News Analysis: NGOs dig in heels for a long GM war

Although the Government has given the go-ahead for the commercial growing of GM crops, campaigners have not given up their fight, finds Sarah Robertson

The Government's decision to allow the first commercial growing of genetically modified crops in Britain last Tuesday marked a watershed in a seven-year debate and suggested the PR tactics of anti-GM campaigners had failed.

However, environmental NGOs have pledged to continue the fight. The universal message from the NGOs is that without their lobbying and campaigning over the last two years, we would now have a countryside rife with GM crops.

On 2 March, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett granted permission for one type of GM maize to be grown in the UK on the condition farmers foot the bill for any contamination to non-GM crops.

This condition may scupper future GM crop growing for fear of legal proceedings, particularly as seeds can travel hundreds of miles through the air, but the NGOs claim the law is weak.

Should two farmers in one area grow GM maize and a nearby third non-GM farmer suffers cross-contamination, it would not be clear which GM farmer should be prosecuted.

Determined to win

It is for this reason that parliamentary bodies can expect to be swamped with a fresh lobbying drive from the NGOs in a bid to clarify the law and to make the biotech companies legally responsible for any cross-contamination.

Sue Flook, press officer at organic farming pressure group the Soil Association, says: 'Biotech companies must pay if farmers lose money. We are going to lobby for a new law to protect non-GM farmers.'

Friends of the Earth campaigner Pete Riley agrees companies that hold the licence for GM crops should be liable rather than individual farmers: 'We have a Bill put forward by Greg Barker MP to make sure the company that owns the GM crop licence is liable, not the farmer.'

The Soil Association speaks for organic and non-organic farmers at risk from contamination and is commissioned to contribute to Government reviews on GM.

In addition to a fresh bout of lobbying, the association wants to influence the decisions made by consumers through its campaign strategy.

Flook says: 'We will continue to put pressure on the supermarkets via consumers. We are asking consumers to contact supermarkets to give their views on GM crops; we are talking to journalists, too.'

The NGO with a campaign proven to influence supermarket sales is Greenpeace and its 'Something scary in the dairy' work.

The campaign aims to eliminate the market for GM and has three elements.

The first is negotiation with a supermarket. The second is the production of a document designed to help a supermarket make the transition to GM-free milk.

The final step is direct action, namely protesters donning heffer costumes and wandering around the dairy sections of Sainsbury's supermarkets in a drive to grab the media spotlight - achieved with its stunt at a Greenwich Sainsbury's last month.

Greenpeace press officer Sarah North says: 'Our tactic is to shut down the GM market before it is established. Our campaign is trying to stop Sainsbury's from using milk from cows fed on GM maize. Marks & Spencer and the Co-op have already stopped; we are targeting all the supermarkets but we do believe that Sainsbury's should be the leader.'

The environmental group is not hot on lobbying politicians on the GM issue because, North says, the Government is not listening to anyone. 'Given that the Government has ignored all the evidence so far, we do not think lobbying is the way forward.

We need to reach the consumers. The more people know about GM crops, the more people object to them. Increasing knowledge about the subject increases people's resistance to it.'

However, contrary to Greenpeace's consumer-focused strategy, Munlochy GM Vigil - a movement born out of a year-long vigil at the site of Scottish GM crop field trials - is lobbying heavily, particularly at the Scottish Parliament. It operates on the belief that information alone will sway politicians into the anti-GM camp.

Munlochy campaigner Antony Jackson says: 'We are disseminating information about the truth of GM. When new information comes out on GM we make sure MSPs get it and talk about it. We can counter corporate lobbyists by using the truth and bringing the argument back to science.'

Disseminating information

Munlochy dismisses last week's move as embarrassing for the Government and says it has given permission for a dated maize that is seven years old - an indicator, it says, that the Government lacks knowledge of the science surrounding GM.

It is continuing to lobby the Scottish Parliament and Westminster. Its main messages are that there is not enough scientific knowledge to prove GM is not harmful to humans and that the public has power and influence and can avoid GM.

So far, Munlochy says it has the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party on side, but not the ruling Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition whose ministers, according to Jackson, tend to toe the party lines.

Friends of the Earth also dismisses last week's ruling, pledging to persist with its 18-month-old GM-Free Britain campaign. It includes persuading local authorities to vote to uphold a GM-free area, which has already been achieved in most of the South West of England.

It wants councils to benefit from a new European law that may enable councils to ban certain GM crops from an area if they can prove it will be harmful to other crops and endangered species.

Friends of the Earth head of food and farming Pete Riley says: 'We are asking councils to contact Europe to benefit from Article 19 of the 2001 directive on GM, which means you can ask for a ban on GM crops in an area.'

So it is business as usual for NGO anti-GM campaigners who continue to deny defeat. Yet the biotech companies have heralded last week's decision as a triumph for their own campaigning.

Agricultural Biotech Council and Bayer CropScience spokesman Julian Little is bullish: 'For us it is not so much if we have GM in the fields and on shelves, but when.'

PUBLIC ATTITUDES TO GM

- 58 per cent of people are aware that much of the meat and dairy products sold in Britain come from animals that have been fed a GM diet

- 95 per cent think they should be given a choice about whether or not they want to eat meat and dairy products derived from animals fed GM food

- 77 per cent would prefer to eat or buy dairy, meat or fish products derived from animals not fed GM food

- Only nine per cent would prefer to eat dairy, meat or fish products derived from animals fed a GM diet

- 95 per cent believe food products derived from animals reared on a GM diet should be labelled as such

Source: ICM.

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