The Government has asked its top scientist to investigate the merits of genetically modified food in the hope that his verdict will allay public fears about so-called "Frankenstein foods".
Officially, Gordon Brown and his ministers remain neutral on the issue of GM because of public hostility, saying that they will be "guided by the science". But they have quietly ordered a major research project, which they hope will provide the launchpad for a campaign to persuade people that GM food is safe.
The study will be led by Professor John Beddington, the Government's Chief Scientific Officer, and carried out by the Foresight Institute, a science and technology think-tank that looks into long-term issues for the Government.
The group's remit – how to feed a world population which could rise to nine billion by 2050 – makes no mention of the GM issue. But Jane Kennedy, the minister for Farming and the Environment, told The Independent yesterday that the group's work would include the potential for GM crops and food.
She said that she was "cautious" about allowing GM products in Britain, but added: "My own opinion is less important than what John Beddington might come up with. When the public are deeply concerned and hold strong views, they tend not to listen when ministers express a view. But they will listen to those who have the experience and knowledge to be able to offer solid advice."
Ms Kennedy said that she would welcome GM crop trials in Britain. None is currently taking place because all projects have been vandalised by opponents but the Government may fund an experiment at a "secure" location.
The minister said another reason why the issue had to be addressed was that animal feed, such as soya, was increasingly made using GM products. "The options for those countries which want to stay GM-free are reducing, therefore the price of non-GM animal feed is going up. If that trend continues, it means meat products in countries which choose not to use GM becoming more and more expensive. There are clear implications for the UK," she said. Britain is backing moves by the European Commission to relax EU rules on importing GM animal feed but a majority of member states remain cautious.
Several Cabinet ministers are convinced that GM technology will help to solve the world's food crisis. One said: "Gordon Brown wants a debate about the issue. But he wants it to be led by the scientists, not by politicians. We have now put the ball in the scientists' court."
Environmental groups accused the Government last night of trying to sneak in GM food, despite accepting the findings of a four-year international study involving 400 scientists last year which failed to give GM the green light.
Clare Oxborrow, the senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "[The Government] is obsessed with GM as a techno-fix solution to problems in food and farming which are much more complex."
The official remit for the Government's study says that"the project will look out to 2050 and take a global view of the food system [and]... how new science, policies and interventions could best address future challenges".
Also on the agenda will be the pressures on land used for non-food purposes such as biofuels.