Early in 1999, the British Government came under daily attack from the media. Both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers joined the fray, and even the BBC broadcast misleading information.
Eventually, the No. 10 press office released a point-by-point rebuttal of some of the absurd media claims on its Web site; but the damage had already been done. The text below is taken from the No. 10 Web site.
Genetically Modified Food: The Facts
The GM debate of recent days has been characterised by hype, media myth and hysteria. Below are [sic] just a small selection of some of the wilder stories that have appeared in the press -- many of them followed up by the broadcasters -- and the facts.
"Like it or not, you and your family have been turned into guinea pigs for untested GM foods"
Express headline p. 6-7 Tuesday, 9 February, 1999
"Public health and the protection of the environment are this Government's first priority on GMOs."
Jeff Rooker, Minister for Agriculture before Lords' Select Committee, 21 October, 1998.
This has been and remains the Government's position.
There are only three GM food products on sale in this country -- tomato paste, a form of soya and maize. None are grown here. No new GM product has been approved in the last two years under this Government. No new product would be allowed onto the market unless and until it had gone through a rigorous safety assessment, set out in EU legislation.
There is a very strong independent regulatory system in place. Before any GM food is approved for the market, the Government seeks the best possible scientific advice to establish that it is safe. The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) looks at each application on a case-by-case basis.
The ACNFP has an ethics representative and a consumer representative. Every single scientific committee dealing with foods now has lay members appointed to it.
The Government recognises that trust in food has been damaged by BSE and E Coli [sic]. That is why we will legislate to set up an independent Food Standards Agency as soon as parliamentary time is available to ensure that the food we eat is safe.
A lot of controversy has centred on the Pusztai research on rats and potatoes which has not yet been validated. It claims to show that GM food can have harmful effects on rats.
The Government hopes that this it will be validated as quickly as possible so the implications of the research can be assessed. However our initial view of the data is that it does not support the conclusion that GM foods are unsafe.
GM potatoes are not on sale and there have been no applications to market them. If we received an application for a food which had the effect Professor Pusztai alleged we would not approve it.
"The third lesson is to underline the necessity of labelling every food product that currently contains GM constituents in a clear way so people at least know what they are buying"
Guardian, Leader, Friday, 12 February, 1999
"Surely it is not asking too much to label properly the GM foods being sold already?"
The Mirror, Leader, Tuesday, 16 February, 1999
This Government reversed the policy of the last on labelling. Until then the Government was against proper labelling. Since September last year it has been a legal requirement to have these foods labelled. We believe that consumers should know what they are eating and be able to make their own choice.
NCBE comment: under the Conservative administration there was no legal requirement to label GM foods. This was mainly because the relevant EU regulations, which had been under discussion for several years, were not yet agreed upon. However, several retailers in the UK, notably the Co-Op, Sainsbury's and Safeway, introduced their own voluntary labelling policies for cheese made with chymosin from a GMO and tinned tomato purée, respectively. At that time, no other products were on the market. While the EU Novel Food Regulation was being debated, the Institute of Grocery Distribution published a voluntary labelling scheme that most retailers signed up to, although some major food producers insisted that they would not go beyond what they were legally obliged to do by the proposed EU Regulation. On November 19, 1997, at the launch of the temporary 'Future Food?' exhibition at the Science Museum in London, the new Labour administration announced that GM food would have to be labelled and all the major UK food producers and retailers duly toed the line. About a year later, on 1 September 1998, the Revised Novel Foods Labelling Regulation came into force throughout the European Union.
"I think there should be a three year moratorium. I dont know whether it is safe to eat"
William Hague MP, the Today Programme, BBC Radio Four
The last Government approved three GM foods as safe to eat. This Government also believes they are safe. None have been approved under the current Government.
NCBE comment: several enzymes from GMOs (e.g., chymosin for cheese-making) were also approved under the Conservative government, although because these are processing aids and do not remain in the final product, there is currently no requirement to label them. The Tory administration also approved GM yeasts for beer and bread-making and oil from GM rape, although none of these are used in commercial products.
English Nature, the Government's wildlife advisers, wants a general moratorium on GM food and the Government is ignoring them.
The Government and English Nature agree that before moving to full scale commercialisation we need more information on how GM crops interact with the environment. That is why there are carefully controlled, limited scale trials taking place.
We will not allow any commercial plantings until all the stiff regulatory hurdles have been passed. If our trials show that a particular GM crop has a damaging effect on the countryside we have powers to ban their cultivation in this country. Should the hurdles be passed, limited and monitored commercial planting may start in the UK next year. Full scale commercialisation would not take place until these studies had been assessed.
English Nature agree that these trials are essential. They would rather that there was a minimum three year period for the trials before any crops are commercially cultivated. We believe that it would be appropriate to allow a move to limited and carefully monitored commercial production after, say, one year of farm scale trials if the evidence was sufficient to demonstrate clearly that the crop would not have a damaging effect on the environment.
We believe that the test should not be an arbitrary uniform time limit but be dependent on the actual time needed. The Government believes there are no grounds for these trials to stop. For it is only by having carefully controlled experiments that we can judge the potential impact a crop might have on the countryside and wildlife.
"The Government is just kow towing to the US"
Greenpeace campaigning, Thursday, 18 February, 1999
If the Government simply followed the US lead we would now have fields of GM crops and have rubber stamped every GM product that they have already approved. An area one and a half times the size of the UK is already under commercial cultivation with GM Crops in the USA, Canada and elsewhere.
Instead we are moving cautiously on the commercialisation of GM crops in order to assess their impact on the environment. We have opposed in Brussels the approval of some GM products already accepted in the US.
"Safety fears at 70 sites testing GM crops"
Daily Mail, Front page Monday 15 February,1999
(A report that safety inspectors have found problems with at least 70 of Britains test sites for genetically modified crops.)
70 sites were being used to test GM Crops. Only four were found to be a problem. Two were subject to prosecution this week.
"Human genes in GM food"
Express, Front page, Monday 15 February, 1999
(A report from Greenpeace that Chinese scientists are vying to produce plants and animals with human genes.)
No human genes have been used in the production of any GM foods which have been cleared for use within the EU.
Animals that do include human genes are used for the production of pharmaceuticals to treat life threatening diseases. The UK is a world leader in this research. None of the animals are allowed into the food chain.
NCBE Comment: the use of human genes in food for human consumption was ruled out by retailers and the influential report of the Polkinghorne Committee several years ago.
"Is baby food really safe?"
Express, Front page, Wednesday 17 February, 1999
(Children being fed food made from genetically modified ingredients may be at risk from life threatening illness, scientists claim.)
The Advisory Committee on Novel Food and Processes has concluded that GM foods approved to date are as safe as their non GM equivalents for all sectors of the population, including babies and young children.
"Government stifled report on GM risks"
Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 17 February, 1999
The Government suppressed no report on crop trials. The Report was published on Thursday. The [ACRE] Committee Chairman Professor Beringer categorically denied that the report had been sat on when speaking on BBC Radio 4 on Friday February 19.
"GM Foods: How Blair ignored our top scientists"
Daily Mail, Thursday 18 February, 1999
(Report by The Royal Society calling for regulatory review last September 'ignored' by Government.)
Sir Aaron Klug, President of The Royal Society, called the Mail piece "a misreading of the Royal Society position".
Government welcomed the report by the Royal Society. Dr Jack Cunningham announced on December 17 1998 that the Government was reviewing the framework for overseeing developments in biotechnology and genetic modification. It will ensure that the Government receives the best possible advice and that the system is flexible enough to respond to developments in the future. It is due to report in the Spring.
The Royal Society say:
"The use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has the potential to offer real benefits in agricultural practice, food quality, nutrition and health. There are, however, uncertainties about several aspects of GMOs. Continued research, funded in part from public sources with the results made openly available, is essential É"
This is precisely the Government's approach.
NCBE Comment: You can read exactly what The Royal Society said in their 'supressed' report here. The Society made several suggestions regarding changes in the regulatory structure which had been devised by the previous Conservative administration.
"Mutant crops could kill you"
Express, Thursday 18 February, 1999
(Report that Government advisory Committee believed Monsanto claims on GM cotton seed for cattle feed were wrong and that they had serious concerns.)
Buried away in third paragraph from the end on page 5 is fact that the two applications from Monsanto were voted down by the UK and the other 14 EU member states last Thursday.
"Revealed: Lord Sainsbury's interest in key gene patent"
Guardian, Tuesday 16 February, 1999
The Guardian got the wrong gene.
NCBE Comment: an apology to David Sainsbury was printed on the front page on the following day's Guardian. Not only had the paper identified the wrong gene, but the apology pointed out that the rights to the patent were in a blind trust over which the Minister had no control.