Stop hectoring us, Jack, and listen to our fears about GM

Jonathan Dimbleby, head of the Soil Association, writes to the Cabinet 'enforcer' Jack Cunningham

Share
Related Topics
Dear Jack,

You will remember the occasion some 18 months ago when you made a speech at a Soil Association dinner. You praised the values and objectives of the organic movement and declared that they chimed with the social and environmental imperatives of the Government. You then put your money where your mouth was. Flourishing a pounds 20 note, you signed up there and then as a member. Our patron, the Prince of Wales, was not present but was delighted by your very public gesture.

I am perplexed, therefore, by the tone of your reaction to your critics in the GM debate. When you say that you won't be "blown around" by "shock, horror or alarmist reports" you sound perilously like someone trying to enforce, rather than heed, public opinion. Of course, it is inevitable that the language of public debate sometimes becomes excitable - on all sides. A week ago your Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert May, was moved to describe the leaders of the Soil Association as "ayatollahs". I was tempted to respond in kind (noting, inter alia, that if I am an "ayatollah", then you must be one of my "mad mullahs") but I thought better of it, realising that he, like you, was merely giving vent to an understandable frustration at the reluctance of the public to sign up for your GM project. I have since discovered that Sir Robert (who is not only brilliant but delightful) regrets that comment and that, like you, he has a great deal of sympathy with the Soil Association but thinks we are wrong about GMs.

If you trawl through the press coverage of this issue, you will be hard put to find the hysteria about GM foods that Tony Blair's spin-doctors detect. Naturally, though, you will read about those private polls of yours which evidently show that only 35 per cent of the public trust you and your colleagues to make biotechnology decisions on their behalf, and that only 1 per cent believe that GM foods are good for us. And, from your perspective, that must indeed be "shock horror" stuff.

But, in general, the media has reported the views of scientists, official advisers and bodies like English Nature, the RSPB, the BMA, Friends of The Earth, and the Soil Association without distortion. Editorial writers, though racy as ever, have tended to focus on precisely those issues raised by the Prince of Wales in his "Ten Questions" article a few days ago - and which your colleague Michael Meacher was swift to welcome. The sooner ministers stop slagging off the doubters, the sooner we can have the "rational debate" which you say you want.

Personally, I have an open mind about GM technology. If it can really be shown to bring about a sharp reduction in pesticide use, to enhance biodiversity, to protect wildlife, to make arid lands fertile with higher- yielding crops that can boost protein levels in the children of Africa, and even give them immunity from eye disease or measles, then it would indeed be daftly Luddite to stand in the way of that potential. But those are all huge "ifs" - and, incidentally, when I hear the biotech multinationals intone that we "must" develop GM crops for the sake of the Third World, I not only share the Prince's view that this is "moral blackmail", I also reach for the sickbag. Since when has Monsanto been our moral guardian, crusading for the wretched of the Earth?

In the meantime, the Soil Association believes that there is not yet any place for GM crops in a sustainable system of food production. More specifically, we think that the "precautionary principle", to which all governments pay lip service, should be far more rigorously applied than hitherto. The Government's lack of credibility on this issue stems from your perceived failure to give this due weight until - late in the day - you were driven to it by the pressure of public opinion. You have now announced your intention to establish a new quango to oversee the development of GM technology -which, you insist, will not be allowed to put at risk "public health or the environment".

I don't doubt your good intentions but, as you know, this commitment raises a host of important questions. What, in this context, constitutes "risk"? What will be the criteria? How will they be established? What will count as relevant data? How long are you willing to wait for the evidence one way or the other?

Meanwhile, will you lift the prevailing veils of secrecy that surround these questions by making the deliberations of your advisers available for public scrutiny? We know that "risk" cannot be eliminated altogether but if the new arrangements are merely designed to be what the Food Minister, Jeff Rooker, in an unfortunate phrase called "a comfort blanket", they will get short shrift.

As it is, there remains the overriding question of "choice". Minister after minister has come forward to pledge that consumers and producers should be free to choose between GM and non-GM food. How are you going to honour that pledge? The Prince of Wales has reminded us that bees are unlikely to obey government regulations designed to protect against cross- pollination. Your own advisers and the biotechnology firms confirm his scepticism: it is not yet possible to prevent cross-contamination even when crops are separated by many miles.

To deliver on your pledge, therefore, you appear to have two options: either to ban the commercial production of GM crops altogether, or to persuade the public that you did not really mean quite what you have said. Maybe the voters will concede that "a little bit of what they don't want" - a mere morsel, after all - won't really spoil the choice you have promised them. But when the likes of Nestle and Sainsbury's have already lined up alongside the public to insist that "GM-free" must mean what it says, you may find that option is closed off.

What happens then? The question rises above party politics but goes to the heart of government in a democracy. Before very long you will have to find a convincing answer. Accordingly, I wish you well.

Yours ever,

Jonathan

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
More From
Jonathan Dimbleby
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
 

To hear the Yes campaigners, you’d think London was the most evil place on Earth

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam