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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 18th September 2011

An odd decision by a European court is coming to a fireside near you, this winter. A group of Bavarian bee-keepers has successfully argued that they have been breaking the law by selling their honey.

Bee on Digitalis, foxglove

Bee on Digitalis, foxglove

As soon as you read that you should begin to suspect that there is something going on. And you’d be right. The basis of the case was that the bee-keepers said they had tested their honey and found evidence of pollen from a GM crop trial near their hives.

The trial was completely legal and, presumably, other ways of stopping it had been exhausted by those who believe that GM equals the work of the devil. So, the bee-keepers asked the court to rule that they must label their honey as a GM product, as required by European law.

People often look at the decisions of courts and say judges lack common sense but that misses the whole point. Judges are there to apply the law and if a law lacks common sense then judges are unable to do anything to correct that.

I’m not going to discuss the whole issue of GM foods, except to say that we have been producing genetically modified crops for thousands of years; we’ve just got much better at it recently. But it is the almost perfect example of a small group, with an agenda, using fear based on misrepresenting science to create a bandwagon that the politicians cannot ignore.

Bee on Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Bee on Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

It is impossible to know what the true situation is with GM crops because the debate has become polarised, at least in the public mind, between those who say we should not interfere with nature and agro-chemical companies whose only interest is in profit regardless of what effect their activities have on people and the environment.

The political reaction to this has been to try and avoid a direct confrontation by making rules that mean the public knows what it is buying and eating. The problem comes in that the anti-GM lobby has succeeded in getting the politicians to define what counts as a GM food in a ridiculous way.

The extent of GM contamination that is allowed before a food has to be called ‘GM’ is extremely low. It may be that the anti-GM lobby felt that tiny amounts of GM material could become the thin end of a wedge. If small amounts of GM contamination proved to have no ill effects then you might expect an argument to be made for increasing the level with, ultimately, an end to the need to label anything ‘GM’.

Bee on Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Bee on Aconitum napellus, monkshood

It may, though, be that the anti-GM lobby genuinely believes that even the tiniest amount of a substance can have the same effects as larger amounts. That is quite possible and, of course, is the argument used to justify everything from ricin as a WMD to the calls to eradicate every ragwort plant in the whole country to the whole prohibition regime built around the Misuse of Drugs Act.

So, the court, applying the law as written by politicians, ruled that the honey made by the Bavarian bee-keepers must be labelled ‘GM’. Small victory for the anti-GM lobby. But, what no-one had thought through was the way the rest of the honey industry works.

Most of the honey consumed in Europe is imported and, because of fears about production methods in some parts of the world, much of the imported honey comes from South America where GM crops are widespread. The possibility is being discussed that so much imported honey will, now, have to be labelled as a ‘GM’ product that there will be a shortage of non-GM honey driving prices sky high.

So high, in fact, that the temptation to criminally mislead people over the origin of honey, a practice known as ‘honey laundering’ that is, already, believed to be a major problem in the USA, could be so great that all manner of illegally produced honey could end up being sold as GM free.

So, as the winter afternoons make honey and crumpets by the fire more and more attractive not only will you be paying a lot more for your honey but you’ll, probably, be less sure that it is what the label says it is.