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Thursday, December 17, 1998 Published at 17:24 GMT


UK unveils biotech review

It is possible to transplant genes between species

The UK Government has unveiled plans to improve the monitoring of genetic engineering and biotechnology. It follows concern from environmental groups about the possible risks associated with genetically modified (GM) food.

A new ministerial group will be set up to look at issues such as regulation and safety. It will be chaired by Dr Jack Cunningham, Minister for the Cabinet Office, and will include both his officials and those from the Office of Science and Technology.

"We have a significant biotechnology industry which has the potential to be a major wealth creator and provider of high quality jobs," Dr Cunningham said. "But much of this is new technology and government has an important role to play in ensuring that the public is protected from any risks it brings."


Environmental campaigners have targeted the research into novel plants in particular. They fear, for example, that the genes introduced into crops which allow them to resist attack from herbicides could transfer to wild varieties producing new superweeds. Some campaigners have even dug up fields of experimental crops as a protest.

[ image: Dr Cunningham: Potential for wealth creation]
Dr Cunningham: Potential for wealth creation
There are also major concerns over the use of modified animals in new medical treatments and in food products. Green groups argue the latest developments could expose humans to health risks even worse than mad cow disease (BSE).

The review has been launched two days after the government announced it was calling in opinion pollsters to consult the public on whether there should be new rules governing the fast-developing field of biosciences.

Advisory bodies

"A complex framework of regulatory and advisory bodies is already in place to advise the government on the technology and to regulate new biotechnology products and processes before they enter into use," Dr Cunningham said.

[ image: Opponents want a moratorium on commercial planting]
Opponents want a moratorium on commercial planting
"We have decided to carry out a thorough review of this framework in order to be sure that the government is receiving the best possible advice," he added.

In October, Britain said it would allow commercial planting of genetically modified crops to go ahead under a new framework of strict controls. The government said commercial planting of the crops would be strictly limited and monitored for its ecological impact.

The decision went against the stand of English Nature, the government's own conservation watchdog, which had recommended a three-year moratorium on commercial planting to allow further research into the possible harmful side-effects of GM crops.

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