The BBC Website has "GM potato trials given go-ahead" and tells us that, "A plan to grow genetically modified potatoes on two trial sites in England has been approved by the government." The Times gives us, "Trials for GM potatoes agreed" and its story starts: "The Government has agreed to new GM trials for potatoes."
Then we get The New Scientist with: "Gene-modified potatoes get trial go-ahead", adding, "The UK government has approved the growing of genetically modified potatoes in two field trials." The Farmers Weekly though – as you might expect – is more specific, giving you the name of the ministry, declaring: "DEFRA approves BASF's application to plant genetically modified potatoes".
The plants, we are told, will be grown next year on land owned by a scientific research station in Cambridgeshire, and on land secured by the biotechnology firm BASF Plant Sciences in Derbyshire.
Then to sweep up, in this sample of news coverage, we have the dedicated political website, Politics.co.uk, which also refers to the ministry. It's headline is, "Defra approves GM potato trials" and the strap reads: "Defra approves the first GM crop trials for three years".
Technically, all these media are right. The government, through its "Competent Authority", the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has approved trials on GM potatoes. But what none of them say it that the UK government had no choice about this, thus omitting to mention the "elephant in the room", the European Union.
The point is that the approval of the "deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms" is an exclusive EU competence under Directive 2001/18/EC. It was adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in February 2001 and entered into force on 17 October 2002, since when member states are required to process applications in accordance with the Directive. In particular, Article 6 refers:
5. The competent authority shall acknowledge the date of receipt of the notification and, having considered, where appropriate, any observations by other Member States made in accordance with Article 11, shall respond in writing to the notifier within 90 days of receipt of the notification by either:In effect, the member state is merely acting as an agent for the community. Its job is assess whether or not the test protocol complies with the Directive. If it does, the application must be approved – the member state has no discretion in this. Only if it does not, can the application be rejected.
(a) indicating that it is satisfied that the notification is in compliance with this Directive and that the release may proceed; or
(b) indicating that the release does not fulfil the conditions of this Directive and that notification is therefore rejected.
Quite how the news should be reported is a moot point but an accurate or balanced report would include reference to the EU dimension, in terms: UK finds application in conformity with EU law and therefor is required to give a go ahead to the tests.
At least that would put into context the comments of the Friends of the Earth representative, who said the trials posed a "significant contamination threat" to future potato crops. “The government should promote safe and sustainable agriculture, not this half-baked GM potato plan," said Clare Oxborrow.
It would also put into context the statement by environment minister Ian Pearson. He says: "Our top priority on this issue remains protecting consumers and the environment, and a rigorous independent assessment has concluded that these trials do not give rise to any safety concerns.
Neither mentions the EU. Neither acknowledges that the government has not choice.
Perhaps Oxborrow's ignorance is forgivable. She is, after all, only an environmental campaigner. But the minister and the media should know better. He and the Guardian, the BBC, The Times, and all the others are just like the felukka.
They are all in de Nile.