The Government must listen to our fears about GM food

When it comes to what we eat and feed our families, we do not fall readily into party loyalties
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The Independent Culture
WHEN CONFRONTED by a foreigner who does not speak English, it is our national trait to shout Very Very Loud in the hope that amplification will assist understanding. Similarly, the Government's response to the public's failure to heed one of its messages is simply to say the same thing again and again in the belief that we poor dull creatures will get the point in the end.

In the handling of public fears about genetically modified food, however, repetition will not be enough to turn back the tide of doubt and confusion. Food scares are far more difficult to defuse than the other vicissitudes that make life fraught for governments. When it comes to what we eat and feed our families, we do not fall as readily as usual into party loyalties, nor do we give a leader, even one as popular as Mr Blair, the benefit of the doubt. This is why he now faces every Government's basic nightmare - a popular coalition of resistance spanning all social classes and political persuasions. Faced with a range of resistance that includes Greenpeace, John Redwood and the Mothers Union, the Government must realise that its damage-limitation strategy is doing everything but limit the damage.

Tony Blair has prospered as a politician because he embodies reassurance. People are inclined to believe what he says; this has been his greatest political capital.When he says that he is "sure" that GM foods are safe and can lead to "tastier, healthier and cheaper products", he is squandering this vital advantage.

First, we know that he doesn't really know whether his statement is true. Scientists are divided on the long-term consequences of consuming genetically modified foods. Mr Blair has stuck his neck out too far in the direction of unsullied optimism and therefore we take his becalming words with a pinch of unmodified salt.

In the role of Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister who owns a GM patent, is a major complication. David Sainsbury is a thoughtful and popular businessman, brimming with ideas to stimulate economic growth, and a long-standing proponent of a broad centre-left coalition in British politics. He has every New Labour virtue, except, in this case, intuitive political judgement.

Lord Sainsbury was not sufficiently open about the nature of a biotechnology product he owns - one integral to the process of genetic modification - which was transferred into a blind trust three days after he entered the Government. The claim that he absents himself from discussions on GM food policy in the Cabinet sub-committee on bio-technology also looks flimsy.

An odd defence is rolled out in such cases, namely that the businessmen who enter politics are too naive to realise that there may be appearances of conflicts of interest between their assets and their new activities. The affable Minister for European Trade, Lord Simon of Highbury, was spared censure on these grounds when it was revealed that he had not declared substantial shares in an off-shore trust.

But this excuse washes less white every time it is used. It looks very grey in Lord Sainsbury's case. After Lord Simon, not to mention the interminable complexities of Geoffrey Robinson's affairs, businessmen turning their hand to government should be aware that it is not sufficient to transfer their previous dealings to a blind trust and say as little as possible about them. The more often a minister is revealed as having stashed away some interest that might affect executive decisions, the less convincing are Mr Blair's guarantees that his government is transparent and sleaze- free. You cannot simultaneously send the two messages "What you see is what you get" and "What you see is the bits of this minister's lucrative interests that are not bundled up in an anonymous trust until he leaves office." Businessmen-politicians must pay the price of exposing their existing interests and assets.

Downing Street says the Prime Minister is "frustrated' by the way his message is being drowned out by an alliance of concerned folk and media hype. Certainly, on the topic of GM foods rationality is thrown to the winds. Yes, there is an outbreak of Mad Headline Writer's disease in parts of the media - first prize to The Express for an understated little number that read, "Human genes in GM food: protests at move to `cannibalism'".

But Downing Street's complaint is a bit like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady demanding, "Why can can't a woman be more like a man?" It is a proposition reasonable only in its own, strictly limited terms. Mr Blair's "frustration" rests on the expectation that the public should always believe that he is right on every occasion. He is in danger of believing the mythology that his message is sacred and cannot possibly be proved wrong.

This tendency has unnerved me for some time. At the last party conference, I was dining with a senior minister on the day questions were first raised about GM foods. I ventured some worry about the contents of my pasta. To this the minister snorted that my reservations were mere peasant suspicion of technology. He would happily eat any such products, he said. It struck me that my suspicion was based on the natural conservatism of the consumer, aware of the relatively low level of information and bargaining power I possess compared to the might and profit margins of the food industry. The minister, on the other hand, erred vastly on the side of incaution because he had accepted so uncritically the Government's embrace of business. What surprised me was not so much my companion's wild abandon to experimental habits, but his cavalier expectation that the public should share it.

Even now, Mr Blair is pursuing the strategy of slapping down consumer doubts, rather than accepting that they exist, and answering them. On presentation, the Government has erred uncharacteristically. Using Jack Cunningham, a machine politician best known for his defence of the nuclear industry, as the front man for the pro-GM policy, is an own goal. In most households, decisions about what is eaten are taken by women. If I may presume to minister to the spin doctors, might it not be a better idea to wheel out a sturdy female to replace Nuclear Jack in the battle to convince us that eating hi-tech tomato paste will not turn us into aliens?

But presentational skills alone will does not dispel the need for a more thoughtful approach to the consequences of genetically modified food. The Government must stop telling us that we are foolish to be concerned. That never reassured anyone. Far better to tighten testing and licensing procedures along the same lines as those applied to new drugs on the market and to emphasise, even after testing, that clear labelling is essential. As Mr Blair said after his election, politicians must never forget that they are the servants of the people who put them in a position of trust. That means taking the public's fears seriously - not just shouting them down.