New blow to Government on GM food as public debate confirms scepticism

The leading academic charged with overseeing the Government's public opinion exercise on the introduction of genetically modified crops admitted yesterday that there was widespread scepticism about their benefits.

The conclusion of Professor Malcolm Grant, chairman of the National GM debate, which ends today after more than 450 public meetings, will be another blow to Tony Blair's determined support for GM crops and food.

The debate, which has lasted six weeks, is the Government's much-trumpeted device for letting people have their say. The official report of the debate, thought to be the largest exercise of its kind, will be delivered to the Government at the end of September by Professor Grant, the new provost of University College London. Nearly 20,000 people have responded

Asked about the general mood, he said: "People are precautionary." There was widespread scepticism about GM crops and foods in general.

Professor Grant, formerly pro vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, emphasised that the material had yet to be fully analysed. No specific conclusions could be drawn.

But the scepticism, he said, was partly because people did not trust the agricultural research done by what they saw as private, profit-making companies such as Monsanto, rather than Government's agricultural research stations. It was also because the GM crops proposed - oilseed rape, maize and beet - did not appeal to people. "There is no perception of potential benefits on a consumer level," he said.

Professor Grant's comments will be especially unwelcome to Mr Blair, and to other pro-GM ministers such as Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, and Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Science minister, as it comes hard on the heels of another official GM exercise which did not go the way the Government may have wished, the Cabinet Office study of GM costs and benefits. This concluded last week that economic benefits from growing GM crops in Britain were likely to be limited.

A third official GM exercise, a review of GM science conducted by a panel led by Professor Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, will report on Monday.

Whether or not the debate has an influence on the decision to authorise the commercial growth of GM crops in Britain, expected in the autumn, remains to be seen. Mrs Beckett promised to "listen" to the conclusions - but not necessarily to take any account of them.

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