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The Cabinet minister betrays his true colours in a head to head with Vandana Shiva and other proponents of organic agriculture as evidence piles up against the safety of GM food and feed

hilary-benn-MPHilary Benn had failed to respond to an open letter from Dr Eva Novotny cautioning him on the safety of GM crops and food (see Letter to Hilary Benn MP on GMOs.), and was then conspicuously absent from a recent major organic food and agriculture conference he was billed to speak at, choosing instead to address the participants via telephone-link. The following is a transcript of how he responded to questions from Gundula Azeez, former Policy Manager of the Soil Association and Dr Vandana Shiva of Navdanya, New Delhi who were present at the Bristol conference. The questions were moderated by organic gardener Monty Don, who started off by inviting Hilary Benn to talk about the recently approved application for controlled trials of GM crops in the UK, and what the benefits of GM crops might be.

Hilary Benn: "Governments task is to answer those questions.  We've made applications for controlled trials because that's one of the ways in which you get an answer to the question. It is for those who are developing their technology to demonstrate or not  the potential they may offer to us and then ultimately an individual human being to decide what it is we eat and shops and supermarkets to decide what it is they stock, and farmers themselves decide what it is they grow. I think we should see what the science tells us and then it's for other to make a decision on that basis.

Gundula Azeez: "Hello, I was the Policy Manager for the Soil Association for the last nine years.  The minister says that we need to ask the question so I'm asking is the problem that he is afraid of the answer?  Because I'm concerned to hear that he is not aware of any scientific evidence of the negative health effects.  The majority of the controlled animal feeding trials have been showing a range of serious health effects.  These are controlled trials, this is the scientific evidence.  Why is the Government still saying that it is ignorant of the science?" (See the latest reports GM Maize Reduces Fertility & Deregulates Genes in Mice, GM Maize Disturbs Immune System of Young and Old Mice.)

Monty Don:  Were you aware of that?

HB:  "Sure, if you would let me have details of the research I'd be very happy to have a further look at it.  I'm not sure, was it the point you were making that it meant that the food that human beings might eat was itself not safe. Was that the argument you are making because that's not the view that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has taken in the past.

GA:  "Yes, the FSA has adopted a process that does not look at the animal feeding trials and that is the whole basis of the controversy.  (See Bt Brinjal Unfit for Human Consumption.) We have always been saying look at the evidence because it shows that there are negative health impacts and we think that you should be asking questions and should be listening to the answers."

HB:  "Look, I'm not afraid of any answers that science and other experienced information provide us with.  Because it is the Government's job to ask the two questions that are needed because it is the questions that the people will quite properly ask of those who ultimately give approval to things to be trialed or things to be done.  I take those responsibilities extremely seriously and to answer the question in a slightly different way I think there is also responsibility on those who would say, or somehow give the impression that we don't want to find out the answer to the question.  I think we have a responsibility to be able to answer the question by doing it in a way which ensures that there is safety and no adverse impact on the environment.  I take that responsibility hugely seriously, it is my job.  And that's why controlled trials give you the opportunity to answer the questions. But even in the end that's not to say yeah, that it is this particular technology that we are going to go around promoting because it's up to the technology to prove itself, or not to prove itself, and as I said in answer to the first question ultimately it's up to the individual to decide whether they want to grow it, stock it or eat it and that's a decision that rests with each of us and not in that sense for the Government." [This confused answer seems to end up with Hilary Benn on behalf of the Government ducking responsibility for ensuring that GM food and feed released into the environment are safe, leaving it up to the individual to decide!]

Monty Don:  "I'd like to bring in Dr Vandana Shiva in at this point."

Vandana Shiva:  "Mr Benn, I gather that you are the Secretary for State and for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  And, that would mean that not just two questions about safety of the food and the growing of it, but does it produce more food?  That is a pertinent question about any technology on food and to date there is no data that the two genetic engineering technologies of herbicide resistance and Bt toxin have increased food production.  The second is:  Does it improve the livelihood of rural communities?  Isn't that what the business of rural affairs is about?  In India there are 160 000 farmers suicides by official estimate and 200 000 by unofficial estimate concentrated in those areas where genetically modified Bt cotton seed is sold by Monsanto.  That is not doing much good for rural affairs.  In any case in the twenty years of scientific arrogance we have got two pathetic traits of adding more toxins into our food and I think you've read the recent research from the Austrian Government about the impact on fertility.  How many more tests will you wait for?"

HB:  "Look, from memory I think there's about twenty five countries in the world that are growing about 100 million hectares of GM crop. This figure is exaggerated and GM has been rejected worldwide (see Global GM Crops Area Exaggerated) and it was a decision in those countries which their own regulators have taken.  In answer to your very direct question, ‘Are GM crops going to help us to feed the world?' which I think in effect is what you were saying.  I think the honest answer is we don't know if it has a contribution to make or not.  If it doesn't have a contribution to helping us feed the world then it's not a route down by which it would be sensible to go.  If it does at some point demonstrate a capacity to make a contribution well then it's something that we might want to think about.  I have a genuinely open mind on this question.  I don't come at it from a particular point of view that says, yes, that's the right thing to do, because I believe that this Government has got a responsibility that I have set out in answering the first of those questions.  We need to be able to significantly increase the amount of food production in the world bearing in mind that we've got a billion people who go to bed every night without having had enough to eat and secondly a world where we will have another 2-3 billion of our fellow human beings in less than fifty years time.  That's an enormous task.  It's not just about the three questions we have been discussing.  It's also about lots of other things.

Monty Don:  "One question I have and that is:  Who is financing the proposed GM research that you are talking about?"

HB: "Erm, well, I mean what are you thinking of in asking the question?

Monty Don:  I don't want to take up too much of your time.  Is it financed entirely by Government, is the finance all published and above board, are there any vested interests in the finance?

HB:  There are a lot of companies that are putting money into research as companies put money into research for lots of crops throughout the world.  And the fact that somebody is seeking to do that is, I would say, not of itself a bad thing, if that's what you're trying to get at in asking the question.

Government's job is to face the responsibilities we've got and to try to answer the question and science may or may not show that this technology has something to offer. That what any sensible Government would say: Is is safe for us to eat?  Is it safe for us to grow? And in the light of the answers to that people can then decide for themselves.

MD:  Are Monsanto giving you any money towards the research?

HB:  I understand that Monsanto are putting some money into it. I don't have the details in front of me.  But I have read in the newspapers that they are one of the organizations putting money into it.

GM not the answer whatever the question

Hilary Benn went on to imply that GM could encourage agricultural markets, solve the problems of feeding a growing world population, especially in Africa, and beat the problem of oil based dependent agriculture simultaneously.  He said "We have to act on the basis of answers on what we know is going to help."   Answers which have been provided to the government by both the ISIS report Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free which sets out the empirical studies and cultural narratives that demonstrate that organic food production can feed the world and the IAASTD report, both of which he has ignored.

The exchange ended with Benn defending criticisms that DEFRA has slashed the organic farming budget by three quarters and scrapped the English Organic Action Plan. Benn was recently quoted in the national newspapers encouraging families to grow their own vegetables to save on bills and to eat more healthily. But his commitment to protect the dominant global food industry is unchanged.