Oxford Mail


Heat is on GM food backers

"Many farmers are too
scared to allow GM crop
trials, which have the
potential to devalue
land, especially if it
becomes blighted."


Tony Blair has reconsidered his chipper early defence of genetically-modified food, admitting it may damage human health and the environment. Local activists are encouraged, but have by no means relaxed. "The Prime Minister's comments are incredibly welcome," says Ray Foulk of the GMO campaign in Oxford. "But it's not far enough. The notion to carry on crop trials is very bad news. This is still a source of danger."

Three sites in Oxfordshire host GM experiments: Hill Nurseries in Abingdon, University Farm in Oxford and Model Farm near Watlington, one of the six farm-scale projects in the country. Last July, hundreds of eco-warriors destroyed the oilseed rape field there during a "Stop the Crop" rally.

Neighbouring counties – Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire – are free of test sites. The County Council says it has "no influence whatsoever" on the use of private lands, but Green Councillors have passed along local concerns to the Government.

Mark Lynas of Corporate Watch agrees that stopping trials is key: "They threaten to spread GM pollen and other contaminants on a vast scale throughout the countryside."

A £4.2m court-case is already pending in North America, as farmer Percy Schmeiser argues that Monsanto's GM oilseed rape infiltrated his crops. The company sued him for cultivating their gene, demanding all profits from the crop and damages. The case will go to the Canadian Supreme Court in June.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Tesco has extended its GM ban. Fruit and vegetable suppliers are now forbidden to grow on sites previously used for GM crops. This is to ensure that DNA and toxins do not remain in the soil and change the ecology.

Mr Foulk confirms: "Many farmers are too scared to allow GM crop trials, which have the potential to devalue land, especially if it becomes blighted."

Research shows GM fears are the top health concern in Britain. Mintel reported that 47 per cent of British people worry about GM safety – and this number is on the rise.

Of course, the jury is still out on what GM risks might be, among scientific infighting about sickly butterflies and rats. Oxford zoology professor, Sir John Krebs, landed in the thick of the fray when he became the first chairman of the Food Standards Agency.

"You can not generalise. You can't say GM foods are safe or not," he cautions. "It is clearly something that you have to look at on a case by case basis."

He does back more detailed labelling, however, which has angered the industry. But Sir John believes in the public's right to decide – even if a product only contains traces of GM in an emulsifier or processed oil.

This week he chairs a conference on the subject in Edinburgh, as industrialised nations meet to discuss biotechnology regulations. He told the BBC that learning to live with GM foods safely is the next step because "the genie is out of the bottle. We can't turn back the clock."

Another Oxford professor, New College's Alan Ryan, entered the debate, chairing the Nuffield Council on Bioethics last year. "GM crops can bring together new gene combinations which are not found in nature. This has caused unease about effects on health over the long term," the report claims. "Attention has also focused on the possible risk of increasing human resistance to antibiotics through the food chain."

These concerns – and others about environmental damage – led to a ban on commercial planting of GM crops until 2003. However, protesters would like to see a longer ban and more laboratory research. Many, like Mr Foulk, want a moratorium on GM animal feed as well.

"The Government's policy on GM is all about consumer choice. But all meat, eggs, milk, butter and cheese come from animals reared on GM soya or maize. Where's the choice there?

"There's not even labelling. Unless you're vegan or 100 per cent organic, you can't avoid GM. Who knows what it's doing to the animals or to ourselves?

"Genetic engineering is very hit or miss, the process is fairly crude," Mr Foulk points out. "The science is so new and so limited. It's very dangerous. Genes can not be recalled if they go wrong.

"We need to ask ourselves if science can control this?"

Contact the GMO campaign via their website, www.millennium-debate.org. The Government's information site is www.gm-info.gov.uk.

Research shows
GM fears are the
top health concern
in Britain.
Unless you're vegan
or 100 per cent organic,
you can't avoid GM.
Who knows what it's
doing to the animals
or to ourselves?


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