Leading article: Time for a fresh start on GM

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One of Gordon Brown's many chances for a fresh start, after the high-pitched certainties of his predecessor, is the Government's policy on genetically modified food. In truth, the battle is already over. Those who urged caution, including this newspaper which launched a campaign against GM food in 1999, have won. Those who advocated a rush towards the white heat of a biotechnological future, including Tony Blair, have lost. What is required now is for Mr Brown to accept that outcome and to take the debate on to more level ground.

When we began our campaign, 60 per cent of the food on British supermarket shelves contained GM ingredients. Today there are only two products. Public opinion has spoken and the market has responded. Few people want to eat GM. They have made up their minds even though its safety is still in dispute, with little firm evidence on either side of the argument. And there are other reasons for opposing the growing of GM crops – the loss of biodiversity shown by the Government's trials and the likelihood that genes will escape to contaminate organic and conventional produce. In the absence of a compelling argument to set against these important drawbacks we think that British consumers have made the right choice. If we do not need it, why have it?

That logic has killed off GM as a commercial proposition in this country and most of the rest of Europe for the foreseeable future. When our campaign began, it was widely assumed that consultation and trials were a formality, that GM crops would soon be planted all over Britain and that protests were futile. Mr Blair was enthusiastic about the possibilities, and how Britain could take a leading role on this frontier of human knowledge. Since then, that frontier has become a less exciting place. The hype of "feeding the world", or "super-crops" that do not need weedkiller or pesticides, has given way to a more complex and prosaic reality.

Crops with higher yields have proved harder to engineer than hoped and tend to be overtaken by gains in the traditional technology of selective breeding. And instead of developing crops that might help the world, the biotech companies have concentrated on ones that benefit only their own bottom lines, for example by having to be cultivated with their own proprietary pesticides

So: people do not want it; the great predicted benefits have failed to materialise; the GM juggernaut has stalled. Campaigners for GM have not given up, however. Dick Taverne, a member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, writes (again) in next month's Prospect about how "moralising" about GM in the West is costing millions of lives in the poor world. But his argument is unconvincing. Development charities, who know better than most how things work in the often complex Third World grassroots, oppose the technology because it increases, rather than reduces, hunger.

Yet the Blairite mission seems to be carried on by inertia, even after the former Prime Minister and David Sainsbury, his science minister and biotech cheerleader, have gone. As we report today, public funding is still skewed in favour of this one vision of the future of food. Funding for research into GM science seems to be about 20 times that devoted to organic methods. Yet people want organic not GM food, while the emphasis of policy in other parts of the Government machine is on biodiversity and environmental sustainability. (This month the Treasury even published targets for "wild breeding bird populations" and "plankton status".)

What is more, the secrecy with which the Government treats GM policy bears all the defensive hallmarks of the Blair period, when public policy was bent to promoting an unpopular cause on the quiet in the hope that opinion would turn. Geoffrey Lean, our Environment Editor, describes today how difficult it proves to obtain what ought to have been straightforward information on spending on GM research.

Mr Brown has the chance to be more open; to balance policy so that, at the very least, it is more even-handed between GM and organic. And he has the chance to move the debate about the future of biotechnology on to a sounder footing. We are not opposed to genetic manipulation on principle. We do not share Prince Charles's view that it is interfering in matters that are the province of God. If GM technology was really designed to help to feed the world, or produce drought-resistant or salt-resistant crops to help humankind adapt to global warming, then there would be reason to welcome it.

But this has to be subject to transparent assessment of all the environmental impacts, including on human health, without the Government seeking to pick winners and advocating any particular technological fix – especially one that the people of the country reject so overwhelmingly.

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