At a recent talk I presented on the GM crops issue and in a recent article here and for the Guardian science blog, I suggested that the GM issue had now become an election issue.
On Monday, celebrity chef Clodagh McKenna along with people from "food, farming, conservation and human rights sectors" gathered in Dublin to speak about what their press release called the "inherent dangers of new moves to allow a relaxing of laws in relation to genetically modified food and feed". See the bottom of this post for a video from Monday's press conference.
Calling the GM "lobby" the "Anglo-Irish Bank" of the food sector, the grouping called for (amongst other things) another moratorium on GMO.
Representatives from the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA), Western Organic Network, Irish Seed Savers, and Afri amongst others met to denounce what they called a "dubious scientific review" of the GM issue.
All very predictable. It is to the direct economic benefit of the organic sector to ensure that GM does not get a fair hearing. It is to the direct economic benefit of the organic sector to scare consumers into rejecting GM food products.
It is analogous to the guy who produces white bread telling consumers that brown bread will give them leprosy - it has absolutely no scientific basis, but as a marketing ploy, it does wonders for white bread sales!
What was most surprising about the press conference was the very visible presence of Labour spokesperson on Education and Science Ruairi Quinn TD.
Labour are against the cultivation of GM crops on the island of IrelandIt is surprising given the stated position of the Labour Party on the issue. Although Labour are against the cultivation of GM crops on the island of Ireland, they are in favour of the importation of animal feed potentially containing trace amounts of GM material.
The party's 2006 21-part plan for "A Quality Future for Rural Ireland" commits the party to "work towards the aspiration of a GMO production free island of Ireland within the context of the relevant EU and UK legislation and in the relevant national and international fora.
"Until that aim is achieved", the policy document continues, "the Labour Party will push for the strongest possible evidence-based rules governing the release of GMOs into the environment".
Two things strike me as interesting about this statement. First is the careful wording of the the first paragraph and the aspiration of a "GMO production free island", clearly not ruling out the importation of GM animal feed - as is the party's stated policy.
Secondly, the plan calls for "evidence-based rules" governing the release of GMOs. These evidence-based rules do not seem to be important when deciding the core position- that of being for or against GM crops.
While the Labour Party are to be commended on clearly spelling out their position on GM (the party line of anti-GM cultivation but pro GM importation seems quite straightforward), the presence of the party's science spokesperson at Monday's launch suggests a different viewpoint.
Speaking at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Debate in 2008, Sean Sherlock, Labour Spokesperson on Agriculture and Food pointed out: "The EU scientific committee has applied a certain rationale which is based on common sense and practical solutions. If it is advocating a certain position [on the GM feed issue], I do not understand why the Government is not adhering to that advice or why it would abstain on votes when the time comes".
"if the EU scientific committee advises and recommends that we import certain feedstuffs, I do not see why the Government cannot approve it" - Sean SherlockThere is no dichotomy or contradiction between maintaining the biodiversity of this island and the importation of EU-approved feedstuffs. The two are not mutually exclusive. It is reasonable to express reservations about scientific trials on the growth of GM feedstuffs pending further debate and dialogue. However, if the EU scientific committee advises and recommends that we import certain feedstuffs, I do not see why the Government cannot approve it. We have all bought into that process by virtue of our membership of the EU", said Sherlock.
The labour spokesperson continued: "The precautionary principle is rolled out when it is politically expedient to do so. The Green wedge or wing of the Government has a politically philosophical position on these issues and there is a certain constituency to which it must play. This is to the detriment of Irish agriculture and ultimately the Irish consumer who will end up, if we continue on this route, paying less but without a guarantee that imported livestock or meat products from third countries are GM-free."
In a brief statement on twitter, a Labour Party spokesperson confirmed to Communicate Science that Quinn was representing the party at Monday's event and said that the party "are against growing GM crops here, but are not opposed to importing GM feed". This seems directly at odds with Ruairi Quinn's
very visible endorsement of a GM-free Ireland concept which specifically, according to the groups own press release, is also strongly opposed to the importation of animal feed potentially containing trace amounts of GM material.
it is sending senior figures to campaign for a GM free IrelandThat the Labour Party is against the cultivation of GM crops in Ireland is clearly laid out in their 2006 policy document. I would argue that there is no scientific basis for this position, but that is beside the point. What is problematic for the party is that on the one hand it is sending senior figures to campaign for a GM free Ireland - and against imported animal feed potentially containing trace amounts of GM material; while on the other hand saying that it is not opposed to the importation of such feed.
As I've said, the Labour Party have a clear policy on this issue and while I disagree with it, they are to be commended for outlining that position, unlike a number of other parties. However, the voting public deserve to know whether or not a potential Minister for Science in the next government has rejected the overwhelming volume of scientific advice on this matter and has arguably been used as part of a marketing strategy for the anti-GM lobby.
The following video is from Monday's press conference. Ruairi Quinn sets out Labour party policy from 2:30 min onwards.