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July 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Tractor in a field.Andrew George MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Agriculture Minister, responding to reports of conclusions from the Downing Street study that there is no economic argument to support the commercial growing of GM crops, said:

"There is little economic demand for GM products in the UK and their introduction could further damage the improving relationship between British farmers and consumers.

"By growing GMs, farmers will also be giving up much of what little independence they have left.

"Supermarkets already have them over a barrel and biotech companies would have them by the throat."

"We must ensure that giant biotech companies do not have a stranglehold over the whole food chain."

The following five-point paper was sent to farming organisations by the Liberal Democrats today:


The Liberal Democrats have consistently maintained a precautionary approach to the promotion of Genetically Modified Organisms. Sound science should be the basis for any decision on the licensing of GM crops in the UK.

We believe that the Government has already made up its mind to support the planting of GMs and that the public debate, economic report and scientific review are mainly a public relations exercise to soften up the public.

Despite this, we still urge farmers and their representatives to make their voices heard before irreversible decisions are taken. The Farmscale Trials will not be published until the autumn at the earliest, months after the public consultation has been completed. The responsible thing to do, in our view, would be to give the whole process more time so that decisions would be based on 'sound' rather than 'hasty' science.

We believe there are at least five key reasons why British farmers should reflect carefully upon whether they should embrace the GM option in the present climate. We set them out below:


There is little or no evidence that British consumers are anxious to buy GM foods and a fair amount of evidence to suggest that they would object to such foods.

Recent Consumers Association surveys have shown that:

Only 32% find the idea of food produced from a GM plant acceptable

The majority (57%) had concerns about the use of GM in food production.

There is even greater concern amongst consumers that they would not know what they were eating and would lose trust in those food sources and products associated with GM technology.

94% of consumers think that food containing GM ingredients should be labelled as such 87% of UK consumers agreed that foods containing GM derivatives which cannot be detected in the final product because they have been processed out, should be labelled as GM.

Therefore farmers need to be confident that there would be a market for their produce. There would be no point in growing GM crops if farmers were less certain about being able to sell them compared to conventional crops.


Biotech companies are not keen to accept responsibility for any potential human health and environmental claims made as a result of GMs. Farmers need to be sure that they know they will not unwittingly take on their liabilities.

But the Government has still to decide who is liable. This question was raised by the Liberal Democrat Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, Dr. Vince Cable MP, at DEFRA questions on 19th June 2003. Environment Minister Elliot Morley MP told the House:

"We expect to receive a report next month from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission on the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops and associated liability issues. We will consider that issue further in the light of that report." (Hansard, 19/6/03, Col 497)

He gave no date for a decision.


There is serious concern that multinational biotech companies would control a substantial extent of the whole food chain - from before the 'plough to plate'.

Farmers have already suffered from the excessive strength of a few supermarkets, with estimates of farmgate prices having declined from 50p in 1950 to as little as 7.5p.

"By patenting transferred genes and the technology associated with them, then buying up the competing seed merchants and seed-breeding centres, the biotech companies can exert control over the crops at every stage of production and sale. Farmers are reduced to their sub-contracted agents."

(George Monbiot, The Guardian, 10th June 2003)

To put it bluntly, the supermarkets have got our farmers by the short and curlies and the biotech companies could have them by the throat. This would not be a comfortable position for our farmers!


Those farmers who want/ need to remain 'GM free' for commercial reasons or who are organic could find themselves in conflict with neighbouring farms which choose to grow GMs. An EU study last year showed that non-GM farmers will be adversely affected by the growth of GMs:

It showed that the costs of keeping GM and non-GM crops separate would often be too high to make commercial planting of GM crops economically feasible. In particular, the study warned that introducing GM crops would burden organic oilseed rape and conventional maize and potato growers with 'unsustainable costs of production' that would see the farm costs of their crops rise by up to 41 per cent. (Daily Telegraph, 17th May 2002)

This will not be a satisfactory environment in which to promote a farming industry at ease with itself and able to speak with one voice.


According to a recent Consumers Association survey, 64 per cent of consumers are concerned that they could still be eating GM ingredients without knowing it. It is important that labelling and traceability issues are resolved to the satisfaction of the consumer.

Farmers are still unfairly perceived to have been responsible for BSE by many misinformed urban consumers. Whilst the Government would be happy to switch the focus of public protest from themselves to our farmers, the industry should think carefully whether it really does want to risk making a damaging public relations decision.


There are many questions to be resolved, not least the scientific ones. Until we find ourselves in a climate where decisions can be based on sound science, farmers' organisations should consider carefully the implications of their own position.