GM Trials: Not-So-Jolly Gene Giants

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New Labour and the biotech industry have been left floundering by a succession of blows to their strategy to engineer public support for genetically modified (GM) crops.

In July the Strategy Unit of the Cabinet Office reluctantly reported that there was little economic gain in GM while consumers remained so hostile. This was illustrated by the results of the government's six-week 'GM Nation?' public consultation. Twenty thousand people attended 675 meetings across Britain, with 36,557 feedback forms revealing a mood which 'ranged from caution to doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection'. Only 2 percent were happy with GM food in all circumstances, with 86 percent unhappy to eat it, and 93 percent saying too little was known about possible health effects, and believing that GM technology was driven by profit not public interest.

Then in October came the results of three years of GM field trials. They were designed to give biotech companies the green light to plant GM crops in Britain. They excluded some of the biggest safety fears about GM - the spread of GM genes to other plants, the effects on soil or on human health from eating the products. And the trials would not be subject to the commercial pressures that lead to hazardous overspraying of crops. Nevertheless, on the narrow (but still important) question of whether local plants and small animals would suffer from the use of the GM-tailored weedkillers, the answer was a resounding 'yes' in the case of both sugar beet and oilseed rape. Though the maize trials were more favourable to the GM lobby, the main herbicide used on non-GM maize in the tests, atrazine, is so dangerous that the EU has banned it, thus invalidating the results.

Faced with patented technology that no one wants to eat, biotech companies are now discussing growing GM crops for biomass fuel. This neither prevents the threat of GM 'superweeds' caused by cross-pollination nor does much to prove their supposed commitment to feeding the world.

People are right to be worried about the safety of GM foods. GM advocates point to their widespread consumption in North America for the last seven years. But no significant studies have charted the effects of this. BSE-infected meat was eaten for more than a decade before the government was forced to admit it could cause CJD. Possible GM-related dangers - increased cancer risk, a weakening of the immune system - would not be immediately obvious, especially if no effort is made to track its consumption. GM crops often also carry antibiotic resistance - a dangerous property should it be transferred to humans. Gene insertions could also link chemical pathways to previously inactive toxins or transfer allergenic proteins. Soya allergies have multiplied since large-scale GM soya production began.

But the danger of GM is also economic - it is a weapon for a few multinationals to extend the corporate control of the food chain. Far from feeding the world, technologies such as the 'terminator gene' (designed to be sterile) and its 'traitor' successor (designed to be sterile without a patented Monsanto chemical to 'switch on' its fertility) are clearly attempts to profit from small farmers' dependency. From seed to supermarket - via harvesting, transportation and processing - the gene giants want to patent the basis of life itself.

Public pressure has forced the EU to insist on the labelling of GM products - but admissible GM contamination levels being discussed by the European Commission would still allow up to 600 million GM plants to be grown in Britain every year. Even such inadequate regulation has provoked a trade war with the US - which ignores the view of 92 percent of its citizens that GM food should be labelled. The EU has also decided to allow 'GM-free zones'. But the ecosystem is too interdependent for GM and non-GM crops to coexist without cross-fertilising.

Even regulated GM production would thus quickly erode the choice not to eat GM foods, and perhaps permanently reduce vital biodiversity, while strengthening the gene giants' grip on global agriculture.