The Free Market: Agribusiness's Enemy Number One
GEOFFREY LEAN INDEPENDENT, UK - Seven short years ago, when The Independent on Sunday began its campaign on GM foods and crops, 60 per cent of the products on our supermarket shelves contained modified ingredients. Now only two GM products are left on sale: Schwartz's Bacon Flavour Bits Salad Topping, and Betty Crocker Bac-Os - neither exactly household names.
Then, too, widespread cultivation of GM crops throughout Britain was thought to be only a year away. No less than 53 of them were confidently awaiting approval. Now not a single GM plant is growing anywhere in any British field, and no one expects any to be sown any time in the foreseeable future.
At the time ours appeared a hopeless cause. The giant biotech companies seemed unstoppable: Monsanto, which led their charge, was poised to make a merger that would have turned it into the world's largest corporation. It had the full backing of the Government, fired by the messianistic determination of Tony Blair to make the country "the European hub" of biotechnology. Both the US administration and the British scientific establishment were urging him on.
The Prime Minister privately dismissed public opposition as "a flash in the pan", and so it appeared. Ranged against the Goliaths of the boardrooms and the cabinet rooms were a motley band of Davids, ranging from Prince Charles to pressure groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association.
But we reckoned without the most powerful force of all, the superwomen (and supermen) of the shopping aisles who, informed of the presence of GM products in their foods and the arguments for and against, simply refused to buy them. Thus the public achieved what parliament has repeatedly failed to do - stopping one of Tony Blair's dodgier crusades in its tracks.
The greatest threat to genetically modified food is commercial free speech. It's not by accident that agribusiness is the main force behind food libel laws, as well as regulatory restrictions on the labelling of GM-free foods. Do away with the patents and with the government prohibitions on the free flow of information, and ninety percent of the debate would be moot. As ADM's Dwayne Andreas said, "the customer is our enemy."