Has a deal been done to bring GM crops to Europe?
Helen Wallace and Pete Riley
Public Service Europe, 25 October 2012

Some famers in the US are now warning their European counterparts not to make the same mistakes that they did by embracing GM crops – write campaigners

Details of a meeting held with British ministers in June show how the biotech industry is working with the United Kingdom government to bring genetically modified crops back into the UK and weaken European regulations. The papers show how the GM industry plans to use non-industry scientists to promote GM in the media and schools using taxpayers' money, so they can get GM crops back into Europe. There are also plans to promote GM crops in Africa.

The industry's strategy is to get the UK government to fund academic scientists to promote promises of future GM crops, which provide magical solutions to complex problems, as a distraction from the actual problems being experienced by farmers growing GM crops today. The scientists get more public research funding to work on GM crops that are never expected get to market, such as nitrogen-fixing GM wheat, but do public relations work that helps the companies to get existing GM crops approved in Europe. This close collaboration between the public and private sectors indicate that claims that current GM test sites in the UK of potatoes and wheat are for 'public benefit' should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Existing GM crops are patented by multinational companies and are resistant to weedkillers or pests. These GM crops are causing major problems for famers in the United States as superweeds and superpests develop, which are resistant to the toxins in the crops or to the weedkillers sprayed on them. The summary of the June meeting, obtained as result of a Freedom of Information request, was written by the industry body the Agricultural Biotechnology Commission. The meeting was attended by two ministers and representatives of multinational agrochemical and GM seed companies, which are members of the ABC - including Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF and the industry's lobby group EuropaBio. The attendance list includes academics from British universities and research institutes, such as Rothamsted Research and the John Innes Centre, and two representatives of Britain's National Farmers Union - including its president.

The summary shows plans to: spend more taxpayers' money on research and development for GM crops and on "education"; promote GM crops in developing countries, especially Africa; and remove regulatory and political barriers. The document states that education should include "more focus on plants and biotech on the syllabus at all levels" and describes "availability of funding for investment and education" as one of the barriers to growing GM crops. The wording suggests that the industry is looking for more taxpayers' money to be spent on R&D for GM crops and on promoting them in schools.

The document also describes UK farming as a barrier, referring to "the structure of agriculture, which is made up of a large number of small farms looking at different sectors - which makes commercialisation difficult". It refers to difficulties with "regulatory barriers and political divisions at national and EU level", an implicit reference to bans on GM crops in six European Union countries and opposition to GM from the Scottish and Welsh governments. The two home nations have not hosted a GM test site since 2003.

Recommended action included government working with industry to provide an "improved" regulatory framework and more investment, while academics counter criticism from anti-GM groups and build "better on the ground presence in Africa, perhaps by working with universities". These crops were developed for use in large-scale monocultures in America. The monopoly control of a small number of companies - such as Monsanto - over seed, using controversial GM patents, has trapped farmers in North and South America into a system in which they are paying for continual seed price hikes while company profits boom. At the same time, farmers are using more weedkillers to tackle superweeds, which have grown resistant to the herbicides used with GM herbicide-tolerant crops. Some famers in the US are now warning European farmers not to make the same mistakes they did. Pests are also becoming resistant to GM maize and cotton pest-resistant crops.

There are major concerns that poor farmers in developing countries will become trapped in a cycle of poverty, unable to pay for seed price hikes and expensive chemicals - if they grow GM crops. Serious problems have already occurred with GM cotton in India and a 'technical committee' reporting to India's Supreme Court recently recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of many GM crops.

The British government has recently launched a consultation on its strategy on science and technologies for agriculture, including GM crops. The strategy will determine research and development investments for future agriculture in Britain and for export. If UK scientists act as a PR front for the GM industry in Europe and elsewhere, they will lead farmers into the same economic trap faced now by farmers in the US. The UK government should think again about this dodgy deal with GM companies. There will be no economic benefit to Britain or its farmers. The UK's reputation will be damaged and other export markets can only suffer if the British government tries to help the GM industry to push its crops elsewhere.

Helen Wallace is director of the GeneWatch UK campaign organisation and Pete Riley is campaign director at the GM Freeze pressure group