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The Anti-GM Food Campaign Celebrates 20 Years of Success - But We Can't Be Complacent

The Big Gene Gathering took place Herefordshire during 1997 and the following December the UK's anti-GMO movement was born. DR DAVID KING has been an activist in the movement since the beginning. Here, he explores the reasons for the campaign's success - and assesses the threats ahead

Are you eating GM food? The fact that you even have a choice is down to 20 years of inspiring direct action and pressure by anti-GM activists. The campaign was hugely successful and has kept GM crops out of British fields until now. But now new and more powerful technologies and Brexit mean that genetic engineering is still a threat. 

The anti-GM food campaign erupted into the fields and streets of Britain in 1997, sparked by the threatened invasion of Monsanto’s GM soya. In a few years of frenetic campaigning, Britain became a majority anti-GM country where GM crops could not be grown without being rapidly pulled up.

Opposition these days tends to take a very different form, but organisations like GM Freeze have continued to expose the risks and false promises of the biotechnology industry.

Processed foods

In retrospect, the anti-GM food campaign was successful because it was a perfect storm: several factors came together at the same time to make it almost unstoppable.

It so happened that 1997 was the year that the British people finally decided it had had enough, after 18 years of Tory rule. The scandals of mad cow disease and salmonella in eggs symbolised the horrors of factory farming and neoliberal corporate misconduct, and raised concerns about the purity of our food.

In 1997 the anti-roads campaign was winding down and activists were looking for something new. The anti-GM food campaign was, on the surface, about corporations, food and industrial farming.

But it also spoke to deep but rarely articulated concerns about the relations between human beings and nature, which cross the political spectrum. Many people that I spoke to at events readily understood the dimension of ‘playing God’, even if they were not religious.

In 1997 Monsanto marched in, proposing to begin shipments to Britain of its GM soya, which would end up in 65 per cent of processed foods.