GENTECH archive


How the brit. Labour party had to modify its GM stance

This of course is more a comment on what goes into making a political
decision than a piece about the value/danger of genetic manipulation.

Not a word about what goes into preventing abuse by Mr. Greed.


GUARDIAN (London)Saturday May 22, 1999

How the brit. Labour party had to modify its GM stance

Government has been consistently wrongfooted as the debate gathered
intensity and momentum

By John Vidal

How do you handle an explosive issue that embraces food safety, the
environment, corporate power, little understood science, consumer trust
and ethics?

Answers, please, to the Labour government, which has been rocked for more
than a year by the GM foods controversy but is fighting to regain support
after a series of humiliations and exposures which have left the prime
minister dangerously isolated from public opinion.

Ever since US companies started mixing GM and conventional soya beans and
exporting them to Europe, Labour has been caught out by the speed of
events, the vehemence of consumer resistance, and the growing opposition
of a broad consensus of pressure groups, who want a five year moratorium
on growing the crops.

Labour, like the US companies who developed the patented crops and tried
to introduce them by stealth, now admits privately that its handling of GM
foods has been a debacle on the scale of the Tories' handling of BSE.

But for a long time ministers dismissed public concerns. Only 18 months
ago government advisers and ministers were arguing that there was no need
to change the labelling rules or policing system, that there were no
health problems, and no serious environmental effects. In every case, it
has been forced to back down, admit concerns, and tighten regulations.

Tony Blair and cabinet enforcer Jack Cunningham have become GM food's
leading political advocates. Above all, they have held that a moratorium
could jeopardise the biotech industry.

Last week, a Commons select committee accused Mr Blair and Mr Cunningham
of being over-enthusiastic and identified a split between their attitudes
and the more cautious approach of food safety minister Jeff Rooker and
environment minister Michael Meacher.

But a series of reports and exposures have rocked the government. Lord
Sainsbury, science minister and a member of the government's ministerial
group on genetic modification, came under pressure to resign after his
shareholdings in the biotech industry were made public.

The British Medical Association, the chief medical officer, and the chief
scientist, as well as English Nature, have all urged caution and pointed
to the need for more research.

The regulatory system inherited by Labour in 1997 has come under attack
for being lax, inadequate and dominated by people in the industry. Twelve
of the 16 members of one ministry of agriculture team advising the
government on GM foods were shown to have some connection to the industry,
and the government's advisory body on re leasing the novel foods into the
environment was found to have eight members similarly linked.

Meanwhile the government's health and safety executive, charged with
policing the test crops, admitted to testing only a third of the many
hundreds of trials.

In March the government introduced the strongest regulations in Europe,
forcing cafes, restaurants, bakers and delicatessens to declare the GM
content of their foods.

But the new rules did not not cover derivatives of GM soya and maize and
the policing system was described as unworkable.

Consumer pressure has played an important role in the government's
reassessment. In less than a year, the supermarket chains have reversed
their original positions and stopped using GM ingredients in their own
brands. Some of the large industrial food producers have announced total
or partial GM bans on some ranges.

Government unease has been intense. A document leaked to the Guardian
showed that civil servants were being asked to address 53 questions about
the government line on the technology.

As the debate has developed in different directions, with new reports and
revelations almost every week, so the government has blamed the press for
'hysterical coverage' and for 'adopting the agenda' of pressure groups.

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