to be cautious about tampering with natural processes, however well intentioned, however plausibly the benefits are packaged."