Geoffrey Lean: The Government got exactly what it deserved in the GM crops debate

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The Independent Online

It was one of the most spectacular own goals since Andres Escobar landed the ball in his own net to lose Colombia the qualifying match against the United States in the World Cup of 1994, and was then shot dead on his return home.

For the result last week of the Government's GM debate, which suggested that Britons oppose the technology by nine to one endangers one of Tony Blair's most cherished goals: that of speedily introducing the commercial growing of the modified crops.

The hugely publicised result is not just the opposite of what the Government had planned. It also greatly exaggerates the scale of public opposition to GM crops and food, but ministers and Downing Street have only themselves to blame. Opinion polls show that Britons oppose the technology by about three to one, with huge numbers undecided. MORI, for example, found this year that 46 per cent of the public opposed it, compared to 14 per cent in favour, while 40 per cent remained undecided.

This was not good enough for ministers who had similar results from their private polling. They wanted better figures to bolster a planned decision to approve GM farming this month. They set up the public debate, not as a genuine search for the public view but as a way of getting greater acceptance. One senior official told me when the debate was announced that the whole object was to "dispel the myths'' put about by "extremists'' in environmental groups. And a minister admitted the decision to give the green light had already been taken.

Now they are hoist by their own petard. The people who registered their views were more hostile than the public at large. But there's little comfort for the Government in the large proportion of Britons who remain undecided. The report finds that totally uncommitted people who took no part in the debate became more hostile to the technology the more they learned over two weeks of exposure to the issues.

Mr Blair and his ministers have now put back the decision to next year, not least because they realise that public distrust, fuelled by the Iraq war and the evidence at the Hutton inquiry, is now too great to be provoked further.

That very distrust was one of the main themes to emerge from the GM debate. The report shows that even those who had so far taken no position on GM, and who had not participated in the debate, were deeply suspicious of the Government on the issue. Many regarded the debate as "window dressing used to cover secret decisions to go ahead with GM crop development''. According to the report, those interviewed demonstrated "a weakening of faith in the ability, or even the will, of any government to defend the interests of the general public'', and the fear that "government can be too close to producer interest". They "consistently expressed a very strong wish - almost a longing - for more information about GM from sources they could trust''. It is a damning indictment of a government and civil service whose job it is to provide this.

Opinion polls agree. Research from MORI shows that 40 per cent more people believe that the Government fails to listen to the public on GM than believe that it does listen; 44 per cent more believe that it distorts evidence on the issue than say it doesn't; and 50 per cent more believe that it suppresses some of the evidence than think that it doesn't.

Tony Blair and his ministers have been caught bang to rights. And it goes far wider than GM. Only one in five Britons trusts the Government on environmental issues. Why? "They have been caught red-handed spinning away so many times,'' says Bob Worcester, MORI's chairman. He can say that again. Who can forget the repeated reassurances over many years - against all common sense - that BSE posed no danger to people? The public didn't. The GM report shows it was repeatedly raised as a reason why ministers and their scientists could not be trusted over GM.

And what about foot and mouth? From the beginning of the outbreak this newspaper, almost alone, opposed the mass slaughter, argued for vaccination, and condemned the wholesale closure of public footpaths, while taking issue with the whole government strategy. We were roundly denounced by ministers and their officials - only for them to do a U-turn after a series of official inquiries completely backed our position.

Further back, ministers delayed for years measures to phase lead out of petrol, even though US studies had shown conclusively that the toxic metal damaged children's brains. Not until home-grown studies showed that British children were also affected - as if they belonged to a different species - was any action taken.

Part of the problem is that ministers often get poor advice from official committees with too many members who have links to the industry in question. And if they do not act on that advice they risk being overturned in a judicial review. Meanwhile, the Food Standards Agency shows little concern over GM or pesticide use on crops. Instead, it concentrates much of its attention on apparently trying to undermine the case for organic foods.

Again the public has sussed this out. Polls show that only 45 per cent of Britons trust government scientists. Yet 75 per cent put their faith in scientists working for environmental groups, even though these are also biased.

The scientific establishment is also overly conservative. Over the past 30 years, I've sat in meetings of the Royal Society - Britain's leading scientific institution and a cheerleader for GM - and been told that lead in petrol poses no risk to children, that global warming and acid rain do not exist, and that nuclear power is indisputably the fuel of the future. Few would suggest any of these now. Yet scientists who dared to challenge the faulty consensus at the time were often denigrated and even persecuted.

Strangely, Britain's role as a pioneer in environmental protection in the 1950s and 1960s has been partly to blame for this conservatism. Scientists, who in their younger days were genuine heroes in the fight against London's smogs, staunchly defended lead in petrol, seemingly unable to accept that they had not solved all the problems of air pollution. And those who had campaigned to ban organochloride pesticides, which harm wildlife, seemed unable to accept that the organophosphate ones that replaced them endangered people.

But until they - and governments - accept that new technologies can bring new hazards, that maverick scientists and pressure groups can be right and that they do not hold a monopoly on wisdom, the lack of public trust shown so vividly in the GM debate will continue to grow.