By Eve Mitchell
Having had a few days to mull over Sunday’s announcement by Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs Richard Lochhead that Scotland will invoke the EU’s new opt-out mechanism to ban genetically modified (GM) crops, the cleverness of the move continues to impress. In one sense it’s merely a reiteration of Scotland’s long-standing ban on GM crops (a position shared with Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, all of whom have devolved power – full authority over – their agriculture), but that doesn’’t tell half the story.
Formally speaking, Scotland will now ask the (pro-GM) UK Government to ask the European Commission to ask any company seeking approval for a GM crop in Europe to exclude Scotland from said approval under the mechanism introduced earlier this year. It will also use the new law to ask for an opt-out of crops already authorised or in the approvals queue. Democratically-elected governments having to go cap-in-hand to GM companies for permission not to grow their products is, of course, a democratic outrage, but it’s not the only one.
Despite the clear rejection of GM crops by three of the four countries that make up the UK (and remembering that the other, England, doesn’t have a Parliament of its own to state a preference, or at least not yet), the UK Government consistently votes in favour of GM crops and imports at the EU level. UK Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Elizabeth Truss regularly rubs salt in the wound saying things like, “I think GM crops have a role to play here in Britain.”
So pinned between a deal with GM companies on a crop ban and pro-GM Westminster, who could blame Scotland for grabbing the chance she has to get what she needs when bigger boys are trying to steal her lunch money? Mr Lochhead’s position is perfectly reasonable: “I firmly believe that GM policy in Scotland should be guided by what’s best for our economy and our own agricultural sector rather than the priorities of others.” Hear, hear. It’s also canny: “Scotland should stay focussed on niche and high value markets, rather than commodities where we know we cannot compete.”
So as of last weekend it looks like Scotland will either get UK and international recognition for the GM ban it has always wanted or, if the UK rashly declines to forward the request for some reason, Scotland will have good grounds to be very annoyed with the UK Government for reneging on its devolved powers over agriculture.
Perhaps pressing that point is part of the plan. Another independence referendum is a constant political undercurrent up here, and Mr Cameron is busy trying to renegotiate the UK’s role in Europe at the same time, so he needs to move carefully. Having such markedly different farming strategy and practice separating the two sides of the ancient border is at the least a symbolic nightmare for those trying to keep the UK in one piece, but how can Westminster refuse? When Scotland does get its GM crop ban confirmed, what will Wales and Northern Ireland do? So much fuss over GM crops nobody wants to eat – why doesn’t the UK just opt-out?
That border will make things messy, too, as there’s nothing to stop the problems caused by GM crops (superweeds, superbugs, straight up contamination by cars, birds or whatever) from marching over Hadrian’s Wall. In fact the opt-out mechanism requires Member States to “take appropriate measures” to avoid cross-border GM contamination, which is surely easier than it sounds. It’s a shame the National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFUS) isn’t more vocal about protecting its members from these threats rather than toeing the GM line and trying to insist that a lack of GM crops will harm Scotland’s competitive advantage in a global market quietly turning its face away from GM foods (a point not lost on Mr Lochhead). “ NFUS says it wants decisions on GM to be taken from an informed position reflecting current technology.” They are. The answer is “no”.
Now we need:
- The UK Government to acknowledge the will of (at least) Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and start voting against all GM crops at EU level. This would go a long way to preventing more GM crops being authorised in the first place, making opt-out redundant. Let’s remember how we got here: The new opt-out law is specifically designed to foster MORE GM crops in Europe by making it easier to get them through the approvals process. It’s a shame Scotland has to invoke the opt-out at all because it suggests Scotland believes we are in imminent danger of having more GM crops authorised in Europe.
- The Commission to make good on its promise to review and sort out the democracy problems in the GM approval process itself so that when a majority of countries vote against a GM crop it doesn’t just get approved anyway.
- A clear regime for full economic liability for any damage caused by any GM crops grown.
What we’re likely to get is a tortuous EU-style ride through an opt-out law that hasn’t been tested yet, was always full of holes internally and internationally and which relies on Monsanto to be the first to play ball and grant Scotland the opt-out (because the company’s MON810 maize is the only GM crop authorised for use in the EU). In the meantime, though, it would be politically difficult to force any new GM crops onto the Single Market until the request for a ban is cleared up. Nicely played, Scotland.
Finally, let’s not forget the bigger picture in all this. Scottish Green Member of the Scottish Parliament Alison Johnstone quite rightly reminds us that a ban on GM crops hardly rids the place of the stuff. She’s calling on food retailers to “improve their labelling to show whether meat, eggs and dairy products come from animals fed on GM feed.”
Take it straight to the retailers yourself. Tell them now you want the information you need to avoid GM in your food chain. As Scotland has learned, when it comes to avoiding GM, don’t ask, don’t get.