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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 19:04 GMT


GM foods: What's the hurry ?

Genetically-modified tomatoes have already been produced in the UK

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Science is generally a better guide than superstition, and the message from many - though not all - scientists in the debate over genetically modified food is that they could be an enormous benefit to humanity.

Food under the microscope
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, for instance, "rejects the arguments of those calling for a blanket moratorium".

And while English Nature, the government's wildlife adviser, wants a moratorium for at least three years on certain sorts of GM crops, it also rejects any suggestion of a blanket ban.

What does unite many scientists is a belief that there should be more research, and that that will take time.

Ministerial differences

So why does the government insist on pushing ahead with GM foods without conceding that a pause of a few years could help everyone?

The government is not in fact united. Environment Minister Michael Meacher is noticeably more cautious than some of his colleagues.

One of the most combative is the Cabinet Office Minister, Dr Jack Cunningham. But he is involved in a dialogue with organic groups like the Soil Association.

He has not so far changed his mind. But it would probably make little difference if he did.

The driving force for pushing ahead with GM technology straight away is the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

[ image: Blair: Influenced by Clinton?]
Blair: Influenced by Clinton?
Last year Mr Blair is reported to have had a telephone conversation with President Clinton about GMOs.

Downing Street "absolutely and categorically denies that Bill Clinton has ever raised the subject of GMOs with Tony Blair".

But two sources have told BBC News Online that they believe such a conversation did take place and that it led to the prime minister changing his mind on GMOs.

He is now resolute in arguing that there is no need for a moratorium, or for any other policy change.

And the government welcomes Monsanto and the other biotechnology firms.

Safer not to yield

But there may be another reason for it refusing to change its line.

It is estimated that 60% of products on supermarket shelves already contain GM crop products.

They may well be as safe as their supporters say they are, although the BSE scandal should have taught politicians that "absolutely safe" is a phrase they should never, ever use.

But if the government now conceded that a moratorium was necessary, it would in effect be admitting that its confidence had been dented.

Politicians say the science supports them. To an extent, it does.

But the scientists are not unanimous. That is no way to restore public confidence.

And a question mark remains over the government's independence of pressure from Washington.

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