The tide has turned globally against the introduction of genetically modified crops, Lord Melchett, the former director of Greenpeace and campaigner for organic farming and food, said yesterday.
Fifteen years ago, many governments thought GM crops and food would become the norm, but it has not happened because of rising public resistance around the world, and it will not happen, he said.
"This is a redundant technology and many people in Europe may be unaware of the extent of the resistance to GM in places like India and China, because they swallow the GM industry line that it is supported all across the world," he said. "I have to say that where we are now with GM leaves me feeling very optimistic."
Speaking at the Sustainable Planet forum in Lyon, France, he said GM technology, put forward by firms such as Monsanto, the US agribusiness giant and pesticide manufacturer, had achieved its initial success only "through secrecy", he said. Many aspects of it had been kept a secret from farmers and consumers, but once labelling of GM products began, public support collapsed. He cited the case of Monsanto's GM bovine growth hormone milk.
"America is where we're told GM is a huge success, and where everyone from farmers to consumers loves GM, but it's simply not true," he said. "If anybody tells you this, ask them, where is GM wheat? Monsanto had it ready to go but it was stopped by American farmers. Ask them, where is the GM version of alfalfa, the fourth most commonly grown crop in the world? American farmers went to court to stop it being commercialised," he told the conference, which is being co-sponsored by the French newspaper Libération, The Independent and La Repubblica from Italy.
Lord Melchett is now the policy director of the Soil Association, the organic farming and food campaigning body. An organic farmer himself, he has been one of Britain's most prominent anti-GM activists and in 1999, when head of Greenpeace, led a raid to trash a field of trial GM crops in Norfolk.
He and 27 other Greenpeace volunteers were arrested and charged with criminal damage, but acquitted by a jury after claiming that the damage they had prevented – potential contamination of non-GM crops by pollen from the GM trial – was greater than the damage they had caused.
In the Lyon forum yesterday, attended by thousands of people, Lord Melchett joined with a French anti-GM campaigner, Philippe Martin, to examine the question (perhaps reflecting French preoccupations) of whether it is possible now to have a menu with no GM items on it.
Mr Martin, a socialist MP and council leader from Le Gers, the south-western France department with the highest percentage of farmers in the country, began by saying there were four great existential questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What's for dinner?
He said that, personally, he would not like a menu without confit de canard on it (his local regional speciality of preserved duck), but that was a matter of choice. He was concerned about cases where consumers might have no choice at all.
He hit out at the decision by the European Commission last July to authorise the import of six more GM strains of maize to be used for animal feed. Lord Melchett agreed, saying it was vital to label clearly milk and meat that came from animals fed on GM products. "There is a huge amount of GM soya fed to chickens, pigs and dairy cows, and you will eat it whether you want to or not," he said. "Simply to get these products labelled is a crucial battle."
Anti-GM demonstrators briefly disrupted a debate between two senior French politicians at yesterday's conference. They carried banners on to the stage at the Lyon opera house to protest against what they called the French government's "hypocritical" approach to genetically modified foods.
Their target was the senior French environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, who was debating with François Hollande, the former Socialist party leader, on whether green issues and mainstream politics were compatible. France has taken a restrictive attitude to GM foods in public, the demonstrators said, but quietly approved the planting of a score of GM plant varieties earlier this year.
Mr Borloo replied that France had done more than any other EU nation to slow the advance of GM and make certain that Brussels undertook scientific studies before giving approval for new products.