Genetic food gets watchdog

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THE GOVERNMENT is setting up an influential new watchdog on genetic modification, to stem mounting concern by consumers and environmental groups.

The regulatory body will look at the ethics of genetic engineering as well as the practical effects of GM crops and imported foods on human health and the environment.

Last month a study revealed that the health of rats was harmed by the long-term consumption of genetically modified potatoes, the first time genetic changes to food have been linked to health risks.

The new panel is being likened by government sources to the influential Warnock Committee on the treatment of human embryos whose work led to an act of parliament.

The genetics watchdog is likely to be charged with a wide-ranging enquiry into the moral and practical issues surrounding genetic engineering. Consumer representatives, scientists, academics and conservationists will be invited to join the committee in the next few months. Government sources said the chairman will be a prominent public figure with no links to the industry.

The new body should assuage concerns that some of the committees regulating crops have close links to industry. The new body will operate separately from current regulators such as the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, which is composed of scientists.

The move was welcomed by environmental campaigners.

"We certainly need a more independent form to assess the environmental implications of genetically modified food," said Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth. "The debate is being led by sympathetic scientists. We need a body that reflects the wide church of opinion."

Although genetically modified crops are not yet grown commercially in Britain, GM food from America including tomato paste, maize and soya is already on our shelves.

All four of the Government's statutory nature advisory bodies have called for a three-year moratorium on herbicide-resistant crops. Around the country, eco-activists have destroyed experimental plants on dozens of genetic test sites.

Other European countries including France and Austria have halted commercial harvesting of GM crops while they gather more evidence of their environmental effects.