My position on GMOs

The Centre for European Reform has now published my article on GMOs in which I argue that it’s time to end the theological dispute about whether the process of genetic modification is good or bad, moral or immoral, natural or unnatural. Instead, GMOs should be assessed on a case-by-case basis: what are the pros and cons of this particular GM crop? Some will be good, some bad.

This has always been my view of GMOs: it depends largely on what they are intended to achieve. I drafted the Labour Party’s environmental policy document In Trust for Tomorrow in 1994, which promised a case-by-case approach but highlighted the potential of drought-resistant and saline-resistant crops to help adaptation to a changed climate. Then I went to work for the Labour government. Tony Blair’s attitude was basically that GMOs were excellent because they were modern. New Labour, new seeds. Nevertheless, public opposition and the more sceptical attitude of the environment minister Michael Meacher (for whom I was working) persuaded Blair to agree to farm-scale trials to assess the environmental results of planting GM crops. These found, unsurprisingly, that pesticide-resistant crops led to greater use of pesticides, which is bad for wildlife and increases the carbon footprint of agriculture.

Then I went to work for Greenpeace, the leading anti-GMO group. Greenpeace is a top-down international organisation, so as Executive Director of Greenpeace UK I was not supposed to depart from the party line. I therefore minimised campaigning on GM – I did not authorise any direct actions against GM during my time in charge – and told my agriculture campaigners to focus instead on how to make agriculture less environmentally-damaging.

Now I’m freelance, so can say what I really think. But given my change of opinion on nuclear power (which is a complete personal U-turn; I didn’t only oppose nuclear in the past because Greenpeace told me to) I decided to keep quiet on GM. However, the European Commission has now brokered a sensible compromise between member-states. It will decide whether to authorise GM crops, based in scientific advice, but national governments can then decide whether to allow planting in their country. The Commission deserves credit for this – and rarely gets credit for anything. In addition, the need for GM for climate adaptation, nutrition and to feed a growing global population, is becoming increasingly clear. Hence my decision to speak out.

Do I now regret having worked for Greenpeace? I certainly regret having been wrong on nuclear power for two decades, and if I’d realised my mistake sooner I would not have worked for them. Maybe I was wrong to work for an organisation that is theologically opposed to GMOs when I am not. But overall I do not regret working there. I set up a partnership with npower which led to the UK’s first offshore wind farm and first no-premium renewable electricity tariff. I helped set up, then chaired, the Greenpeace European Unit which led NGO campaigning on chemicals and helped get them properly regulated in the EU. I was involved in getting development groups and green groups working together on climate change. And I am proud of my role opposing the Iraq war. In his first speech as Labour leader in 2010, Ed Miliband said that, with the benefit of hindsight, the Iraq war had been wrong. Most of us did not require hindsight.

So, I favour nuclear power as a low-carbon bridge technology, fracking for shale gas as long as it’s well regulated, and GMOs for climate and health reasons. Am I just a wishy-washy eco-pragamtist? ‘Pragmatist’ is a term of abuse among some greens; they prefer ideological purity to actually achieving results. I’m happy to be a pragmatist. But I do draw some red lines, and would willingly take part in non-violent direct action against coal power stations or airport runways.


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