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British ban on GM foods?
By GEOFFREY LEAN
It was an extraordinary scene, a fitting start to the week that surely marks the beginning of the end for genetically modified foods in Britain. At nine o'clock last Monday morning two of the most powerful men in the global food industry turned up at a pressure group's door.
Richard Greenhalgh, chairman of Unilever UK, and Michel Ogrizek, the international head of corporate affairs for the giant multinational - the world's largest food manufacturing company - came to Greenpeace's offices in Islington, north London, in what appears to have been a last-ditch attempt to make peace. But next day the company had to admit defeat, announcing that it would stop using GM ingredients in its products in Britain.
The announcement started a week-long stampede by leading companies, all household names. The speed and suddenness of the flight from "Frankenstein foods" has surprised everyone, humiliated the Government and provided the most spectacular example to date of consumer power. Its repercussions will reverberate far beyond this country: it could prove a turning point in the battle over genetic modification worldwide.
Unilever insists that Monday's visit was just "part of a general ongoing discussion in regard to issues on genetically modified organisms". But Greenpeace recounts how it received a call from Mr Greenhalgh's office late the previous Friday, requesting an urgent meeting. It says that the company was "trying to resist going GM-free".
"Their suggestion was that some sort of full debate or discussion might be valuable," says Peter Melchett, Greenpeace's executive director. "We said that things had moved beyond that point."
Up to then Unilever had been one of the most committed proponents of GM foods - and even in defeat it insisted that its announcement did not "change our long-held belief in the potential of modern technology, including the genetic modification of food ingredients." It went on: "This technology offers huge future benefit to customers, but the realisation of this depends on winning full consumer trust and confidence."
It's right, at least, about the last part - as it knows only too well. For the giant company was forced into its reluctant volte-face by an unprecedented onslaught from its own customers. Bemused executives describe helplines swamped by worried and angry consumers since early this year. Worse, sales of its GM soya product, Beanfeast, have slumped precipitously. Some industry sources calculate they have fallen by 80 per cent; Unilever privately says it is "nearer 50 per cent". (The company has now promised to make it GM-free within two months.)
It is not suffering alone. Sainsbury will withdraw its GM tomato puree - the first genetically modified product to be introduced in Britain - from its shelves by June. Made from tomatoes modified to rot more slowly, it used to outsell its GM-free rival by two to one: now, says the company, "our customers do not want it".
No wonder Unilever's surprise announcement opened the floodgates. The next day Nestle, another of the world's biggest food companies, announced that it was phasing out GM products as fast as possible. The day after, Cadbury followed suit. Meanwhile Tesco, Britain's largest supermarket chain, said it would remove GM ingredients from its own- brand foods, joining Sainsbury, Safeway, Asda and Somerfield. And the Co-op will tomorrow announce changes that will make its products GM free as well.
When these phase-outs are complete, no major supermarket brands will continue to contain GM ingredients and - after last week's Unilever, Nestle and Cadbury announcements - many other foods will be free of them too. It's an extraordinary reversal from the rapid, silent, expansion of GM foods - from nothing to 60 per cent of the products on supermarket shelves in less than three years. And it has put environmental activists into the unfamiliar position of extolling market forces.
Those same forces will spread the effects of last week's events worldwide. For these enormously wealthy companies (Unilever's turnover alone is more than #35bn) will now start scouring the world for GM-free soya and maize, raising their prices and providing a powerful incentive to farmers to plant them. This could tip the balance in the many countries that have been facing a close-fought decision on whether to introduce GM crops: some analysts expect that many farmers will now abandon them even in the United States, their greatest stronghold.
The speed of the reversal has taken everyone by surprise - even the pressure groups which campaigned for many months before the issue caught fire early this year. What made the difference, both they and the industry say, was press coverage, including the Independent on Sunday's campaign.
And no one has been more surprised by the Government, which is now left - together with Monsanto and other bioscience companies - as just about the only supporter of GM foods. Last week's events are a major blow to its credibility, and to the personal authority of the Prime Minister who went out of his way, at the height of the controversy earlier this year, to stress his confidence in them.
This is the Government's greatest failure yet to read the public mood. Right up until last week - and in some cases even now - senior ministers were convinced that the GM foods controversy was, as Mr Blair privately told Labour MPs, just "a flash in the pan". How could an administration which is usually so successful at catching the tides of public opinion, have got so out of step?
The answer lies in Mr Blair's similarity to Tony Benn. In the 1960s Mr Benn embodied the Wilson government's faith that the "white-heat of technology" was the answer to Britain's economic problems. Mr Blair and other modernisers, like Peter Mandelson, enthusiastically adopted this Old Labour belief. They became convinced that the country's future depended on knowledge-based industries, and equated biotechnology with them.
Thus GM foods became integrated into the Blairite "project": to express concerns about them was to doubt New Labour. Blinkered by this conviction, the Government failed to spot the many early signs of impending public revolt .
It has been a damaging failure, for the episode has crystallised some of the strongest popular concerns about the Government - that it is arrogant, overinfluenced by big business and oversubservient to the United States.
Ministers (with one or two honourable exceptions) have haughtily dismissed concerns about the effects of the crops on health and on the environment, parroting the reassurances of official scientific committees who have a majority of members with links to the food and biotechnology industries. And growing anti-Americanism and hostility to multinational companies has been stoked by the US decision to mix GM and ordinary soya (so that they could not be distinguished or separated) before shipping them to Europe; by Monsanto's heavy-handedness; and by the evangelical zeal with which the Clinton administration has been pushing GM foods.
But even within the White House there are signs of concern, if not change. A few days before the Unilever announcement, at the start of an official lunch in New York, my neighbour - one of the Clinton administration's most senior environmental policymakers - turned to me and opened the conversation; "Tell me. How do we get out from under this GM mess?"