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Thursday, April 29, 1999 Published at 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK

UK Politics

Media lashed for GM scare stories

No approval for GM crops until tests are complete

No genetically-modified crops will be licensed to be grown in the UK until current testing is complete, government ministers have insisted.

They hit out at the media for their coverage of the GM controversy, some of which was termed "less than accurate".

Environment Minister Michael Meacher and Jeff Rooker, the Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Food, on Thursday gave evidence to the Commons Environmental Audit Committee.

[ image: No cabinet tensions over GM issue - Jeff Rooker, Agriculture Minister]
No cabinet tensions over GM issue - Jeff Rooker, Agriculture Minister
Mr Rooker told the committee he did not have ethical objections to GM food. Recently, the prime minister's spokesman revealed he consumed products containing such ingredients.

Earlier this week, Mr Blair, answering a Commons question, described GM crops as having the "potential to provide food which is more nutritious and better tasting".

When questioned on what was termed by one committee member as a "ringing endorsement", Mr Rooker said that he would not tell people what they could or could not eat on ethical grounds.

He did emphasise that the primary concern of the government was to ensure that all necessary precautions, such as exhaustive research, would be taken to ensure that there was no risk to public health or that no damage would be done to the environment.

Policy not based on headlines

The media were criticised for their "sensational headlines" about GM food.

"We have no complaints about the media having the right to express their opinions but I do complain they expect us to construct policy on the basis of their headlines," Mr Rooker said.

[ image: No risk to environment from GM pollen - Meacher]
No risk to environment from GM pollen - Meacher
He described some of the concerns raised by the media as "quite farfetched" and complained that the media had entangled issues of food safety with environmental concerns.

He also denied that there were any tensions within the government on the issue. He characterised as "unfair" a media claim that put Mr Meacher and himself on the "cautious team" and Mr Blair and Jack Cunningham, a Cabinet Office minister, on the "carefree team".

Government efforts are focussing on research into GM crops, safety standards and their impact on the environment, the ministers told the committee.

The committee questioned the ministers on the issue of cross-contamination of non-GM crops by bees carrying pollen from the GM crops.

Mr Meacher responded by saying that only 0.5% of pollen was carried beyond the standard limits.

"I do not accept that there will be environmental consequences from the minute quantities which exceed the distance," he said.

Tests currently underway

A pilot project - known as 'Farmscale' - in which three GM crops are being grown is currently underway. This project is scheduled to run for four years but approval for commercial planting of GM crops may be granted before it ends if the crops meet rigorous government standards.

The crops currently undergoing tests in the Farmscale project - which is currently costing £3.5m annually - include maize, rapeseed oil and sugar beet. The standards centre on the issues of safety, current national seed listings, novel foods and new uses of herbicide.

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