The key to GM is its potential, both for harm and good

By Tony Blair
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Four hundred experts are flying into Britain this weekend for the first ever global conference on genetically modified food and human health. It's an important event because it will be the first time that so many scientists, and with so many different views, meet to discuss this issue of real public concern.

Four hundred experts are flying into Britain this weekend for the first ever global conference on genetically modified food and human health. It's an important event because it will be the first time that so many scientists, and with so many different views, meet to discuss this issue of real public concern.

World leaders recognised both this public concern and the very real issues behind it at the G8 summit in Cologne last year. They asked the OECD, the world think-tank, to produce a report on food safety and human health including GM technology. This conference is a vital part of that study. I am delighted that Britain is hosting this conference in Edinburgh and that Professor John Krebs of Oxford University was chosen to chair it. Sir John was picked by the OECD, on the basis of his reputation and qualifications, before we announced that he will head the new Food Standards Agency, the independent new watchdog. It shows we made the right choice.

The conference underlines this government's determination to have as informed and balanced a debate as possible on GM food and crops. Any casual glance at the guest list would kill off fears that this event is intended to rubber-stamp the safety of GM foods. Scientists with a wide variety of views on GM foods will be attending and speaking. They include Dr Arpad Pusztai whose research helped fuel the controversy over GM foods in this country. But although it is vital that science remains at the heart of this debate, we also recognise that consumers and environmental groups have an important role to play in ensuring we reach the right answers.

So organisations such as the Consumers' Association, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam have also been invited. Britain is also funding representatives from the developing world to attend because they, too, have a stake in this issue. The conference will debate the whole area of GM food safety and human health, examining current scientific understanding and areas of continuing uncertainty, future prospects for the technology and the potential benefits and risks. It recognises the jury is still out on the application of this new technology to food and crops and that there is cause for legitimate public concern - concern that has been reflected in the Independent on Sunday. I, and this government, understand such anxieties.

There is no doubt that there is potential for harm, both in terms of human safety and in the diversity of our environment, from GM foods and crops. It's why the protection of the public and the environment is, and will remain, the Government's over-riding priority.

But there is no doubt, either, that this new technology could bring benefits for mankind. Some of the benefits from biotechnology are already being seen in related areas such as the production of life-saving medicines. GM technology has, for instance, helped diabetics by the production of insulin. GM crops, too, have the potential for good - helping feed the hungry by increasing yields, enabling new strains of crops to be grown in hostile conditions, or which are resistant to pests and disease.

The key word here is potential, both in terms of harm and benefit. The potential for good highlights why we are right not to slam the door on GM food or crops without further research. The potential for harm shows why we are right to proceed very cautiously indeed. And that is exactly what we are doing.

You get used in politics to having your views misrepresented. But nothing has puzzled me more than claims that this government is an unquestioning supporter of GM food. We are not pro or anti-GM food. We are pro-safety, pro-environment and pro-consumer choice.

Despite what you might have been led to believe, there are only two GM food ingredients on sale in this country, both licensed before May 1997. They successfully passed safety testing procedures both here and abroad which were already far tighter than for any non-GM food. Testing has been tightened by this government even further. I can promise that no GM food will be put on the market here without going through the most rigorous safety assessments in the world.

We also recognise the genuine fears over the impact of GM crops on our environment and wildlife. That is why no GM crops will be grown commercially in this country until we are satisfied there will be no unacceptable impact on the environment. Rigorous tests have already taken place in laboratories and greenhouses on GM crops but they cannot possibly give us a clear indication of their impact on the countryside itself.

So we have licensed, with the backing of groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and English Nature, a four-year programme of farm-scale trials to monitor independently the effect on wildlife and the environment. Only then will any decision be taken on the commercial growing of GM crops. Compare that with the position in the United States, where an area the size of Wales is already under commercial GM crops.

We have demonstrated we are pro-choice and pro-consumer by leading the way in Europe over the labelling of GM foods. We know there are people who do not want their families to eat GM foods - and that is their right. But it is not much of a right unless they know what they are eating, which was not the position when this government came to power. So we have insisted that products containing GM foods on shop shelves have to be labelled. And anyone eating in a restaurant has a legal right now to ask whether the food they serve contains GM ingredients. And we are leading the fight to have labelling extended in Europe.

We have also radically overhauled the regulatory and advisory processes so that consumers have a real say on GM foods. We are setting up two new commissions, with strong consumer representation, to provide government with advice on a whole range of biotech issues.

We are increasing confidence in the whole regulatory system by making their deliberations as open, transparent and inclusive as possible. We have launched a new website to help answer questions about GM foods and this government's stance. It's one way this government is helping an informed and balanced debate, a debate which this weekend's conference can only help.

It is right that this conference should be held here in Britain and under a British chairman. Our scientists are among the world leaders in the whole area of biotechnology. It is exactly the kind of knowledge-based industry which could help provide more jobs and more prosperity in the future. But jobs and profit will never be more important for a responsible government than concern over human health and our environment. I can promise this government will continue to act with caution on the basis of the best available science. But increasingly the industry itself is recognising the importance of these issues, because without tackling them it can have no long-term future.

There is no doubt that advances in bio-technology when applied to food and crops could deliver real benefits for us all. Many bodies such as the Royal Society, the Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics, English Nature and the Consumers' Association have recognised this. And the announcement last month of a breakthrough in the development of "golden rice" which could combat vitamin A deficiency - a major cause of malnutrition and blindness in the developing world - shows what can be achieved.

The challenge for scientists is to demonstrate that they can use these advances not just for making profits for firms but to improve the lives of people. The challenge for governments is to provide the highest level of protection for human health and the environment. I can promise this government will continue to meet this challenge.