Cabinet's secret war on GM laws
A SECRET campaign is being waged by the government to block tough new rules on the labelling of food containing genetically-modified ingredients.
Cabinet letters seen by Scotland on Sunday detail the government’s attempts to head off European efforts to force more manufacturers to reveal whether GM ingredients are present in thousands of everyday goods.
Senior Cabinet members fear the regulations could prove highly damaging to relations with America, Tony Blair’s key ally and the world’s leading producer of the controversial so-called ‘Frankenstein’ crops.
In a confidential letter, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw reveals he has asked the British embassy in Washington to help the campaign to "minimise the risks" of alienating the US.
The US is trying to lift a moratorium imposed on new GM crops by the European Union by taking action through the World Trade Organisation. American farmers are said to be losing billions of dollars-worth of potential exports because of the ban.
Ministers plan to lobby Labour MEPs about the new legislation, which would require food manufacturers to disclose more information about small traces of GM ingredients. The proposals are due to go before the European Parliament later this month.
One letter notes trade minister and Edinburgh MP Nigel Griffiths’ recommendation that the lobbying process should "not be done overtly".
Last night US president George Bush made it clear he would not stand for further restrictions on the GM crops pioneered by American biotechnology firms and warned poorer nations could suffer.
Ahead of the international G8 trade summit, he said: "I hope European governments will reconsider policies that discourage farmers in developing countries from using safe biotechnology to feed their own people."
The revelations of the government’s covert moves to oppose restrictions on the GM industry came as a nationwide consultation by the government was due to begin this week on whether the crops should be grown in this country.
The development of crops that are genetically enhanced to produce ‘super-strains’, with benefits including greater yield, nutritional value and resistance to pests and weedkillers, has sparked a fierce debate over the potential effects they could have on the health of consumers. A backlash against the products led to many stores, including Marks & Spencers and Sainsbury’s, to refuse to stock foods containing them, and a de facto EU-wide moratorium on the licensing of new GM crops was introduced four years ago.
A Consumers’ Association survey last year showed 94% of Britons believed labels should show if any GM ingredients were in products, with 87% believing they should be told if GM ingredients were used at any stage of the production process, even if the ingredients were refined out of the final product.
Now Britain is defying Euro-MPs who want to impose the toughest labelling regime in the world.
The most significant proposal in a raft of measures before MEPs is one which would force companies to declare if GM foods made up just 0.5% of the ingredients. Anti-GM campaigners estimate that at least 30,000 food products contain traces of GM maize or soya.
Britain has stuck to the present 1% threshold - in spite of condemnation from environmental and consumer campaigners - saying that a system requiring checks for anything below would be impossible to enforce. US producers claim labelling stigmatises products on supermarket shelves.
A series of letters between Cabinet heavyweights Jack Straw, John Reid and Margaret Beckett detail the government’s determination to resist tougher rules on the control of GM products and technology.
Significantly, all the letters were copied to Tony Brenton, Britain’s temporary ambassador in the US capital.
In a stark warning over the developing trade war in April, agriculture secretary Margaret Beckett warned colleagues: "There are potential implications for our domestic agenda on the GM public dialogue and our relations with the United States."
She claimed Britain was now in "a minority of one" on the issue and was left only with the alternative of falling in line with a compromise threshold of 0.9% put forward by fellow ministers from across the EU, in a desperate bid to prevent MEPs imposing even heavier restrictions on the industry.
Straw wrote back endorsing the strategy, but warned: "Our international trading partners, particularly the United States will need to fully understand our motives if we are to minimise negative fall-out."
The foreign secretary adds that the Americans must be brought onside if Labour MEPs are forced to compromise and accept some of the proposals. "Tony Brenton emphasises that we would need to explain our position very clearly to [the US] Congress, the US administration and industry. He emphasises that this will be a hard sell."
The delicate tactical manoeuvring reflects the government’s extreme sensitivity over an issue that has sparked an unprecedented public outcry.
Blair is known to favour the development of GM technology and there are a number of crop trials being carried out around the country. But the government has striven to foster a public debate on the issue before deciding whether to back mass commercial cultivation of GM food in this country.
The GM Nation? consultation exercise beginning in London on Tuesday will involve a series of regional conferences - including one in Glasgow - plus smaller debates in towns and cities, before the government cements its position.
Anti-GM protesters claimed the British government was biased in favour of the technology. Kath Dalmeny, a spokeswoman for the independent campaign group the Food Commission, said: "The EU proposal does seem to be very progressive and backs up what most consumers want, which is more information on what is in the food they are eating."
Graeme Millar, the chairman of the Scottish Consumer Council, attacked the British government’s attempt to ward off reform of labelling. He said: "I am surprised and disappointed they don’t want to see this change knowing how sensitive the issue of GM foods is."
Millar said consumers should be told if GM ingredients were present in products - no matter how in what quantities - through information on labelling.
The EU proposals insist manufacturers drop the current system, where a product is scientifically analysed before it is sold to check for GM material.
Instead manufacturers would have to compile "a paper trail" of records relating to every ingredient or process used in making a product.
This switch could mean manufacturers being forced to label their foods as containing GM because one ingredient is GM, even though that ingredient may be lost in the production process.
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