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UK Will Approve GE Corn Despite Massive Public Opposition

GM crops to get go-ahead

Leaked papers reveal decision

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Thursday February 19, 2004
The Guardian

The government is to go ahead with genetically modified crops despite what it acknowledges is considerable public resistance, cabinet committee papers passed to the Guardian reveal.

The minutes of the discussion - which was held eight days ago and involved senior cabinet ministers including the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and the environment secretary, Margaret Beckett - disclose the government's final decision to give the green light to the first crop of GM maize in Britain. An announcement is expected to be made to the House of Commons next week.

The papers make clear the government's recognition that public opinion in this country is generally resistant to GM crops. "The public was unlikely to be receptive," the discussion notes.

However, the government is equally clear in its view that any ban on the crops would be "the easy way out" and would be "an irrational way for the government to proceed" in the light of its desire to back and encourage UK science.

The leaked documents also reveal that the government has not yet given up hope of swinging the public round in favour of the crops. "Opposition might eventually be worn down by solid, authoritative scientific argument."

As part of this drive, the meeting decided that before Parliament was informed of the decision to press ahead with GM maize, supportive MPs would be encouraged to speak out. The papers say: "There was a merit in preparing the ground with key MPs, particularly those with an interest in science or food security in developing countries."

The government's chief scientist, David King, the chairman of the Food Standard's Agency, John Krebs, both in favour of GM, were at the committee meeting and agreed to make statements supporting the government on the day of the announcement. Other pro-GM scientists will be recruited to further forward the message.

In her initial statement to her colleagues Mrs Beckett said there was no scientific case for an outright ban on the cultivation of GM crops.

The first phase of the public debate signalled that above all, the public wanted more information and a strong regulatory regime. Only the subsequent "narrow but deep" element of the debate suggested that the more people knew about GM the more worried they became.

She said people did acknowledge there could be benefits from GM technology in the future for developing countries but "by ignoring calls for a complete ban the government will inevitably be accused of failing to listen to the views of the public".

Last year, the government attempted to test public attitudes with its national GM debate. It concluded that more than four out of five people were against GM crops and that just 2% would eat GM foods.

But a Mori poll for the University of East Anglia released yesterday said the debate vastly overestimated the level of public opposition to GM. The poll found that while 36% opposed GM food, 13% supported it and 39% had no strong feelings either way.

In a concession to the Welsh view that it wanted no GM crops in Wales Mrs Beckett suggested that the government could offer advice on the establishment of voluntary GM free zones.

The government's suggestion that it may offer a compromise of allowing GM-free zones will also be of interest to the more than 40 regions, including Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and the Lake District national parks authority, which have made moves to declare themselves GM free.

The first crop to be grown will be the Bayer maize which did well in three-year crop trials, being less damaging to the environment than conventional maize doused with powerful herbicides.

Mrs Becket conceded the government still had not cleared up how to avoid contamination of non-GM crops.

Sue Meyer, director of Genewatch UK, said: "Overall the government seem determined to go ahead in some form with growing GM crops in the UK, despite a lack of public support, economic advantage or investment in further research. They are clearly anxious that the decision will not be received positively and are having to plan ways of presenting the policy in a favourable light because it does not speak well for itself."

Last night, Defra spokesman William Mach denied the government had made up its mind on GM crops. "There's going to be no announcement next week. Ministers are still discussing the policy statement and haven't reached a final decision yet," he said.