Crops `being modified to benefit rich'

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The Independent Online
BIOTECHNOLOGY companies were accused yesterday of lining their shareholders' pockets by producing genetically modified (GM) crops to benefit rich countries, rather than Third World nations where the technology could save lives.

A two-year investigation by a panel for the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body, concluded that GM foods posed no heightened risk compared with normal food - but added that the "moral imperative" is "compelling" for making GM crops that would actually benefit consumers readily and economically available to developing countries that want them.

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 United Kingdom. She suggested that other environmental groups, which have by contrast called for global bans, were "unfair".

The nine-member panel, which included scientists, the restaurateur Prue Leith, and Ms Hill, 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 consumer 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."

t Tony Blair accused the media of "extraordinary" reporting of the row over GM food. The Prime Minister told the Cabinet's weekly meeting that while positive scientific reports were barely reported, the media gave huge space to "anything which fed the hysteria", a Downing Street spokesman said.