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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 09:48 GMT
'Slow start' to GM debate
Police advance on protesters   PA
GM confrontation: Feelings run high over possible risks
Environment Minister Michael Meacher has admitted that a public debate on the issues surrounding genetically modified crops has got off to a slow start.

But Mr Meacher insisted there was sufficient funding for the consultation, despite claims to the contrary by the independent chairman in charge of organising it.

The debate is getting under way slower than we would have wished

Michael Meacher
The minister also stressed that no policy decision would be made about GM until the debate was under way.

He was speaking as two major conferences open on Tuesday to consider whether GM crops should be grown on a commercial scale in the UK.

Last summer Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said she hoped the public would "reach their own judgments" on GM by taking part in the debate.

But last week, Professor Malcolm Grant, the man with the job of getting the public talking about GM food, urged the government to delay the start of the debate because of his "deep concerns" about the amount of cash behind the study.

Crop trials

Professor Grant, chairman of the independent Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, said ministers had offered to "double the budget" for the debate, provided Scotland and Wales could be included in it.

But the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly did "not want to get mixed up" in a public debate in the run up to their elections on 1 May, he said.

The result of delaying the start of the debate until after the elections would be that results from the crop trials would become part of the discussions, he said.

Margaret Beckett
Beckett: Wants an open and balanced discussion
Mr Meacher conceded that "the debate is getting under way slower than we would have wished", but he argued that there was sufficient cash for it.

"The government did originally announce 250,000 for the debate last year. The steering board came to us and asked for more. We have offered an extra 155,000," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"We agreed also to cover the Central Office of Information fee, which effectively means a net increase of about 200,000 - nearly doubling it.

"Our belief is that this is sufficient to deliver a credible debate, though we are still trying to establish if we can offer more."

'Open process'

Mr Meacher said the government wanted to "give people an opportunity to have genuine discussions" about GM, because the debate had been "extremely polarised".

The exercise has three strands. These include the public debate, managed by Prof Grant's steering board, plus a study of the costs and benefits of GM, undertaken by the prime minister's strategy unit.

Mr Meacher said this would involve "a no GM scenario - it will be an open process".

There is also a scientific review to identify where there is consensus and also where there is disagreement.

The report on the debate is expected in June.

Sue Meyer, director of anti-GM pressure group GeneWatch, said she hoped the debate would be "special" have "real substance" and "perhaps change how we do democracy".

But Dr Meyer said she did not believe the government's offers of cash for the debate met its own estimates of what the exercise will cost.

See also:

05 Feb 03 | Politics
29 Nov 02 | Politics
26 Nov 02 | Science/Nature
20 Nov 02 | Scotland
11 Sep 02 | Scotland
26 Jul 02 | Politics
26 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
Internet links:


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