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20 September 1999

'The reaction against GM food is bad news, even for those who would no sooner eat a Big Mac than a manure burger'
by Mick Hume, LM editor

Since Sunday, all organic food outlets have had to tell customers if their produce has been grown using animal dung, so that consumers can make an informed choice as to whether or not they wish to expose themselves to a potentially increased risk of E.coli and other tasty bacteria.

There is no such rule, of course. But it would be no more ridiculous than the regulations which did come into force on Sunday, obliging restaurants and takeaway shops to tell us if they are selling genetically modified (GM) food.

The new rules are a recipe for chaos in the kitchens of Britain's half a million food retailers, who are supposed either to rewrite the menu to indicate which items contain GM food, or put up signs and train their staff to inform customers. ('Today's special is a green salad prepared with house dressing and Arctic Flounder anti-freeze genes.') The government insists that it merely wants to help us make more informed choices. But who will choose to eat items branded with the dread initials GM? They might as well tell restaurateurs to put a skull and crossbones on the menu.

These largely unenforceable regulations have already had a predictable impact, as outlets such as the big burger chains announce that they will not use GM products. The reaction against GM food is bad news, even for those who would no sooner eat a Big Mac than a manure burger. It marks a victory for the forces of ignorance, dressed up in the fancy green attire of environmental concern.

The GM food panic makes the BSE-CJD scare look like a rational response. That began as a massive overreaction to the unproven possibility of a link between eating beef and contracting a rare, deadly disease. By comparison, the row over potential health risks and GM food is literally a lot of fuss about nothing: nobody has died, nobody has been harmed, nothing has happened at all.

The fact is that, even when you can demonstrate that GM foods are safe, it makes no difference to the environmental lobby. These people are motivated by prejudice, not prudence. They are anti-modern farming, anti-genetic engineering, anti-anything outside the narrow furrows of what they deem 'natural'. If they had been around in the nineteenth century, those wrecking GM crop trials would presumably have been smashing up Louis Pasteur's laboratory, since he could not safely predict the consequences of his experiments with germs.

Last week the former cabinet minister Douglas Hurd denounced the crop trial wreckers as 'Luddites' - a perfectly fair description. Yet his words were like water off a duck's back in an age when the Ecologist magazine, published by the provisional wing of the Goldsmith family, runs articles celebrating the machine-breaking antics of Ned Ludd and his mates.

At a time when politics pass most people by, the GM issue shows how the national agenda can be manipulated by a handful of self-appointed consumer lobbyists. A group such as Greenpeace might like to cultivate the image of radical outsiders, taking on vested interests on behalf of 'the People'.

But led by the likes of Lord Melchett, and with a global income of $125 million ($18 million of which goes on administration), it is as much an elite lobby group as any City PR firm. As the Scottish director of Friends of the Earth boasted, after becoming the first eco-warrior to receive an OBE (from the Prince of Wales, naturally): 'There is now an alternative establishment that is being listened to.'

Listened to, indeed; the political establishment appears to hang on every word from these wallies. Having first admirably dismissed the anti-GM 'hysteria', Tony Blair and his ministers have since backed off when faced with the massed ranks of Lord Melchett, George Monbiot of the Guardian and the Prince of Wales. As for William Hague's genetically modified Tory Party, it could not leap aboard the anti-GM food bandwagon fast enough, abandoning at a stroke its historical links with agri-business and the biotechnology industries in search of a populist cause.

In America, meanwhile, the world capital of GM crop production, concern grows about the possible snowball effect of the anti-GM mood over here. Time magazine has expressed bewilderment about why Europeans are so upset by efficient 'uber-crops'. But then, what do these North Americans know? In Canada, Greenpeace's homeland, the authorities recently had the nerve to deny it charitable status, on the basis that it serves 'no public benefit'.

Now that is a label they should be forced to display in public.

This article was originally published in The Times (London) on 20 September 1999

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