By Michael Meacher
So, according to the Government, we are to have GM crops commercially grown in Britain from 2009, and if you don’t like your food being GM contaminated, too bad. That’s the clear message of Defra’s latest consultation paper proposing absurdly small separation distances between GM and other crops, a voluntary system of compensation for ruined non-GM farmers, and permission for GM crops to be grown at secret locations (rejecting a public register of sites as sanctioned by EU law).
All of this begs the question: is genetic modification of food safe? The question remains unanswered, but a pile of new scientific evidence has produced some worrying results. Within the last few months a Russian scientist, found that an astonishing 55 per cent of the offspring of rats fed on GM soya died within three weeks of birth compared with only 9 per cent in the control group.
Then an Italian researcher found that mice fed on GM soya experienced a slowdown in cellular metabolism and modifications in liver and pancreas. A third study, in Australia, showed that genes from a bean introduced into a pea created a protein that caused such serious inflammation of lung tissue in mice that the research was halted.
Enough, you might think, for the Government (or the EU, for the Commission is now in charge of GM policy) to stop the import of GM processed foods until exhaustive tests had been carried out. Not a bit of it. The EU, under pressure from the US, has pushed through the approval of seven GM foods over the past two years, despite a lack of support from member states, and has commercialised 31 varieties of Monsanto’s maize for cultivation in the EU.
Yet we now know from leaked documents what the EU really believes. On human safety it says that “there is no unique, absolute, scientific cut-off threshold available to decide whether a GM product is safe or not”. And, it goes on, “it is a reasonable and lawful position” that insect-resistant crops (the GM crops being grown in the EU) should not be planted till all the effects on the soil are known.
Despite its own misgivings, the Commission has previously required member states to vote twice on proposals to lift national bans on GM products in five countries, and when it was defeated in both votes, it used its powers to force through the lifting of the bans anyway.
It is a scandal that an unelected body is empowered to determine what a nation may or may not eat, and that it did this because it was leaned on by the Bush administration in support of US agrochemical interests such as Monsanto. The US was able to exert this pressure because the WTO allows trade interests to override domestic food policies.
Nor does the UK Government come out of this much better. Despite knowing how hostile public opinion was to GM, ministers voted to give approval to six of the seven GM foods when other countries voted against. And despite a public consultation on GM cultivation that showed 85 per cent of the population against, they went ahead until, unexpectedly, environmental trials blocked this option.
The strong pro-GM bias of the Government is manifest in another area too. It does not sit easily with Lord Sainsbury’s position as science minister that his companies promoting GM foods have been awarded more than £12 million by his own Department of Trade and Industry.
The key question remains for GM: should the public interest prevail, or that of some of the biggest US companies?
• Michael Meacher MP is a former environment minister