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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
Public debate on GM crops begins

By Tim Hirsch
BBC environment correspondent

The UK public is being given the chance to debate genetically modified (GM) food and crops from Tuesday. The first of a series of meetings on the issue is taking place in Birmingham with similar events at other venues in across Britain later this month. This will help the government decide whether to allow the commercial cultivation of GM crops.

Anti-GM protesters
GM crops have attracted widespread opposition
The public debate on genetically modified food and crops must take its place among a bewildering variety of reports and inquiries coming up in the next few months, all of which will to some degree inform the government's decisions.

Originally it was all going to be much more simple.

The only barrier to approval of commercial planting of GM crops was a three-year programme of trials on farms around the UK - they are nearing completion, and the results should be known by September.

It is worth remembering these trials are only being carried out as the result of a voluntary moratorium agreed by the biotechnology industry, which agreed to hold off submitting its applications to grow GM crops until their potential impact on the UK environment was studied.

But the trials themselves have only been looking into a very specific question - compared with conventional varieties of the same plants.

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

That question is how will the techniques used to grow GM crops affect the variety of wildlife on the farms where they are cultivated?

Since the crops being tested in the UK have been modified to make them resistant to particular varieties of weed killer, the impact could be in both directions.

The technology allows the use of chemicals to be better targeted, so it may cause less damage to wildlife than conventional crops.

On the other hand, the ability of GM plants to withstand chemicals may make the fields more barren while the crop is actually standing.

Either way, what became clear was that this national experiment, controversial as it was, would by no means answer all the questions surrounding genetic modification - and in the view of many people, not even the most important ones.

For instance, it will not touch the question of whether genetically modified food poses a risk to health.

A corn field
Could GM crops cross-pollinate with conventional varieties?

It will not pronounce on the ability of modified crops to cross-pollinate with wild relatives or conventional varieties.

These are now the subject of a separate review headed by the government's Chief Scientist, Professor David King, which has the task of poring through all the scientific literature on the subject and producing a report for the government, due out later in June.

Another inquiry has been much less reported, but may in the end prove the most influential.

The prime minister's private think tank, known as the Strategy Unit, is looking into the potential costs and benefits of GM technology.

While Mr Blair has been seen as a strong supporter of biotechnology, the final decision is bound to be coloured by economic considerations.

Public opinion

Then of course there is the public debate; a pledge from ministers to listen to the people, but certainly no guarantee they will do what we say.

There is still a good deal of uncertainty about how free the government would be to take account of public opinion on GM, even if it wanted to do so.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher has made it clear that the only grounds under EU rules for turning down applications for GM crop licences would be to demonstrate risks to health and the environment - not the risk of upsetting the voters.

So there is a strong suspicion that this whole process may turn out to be rather academic, and that it will be very difficult for the government to ban the introduction of GM crops, even if it were inclined to do so.

But even if that is the case, it does not necessarily mean that the technology will take off in the UK in the near future - if the public makes clear it does not want to eat the stuff, why would farmers choose to grow it?

Council to make GM decision
02 Jun 03  |  Shropshire
GM crops 'need long-term monitoring'
27 May 03  |  Science/Nature
GM protesters cut down crop
18 May 03  |  Scotland
US launches GM trade war
13 May 03  |  Business
GM crops 'will help wildlife'
15 Jan 03  |  Science/Nature
Q&A: GM and politics
26 Jul 02  |  Science/Nature

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