Frankenfoods Debate in the UK Rages On

Frankenfoods Debate in the UK Rages On

The debate nobody wants - GM

Paul Brown Environment correspondent
Tuesday May 15, 2001
The Guardian (UK)

One of the biggest failures of Tony Blair's first term was missing the
public mood on genetically modified food and crops.

Quite simply, following BSE, the public did not want their food mucked
about with, and when they thought about it, their countryside either.

Despite this unprecedented revolt by consumers, Tony Blair, while avoiding
mention of the issue at all, remains a GM enthusiast.

The fact that during his first term every supermarket chain has withdrawn
genetically modified foods from its shelves and gone to extensive lengths to
insist suppliers are GM free seems to have passed the prime minister by.

Currently there is no market in Britain for GM food and most chains are also
banning GM crops from animal feed. Even Coca Cola is saying it does not
want sugar from GM sugar beet in its drinks.

Despite all this, full scale trials of genetically modified crops are under
way, even though there is serious public opposition.

Even the food standards agency, one body set up to restore confidence in
British food, seems happy to endorse GM products on the basis that they
cannot find any danger to the public.

The only question still left in the government's mind is whether GM crops
might damage the environment, and that answer will not be known until
2003, even if the current trials do manage to produce a result.

None of this grapples with the central problem that there is no gain in the
technology for the consumer and only perceived threats.

Why they should be talking about it?

GM as an issue is not going away. Britain has a lot of expertise and money
invested in the biotech industry, and potentially a lot of jobs. The future
of British farming, whether organic agriculture has a future, and the shape
of the countryside are all tied up in the the debate.

The perception that the prime minister is a pushover for big business
interests is partly tied up with his perceived lack of interest in genuine
public concerns about the consequences of embracing this technology. So far
multi-national companies controlling GM patents appear to be the only
winners from the GM revolution, at least as far as the farmer and consumer
are concerned. If politicians believe that GM food and crops are the future
they should be prepared to discuss the issues with environment groups and
allay public fears.

What could be done?

The government claims the technology is safe but there is no liability
regime in place if anything goes wrong. GM companies should be required to
provide insurance to indemnify farmers against successful claims from
organic producers and beekeepers if they lose their markets because of GM
crops. Shops also need cover if genetically modified foods cause allergies
or other ailments.

If, as some claim, GM crops and organic farming cannot exist side by side in
such a small country, then the government should enter a genuine debate on
which the public wants.

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