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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
Public 'needs voice' on GM issue
The man in charge of the UK's nationwide debate on genetically modified food says he will be "dismayed" if the government does not take into account public opinion on the issue.

Crop field
It is feared public bafflement may be misinterpreted as apathy
But Professor Malcolm Grant, head of the independent group organising the consultation, says that does not mean the government will simply abide by public opinion.

Professor Grant's comments came on Tuesday as the first of a series of workshops aimed at encouraging public discussion of GM technology began in Birmingham.

This national debate on GM food and crops has been criticised as "chaotic" by an alliance of eight consumer and environmental organisations.

Government letter

They say organisational failings mean the public has little chance to have its say.

Talking about the importance of the public consultation, Professor Grant said: "If the government fails to take public opinion into account from the debate, I would be dismayed."

He said he had received a letter from Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett assuring him the government would formally respond to the report summarising the public debate.

But the chairman of the Biotechnology Commission and the GM debate steering board said the words "take into account" had different definitions.

Birmingham: 3 June
Swansea: 5 June
Taunton: 7 June
Belfast: 9 June
Glasgow: 11 June
Harrogate: 13 June

"Certainly, the government can't at this stage undertake that it's going to be bound by the public debate - it's not a referendum," he added.

The public debate, called GM Nation?, involves six regional debates in Birmingham, Swansea, Glasgow, Belfast, Taunton and Harrogate.

These will be followed by more locally based meetings organised by, amongst others, county councils. The debating period lasts for six weeks.

The National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham is the venue for the first regional workshop.

People are being invited to discuss the issues surrounding the GM controversy and give their feedback to the government.

Public meetings

A booklet, CD Rom and video have been prepared giving arguments on both sides of the debate.

Professor Grant said organisers were hoping to "challenge people to think".

He said the design of the debate was a deliberate move to encourage high quality participation.

"If we organised large public meetings, the opportunities for grandstanding and barracking would have been pretty dramatic and frankly those operations wouldn't have been much use."

GM protesters in field

The public discussion, along with a study by Prime Minister Tony Blair's strategy unit and a scientific review, will play a part in whether GM farming is allowed to become widespread.

But there has been criticism of the lack of publicity for the debate.

There is also doubt as to how important the consultation will be in making the final decision.

Although ministers have pledged to listen to the public's views, a series of reports coming up on the science and economics of the technology could well prove more influential.

The alliance of eight groups, which also span farming, aid and trade union interests, have written to Mrs Beckett expressing their concerns.

'Badly organised'

They criticised the government for not giving enough time, or the right quality information, for people to get involved.

Although the debate ends in July, the results of the farm-scale trials of four crops proposed for Britain, carried out over the last four years, are not due to be known until September.

Peter Nixon, director of conservation at the National Trust, said: "It is vital that the outcome of field trials informs the debate."

Consumer Association director Dame Sheila McKechnie told the BBC the debate was "very badly organised" and "chaotic".

Ring the GM Nation steering board on 020 7261 8616 for materials
The groups worry there will be a lack of local participation, which will be wrongly interpreted as public indifference.

This would enable the government to sanction the commercial growing of GM crops and the sale of GM foods - even though polls suggested most people do not want them.

The government will decide later this year whether to license commercial GM crops.

The eight critical groups are the Consumers' Association, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the National Trust, Unison, the RSPB and Sustain.

The BBC's Denise Mahoney
"Paying lip-service or paying attention to public opinion?"

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