Blair forced to scale back his plan to introduce GM farming

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is drastically scaling down his plans to introduce GM farming in Britain in the wake of the Hutton inquiry, the Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Senior officials at the centre of the issue concede that the Prime Minister has accepted that it would be politically "too risky" to force through widespread commercial planting of GM crops in the teeth of public opposition, following the catastrophic collapse in public trust following the Iraq War and Dr David Kelly's apparent suicide.

The Government's formal decision on the technology, expected next month, will now not be taken before the end of the year "at the earliest", official sources say. And ministers and officials are now going out of their way to insist that the Prime Minister is not "gung-ho" about it, even though his personal enthusiasm - coupled with attacks on GM sceptics as "anti-science" - has long defined the Government's position.

The Prime Minister was in Chequers this weekend preparing himself for his appearance before the Hutton Inquiry on Thursday.

In response to intense pressure as the Hutton Inquiry continues to lay bare the inner workings of the Blair government, the Prime Minister is changing his tactics. His new plan, sources say, is to secure a limited and heavily regulated introduction of some GM crops - rather than the previously expected blanket approval - in the hope of expanding them later. But there is concern in Whitehall that even this may be unachievable.

Ministers and officials have been shocked by the extent of public opposition revealed by the Government's "public debate" on GM over the last few months. Originally denounced by critics as a sham, it has in fact stimulated over 600 public meetings around Britain, and led to 36,000 people registering their views on the debate website.

The breakdown of the public reaction has yet to be published, but it is believed to demonstrate widespread hostility to GM crops and foods and show that the Government, the biotechnology industry, and the largely pro-GM scientific establishment have signally failed to convince Britons.

Their case has also been severely shaken by two reports from the heart of Government last month, which ministers originally believed would give them a green light.

The first, from the Cabinet Office, concluded that growing GM crops would provide no immediate benefit to consumers or the economy, exploding the Prime Minister's repeated insistence that they were economically essential.

The second - by a scientific panel led by Dr David King, the government's chief scientist - concluded that it would be impossible to grow some GM crops without them contaminating organic produce, reinforcing mounting ministerial concern about alienating the rapidly growing numbers of consumers opting for the chemical-free food.

Meanwhile the third leg of the Government's case - that GM crops would help feed the world - has been undermined by denials by Oxfam, Action Aid, Christian Aid and other charities at the cutting edge of the battle against hunger.

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