GM by the back door

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Dodgy industries selling dubious wares have long headed for the Third World when their activities have been questioned in the West. The biotech industry has been following this well-trodden path ever since consumers in Europe turned against GM food and crops. And these wares have had unprecedented backing from the US government, which has relentlessly bullied reluctant governments in developing countries to accept them.

Dodgy industries selling dubious wares have long headed for the Third World when their activities have been questioned in the West. The biotech industry has been following this well-trodden path ever since consumers in Europe turned against GM food and crops. And these wares have had unprecedented backing from the US government, which has relentlessly bullied reluctant governments in developing countries to accept them.

The latest example is the row over the refusal by Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to accept GM food in aid from the US despite facing famine. Their attitude was presented by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in his speech to the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, as a bloody-minded willingness to let their people starve rather than eat food that had been safely consumed by Americans for years. But it is much more complex than that. The safety of GM food is still in doubt – any effect will not show for many years yet – and African countries are worried that their peoples, whose immune systems have already been impaired by HIV/Aids, may be especially vulnerable. More important, they fear their farmers will illegally plant grain given as aid, introducing GM crops to their countries. Their genes would spread until all their harvests were contaminated, and then they would be unable to sell their produce to Europe. Something of the kind has already happened in Mexico, and from this perspective the US insistence on providing GM aid looks more like an unscrupulous attempt to introduce the technology by the back door.

Against this background, the revelation that the Department for International Development has funded a huge programme of GM research across the Third World is deeply disturbing. The projects range from the apparently benign, such as attempting to stop tsetse fly passing on sleeping sickness, to the downright dangerous, such as developing GM pigs and fish that would rapidly spread their altered genes by interbreeding. The whole programme legitimises and promotes technology still opposed by many Third World governments and their peoples.

Britain has no business doing this. And it certainly should not continue without subjecting the work to the kind of public debate that ministers have rightly decided must be completed before any decision is taken to commercialise the technology at home.

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