Does Blair have a democracy gene?

The Government claims to be neutral towards GMOs. It isn’t.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 2nd March 2000

“The man who never changes his opinion,” Blake observed, “is like stagnant water, and breeds reptiles in the mind.” It is, therefore, distressing to see how determined politicians are to persuade us that they never refresh their mental fluids. The U-turn, mysteriously, has become the gravest of political crimes, even when adhering to existing policies is suicidal. Having bred an imaginary reptile out of one amphibian-loving MP, for example, Tony Blair is now becalmed in the stagnant water of his own intransigence.

So the efforts this week of the Cabinet enforcer, Mo Mowlem, to convince us that Tony Blair has not changed his views on genetically engineered food were sadly predictable. The Government, she insists, remains, as it has always been, neutral: “we are neither for nor against GM.”

Well, neutrality, if this is what Mr Blair’s position entails, certainly represents a policy shift. Last year, the Government allocated £13 million “to improve the profile of the biotech industry”, by promoting “the financial and environmental benefits of biotechnology.” The Prime Minister, a Downing Street spokesman insisted, “is very strongly of the view that these products are safe.” The UK “leads the way in Europe,” according to the government’s Invest in Britain Bureau, “in ensuring that regulations and other measures affecting the development of biotechnology take full account of the concerns of business.” If this is neutrality, the Pope’s an agnostic.

Genetic engineering has always troubled Tony Blair, for it divides his two great constituencies – big business and Middle England. When faced, for the first time in his premiership, with the need to alienate one by supporting the other, he chose to side with the lobbyists, and against the electorate. It was only after the business case for GM food collapsed that he changed his position. Even so, while acknowledging the legitimacy of public concerns about the environment and food safety, his article on Sunday avoided the real issue: the corporate capture of the food chain.

Mr Blair’s backing for the biotech companies has, as he now appears to have recognised, done him untold harm. It has taught businesses that he’s a dupe, who will sing to their tune, however off-key it may be. It has encouraged voters to explore the other insalubrious liasons in which he has become entangled. His conversion to neutrality, even in the narrowest political terms, is long overdue. But it will take a lot more than an article in a Sunday newspaper to make it look convincing.

To recover his credibility, he must snatch government policy out of the hands of the biotech business. This means relieving Lord Sainsbury, whose crashing conflicts of interest remain a major political embarrassment, of his duties as science minister. He must sack Professor Ray Baker, the head of the Government’s Biotechnology Research Council. Professor Baker has used his post as a platform for misleading public statements in support of GM, while his council gags researchers who wish to speak out against the technology.

Meetings of the biotech advisory committees must all be made public, and their members prevented from voting on decisions in which they have a commercial interest. The flow of research funds should be reversed. Last year the Government spent £52 million on developing GM crops, for which demand in Britain is approximately zero, and £1.7 million on research into organic farming, for which demand outstrips domestic supply by 200 per cent. The Foresight committees, which help guide the allocation of government science funds, but are dominated by business people, must be dismantled.

If field trials are to continue (and it’s not easy to see the point of spending taxpayers’ money to discover whether plants engineered to destroy wildlife are bad for the environment), they must be isolated from other crops and redesigned. It is absurd that one of the key questions – of how far GM pollen travels – has been left to Friends of the Earth and Newsnight to investigate.

The government must revoke the legislation, passed by the Conservatives, raising the permitted levels of glyphosate pesticide residues in soya by 200 times: a menace to public health engineered to allow Monsanto’s herbicide resistant beans to be sold in the United Kingdom. It should reverse its support for the European directive permitting the patenting of genes, which resulted in the undignified spectacle, at the end of last year, of the Prime Minister begging the biotech companies not to use the new powers his government has granted them.

Genetic engineering has become one of the great tests of Tony Blair’s premiership. If he flunks it, he will validate his reputation as the corporate prime minister, who treats the electorate with contempt.