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If GM is so great, why hide it in food?

If GM is so great, why hide it in food?

In this blog, our Policy Director Peter Melchett investigates a declining industry and asks: if GM (Genetically Modified) crops are so great, why does the US Government want to keep GM food a secret?

Last year, Vermont became the first US state to pass a law requiring GM food to be clearly labelled, and the law will come into force on Wednesday (6 July 2016) – or will it? Vermont’s brave stand for transparency in food labelling has already encouraged many US brands to drop GM ingredients or to clearly label their products as containing GM ingredients. But now the US Senate is about to pass a Federal law, known as the DARK Act (Deny Americans the Right to Know) that will pre-empt Vermont’s law, and not require clear GM labelling of the sort many countries in the world enjoy, including the UK. Big food companies and the GM industry have poured millions of dollars to back GM secrecy. Why?

Given a choice, people do not buy GM food - it never really succeeded in the UK or European market. The only significant consumer market in the world where GM food has taken hold is in the USA, but there it has long been known that the overwhelming majority of American citizens say they do not eat GM food (and most do not want to) - the market has flourished in ignorance. That is now breaking down, with a series of state ballots demanding labelling of GM food, and hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by big food manufacturers to try and prevent this happening.  Vermont is changing the face of US food, with companies like Danone, Nestle and Del Monte announcing that rather than label their food as containing GM, they will start to get rid of GM ingredients altogether. 

In Europe, countries covering over half the farmed land, like Germany, France and Scotland, have decided against GM crops. European countries are not the only ones with concerns about GM – there are now more countries in the world that have banned GM than allow those that them.

The UK has always been a strong supporter of bringing GM crops to Europe (regularly failing to reflect the opposition to GM in Scotland and Wales, which currently do not have direct representation at EU discussions). When the UK leaves, that will weaken the pro-GM forces inside the EU, especially if Scotland stays in, making Europe more strongly anti-GM than previously.

The market, not the views of politicians, GM companies and pro-GM scientists, have always decided the fate of GM crops and food, and that looks likely to continue. In England there has been no let-up in the constant stream of GM propaganda from pro-GM campaigners, from the Royal Society to the UK government. There is no doubt most these people genuinely believe that the only way of solving our problems are technical fixes, and they see GM as a prime example of that. The fact that it is clearly incapable of fixing the multiple challenges facing agriculture in regions like Europe and the Americas, to say nothing of developing countries, simply passes them by. There is no way that GM crops can help restore our damaged and still declining farmland wildlife, and there is no evidence of any GM crop helping to reduce farming’s large greenhouse gas emissions by the 80% required. GM crops have not delivered on any of their promises - they haven’t increased yields, they haven’t cured blindness in developing countries and they aren’t better for wildlife.

So here we have a technology which is failing on the farm, causing massive problems for some of the richest and the poorest farmers in the world, leading to increases not decreases in chemical spraying, not reducing the need for manufactured fertiliser and not increasing yields. In the market, GM has such a bad name that it can only be sold in quantity if people do not know it is there.  Honest labelling, and clear information, like that called for in Vermont, allows free markets to work, and then GM gets nowhere. Whatever happens to Vermont’s honest labelling law, they have lifted the lid on a secret can of worms that can’t be shut again. A ‘non-GM’ label is the fastest growing food label in the US, which also has the largest growing market for organic food, which has more than doubled since 2006, to over $40 billion today.

If a government decides to build a nuclear power station, there is very little ordinary people can do about it until an election comes around, and even then they may not have a realistic choice of an anti-nuclear government. But food is different. We eat roughly 3 times a day – so we vote about what we eat three times daily, every day of the year, year in year out. We are certainly manipulated by powerful corporations, by fashion, by the media, and particularly, we are influenced by what our friends and family think about food. But at the end of the day, neither the American Senate, the British Prime Minister, nor the President of the Royal Society, decide what you put in your mouth – you do. That is why the GM industry is on the ropes and in decline worldwide.

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