Celtic revolt against Westminster over GM crops
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
Independent on Sunday, 28 September 2008

*Scottish ministers plan to link up with Wales and Northern Ireland to head off attempts to grow modified food on home soil

[image caption: Scotland has vowed to remain GM-free]

Ministers are facing an unprecedented Celtic revolt from their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts as they launch a new campaign to plant GM crops in Britain.

All three devolved governments have declared themselves implacably opposed to any modified crops in their territory, setting the scene for one of their sharpest-ever confrontations with Westminster. And their opposition is likely to have an impact throughout Europe, sapping the UK's hitherto obdurate support for the introduction of the technology throughout the Continent.

No GM crops have yet been cultivated commercially in Britain - despite a drive led by Tony Blair - thanks to public hostility and official trials which found that growing them harmed wildlife. But London-based ministers have privately never given up. For years they have voted consistently in the EU to allow the sale of modified food and animal feeds throughout Europe, giving Britain the strongest pro-GM record in the union. And they have now launched a bid to grow the crops in the UK.

Ian Pearson, the science minister, last week said "a significant majority" of Britons "will want to choose GM" once they learned of its advantages, adding: "We have to show that there are benefits to the consumer of adopting GM technologies."

And earlier this month, Phil Woolas, an environment minister, said opponents now had a year to prove their case. In an apparent reversal of the "precautionary principle" that is supposed to guide government policy, he said: "If you are opposed to GM it is now up to you to provide the evidence that there is harm. Ten years ago it was the other way round."

But their new drive is running into uncompromising resistance from the UK's other governments. Wales last week restated a long-standing policy of taking "the most restrictive approach to GM crop cultivation" consistent with the law, adding that this GM-free stance in all but name has "cross-party support".

Earlier this month Northern Ireland signalled that it would join with the Irish Republic to keep the technology out of the entire island. Michelle Gildernew, the minister for agriculture and rural affairs, told a conference in Waterford: "Once we go down the GM route there is no going back. We need to keep Ireland GM-free."

But the toughest opposition of all is being mounted by Scotland, where the first minister, Alex Salmond, has himself stressed his unequivocal rejection of modified crops. His environment minister, Michael Russell, told The Independent on Sunday: "We are not prepared to have trials of GM crops take place, and we are not interested in GM cultivation."

Mr Russell is planning to form a united front with Wales and Northern Ireland, with whom, he says, "there is a unanimity of view", and is working on a counter-strike against Westminster over its consistent support for the technology in the EU. He believes it is wrong that UK ministers take this position on half of the whole country, when the other three governments hold a diametrically opposite view, adding: "They need to represent both strands of opinion at the European level." He says he will have a meeting "very soon" with Mr Woolas, to talk about "creating a structure in which all have confidence" for deciding the line to take in Brussels. This could involve having a "pre-meeting" of all the governments to work out a joint position before each vote.

This would be likely to mean that Britain's consistent "yes" in favour of GM would turn into an abstention. Helen Holder, of Friends of the Earth, says: "If Britain changed from its systematic support, this would have a big impact on attitudes in Europe."

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that it was "aware of the position of the devolved administrations" and "discusses these issues regularly".