4 December 1998


fears bio-tech food

Protesters opposed to genetically modified foods claimed

regular headlines in the national media earlier this year.

They believe retailers, consumers and farmers are being

coerced into using the technology.

Johann Tasker examines their stance

FARMERS leader Ben Gill was furious. On a full-page advertisement for Monsanto in a recent Sunday newspaper he appeared to be singing the unmitigated praises of genetically modified crops.

"Biotechnology has the greatest potential to provide enormous opportunities for farmers, along with great benefits for the environment and added choice for consumers," the NFU president was quoted as saying. "It could have an important role in maintaining the competitiveness of UK agriculture and horticulture and as such must be closely examined."

That quote was based on an NFU press release. But Monsanto had tweaked it, added the word "greatest", and omitted other parts in which Mr Gill expressed reservations about GM crops, claims the NFU.

"I had no prior knowledge they were going to use the statements in such a bald way without first checking with me," Mr Gill later told The Guardian. Mischievous people, he added, were now saying he was in Monsantos pocket.

Monsanto has apologised. But it is still running an uncorrected version of the advertisement on its website and the satirical magazine Private Eye continues to refer to Mr Gill as "Biotech Ben".

Consumer groups claim the NFU president wont be the last person to be hoodwinked by biotech companies.

GM crops are not yet commercially grown in the UK, but GM food is being sold in supermarkets (despite widespread consumer opposition). A recent survey found more than three-quarters of the British public want GM crops banned.

The Mori opinion poll for pressure group GeneWatch found 77% of the public were against GM crops, 61% did not want to eat it, and 58% opposed the use of genetic engineering in food production.

"The government should not be rushed into introducing this new technology," says Sue Mayer, GeneWatch director. "It should listen to its electorate and declare an immediate halt to the commercial exploitation of genetically engineered crops until the whole issue has been properly evaluated."

A partial moratorium has since been announced. But efforts to give consumers the choice of whether to buy existing GM food products has been branded a farce. Companies are now required to label food stating whether it includes GM soya or maize. But the regulations exempt foods containing soya oil or other soya derivatives, such as the commonly used thickening agent lecithin. Opponents have attacked the loophole, claiming consumers are unknowingly eating undisclosed GM derivatives in many processed foods.

"Politicians have failed to take into account the massive public opposition to GM foods," says Patrick Holden, director of the pro-organic Soil Association.

Meanwhile, a recent survey carried out by the National Federation of Womens Institutes showed 93% of women surveyed wanted all GM food clearly labelled, so they could choose whether to eat it.

"Most women clearly have concerns about genetically-modified foods in the absence of greater knowledge and debate," says Eileen Meadmore, NFWI chairwoman.

"We intend to press the UK and European parliaments, producers and supermarkets to see that clear and accurate information is made widely available so consumers can make informed choices on the products they buy."

In the absence of clearer labelling laws, some consumers have called on supermarkets to stop selling GM food altogether. Results of an opinion poll released in October found 58% of shoppers questioned wanted stores to stop stocking GM products.

The proportion of shoppers in favour of GM products was just 27%. More than 2000 shoppers took part in the study, which was carried out by NOP for Friends of the Earth.

"Shoppers are being conned by politicians into believing that labelling will help them avoid genetically altered food," says Adrian Bebb, spokesman for Friends of the Earth.

The Monsanto advertising campaign aimed to make the public more accepting. It is one point on which the NFU agrees. "Of course, the final acceptance of the farming industry of genetically modified foods will depend on whether there is consumer demand for it," Ben Gill said in the part of the NFU press release Monsanto failed to quote.