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Food under the microscope Tuesday, 6 April, 1999, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
GM food: A political hot potato
Customers need a choice through clear labelling, say the opposition
The issue of genetically-modified (GM) foods has split political opinion, as it has the wider community.

Food under the microscope
While supporters of commercial advances in biotechnology see a bright future for the UK's GM industry, a large number of critics are concerned about the health and environmental dangers that may arise from what the media has labelled "Frankenstein food".

Opposition parties are calling for a moratorium on commercial planting until research can give more details about the precise impact GM foods might have on our lives.

But the UK Government says it will stick by the advice of its scientists and by current practice, and will permit commercial exploitation of the new technology when the current research says it is safe to do so.

Rules and regulations

The official UK Government body for regulating GM foods is the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's (Maff) Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP).

It states that the government "believes consumers have a right to know if the products they buy contain GM ingredients".

On the issue of labelling, the ACNFP says: "If manufacturers are using ingredients that are different from conventional products, they should say so.

"All foods should be labelled where they contain an ingredient which has been genetically modified, or where there is reason to believe that this may be the case, for example when GM and conventional ingredients have not been segregated.

"However, specific labelling will not be required where, for example, the ingredient has been obtained from a GM plant but does not itself contain modified genetic material and can therefore be considered to be equivalent to an ingredient obtained from a conventional source."

PM backs GM

Prime Minister Tony Blair has said the government would proceed with "very great care and very great caution, and with a strongly regulated process" on GM foods.

Joan Ruddock: "A threat to biodiversity"
He regards any ban as "extremely foolish", saying "we should resist because it's not the right thing for the country".

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, which is responsible for regulating crop trials, said: "Trials are trials, they are research.

"We have to do research to know scientific facts."

However, that is what worries many MPs, not only from opposition parties but also from within Labour.

Joan Ruddock, MP for Lewisham Deptford, wants a five-year moratorium on commercial planting to allow for more experiments on the long-term behaviour of GM material.

She told BBC News Online: "If GM herbicide-resistant crops are grown, for example, it means all the weeds around that area will be sprayed with a herbicide to kill them off and the crop will be grown clean and okay. That's fine - potentially.

"But all the wildlife that is associated with the wild plants could be destroyed as a consequence. There is also the possibility of the escape of the GM material and crossbreeding with a wild plant. The herbicide resistance which is thought to be a positive thing in the crop would be a very negative thing in the weeds.

"There are very serious risks here which we can't quantify. They may not happen but we don't know, and we need much more time to evaluate the science and carry out much more experimentation to see how these crops might behave in the wild."

Moratorium and labelling

She is also among one of the growing numbers calling for better labelling for products containing GM ingredients.

John Redwood: "Customers want to know what they are buying"
Conservative trade and industry spokesman John Redwood told BBC News Online the opposition wanted a moratorium on GM food as well as better labelling.

The Conservatives have launched their own draft bill seeking to improve the way GM material is labelled.

Mr Redwood said: "Customers want to know what they are buying.

"We are welcoming the government's change of policy on this and urging them to get on with it to provide clear and simple labelling for people - that if you buy food that has any element in it that has been genetically modified, it will state so on the tin or packet."

Mr Redwood eats GM food but demands to have a choice. He believes the public feel the same way.

Precautionary principle

Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker told BBC News Online: "The present labelling arrangements are wholly unsatisfactory. They require only labelling of tins which are identified after processing.

Norman Baker: "We must always apply the precautionary principle"
"This means that only 10% of GM materials are labelled. This can lead to problems if those particular ingredients cause difficulties later on.

Mr Baker proposed a motion at the party's conference last year calling for a five-year moratorium on the commercial planting of GM foods.

He told BBC News Online: "The DETR and Maff both issued a number of studies to look at the consequences of planting GM crops. It is simply irresponsible and bad science to proceed with commercial planting until those results have been analysed."

Mr Baker's party also want clear segregation between GM crops and normal plants.

He said: "We must always apply the precautionary principle. That says that unless you're sure of adequate control, unless you're sure the risk is minimal, unless you're sure nothing horrible can go wrong, you don't do it.

"Those tests should be applied and they aren't being applied."

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