OXFORD UNION DEBATE
The Oxford Union, St Michael Street, Oxford.
8.30pm, Monday June 14th 1999
Genetically Modified Animal Feed
Motion: This house would not continue to feed GM material to farm animals
The President and her colleagues go through other college business for the week
The President introduces the debate and the student speakers (on opposing sides) make their speeches (the transcript for this is not available at present).
We join the debate as Dr John Ingham is about to speak.
Madam President: I call upon Dr John Ingham, environment correspondent at The Express, scare monger apparent extraordinaire to propose the motion.
Thank you. Well, here I am, the big bad tabloid man here to scare you to death. Now, football fans amongst you will know of a chant, a very politically incorrect chant, where the fans pick on a bulky player on the other side, probably Paul Gasgoine on a bad day and then they taunt him by singing, who ate all the pies? Now, I would sing the full version to you now, happily, but the swearing would offend the younger members of the audience and my singing would offend all of you.
But those of you who used to regard, like me, a meat pie on a Saturday afternoon as part of the ritual when you went to a football match in the 1980s and early 90s, now have more than their figures to worry about.
Three years ago we were told that BSE could cause non-varient CJD in humans. Its a very nasty disease and so far it has always been fatal. Now, the likeliest reason is that scientists, feed manufacturers and farmers chose to meddle with nature. Now, to you and me cattle are herbivores; cattle certainly think they are. But, for decades they have been fed on meat and bone meal. That is the ground down remains of slaughtered cattle. So, at some point some bright spark decided to make a quick buck by turning cattle into carnivores. Worse still, he turned them into cannibals. Now, in the late 80s and in the early 90s the press carried a lot of stories.
They were all dismissed as scare stories, the tabloids were all dismissed as scare mongers and these stories warned that there could be a risk of catching BSE from cattle, or a human variant of it. But what did the government do? It said, dont be silly, its perfectly safe, beef is safe according to the best scientific evidence and advice. You may recall John Gummer, the then agricultural minister and his moment of infamy when, to show how confident he was he thrust a hamburger down the throat of his daughter in front of photographers.
But then, in March 1996, Health Secretary Stephen Dorrells press secretary rang me and he rang loads of other journalists and he said, would you mind popping along to a press conference? Ive got something to tell you. And what do you know, the best scientific advice had changed. The result is a 3.5 billion bill for the tax payer, 4.8 million cattle slaughtered, the beef industry crippled and, sadly, a large number of farmers dead by their own hands.
Now, I know John Gummer, hes a very nice man. If he knew then what he knew now, I am sure he wouldnt have done that rather silly stunt. But today, there is a similar process underway. It involves Tony Blair and GM food. Before we move on, Ill just explain in a nutshell what I understand genetic engineering to mean. Genetically modified crops have been given genes, usually at least five, from another species with which they could not breed in nature. It is a world removed from traditional plant breeding, the traditional plant breeding of millennia. They are given these genes because it gives the plants new qualities. It might make them resistant to herbicides, insecticides. It may give the plant the ability to kill insects pests or, in the case of the tomatoes in your tomato paste, it gives them a longer shelf life.
Tony Blair seems to have taken a leaf out of John Gummers book. He hasnt gone in for silly photo calls, he has let it be known through his Downing Street spokesman that there is no evidence that GM foods are harmful. He has let it be known that he is happy to eat this food and he is also happy for his children to eat the GM food. Now, guess what hes acting on? Yes, the best scientific advice.
But that is constantly changing. Worse still, this government picks the advice it likes and ignores the rest. The opposition to GM technology is usually branded as green, as if only people with long hair, beards and sandals are bothered. Well, Im afraid its not true.
Yes, Friends of The Earth, Greenpeace, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, now theyre a radical group, they are really worried about this. But the list of critics is much longer than that. And the army of critics includes many eminent scientists who have no reason to be branded as greens. They include English Nature, which is worried about whether the of herbicide resistant, pesticide resistant crops will mean that we can wipe out all weeds and insects on which wild birds feed. Even the governments chief scientific advisor Bob May, an out and out supporter of GM technology, is worried about this.
The British Medical Association has gone even further than any green group. Last week it called for and open ended moritorium on the commercial planting of GM crops. It also called for a comprehensive health impact assessment of GM technology. Now we took the trouble to check what that meant. It means what it sounds like. They want to check whether there are any health problems whatsoever that come from this technology. Tony Blair is unmoved. His officials are less sure. But days after he gave the thumbs up to GM technology, his cabinet office officials called for a report into the safety of GM food.
A hospital in Newcastle-on-Tyne will soon be carrying out tests on volunteer patients who will eat GM foods. But that will only start to take place in the year 2001. They wont be tested on the new foods, theyre going to be tested on the foods youre eating now.
So, why worry about feeding this to farm animals?
Well, there are 70 million acres of GM crops planted commercially around the world. Thats one and a half times the size of Britain. Half of the crops go into animal feed. But you dont know, the farmers dont know. The main crop in this, the genetically modified soya, is mixed at source with the conventional soya. So theres no way of labelling it, so the farmers dont know. They cant label their meat, milk or eggs according to whether the animals have been reared on it.
Now, Jeff Rooker, the Food Safety Minister, (who as you know if you look about, isnt here, though he was invited) he knows about this. Hes told MPs that anything imported from America of the main GM crops is likely to be contaminated with GM material.
Now, why is this important?
Its important for two main reasons. First of all, you dont have a choice. If the GM industry labelled everything clearly so that you could say, this is GM free, this contains GM Im sure much of this controversy would disappear because everyone would say, well, you havent got anything to hide. But they dont. It was only recently that labelling laws were brought in. But the food for human consumption, that food has been on the market for three or four years. And those laws are woefully inadequate.
Secondly, as Arpad will reiterate, theres been precious independent scientific research into whether GM material can cross from the animal feed into the animal and therefore into the food that you eat. Even now there is no Government committee specifically on GM animal feed. It meets next month for the first time. Meanwhile the animals have been eating this for three or four years.
So what, you might say. Well, this is a technology in its infancy. The best scientific advice is changing all the time. Theres growing evidence that GM crops can interfere with the food chain. Dr Pusztai will deal with this in some detail, but three quick pointers.
The Scottish Crop Research Institute fed two spotted lady birds and an environmentally predator insect on aphids which had been eating genetically modified potatoes. The lady birds suffered shortened life spans. They had trouble reproducing. The Swiss did the same thing with lace wings fed on larvae which had eaten repellent maize, GM maize. The lacewing suffered the same fate. Now weve got Cornell University, backed up by another university in Iowa which has carried out tests on the symbol of American conservation, the Monarch butterfly. It sprinkled GM pollen from a maize which is now grown on millions of acres on milk weed. The unlucky caterpillars which ate this milk weed, half of them were dead within four days. The caterpillars which ate normal milk weed survived.
Now if it can do this this early on in the food chain, whats it gonna do, what, how can we be sure its not gonna do it further up the food chain when you eat it? An invitation to the Oxford Union is a very important, great honour. You might expect one of the major makers of these crops to be up here on the platform. But the man from Monsanto, he said No. He was invited and he agreed in principle to come, but then he saw the motion, and it had the magic words animal feed and he said, oh, no, we cant have that. And he said, I want you to change the motion.
Now I repeat; he asked the Oxford Union to change the motion to suit his ends. You know the level of manipulation you face. Hes out there but you wont know because he doesnt carry a label. And, like his soya, he wasnt segregated from you at source. But he should carry a government health warning. Cause lets look at some of Monsantos gifts to the world. DDT, Agent Orange, all hailed as miracle chemicals in their time until 30 or 40 years later. After bitter resistance from the chemical industry they were revealed to be disastrous for man, or the environment, or both.
Now, should he speak from the floor, which he seems to think is taking part in the debate, not putting his name to it up on the platform? Remember, he is paid by Monsanto. Harry is paid by AgrEvo, Professor Burke is proud to be an advocate of GM foods. My team is not genetically contaminated. I dont make a penny whether the GM industry does well or badly.
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