With elections on tomorrow, and the GMO free regions starting today in Berlin, Joseph Dodd explains what the various UK parties positions are on GM.
The UK General Election campaigns are very much underway. Three issues have dominated the election so far, the debate around funding for the National Health Service (NHS), immigration and of course, the economy. As The Independent newspaper reported, the matter of GM is being left until after the election . So, where do the parties stand on genetically modified (GM) food in general? Despite the mostly anti-GM British public, the two largest parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are mostly in agreement on GM .
Owen Paterson (the former Secretary of State for environment, food and rural affairs) caused a political storm a couple of years ago when he stated his outright support for GM, as well as openly referring to anti-GM activists and other environmentalists as ‘the Greenblob’ and ‘wicked’. He argued that as a result of the anti-GM movement, which has prevented the introduction of ‘Golden Rice’ (a GM grain) around the world, ‘over the last 15 years…7 million children have gone blind or died’ – a claim wholly without evidence . The remarks saw a fellow Conservative MP accuse him of being an ‘industry puppet’, despite this, it seems that Prime-Minister (PM) and Conservative Party leader supports Paterson’s position on GM. He even stated that he was ‘perfectly happy’ to feed his family GM food . The PM office further stated that there is ‘no credible basis’ for the claims that GM crops were not safe . More recently, Paterson’s successor Elizabeth Truss has argued in favour of the introduction of GM foods because they are more ‘eco-friendly’. This suggests that Conservative policy on GM is not going to change any time soon. The Party Manifesto simply states, ‘we will support a science-led approach to GM-crops’.
The Labour Party are largely in agreement with the Conservatives. In their Feeding the Nation report (2013) it is stated that biotechnology ‘can be one of the tools used to ensure better resilience in the UK food chain, and to reduce environmental damage’ . A further statement reiterated that ‘GM may have a role in UK food security and environmental protection’ before going on to say that ‘public views – informed by science – must also be heard’. This suggests some recognition of public concern about GM, while at the same time, the common assumption that once the public comes to understand the science they will have no reason to oppose GM. The current shadow secretary for environment, food and rural affairs stated that ‘GM foods are a scientific issue’ thus again failing to grasp the environmental and socio-economic concerns around GM. The matter is entirely overlooked in the party manifesto.
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS (LIB DEMS)
The Lib Dems – the junior coalition partner in the last government – although have no statement on GM in their party manifesto, previous statements suggest that they are largely in agreement with the other two parties on GM. In 2013 Lady Parminter (the Lib Dem spokesperson on food, the environment and rural affairs) said in the House of Lords (the British second chamber) that Paterson was ‘cheer leading for the GM industry’. Despite that, she further stated that ‘Lib Dems are not opposed to GM’ and that it ‘should be a science-led decision’ . In 2010 The Guardian remarked on how the Lib Dems ‘dodge the issue’ of GM completely by simply asking for ‘another debate’, this seems to be the case again in 2015 .
There is no ambiguity in the Green Party manifesto. They state in no uncertain terms that ‘genetic engineering will not solve the problems created by industrialised agriculture and it may add to them’ . They explain how GM crops simply ‘secure large profits for a few multinational companies’ and that ‘the use of GM crops in poor countries has proved disastrous to farming communities’. If elected, the Greens promise to ‘uphold the rights of consumers, farmers and local authorities to choose GM-free food and to establish GM-free zones’.
SCOTTISH NATIONAL PARTY (SNP)
Although there is no mention of GM in the manifesto, it is thought that the SNP share this anti-GM stance with the Greens. The SNP are concerned about, what they call ‘Downing Street’s pro-GM agenda’, which represents yet another divide between Scotland and the Westminster government . MSP (Member of Scottish Parliament) Rob Gibson, the convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee stated in 2014 that, ‘Paterson’s [the former Secretary for State] failure to explain to the Scottish Government why he did not represent Scotland’s interests despite agreeing to do so is extremely disappointing’. The EU ‘opt out’ policy, Gibson argued, ‘gives too much power to GM companies and puts them on an equal status to Member States vis-à-vis GM issues’.
UKIP (UNITED KINGDOM INDEPENDENCE PARTY)
The UKIP are a right-wing party whose main objective is to bring about the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. In their manifesto they offer an ‘open vote’ – individual MPs could vote at will rather than be subject to party whips – on the GM foods . It is unclear how this, if implemented, would play out. UKIP have however spoken positively about GM before and support ‘further research into GM food’ but they are also in favour of the labelling of GM products .
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