Blair accused of U-turn on GM crop programme

The Government was accused of a U-turn over genetically modified crops yesterday because ministers are expected to ban their release for the next three years.

The Government was accused of a U-turn over genetically modified crops yesterday because ministers are expected to ban their release for the next three years.

Under a deal with the biotechnology industry, none of the crops will be planted commercially until current farm-scale trials are completed in 2002. Downing Street revealed that the deal for a voluntary moratorium is close to completion and is likely to be announced by Michael Meacher, an Environment minister, next month. The scheme, which follows widespread public concern over the safety of GM crops, will extend the current one-year ban, due to expire this week.

The Government denied there had been a change in policy, but environmentalists and the Opposition seized on the move as evidence of a U-turn.

The new agreement follows the departure of Jack Cunningham, who was seen as a staunch advocate of GM technology, from the Cabinet last month. Mr Cunningham claimed that a moratorium would hinder British companies attempting to lead the field in the new technology.

Environmental groups, which have demanded a total freeze on all GM planting, gave the deal a cautious welcome, but warned that the detail of the scheme would need close analysis. Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said: "This is a great victory for public pressure. It's good news. There is no question that it's a change of policy."

Friends of the Earth called for a minimum five-year moratorium to allow a public debate on GM food and crops and for the scrapping of the farm-scale trials because of the risk of cross pollination.

Greenpeace said the Government's true attitude to GM crops would be demonstrated tomorrow, when a committee of EU member states' civil servants will vote on whether to allow planting of new varieties of GM oilseed rape. The group's food campaigner, Jim Thomas, said: "This voluntary moratorium is simply a political holding operation while Mr Blair's Government hopes to turn around public opinion."

The shadow Agriculture Minister, Tim Yeo, welcomed the extension of the ban but described the move as a "humiliating climbdown" for the Government. "It's a step in the right direction, albeit one prompted by political expediency, rather than responsibility or principle," he said.

Mr Meacher has been negotiating with companies such as Agrevo and Monsanto to allow the Government to complete its programme of farm-scale trials before commercial planting starts. Some firms have been reluctant to back a three-year moratorium for fear of losing the commercial edge, but ministers have now persuaded them that consumers must be reassured first.

A spokeswoman for the Government's GM unit said Mr Meacher had always maintained that commercial cultivation of GM crops would not be allowed until he was satisfied there would be no unacceptable impact on the environment. "We have not undergone any kind of U-turn. We are hoping to get a three-year moratorium in place and we are pretty close to an agreement," she said.

Tony Blair told the House of Commons yesterday that no products would be placed on the market without rigorous trials, but warned that the Government did not want to send out "an anti-science or anti-biotechnology" message.

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