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Tuesday, February 16, 1999 Published at 11:45 GMT


Government defends GM crops

A frozen fish-corn hybrid used for publicity

The BBC's Richard Wilson: "Scientists say GM foods and crops promise much"
The UK Government has defended genetically modified (GM) crops after calls for a five-year ban on commercial growing. These came from a new campaign launched by 29 wide-ranging groups.

The Five Year Freeze campaign claim that the risks have not been properly assessed and that GM food products have been rushed through to "feed the profits" of biotechnology companies.

[ image:  ]
In a special Commons statement on Tuesday afternoon, the Agriculture Minister Jeff Rooker said the Government's "first priority" was to ensure the safety of consumers was fully protected.

He said there was a "robust and open system" for ensuring all food containing GM material was safe before it came onto the market.

Food under the microscope
In another new development, a controversial report by Dr Arpad Puztai, the scientist whose research sparked the current concern over GM foods, has now been published on the Internet. He claimed it had been suppressed.

Dr Arpad Puztai: "Elated" to have the embargo lifted
Dr Puztai's claims that rats fed GM potatoes suffered damaged health were dismissed as unsupported by his experiments in an audit report by his former employers, the Rowett Research Institute (RRI).

[ image: Dr Arpad Puztai: Standing by claims]
Dr Arpad Puztai: Standing by claims
His written response to the audit has now been published and insists that "the existing data fully support our suggestion that [rats fed on GM potatoes showed] significant effects on organ development, body metabolism and immune function".

The RRI says it sees nothing in Dr Puztai's response to make them change their original conclusions.

The government was also warned on Tuesday by one of its top environment advisers to "display the utmost caution" over authorising any commercial GM crops.

Sir Crispin Tickell, convenor of the government's Panel on Sustainable Development said the government must set out a strategy "which incorporates both the medical and agricultural aspects of the GM organism problem".

"It should allow customers the right of choice, so that things are properly labelled and you know what you are buying."

Sir Crispin said no one wanted the GM food problem to be added to the list of health disasters which included the thalidomide tragedy and the BSE crisis.

The panel is an influential body, as all its members are appointed by the prime minister. In its 1999 report, the panel says the steps taken so far by the government are "no more than a first step".

BBC Social Affairs Correspondent June Kelly: "The new alliance has a diverse make up"
The 29 groups behind Five Year Freeze include Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Townswomen's Guild and the Iceland supermarket chain.

Development groups involved include ActionAid, Christian Aid, the Catholic Institute for International Relations and the World Development Movement.

A spokeswoman for the Five Year Freeze campaign said: "There hasn't been adequate risk assessment done on the implications of growing these crops.

Cindy Baxter of ActionAid: "We do not know what's around the corner"
"The biotechnology companies claim that GM crops will help solve poverty and feed the world. But the problem with poverty is not that we don't produce enough food - we produce more than enough - but are economic and political."

The coalition wants a five-year moratorium on the growing of GM crops for any commercial purpose, on the import of GM foods and farm crops and on the patenting of genetic resources for food and farm crops.

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