The EC last week proposed a new law which would enable countries to either back or ban GM crops, sometimes known as “Frankenstein foods”. The Scottish National Party (SNP) fears that this will allow pro-GM ministers in London to force GM crops onto an unwilling Scotland.
The EC proposal is designed to end a 12-year split between states which has virtually frozen GM farming across Europe. Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Ireland have banned GM crops, but Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and the UK are in favour.
The UK’s new environment secretary, the Conservative MP Caroline Spelman, has pronounced herself a fan of GM foods “in the right circumstances”. Before she became a minister, she was director of a pro-GM food and biotechnology consultancy for 20 years.
The SNP MEP, Alyn Smith, alleged that the EC proposal “totally undermined” the Scottish Parliament and government. “The respect agenda, such as it is, will be thrown out the window if the resolutely pro-GM coalition in London authorises cultivation in Scotland against the clear wishes of the majority in Holyrood and the nation as a whole,” he said.
“The commission has failed to come up with a common strategy for the European Union, so they're having a go at salami slicing, and then once something is authorised in one part of the EU they hope the single market will do the rest.”
According to Mr Smith, the SNP was not against GM just for the sake of it. “We're simply not persuaded that the oft-promised advantages of GM cultivation are worth the risk for an untested technology when Scotland is renowned for healthy, quality produce,” he said.
“What the commission has proposed gives us no reason to change our minds. The case for GM has not been made, and merely moving the goalposts will not resolve any of the issues."
Environmental groups expressed similar fears. “It's far from clear that Scotland will be able to maintain its progressive position on GM under these new rules,” said Duncan McLaren, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“Despite the Scottish government's popular opposition to GM, key decisions over commercial growing might be retained by Westminster. And even if the powers to prevent commercial growing do prove to be open to Scottish ministers, the new rules are limited and open to corporate legal challenge.”
Pete Riley, the director of the UK campaigning organisation, GM Freeze, warned that the legal position was complex. “The Scottish government should take the best legal advice and listen to the electorate before making any policy decisions,” he suggested.
Helen Wallace, director of the independent watchdog, Genewatch UK, warned that Scottish farms could become contaminated with GM from crops grown in England. Canadian farms had suffered because of GM contamination from the US, she pointed out.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in London is still examining the EC proposals for GM crops. “The details of government policy on GM are still be determined, but all policies will be based on robust evidence,” said a Defra spokesman.
He pointed out, though, that Scotland currently had devolved powers to prevent GM research trials, and to specify the distances between GM and non-GM crops. In the last few months Defra has given the go-ahead to two research trials for GM potatoes In England.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “We are very interested in the commission's ideas for permitting local discretion over whether cultivation is permitted. We will examine the detail of the proposals to determine this might work in practice.”
She added: “The Scottish Government remains fundamentally opposed to the cultivation of GM crops without firm scientific evidence that it poses no threat to the wider environment."