SIRC – Media Watch 24-08-99
The 26th attack by environmentalists on UK farm crops this year successfully managed to uproot the wrong plants. 43 protestors have been arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage to a field of non-GM maize at Home Farm, Spital in the Street, Lincolnshire. The damage to the maize, destined to end its life as cattle feed, is estimated at approximately £2,000. Ironically, Home Farm is one of four new farm scale trial sites recently announced by the government, which are to begin next year. With the arrest of Lord Melchett, director of Greenpeace, at the beginning of the month and the growing proliferation of direct action campaigns organised by them and other green interest groups, the tide of media contempt for all that is GM seems to be on the wane and the foundations for the 'greens' once unified front seems to be becoming increasingly shaky. The attacks on test sites in Ireland have even prompted accusations of "neo-colonial vandalism" from Kevin Myers in his thought-provoking article in the Irish Times.[ for a more detailed comment on this development see The tide turns against Greenpeace.]
The government, while receiving some criticism for releasing details of the new tests, has been granted a certain degree of credit for their openness. Although disclosure is likely to attract sabotage it represents the only real course of action for them to take, for the electorate has developed a highly tuned distrust of parliamentary food policy since the BSE scare. What has resulted from this is a media proliferation of various speculations as to how these protests will be best countered. Both the Guardian and the Telegraph reported that discussions were currently underway which proposed the amalgamation of all test sites into one single zone. This, as you may expect, met with some quite outlandish criticism. Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, said it would create another "Anthrax Island". Does he honestly expect us now to view GM crop testing in the same way as we would WW2 germ warfare experiments?
A particularly articulate leader in the Financial Times is indicative of a media shift towards a more sceptical appraisal of activists' methods and motives: "[their] violation of property rights is not a blow for freedom, but an arrogant attack on a tenet of civilised society by a minority group that represents only its own members." These pressure groups continue to recycle the assertion, eloquently exemplified by Andrew Wood of Genetix Snowball, that "the public has made it quite clear that they do not want GM crops and there is no need for these tests", but the refusal to allow such testing is finally meeting with accusations of being undemocratic. Roger Turner, head of the British Plant Breeders Association, said on Radio 4's Today programme that their campaigns for direct action suggested that "the environmentalists had lost the argument".
The Telegraph announced that the biotech companies were considering moving their test sites to other parts of Europe where specific details of their locations were required to be less exact and where opposition to the trials were likely to be less virulent. Even Prince Charles's closest environmental aide, Johnathon Porritt, was quick to point out the economic ramifications of such a re-location. The Express, previously quite a bastion of anti-GM rhetoric, quoted his consultancy as saying: "Britain must not turn its back on science. That is a very dangerous path to tread. Without it, how will we survive as a competitive nation and create new jobs?"
An announcement that the government was considering the introduction of specialised policing forces to protect GM test sites from environmental protestors met a rather a mixed reaction. Proponents of the GM trials suggested that the current levels of vandalism to the test sites justified such a notion while the activists contended that this was increasingly indicative of a police state and a violation of civil freedoms.
An article in the Guardian entitled "Consumers fear deception over GM food safety" reported the findings of a poll conducted by the National Consumer Council. 85% of people questioned thought that ministers were denying them information about goods ranging from GM foods to digital television. Maybe "Consumers fear deception over digital TV" lacked that editorial punch!
The new Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, this week seems set to call for tougher restrictions on the growing of GM crops to underline his commitment to making environmental issues a priority. The Evening Standard suggested that his motivations were twofold: "he was hoping to capitalise on public concern about GM food and, at the same time, loosen some of the links that former leader Paddy Ashdown had forged between the Lib-Dems and Labour." It remains to be seen how much of a vote winner this proves to be.
The Church of England, currently in possession of more than 123,000 acres of British agricultural land have refused to allow GM testing pending a full-scale inquiry into genetic modification and its "theological implications". Commissioners are also said to be worried that bad publicity may result in the reduction in value of their £237 million holdings.
Writing in the Guardian, Sue Mayer of GeneWatch UK suggests that next year's proposed GM trials may not actually offer up any significant results. She points out that "the GM crop will only be grown in any one field, so, small, incremental impacts of repeated growing cannot be detected." Fair comment. So how do we get around this flaw? Should we increase the size and duration of the trials? According to Ms Mayer, apparently not: "The government has given approval for the trials with GM oilseed rape to involve up to 12,000 acres from 2000 onwards – an area which cannot be justified on scientific grounds." So how should we proceed? Presumably, taking a sample somewhere between one field and 12, 000 acres. I am glad we have cleared that up!
In an attempt to prevent hereditary peers preparing long-winded election addresses, the government has given them 75 words to justify their stay in the House of Lords. Will Lord Melchett use these to register further protests on GM issues? Probably not, for he has already proved that he has no need for any words at all: why resort to intelligent verbal reasoning when one can make one's point through mindless vandalism?