UK: Agribio: Parties Jockey for Position as UK GM Debate Kicks Off

Last Updated: 2 June 2003

We have previously reported the US complaint to the WTO1 concerning the refusal of the EU to approve any GM crops until further stringent regulations on labelling and traceability have been put in place. The US argue that this has resulted effectively in a 5 year moratorium on the approval of GM crops by the EU. This has hindered US agricultural exports and the Food Aid programme to Africa as many states will not accept GM grain for fear of "contaminating" their indigenous agriculture with "foreign genes".

Since then a number of developments in this area deserve further mention on the eve of the UK Government’s national debate on the future of GM crops2:

  • The GM/WTO issue has reached a world stage again today at the G8 summit being hosted by France. President Bush is being urged to take a tough stance on the trade issue, especially after the opposition by France and Germany to the military action in Iraq. This is having an impact in the UK. Whilst Tony Blair remains cautiously supportive of new technologies, Michael Meacher (the Environment Minister) considers GM technology to be "unnecessary"3. This divergence in views is echoed in leaked cabinet documents4 reportedly quoting Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary) and Margaret Beckett (Secretary of State for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs) outlining the problems that the UK government now faces when deciding which way to vote on the strict new GM labelling regulations that shortly will be coming before the EU Parliament for the second time. On the one hand, Ministers recognise the public backlash that could be provoked by being in a "minority of one" in opposing such new regulations whilst on the other lies the warning of the UK Ambassador to the US that UK support for the new labelling regulations will be very difficult to sell in Washington.
  • Having previously supported the US position, Egypt has been reported now to have withdrawn from the WTO complaint5. This is seen as an embarrassment for the US in that it was keen for South American and African countries to be seen to be standing alongside it at the WTO. It is also alleged that the EU is putting Argentina (one of the countries currently profiting from the reduction in US crop imports to the EU) under pressure to withdraw from this complaint. If Argentina were to do so, then this would leave the US and Canada as the only complainants.
  • The Royal Society, an influential, independent scientific body in the UK has criticised the UK government for the way in which it has handled the GM review procedure6. In particular, it has stressed that 5 years ago the government was advised of the need for a review of the way that long term studies of the effects of GM crops on the environment were handled and that this is only now taking place. It also criticised the timing of the report of the government’s GM Science Review Panel, suggesting that it would more sensible for this panel to await the results of the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs) of GM crops (due in August of this year7).
  • In another case pending before the European Court of Justice, the Advocate General has issued an opinion recommending that WTO rulings should be directly applicable under certain circumstances8. If this opinion is followed by the Court, then this would mean that individuals would be able to bring actions seeking damages against EU institutions or Member State governments for their non-compliance with WTO rulings.

So, there is plenty of food for thought as the UK now embarks upon the government’s debate on GM food. Meetings will be held in six regional UK centres in order to canvass the views of the public before the government makes the decision on whether to approve the use of GM crops in the UK, following the results of the FSEs. However, a consortium of organisations that includes Friends of the Earth and The National Trust have commented on the lack of publicity for this and have questioned the holding of what they consider to be too few public meetings to foster a proper "debate".

It is clear is that the UK government is going to have to make some important decisions on this technology in the very near future.

Article by Mark Shillito and Joel Smith

1 Agribio: Moratorium, what Moratorium? US launches WTO challenge to EU policy on GM crops

3 BBC News, 18 February 2003

4 The Times, 1 June 2003

5 Financial Times, 30 May 2003

6 Royal Society Press Release 27 May 2003


8 ECJ Press Release 39/03: Opinion of Advocate General Siegbert Alber in Cases C-9 3/02 P and C-94/02 P

© Herbert Smith 2003

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