EXTRACT: If biotech companies have confidence in their industry, are happy with current safety assessments, and are keen to win over a distrustful public, why are they so reluctant to take responsibility for environmental damage?
GM industry should put its money where its mouth is
The Guardian, September 26 2007
One of the big issues around the introduction of GM crops is people's lack of trust in biotechnology companies. During the farm-scale evaluations, representatives of companies such as Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto attended hundreds of meetings in village halls and told the British public that genetically modified crops and foods were safe, that they should not be scared of new technology. The people who attended those meetings are entitled to be puzzled. Why is the industry now refusing to take responsibility for the safety of their products?
In 2004, the EU signed up to a new environmental liability directive (ELD), the main aim of which was to make the polluter pay for damage caused to biodiversity and protected nature sites. Many of the arguments during its development have been about the definition of environmental damage and under what circumstances the polluter would actually have to pay.
The directive is now in the process of being incorporated into UK law by the government. There has been a first consultation, and the government's response is expected soon, with a second consultation on technical aspects of implementation. The government's initial reluctance to go beyond the minimum requirements was widely criticised by MPs, regulators and environmental groups. It now seems likely that ministers will give more weight to the environment - for example, by including harm to nationally important sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs).
However, biotech companies are fighting hard to keep two important loopholes in case GMOs cause environmental harm. They would be able to argue that, first, they held a permit to release the GMO and, second, that the state of scientific knowledge did not predict a harmful outcome at the time the crop was planted. Allowing these defences would mean that the taxpayer, not the company, would pay if GM crops damaged a protected site or species.
And this is where we are confused: the industry has spent 10 years trying to win over a distrustful public, and yet in the latest Europe-wide opinion poll on biotechnology, 52% of people in the UK still oppose GM crops (Eurobarometer 2005). If biotech companies have confidence in their industry, are happy with current safety assessments, and are keen to win over a distrustful public, why are they so reluctant to take responsibility for environmental damage?
The ELD covers only serious harm to important habitats and species - for example, "significant adverse effects on reaching or maintaining the favourable conservation status" of an already protected species. Furthermore, it would have to be demonstrated that the harm was caused by a specific GM crop. Under the European regulations on GM crops, applicants must also submit a monitoring plan that should identify any "unexpected" problems at an early stage.
GeneWatch can conclude only that, despite the rhetoric, the biotech industry - as shown in a recent report by the UK's Central Science Laboratory - recognises that we don't yet fully understand the long-term, cumulative effects of GM crops on our environment. It appears to be happy to tell us that its crops are safe, but not to put its money where its mouth is.
* Becky Price is a researcher with GeneWatch UK