Blair blames GM hysteria on the press

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The Independent Online
THE PRIME MINISTER condemned the media yesterday for whipping up public "hysteria" over genetically modified foods, claiming that reporting was "skewed" against the GM industry.

Tony Blair made the comments at the weekly meeting of the Cabinet armed with the conclusion of a report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which said GM foods posed no heightened risk to consumers and could help to prevent global hunger.

A Downing Street spokesman disclosed: "The Prime Minister said it was extraordinary the extent to which the media barely reported reports such as this but gave huge reports to anything which fed the hysteria."

Unveiling its findings, the Nuffield Council said that although GM crops did not benefit consumers directly at present, they would eventually. Future research could bring tastier chips, vegetables that contain added vitamins and nuts that do not cause allergies.

But Professor Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, who chaired the panel for the council, said: "Commercial incentives won't be enough to encourage the development of crops that the Third World countries need or that their farmers can afford." Two-thirds of land sown with GM crops is in the United States, the panel noted.

However, the report was immediately criticised by Christian Aid, which two weeks ago released its own report, strongly critical of the promises of GM to the developing world. Andrew Simms, that report's author, said: "There's more than enough food to feed everybody in the world. Eight out of ten hungry children in poor countries live surrounded by food surplus."

But Professor Michael Lipton, of the Poverty Research Unit at the University of Sussex, retorted: "It would be cruel to deny people these products just because they wouldn't need them in Cloud-cuckoo-land. The pace of land reform, given the political realities, will always be too slow."

Professor Lipton said that 240 million people went hungry or developed diseases leading to blindness and other debilitating conditions because they lacked nutritious food. "If you compare the area of GM rice, sorghum or millet planted - which is less than 5 per cent of the total - with the area of GM tobacco - which is 10 per cent of the total for that crop - then you see the problem. It is not particular wickedness of the part of these companies, it is their response to market forces," he said.

One panel member, Julie Hill of the environmental charity Green Alliance, backed its assertion that there is no need for a moratorium on the commercial planting of crops in the Britain. She suggested that other environmental groups, which have by contrast called for global bans, were "unfair".

The panel sought to allay public fears, concluding that food with GM elements on sale in Britain was as safe as any other - although they did agree that labelling to allow choice was useful in providing reassurance.

"When you drive a car, it's not entirely safe but you do it of your own free will," said Professor Ryan. "People shouldn't have risk dumped on them without their consent."