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GM Food and Crops: What Next?

steve | 01.09.2003 21:56 | Bio-technology | Ecology | Health | Technology | Sheffield

This briefing is an update on what has been happening on genetically modified (GM) food and crops and what is coming up in the near future. This autumn will see a number of key dates, including a report on the Government's public debate, GM Nation, a report on the Farm Scale Evaluations and the next steps in the GM Trade War between the US and Europe.

The decisions made over the next few months could have widespread repercussions for our food, farming and environment. Chief amongst these will whether the Government will allow GM crops to be commercially grown in the UK. If they do, the first could be grown as early as spring 2004.

GM food first went on sale in the UK in 1996. There was little publicity and no consultation. Public opposition against GM soon grew and the public started to demand GM-free food. In September 1998, a new European law came into force which obliged all food manufacturers and retailers (and restaurants) to label their food if it contained GM maize and soya above a one per cent threshold. Consumers would now be able to avoid GM food if they chose. Within months, practically all the UK's leading supermarkets and food manufacturers bowed to consumer pressure and started to source ingredients that didn't come from GM crops. And in December 1999, Friends of the Earth revealed that even Monsanto's staff canteen was effectively a GM-free zone.

In response to public pressure the Government announced a four year programme of GM farm-scale trials (or farm-scale evaluations), which started in 1999. The Government also promised that commercial GM crop growing would not be permitted until the trials were over. But these trials also faced criticism. Friends of the Earth and others pointed to the threat they posed to neighbouring crops and honey, and because they would only provide a very limited view of the potential long-term environmental impacts of this new technology.

PUBLIC OPINION Public opposition to GM food and crops remains high. In October 2002, an NOP survey revealed that 57 per cent did not want the Government to allow GM crops to be commercially grown across the UK. The previous month a poll for the Grocer found that 58 per cent would avoid products containing GM ingredients. And in April 2003, a MORI poll showed that 56 per cent opposed GM food, compared to a paltry one in seven (14 per cent) who support it.

Between June and July 2003 the Government held a public consultation, GM Nation? ( to assess public attitudes towards GM food and crops. The Government says it will take account of the debate (the report is due in September) when making future policy decisions on GM issues, particularly the commercialization of GM crops.

The debate was controversial even before it started. In July 2002, an unnamed Government minister told journalists that the Government had already made up its mind to commercialise GM crops, and that the debate would merely be "a PR exercise".

The debate was also criticised by a coalition of environment and consumer organisations for its rushed timetable, lack of clarity, inadequate funding and poor publicity. Less than two weeks into the GM debate, Environment Minister Michael Meacher was sacked, probably because of his cautious approach to the GM issue. Despite the concerns and squeezed timetable, at least 40,000 people completed GM Nation? Response forms demonstrating the issue of GM crops and food remains a prime concern of the public.

Although the debate's report won't be published until September, Professor Malcolm Grant, the chairman of the GM Nation?, said that it shows that people "are generally sceptical about the perceived benefits of genetically modified crops". See:

Two additional strands of the GM debate, a review of scientific information and a cost/benefit analysis have now been published -neither of which provides grounds for GM crops to be given an immediate go-ahead.

A report on the economics of GM crops by the Number 10 Strategy Unit concluded that the public's refusal to eat GM food means that there is little economic value in the current generation of GM crops, and that continuing public opposition would also affect their long-term future. See:

A GM science review, led by Professor David King (the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser), has also been published. Despite pro-GM spin, far from giving GM crops the safety green light, the review raised serious questions about significant gaps and uncertainties in our scientific knowledge on the potential impacts GM food and crops on our health and the environment. See:

Friends of the Earth launched its GM free Britain campaign in October 2002. The campaign is aimed at local authorities and regional assemblies and urges them to take steps to go GM-free because of the potential impacts on health, the environment and the livelihoods of farmers and bee-keepers. These steps could include stopping tenant farmers growing GM crops, and banning GM food from local food services such as school meals and residential homes. Some authorities have also pledged to write to the Government and Brussels applying, under new European laws, for their areas to be excluded from growing certain GM crops.

The number of authorities that are taking GM action is growing by the week. Those that have joined the campaign include the Welsh National Assembly, Devon, Dorset, Lancashire, Cornwall, Warwickshire, South Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Cumbria, Somerset and the Lake District National Park. More authorities are expected to take similar decisions. See:

This October, individuals from around the country will be setting out on a pilgrimage for a GM-free Britain, which will culminate in an event in London on Monday 13th October. For more information see

The farm-scale trials started in 1999. Their focus was extremely narrow. Their remit was "to study the effect, if any, that the management practices associated with Genetically Modified Herbicide Tolerant (GMHT) crops might have on farmland wildlife, when compared with weed control used with non-GM crops." The trials didn't look at other important issues such as whether GM pollen would pollute neighbouring crops or the environment.

The crop trials provoked considerable criticism, not least because the trials themselves threatened neighbouring crops, honey and the environment. They have also proved deeply unpopular with local communities - exacerbated by the lack of community consultation before the crops were planted. Some protested directly to farmers taking part in the trials, others organised parish referendums on the issue. This pressure directly led to a number of farmers pulling out of the trials.

Crop trials also became the focus of direct action. Some were secretly destroyed at night, while other campaigners openly trashed GM crops, allowing themselves to be arrested so that they could justify their actions in court, often successfully.

In July this year, the Government warned farmers who grew GM oil seed rape as part of the FSEs not to grow conventional rape in the same fields this autumn. This follows research showing volunteer plants from the GM crop could contaminate a following non-GM crop at a level of 5%. This means that farmers may find their crop contained illegal levels of GM oilseed rape not licensed for sale in the EU. Legislation allows up to 0.5% contamination by unapproved varieties for a limited three year period. If GM farmers did try and grow conventional oil seed rape they might therefore produce a crop 10 times over the legally permitted level for GM oil seed rape.

The last round of Farm Scale Evaluations have been harvested, and a report on them is due to be sent to the Government in October. A critique of the FSE methodology is available from Friends of the Earth.

The European Union has passed new laws that will strengthen GM labelling regulations. The laws will come into force later this year. Currently food containing an ingredient with at least one per cent of GM DNA must be labelled. The new laws will

* strengthen the legislation by reducing the GM threshold (to 0.9%). Major food manufacturers and retailers currently work to 0.1%;
* increase the scope of the legislation to include derivatives from GM crops (such as oils which don't contain DNA). This will be done through a comprehensive traceability regime;. extend labelling to include animal feed.

The UK Government and Food Standards Agency, however, were not so enthusiastic and lobbied behind the scenes against some of the proposals.

Co-existence is the term being used to describe the growing of GM and non-GM crops together or in close proximity. If GM crops are grown in the UK it will have almost certainly lead to GM pollution escaping, which could have a major impacts on our food, farming and environment.

It has been unclear what measures to ensure co-existence will be taken on either a UK or EU level as it is an issue that will not be easy to resolve. Although MEPs recently backed measures that would allow member states to try and prevent GM contamination. Once again this was opposed by the UK Government.

Co-existence legislation must ensure that genetic contamination of food and feed supplies is prevented, the rights of conventional and organic farmers to grow GM-free produce are protected, GM producers and operators are financially liable for contamination and the costs of coexistence fall on GM producers and operators.

Currently there is no legislation to require biotech companies to pay for damage caused by their crops. This includes damage to the environment and compensation to farmers whose crops may be contaminated causing them financial loss.

In the absence of a liability regime it will be the victims who will pay for any harm caused by GMOs, while the biotechnology companies profit from their products and offload the risks and costs of clean-up on to others.

There is an Environmental Liability Directive being debated in Europe, which covers environmental damage across a number of areas, not just GMOs. But the Directive is very weak and in its current form would not provide adequate cover for environmental damage from GM. One of the reasons is that it only extends to 'protected areas', a relatively small area of EU land which excludes most farmland where GMOs will be grown.

The Directive also fails to cover economic damage such as compensation measures for farmers whose crops are contaminated.

In the UK, a report is expected shortly from the AEBC, the Government's GM advisors on coexistence and liability. This will put forward options for addressing these issues in the UK.

Currently there is no insurance company that will provide insurance cover for farmers to grow GM crops. Even NFU Mutual refuses stating that the risk is unquantifiable and that farmers should ensure that the biotech industry is liable.

On 13 May the United States administration launched what could turn out to be a trade war over GM food. The US (and a number of other countries) has brought a case against Europe in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) over "its illegal five-year moratorium on approving agricultural biotech products".

The EU has not granted any new GM food and crop licenses for five years. Europeans are concerned about the threat that GM crops pose to food, farming and the environment. There are also fears about the long-term health impacts from eating GM food. Opinion polls show that 70% of the European public don't want GM food and 94% want to be able to choose whether or not they eat it (Eurobarometer 2001).

The move could bring the full force of WTO sanctions to bear in order to force GM food into European markets regardless of the wishes of European consumers. Friends of the Earth is warning the move is the latest in a series of attempts by the US to block other countries' decisions to protect their environment, human health and social standards.

The EU has vowed to fight the case, which could be a long, drawn out process. The next WTO meeting takes place on 29 August where they are likely to announce they will set up a panel to hear the dispute.

The GM issue is also likely to be a major source of friction between negotiating blocs at the WTO ministerial in Cancun (September). Agriculture talks have already run into difficulties over US and EU subsidies.

Media contact:
Clare Oxborrow (GM food) 020 7566 1716
Pete Riley (GM food) 0113 389 9955
Eve Mitchell (GM trade dispute) 020 7566 1681
Press Office 020 7566 1649

Helen Burley
Media Officer
Tel: 020 7566 1702
Press office: 020 7566 1649
Mobile: 07778 069930