Comment: The government’s backing of GM foods is short-sighted and wrong

By Peter Melchett

The call to relax the rules on GM crops from Sir Mark Walport, government chief scientist, comes as no surprise. A strong belief in GM seems to have become a basic qualification for the chief scientist job in recent years.

The problem for successive pro-GM UK governments, starting with Tony Blair's evangelical support for GM, is that consumers and the market, not politicians or their advisors, have decided what actually happens. So despite Blair's strong support for GM, in 1999 supermarkets took GM ingredients out of 70% of UK food in response to their customers' wishes, and have kept it out of all UK food ever since.

A recent survey shows more than 80% of customers are either unsure or negative in their attitude to the use of GM technology in food – and that will determine the future of GM food – not the chief scientist's opinion.  Indeed, many scientists would argue that recent research results tend to suggest that the public are right to be sceptical, both in terms of risks to human health, and increasing problems for farmers growing GM crops.

The use of GM in animal feed has, however, continued in the UK, with the exception of some limited ranges, and for all poultry, chicken and eggs.  Last year, Asda and Morrisons dropped the non-GM feed requirement for poultry, and recently, Tesco, Sainsbury, M&S and the Co-op followed suit.

Currently most supermarkets are choosing to hide their use of GM animal feed by not labelling products, despite the fact that DNA from GM animal feed is found in milk and meat from animals fed on a GM diet, and 67% of their customers want labelling. Not surprisingly, 70% of customers do not trust supermarkets on GM.

In the rest of Europe there are strong moves to non-GM animal feed, and these changes are bound to come to the UK soon. In a significant move, Waitrose has already decided to keep its eggs and chicken non-GM.  The world's second largest supermarket, Carrefour, is moving to eliminate all GM animal feed, as are many supermarkets in countries like Germany and Austria.

GM crops are heavily promoted as necessary to feed the world's growing population. But this is another myth from the pro-GM lobby. Where GM crops have been planted they are locking farmers into buying herbicides and costly seed, while breeding resistant weeds and insects. They are the product of a narrow, top-down approach driven not by the needs of farmers, consumers or the environment, but of seed and chemical companies driven by profit.

Just three corporations – Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer – are responsible for virtually all commercially released GM crops in the world (almost all the GM food crops are still just being grown in Canada, the USA, Argentina and Brazil, and almost all used for animal feed).  Recently the chairman of Nestle, Peter Brabeck, said that GM is the future and that the "ultimate social responsibility" for his food business "is to make as much profit as possible".

There is enough food produced today for everyone to have the nourishment they need, and yet nearly one billion people are hungry, and one billion malnourished. Also, currently, more than one billion people are overweight, leading to major diet related health problems, and this number is growing.

Different systems of agriculture cannot put right the main causes of hunger – poverty, natural disasters and conflict – but poor agricultural practice and infrastructure, and over-exploitation of the environment can be addressed. In addition, the changes to our diets that health experts recommend to fight the obesity epidemic, less meat and dairy, less processed foods, and more fruit and vegetables, are the same changes that will make feeding a growing population easier with farming systems that cause far less environmental damage.

Farmers and the public deserve to choose the kind of future they want for our food. The Soil Association opposes moves to weaken regulations that have largely kept commercial GM planting out of the UK and Europe or to spend more on GM research in the hope that it will help feed the world.

GM scientists and industry have consistently over-promised and under-delivered, and there is no sign that will change. Countless tried, tested and successful ways of tackling hunger and food insecurity are underused for lack of investment, so it is wrong to throw good money after bad on GM.

Over in the US the public, food activists and farmers have been fighting for clear labelling of GM products, and with over 20 states looking at some form of GM food labelling law, change seems inevitable.  Although the pro-labelling movement narrowly lost a ballot on this in California last November, it took an expenditure of some $47 million from big food and chemical companies, which outspent their opponents eight to one. The outrage this caused had ignited a debate about GM food in the US, and the next test of labelling initiatives will be a popular ballot in Washington State this November.

Labelling of GM food will inevitably affect GM sales in the largest consumer food market in the world, as will the rapid growth of a new US 'non-GM' food labelling initiative, already supported by over 1,000 food businesses and retailers.

In China, public pressure has had an effect. Due to scientific and public fears about food safety and concern about export markets, China has decided not to grow GM food crops on a commercial scale, even though China is the world's biggest producer of GM cotton. Research continues in China to determine next steps, and assess the health implications of GM foods.  Kenya recently took the same step of deciding against GM food.

Sadly, this won't be the first, and probably not the last time that the UK's pursuit of some high tech, high cost, blind alley has left us lagging behind the rest of Europe. Twenty years ago the UK could have been leaders in manufacturing wind turbines. We had the best wind in the EU for generating electricity, but our obsession with high tech nuclear power allowed a range of other European countries, in particular Denmark and Germany, to seize the economic high ground, and the jobs and businesses that went with manufacturing turbines for the European market.

The government chief scientist's pro-GM position certainly reflects the huge importance that England's leading agriculture research establishments place on the role of GM crops.  But while England has remained obsessed with GM crops, Scotland and Wales are now determined to remain GM-free.

In the European Union, previously strongly pro-GM governments like France and Germany, and the European Commission, have seen the light, and are investing in modern and environmentally sustainable methods of food production. Sooner or later we will have to do the same.

Peter Melchett is policy director at the Soil Association.

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