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

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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

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