Michael Meacher: Are we going to sacrifice a growing market for organic crops by risking contamination?

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The Independent Online

The main advantages alleged for genetic modification are that it increases yields, reduces herbicide use and could feedthe developing world. Unfortunately, all these claims are either strongly disputed or downright wrong.

Monsanto has declared that yields increase, but the experience of Canadian farmers, who were initially favourable to GM, has proved the opposite. In India, the GM cotton harvest collapsed because of bollworm infestation. On herbicide use, powerful chemical weedkillers still often have to be used three times - first to clear the ground, then as the crop begins to grow, and third as it matures. Cross-contamination has proved a nightmare, with oilseed rape pollen particularly promiscuous. And if world hunger is to be addressed, fair trade rules for the developing countries, a more equal distribution of land, and population management measures are vastly more important than GM, whose role is insignificant.

The disadvantages of GM are that it is an untested, and potentially risky, technology. The insertion of GM DNA and lack of control over the gene's functions could cause undesired effects not immediately apparent. That is why it is so serious that no systematic clinical testing has been carried out on the health impacts of GM foods. We do know that food allergies and food-related illnesses have doubled here and in North America over recent years, but the suspected connection with GM has not been tested. Equally, long-term impacts of GM on the environment have not been explored.

Other key disadvantages are that co-existence with organic crops is impossible. Organic oilseed rape has virtually been wiped out in Canada as a result of GM contamination. Do we want the same to happen here? We have a choice. Are we going to sacrifice organic crops, for which there is an expanding market, in order to license GM crops, for which there is no market?

People also want consumer choice. The Government says it is in favour. But people cannot choose GM-free food when the labelling rules proposed have a 0.9 per cent threshold, so you do not know if it is GM free.

Michael Meacher was the Environment minister from 1997 to 2003