Baroness Kate Parminter writes…We need more research and public engagement before agreeing to GM crops

The speech today by Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment makes it clear that he is intent on promoting the use of GM crops in Britain – and to do so by acting as a cheerleader for an industry which has consistently promised much over the last twenty years and yet failed to deliver.   It follows hard on the heels of that of the Science Minister, David Willetts, as the latest attempt by the Tories to go beyond the Coalition Government’s agreed policy on GM crops.

Liberal Democrats are not in principle opposed to GM, but we believe no decisions should be made without clear evidence of public acceptance of GM food.  Food is essential to all citizens and they have the right to be part of the decision-making process.  Ministers must engage with the public in a way that ensures they are well informed on the issue and listen to public views about the development and use of the technology.   There are important question marks over the technology which remain to be answered and the facts about the environmental and economic impacts must be fully understood before any decisions are made.

Claims that there is potential for greater use of GM crops to bring down food prices, deliver environmental benefits and help alleviate hunger sound tempting in the face of a global population set to expand to nine billion where the impacts of climate change and scarce land and water resources will make feeding them a tough job.

But the evidence since the so-called miracle crops were first sold in the US is one which should make British politicians pause for thought.

In the US some weeds have developed resistance to glyphosate following the widespread use of GM herbicide-tolerant crops. Studies have shown that China, Argentina and Brazil are using far more synthetic chemicals to control pests despite biotech companies saying GM-engineered crops would reduce insecticide use.  Moreover, the Labour Government’s trials back in 2004 showed that GM herbicide-tolerant crops could have impacts on biodiversity and wildlife.

It is critical to have the evidence before decisions are made, but recent studies into the effects of GM crops seem to have been quietly shelved by Mr Paterson’s department.  The House of Lords EU Sub-Committee for Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy enquired last November about a review that DEFRA had promised on the environmental and economic impact of current GM crops.  They were told that the work was ‘proving to be a much more involved task than was first anticipated and the work is still continuing.’  It was anticipated this would be forthcoming in March this year, but the report is still to see the light of day.

We need to have the evidence on the environmental impacts and potential for cross-pollination of other farming regimes by GM crops.  To that end the Liberal Democrats DEFRA parliamentary committee endorsed the proposal of the Environmental Audit Committee last year that the Government should set up an independent body to research, evaluate and report on the potential impacts of GM crops on the environment, farming and global food systems.  We concurred with the Committee’s view that an initial focus of such research should be on the scope for, and risks of, the co-existence of GM crops with conventional and organic farming regimes.  This would enable us to make the science based decision required.

We also believe that should GM crops be licensed in the UK there must be no taxpayer subsidy for any GM company liabilities.  In America there have been thousands of law suits against GM companies from organic farmers seeking damages for lost crops and lost profits due to cross-contamination.

Liberal Democrats believe that food is an issue which is of fundamental importance to the lives and health of all our citizens.  Decisions about it should not be made without public consent.  Up until now there has been public unease about GM foods.  A survey commissioned by the British Science Association in 2012 showed that only one quarter of British consumers were not concerned by this technology.  It is the job of a Government to act on the scientific evidence but also they have a duty to take their citizens with them.  To provide opportunities to hear the arguments – both sides – and to listen to what they say.

Strong resistance from a number of member states – notably Germany – has meant Europe has not succumbed to the siren calls for control of our food systems by giant corporations.  The announcement this week of formal negotiations on an EU/US trade deal will increase pressure to revisit the EU GM cultivation regulatory regime.  We should use the time before any decisions need to be made about growing GM crops in Europe to get the full facts and engage impartially with the public.  Mr Paterson should lay down his cheerleading pom poms and listen to what the British people say they want for their food and countryside in the future.

* Kate Parminter is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and spokesperson on DEFRA matters

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  • Mark Blackburn 20th Jun '13 - 11:29am

    I am so glad Kate Parminter has come up with this reasoned and rational rebuttal to the bombastic Owen Paterson. How such a biased individual can hold this ministerial office, with the gravitas and impartiality that should ensue, is beyond me. Having seen Sir Brian Hoskins give the Stamford Raffles lecture at ZSL London Zoo two ago showing dispassionately and to me incontrovertibly the evidence of irreversible climate change, to have an ‘Environment Minister’ who is a climate change sceptic is a ghastly and unacceptable oxymoron.

  • So Owen Paterson has become the latest minister to be seduced by the snake oil salesmen selling the very alluring GM silver bullets that we all like to believe in even though we know deep down – there is no such thing as a silver bullet…

  • How refreshing to read a well written and reasoned article on the subject of GM and its potential dangers. Mr. Paterson’s speech seemed like nothing more than the regurgitated rhetoric of the companies who are trying to push GM crops, completely failing to address the legitimate concerns that many people have over their impact to the environment. He also fails to recognise that there are already schemes to help with the problems caused by vitamin A deficiency that are readily available, already proven, and cheaper than Golden Rice.

  • On of the reasons I think GM crops has resurfaced on the political agenda is down to the fact that key patents (eg. the Monsanto patent for glyphosate-resistant wheat) expire over the next few years – enabling ‘generic’ manufacturers to enter the market. I therefore suspect that politicians have been quietly approached by those interested in the opportunities this market creates.

    What is interesting is just how slow development is. Monsanto only this year have an enhanced herbicide-resistant GM seed (resistant to glyphoase and dicamba) under going regulatory review. So even though Monsanto and others are currently developing drought-resistant GM crops, there no indication that these may result in commercial products anytime soon and hence make it worth while investing in a political campaign now. therefore I suspect that the majors whilst wanting a larger market will happily let the generic producers fight the battle for now.

  • Good to see the author backing evidence-based policy… oh wait, no she’s not, the evidence she thinks is most important is “clear evidence of public acceptance”. Since when did we throw science out the window and propose to govern by opinion poll? Why even have MPs voting on matters, why not just give people online referendums on everything?

    If 51% of the public were against homosexuality or for the death penalty, would we now adopt those as policy?

  • My view has changed on GM food, given time, other countries using it with little ill effect as far as I know

  • Adam Corlett 20th Jun '13 - 6:20pm

    “Liberal Democrats are not in principle opposed to GM, but we believe no decisions should be made without clear evidence of public acceptance of GM food. Food is essential to all citizens and they have the right to be part of the decision-making process.”

    If you don’t want to buy GM food, then don’t. If you want to insist on ‘GM’ labels to enable you to make informed purchase decisions, that’s probably fine too. But the fact that you eat food doesn’t entitle you – or even the majority – to determine what other people can eat or grow!

    Whether there are complicated environmental impacts is another question, but again not one in which opinion polls are of any use. As a general rule, it would be better to trust the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. The current one says “I think the job of a scientific adviser is to set out the scientific case and that scientific case [for GM] is becoming stronger and stronger and stronger. […] as a technology it is showing its value more and more obviously in terms of the crops that are able to feed the world”. His predecessors, John Beddington and David King, said very similar things.

    And of course the more uncertainty, delay, testing, destruction of test sites, regulation and legal risk, the fewer and bigger the companies that are able to compete in this area. If – as I read today – we ensure it costs €100m to develop approval for a single modification, we shouldn’t be surprised if only “giant corporations” are interested, and that’s therefore a poor argument for maintaining as many obstacles as possible.

  • Simon McGrath 20th Jun '13 - 10:00pm

    Difficult to think of a more idiotic ground for banning something than the public are worried about it. There is no evidence at all it is dangerous -plenty that it is safe.
    Lets base a decision on the science

  • Peter Chivall 21st Jun '13 - 8:21am

    @Simon McGrath: if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
    The whole problem with GM crops, and Kate knows the public sense this, is that the ones currently developed by Monsanto et al are done for all the wrong reasons: disregard for wildlife and environmental balance; total disregard for sustainability but total focus on short-term profit and the associated sales of broad-spectrum herbicides and pesticides, with all the damage and destruction they cause.
    If GM developers really were interested in increasing yields and drought-resisatance (without increasing inputs of pesticides, artificial fertilisers and tractor fuel) then we might be more accepting of their proposals. But they aren’t, and we aren’t. Only DEFRA( and it’s ‘flat earther’ Secretary of State) is true to it’s long notorious history as the Political Wing of the Agrochemical trades associations.
    And yes, Simon, if you offer the public cheap intensively-reared beef fed on GM soya and GM maize, then many will buy it as cheap burgers etc. That’s one reason why 2/3 of Americans are clinically obese. Trouble is it doesn’t stop them breeding…..

  • @Simon McGrath: “Lets base a decision on the science”

    The problem is that GM is applied science ie. technology, and we have plenty of experience with technology under delivering – remember nuclear power stations are scientifically safe, but no one in government is suggesting that one should be built on the site of Battersea power station – even though it makes a lot of sense …

    Also with GM crops there are more factors to consider, so whilst GM crops may be ‘safe’ (note no one actually qualifies what they actually mean by this word – in fact, scientifically it can only be applied to existing GM crops and not to one’s yet to be developed ) it may be harmful and inappropriate in other ways that can’t be tested in the laboratory. For example ‘terminator’ seed seemed a good idea and was scientifically ‘safe’, the problems with it arise once you deploy it into the real world…

    So whilst good and unbiased science has an important role to play in the decision making process, it isn’t the only criteria for deciding whether something should be deployed.

    The recent US Supreme Court ruling on the long running Bowman v. Monsanto case is quite educational. Whilst the main thrust of the case was about a farmer effectively planting and harvesting Monsanto GM seed without a license and hence was performing actions in breech of Monsanto’s patent, Bowman’s ‘experiment’ and the issues aroudn licensing reveals much about the state of GM in the USA. Also we shouldn’t be blind to the consolidation in the seed business that has resulted in Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta controlling 53% of the global market, along with the cost of (GM) seed skyrocketing.

    With the very high cost (both in terms of money and timescales) of developing new GM crops, we can expect GM seed to remain expensive particularly as the GM companies, like the pharmaceutical’s, (currently) only getting a few decades of patent protection.

  • andrew purches 21st Jun '13 - 9:45am

    Thank you Kate Parminter for your rational observation on the future of GM, but, internationally, the political and moral problems are building up to a very significant minefield. Vlad Putin has already blasted members of the American Administration, specifically the Vice President, and indirectly,the President for giving complete freedom to the likes of Monsanto – ( and the full transcript of his diatribe can be found by searching for Putin and GM crops / Obama). He described the controlling marketing and use of GM seed, particularly in the developing world as an “Act of War” -hinting that the Russian Federation might well take action against the wholesale destruction of traditional agricultural methodology. And he is right. The right to live or die must not be left in the hands of these global exploitive monolithic agro- chemical giants, nor Owen Patterson come to that.

  • Simon McGrath 21st Jun '13 - 11:00am

    @peter Tyzack “GM Crops, Fracking, Nuclear Power, Severn Barrage, 3rd Runway at Heathrow… common factor?All being promoted by those who stand to make a bundle out of them”
    No doubt you would have opposed George Stephenson’s building railways on the same basis. I can hear it now ‘ no demand for them, dangerous, untested and people wnat to make money out of it’
    @Roland “With the very high cost (both in terms of money and timescales) of developing new GM crops, we can expect GM seed to remain expensive particularly as the GM companies, like the pharmaceutical’s, (currently) only getting a few decades of patent protection” If it is expensive farmers won’t use it .
    @Peter Chivall “if you offer the public cheap intensively-reared beef fed on GM soya and GM maize, then many will buy it as cheap burgers etc” . Qute right, how dare the working classes want to eat meat.

  • @Simon McGrath – If it is expensive farmers won’t use it .
    One of the lessons coming out of the Bowman case, is that due to the leverage the big GM companies have, they have practically destroyed the quality non-GM seed business in the US, leaving farmers with little choice but to purchase the GM seed. But the fundamental point is that this evidence totally destroys any claim that widespread use of GM will result in lower food prices.

  • Julian Tisi 21st Jun '13 - 2:04pm

    @Roland: Perhaps the reason why the GM seed business is far outperforming the non-GM seed business in the US is that the GM seeds are more productive for the price. No-one is forcing farmers to choose the GM seeds. Far from destroying any claim that GM crops could lower food prices it actually backs it up.

    Like one other comment above I’ve moved from being sceptical about GM crops – like most of the public – to a growing belief that it’s the anti-GM lobby that is fuelled by a mixture of anti-science paranoia, protectionism and anti-business paranoia. If GM crops are so bad, who is being harmed by them and how? On the contrary, GM appears to offer real opportunity to allow crops to be grown productively and cheaply. The potential upside – particularly for the poorest in the world – is huge. The potential downside at best overstated and unproven.

  • @Julian: Whilst no-one may be forcing farmers to choose GM seed, from the available evidence it is very difficult for a (US) farmer to obtain quality non-GM seed, even though there is consumer demand for non-GM food.
    This logic also applies here, there is no consumer demand for GM food, therefore why is the minster trying to force it on to us?

    Having worked in the technology sector and particularly with leading edge technologies, I am highly sceptical about any new technology that gets the “silver bullet” treatment. Remember the problems now being encountered in the US with respect to the growing of GM crops with glyphosate resistant traits, aren’t (yet) directly attributable to the seeds themselves, but to the related application of glyphosate herbicide, to which the ‘weeds’ are increasingly becoming resistant to – through mechanisms that are (naturally) still being researched. Currently the only ‘solution’ with these weed infestations is to apply even less environmentally friendly chemicals in quantities that defeat one of the (laudable) objectives of using GM crops (namely to reduce the amounts of non-biodegradable herbicide used).

    To me what we have seen and learnt since 2004 about the reality of farming GM crops (rather than the fantasy of ‘GM’), largely vindicates the UK government made the right decision back in 2004, albeit that the reasons used at the time for terminating the trials may have been questionable. Yes it is probably time to review where we are with respect to GM crops, given that we now have approaching 20 years of experience of farming GM crops.

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