Blair wrong on GM crops, says chief government scientist

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT'S most senior scientist has contradicted Tony Blair's policy on genetically modified crops with a call for a four-year ban on their commercial release.

In a letter leaked to The Independent, Sir Robert May, the Chief Scientific Adviser, states that ministers should not allow GM crops to be released on to the market before 2003 "at the earliest".

Mr Blair and his ministers have repeatedly refused demands from English Nature and other environmental groups for a four-year ban, preferring instead a voluntary agreement with bio-tech companies.

But in a letter to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Sir Robert makes it clear he agrees with its view that no releases should occur until farm-scale crop trials are completed at the end of 2002. "I guess we really are in complete agreement, because I share your view that I `do not see how ministers could contemplate giving permission for commercial release of the GM crops covered by this research until January 2003 at the earliest'," he writes.

Sir Robert's comments conflict directly with the Government's position on the issue and represent the most high-profile support to date for environmentalists' calls for a moratorium. His stance will cause intense embarrassment to ministers, as he will appear at a government press conference next week to unveil a report that he co-wrote with the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Sir William Donaldson. The report, which will be presented by Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet Office Minister, will conclude that genetically modified foods are safe to eat.

When the controversy over GM foods first broke earlier this year, Mr Blair told the Commons that a moratorium would increase rather than decrease public concern over the safety of GM crops.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and other cabinet ministers also issued an open letter ruling out a moratorium. Their joint statement made clear that the Government believed that the case for permitting commercial plantings should also be considered after each year of the four-year farm trials. "We believe it would be appropriate to allow a move to limited and carefully monitored production after, say, one year of farm-scale trials if the evidence was sufficient to demonstrate clearly that the crop would not have a damaging effect on the environment," the statement said.

Dr Mark Avery, director of conservation at the RSPB, said that there now seemed a clear gap between government policy on the commercial release of GM crops and the opinions of its chief scientific adviser.

"The Government should end the speculation and announce that there will be no commercial release until 2003 at the earliest. To do otherwise would give the impression that political pressure from industry was over-riding arguments based on science," he said.

"The RSPB has constantly pressed the Government to delay the commercial release of GM crops until the full four-year trial period has elapsed and it would seem the Chief Scientific officer now agrees with us.

"Public confidence in GM technology is already fragile and any suggestion that the Government is ignoring its own scientific advisers over environmental safety might have damaging consequences."

Government anxiety over the issue was further revealed yesterday by a leaked Cabinet Office memo, showing that ministers have a secret spin offensive to push the benefits of bio-technology and to "get on the front foot" in the media furore over GM crops and food.

The three-page memo from the meeting on Monday last week shows that ministers are worried that they are not "getting the message across".

Among those attending were Mr Cunningham, the Health minister, Tessa Jowell, the Environment minister, Michael Meacher and the Agriculture minister, Jeff Rooker. The three-page memo shows that a committee drawn from five departments has been monitoring media coverage of the GM debate, with the Government seeking an "independent" scientist who would appear onBBC Radio 4's Today programme to back the technology, while civil servants are required to find non-government sources who would write supportive articles for the media once the CMO's report is published. It also reveals that ministers have approached the National Consumers' Council "to seek their endorsement".

Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, which was sent the leaked document, said last night: "The truth is out there at last - the Government is not interested in a genuine debate on GM food. It wants to spin GM food down our throats whether we like it or not. The Government is wasting the time of officials all over Whitehall, not to ensure that decisions about GM food are made in the public interest, but to try to avoid looking stupid in the newspapers."

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