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9-Misc: Blair faces huge resistance to his support for GM crops

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TITLE:  Blair faces huge resistance to his support for GM crops
SOURCE: The Independent, UK, by Michael McCarthy
DATE:   Apr 28, 2003

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Blair faces huge resistance to his support for GM crops

Opposition to genetically modified crops and food remains formidable, new
research reveals, as the Government gears up to take the crucial decision
on whether GM crops should be grown commercially in Britain.

An official national GM debate and three big reports on GM technology are
all due in the next few months to prepare the way for the decision, which
after three years' delay will finally be taken later this year by the
Secretary of State for Environment in consultation with the Prime Minister.

Margaret Beckett and Tony Blair are both known supporters of GM
technology and some reports from Whitehall have suggested that they have
made up their minds in favour, and are prepared to force through the issue.

But unpublished data from the pollsters Mori shows that they will
struggle to convince the public they are right. Although the GM issue has
faded from the headlines compared with three or four years ago, opponents
continue to outnumber supporters solidly, by four to one, with 56 per
cent of the population against, and only 14 per cent in favour. Among
women the figures are even starker, at six to one, with 61 per cent
against and only 10 per cent in favour.

Opposition to GM goes across all political parties, social classes and
income groups, the data shows: 56 per cent of Labour voters, 57 per cent
of Tories, and 60 per cent of Liberal Democrats are against.

"The widespread extent of the opposition is surprising," said Philip
Downing, Mori's head of environmental research. "Several years ago, when
the row over GM was at its height, there was a clear majority against,
and there still is. If the Government thinks that people are coming round
to GM technology, this clearly shows that the opposition to it is still
remarkably stable."

There is some hope for GM supporters in the fact that a fairly
substantial body of people, 25 per cent, remain undecided.

A government-funded national debate on the GM issue is shortly to get
under way, organised by an independent steering board, with conferences,
meetings and discussions planned all over the country. It will report
people's feelings to the Government in the summer and the Government has
promised that it will "respond".

At the same time, two studies of the GM issue by senior Whitehall
officials will be published: one is a review of the science, and the
other a study of the costs and benefits of growing GM crops in the UK.
Finally, the Government will publish the result of the farm-scale trials
of GM crops, the three-year tests to see whether the new weedkillers that
the crops are engineered to tolerate are particularly harmful to farmland
wildlife. Then it will decide whether to approve GM crops.

The poll results suggest that if the decision is favourable, it will be
in the teeth of public opposition. Peter Riley of Friends of the Earth
said: "Mori's result showing four to one against GM foods suggests that
the biotech industry and government have failed to convince people that
GM crops are worth taking a chance on.

"If the Government was hoping to use the GM public debate to convince
this substantial majority of consumers that they are wrong then it looks
set for an uphill struggle. Supermarkets were forced to listen to the
demands of their customers for GM-free food in the late 1990s. The
question is, will this Government listen to the electorate and take UK
farming and food production in a more sustainable direction than GM?"

- Mori surveyed a representative quota sample of 2,141 people aged 15 or
over, between 6 and 10 February 2003.