Dr Jack Cunningham, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, announced measures aimed at calming fears.
They came after The Independent revealed this week that the Government's own chief scientist believed some GM crops should not be released until 2003, while US research showed they posed a threat to wildlife.
Dr Cunningham unveiled a long-awaited report by Government scientists, which concluded that there was no evidence that GM technologies were "inherently harmful". New voluntary guidelines on the planting of crops would be adopted and two new advisory committees will be created to allow non-scientists to assess the ethical implications of biotechnology.
However, environmentalists claimed that plans to set up a national surveillance unit to monitor the health impact of GM foods have been "fudged", with no guarantee that it will be created. "It's just bland propaganda and the biotech industry appears to have won," said Tony Juniper, of Friends of the Earth.
A Mori poll published by Dr Cunningham showed that only 1 per cent of the public felt that there were any real benefits to be gained from GM foods.
The Independent has learnt that the Farm-Scale Evaluation Steering Committee, (Fsesc) a group of scientists that is supposed to oversee GM crop trials, has not yet met and its members have not been agreed. Fsesc may not meet before June, three months after the crops were planted. One scientist who was told he may be on the committee said yesterday: "How can there be effective monitoring if the group hasn't even been created yet?"
Dr Cunningham pledged that the new GM regulatory system would be more "rigorous, open and would safeguard the public interest". He also released the report into GM technology by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert May, and the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson. The paper claimed that there was no evidence to suggest that modified foods were "inherently harmful", but called for more publicly funded research and the creation of the national surveillance unit to monitor their effects. Sir Robert and Professor Donaldson said the unit should assess the impact on human health over several years, with particular scrutiny of levels of cancer, diabetes, allergies and foetal abnormalities.
The Government endorsed a new voluntary code drawn up by the biotech and farming industries to monitor GM crop planting that could be incorporated into future legislation. There will also be a review of the size of "buffer zones", which separate GM trial crops from other plants. Dr Cunningham stressed that GM technology offered "enormous opportunities" for improving crops.
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