Science review panel struggles to reach agreement on risks of GM technology

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The Independent Online

A key government-sponsored review panel on the science of genetically modified technology is struggling to reach agreement in advance of its report, due in 10 days.

The importance of the panel's conclusions for Tony Blair and other pro-GM ministers is all the higher because another GM review, on the technology's potential costs and benefits, due to be published today, is reported to conclude there is no economic argument in favour of it.

At stake is the headline message that will be given by the GM science review, chaired by the Government's chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King, and scheduled for publication a week on Monday.

Although the review's 24-strong panel of senior scientists, including some who are openly pro or anti-GM, has worked well together for the past eight months, differences are emerging on the wording of the short executive summary of the review report, often thought of as "all that anyone reads". In particular, there are concerns over the language to be used to sum up uncertainties and potential risks to health and the environment from GM technology.

Professor King has said the review would not be either a "red light or a green light" for the crucial decision on whether GM crops are to be grown in Britain. But there is no doubt the tone and emphasis of the summary's comments could be a powerful tool for either side, depending on which way it falls.

An early draft of the summary, produced by civil servants, was thought by some panel members to reflect insufficiently the risks and uncertainties referred to in the body of the report. "Vigorous argument is now going on," one source close to the review said.

The science and economic reviews are two strands of the Government's campaign to show that any decision to sanction the commercial planting of GM crops has been taken democratically and transparently. Another strand is the public GM debate, which began on 3 June with a series of conferences up and down Britain and finishes at the end of next week.

Even if all three fail to back the Government's wish to go down the GM road, Mr Blair can still ignore them, on the basis that the decision to authorise particular GM crops for growth is an EU one. One of the four GM crops intended for commercial growing in Britain has been authorised; the other three are expected to receive authorisation shortly.

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