The Observer, Sunday 16 August 2009
Eat GM: "Better than starving to death!" It is not the most persuasive slogan in the history of food advertising. Nor, with this as his pitch, is Hilary Benn, the environment minister, ever likely to compete, as a twinkly salesman of repulsive treats, with figures such as Cap'n Birds Eye or Tony the Tiger. But he has to find some reason why, after refusing them for years, the picky British must now learn to love GM.
"The truth," Benn actually said, when he added GM to his new range of national austerity measures, "is we will need to think about the way in which we produce our food, the way in which we use water and fertiliser. We will need science, we will need more people to come into farming because it has a bright future." Did he mean that the only modern, sustainable farming is GM farming? If this endorsement was a little half-hearted, compared with what Labour ministers have said in the past, you can see Benn's difficulty. He's terrified that if he is honest about the government's determination to grow commercial GM crops in this country, the public will – to use the technical term – go off on one.
At all costs, Benn must avoid a PR disaster like that of a decade ago when Monsanto, the multinational that owns 90% of GM traits (or properties), set about wooing a sceptical British public with a series of huge newspaper advertisements. The tone, funnily enough, was not that different from Benn's last week: modern yet soothing; idealistic yet reasonable. Insufferably patronising. It struck Monsanto, back then, as just the right tone to take with consumers who had recently learnt, following the outbreak of BSE, that their lives had been endangered by a farming industry that fed live cows with dead cows.
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