UK stance on GM foods leaves a sour taste
The Herald, April 24 2009
A few months ago, a UK government minister told a national newspaper that rocketing food prices and food shortages in the world's poorest countries meant the time was right to relax Britain's policy on use of GM crops. Quite why UK policies on genetically modified organisms were fingered as culprits in world hunger was not clear. The Scottish Government, to its credit, has not been so readily hoodwinked by the GM PR machine. But, despite the risks it poses to the environment and to health, GM is back in play as a widely-touted answer to the world's food needs.
Surprisingly enough, our farmers already use GM crops extensively. A Soil Association survey last year showed UK livestock are routinely fed imported GM feeds: a majority of the maize, and around one-third of the soya, used by pig and dairy farmers comes from GM varieties. Though our supermarkets are now trying harder to ensure what they sell is not grown using GM feeds, to be sure of avoiding GM-fed animal products, it's best to buy organic.
Other countries have gone further to keep the lid on GM. France, in the past few weeks, has adopted a label for animal products assuring consumers that they're "fed without GMOs". The French government's anti-GM stance has also led it to ban the planting of a variety of GM corn - the only plant approved by the European Commission for commercial planting in EU member states. That ban has earned it a legal challenge from Monsanto, which owns the variety. Legal sabre-rattling didn't prevent the German agriculture minister from taking the same decision last week, though it, too, now faces a legal suit from Monsanto.
A large majority of EU countries has come to oppose commercial growing of GM crops in the union. When the European Commission recently tried to force member states to lift their bans on planting this GM maize, they were overruled by a huge majority of members of the Council of Ministers: 22 favoured the ban, with only five voting to allow the crop to be planted.
Regrettably, the UK government was one of the latter. It has been consistently among the strongest pro-GM advocates in Europe, repeatedly disregarding consumer opinion by trying to open European farmland to both GM trials and commercial planting. And, as Scotland is represented by Defra in the EU, Scots are in effect voting in favour of GM crops, and to try to overrule other countries with GM-free policies. Despite influential pro-GM voices in Scotland, including in our farming union and agricultural research community, the Scottish Government remains staunchly against it - another example of it being at odds with the powers-that-be in London. But, irrespective of the larger constitutional question this raises, Scotland has more powers than it has yet used to safeguard against GM crops being grown here.
The Welsh have shown the way. Two months ago, their minister, Elin Jones, outlined in the Welsh Assembly the measures she intends to take. In the event that GM crops are approved to plant in the UK, she means to require registration with her government three months prior to use. Neighbours will need to be consulted, crop handlers trained, and significant separation distances established between GM and non-GM crops, backed up by pollen barriers and traps.
In other words, she intends "to maximise restrictions on GM crops in Wales - to adopt the most restrictive policy compatible with our legal obligations".
It may serve Scottish ministers' wider interests to make this a head-to-head battle between Edinburgh and London. It's certainly a legitimate constitutional issue, given that Scottish consumers have shown no sign of favouring GM foods, yet are misrepresented by the UK government when again and again it supports GM industrial interests in the EU.
As a sustainable-food membership charity, the Soil Association doesn't take a position on the constitutional politics. We support the Scottish Government's challenge to the UK government's policy on GM. But surely its negotiating position would be stronger if, following the Welsh, it first used those powers it does have to maximise the safeguards against the commercial growing of GM crops in Scotland.
Hugh Raven is director of the Soil Association Scotland.