GM: the closer it gets, the louder the protests

Government plans for the commercial planting of modified maize are facing tough opposition. Geoffrey Lean and Severin Carrell report
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The Independent Online

It was supposed, in Blairspeak, to provide "closure" for the public debate over GM foods and to allow ministers and the nation to "move on". But this week's much-delayed announcement that the Government favours the first commercial planting of a modified crop in Britain is turning out to be another episode in its long GM nightmare.

It was supposed, in Blairspeak, to provide "closure" for the public debate over GM foods and to allow ministers and the nation to "move on". But this week's much-delayed announcement that the Government favours the first commercial planting of a modified crop in Britain is turning out to be another episode in its long GM nightmare.

Instead of peacefully coasting towards the announcement - scheduled for Tuesday - ministers are spending the weekend desperately trying to rescue it amid objections from almost every quarter. They have had to scale it down to a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of the crop. And if they are unable to overcome resistance from the Welsh and Scottish devolved governments, they may have to emasculate it further.

Senior parliamentarians are furious that the Cabinet agreed to give the green light to the planting of GM maize as they were about to produce a report saying no decision should be taken until more research is carried out. Top civil servants are angry that Downing Street pre-empted the announcement with a leak of the decision on Thursday, in an apparent attempt to spike the parliamentarians' guns.

The British Medical Association (BMA) is expected to issue a report this week reiterating concerns about the effects of GM food on health. A study on the environmental effects of growing the maize - which ministers plan to use to shore up their position - is under attack for being partially based on speculation. And research shows that two-thirds of US conventional crops are contaminated with modified genes.

The leaders of nine organisations representing eight million Britons - including the National Trust and the Women's Institute - have written to the Prime Minister demanding that the decision be postponed. Environmentalists are mobilising to pull up any crops that are planted. And even the GM industry is privately unhappy that it has not fully got its way.

However, the most serious threat to the Government's position is posed by the Welsh and Scottish administrations. Ministers desperately want them on board so that they can make a united announcement that, in principle, growing the maize is acceptable. Even more crucially, by law they have to have their assent before a definite go-ahead can be given to cultivating the GM crop commercially anywhere in Britain.

Both devolved governments are far more sceptical about GM than Tony Blair and his Cabinet. Two weeks ago, Carwyn Jones, the Welsh environment minister, said that Wales took "the most restrictive approach possible within current UK and European legislation". This opposition has already held up an announcement for weeks.

Ministers are puttingpressure on both administrations. As a result, they are expected to make new policy statements this week - but it is not yet clear that they will toe the Downing Street line.

Already Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, is planning to give only muted backing in principle to the maize, saying that on the scientific advice available the Government can see no reason not to give it the go-ahead. But unless the Welsh and Scottish administrations can be brought into line she will be forced to weaken the announcement or to make one that applies only to England and Northern Ireland.

Worse, there is no sign that the devolved administrations will agree to approve the planting of the maize, called Chardon LL, and Mrs Beckett is planning to stop short of giving it specific clearance. Instead, she will indicate a further delay by announcing a period of public consultation into the distances that it should be grown from conventional maize to minimise cross-pollination, and into who should compensate non-GM farmers when contamination occurs.

She will also say that the maize will only be grown under tough new conditions that many believe will make it uneconomic. And she will make it clear that the Government wants the industry to meet the compensation bills - which GM companies reject.

Because of all this, no GM maize will be grown this year. Ministers are considering spinning out the consultation process to prevent planting next year and avoid controversy in the run-up to a general election. That would postpone it to 2006, when EU approval for the maize runs out - meaning that it will have to be tested all over again.

However, none of this will satisfy the Government's growing army of critics, which now includes the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. As The Independent on Sunday reported last week, the committee said it would be "irresponsible" to approve growing the maize until another four years of tests had been carried out.

Peter Ainsworth, the committee's chairman, is angry that the Cabinet leaked the Government's decision the day before the committee's report was published.

He also attacked a paper published in Nature last week, which is expected to be cited by Mrs Beckett as evidence that GM maize does less harm to the environment than cultivating conventional crops.

To add to ministers' troubles, the BMA is to report on the potential health risks of GM foods this week, and is expected to raise concerns that they could increase allergies and resistance to antibiotics.

Once the genes spread, there's no stopping them

Back in the autumn of 2000, the United States found to its horror that a GM maize not cleared as safe for human consumption was showing up in food products. Genes from Starlink, a modified crop approved only for animals, which had been planted in only 0.4 per cent of US maize, had spread to food all over the country and got into the seed supply. Despite an immense campaign the authorities have still not been able to eliminate it.

The episode shows how fast and pervasively genes from GM crops can spread, and how hard it is to eliminate them. And this sort of contamination has already occurred in the UK, even before any commercial growing has been approved. A year and a half ago, illegal oilseed rape was found to be growing in British GM trials. The oilseed contained a gene resistant to antibiotics, something that caused particular concern because of fears that people and animals that ate it could develop immunity to these essential drugs.

Dangers to human health from such contamination will increase with the next planned generation of GM crops, which will be modified to produce medicines and industrial chemicals, essentially turning the plants into biological factories. If these genes got into the ordinary food supplies, they could damage the health of people who eat them.

Contamination could also spell ruin for organic farmers, who rely on selling unmodified produce free of chemicals. Once the genes had spread - for example though pollen carried from nearby GM crops - they would no longer be able to sell their food as organic. In time, organic agriculture would become impossible and people would beunable to eat this food, which is growing in popularity.

Contamination also threatens the environment. Genes from crops modified to resist pesticides have already spread to wild relatives, creating superweeds.

And once the genes are out they cannot be recalled, but will go on spreading. Unlike most forms of pollution, genetic contamination is irreversible, as the Starlink experience has showed.

Geoffrey Lean

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