GM Foods in Perspective: Part Two

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THE UK Commotion on GM Foods

THE European Union accepted the growing of genetically modified (GM) crops, and 2,000 hectares of GM maize were planted in France in 1988. Yet, during 1999 the world watched with perplexity the furore that swept the British media regarding the issue of GM foods from where it outstretched to Europe and to the other continents. In the UK the commotion seemed to have been triggered by the arrival of imported GM food products and the start of the first GM crop field-trials.

In the UK, between May and August of last year there were seven incidents in which activists seized and destroyed GM crop trials. On 11 July, even a stand of poplars adapted for paper production with the addition of a gene that prevents the hardening of lignin, was vandalised. In the case of the poplars, it became very difficult for the perpetrators to find a justification since the modified trees would require less energy and fewer chemicals during pulping, making the process kinder to the environment, wrote Andy Coghkan in the July 24th edition of The New Scientist. That did not cut any ice with the many newspapers, eager to profit from the publicity caused by the genetic modified organism (GMO) polemic. Facts became confused with fiction and reason with opinion.

Besides the lawbreaking activists, fierce critics came from consumer groups. On June 13, Paul Nuki, Consumer Affairs Editor of The Sunday Times, criticised the lack of a representative of the Consumer's Association in the government committees set up to control the commercial licensing of GM crops in the UK. He also accused the majority of committee members to have connections with biotechnology companies.

Further, on the 28 July, in The Times, Simon Jenkins wrote what I consider the most poignant article in the British press about GM crops, entitled 'The Seeds of Insanity'. Jenkins started by condemning the vandalism of the maize crop-size trial in Norfolk, by Lord Meltchett, the 51-year-old director of Greenpeace and 27 Greenpeace activists. According to him, 'Like many conservation bodies, it (Greenpeace), speaks for nobody but its staff and their financial backers. Money is raised chiefly by publicising highly exploitable incidents, often of lawbreaking.' After criticising strongly the profession of environmental conservation: 'Conservation is a profession whose students need never sit degrees', he proceeded with a list of the benefits from GM technology to economise agrochemicals and lead to a more sustainable agriculture. His other comments, regarding the absence of scientists in the debate, are mentioned further on in this paper. On August 2, also in The Times, Lord Rees-Mogg made a shrewd comment on th e same incident: 'Standing on the moral ground does not put one above the law', he argued.

In an article published by The Times (August 23) Doug Parr, Campaign Director of Greenpeace, complained about the scientific criteria adopted by the government regulation of GM Technology and shared his wisdom that GM food is a matter of risk politics and as such, the matter should be decided by the majority of the people. His other argument is an assumption that there is no market in Britain for these crops, even if permits were granted for their sale.

The Royal Society, one of the world's most prestigious scientific bodies, in September 1998 released a report analysing the subject of genetically modified species including crops. The report supported the legitimate aspects of biotechnology of GMOs and concluded that scientific trials should be carried out and that these should include monitoring of the effects of GM crops to wildlife. During the meeting of The British Society for the Advancement of Science, in August, its president drew attention to the fact that the delay caused by the trial destruction would make UK biotechnology lag behind other countries.

The Misconceptions

To get a clear vision of GM crops in Britain we must remove any prejudice gained as a result of our natural desire to belong and to be accepted. …