UK Government's latest propaganda moves
Mr Benn's Wizard Wheezes:
The UK Government's latest pro-GM propaganda stunts
by Brian John for GM Free Cymru
1. DEFRA [UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and FSA [UK's Food Standards Agency] have worked with the Cabinet Office (1) and DFID [UK's Department for International Development] on a cunning little plan for insinuating GM into the food supply, for promoting GM crops and foods as "being inevitable", and for dismissing public opposition to GM. There have been a whole series of announcements from Hilary Benn [DEFRA Minister] and the Government spin machine over the past month or so -- this is the very time when the Great British Public is on holiday and snoozing in the sun. It's also the "silly season" when news is thin and when maximum coverage (with the invaluable help of the Science Media Centre) is guaranteed from the British media.
2. DEFRA, led by Hilary Benn, has fed the media with stories designed to promote the idea that GM has a role to play in (a) making British agriculture more self-sufficient in the future, and (b) helping to prevent future global famine.(2) Underpinning this idea is Benn's conviction that a growing number of countries worldwide are growing GM, and that it is impossible to stand against the tide. So, he thinks, one might as well go with the flow, especially since the science of GM is supposedly high-tech and glamorous, and since those who sign up for it can pretend that they are serious about "progress." However, Benn's vision of the future has been slammed as being naive and dishonest, since GM can do nothing to assist global food security, and since GM crops will do nothing to increase yields or to address the problems of agricultural development in poor countries. (3) In fact, Benn is also facing in two directions at once, since not long ago he signed up (reluctantly) for the
IAASTD Report which was highly sceptical about a role for GM in solving the problems of hunger and farming ineffectiveness in the developing countries. (4)
3. The UK government has pledged over GBP100 million for the development of GM crops in developing countries over the next five years. According to the Guardian newspaper (5), the government is committed to dramatically increasing spending on high-tech agriculture in the next five years, much of which will be on GM crop research. £60m will go on researching drought-resistant maize for Africa and a further GBP24m will be spent on pest resistance. In addition, support for an international network of GM crop research stations, in collaboration with GM companies, will be doubled. Biofortified crops, containing added vitamins, will receive GBP80m of development money; there are no details in the White Paper, but much of this UK aid will go to the highly controversial research initiative backed by the GM crop firm Syngenta, for the development of "Golden Rice" modified to increase vitamin A. The White Paper which summarizes these initiatives avoids the use of the tern "GM crops and
foods", and that is despicable in itself. Nonetheless, it is perfectly clear that the UK strategy is to push all of the hard work of the IAASTD to one side, and to pretend that there are high-tech / GM solutions to the food and agriculture problems of the poorer nations (6). The DFID solution to the problem of hunger in Africa is identical to that of the American FDA -- encourage African farmers "to industrially produce commodities for global markets in order to generate cash to purchase toxic food at a supermarket".
4. Sections of the media have been encouraged to promote the view that there is "increasing public acceptance of GM" and that opposition to GM in the food supply is diminishing (7). FSA's own research, which tracks public attitudes, shows, on the face of it, that GM technology is not a pressing concern for consumers. The FSA quarterly tracker has shown a steady decline in concern when consumers are prompted, from 43% in 2001 to 27% in September 2008. Spontaneous concern in relation to GM technology peaked in December 2003 at 20% with a steady decline to 6% in September 2008. However, as many stakeholders in FSA / DEFRA consultations have pointed out, an apparent lack of consumer concern about GM technology should be contextualised with a consumer belief that "the problem has been dealt with" and that there is therefore nothing to be concerned about (i.e. retailers do not sell products containing GM food ingredients). (cf Para 30 of "GM Crops and Foods: Follow-up to the Food Matters
Report by Defra and the FSA.) If GM was to be openly or secretly introduced into the British food supply, then the "sense of being threatened" would certainly shoot upwards. And has anybody ever asked for GM food in preference to non-GM food?
5. The current strategy (8), involving press releases and media briefings from both FSA and DEFRA, uses GM animal feed as a trojan horse to achieve (a) a reduction of regulatory controls and (b) greater public acceptance of GM. This is actually a blatant attempt to subvert and undermine the current EU position on GM soya by a country (the UK) which has a long and dishonourable record of promoting GM crop approvals in the face of opposition by the majority of EU states, lack of public support, and large scientific uncertainties. The UK government has no democratic mandate for its pro-GM campaign. Yet it continues to promote GM crops and foods at every opportunity. It has hardly ever voted against the Commission / EFSA line on new GM varieties as they come forward for approval, in spite of the fact that within the UK three of the four "competent authorities" (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) disapprove of the Westminster line. There is no doubt considerable diplomatic
pressure from the US to open up the EU to imports of GM soy from the USA (9). The UK's latest wizard wheeze runs as follows: Invent a problem -- identify "action points" -- commission "independent" research designed to confirm what you have already decided -- publish the research -- use it to bolster and announce a policy decision which was actually made long since. The "problem" is the supposed shortage of soya feed imports from Argentina and Brazil that meet strict EU requirements. According to DEFRA and FSA, the "problem" has nothing to do with food safety, but with security of supply issues and cost issues, exacerbated by another invented "problem" referred to as "asynchronous approval of GM varieties." This is all thoroughly disingenuous and dishonest, for the following reasons:
(a) DEFRA and FSA conveniently forget that the reason for EU resistance to GM soy is that it is probably unsafe for human consumption and that its cultivation involves unacceptable environmental risks (10). The science which underpins those approvals that exist (in the exporting countries) for GM soya varieties has been shown to be deficient and even fraudulent, and feeding studies have shown that GM soy has negative health effects and that glyphosate residues also damage health and the environment (11). It is quite despicable for the UK government and its agencies to pretend that the EU is somehow tardy or inefficient in not giving full approvals to GM soya just because the US and its allies have done so. And it is equally dishonest to take the line that "it is not quite acceptable to grow GM soy in Europe, because of health and environmental concerns, but it is quite acceptable for other countries to grow it if they want, and to sell it to us as animal feed." If GM soy is
dangerous, it is dangerous everywhere, and the UK should have nothing to do with it.
(b) The follow-up to the "Food Matters" Report places great stress on security of supply, while apparently remaining oblivious to the fact that dependence on a GM soya supply which comes entirely from the USA, Brazil and Argentina would simply increase INSECURITY. For a start, the big exporters would be able to hijack the soya supply market by offering attractive price inducements initially, and then -- one a monopolistic supply chain is established -- they would have the market at their mercy. Price hikes will follow as night follows day. This is exactly what Monsanto has done already with its GM seeds and Roundup herbicide to those farmers who have been fool enough to sign up to its "technology use agreements." (12) Secondly, the UK feed industry would become incredibly vulnerable to "events" -- climate change, insect or weed infestations, development of herbicide resistance, industrial disputes, or even damning scientific evidence relating to harm. Any of these -- or
combinations of them -- could cause market collapse and a public refusal to touch any animal or human food products associated with GM soy. If the UK really wants to achieve security of supply in the animal feed sector, it has to diversify its suppliers and its protein sources, use UK and EU feed supplies on a larger scale, and source materials from countries other than the US, Brazil and Argentina.
(c) In spite of the pretence running through the documents, and scare stories emanating from the European Commission, there is not actually a shortage of non-GM soy (13). DEFRA and the FSA pretend that difficulties in sourcing non-GM soy at reasonable prices increases insecurity in the UK animal feed market. But there is abundant non-GM soy on the global market, with countries like India, Romania and Brazil keen to protect the integrity of their certified non-GM supplies.
(d) The "problem" of asynchronous approvals is a cynical fabrication (13). The biotechnology lobby and the US soy industry have invented the idea that it is a protectionist tactic on the part of the EU to take so long over GM approvals, when they are issued at the drop of a hat in the USA. In fact, it is not the EU that is out of step, but the US itself. All other countries take a cautious approach to GM scientific analysis, and the precautionary principle is enshrined in GM law within the EU. When a company wants to commercialise a GMO in the US, a safety assessment is only required if the company presents evidence that this is needed. Unsurprisingly, no company has chosen to do this up until now. GMO commercialization in the US therefore occurs under a total absence of health and safety procedures and is complete in an average of 15 months.
It should be noted that the US process for authorising GMOs does not meet international requirements under the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius, which are considered as the standard by the World Trade Organisation’s trade dispute body. Furthermore, the US is not a signatory to the UN’s Biosafety Protocol. So the United States is isolated in relation to the rest of the world with resepct to GM soy because of its rapid rate of commercialization of GMOs and total lack of segregation. It is therefore clear that as long as other countries and regions pay attention to
biosafety issues and take longer to approve GMOs, US imports will be blocked as will the profits of the biotech industry. It is quite extraordinary that DEFRA and FSA should now portray this situation as if it is a problem created by the EU. Another point made by DEFRA and FSA is that Argentina and Brazil might choose to authorize new GM soy varieties, and that once these are incorporated into animal feed shipments thy may be rejected by Europe on the ground that they are "contaminated" with unauthorized GMOs. However, FoE Europe has pointed out that this is extremely unlikely, since Argentina and Brazil are keen to protect Europe as a vital long-term market.
(e) The "problem" of contamination and "adventitious presence" is another fabrication (14). In theory, there is zero tolerance of contamination of food and feed supplies by unauthorised GMOs. But the GM industry has been seeking for years to undermine this policy on the grounds that contamination on a small scale is supposedly harmless, if the offending GMOs have been through the farcical US approvals process. Industry apologists also argue that zero contamination (at the technical limit of detection) is impossible to achieve, since there will always be some adventitious presence of small quantities of GMOs and because this presence is technically unavoidable. This of course is rubbish; contamination even at very low levels is technically avoidable if appropriate measures are put in place. It is just that the US regulators, growers and merchants choose not to put these measures in place. The GM rice scandal of 2006 was perfectly avoidable, and it is absurd to pretend
otherwise. In a legal opinion by Lasok and Haynes, it is argued that the terms "adventitious presence" and "technically avoidable" are not properly defined or applied by the EC, and this is a view shared by many NGOs in Europe and elsewhere.
(f) The Commission's promise of a "technical solution" to contamination in soy supplies shows that it is leaning over backwards to appease the GM industry, the powerful EU farming lobby, and the Americans (15). Whilst DEFRA and FSA theoretically support zero tolerance, the strategy is nonetheless criticized as having a "negative impact on the availability of feed for the EU." That point is simply assumed, and not proved.
The new government document addresses the contamination thresholds that are being pushed by the various lobby groups: 0.5% by the industrial farming groups, 0.9% favoured by the food and feed industries and the EU biotech industry lobby, and 5% favoured by the US. The Commission does acknowledge that the adoption of any of these thresholds will require a change in the law and a clear dropping of zero tolerance. However, it is unlikely that dropping zero tolerance would be agreed to by many MEPs, whose constituents are very opposed to GMOs. Therefore the Commission is looking for solutions that would enable it to quickly and quietly drop zero tolerance and weaken EU GMO laws WITHOUT going through the due democratic process. It has come up with a proposal whereby the testing protocols for imports would be put at 0.1%, but since this would be difficult to apply in practice, Member States would in fact be allowed to work to 0.2% or 0.3% "before taking actions" over contamination of
unapproved GMOs. These "actions" would probably not be defined, and would no doubt involve the turning of a blind eye in countries such as the UK.
(g) It is nonsensical for the UK government to concentrate to such a degree on the GM soy industry, which exists essentially to produce animal feed and to underpin the west's meat production system (16). Primary food crops for human consumption should be of much greater importance in a realistic strategy for addressing future food supply problems in the UK and further afield. We need to move away from high protein (soya) dependent animal production, for human and animal health reasons. It should be noted that mass production of soy in monocultures, much of which is genetically modified, for the over-consumption of meat and other livestock products in industrialized countries, is not a sustainable farming model. It has created large-scale socioeconomic problems, human rights violations, loss of livelihoods, and expulsion of rural communities, small farmers and indigenous peoples from their land. In the "soy empires" there is increasing concentration of land ownership by big
companies, rises in rural unemployment, slavery-like conditions on industrial farms, poverty, malnutrition, rising food prices and loss of food security and sovereignty. Staple food crops are abandoned, and there is increasing corporate control over food production. In the longer term, the "downside" of soy monocultures has to be confronted; solutions must be found that will ensure that the EU can be self-sufficient in animal feed, and can maintain a sustainable balance between production and consumption.
(h) GM soy production in South America is associated with environmental degradation on a terrifying scale. From Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay we see loss of forests and savannahs due to direct destruction by soy monocultures or displacement of existing agriculture (particularly cattle ranching and small holder agriculture); related losses of biodiversity; release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through land-use changes, accelerating fertiliser use including NOx emissions; soil erosion and disruption of surface and ground water and rainfall patterns. Use of Roundup Ready (RR) soy has also facilitated indiscriminate fumigations (often by aerial spraying) affecting human health, food crops and the environment. A report by the Rural Reflection Group (Grupo de ReflexiÃ³n Rural, or GRR, from Argentina) documents how spraying glyphosate-based herbicides on RR soy leads to an increase in health problems in the countryside such as cases of cancer at early ages, birth defects, lupus,
kidney problems, respiratory ailments and dermatitis, evidenced by the accounts of rural doctors, experts and the residents of dozens of farming towns. (17)
So absurd is this strategic shift towards an essentially unsustainable model of future food production, and so inevitable is its failure, that one has to wonder where it has come from. The answer to that question is probably that the UK Government, in trying to deal with the Recession, has now adopted the American model of both food production and foreign aid. That model is based upon the key premise that the main beneficiary of American largesse globally is the United States itself, through the placing of favourable contracts throughout the food supply chain and through diplomatic blackmail tied to "charitable" activities. There are many signs here that Britain is going the same way, by setting up alliances with multinational GM corporations, by seeking to dismantle and undermine GM regulatory controls in Europe and across the world, by pretending that there are technical fixes to intractable food supply and socio-economic problems, and by encouraging poor countries to move into
the large-scale production of global agricultural commodities rather than staple food crops for local use.
GM Crops and Foods: Follow-up to the Food Matters Report by Defra and the FSA
(5) UK to spend GBP100m on supporting GM crops for world's poor --White paper shows government plans major rise in investment in research, as report calls for moratorium and questions approach. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jul/19/gm-crops-aid-uk-funding
DFID / UKAid: Eliminating World Poverty: Building our Common Future
Quote: DFID's five year investment in agriculture research will be used to develop ‘best bets’,
the innovations with the greatest potential to lift poor people out of poverty, and to
getting these into widespread use. Best bets include:
tackling new pests which attack staple crops, such as virulent wheat ”¢ rust and cassava
viruses. This will cost GBP20 million but could help protect almost three billion people
who depend on these crops for their food.
”¢ breeding drought-resistance maize for Africa. This will cost up to GBP60 million but will
help 320 million farmers in Africa who are affected by drought and will indirectly
benefit many more likely to be affected by climate change.
”¢ improving the vitamin content of staple crops. To develop these crops and get them into
widespread use will cost around GBP80 million but it has the potential to help improve the
nutrition of up to 670 million of the poorest people, many of them children.
(6) DFID heading down a blind alley
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UK consumers more relaxed than ever about GM food
Friday, August 14, 2009, CheckBiotech
Food Standards Agency (FSA): Quarterly public tracker - June 2009
The FSA and Defra have published their response to the action points on their web sites. The report can be found at http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2009/aug/gm
(9) The whole of the soy supply chain in the USA is now contaminated with GM, so that co-existence and non-GM certification are impossible. US-based exporters cannot source certified GM-free soy for the European market.
The 'Food Matters' report published in July 2008 (www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/strategy/work_areas/food_policy.aspx) included two parallel action points for the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on genetically modified (GM) food and animal feed. The action points were as follows:
* Defra, working with the FSA, will publish an analysis of the potential impacts on the livestock sector arising from global food trends in GM production and the current operation of the GM approval system in the EU.
* In parallel, the FSA, working with Defra,will publish an analysis of the extent to which changes in the market are putting a strain on the regulatory system for GM products (including animal feed) and the implications for UK consumers.
(10) Environmental and health concerns of genetically engineered (GE) crops in animal feed.
Animal feed crisis and EU GMO laws is there a link?
Open Letter calls for the Round Table on Responsible Soy to be abandoned
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By Marcela Valente