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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 11:06 GMT
Government signals GM cool-off
Greenpeace environmental protesters attack a field of genetically modified crops at Lyng, near Norwich, Norfolk
Protesters have ripped up some GM crop trials
The UK Government has hinted it may be cooling its attitude towards genetically modified crops, after it called for a fresh public debate on the issue.

Even if the results of GM field trials around the UK - due next year - are successful, ministers may not approve the technology, despite previously insisting the decision would be based on science alone.

I have always passionately believed in the need for a measure of public acceptance

Environment Minister Michael Meacher
Concerns surrounding GM technology centre on the impact on the environment, wildlife and human health.

The government has asked the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), the independent UK advisory body on the issue, to organise a public debate on attitudes to genetic modification.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher signalled the results would be taken seriously, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Government needs to listen."

Health risk

He said public debate had always been "implicit" in ministers' thinking on GM, but stressed: "This isn't an easy issue.

"On the one hand you've got farmers who do have the right to cultivate what they like, so long as it's not a danger to public health or the environment.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher
Michael Meacher said government would stay out of the debate
"On the other hand, people in a democratic society do have a right to express their views, to have their questions answered, to have their fears and their anxieties taken into account by the authorities.

"It is to reconcile these conflicting interests in a very polarised public debate that we're now looking to the AEBC to help organise a more profound and thorough public debate than we've yet had in this country."

Mr Meacher also hinted he agreed with the AEBC that the results of the ongoing field-scale trials should only be a small part of the decision-making process.

Asked whether the government could reject GM technology even if the trial results were positive, the minister replied: "That's a very important point."

AEBC chairman Professor Malcolm Grant told Today the government had a dilemma, with a narrow regulatory framework, widespread public concern and the European Union's consent-giving process currently frozen.

"The government's going to have to try and draw together these very disparate elements before it takes a decision that not only gets public acceptability of the technology but will also allow for a new approach to agriculture in the UK in which different types of agriculture can co-exist," he said.

Reliable advice

Mr Meacher stressed the debate would be independent of the government.

And he said it had not been decided if the debate should be over whether to allow GM cultivation or over the extent of regulation that should govern its use.

But Prof Grant said: "My view is that we need to have a public debate about those options."

"If it is to have any credibility and to produce for government some reliable advice, it has got to be right across all the options. You can't have a fettered public debate."

Mr Meacher added that another issue also needed to be aired: the acceptable level of GM content in shop-bought food.

A product labelled non-GM can currently have up to 1% GM content, he pointed out.

See also:

24 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
GM crops find friends in China
22 Jan 02 | Business
India nears decision on GM crops
07 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
GM foods safe say supporters
28 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Mexican study raises GM concern
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