Labour sues for peace on GM foods

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THE GOVERNMENT is seeking peace talks with environmentalists and consumer groups in an attempt to end the battle over genetically modified foods, the Independent on Sunday can reveal.

THE GOVERNMENT is seeking peace talks with environmentalists and consumer groups in an attempt to end the battle over genetically modified foods, the Independent on Sunday can reveal.

In an extraordinary turn around, the Cabinet Office - run by Dr Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet "enforcer" - has signalled its commitment to opening negotiations. Dr Cunningham, who co-ordinates the Government's policies, is the Cabinet's foremost proponent of the bio-technology.

The news astounded environmentalists, who described it as a "tremendous development". Patrick Holden, the Director of the Soil Association, one of the main groups campaigning against GM foods, said: "Coming from Cunningham's office, this is major. It means either that it has finally got through to him that the public is revolting, or that an order has come down from above that he has got to start to listen and prepare the Government for a new position."

The move came in a letter from the Cabinet Office at the beginning of this month to the Environment Council, a charity which specialises in holding "stakeholder dialogues" between warring parties overcontroversial green issues - that have included the fate of the Brent Spar oil platform, nuclear power and genetically modified organisms.

As reported in the Independent on Sunday last week, the Council arranged four meetings between Monsanto and environment and consumer groups last month at the GM giant's request.

The letter made clear that the Government was prepared to commit itself to a dialogue and supported and welcomed it.

Monsanto and the Environment Council will now approach pressure groups and other companies to see if they are prepared to join in. The Council said it would then enter a period of "delicate negotiations", which it compared to starting up a "peace process", holding exploratory talks over the next month with the aim of arranging a large-scale meeting in the spring.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office confirmed that it would take part in the talks, and said that ministers regularly meet "green lobby groups, as well as representatives from the biotech industry".

But the Council has made it clear to the Government that this will be a very different process from what has gone before. It has said that the new dialogue is designed to find common ground for the basis of a different way of making decisions, in which opposing parties define the problem, reach agreement, and then implement the solution, rather than the Government making a decision, announcing it, and then having to defend it.

Steve Robinson, the Council's chief executive, said of the Government's commitment: "It is a very welcome development because this is such a knotty issue that needs this kind of approach. If we can get it moving there is a chance of trying to find a way through it.

He added: "We cannot create peace. It is up to the participants to do that. But the will for peace is beginning to dawn on them."

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