Farmers are likely to ignore requests by the Scottish Executive to ban genetically modified crops, jeopardising attempts by ministers to keep Scotland GM-free.
An investigation by the Sunday Herald has discovered that farmers want to try out GM maize. This is the crop that was given a conditional go-ahead by the UK government last week, but which Scottish ministers want to prevent being grown north of the Border.
According to the First Minister, Jack McConnell, Scotland now has “as restrictive a regime as possible” on GM crops. As revealed in last week’s Sunday Herald, the Executive plans to ask Scotland’s maize farmers to form GM-free zones.
The policy, however, has been attacked by the Greens and the Scottish National Party (SNP) as an unworkable “cave-in” to Westminster. Both promise to step up their attacks in a parliamentary debate on GM being staged by the SNP on Thursday.
The Executive says there are 30 farmers growing 315 hectares of maize in southwest Scotland and parts of the central belt. The Sunday Herald has spoken to 14 of them, 11 of whom said they would consider growing GM maize.
“I would want to try it,” said Archie Hamilton, who farms near Blair Drummond. “I would be quite willing to give it a go even though public opinion is against it.”
He currently grows 36 hectares of maize, which he said was “fantastic forage” to feed dairy cows and he has identified a field on his farm where a GM variety could be tested.
The chances of farmers agreeing on GM-free zones were “remote”, according to Robin Christie, the former chair of the National Farmer’s Union milk committee for Scotland. “Getting consensus among farmers is very difficult”.
He farms 16 hectares of maize in Port William, Wigtownshire, and thinks a GM version could be attractive. “If they are doing it in England, I would imagine farmers here would do it,” he said. “Providing it was given the all clear by customers and my neighbours, I would go ahead, yes.”
Drew Watson, a maize contractor in Dumfriesshire, would want to look carefully at the pros and cons if he was approached by the Executive. “If it is cost-effective and it keeps things simple, I would say nine out of 10 farmers would grow it,” he claimed.
Most farmers said the public was unnecessarily alarmed about GM crops, and pointed out that they had been grown without any apparent problems in North America for years. Some regarded the introduction of GM crops to Scotland as inevitable in the long term.
“I wouldn’t grow it today because I’ve no reason to, but in the future, quite possibly,” said Tony Scott, a maize farmer near Lockerbie. “I can’t see what the problem would be with GM.”
Two farmers declared that they wouldn’t grow GM crops because consumers didn’t want them, and one refused to comment. “I would say no to GM until the public is on side,” said Ronald Dick, from Throsk Farm near Stirling.
The clearest statement of the Executive’s new stance on GM came from McConnell, under questioning from the Greens and SNP in the Scottish parliament on Thursday. He took a markedly tougher line than his acting environment minister, Allan Wilson, earlier in the week.
“I am sceptical about GM crops,” said the First MInister. “We wanted to ensure that a clear precautionary principle was at the heart of our decisions and that, despite the scientific evidence and the legal position, as restrictive a regime as possible was put in place to protect Scottish consumers.”
He claimed the Executive had also persuaded London to take a more cautious approach. “A statutory coexistence regime will be created and a regime established for penalising GM companies should cross-contamination occur,” he added.
But this has not satisfied opposition parties, who have seized on the Sunday Herald’s survey of farmers as proof that their criticisms are justified. “This confirms the fact that a voluntary ban is, by its very nature, unenforceable and unworkable,” said Mark Ruskell MSP, the Green parliamentary speaker on the environment.
“The Executive has welcomed flawed science, while public opinion, economics and party policy has been brushed aside. They now face intense scrutiny of their decision to commercialise GM maize .”
The SNP has decided to use some of its parliamentary time on Thursday for a debate on the introduction of GM crops into Scotland. The party will be focusing its attack on the role of the Liberal Democrats in the governing coalition.
“The LibDems have been up to their old tricks when it comes to GM crops,” said SNP Shadow Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham. “In Westminster and in the Welsh Assembly they shout their opposition from the rooftops. But here in Scotland – when they are actually in government and have a chance to turn words into action – they do nothing.”
Allan Wilson, deputising for LibDem environment minister Ross Finnie while he recovers from an operation, defended the Executive’s position. He said there would be no commercial cultivation of GM maize before spring 2005, and only then if an amended consent is approved by the European Commission.
“We have already opened discussions with farming organisations. If farmers see the benefit of voluntary GM-free zones as a way of maintaining consumer confidence, we will work with them to develop guidance on how zones could be established,” he said.
“The Executive recognises the Scottish public are uneasy about GM and that there is little support for early commercialisation of GM crops in Scotland. That is why we have in place as restrictive a regime as possible under European law.”