Government determined to sell GM food to consumers

Crop production likely to be given the green light as Whitehall seeks to overcome public hostility

Tony Blair's advisers are to launch a new offensive this summer to persuade British consumers that genetically modified foods are safe.

Two official reports will be published within weeks claiming it is in Britain's economic and scientific interests to press ahead with planting GM crops and selling GM foods.

Their release will lead to a marked escalation in the battle between opponents of GM technology, led by Britain's largest environment and consumer groups, and Mr Blair's senior scientific advisers.

Whitehall officials and supporters of GM foods are determined to soften up the public for the results of controversial crop trials that are due to be published this autumn by the Royal Society.

It is widely expected that ministers will use the trial results to give the green light to commercial GM crop production and imports in the UK - despite deep-seated public opposition.

Informed sources close to government policy on the issue believe the decision to plant GM crops and accept GM food imports has already been made, despite public denials by Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary.

But Government attempts to build up a united front in favour of GM crops are being threatened by a serious row within another influential advisory body, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission.

The AEBC, an expert panel including scientists, food companies, farmers, lawyers and environmentalists, has been unable to agree on proposals to make the biotech industry liable for all accidents involving GM crops or foods.

The panel is split over whether biotech firms should be "strictly liable" for cross-contamination of non-GM crops and health problems arising from their products. The industry wants the taxpayer to pay compensation. The row has delayed the AEBC's report on legal liability. However, the Prime Minister's strategic policy unit at Downing Street is expected to publish a detailed review of the economic case for GM foods on 11 July. This will be quickly followed by an assessment overseen by Mr Blair's chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, which has drawn heavily on research by the pro-GM Food Standards Agency.

The two reports are understood to accept that there are still environmental and economic problems with GM crops, but both are expected to insist it is in Britain's long-term strategic interests to embrace GM technologies.

Professor King's review will state there is no evidence that GM foods pose any threat to human health but is likely to concede that further work is required to monitor the effects on the environment.

However, the economic case is harder to make. Share prices in biotech companies have slumped, smaller biotech firms have closed down, and research spending is in decline because investors are worried by the level of public hostility to GM technology and about poor economic performance by many biotech firms.

Despite this, pro-GM officials in Whitehall, supported by the European Commission, believe that UK plc risks losing important business contracts and scientific opportunities if Britain rejects GM technologies.

Such arguments do not carry weight with their opponents. Dr Sue Mayer, director of the campaign group Genewatch, said: "There seems to be a narrow notion in Government that the only good science is GM science and that unless we invest in GM, it will reflect poorly on the country. We argue that investing in GM will ultimately reflect even more poorly on our science."

All you need to know in a jungle of science and ethics

What is GM food?

Genetically modified food is made with ingredients such as soya or maize, with genes from other plants, bacteria or even animals added, or with their own genes altered or taken away. They could include bread made from pesticide-resistant wheat, tomato puree from slow-ripening tomatoes or ready meals using weed-killer-resistant beans. One firm also wants to sell GM salmon altered to grow fast in cold water.

Is GM food on sale in Britain?

No. GM tomato puree was once, but such foods were withdrawn because of public concern. GM crops may be grown after environmental safety checks are completed this autumn and labelling rules are agreed. British supermarkets refuse to stock GM food because of public hostility. The US government is taking the EU to court because it has blocked imports of new GM crops.

Why is GM food back on the political agenda?

Tony Blair and his scientific advisers believe Britain should grow and create GM food for both agricultural and economic benefits. The results of trials to test the impact of GM crops on wildlife will be revealed this autumn. Ministers are also staging a "public debate" to overcome consumer and retailer resistance. Within weeks, Downing Street and Mr Blair's chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, will release reports that praise GM technology.

What does Tony Blair want?

The Prime Minister fears that UK plc will lose out in the global economy and scientific "arms race" unless we can exploit GM technologies. Under pressure from the US President, George Bush, and his own advisers, including the Food Standards Agency chief, Sir John Krebs, Mr Blair wants to lift a moratorium on GM crops.

Is it safe to eat?

Government scientists insist there is no evidence that they harm human health and claim millions of Americans eat GM-based food without ill effect. But some research has shown GM DNA will cross from food into human bacteria. The British Medical Association believes they pose unforeseen health risks and the General Medical Council fears the biological effects are poorly understood.

Is it safe for the environment?

Evidence is growing that genes from GM crops will "jump" into conventional crops or weeds, and be carried long distances by tractors or bees. This could produce "superweeds", contaminate and damage non-GM crops or lead to unforeseen mutations. GM fish could breed with threatened native salmon. But some GM food requires less pesticides or herbicides, or grows faster to cut fertiliser use. This could help other plants and wildlife.

What is the case for GM?

Crops can grow faster or bigger, grow in hostile soil, be able to resist disease or drought and fight off parasites. A type of GM rice has higher levels of Vitamin A and a GM potato has a third more protein in it. A GM tomato can grow in salty soil. Crops can also have the genes which cause allergies or illness "switched off".

What is the case against?

GM technology is far cruder than admitted and many claimed benefits are unproven or disproved. GM crops could pose unforeseen and irreversible effects. But British crop trials only test their effect on wildlife - not their threat to other plants. In Canada, superweeds resistant to three types of pesticide have emerged. GM oilseed rape and maize has crossed into non-GM plants. This damages native crops and could permanently alter their genes. GM crops which need less weedkillers are only tolerant to expensive, patented, chemicals. Antibiotic genes in plants could worsen the crisis with antibiotic resistance. Insects and wildlife could be harmed by eating GM pollen or seeds.

Who controls them?

GM seeds and their related fertilisers or herbicides are made by three multinationals: Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer. GM plants are patented and often expensive to buy, although the UK is creating GM potatoes and rice for Third World farmers. The European Commission wants strict labelling of all GM food and testing of ingredients. UK ministers want strict rules on planting GM crops. Critics complain that the technology is largely controlled by multinationals.

Does the public want them?

No, not yet. Although most consumers will accept biotechnology in medicine, they are suspicious of GM food. Consumers want far more evidence that it is safe and necessary.

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