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UK.gov ready to get muddy again on GM foods

'Frankenstein's monster may be ugly, but at least he's well fed'

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Analysis Advocates of genetically modified crops are growing more confident that the problems facing the world will soon override "Frankenstein food" fears, and now they appear to have convinced the government to once again brave the controversy.

The political pages were excited yesterday as environment minister Phil Woolas stuck his head above the parapet. His shield against anti-GM zealots was the global crisis in food prices that is seeing once comfortably-sated nations such as the Philippines struggle to feed their people.

"There is a growing question of whether GM crops can help the developing world out of the current food price crisis," the minister tentatively ventured to The Independent.

No GM crops are grown commercially in the UK at the moment, and the only active trial is a couple of fields of blight-resistant spuds in Cambridgeshire.

"There is a growing question of whether GM crops can help the developing world out of the current food-price crisis. It is a question that we as a nation need to ask ourselves," Woolas added.

He recently held meetings with the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, an industry lobby group representing omnicorps like BASF and (boo!) Monsanto.

Despite Woolas' carefully non-committal spin, religious outrage from green activists and lobbyists arrived fiercely on cue, as they rightly sensed a change in the political weather. The clouds have been forming against anti-GM activists since at least last November, when outgoing chief government scientific officer Sir David King used his parting speech to call for a rethink.

Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow reacted yesterday: "Instead of helping the GM industry to use the food crisis for financial gain, the Government should be encouraging a radical shift towards sustainable farming systems that genuinely benefit local farmers, communities and the environment worldwide."

And Mark Lynas, the author of bestselling climate catastro-porn opus Six Degrees was ready with a rapid response for The Guardian's bloggy echo chamber Comment Is Free. Anti-GM campaigners are correctly suspicious of the multinationals and their lobbyists' motives and practices, and therefore in this age of "engagement with stakeholders", those of the government.

However, Lynas exposes the real reason behind many people's neo-Luddite opposition to the very idea of GM in later paragraphs. "In my view, the technology moves entirely in the wrong direction, intensifying human technological manipulation of nature when we should be aiming at a more holistic ecological approach instead," he writes.

Lynas rightly punctures the pro-GM "but it's just like selective breeding" argument as a canard, but then fails to make the leap to consider that a technology that is entirely new - by definition bringing a barn full of tough ethical questions - might have the potential to do good. After this he really loses the plot, invoking visions of "superweeds" and worries that "genetic pollution" could mean "bacteria or viruses run rampant and breed" (Eh? Haven't we seen that on Brass Eye?).

At least we know that unlike many zealots on either side of a debate such as this Mr Lynas has a sense of humour, as he ends his wander in B-movie land with the protest-punchline "I am not raising scare stories here".

In trolling the rabble, Phil Woolas was, of course, really tilling the soil on behalf of his boss Gordon Brown. While his donkey did the work, the landowner was in Brussels yesterday, pressing European counterparts to put GM back on the table. That means that the debate is only going to intensify over the coming year. For now the stance remains that if there is significant environmental risk to any given crop, Defra won't licence it.

The last time GM foods became a political hot potato it wasn't the activists rolling around in fields wearing hazmat suits that won the day for the anti-GM lobby. It was their unholy alliance with the fear-mongers at The Daily Mail, who didn't investigate biotech industry lies and abuse of intellectual property laws, but instead used their influence over middle Englanders to apply a chilling effect on genetic modification.

By playing to that synthetic fear, groups with genuine concerns about GM obscure the debate. The coverage today of their answering biotech industry food crisis lobbying with more "Frankenstein foods" hyperbole and unsupported claims about ecosystem damage demonstrates this amply. Worries of GM being forced on the public have proven unfounded in the US, where according to the Department of Agriculture, demand for organic farming is increasing.

Meanwhile scientists who might develop crops to help the hungry are forced to justify their every action and work in near-secrecy, and the government cosies up to the industry behind closed doors. ®

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