Minister to abolish GM scrutiny body
Champion of consumer choice falls victim to rift
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian , Wednesday December 29, 2004
The environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, is to scrap an advisory committee after it repeatedly placed obstacles in the way of government plans to introduce genetically modified crops.
The commission established by the government to monitor ethical and social issues linked to GM crops is to be disbanded after its members insisted that conventional and organic farmers should be protected from contamination by GM crops - and be compensated if safeguards fail.
With the results of the latest GM trials due in February, Mrs Beckett, already known to be hostile to the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, is expected to announce its demise early next month, before it can cause further difficulties.
When public hostility to GM crops was at its height four years ago, the government defused the row by creating a commission to discuss the social, ethical and economic issues surrounding their introduction in the British countryside.
They put in charge Professor Malcolm Grant, the provost of University College London, and appointed a wide range of members, from opponents of GM crops to staff of biotech companies.
With the government, urged on by the scientific community, apparently sold on the idea of making Britain a world leader in biotech, the efforts of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission were largely ignored in Whitehall. This was partly because it seemed impossible, given the diverse membership, that the commission would agree on anything.
But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and other pro-GM forces in the government, particularly Tony Blair, had not factored in the persuasive powers of Prof Grant, who managed to produce three influential consensus reports.
For the government, the most difficult of those emerged a year ago when the commission insisted the consumer should have the freedom to buy non-GM British food.
Although Defra says no final decision has been made, the committee has been told to complete all of its work as quickly as possible and make no plans for after April 1. Privately, members have been told the organisation is to be abolished.
Mrs Beckett, who proposed to the cabinet last February that the government should go ahead with GM crops, is believed to be in favour of proceeding as quickly as possible. The commission's reservations have long been an obstacle.
The latest test results on winter oilseed rape, the biggest potential GM crop in Britain, have not been published but the Guardian has learned that, unlike previous trials, they do not show serious detriment to the environment. The spring-sown varieties were ruled out 12 months ago because they damaged nature more than conventional crops.
Mrs Beckett has seized the opportunity to abolish the commission after an independent review of its first four years of operation concluded it should be replaced by a similar body with a wider remit. This is to accommodate changes in the EU's common agricultural policy which scrapped subsidies for maximum food production in favour of wider social and environmental priorities.
The commission has made life difficult for Mrs Beckett because it wants strict rules to protect farmers who do not want to grow GM crops, and restitution if unforeseen environmental damage occurs as a result of GM crops.
It demanded wide separation between GM and conventional crops to prevent cross-contamination, which would render conventional crops unsaleable to supermarkets. It recommended a compensation scheme for conventional and organic farmers, underwritten by the government. The government refuses to accept responsibility and says this must fall on the biotech industry, which also rejects the idea.
In the UK, permission to grow oilseed rape commercially will not be given imme diately because trials have not taken place to prove that the seeds provide a consistent and viable crop. This process takes two years, so the first crop could not be planted commercially until 2007.
A Defra spokesman said: "Because we have not made a formal announcement about the future of the commission, people are suspicious of what we are going to do. We are consulting with stakeholders, like English Nature."
The hostility between Defra and the commission is acknowledged in the independent review. It says relations with other sponsoring departments are good, but "strained" with the department running British agriculture.
The squabbling became so intense at times that Defra officials were excluded from meetings of the commission.
Sue Mayer, director of Genewatch UK and a commission member, said: "If the commission is abolished as planned with no other body picking up the social, ethical and economic dimensions of the GM debate, then the government will be failing the public again."