Anger at Blair U-turn over modified food

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THE PRIME Minister stepped into the controversy over genetically modified crops yesterday when he rejected calls for a moratorium on their commercial development.

Tony Blair declared that the Government's policy on GM products would be to proceed on the basis of the best scientific evidence rather than "prejudice". However, both the Tory party and green campaigners said Mr Blair was out of step with public opinion on the issue and risked turning it into Labour's equivalent of the BSE crisis.

William Hague, the Tory leader, also attacked the Government for a plan to persuade supermarkets to provide information from their customer loyalty cards on purchases of GM foods.

Greenpeace led the criticism, backing up concerns expressed by English Nature that GM crops could harm the environment. "It is ironic that New Labour on GM crops is starting to look like the Tories on BSE," said Douglas Parr, campaign centre director for Greenpeace. "The Government is failing to acknowledge the real uncertainties about genetic modification, just like the Conservatives failed to acknowledge the uncertainties around the potential problems of mad-cow disease. Releases of genetically modified crops to the environment are irreversible, and any damage they might do is irreversible too."

Tony Juniper, policy director of Friends of the Earth, added: "The Government has promised it will invoke the precautionary principle when it comes to genetically modified crops. There is already enough scientific evidence to justify a halt on further development."

Mr Blair was caught off- guard on the issue when it was raised at Prime Minister's Question Time. Mr Hague said there was "huge public concern" about the possible health and environmental impact of GM products.

People were fearful about reports that supermarket loyalty cards would be used to monitor their purchases and compare them with cancer cases.

Mr Hague asked: "Why hasn't the Government accepted the advice of English Nature, which is by law the Government's advisers on these matters, by delaying for at least three years the commercial release of these crops until more research is done?"

Mr Blair said a moratorium would increase rather than decrease public concern over the crops. "We are doing research on this and of course there is a government committee looking at it too."

Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, will announce today that the ban on beef on the bone is to stay for another six months to avoid all risk of CJD, the human form of BSE, being contracted from eating the meat. Mr Brown was keen to lift the ban - imposed by his predecessor, Jack Cunningham, in December 1997 - and he raised hopes before Christmas that it could be removed quickly.

Today's decision will be greeted with dismay by the beef industry but Mr Brown's hand has been forced by a warning from the Chief Medical Officer that a small risk remains of maternal transmission of BSE from cow to calf.