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Newsletter 18 : Victory!

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It was worldwide news. ‘Bayer halts GM maize’ reported the Washington Times.

‘GM food crops get taken off the menu’ trumpeted The Australian. ‘Independent on Sunday hastens end of GM crops in Britain’ announced the Independent on Sunday. On the last day of March 2004, Bayer Cropscience finally gave up their plans for the UK. Campaigner and writer JIM THOMAS tells the real story behind the headlines.

Once in a while we actually win. The PR machine fails, the people say no, direct action stops things. The best laid plans of corporations and politicians go awry, corporate schemes are thwarted or frustrated - and GM crops fail to be planted. On the last day of March 2004, Bayer Cropscience quietly let it be known that they would not commercialise the only strain of GM seeds that could be expected to get official clearance in the foreseeable future. Campaigners, holding their breath, wondered if it was an April fool. It wasn’t. On what felt like the first day of spring, we discovered that no GM crops would be grown commercially in the UK for at least the next 4 to 5 years. If ever.

Here is the magnitude of that victory:

At the end of 1996 (when I started working on GM crops) we were reckoned to be barely a year away from widespread cultivation (GM rape at that time) all across the UK countryside. Monsanto, not yet a household name, were considering the world’s largest corporate merger with American Home Products to dominate the new life sciences sector. Sixty percent of processed food was becoming contaminated with GM soy – an unlabelled, untested and underhand experiment on us all. Most people had never heard of the GM food they were unwittingly eating.

In the intervening eight years some of the world’s most powerful companies and one of the world’s most important governments remained steadfastly determined to get GM crops grown commercially in the UK. And yet, raw, direct, popular opposition managed to:

- remove GM ingredients from all human foods sold in the UK.

- remove GM ingredients from pretty much all poultry and pig feed in the UK.

- reduce the number of UK GM crop field trials from hundreds of locations per year to currently one.

- cause Monsanto to leave the UK, stopping further breeding work here.

- reduce the number of GM varieties seeking government approval from almost sixty varieties down to a remaining two that have no chance of being legally grown.

- acted as a catalyst, inspiring campaigners and activists to challenge GM crops around the world.

The GM maize that Bayer have now abandoned (called Chardon LL) is the same variety that Greenpeace pulled up in a field in Norfolk and that grassroots activists in Devon were charged with £650,000 worth of criminal damage for decontaminating. It was the only thin grasping straw the agrobiotech industry had for actually growing GM crops legally in the UK countryside in the foreseeable future. Imported GM animal feed is still being fed to dairy cattle and other parts of the world are still suffering the onslaught of the biotech bullies. But, by dropping Chardon LL, Bayer and their companions are basically waving goodbye to growing GM in this peculiar, rainy island off the north coast of Europe for many years to come.

Campaigners rarely get the satisfaction of so clearly winning - a win for the thousands and thousands of people who spent cold nights pulling up crops, long weekends talking to shoppers and farmers and years of emotional and intellectual energy countering the bullying, lobbying power and financial clout of the gene giants. We are all blown away. It’s a bright March morning, the buds are out and finally spring has come. Well done, every one of us.