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July 26, 2010

British pressure for GM crops unwelcome in Europe

by John Vidal

Britain is one of Europe's most vigorous cheerleaders for the expansion of GM crops. Along with Spain and the Netherlands it has lobbied the European commission to overturn the 12-year moratorium and has committed hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to agricultural research around the world.

The previous government, as well as leading scientists, argued strongly that GM crops are needed for national use as well as to help developing countries feed rapidly growing populations.

This stance was firmly backed last month by the new environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, who committed the coalition government to continuing and extending Labour's pro-GM position. She said she was in favour of GM foods "in the right circumstances".

The recent offer to allow national bans on GM crops in return for allowing large-scale commercial planting in other pro-GM countries is the latest attempt by the UK and other countries to open up the European market which they believe is worth billions of dollars a year.

"Opposition to GM crops is hardening in many European governments with Germany banning all the crops last year and Austria, France, Greece, Hungary and others invoking a 'safeguard clause' in EU legislation allowing them to ban them. Britain has consistently voted in favour of lifting GM bans, despite the safety concerns raised by other member states. It tried to end the EU moratorium on growing GM; it was the only EU state to oppose a plan to label food containing minute traces of GM material and last year it battled to prevent Germany banning a Monsanto maize crop," she added.

Friends of the Earth food campaigner Kirtana Chandrasekaran said that some member states are losing confidence in the judgment of the European commission on GM issues.

"Thanks to the support of the UK government, commission president (José Barroso) has become a stooge of the powerful agro-tech industry, which threatens to dominate the global food industry of the future if left unchecked," she said. The UK government has been openly pushing to weaken European laws on 'zero tolerance' towards entry to the EU of illegal GMOs (genetically modified organisms). It wants to allow contamination of imports to the UK with GMOs unapproved in Europe. Defra and the Cabinet Office have said that UK animal feed could quadruple in price within two years if growers in Brazil and Argentina produce more GM soya, which is banned in Europe," she added. The GM crop would displace conventional soya so making it more expensive.

The government's chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, has been a strong advocate for using new technologies, such as GM, to feed a growing world population, estimated to increase by 3 billion within 40 years.

In January he called for a "green technological revolution" which was widely interpreted as a GM revolution. "If GM technology can address some of the problems in agricultural production that conventional breeding or other technologies cannot, or can address them more efficiently and effectively, then clearly we need to be thinking about adopting it."

Beddington's comments followed a Royal Society report which backed GM foods, and speeches by Gordon Brown and other ministers calling for a debate on the issue.

Lord Smith, head of the Environment Agency, said in February that GM technology would be crucial for adapting to climate change. "We probably need to be readier to explore GM options, coupled of course with proper environmental safeguards, in adapting to the changes that the climate will bring."

Britain plans to give an estimated £80m a year to the Cgiar network of international agricultural research organisations which do most of the world's publicly-funded GM research.

The Department for International Development is the second biggest national funder of the network and has promised a further possible £60m to research drought-resistant maize for Africa, pest resistant crops and biofortified rice modified to increase vitamin A. Much of the work is expected to be in GM technologies.

The GM industry argues that scientific evidence from 15 years of widespread use of the technology has shown it to be safe, popular with farmers and a way of making agriculture more sustainable.

"In looking at GM the UK government may have considered the food security needs of the UK, which is a densely populated country with an increasing population. They may be concerned that UK food self sufficiency went from 74% of all food in 1990 to 59% in 2007," said a spokswoman for Monsanto UK.

"In the future, Monsanto would like to offer UK farmers and ultimately consumers a choice of UK crops grown with GM."

Greenpeace urged countries and consumers to reject the EU proposals.

"Member states should be aware that in the next couple of weeks they will be offered an empty promise, the result of which stands to change irreversibly the face of European agriculture for the worse. We call on the European Parliament and member states to reject this deal to ensure a GM-free future," said a spokesperson for the NGO.

The Guardian

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