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Friday, May 21, 1999 Published at 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK

UK Politics

Warning: Scientists risk official modification

Cabinet "enforcer" Jack Cunningham is leaking the GM offensive

The oral statement by the Cabinet "enforcer" to Parliament on Friday was intended to get the government back on the front foot on genetically-modified foods.

That was the phrase used in a leaked letter from the Cabinet Secretariat detailing the new GM strategy. It would "present the government's stance as a single package", it said.

The leak further revealed the existence of a Biotechnology Presentation Committee, composed of senior ministers and meeting regularly in Whitehall.

[ image: The leak proved a gift to those opposed to GM crops]
The leak proved a gift to those opposed to GM crops
This group had rewritten the report of Chief Scientist Sir Robert May - also released on Friday to assure consumers existing GM foods on sale in Britain are safe to eat - "to make sure it was intelligible to the lay reader".

The letter proved a gift to both those who challenge the government's position on GM foods and those who in general perceive it to be obsessed with spin to the detriment of substance.

As the Cabinet Office minister toured the broadcast studios in defence of his stance, his critics could snipe that he had plotted to plant an "independent" scientist on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, while departments were told to line up "third parties" to author supportive articles for newspapers.

Conservative health spokesman Alan Duncan said the government's focus on presentation would deny consumers an informed choice about what they eat.

Food under the microscope
"When it comes to GM food we've now got a propaganda unit in Number 10, which is essentially Tony Blair's version of what he believes, which is to hell with the voter you eat what I tell you.

"Here we've got a classic examples where freedom of choice does matter. You've got William Hague standing up in Parliament and Tony Blair trying to give him the brush off and now the consumer is confused about what they're going to eat."

For the Liberal Democrats, Norman Baker suggested the government's response to all criticism was to "try to spin it all away".

[ image: Charles Secrett:
Charles Secrett: "The government wants to spin GM food down our throats"
The leaked letter was made public by the environment campaign group Friends of the Earth. Its executive director Charles Secrett accused ministers of not being interested in a genuine debate.

"It wants to spin GM food down our throats whether we like it or not," he said.

"To persuade us to love what the biotech companies want us to eat, 'independent' scientists will be lined up who can be relied on to say what the government wants to hear.

"Ministers will rewrite advice from their most senior medical and scientific advisers so that the public gets the message that Jack Cunningham prefers.

"The government is wasting the time of officials all over Whitehall, not to ensure that decisions about GM food are made in the public interest, but to try to avoid looking stupid in the newspapers. This attempt is doomed to failure."

Speaking on the Today programme, Mr Cunningham denied the accusations against him and his government.

He said: "This is the important thing for the public to understand: no-one has produced any evidence there is any risk from the genetically-modified food currently on sale in Britain.

"The people who are concerned - and government ministers understand the concerns very well - are not helped by the alarmist claims put out by Friends of the Earth."

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