Soil Association Interview
The recent conclusion of the government's public debate on GMOs has highlighted the continued public mistrust of the biotechnology. Although no final policy has been announced, many environmentalists fear that the government's decision on GM has already been made.
The Soil Association is the UK's leading campaign and certification organisation for organic food and farming, with a uniquely dedicated perspective on the threats of GM.
We spoke to Alissa Cook from the Soil Association about the current situation regarding GMOs, and what the future holds for GM foods in the UK;
Alissa Cook - Soil Association Spokesperson
Green Consumer Guide: What is the position of the Soil Association on a possible commercial market for GM in Britain?
Alissa Cook: We believe that the risk of using genetic engineering in agriculture is too great and genetic modification has no place in the production of safe and healthy food. Organic farming systems have been designed to produce food with care for human health, the environment and animal welfare. The use of genetically engineered crops is not compatible with this aim. This position is shared by the organic movement worldwide and the majority of the public.
GCG: What sort of legislative safeguards do you feel would be necessary to have a commercial GM market in the UK?
AC: One key question that needs to be considered is if GM crops are introduced, will they benignly co-exist with non-GM crops, or will they threaten and undermine non-GM production?
The main challenge to co-existence is the likelihood of widespread GM contamination of non-GM crops. New EU labelling regulations set thresholds of GMOs at 0.9% However these thresholds are not good enough considering we can test down to 0.1% If there is to be co-existence of GM and non-GM crops, there needs to be very robust and sophisticated measures that address the key issues of consumer choice to eat non-GM food, the future of organic food and farming, agricultural trade, legal issues and control and safety.
The viability of organic farming may also be threatened by GM crops; one of the reasons consumers choose organic food is to actively avoid GMOs, and GM contamination may seriously undermine the integrity and attraction of organic food. Due to this market loss, organic farming may decline in the UK.
If unforseen health and environmental impacts occurred, we need to be able to stop the spread and recall all transgenic material. If unlabelled contaminated non-GM food enters the food supply, we will not be able to prevent people's exposure to GMOs.
Soil Association believes in most, if not all, cases that co-existence between GM and non-GM crops is impossible.
GCG: Do you feel that the government's GM Science Review will do anything to alleviate the current public suspicion of GMOs?
AC: Since the publication of the report developments have forced one to question the integrity of the Science Review Panel. The minutes of a GM Science Review Panel meeting reveal that a scientist advising the Government on GM took steps to flatten the livelihood and academic career of a scientist's who sits on the Panel because they disagreed with his scepticism about GM crops.
This also follows the resignation of another member of the Panel because of his concerns about the Panel's pro-GM bias. None of this helps advance the pro-GM case, nor does it do anything to alleviate the current public suspicion of GMOs.
Nevertheless despite the obvious Pro GM bias of the Panel, the Review did acknowledge the huge uncertainties, and major areas that have not been investigated, in connection with GM crops and food.
On the most crucial question for organic farmers, contamination of non-GM crops, the report says that while for some crops it may be possible to control gene flow "in other cases it may be difficult, if not impossible, to grow certain crops or use some existing farming practices". This confirms the result of research on the impact of GM crops on organic farmers carried out by the Soil Association in North America last year.
GCG: How telling do you believe Michael Meacher's departure from the government was, in terms of revealing the government's true stance on GM?
AC: Michael Meacher's departure from the Government means there is no one left in the Government on the side of the public and organic farmers in opposing the commercialisation of GM crops. Michael Meacher has always represented the public interest by voicing the real concerns about GM food which pose the greatest threat of all time to sustainable agriculture.
Since his departure the Soil Association has backed Meacher's outspoken criticism of the government's position on GM food, which is worrying because his comments suggest that the government has already made up its mind on GM.
GCG: Do you believe the US led challenge to the European Union GM moratorium (through the World Trade Organisation) will lead to an enforced lifting of the ban?
AC: The US have repeatedly threatened to take the EU to the WTO over it's GM moratorium but have always backed down.We need to seriously question the motives behind this latest US initiative and ask ourselves weather we are going to allow ourselves to be bullied into a decision to allow the commercial planting of GM crops in Europe. This attitude will only deepen the consumer's genuine concerns in regard to GM crops especially as we are still waiting for some of the most fundamental questions to be answered. The consumer has repeated expressed it's preference for non-GM food and surveys have shown that the consumer doesn't want to consume GM food. In recognition of this virtually every surpermarket in the EU and the majority of the big food manufacturers have adopted GM-free policies. At the end of the day if there is no market for GM crops why grow them whether its legal to do so or not.
GCG: How valuable do you feel the government's public debate ('GM Nation') has been in airing both sides of the GM argument?
AC: We think the GM public debate has been a very valuable exercise for everyone who has an interest in GM issues and we have worked very hard to encourage people to take part. My impression of the debate has been that for many people it have been an excellent opportunity that has helped people come to an informed decision about whether they want to eat GM food or have GM crops grown in the UK.
You can visit the soil assocoiation website by visiting: http://www.soilassociation.org/