Consumer Policy: Ministers demand checks on GM food

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A POWERFUL government committee is to investigate genetically modified foods because of growing consumer fears about their safety. The Ministerial Group on Biotechnology and Genetic Modification will be chaired by the Cabinet "enforcer", Jack Cunningham, in an attempt to monitor commercial development of the crops.

As Downing Street unveiled the committee yesterday, the Environment minister, Michael Meacher, confirmed to Parliament that much tougher checks would be carried out on GM products under a voluntary agreement with the industry.

However, Friends of the Earth said it was disappointed the Government had not taken up English Nature's proposal to impose a five-year moratorium on the commercial growing of such crops. Mr Meacher told a Lords select committee that no insect-resistant crops will be introduced to the UK for three years and pledged to provide much more information about the fast-developing business.

Environmentalists have warned that crops genetically engineered to tolerate weedkillers and pesticides could have a disastrous effect on the food chain, destroying other plant, bird and insect life.

Yesterday's announcement followed a survey by Friends of the Earth, which found 58 per cent of shoppers wanted supermarkets to ban the products.

Both Mr Meacher and the Food minister, Jeff Rooker, said caution was needed to protect biodiversity and human health and announced that they would strictly monitor the first commercial plantings.

Planting of herbicide and pesticide tolerant crops will be limited and checked for ecological effects alongside comparable plantings of conventional plants.

Mr Meacher said the Government's aim was to strike the right balance between protecting the environment and human health on one hand, and on the other maintaining the proper degree of certainty needed by business for the development of new products.

"I think it is right to be cautious at this relatively early stage of the use of the technology in the environment and to make sure that for every product we have practical evidence on safety before we take a decision to move to commercialisation," he said. The process will be underpinned by strict guidelines for best practice in using GM crops, he added. "The results of these farm-scale evaluations will be carefully assessed before moving further."

Tony Juniper, of Friends of the Earth, claimed the new arrangements did not go far enough and the voluntary framework proved that the Government had buckled under pressure from the GM foods industry.