Fury over `GM foods are safe' advice

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THE GOVERNMENT drew a storm of protest yesterday as it tried to reassure the public that genetically modified foods and crops were safe. Green campaigners, medical experts and consumer groups accused ministers of failing to answer vital questions amid confusion over their policy.

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 will 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. Ministers also faced fresh criticism yesterday that there was inadequate monitoring of current farm trials of GM crops.The Independent has learnt that the Farm-Scale Evaluation Steering Committee, a group of scientists that is supposed to oversee GM crop trials, has not yet met and its members have not been agreed. The group 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 scrutiny of levels of cancer, diabetes, allergies and foetal abnormalities.

Two new advisory bodies, the Human Genetics Commission, and the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission, will also be created. Staffed by ethics and consumer experts, the bodies will be given a wide remit to examine the broader issues surrounding biotechnology. The two groups will have to consult widely with the public as they work alongside the new Food Standards Agency to give a long-term view to back up specialist scientific advice.

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 GM technology offered "enormous opportunities" for improving crops. He added: "Biotechnology undoubtedly has the potential to improve our quality of life in very many ways. It is the Government's responsibility to encourage this potential. But we will not do so at the risk to public health and the environment. The Government's overriding duty is to protect the public and the environment with controls that are sound and which command public confidence." But there will be no moratorium on commercial growing of GM crops, nor are there any plans yet to create a legally binding code for farmers or plant breeders.

Dr Cunningham, reporting yesterday on the Government's position on GM food and crops, declared:

There is no evidence to suggest that the GM technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful. But a close watch must be kept on developments, and research funded to "improve scientific understanding" in this area;

A national surveillance unit should monitor health aspects of GM and other types of novel foods;

Regulatory procedures for GM products should be made more open to public scrutiny;

The Government has agreed a new voluntary code of practice written by the industry group Scimac, which represents farmers, agricultural trade suppliers and plant breeders including the makers of GM crops. Scimac's code stipulates that GM crops will either be segregated from non-GM crops at harvesting, or if not, the entire crop will be labelled as GM. It also specifies wider separation between GM and non-GM farm sites;

The Government will not initially try to write the Scimac code into enforceable law: "They are tough rules, underpinned by legally binding contracts. There will be an independent system of enforcement and audit. The Government considers that in the longer term [the new Scimac code] could form the basis of legislation."