The government says that it wants a 'great debate' about GM - we must call its bluff
by George Monbiot
Something about the launch of the government's "great GM debate" last week rang a bell. It was, perhaps, the contrast between the ambition of its stated aims and the feebleness of their execution. Though the environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, claims she wants "to ensure all voices are heard", she has set aside an advertising budget of precisely zero. Public discussions will take place in just six towns.
Then I got it. Five years ago, Monsanto, the world's most controversial biotechnology company, did the same thing. In June 1998, after its attempts to persuade consumers that they wanted to eat genetically modified food had failed, it launched what it called a public debate "to encourage a positive understanding of food biotechnology". As the company's GM investments were then valued at $96bn (£60bn), the proposition that it might desist if the response was unfavourable seemed unlikely.
To Monsanto's horror, it got the debate it said it wanted. A few days after it launched its new policy, Prince Charles wrote an article for the Telegraph. His argument, as always, was cack-handed and contradictory, but it shoved genetic engineering to the top of the news agenda. Monsanto's share value slumped. Within two years it had been taken over by Pharmacia, a company it once dwarfed.
Like Monsanto, the British government has already invested in genetic engineering. In 1999, it allocated £13m (or 26 times what it is spending on the great debate) "to improve the profile of the biotech industry", by promoting "the financial and environmental benefits of biotechnology". This, and its appointment of major biotech investors to head several research committees and a government department, ensured that it lost the confidence of the public. So, like Monsanto, it now seeks to revive that confidence, by claiming - rather too late - that it is open to persuasion. Again, the decision to introduce the crops to Britain appears to have been made long before the debate began.
Last year, an unnamed minister told the Financial Times that the debate was simply a "PR offensive". "They're calling it a consultation," he said, "but don't be in any doubt, the decision is already taken." In March, Margaret Beckett began the licensing process for 18 applications to grow or import commercial quantities of GM crops in Britain. Her action pre-empts the debate, pre-empts the field trials designed to determine whether or not the crops are safe to grow here, and pre-empts the only real decisions which count: namely those made by the EU and the World Trade Organisation. The WTO must now respond to an official US complaint about Europe's refusal to buy GM food. If the US wins, we must either pay hundreds of millions of dollars of annual compensation, or permit GM crops to be grown and marketed here.
Why should this prospect concern us? I might have hoped that, five years after the first, real debate began in Britain, it would not be necessary to answer that question. But so much misinformation has been published over the past few weeks that it seems I may have to start from the beginning.
Independent Science Panel Report On GM In Food