Setting the scene: the story of genetically modified food in the United Kingdom Tony Blair inherited an apparently stable system of regulating genetically modified (GM) food and crops but within three years the system had been destabilized; public and media confidence in policy had been eroded; political elites warned that ‘rational policymaking’ was at risk; and they blamed the media. Britain started to build a GMO regulatory system in 1976 and by the 1997 there was a network of specialist scientific committees operating with ‘well respected guidelines’ (Poole 1998: 11). Companies were banned from growing, marketing or selling GM food without a licence. Approval procedures centred on science-based risk assessments and provided that the proposed GM food was substantially equivalent to conventional versions and there was no evidence of potential harm, then approval was likely. This framework was perceived to be less susceptible to political buffeting than elsewhere in Europe – hence, Zeneca’s decision to launch Europe’s first GM food in Britain in 1996 (ibid.). The following May, soon after Labour won the election, EU harmonization of biotechnology regulations came into effect and meant processes and principles already routine in Britain were further embedded and entrenched. GM tomato paste was seen as a ‘test case’ in that it was the first GM food product available to shoppers and labelled as GM1 and there was uncertainty over how the public and media, sensitized by years of food scares, would receive it. Initial reaction was positive. The media were ‘cautious’ and ‘broadly welcoming’ and sales of GM tomato paste outsold the conventional product by 2:1 (Austin and Lo 1999: 644; Burke 1998: 13). But within two years, attitudes had shifted. Media focus on GM food intensified and they became hostile towards the science and the technology. Doubts about the science underlying the technology, translated into doubts about the ability of policy processes to protect the public. Media and public confidence in regulation of GM food collapsed. Sales plummeted. Retailers withdrew GM tomato paste; found alternative non-GM sources of soya and maize; and launched high profile GM avoidance policies (Austin and Lo 1999: 650). Consumer groups and food retailers called for mandatory labelling of all GM food. This collapse of
confidence and surge in opposition to GM food threatened key policy commitments. Government faced a number of ideological dilemmas (Billig et al. 1988) in deciding how to respond. On the one hand, there was an explicit manifesto commitment to extend consumer choice and rebuild public confidence in food safety. On the other hand, another commitment pledged to improve British competitiveness by promoting the country’s science base and high technology industries. But GM tomato paste had shown, that given choice, consumers would not buy GM and this was perceived as having the potential to undermine Britain’s nascent industry (House of Lords 1998). On the one hand, applications for GM food licenses had been lodged but granting new consents risked inflaming public and media sentiment. On the other hand, ministers were legally prevented from over-riding scientific recommendations on political grounds (Meacher et al. 1999: 32) and any change in the law required a majority vote in the European Parliament. So, policy priorities were potentially contradictory – or at least could be constructed as that – and the legal framework of policy limited the political options open to government. These, together with mounting media and public resistance to the new technology, contributed to a policy stalemate. Government declared a moratorium on the commercial cultivation of GM crops and granted no new licences for GM food. Political elites accused the media of putting at risk ‘rational policy making’ (Science and Technology Committee 1999: 11) when there was no scientific evidence of harm posed by GM food; policy elites believed GM food policy was the most media-stricken science-based policy in a generation; and divisions emerged between departments and key personnel. This chapter proposes to analyse these developments through the prism of three questions running through this book.