Page last updated at 03:09 GMT, Thursday, 19 June 2008 04:09 UK

Government wants GM crops debate

A combine harvester gathers a crop. File photo
It is argued that GM crops could help amid rising food prices

The government is ready to argue for a greater role for genetically-modified (GM) crops, says Environment Minister Phil Woolas.

He wants a debate on the benefits, amid rising food prices, of GM crops possibly offering greater yields, particularly in the developing world.

The government's position could alarm campaigners who have expressed fears about the crops' safety in the past.

Gordon Brown is expected to argue for cuts in the cost of some GM products.

The prime minister is expected to argue in favour of cost cuts for GM products used in animal feed at the EU summit in Brussels later.

He is also expected to urge fellow leaders to look again at GM as a way of reducing the cost of food for the world's poorest countries.

Mr Woolas has reportedly held talks with the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, an umbrella group formed in 2000 to promote the role of biotechnology in agriculture.

The minister told the Independent: "There is a growing question of whether GM crops can help the developing world out of the current food price crisis.

This is an uncertain technology which the scientists can't control
Lord Melchett
Soil Association
"It is a question that we as a nation need to ask ourselves. The debate is already under way.

"Many people concerned about poverty in the developing world and the environment are wrestling with this issue," he said.

Ministers argue there is a growing body of evidence that GM crops are safe.

However, following a public debate about the foods, the government made clear in 2004 that commercial planting would go ahead only on a case-by-case basis if it can be shown to be safe for humans and the environment.

Biotech crops, including corn and soybeans that have been genetically modified to resist insects or disease, have been widely grown in the US for years.

At present, there is no commercial cultivation of GM plants in the UK and only one trial, involving potatoes, is under way, in Cambridgeshire.

Temporary ban

Lord Peter Melchett, from the Soil Association, is among those to have expressed concerns about GM crops.

"The problem is this is an uncertain technology which the scientists can't control. They do not know what impact it may have when it is released into the environment," he told the BBC in a recent interview.

"In controlled conditions, where GM organisms can't escape, it is a different matter. But if you put it in the environment GM can get into the soil. We don't even know enough about the soil to know the effect it may have."

He said GM crops were "very risky for the environment" because of "huge unknowns".

And there are continuing concerns in France about the safety of GM crops.

In December, Paris imposed a temporary ban on the commercial sale of a genetically-modified crop (MON 810) grown in France and developed by the US biotech company, Monsanto.

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