Leading Article: For food to be `safe', our countryside must be protected

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The Independent Culture
HERE IS an intriguing exercise in comparative contemporary history. Rewind the video of British politics back not quite two years, to 6 March 1997. A report into hygiene in abattoirs had found serious risks of the spread of E coli bacteria, but it was not shown to ministers and its recommendations were not acted on. The leader of the opposition was incredulous. Tony Blair demanded to know: "When will someone in the government take responsibility for the proper and competent administration of our affairs?"

Now that the boot is on the other foot, how does it fit? It is now two- and-a-half weeks since the Leader of the Opposition caught Mr Blair unawares at Prime Minister's Questions on an issue of food safety. Since then, the "hoo-ha" has inflated into a fully fledged food scare, culminating this past week in a series of front-page frighteners in other newspapers. Two years ago, ministerial reassurances failed to reassure, and opposition demands for ministerial resignations were brushed aside. The same is true today.

However, there are important differences. E coli 0157 has killed many people, and poses a far more potent and immediate threat to consumers than genetically modified food. And the Government's response has in fact been different. True, there have been uncomfortable echoes of John Major's tetchiness in Mr Blair's tone, and Jack Cunningham has been hopeless. But Jeff Rooker, the deputy Agriculture Minister, has explained how he is tightening up the labelling of GM food and what he is doing about GM crops in his matter-of-fact Birmingham accent, and with the confidence that transparently comes from knowing what he is talking about.

The truth is that there is a lot more to worry about in our food than genetically modified ingredients. GM soya, tomatoes and maize cause no direct harm - the risk is only that some unintended consequence of altering plant genes may damage human health in some unforeseeable way at some time in the future. Meanwhile there are direct and real risks of death from E coli, salmonella, listeria and aflatoxins. Then there are potential risks that ought to be more worrying than messing about with DNA, such as the use of chemicals on crops and antibiotics on animals and farmed fish. Some of these risks are increased by intensive farming methods, others by poor hygiene in food production or preparation. All of them require rigorous government supervision and control.

So Mr Blair should be applauded for preparing to set up the Food Standards Agency. In all the fuss over the mad scheme to fund it by charging a flat- rate tax on supermarkets and sandwich kiosks alike - which the Prime Minister has already suggested will be changed - the central point has been lost. Which is that the agency will be answerable to the Department of Health rather than the Ministry of Agriculture. This is vital, because the aspect of the GM foods saga that inspires least confidence is the conduct of big companies, primarily Monsanto, whose profits depend on further intensifying and industrialising farming.

Our colleagues on other newspapers have this issue completely wrong. What should alarm us is not GM food, but crops that have been genetically modified to make them resistant to Monsanto's weedkillers and pesticides. Whole prairies in the US have been turned into "green concrete", in which GM soya or maize grows - and nothing else. No weeds, no wild flowers, no wildlife. This does not bother Americans, who live in a big country, with wilderness areas larger than the United Kingdom. But two-thirds of Britain is cultivated, and skylarks, corn buntings and many small furry mammals have nowhere else to live but farmland.

Oddly enough, on the same day two years ago that Mr Blair was demanding ministerial accountability for safe meat, his colleague Tony Banks, now a minister, accused the Tories of being "prepared to let people be poisoned by rotten stinking food when they could have healthy organic food".

It was rhetorical overkill, of course, but neither this government nor the last is doing enough to encourage less intensive agriculture.

Meanwhile, demand for organic food is rising so fast that much of it has to be supplied from abroad. A Food Standards Agency accountable to the Health Department is not enough. We need a powerful Green Ministry to protect the diverse wildlife of our countryside, too.