Yesterday, it summoned leaders of biotechnology companies based in Britain, including the giant Monsanto corporation, for talks about a voluntary code, which would delay wide-scale planting of transgenic crops at least until 2002.
Recommendations from yesterday's meeting will be passed to the Environment minister Michael Meacher and the Food minister Jeff Rooker. They will decide what action the Government should take over the biotechnology companies' plans.
The United Kingdom's first bioengineered crop, an oilseed rape that can survive being dosed with a specific weedkiller, is due to be grown and harvested next year. Many more are waiting in the wings, but the Government's wildlife adviser, English Nature, believes the whole process should be halted while essential research is carried out on their possible effects on the environment.
The front-line crop, developed by the Belgian firm Plant Genetic Systems, has been cleared for growing in the European Union. It now only requires British clearance for the herbicide developed to go with it. That decision would normally fall to Mr Rooker. However, it was learnt last night that the Government has begun its own review of the EU decision to see if it can be reversed.
The latest moves follow mounting concern about the possible health and environmental effects of the new plants, which have this year been the subject of an outspoken attack by Prince Charles and attacks by protest groups that have torn up scores of plants at test sites.
Last July, English Nature called for the moratorium, arguing that the use of stronger weedkillers on crops genetically engineered to tolerate them could have a "catastrophic" effect because it could destroy other plant, bird and insect life.
Last Monday, officials at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) invited English Nature and environmental pressure groups to restate their case to Linda Smith, head of the DETR's biotechnology unit, and a senior official from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Yesterday, it was the turn of the companies. Officials will now make recommendations to their respective ministers.
A Monsanto spokesman said: "Some groups have said that they want to move to a moratorium. The purpose of the meeting is to let both sides voice their opinions. Once those have been gathered, it is up to Mr Meacher to take a view. We had not planned commercial planting of crops until 2000."
Earlier this year, Mr Meacher expressed qualms about the advent of wide- scale commercial planting of GM crops. "These are difficult issues, in particular the wider indirect effect on fields," he said. "The allegation that it can lead to sterility of fields obviously is a matter of great concern."
Getting companies to agree to a moratorium would be quicker - and legally easier - for the Government than seeking a ban on an issue that is largely controlled from Brussels.
GM crops have become politically important since 1996, when Monsanto began planting soya modified to resist its own herbicide in the United States. It almost sparked a trade war with Europe when the GM soya was exported without being marked.
Growing consumer resistance in the UK and on the Continent has led to labelling of foods made from transgenic crops, but the governments in a number of European countries - particularly Germany and France - are resisting companies' attempts to introduce new products.Reuse content