New Times, December 1999
Paul Anderson talks to Friends of the Earth director Charles Secrett
“Two years ago, hardly anyone had heard of genetically modified food in this country,” says Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth. “Today, the controversy is raging throughout the media, the supermarkets are falling over one another to declare themselves GM-free and the government is under immense pressure not to allow GM crop cultivation.
“One of the main reasons for this is the work that Friends of the Earth have put in. Of course, we’re not alone in campaigning against GM food. But I think it’s fair to say that we’re the people who have played the biggest part in raising the profile of the issue.”
It is difficult to disagree with this assessment. The first stirrings of public interest in GM foods can be traced to the beginning of last year, when FoE campaigners alerted local newspapers of GM crop trial sites in their areas. Subsequently, FoE has played a pivotal role both in getting retailers to stop stocking GM produce and in making life difficult for the government.
Earlier this year, FoE’s surveys of supermarkets’ policies on GM food – identifying which chains stocked GM produce and which did not – were seized upon by the press, and the blaze of publicity had the almost-immediate effect of forcing previously GM-friendly retailers, notably Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Marks & Spencer, to cease stocking GM produce. It was FoE that first kicked up a fuss about the conflict of interest inherent in David Sainsbury’s position as supermarket magnate and government
minister determining policy on GM crops. It was FoE that drew attention to US President Bill Clinton putting pressure on Tony Blair in favour of GM foods. And it was FoE that organised scientists to come out in support of Arpad Pusztai, the researcher whose work on the effects of feeding GM potatoes to rats has been a running story for the best part of a year.
“The GM campaign stems from a decision FoE made five years ago to campaign on food, with the emphasis on appealing to consumers and putting pressure on retailers and manufacturers,” says Ian Willmore, a former researcher for environment minister Michael Meacher who is now one of FoE’s two press officers. “We’ve done well for several reasons. We’ve done good research. We’ve been able to get newspapers like the Mail and the Express to take an interest. And we’ve been able to play off the supermarkets against one another.
“We’ve also been helped by our opponents. Blair’s appointment of Jack Cunningham as the minister responsible for persuading the public on GM foods was disastrous. And the big biotech companies have been incredibly incompetent in getting their message across.”
Founded in 1969 in the United States and in 1971 in the United Kingdom, FoE now has sections in 58 different countries, with an international headquarters in Amsterdam. The section covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland (FoE Scotland has been independent for five years) is one of the biggest, with a total of 160,000 supporters, 90,000 of them regular financial contributors, and 240 local groups. FoE EWNI had a turnover of about £5 million last year, nearly all of it raised from individual donors. It now employs 100 staff, 80 of them in its London headquarters and the rest in regional offices.
The local groups and regional offices mean that FoE EWNI is able to campaign effectively at constituency and local authority level as well as nationally. This year, for example, local groups, supported by the regional offices, have made a priority of pressing MPs – particularly Labour MPs – to ask the government to include a Wildlife Bill in its legislative programme.
But it is on its national campaigning that FoE concentrates most of its resources. The hub of its operation is its campaigns department, which is divided into five teams dealing with different subject areas, along with a parliamentary unit, a legal unit and a research unit.
The GM foods campaign is the responsibility of the food and biotechnology team. Other teams cover a multitude of other campaigns on issues as diverse as urban traffic reduction and global warming.
Insiders say that the sheer scope of FoE’s interests and internal competition among campaigns for profile and resources sometimes makes it difficult for the organisation to decide its priorities -though things are a lot better now than they used to be. As director since 1994, Secrett has made a priority of streamlining the way FoE works – most importantly by setting up a communications department to co­ordinate media relations.
Secrett has also given FoE a much harder political edge than before. Long before the 1997 general election, he made it clear that he would pull no punches in criticising new Labour whenever it deserved it, and since Tony Blair came to power FoE has been a constant thorn in new Labour’s side -particularly on GM food, but also on nuclear power and transport policy.
It is plain to see that the government is irritated. During the summer, Blair complained of the “tyranny of pressure groups like Friends of the Earth” after it embarrassed the government for the umpteenth time on GM foods. And last month, John Prescott, whose giant Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions has been taken to task several times by FoE, lashed out at FoE during a meeting of the Green Alliance, the umbrella organisation of environmental pressure groups. “It is your right to criticise but some of you should think about whether the way you do it helps achieve the environmental change you want or hampers it,” he warned.
Prescott took particular exception to FoE’s scepticism about the government’s actions on rural transport. “When we announced extra £150 million for rural public transport, Friends of the Earth said it was not worth a wheel nut on a bus,” he railed. “In fact is has provided 1,800 new services.”
Secrett is unrepentant about FoE’s stance. “Our impressive campaign track record speaks for itself,” he says. “We’ll not sacrifice our independence or effectiveness for anyone.
“Governments have to learn to live with informed criticism. Our campaigns are based on facts and supported by the evidence. We praise ministers when they deliver what they promise and what needs to be done. It’s bad news for democracy when the most senior figures in government react this sensitively and inappropriately.”
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