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Following on from the anti-GM activism of the late 1990s and early 2000’s, it is widely believed that there is a ban on GM foods in the UK. However law changes in the EU, potential international trade law tie-ins via the upcoming Transatlantic Trade and Investment Agreement (TTIP) and the UK political climate combine to make us very vulnerable now to GM crops being grown here and more GM foods being imported. Lobbying by vested-interest agribusiness is a major factor throughout.
With TTIP, US agribusiness expects to get its GM products (human food, agricultural crops, animal feed and products from GM-fed animals) into the EU market. US/EU ‘regulatory harmonisation’ is core to TTIP. The fact that a reported 70% of US supermarket processed food contains GM is an indication of what harmonisation with the US on GM will bring.
EU citizens’ resistance to GM food is considered to be a ‘non-tariff barrier’ to trade. The World Trade Organisation disallowed an EU ban on GM. Now TTIP is intended to further overcome resistance. However, as with much that is targeted in TTIP, this is happening through internal EU regulatory change, concealing how this addresses the demands of transnational corporations in TTIP negotiations.
The pro-GM UK coalition government has been the main promoter of TTIP in the EU, and keen to open the UK to GM.
In contrast to the US situation, the direct human food supply in the EU is still largely GMO free. There are a few food products for sale in the UK with GM ingredients, which should be labelled according to EU labelling regulations. (Surveys show that around 40% of takeaway meals are cooked using GM cooking oils and while caterers are required by EU regulations to tell customers this, the majority do not).
We currently have very little GM crop cultivation within Europe. There are some small scale field trials of GM crops in the UK, but none grown commercially.
There are already around 30 million tonnes of GM animal feed (predominantly GM soya and GM maize) imported into the EU each year – to feed pigs, poultry, dairy and beef cattle, as well as farmed fish. Most UK supermarkets no longer guarantee their products are not from GM-feed animals. Food products from GM-fed animals are not labelled as such. Under TTIP, a shift to labelling products from GM-fed animals would be very likely to be subject to a corporate challenge under TTIP investor state dispute settlement (ISDS).
Labelling in relation to all GM food continues to be a political battlefield in the US, with agribusiness corporation Monsanto pouring in political funding to prevent GM labelling.
What is changing?
In the late 1990s/early 2000s activists donned white protective suits and removed GM plantings every time they were attempted with the UK leading resistance to GM in the EU. The result was a de facto EU ban on GM because people in the EU did not want it.
In the UK, a report called ‘GM Nation’, produced subsequent to government-sponsored debates around the country, showed strong public opposition to GM. A further survey in 2012 showed that this opposition had hardly lessened.
But in 2003, the US, Canada and Argentina made a formal complaint about the ban to the World Trade Organisation. In 2006 a WTO panel judged the EU ban to be ‘trade-restrictive’ and a breach of the EU’s trade liberalisation commitments.
The EU did not take the option of utilising the WTO appeal mechanism.
Since then, there has had to be product-by-product assessment of GM crop and GM food entry into the EU.
Faced with the contradiction between the WTO ruling and EU public opinion, the EU bureaucracy and politicians have delayed applications, and the process has been very slow. But now, agribusiness corporations and GM advocates are pushing for the speeding up of the existing assessment mechanism, against the backdrop of a predefined TTIP aim of ‘regulatory harmonisation’. This situation allows for claims that TTIP will not change EU laws on GM - an apparent, but essentially false, reassurance of ‘no change’.
In a further development, the European Parliament recently (January 2015) approved an EU Directive allowing individual member states to refuse the entry of a GM crop into their country after it has been accepted for entry into the EU generally. What this means is that resistance at the EU level of entry will be weaker if member states can subsequently refuse a crop coming into their country. It should be noted that when there is not adequate agreement at the EU assessment level the decision-making passes to the corporate-influenced Commission.
The European Commission is now, it appears, similarly considering whether to change the import regime for the entry of GM crops, possibly to the same ‘member states choice’ regime. Assessments on new product imports are also imminent.
However, another shift is the recent publication of ‘Altered Genes, Twisted Truth’, a book by US lawyer Steve Druker, showing the corruption of the science and of politicians in relation to GM.
Is GM food okay?
Many people still do not want to eat, or for their children to eat, GM food. Some people think that GM is okay if it means less use of chemicals. However, some GM crops are genetically engineered to withstand being heavily sprayed with herbicide chemicals. Thus a lot of chemicals are applied to the GM food/animal feed crop.
While the EU has the Precautionary Principle enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty (products not allowed unless proven to be safe), the US has the so-called ‘sound-science’ approach (products allowed unless harm is proven). ‘Proof’ comes from scientific testing, but industry funding for research is a major factor, as is the ‘revolving door’ between industry and regulator jobs.
So one issue is that science is an active knowledge system in which new discoveries are made almost every day, therefore scientific evidence is always incomplete and uncertain. The responsible use of scientific evidence, therefore, has to be precautionary. This is all the more important for technologies such as genetic engineering, for which neither controls nor recalls are possible. Thus it is the precautionary principle that really is ‘sound’ science. With the TTIP ‘harmonisation’ element, though, the EU’s precautionary principle is coming under lot of pressure in GM product assessment.
But another issue, on another level, is that which Steven Druker exposes in his book. Rather than scientific research, his book is based on 15 years of research on fraud in relation to the scientific research on GM, in which the scientific community and politicians have been complicit and the purpose of which has been, says Druker, ‘to confuse the public and erroneously convince people, politicians included, that the scientific foundations for creating GM staples for the world food supply was sound’.
The information from Steven Druker must be taken into account in any assessment of GM, for instance by the UK Food Standards Authority, which is currently very pro GM, and also advised to be pro-TTIP (as a Freedom of Information request has revealed).
‘Co-existence’ of crops
The claimed possibility of ‘co-existence’ of GM crops with conventional crops and organic farming is a myth. Cross contamination is unavoidable. Scotland and Wales wish to be GM free. As an island country we can potentially minimise cross contamination from any GM crops grown on continental Europe.
GM crops and the chemicals used on them are potentially detrimental to wildlife, which are essential to food crop production and natural pest control. In addition, chemicals produced for use with GM crops, such as the broadly-used ‘Round Up’ herbicide, for killing weeds but not the GM crop, is resulting in the growth of ‘super weeds’ that require ever more chemicals to be applied.
As well as food and animal feed, a large part of the North and South America GM crop is for biofuel, and ‘Bt cotton’, genetically transformed to produce insecticidal toxins, is grown in America, India, Australia and elsewhere.
Monsanto, along with BASF, Bayer, Dow Chemical Company, Dupont and Syngenta are the big Biotech Corporations, dominating the agricultural input market - i.e. the world’s seed, pesticide and biotechnology industries.
In the US, Monsanto has successfully kept regulation low by donating to politicians and promoting the appointment of people who work for them to positions within the US Government (the ‘regulatory revolving door’) .
This is why Druker’s book is so important to the GM debate and whether we are debating the ‘science’ - in which case the wider range of factors must be taken into account, not just ‘trade liberalisation’ and corporate profits - or whether we are debating how corrupted is the scientific information we are receiving.
In the UK, the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition has been a pro-GM government, the main promoter in the EU of TTIP, and keen to open the UK to GM. The Labour Party is also pro-GM. The Food Standards Authority, pro-GM and given extremely pro-TTIP advice, is an established key official reference point. But we also have a general election.
All these factors combined mean that we, in the UK, are now very vulnerable to having GM crops grown here and GM foods coming in - unless we make it very clear that we do not want them and that we will not accept a government that is facilitating them being brought into the UK.
You can tell your parliamentary candidates that you don’t want GM, and ask them where they stand on the issue. We need public debate that includes transparency about lobbying in the political and scientific spheres.
The information in this article can be downloaded in the form of a reproducible leaflet from the StopTTIP.net website.