22 May 2004

Dig for victory, dig for choice

By Jacqui McCarney

My family have joined a growing trend as we dug up our lawn to cultivate a kitchen garden. The self sufficiency of the 2nd World War has been reawakened as seed manufacturers report bumper sales this spring. This time it's not about "Victory" but about choice. We want good, wholesome food: vegetables which are fresh, locally grown, and not contaminated by GM products or pesticides. Soon growing your own may be the only way to ensure this.

In holding the "GM Nation" debate last year, the government intended to paint public concern as "anti-science", and "educate" the public about the benefits of GM technology. However, a sceptical public was not won over - 4 out of 5 people oppose the growing of GMs and only 2% are prepared to eat them.

The companies promoting GM, such as Monsanto have a poor past record: remember PCBs, Agent Orange, and Bovine Growth Hormone. They don't inspire confidence when they push for unlabelled GM in our food. Now the US government is demanding that the EU abandons its ban on growing genetically modified crops or pay $1.8bn in compensation for "loss" of exports over the last six years. The US bases its case on the "breaking of Free Trade rules" - "Free" Trade, but no Free Choice here!

Good news: Mendocino County in California banned growing GM crops earlier this year, followed soon by four Australian states imposing moratoriums and bans. Here on May 11th Hertfordshire County Council voted to go GM-free at their Cabinet meeting, and proposed that the East of England Regional Assembly adopts a policy preventing the growth of GM crops in our region. As the GM-free movement mainstreams, the US will have its work cut out.

Whilst the US claims that such bans are made without scientific evidence, there are mounting claims that, in fact, the scientific evidence of the risks of GM is suppressed. This is comprehensively documented by Jeffrey M. Smith in his damming expose of the GM industry, "Seeds of Deception". For example, Dr Arpad Puztai, found in 1998 that rats fed on GMs suffered damage to the immune system, the thymus and spleen, and indicators of increased cancer risk. Their brains were smaller and less developed than rats on non GM diets, as were their livers and testicles. Puztai was sacked and banned from speaking to the media.

We are sensible to cultivate our own veg when allergic reactions have doubled in the US since the introduction of GMs, and the Royal Society has said that genetic modification could lead to unpredictable and harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods.

Farmers are also threatened by huge difficulties in containment. Seeds are carried by birds, winds, floods and cross pollination by bees. For example, organic farmers in Canada can no longer grow GM-free Soya beans or canola because all their seeds are contaminated. Former environment minister Michael Meacher says "the Canadian experience shows clearly that GM will wipe out the organic sector".

To protect the livelihoods of our farmers, Gregory Barker conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, with the support of Friends of the Earth, is trying to ensure their legal protection with the "The GM Containment and Liability Bill". This would enable farmers to seek compensation from the bio-tech industry for loss of earnings due to contamination. This is only a sticking plaster solution : an outright ban is the only real protection.

If GM crops are introduced on this small Island, we will find it increasingly difficult to buy non-GM contaminated foods. They are sneaking in anyway as new laws allow the food on our supermarket shelves to contain 0.9% GMs without the need for labelling.

Growing our own will buy us a little time but we also need a guarantee from supermarkets that the food we buy will be 100% GM free. Even without the environmental and health risks of GMs, surely it is the right of all citizens to decide what they and dependent children will or will not consume, and not what US corporations dictate. With achy backs and dirty fingernails, many are making that choice. But real choice is being freely able to decide if we as a country want GM or not.