Meacher's scepticism on GM crops reflects shift in opinion, say greens

Green groups called on the Government to abandon farm-scale trials of genetically modified crops yesterday after the Environment minister Michael Meacher admitted he was sceptical about their usefulness.

The Soil Association said Mr Meacher's comments in yesterday's Independent reflected a shift in wider opinion away from GM crops and their alleged benefits.

The association said that its own fears over the risks of contamination of organic food had been borne out, after Hendrik Verfaille, the chief executive of the biotechnology firm Monsanto, said he would assume no progress in gaining European approval for its products before 2005 because of public and political hostility.

In a further blow to the technology, Zambia became the latest famine-stricken country to reject an American GM maize shipment. Despite 1.75 million people facing starvation, the government feared the possible "long-term effects". Mozambique and Zimbabwe have also rejected GM aid.

Mr Meacher admitted to The Independent that farm-scale trials in Britain might not give an accurate picture of the impact of the technology on plants and wildlife. His comments followed the disclosure last week that crops had been contaminated with unauthorised seeds since the trials began.

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said: "The GM sceptics wing in the Government, I think, is growing ... We warned several years ago of all the potential dangers of introducing GM crops, the risk of crossing into wild species, of contamination of GM-free and organic food, and of containment problems." Mr Holden said Mr Meacher clearly had doubts on the capacity of the trials to show whether GM food was safe. "He is reflecting the politics of a shift away from this determination to roll the crops out in the autumn."

Fourteen people were arrested for criminal damage and aggravated trespass on Sunday when a group of about 50 protesters met to remove a trial of GM oilseed rape near Hilton, Dorset. The site, one of at least 12 where the unauthorised antibiotic-resistant rape was found, was attacked in protest at the blunder by Aventis, which produced the seeds.