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For several months, and despite the flowering of oilseed rape crop - the annual call to arms for the eco mercenaries, the white overalls brigade appear to have been less active than usual. They may, of course, have been distracted by the more pressing business of demonstrating against the war in Iraq.
In fact, environmental activists have left the impression that they have changed tactics. In a European context, rather than opposing anything other continuation of the informal moratorium on genetically modified (GM) crops, they have been lobbying for stricter conditions on commercialization, perhaps hoping to make this outcome impracticable.
With action in Iraq all but over and the much publicized "GM Nation?" internet debate on GM crops about to start, they are likely to swing into action again. It is entirely possible that they have taken temporary cover in the same way that the bandits do before the traditional Western ambush.
That the British government is so keen on a debate at this stage is strange. The issue has been debated in an informal manner for five years now and mere debate is unlikely to change many opinions. The government still sticks by a science based policy.
As to the influence of the debate, those who support the technology are only likely to change their minds, if scientific evidence comes to light that genetically modified crops are a danger to the environment or present a health hazard. Like wise those that oppose GM crops are only likely to be convinced of their benefit, if the developers of technology all go bankrupt and the receivers donate the patents to the organic movement.
Further it is apparent that it will be the British government that will ultimately adjudicates the debate. While the government has gone to some length to create the perception of neutrality, the debate will be supervised by a GM Public Debate Steering Board, the chair of which is also chair of the government's Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission(AEBC). And the results of the debate will be reported to the Secretary of Sate for the Environment in September.
Whichever way the debate goes, the losers are unlikely to accept the result without reservation and it is unlikely to be a unifying experience. This must surely have been apparent when the government accepted the AEBC's advice on holding a national debate. The suggestion that the exercise is a way for the government to back away from its science based policy is hardly convincing, after the government failed to backdown in the face of far greater public opposition to the Iraq war.
The answer to the question as to why the government is sponsoring the debate may lie in the main medium for the debate, the internet. It is a medium familiar to both environmentalists and scientists. Most centre ground public opinion seems to have been influenced, however, by the popular press, mass media and the supermarket chains. And the eco mercenaries have certainly been more effective influencing public opinion through these medium than the scientific community.
What will be interesting about the debate is whether the environmentalists will be able to develop a strategy for bringing these allies into an internet based debate. It is likely to create a greater challenge for them than, for instance, arm twisting a supermarket chain into printing an implicitly anti GM message on its shopping bags.David Walker
May 26, 2003
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