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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 21:14 GMT

UK Politics

GM report may be released

Wildlife is under threat, says the report

A leaked report expressing fears about the risks posed by genetically modified foods is likely to be published on Thursday, it has emerged.

Robert Pigott reports on the latest GM controversy
The report was drawn up by the Department of the Environment last June but had not been made public until it was leaked to Friends of the Earth.

The environment pressure group claimed Cabinet Office Minister Jack Cunningham had sought to suppress the report's contents.

But the government insisted it had always planned to publish it and suggested the normal administrative process was to blame for the delays but in an apparent U-turn it may now be rushed out.

Michael Meacher: "No question of secrecy"
Environment Minister Michael Meacher said earlier: "It is wrong to say we're just sitting on a report. We're not, we're getting it out as fast as we can."

'Danger to wildlife and plants'

Food under the microscope
Genetic modification of crops can include giving them an ability to repel insects and to tolerate weedkillers.

The report warns that if growing such crops allows weedkillers to be used more aggressively, some plants and insects could be driven from the countryside.

This would remove the food supply from many farmland birds and animals, with potentially far-reaching implications for the countryside.

[ image: The leaking of the report was embarrassing for ministers]
The leaking of the report was embarrassing for ministers
The paper, GM Crops: Wider Issues - Biodiversity in the Agricultural Environment, questions whether the existing system of regulation for growing GM crops is able to judge what the affects on wildlife could be.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has confirmed the Cabinet committee on GM foods, chaired by Mr Cunningham, will consider releasing the report when it meets on Thursday.

The environment minister denied the dangers set out in the report could occur in Britain.

Mr Meacher said: "We have made clear there will be no commercialisation - no commercial planting of GM crops - until the government is fully satisfied that is safe, first of all in terms of food safety and also in terms of the affects in the environment.

Tory bill to ban GM crops

Conservative leader William Hague said the whole issue had become "an extraordinary shambles" and strengthened the case for a three-year moratorium.

He said the Tories would introduce a bill in the House of Lords to bring in a temporary ban on the commercial use of GM crops.

He added: "It says in the actual report a number of options may exist for addressing the issue: research, voluntary action and legislation.

William Hague: "An extraordinary shambles"
"The government at the moment are proposing not to take the time over the research, not to call for voluntary action and not to have any legislation."

Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown said two major issues existed in relation to GM foods

"What are their impact on human beings and the jury there is out - we should be following the precautionary principle and I'm worried that we're not.

"The second is, what is its affect on the environment - and this report is very clear about that."

Paddy Ashdown: "It is legitimate to ask why it has been delayed so long"
Friends of the Earth executive director Charles Secrett said: "The evidence of possible environmental damage caused by GM crops is clear.

"The evidence of possible damage to human health is growing and urgently needs further work.

"All we ask is a halt to the rush to introduce GM food and crops into Britain until scientific research is completed, published and debated."

The row over the report comes amid a series of allegations about the government's handling of the GM issue and a heightening of consumer fears.

In an unrelated development on Wednesday, two companies - including the GM giant Monsanto - admitted failing to control an area of GM crops.

They were fined a total of £31,000 for breaching government regulations.

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