AR-News: Will Blair let GM run to seed?

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Sat Oct 18 20:11:49 EDT 2003


http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/comment/story/0,9828,1065317,00.html

Will Blair let GM run to seed? 

The government can placate environmentalists without an outright ban on GM crops, argues Alok Jha 

Friday October 17, 2003 

So the results are in. The GM field scale evaluations didn't go quite as most of us had expected - indeed, there was some evidence of harm to some of the insects and other creepy-crawlies that lurked along the ground near the crops being tested. Namely that the herbicides used to spray the crops wiped out the weeds, which meant that bugs had nothing to eat, which meant that birds and other countryside animals would suffer. 
As a paid-up member of the pro-environment camp, I'm happy that we can have a reason to prevent the wipeout of millipedes or skylarks. But it does leave the government in a sticky position: what do they do now? They have been handed a golden opportunity to ban the growth of these crops if they so choose, but are they really ready to make that decision quite yet? 

Other environmentalists, for example, have leapt upon the results and started wagging fingers in the direction of anyone who ever even privately thought that GM might be safe. It looks like they're about to win this round on points. But as the pro-GM lobby is staggering around the ring and the anti-GM lobby prepares its final knockout punch - perhaps in the hope of banishing the issue forever - let me call a very brief time out. I have a question. 

Forgive me if you think I've misunderstood how the field scale evaluations (FSEs) were carried out. But where does it say, or even hint slightly, that it was the crops themselves that somehow managed to harm the weeds, insects or birds in question? 

The scientists involved have made it clear the GM crops being grown come part of a package. They are specifically resistant to one type of herbicide, so if you grow a particular crop, you use a particular chemical. It is these chemicals that killed off the weeds. 

Imagine they were testing a drug on rats. If the drug ended up working to fix whatever it was meant to but gave the poor rodent side-effects, what is it that a scientist would normally do? Toss out the research completely? Or find a way around the side-effect? 

The GM crop trials show that the crops being tested are not the right ones for this particular environment. That is no surprise: there is no reason why something that works in one part of the world should work here. We have different plants here, different animals, different weather - in short, a whole different ecosystem. So, please correct me if I'm wrong, but all the scientists need to do now is come up with a different chemical which is not as harmful to the weeds, don't they? How do the trials suddenly give the anti-GM lobby the knockout punch they need? 

Maybe I'm oversimplifying the issue. Maybe it's not possible to create new chemicals. But the point is that the FSEs have been a resounding non-event in the palaver over GM foods - except to make everyone claim some success and just further confuse the likes of you and me. If you were honest to yourself and had to make a decision tomorrow, what would you do? 

Fortunately for us, the decision is out of our hands. Unfortunately for the government, though, the procrastination time is over. After a moratorium, a dubious public debate and lots of reviews, they actually have to go and make their minds up. 

Of course they don't want to lose voters, most of whom have been hoodwinked (by groups of environmentalists shamefully playing upon personal fears) into believing that GM crops are inherently bad. And of course they don't want to annoy the big biotech companies - or, for that matter, the US, which is watching closely and ready to use the WTO to start pushing its GM foods into Britain. 

So what the government really needs to do is please both parties. Maybe they could legalise the crops and then hope that no one actually takes them up on the offer. How so? By slapping so many legal liabilities on them that it is not worth anybody's while to let the blasted seeds germinate. Compulsory insurance against cross-contamination with other crops, for example. Or they could make the bureaucracy behind applying for licences so hard that no sane company director could even contemplate it. All the while no one grows the crops, the environmentalists will stop foaming at the mouth and the public will be happily placated. 

The government could also happily watch as all the top biotech researchers leave the country. They could watch as the industrial funding, so badly needed in this country's universities, disappears. They could watch as our science base withers just that little bit more. 

Of course, only Tony Blair knows what he's going to do next. Those worried that he won't have the guts to stand up to the pressure groups might be proved wrong - and it wouldn't be the first time he's ignored public opinion. As far as rocks and hard places go, this is a tough one for him to wriggle out of unscathed. I bet he's really feeling the departure of his chief spin-doctor today.

Related articles
17.10.2003: Two GM crops face ban for damaging wildlife
17.10.2003: GM: the verdict - how wildlife suffered
03.10.2003: Threat to wildlife enough to ban GM crops, MEPs told
02.10.2003: GM crops fail key trials amid environment fear

Reaction
17.10.2003: GM crops: outright ban, caution or green light?

Comment
17.10.2003: Leader: Case not proven
16.10.2003: Ian Sample on the GM trial results
07.10.2003: George Monbiot: Force-fed a diet of hype
12.02.2003: Renew the debate on GM food

Speeches
11.02.2003: Michael Meacher, environment minister
11.02.2003: Lord Robert May, Royal Society



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