By Eve Mitchell
Eve Mitchell is EU Food Policy Advisor for Food & Water Europe.
This week The Telegraph splashed a story that the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, had announced the UK should grow and sell more genetically modified (GM) foods. The story was then picked up by other outlets, and a public outcry followed, including many strong comments on those papers’ websites against any such move.
Much of the media coverage was nearly identical, suggesting precious few sources were consulted, especially since some pieces repeated the same factual errors. Here are some of them:
- Paterson based his stand on his belief that GM crops have “real environmental benefits” saying, “I’m very clear it would be a good thing.” The UK ran Farm Scale Trials of GM crops to determine their safety. The results, published in 2004, showed damage to farmland wildlife, so GM cultivation was shelved – a fact conveniently forgotten by the UK government. The report also found that even if GM crops did ever manage to provide better environmental outcomes than conventional farming at some point in the future, what we do to our fields and streams now is extremely damaging and cannot be used as a comparison for anything called “sustainable”. In addition, countries growing GM crops like the U.S. are now suffering serious direct complications including the development of pests and weeds the technology cannot control and dramatically increased chemical applications by farmers trying to cope. The results for food production and toxic residues in food remain to be seen.
- There is a “block” or “ban” on GM cultivation in the EU. This is simply untrue. GM crops are grown in Spain and to a limited degree in a few other EU countries. The fact that more GM crops are not available for cultivation in the UK is due to the normal operation of the authorisation process and democracy. Even the pro-GM European Commission defended Europe’s right to operate it’s own approvals of GMOs when the U.S. complained to the WTO. The UK and the Commission now find the results of the democratic process inconvenient, so the Commission presses unwanted GMOs into the market, and the UK blames the EU for lack of “progress”.
- Several media reports noted the UK “needs” GMOs to protect itself from dependency on food imports. The UK and EU are already heavily dependent on imported food, so it is difficult to see the basis for this assertion.
- The Telegraph reported, “Recent polls suggest that British hostility to GM technology is waning.” It is unclear which polls are referred to, as they are not cited. Food & Water Europe knows that quite to the contrary polls show public concern about GM technology is up. Recent polls by consumer advocate Which? show public concern about GM is up in the UK, with two-thirds of consumers worried about long-term safety. This supports findings of the UK’s own official Food Standards Agency tracking poll released in August, which also showed increased concern over GM crops. Even the BBC’s flagship farming programme Countryfile ran a poll as recently as September that showed 79% of respondents are opposed to GM crop trials in the UK.
- The Telegraph also reported, “A formal ministerial response is due next year, but insiders say the exercise is likely to lead to an increase in the use of the technology.” It is unclear how this can be achieved, as GM authorisations are managed at the EU level, and few if any GM crops are suitable for UK farming conditions. Coupled with consumer rejection of GM foods and increasing public unease about their use as animal feed following the result of CRIIGEN on rats, there is little scope for increased GM cultivation or sales in the UK.
- Paterson points out that people are already eating the products of GM in the food chain. On this he’s right, even if he overstates how much GM is present in most feed mixes – ANY GM content requires the whole bag of feed to carry a GM label, even if it is only a tiny fraction, but this does not mean all of the feed is actually GM. Not to mention the fact that some products, organic or conventional, are completely non-GM fed. However, as a party claiming to be a staunch advocate of free trade the Government should know that without labels on meat, milk and eggs from animals fed GM crops, consumers are denied informed choice and the market cannot operate properly, so this point is a clear own goal.
And so on.
By the end of the day yesterday The Telegraph had run no fewer than three stories about the new Government push for GM, including one announcing Downing Street’s support for the Secretary of State and an editorial piece declaring, “It is long past time that Britain got behind the next agricultural revolution,” which accuses GM sceptics of “bone-headed Luddism.”
The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says public and environmental safety are the Government’s priority, and that its decisions on GM are science-based. Since the UK Government’s own data shows GM does cause harm, and in the decade since the Farm Scale Trials concluded the evidence base showing that harm has grown, based on Defra’s own reassurance GM crops should not be considered. So where did this keen pro-GM push come from?
We have an idea.
Owen Paterson’s brother-in-law, Matt Ridley, is a keen and vocal GM advocate. He also writes for The Telegraph and sits on the advisory council of the controversial pro-GM Sense About Science grouping. However, he is better known for the bank he ran, Northern Rock, which collapsed and had to be bailed out by UK taxpayers.
Paterson’s predecessor at Defra, Caroline Spelman, owned a GM lobbying company until public pressure forced her to shut it down.
We also know that in June UK Science Minister David Willetts, Lord Taylor and representatives from UK research bodies attended a biotech industry meeting hosted by staunch pro-GM MP George Freeman, who has been on the radio supporting Paterson’s new position. The meeting resolved to use more taxpayer money to promote GM crops and to press harder to remove any residual “barriers” – like public dissent.
This is not our idea of a good pool of advisors for developing food policy based on scientific evidence.
This drive by the UK Government to stir up controversy over GM crops has as much to do with diverting attention from the UK’s serious economic difficulties, Paterson’s badger cull debacle (which will flare again next year) and the ongoing police corruption investigations involving politicians, the police and the media than about a genuine desire to develop sound agriculture policy to take us into the future. Rather than backing more reliable technologies, the Government is attempting to ignore its own evidence showing that public concern is on the rise and that GM raises serious health and environmental concerns.
The facts are clear: GM is an unpredictable, unnecessary technology that is unwanted by basically anyone other than those with a financial stake in their success.
In addition to consistently voting in favour of GM and against improved labelling at the EU level, in the past six months the UK Government has also launched initiatives through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, or BIS (on using Agri-tech research and development to export GM and cloning for food to developing countries) and the Department for International Development (DfID) to drive African farmers into the arms of the international seed and input industry. BIS, DfID and Defra are now acting in concert with industry, and with Downing Street’s blessing, to promote a food technology rejected by citizens—and it is using repeated factual errors and misrepresentation of scientific evidence to try to pull the wool over our eyes.
People have a right to choose what they eat and feed their families. The Precautionary Principle is not Luddism; it’s written into European law, for good reason. Judging from the number of questions I’ve had over the past two days from members of the public I’ve never heard from before, if the UK Government thought it would have an easy ride it will need to think again.
ACT NOW: We need to ensure supermarkets are not confused by these messages from Government and industry. Please tweet this today: