22 November 1996

Risk of a consumer backlash brings GMO fears to the fore

By Tony McDougal

FEARS are growing that the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into EU agriculture will lock UK farmers into a confrontation with consumers.

Speakers at the High Tech/Low Tech farming conference at the South of England Showground, Ardingley, Sussex, voiced their opposition to the tide of genetic products, but supermarkets claimed they were almost powerless to prevent their introduction.

Geoffrey Butler, managing director of Bossington Farms, Hants, with agribusiness interests in Kansas, said American farmers found it difficult to understand the opposition generated in Europe and the UK.

"They claim BST, hormones and GMOs have cut inputs and lowered costs, but apart from certain states, such as Wisconsin, there has been very little public concern. This may be due to the publics acceptance of the US Food and Drug Administration, which represents the consumer and is independent of government."

Mr Butler said he was concerned that there was no international consensus on GMOs. As a result, national governments were adopting different and varying policies.

Helen Browning, Wilts farmer and British Organic Farmers chairman, said that once EU farmers adopted GMOs others would be forced to follow to avoid an unlevel playing field. Suppliers, retailers and only the first few farmers would profit, but once genes had been changed the process could not be reversed.

Mrs Browning said the UK should either ban GMOs, introduce import tariffs or have a comprehensive labelling system.

And she rejected points by Robin Malim, Velcourt chairman, that GMOs needed to be embraced to help feed a population destined to double to 10bn by 2040.

"Feeding the world is just a cover. We need appropriate technology on the world market. If we want to feed the world, we can drop set-aside for a start."

Richard MacDondald, NFU director general, stressed that it was vital the UK should not have to compete on unequal terms because of the introduction elsewhere of GMOs. &#42