Activism  > Consumer Fears Shape the Debate


In Europe, Green campaign shakes trans-Atlantic trade


LINCOLN, England -- In the conflict over the future of food, this rural corner of Britain is where you can see the battle close up. On the one side: agri-business, genetic engineers and bio-science corporations, inspired with a vision to revolutionize farming with a new green revolution of cunningly engineered crops. On the other: consumers, supermarkets and an equally visionary group of organic farmers who are discovering that there is money to be made catering to a public clamor for "real" food.


THE BATTLE BETWEEN the two sides has already seen a huge shift in consumer behavior and it is threatening to escalate with implications for world trade. Here's the surprise: so far, the greens are winning.


They are fighting in the supermarkets, they are fighting in Parliament, they are fighting in the courts and they are fighting here in Lincolnshire's potato fields. This arable coastal plain in an eastern corner of Britain, England's answer to Idaho, is where the future of food was supposed to unfold. Here, a new generation of high yielding, disease- and pest-resistant genetically modified (GM) crops was to point the way to a millennial agriculture.




For Prime Minister Tony Blair, "GM food" was going to be the next big thing after computers. Amazing developments were foretold -- crops with built-in resistance to herbicides, crops with genetic protection against disease, crops that yield better and that grow better in conditions that are more demanding. This was how the world would feed itself, it was claimed. After winning the 1997 election, Blair appointed a minister for biotech, denounced nascent anti-GM "hysteria," and promised to issue the necessary experimental licenses.


Two years later, nothing has gone to plan. England's arable belt from Northumberland to Norfolk -- with Lincolnshire in the middle -- has become a fiercely contested battleground in a collision of science, agribusiness, consumerism and pressure group politics. The combatants on the side of the greens include Prince Charles, who has promised that no GM food will pass his lips, and Sir Paul McCartney, whose late wife Linda was an outspoken vegetarian. With the support of large sections of the media, including the powerful Daily Mail newspaper, which has launched its own bare-knuckled campaign against "Frankenstein" foods, they appear to have the public with them.




To observe this battle, I drive over flat fields recently emptied of potatoes, hay and rape seed oil and drop by the farm of David Carmichael, who wants to plant genetically modified crops. Carmichael says the clamor against GM is anti-scientific nonsense and points out that humans have been breeding plants for thousands of years. He says he intends to press ahead with GM crops because "I'm bloody minded" -- and also he says because he is determined that scientific results should speak louder than "unfounded and hysterical objections that have no basis whatsoever."


On the other side of the fence it is a different story. Farmer Dave Leech, in the office of his own potato farm, makes a case of his own. "Once released into the fields, genetically-modified organisms can cross-pollinate with natural species, changing them forever," he says. Widespread growing of genetic crops would make it impossible for him to retain the organic certification of his own farm, which has been painstakingly converted to this form of agriculture.


Organic farming is profitable because of strong consumer demand, but it takes several difficult years for a farm to become officially organic -- free of herbicide and pesticide use and limited to growing crops that do not contain genetically modified organisms. Whatever the rights and wrongs of GM organisms, says Leech, widespread GM farming would deprive him of his chosen way of farming, a way of farming that is both environmentally sound and commercially successful.




Carmichael and Leech are level-headed men who continue to speak with civility of one another, but the battle between the points of view represented by the two farmers has a potential for violence. A new round of experimental GM plantings provisionally authorized by government ministers has the potential to lead to civil disturbances at a time that the countryside is already unsettled over a general farming crisis and moves (driven by animal rights activists) to outlaw foxhunting. In Lincolnshire, police fear the county could tip into serious disorder as saboteurs attack experimental GM fields and police are called upon to stop them. Says Richard Childs, the chief constable of Lincolnshire: "I can't guarantee that these fields are going to be safe."


For the introduction of GM foods, the timing could not have been worse. British consumers are hypersensitive about their food following the BSE scare, in which many of Britain's cattle herds were revealed to be suffering from an incurable brain disease that appeared to be transmissible to humans. The pleas of most scientists that the dangers to humans are statistically insignificant have fallen on unresponsive ears. Even the GM industry concedes that they are losing the argument.


In the shopping centers around Britain, all of the major supermarkets have declared themselves GM free, or working to get there. In Brussels, Belgium, Greenpeace is demanding a total Europe-wide ban on genetic modifications in both human food and animal feed.


Meanwhile, British fears over GM are transmitting themselves to consumers in continental Europe and even to the United States and Australia. The U.S. disputes with the European Union over bananas and beef pale into sideshows compared to the problem of biotech. "Biotech will make bananas look like peanuts," observes an official of the World Trade Organization, requesting anonymity. And indeed the issue was expected to arise at the WTO summit in Seattle, where agriculture in general would be the hottest debate.


The strength of public opinion caught politicians and the GM companies by surprise. At first, they attempted to dismiss the protestors as crackpots. This quickly proved a serious underestimation, as the "crackpots" have proved resilient and well organized. Next, Monsanto Co., the St Louis-based biotech giant, tried a robust advertising campaign to confront its critics. It backfired badly.


"Monsanto has just made things a lot worse," said one competitor, who blamed the Americans for riling European consumers. Monsanto, meanwhile, seemed bemused: Genetic modifications had been introduced without any real murmur in the United States, so why were the British being so difficult?


In part, at least, because this is a country that has lost much of its faith in experts. After the disasters of salmonella in eggs, BSE in beef and even E. coli in apple juice, consumers are readily willing to believe that food really was better before the scientists became involved. The subsequent PR battle has been one-sided. The BBC recently turned over much of its most popular and longest-running radio soap opera, "The Archers," to the story of an idealistic young organic farmer arrested for destroying a GM crop which he feared would cross-pollinate his own natural crops, destroying forever a delicate ecosystem. The jury returned a verdict of innocent -- accepting the defendant's pleas that he was acting to protect his own farm from danger.


"It's scientific rubbish but it's not been any help," says a spokesman for AgrEvo, a major European seed producer anxious to push ahead with field trials.


Meanwhile, Greenpeace have flooded the streets with canvassers, distributing hundreds of thousands of tightly designed and edited pamphlets, backed up with a Web page.


Lord Melchett, the media-friendly head of Greenpeace UK, claims 81 percent public approval for its campaign against GM food. Melchett is one of two dozen anti-GM protestors currently on bail charged with leading a criminal damage attack on a GM crop.


The publicity from this case has been worth millions to Greenpeace and the fear of the GM industry is that -- as on "The Archers" -- no jury will convict him, after which it becomes an open season on GM crops. They have asked if future crop trials can be held in secret, although that seems a far-fetched idea.




The question now becomes whether the industry dares to go ahead with its series of new and highly controversial field trials, each of which is likely to bring down an organized attack from militant GM protesters and the certainty of many arrests and more politically exploited court trials.


For the moment, a legal technicality has halted the latest planned plantings in Lincolnshire but the prospect that any of them will proceed without a major incident is fading. Monsanto recently appeared to be calling for a cessation of hostilities, when it called on the organic industry to discuss possible joint projects in the natural breeding of plants. The idea received a cautious welcome from Britain's powerful Soil Association, which accredits organic produce, but both sides remain highly wary of one another.


"The reaction against GM food is bad news, even for those who would no sooner eat a Big Mac than a manure burger," complained The Times of London, one of the few papers that has openly pressed the case for GM. Douglas Hurd, a former Tory cabinet minister, called the crop wreckers on trial "Luddites" after the rebels who smashed machines during Britain's industrial revolution. Genetic scientists plead in vain that their discoveries will bring great environmental benefits, but they are hardly believed.


"What would you rather eat: Food that's been engineered by mad scientists or food that is natural? In PR terms, the contest is not equal," admitted one despondent GM industry spokesman.


In the marketplace, the consumers are not in doubt. At the GM-free Asda supermarket in Grantham (part of the British chain recently acquired by Wal-Mart), a mother paying 79p (roughly $1.20) for a cucumber that in non-organic form cost 49p (75 cents) explained: "I like to buy the organic cucumbers because I just think they are more natural." Organic sections in Asda and all other British supermarkets are expanding rapidly, limited only by the supply of organic foods.


In desperation, the GM industry has privately tried to tell people that organic food may not be the panacea some believe. "Wait until someone gets hit with E. coli after eating some animal dung-fertilized organic lettuce," one GM man sneered. But until that happens, the revolt against GM and rush to adopt organic methods looks unstoppable.


Normally, the advice of the British on what to eat may not seem immediately compelling. This is the country whose most famous contribution to world cuisine is the chip. On current trends, the British chip of the 21st century will still be greasy, but it will likely be GM free.

Jonathan Miller reported for from London.