GENTECH archive


Coming soon: cow's milk with added hormones

The Guardian Weekly Volume 160 Issue 9 for week ending February 28, 1999,

Coming soon: cow's milk with added hormones

Thanks to free trade rules, Britain will be powerless to resist imported GM
food, warns George Monbiot

LIKE a family in the midst of a massive domestic row, the participants in
the great genetic war are already having trouble recalling how it began.
Dr Arpad Pusztai's potatoes and their effect on rats have been all but
forgotten, while the underlying tensions, ever present, but seldom
acknowledged, have burst out into the open. At last Tony Blair's sordid
affair with the corporate seductress and the terrible mess she has made in
the garden are being discussed.

The row is threatening to split the Labour household apart. Jack Cunningham,
the Downing Street "enforcer", has been roaring up and down the stairs
telling everyone else to shut up. The environment minister, Michael Meacher,
having hidden in the potting shed, has run back indoors with the news that
he's seen something nasty in the vegetable patch.

While Dr Cunningham continues to insist that the new plants carry no
conceivable risks, Mr Meacher has hinted at the need to delay the
introduction of commercial planting of GM crops in Britain. His department
told journalists that there will probably be no approvals for full-scale
cultivation before 2001. The neighbours are beginning to weigh in on his
side.The Government's chief scientist, Sir Robert May, has expressed grave
concerns about the damage that the new crops might do to wildlife --
herbicide-resistant crops allow farmers to eliminate almost all other
species from their fields. The environment department has been forced to
publish a delayed report in which these warnings are echoed. Last week the
biotechnology company Monsanto was fined for failing to isolate one of its
test crops from the wider environment.

And Middle England has begun to realise that when Mr Blair is faced with a
conflict between its needs and those of his other constituency, big
business, he sides with the corporations.
If the Prime Minister begins, at last, to listen to Mr Meacher's anxieties,
he will soon run into a new problem: that whether or not it wants to act,
the Government might be unable to do so. Both Tory and Labour governments
have been so determined to facilitate "free trade" that they have
progressively signed away their right to intervene.

If the Government seeks to prevent corporations from forcing us to grow and
eat their crops, the corporations will appeal, first to the European Union,
then to the World Trade Organisation. And they will win, because the
governments of the First World have already determined that, in cases like
this, private profit outweighs public protection.

Food scares happen in Britain because people feel they have no control over
what they eat. Our decisions are made for us by invisible and unaccountable
corporations. We are just about to discover precisely how powerless we
are.In just under three months the media will stumble across another issue
that it has managed to ignore for years. This one is even scarier. Monsanto
has developed an injectable growth hormone that increases the production of
cow's milk. Some scientists argue that it also increases the levels of
something called Insulin Growth Factor 1. IGF-1 can cross the digestive
tract intact from milk to the bloodstream of consumers. People with elevated
IGF-1 levels are at greater risk from breast and prostate cancer.The EU
banned milk and beef from cattle treated with this hormone. On behalf of
Monsanto, the United States government appealed to the WTO. The organisation
has given Europe until May 13 to start importing hormone-treated beef and
milk. Mr Blair will wriggle, Dr Cunningham will roar, but, short of
provoking a trade war, they can do nothing whatever to protect British

The European elections will be fought, four weeks later, in the midst of
this crisis. The Greens could win even more votes than they did in 1989, and
this time they will carry seats. Labour's backbench guerrillas will launch a
frontal attack. And Mr Blair, lost as he always is when the politics of
presentation yields to the politics of substance, will wonder how on earth
so vigorous a vine grew from a humble potato.

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