The debate nobody wants - GM
Paul Brown Environment correspondent
Tuesday May 15, 2001
One of the biggest failures of Tony Blair's first term was missing the public mood on genetically modified food and crops. Quite simply, following BSE, the public did not want their food mucked about with, and when they thought about it, their countryside either.
Despite this unprecedented revolt by consumers, Tony Blair, while avoiding mention of the issue at all, remains a GM enthusiast. The fact that during his first term every supermarket chain has withdrawn genetically modified foods from its shelves and gone to extensive lengths to insist suppliers are GM free seems to have passed the prime minister by.
Currently there is no market in Britain for GM food and most chains are also banning GM crops from animal feed. Even Coca Cola is saying it does not want sugar from GM sugar beet in its drinks.
Despite all this, full scale trials of genetically modified crops are under way, even though there is serious public opposition.
Even the food standards agency, one body set up to restore confidence in British food, seems happy to endorse GM products on the basis that they cannot find any danger to the public.
The only question still left in the government's mind is whether GM crops might damage the environment, and that answer will not be known until 2003, even if the current trials do manage to produce a result.
None of this grapples with the central problem that there is no gain in the technology for the consumer and only perceived threats.
Why they should be talking about it?
GM as an issue is not going away. Britain has a lot of expertise and money invested in the biotech industry, and potentially a lot of jobs. The future of British farming, whether organic agriculture has a future, and the shape of the countryside are all tied up in the the debate.
The perception that the prime minister is a pushover for big business interests is partly tied up with his perceived lack of interest in genuine public concerns about the consequences of embracing this technology. So far multi-national companies controlling GM patents appear to be the only winners from the GM revolution, at least as far as the farmer and consumer are concerned. If politicians believe that GM food and crops are the future they should be prepared to discuss the issues with environment groups and allay public fears.
What could be done?
The government claims the technology is safe but there is no liability regime in place if anything goes wrong. GM companies should be required to provide insurance to indemnify farmers against successful claims from organic producers and beekeepers if they lose their markets because of GM crops. Shops also need cover if genetically modified foods cause allergies or other ailments.
If, as some claim, GM crops and organic farming cannot exist side by side in such a small country, then the government should enter a genuine debate on which the public wants.