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How Consumers Drove Genetically Engineered Foods off the Shelves in UK & Europe

  • How the flood of GM goods was driven off the shelves
    By Geoffrey Lean
    Independent, Sunday, 9 July 2006
    Straight to the Source

Seven short years ago, when The Independent on Sunday began its campaign on GM foods and crops, 60 per cent of the products on our supermarket shelves contained modified ingredients.

Now only two GM products are left on sale: Schwartz's Bacon Flavour Bits Salad Topping, and Betty Crocker Bac-Os - neither exactly household names.

Then, too, widespread cultivation of GM crops throughout Britain was thought to be only a year away. No less than 53 of them were confidently awaiting approval. Now not a single GM plant is growing anywhere in any British field, and no one expects any to be sown any time in the foreseeable future.

At the time ours appeared a hopeless cause. The giant biotech companies seemed unstoppable: Monsanto, which led their charge, was poised to make a merger that would have turned it into the world's largest corporation. It had the full backing of the Government, fired by the messianistic determination of Tony Blair to make the country "the European hub" of biotechnology. Both the US administration and the British scientific establishment were urging him on.

The Prime Minister privately dismissed public opposition as "a flash in the pan", and so it appeared. Ranged against the Goliaths of the boardrooms and the cabinet rooms were a motley band of Davids, ranging from Prince Charles to pressure groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association.

But we reckoned without the most powerful force of all, the superwomen (and supermen) of the shopping aisles who, informed of the presence of GM products in their foods and the arguments for and against, simply refused to buy them. Thus the public achieved what parliament has repeatedly failed to do - stopping one of Tony Blair's dodgier crusades in its tracks.

We started our campaign in February 1999 by calling for a pause in the rush to a GM future, demanding a three-year moratorium in cultivating modified crops while more research was carried out. By the end of the year we had our wish: Michael Meacher, the then Environment minister, skilfully persuaded the biotech industry to agree to a three-year halt, pending official field trials.

The trials, in true Whitehall fashion, were designed to clear the crops. Everyone knew that the main danger that the crops posed was that they would cross-pollinate with nearby plants, creating superweeds, So the tests avoided this issue altogether, focusing on the relatively minor issue of the effects of weedkiller on them.

Everyone expected this jiggery-pokery to succeed - including the environmental campaigners who repeatedly pulled up the GM crops, in an attempt to scupper the trails (after one protest Lord Melchett, the then head of Greenpeace, was arrested with 20 supporters - only to be acquitted by a jury). But when the results were published modified crops were still generally found to be more damaging to wildlife than conventional ones, even on these limited grounds.

Even worse for Monsanto and Mr Blair, public opinion had by then decisively turned against GM. Both ministers and the industry had fondly believed that the pause would allow the controversy to die down, but they were sorely disappointed.

By the time the tests ended, 84 per cent of Britain's had decided they would not touch the stuff. The supermarket chains fell over themselves to clear it from their shelves - and the big food manufacturers rushed to abjure its use.

Monsanto closed its seed cereal business in Britain and Europe, and the industry withdrew the last of the 53 applications it had once assumed would be granted. Anyone for Betty Crocker Bac-Os?

**************************************************************************** This GMO news service is underwritten by a generous grant from the Newman's Own Foundation, edited by Thomas Wittman and is a production of the Ecological Farming Association. Please join us and become a member at www.eco-farm.org http://www.eco-farm.org/ . To be removed from this list, reply to any email with "remove" in the header. ****************************************************************************



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