Gene watchdog under fire

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MINISTERS ARE considering reforming the committee that grants permission for the planting of genetically-modified crops amid concerns about its remit and impartiality.

The plantings, which have been carried out on a trial basis all over the country, will continue even if ministers succeed in their attempts (revealed in yesterday's Independent) to persuade biotechnology companies to agree to a voluntary three-year moratorium on full-scale commercial cultivation of the crops.

The official Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment has given permission for some 200 sites across Britain to be planted with genetically- modified seeds. The sites have become the centre of heated controversy this summer as ecological campaigners have uprooted the crops in protest.

Ministers cannot override the decisions of the committee without severe risk of being taken to judicial review.

Environmentalists and government sources say a majority of committee members have links to the food industry and that an application for a trial planting has never been refused. Friends of the Earth has called for the committee to be disbanded.

Julie Hill, the only environmental representative on the committee, suggested that it is "the wrong group of people doing the wrong job".

She denies that members "try to influence decisions to further their own interests", but says that they "often come to the deliberations from a background of an enthusiast for the technology".

Ministers want the committee to have more independent, sceptical members, and to widen its remit. At present it can only consider the direct effects - such as the risk that the genes may transfer to wild species - of each planting in isolation.

It is unable to look at indirect effects, such as the consequences of using the increased amounts of pesticides and the combined effects of planting many different crops in different trials.

Ministers also want to set up a "stakeholder" committee of representatives of all the interests to take a hard look at the practical advantages and disadvantages of the crops and control measures.

As reported in the Independent on Sunday, they are considering setting up a special inquiry into the ethics of developing the crops and similar new technologies.