Peter Melchett: When it comes to food, it's better to contact your supermarket than your MP

Last week an apparent setback for the opponents of GM crops was dramatically reversed as the biotech giant Bayer abandoned its plans to grow GM maize in Britain.

In February, in the face of public opposition, the Government had given its approval in principle for GM maize to be grown in the UK - the first crop to receive the green light for commercial planting. It was made clear at the time, however, that the biotech companies would be expected to bear the burden of legal liability for any contamination of non-GM crops. Bayer has now decided that it does not wish to proceed, blaming "regulatory hurdles" imposed by the Government.

Bayer's retreat effectively ends the prospect of any GM crops being grown in the UK in the near future. It is a victory for those who believe that GM food is a potential health and agricultural disaster in the making, and one that UK farmers cannot afford.

So what are the Soil Association's objections to GM? The fact is that no one knows if GM food is safe to eat. Worldwide, there has been only one trial that looked at what happens when humans eat GM food. To their surprise, researchers found that the human gut bacteria could take up GM DNA. This trial, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2002, has not been followed up.

Although about 100 trials have been done on the commercial value of GM animal feed, only 10 feeding trials that look at the health effects on animals have been done. Of these, the biotechnology companies were connected with five, and none found harmful effects. However, most of the remaining five, done independently, found worrying changes in the gut. None of these has been followed up.

The process used to introduce foreign genes into an organism randomly disrupts its other genes, and the consequences of this on the functioning of the genes are unknown and are a potential risk. While questions on safety remain unanswered, the Soil Association believes that the precautionary principle should be invoked: if there is a potential significant risk, then avoid it.

Organic standards have banned GM from food production since the Nineties, and we remain as opposed to this new food technology as ever. Organic food should offer a safe sanctuary from potential health risks of GM. But we are deeply concerned that growing it commercially will threaten the integrity of organic crops.

The pro-GM lobby insists that GM and organic crops can co-exist, but how do you stop bees or the wind carrying GM pollen, which can fertilise both its organic and non-organic relatives? We know from what has happened in the US and Canada that co-existence is a myth. GM jeopardises not only the environment but also the rights of the vast majority who do not want to eat GM food. Millions will lose the right to choose.

In the case of GM maize, the Soil Association had specific concerns. Used as animal feed, it has been linked to serious and unusual health problems in pigs in the US, and cows in Germany. Bayer's retreat is no cause for complacency, as some non-organic livestock in this country are already being fed imported GM soya and GM maize.

Thanks to consumers voicing their concerns, supermarkets have banned GM ingredients from their own-brand products. But does your milk and butter come from dairy cows fed on a non-GM diet? From this month, GM animal feed must be labelled, so dairy farmers can easily exclude it from their animals' diet. The non-organic consumer cannot so easily choose, because milk from cows fed on GM feed does not have to be labelled as GM. Only a non-GM animal feed policy, from supermarkets and dairies, will ensure milk (and other animal products) is produced without using GM feed.

Marks & Spencer now guarantees that its own-brand milk is non-GM, and the Co-operative Group has pledged to do the same. The other supermarkets will follow suit if enough customers make their wishes known. When it comes to food, contacting your supermarket is more important than writing to your MP.

Last summer's GM public debate, and other numerous polls, have shown that the public does not want GM food. The global market for organic food is £16bn, five times the global market for genetically engineered seed (about £3bn). No one is queuing up to eat GM food; in contrast organic sales are growing. We must not go down the uncertain, unpredictable - and irreversible - road to GM.

The Soil Association is the leading charity working for organic food and farming. We rely on public support to challenge the dominance of industrial agriculture, connected as it is with the degradation of the countryside, increases in diet-related illnesses, mistreatment of animals and betrayal of public trust in food. Help us build an organic and sustainable future. Contact the Soil Association on 0117 914 2444, or visit www.soilassociation.org for more information.

Peter Melchett is policy director of the Soil Association

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