After years of not taking sides in one the fiercest environmental arguments of our times, Scottish ministers finally decided against GM crops on Friday. They accepted that the public had not been convinced of the need for GM by the biotechnology industry.
So when UK environment secretary, Margaret Beckett makes her long-awaited announcement this week allowing GM maize to be grown commercially, the Executive will take steps to ensure none is planted north of the Border.
Farmers in the south of Scotland, the only place where the crop can currently be grown, will be asked to create a GM-free zone.
According to sources close to ministers, the Executive has also fought hard behind the scenes to dilute the pro-GM tone of Beckett’s announcement, expected on Tuesday. The acting environment minister, Allan Wilson, has managed to get a statement included reflecting widespread public opposition to GM.
“Allan Wilson has been able to secure a more sceptical tone in the announcement that is going to be made this week,” one well-placed source told the Sunday Herald. “And in the areas in the south of Scotland where GM maize could be grown, we will be proactively approaching farmers to get them to voluntarily declare a GM-free zone.”
The Executive believes European law forbids it formally to declare the whole country a GM-free zone. But there is nothing to prevent it encouraging the only region in which GM maize could be grown to declare itself GM-free. That interpretation is confirmed by leaked minutes of the cabinet committee meeting which originally took the decision to approve GM maize on February 11.
“While a GM-free country was neither legally nor practically feasible, there was nothing to stop the government offering advice on the establishment of voluntary GM-free zones,” Beckett is quoted as saying.
The Blair government will not permit the commercial growing of two other GM crops, oilseed rape and beet, because they were found to damage wildlife in farm-scale trials over the past three years. Only GM oilseed rape was grown in Scotland, provoking protests and arrests.
The Executive’s move was welcomed yesterday by the chief whip of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, George Lyon MSP. “The Executive has firmly nailed its colours to the mast by saying that it wants Scotland to be a GM-free country,” he said.
As a former president of the National Farmers’ Union in Scotland, Lyon said, he would be urging Scottish farmers not to grow GM maize. “It is in their interests commercially and it is in the interests of Scottish farming,” he argued. “We’ve been through enough food scares without shooting ourselves in the foot for a technology that consumers don’t want.” He thought the Executive was taking a step in the right direction, which he hoped would win cross-party support.
The Scottish Greens, who led the campaign against GM in the parliament, welcomed the Executive’s intentions. But their parliamentary spokesman on the environment, Mark Ruskell MSP, was scathing about the lack of action to back them up. “A voluntary GM-free zone in the south of Scotland will be unworkable and unenforceable. It’s a rather poor attempt to pull off a PR exercise which should fool no-one,” he said.
The Greens want the Executive to go further and stop the UK growing GM maize by vetoing its inclusion on the national list of seeds that farmers can grow. But others point out that Scotland can’t dictate English policy.
The biotechnology industry was disappointed at the Executive’s stance, but indicated it wouldn’t be hard-selling GM maize to Scottish farmers.
“If the Scottish Executive is able to convince them not to go for GM, that’s fine. That’s Scotland’s loss,” said the spokesman for Bayer CropScience, which produces the GM maize that will be grown in England.