Friday, February 12, 1999 Published at 17:49 GMT
'No need' to ban genetic foods
Concerns are growing over the potential side effects of GM food
The government is rejecting fresh calls for a moratorium on genetically-modified foods despite concerns over their safety being raised by scientists, consumer groups and politicians.
The calls for a moratorium follow the controversial findings of a British scientist who argues that genetically-modified potatoes have damaged the immune systems of rats.
Cabinet Office Minister Dr Jack Cunningham said Dr Arpad Pusztai's findings "were in dispute" despite the backing given to them by 20 internationally renowned scientists.
He added that no GM potatoes were grown or sold in the UK.
Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats favour a halt to the commercial production of genetically-modified foods.
The Shadow Agriculture Minister Tim Yeo said he had written to the prime minister asking him to take immediate action to end the commercial planting of certain GM crops.
Mr Yeo said the government should be making decisions on the basis of clear, scientific evidence.
He claimed Dr Cunninhgam had misled the House of Commons over the position of English Nature, the government's advisory body on conservation, and said the minister should be sacked.
"The government should arrange for the evidence to be assessed by someone more trustworthy than Dr Cunningham to restore public confidence in their handling of this issue," he said.
He told BBC News that the scientists who backed Dr Pusztai "are both level headed and suitably cautious".
He said: "I think we need to adopt the same sort of rigorous standards of testing [for GM foods] as we have for pharmaceuticals.
"We are already ingesting tonnes of genetically-modified food over a lifetime. That could have cumulative effects - we simply don't know what they will be.
"Any damage to the immune system of human beings could have calamitous effects in the long run," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Consumers' Association said: "We have asked Tony Blair to conduct a root and branch reform of the regulatory system immediately and until that is done not to allow any new GM food products on to the market."
Dr Cunningham said the government would be "looking at the regulatory system to see if there are any loopholes we need to close."
He added: "The idea that Britain alone can stop these developments is simply not realistic. Biosciences and biotechnology have the potential to bring huge advantages to us in terms of agriculture, health and the environment."
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