Science in Society Archive

Lead Us Not Into GM

A resounding "No" to GMOs. Sam Burcher reports.

The response to GM crops in the UK’s GM Nation? public debate is an overwhelming "No". A total of 36,557 people returned the questionnaire accompanying the debate. The vote is one of the largest ever to be returned by the public. The results are as follows:

  • 54% of respondents said they never want to see GM crops grown in the UK
  • 18% said they would only find GM crops acceptable if there were no risk of cross-contamination
  • 13% requested more research before government decisions are made
  • 2% said GM crops were acceptable in any circumstances.

When asked if they were happy to eat GM food:

  • 86% were not happy to eat GM food
  • 8% were happy to eat GM food
  • 6% were undecided.

The GM Nation? organisers also conducted a sub-survey of members of the general public who didn’t take part in the debate to see how different their views on GM were. They found a consensus on seven key points:

  • People are generally uneasy about GM
  • The more people engage in GM issues, the more their attitudes harden against the technology
  • There is little support for early commercialisation
  • There is widespread mistrust of government and multinational corporations
  • There is a broad desire to know more and for more research to be done
  • Developing countries have special interests
  • The debate was welcomed and valued.

This latest poll confirms that the public is as hostile as ever towards GM. But the government may still push ahead with commercialisation of the crops because UK ministers are keen to avoid upsetting EU-US relations. Trade secretary Patricia Hewitt is mindful of the recent US-launched legal action against the EU under World Trade Organisation rules.

There is a question mark too over how much leeway individual EU countries will have to ban GM imports and cultivation. This summer, EU agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler said that EU Commission guidelines allowing the co-existence of GM and conventional crops meant that GM-free zones were illegal.

But some critics suggest that the EU’s "ban on GM bans" may itself be illegal. They point to an EU directive that seems to leave some room for countries or regions wishing to avoid GM. Article 19.3.c of the EU Deliberate Release Directive (2001/18/EC) states that particular geographical areas, ecological habitats and zones can be excluded from GM marketing consents if an environmental case can be made. Local councils in the UK have taken up Article 19 and will employ it on a case-by-case basis.

Councils declare GM-free zones

Throughout the UK local councils recognise that GM technology is a relatively new branch of science and that there is still scientific debate about its safety. The following local authorities and their services will, as far as possible, be free of GM crops, food and feed: Bath and North East Somerset, Brighton and Hove, Bristol, East Riding or Yorkshire, Chesterfield, Cornwall, Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, Lake District National Park, Lancashire, South Hams, Shropshire, South Gloucestershire, Somerset, Ryedale, Warwickshire, Wales (entirely), Wokingham and York.

In any case, the EU Commission seems to have modified its pro-GM attitude in the light of emerging evidence. After lacklustre reports on GM’s prospects in the UK government’s scientific and economic reviews, EU Commissioner Fischler told EU farm ministers that he now favoured setting up voluntary zones that would allow farmers, businesses and councils in an area to declare themselves GM-free.

And since two of the GM crops in the UK Farm Scale Evaluation (FSE) trials were found to damage wildlife, EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne conceded that the UK could ban GM crops without breaching EU rules. The threat to biodiversity posed by the crops would be treated as "a matter of subsidiarity," meaning that individual member states could make their own decisions.

Tractors and Trolleys march against GM

Further proof of public rejection to the introduction of GM crops was displayed at the Tractors and Trolleys March Against GM in London on October 13. A clear blue sky provided the perfect backdrop for the 1,000 or so protestors who drove their tractors, cycled and marched from all over the country to deliver signatures to 10 Downing Street, the National Farmers’ Union, and the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Some 68 235 signatures had been collected by the Five Year Freeze campaign for a continuation of a five year moratorium on GM crops. Friends of the Earth delivered 13 000 messages of opposition to GM and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes handed in 500 personal letters of objection to GM.

The demo, organised by Friends of the Earth, wended its colourful way past Parliament to pounding drums sounding the death knell for GM crops.

Pilgrims were able to rest their trolleys and their weary feet at the Emmanuel Centre on Great Smith Street where a Harvest Fair Tea was laid on. In the beautiful auditorium, three of the most powerful speakers against GM delivered their addresses to a near-capacity audience of 1,000.

Former environment minister Michael Meacher roused the house with messages aimed at the prime minister: "Tony, if you’re listening, this is a battle we are winning!" The atmosphere was electric. GM crops were failing, he said, and there’s lots of demand for organic foods both from producers and consumers.

Physicist and ecologist Vandana Shiva said that Monsanto’s track record of wreaking destruction amongst farmers in India should not be repeated in Europe. Thousands of farmers had taken their own lives because the promises of the Monsanto salesmen were lies. "Monsanto salesman never visit the same farm twice," she said. But the fault is with the GM seeds, not the farmers. She did not forget the Korean farmer who committed suicide in Cancún, Mexico during the recent World Trade Organization talks in order to bring the plight of family farmers everywhere to the world’s attention.

Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, supported the previous speakers by affirming that this is a battle that can be won. He said that if we act now there is time to keep contamination of crops and wildlife by GM to a minimum.

Green Gloves Pledge

If the government does go ahead with GM commercialisation, then it will have to deal with several thousand people who have signed the Green Gloves Pledge to don gardening gloves and pull up GM crops wherever they are planted [].

Liz Snook is one campaigner who is prepared to resort to direct action. Liz, one of three campaigners who cycled from Totnes, Devon to the Tractors and Trolleys demo, once faced charges of criminal damage over the destruction of £500,000-worth of GM crops at a trial site in Devon. She said: "I will continue to pull up GM crops if necessary. Time after time it has been shown that there is a lawful excuse for the destruction of GM crops because they cause criminal damage to the crops of neighbouring farms."

UK’s biggest farmer will not sell or grow GMOs

The Co-op chain of supermarkets has also said "no" to GM food and crops. The chain sells £5bn worth of food annually and is Britain’s biggest farmer.

The Co-op took its decision after conducting a survey of its customers. The survey conducted by NOP found that 55% of Co-op customers were against GM and a further 38% were not convinced that GM had any benefits. And 78% were against the commercial growing of GM crops in the UK.

The Co-op has said it will not sell GM food under its own brand or grow GM crops on its own land. Animals on its 85 000 acres of farms will not be given GM feed, and the Co-op Bank will not invest customers’ money in GM technology. "Too little is still understood about this technology and how it would impact on our environment in future generations," said Martin Beaumont, Co-op Chief Executive.

French researchers call for public debate on GM

In France more than 700 researchers from the French public sector and universities have signed a petition calling for a public debate on GM research. This initiative follows the collection of over 1,500 signatures defending GM research, which itself was a response to the destruction of 25 GM crop trials over the summer.

Other French researchers and supporters of Jose Bové, veteran anti-GM campaigner and crop-trasher, responded by signing a petition in support of Bové’s direct action methods, saying, "random acts of sabotage can be regarded as the implementation of the precautionary principle."

Article first published 26/10/03


  1. GM Nation?
  2. Friends of the Earth
  3. Weekly Watch

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