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UK ministers see risks with biotech food, consumers skeptical

(Friday, July 18, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- The following three stories cast some doubt on the prospects for GM food in the United Kingdom.

  • Ministers see political risks as outweighing any advantages

    Paul Brown, The Guardian, 07/17/03: The government is rethinking its plans to go full ahead with the introduction of genetically modified crops this autumn because of continued overwhelming public suspicion of the technology and ministers' motives for introducing it.

    Cabinet ministers have decided that the political risks of introducing GM increasingly outweigh any advantages, the Guardian has been told. Confidence was badly shaken last week by the Cabinet Office strategy unit's forecast of civil unrest unless the strictest rules were enforced to prevent contamination of conventional and organic crops.

    Tony Blair, who has been unswerving in his enthusiasm for GM technology, is said by government sources to have changed his mind about the early introduction of crops in the light of public hostility.

    He remains concerned about the potential loss to the UK's scientific research and development base if the country turns against GM. But that is set against fears that the real impact of GM on a sceptical public would come in two years - just as he may be facing a general election.

    Ministers' doubts have been fuelled by the results of a nationwide debate, GM Nation, which ends today. They show that despite huge efforts from the science lobby and the industry the public still believes that not enough is known about the risks to both health and the environment for the government to go ahead with the technology.

    More than 450 public meetings have been held and up to 23,000 formal responses will have been submitted. Full analysis of the results will not be known until the autumn but the majority of meetings concluded that it is too soon to let the technology loose on the British countryside.

    The fact that the US government has threatened a trade war if the EU blocks the import of GM foods has fuelled public opposition. The political risks of siding with the GM lobby against the British public have alarmed ministers.

    On Monday, when the scientific report on the possible health effects of GM is published, it too will strike a more cautious note than expected. Some members of the committee have objected to what they perceive as the gung-ho advocacy of GM of the government's chief scientist, Professor Sir David King, Sir John Krebs, chairman of the food standards agency, and Professor Howard Dalton, the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

    Instead of giving GM a complete endorsement the report will now say there are still gaps in knowledge and potential for nasty surprises.

    Prof King had strongly influenced the prime minister to support the technology as being vital to feed the third world and to help maintain Britain's science base.

    But in electoral terms Mr Blair faces stiff opposition from middle England. Among those demanding more time for public information are the Women's Institute and the Consumers' Association that have both called for a more extensive public debate.

    A coalition including Action Aid, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children say that claims that GM are needed to feed the developing world are misleading and should not be used for its promotion.

    Recent EU decisions on labelling of GM foods and the need to create rules for growing GM crops has raised further complications. The government has to decide how to segregate conventional groups and GM crops to safeguard against contamination. There is also the question a liability regime so that if contamination takes place the injured party can claim compensation.

    However, the potential financial risks this regime might place on the farmer would make growing GM crops extremely unattractive.

    Ministers' enthusiasm has been further eroded this week by the UK supermarkets, who told Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, that they still had no intention of selling modified products. This would leave little home market for GM crops grown in the UK.

    A further problem is that the result of trials on GM crops are due in September and are thought to be inconclusive, leaving the government with a another headache.

    What next?


    Last day of GM Nation debate chaired by Professor Malcolm Grant, who declared himself encouraged by 450 public meetings and 23,000 individual forms returned by the end of last week


    Review of GM to summarise the state of scientific knowledge, consensus and areas of uncertainty. Key issues are food and feed safety, gene flow, detection and environmental impact of GM.


    Summary of public debate and focus groups on whether and when GM should be introduced into the UK both for growing of crops and in food. It will include dicussion of possible safeguards.

    Results of three years of scientific trials into the effect of GM crops on the UK environment will be published in a scientific journal.

    Comments on the Cabinet Office strategy unit' s economic assessment of GM crops.


    Government must decide whether to allow import and growing of GM crops in Britain.

  • Consumers 'concerned about environmental impact of GM'

    The Guardian, 07/17/03: Consumers' main concern over GM food is the potential impact on the environment and biodiversity, according to a report published by the food standards agency today.

    Research by the FSA revealed a key worry was that, once GM crops were released into the environment, there could be no turning back. That, in turn, could restrict choice between GM and non-GM food through cross-contamination.

    Even people generally receptive to the idea of eating GM products expressed such fears, the report said.

    Other findings showed that consumers wanted to be able to make an informed choice between GM and non-GM food. They also felt it was essential that labelling was clear and effective, and should possibly use a logo to allow GM ingredients to be clearly identified.

    Although the FSA research shows that concern about GM food has decreased over the last three years, it suggests that, for many people, any consumer benefits remain unclear and unproven.

    The safety of GM food was less of an issue, but suspicion and concern still surrounded the subject. Although some people considered that GM could bring benefits in terms of nutrition, quality and price, others questioned whether, given the choice of food currently available, it was necessary.

    Some felt that the UK could be left behind technologically if GM was developed elsewhere in the world.

    Most people acknowledged that there was little public understanding about GM food. They welcomed the presentation of basic facts, and considered it important that information should be unbiased and accessible.

    Sir John Krebs, chairman of the FSA, said: "The FSA research shows that, for the majority of consumers, the issue of GM food is a matter of acceptability and of weighing up the perceived risks.

    "These include concerns about the environment and fears that, once GM crops are released into the environment, there is no turning back, against any benefits to themselves, which at present remain unclear and unproven."

    The report represents the agency's contribution to the public dialogue on GM, which includes a series of debates and public meetings across the country, launched by the government last July.

    The cabinet strategy unit last week said that existing GM crops could offer some cost and convenience advantages to UK farmers, but warned that any economic benefit to the UK was likely to be limited, at least in the short term.

    The unit said that only a narrow range of GM crops was currently suited to UK conditions, and weak consumer demand was likely to limit take-up. Results of farm-scale field trials of GM crops are due in the autumn.

    Today's report came as the environment secretary, Margaret Beckett told the Commons environment, food and rural affairs select committee that she has resisted pressure to "take control" of the consultation on GM crops and food despite a budget over-run.

    She acknowledged that the series of public debates on the subject, overseen by the agriculture and environment biotechnology commission, had not been as successful as was hoped.

    "The recommendation was very strongly that the debate should not be conducted by the government and the commission who are our independent advisers on the debate," she said.

    It was believed "there would not be quite the right degree of faith in the government's approach on these issues." Ms Beckett added: "So [the commission] told us we should facilitate and pay for the debate, and I believe the initial proposals were for £250,000, but that we should not run it.

    "We accepted that advice: we didn't run it. There is an independent steering board and ever since the debate began, I have come under pressure to take control of the debate process. I fear I am resisting such pressure because the advice was to let other people run it.

    "We are letting other people run it and they now have double the budget that was initially stated, as far as I am aware.

    "I understand that there are people who feel there are problems with the debate. I also understand that that is contested.

    "I think part of the difficulty is that there's a limit to what the steering board can do. But what we are trying to do is to provide the facility for people to run some discussions of their own.

    "But I don't feel, having committed to an independent debate, that I should abandon that commitment half way through."

  • New blow to Government on GM food as public debate confirms scepticism

    Michael McCarthy Environment Editor, The Independent (UK), 07/18/03:

    The leading academic charged with overseeing the Government's public opinion exercise on the introduction of genetically modified crops admitted yesterday that there was widespread scepticism about their benefits.

    The conclusion of Professor Malcolm Grant, chairman of the National GM debate, which ends today after more than 450 public meetings, will be another blow to Tony Blair's determined support for GM crops and food.

    The debate, which has lasted six weeks, is the Government's much-trumpeted device for letting people have their say. The official report of the debate, thought to be the largest exercise of its kind, will be delivered to the Government at the end of September by Professor Grant, the new provost of University College London. Nearly 20,000 people have responded.

    Asked about the general mood, he said: "People are precautionary." There was widespread scepticism about GM crops and foods in general.

    Professor Grant, formerly pro vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, emphasised that the material had yet to be fully analysed. No specific conclusions could be drawn.

    But the scepticism, he said, was partly because people did not trust the agricultural research done by what they saw as private, profit-making companies such as Monsanto, rather than Government's agricultural research stations. It was also because the GM crops proposed - oilseed rape, maize and beet - did not appeal to people. "There is no perception of potential benefits on a consumer level," he said.

    Professor Grant's comments will be especially unwelcome to Mr Blair, and to other pro-GM ministers such as Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, and Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Science minister, as it comes hard on the heels of another official GM exercise which did not go the way the Government may have wished, the Cabinet Office study of GM costs and benefits. This concluded last week that economic benefits from growing GM crops in Britain were likely to be limited.

    A third official GM exercise, a review of GM science conducted by a panel led by Professor Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, will report on Monday.

    Whether or not the debate has an influence on the decision to authorise the commercial growth of GM crops in Britain, expected in the autumn, remains to be seen. Mrs Beckett promised to "listen" to the conclusions - but not necessarily to take any account of them.