GM foods `are not dangerous to eat'

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The Independent Online
THE CABINET Office Minister Dr Jack Cunningham yesterday set out the Government's position on genetically modified (GM) food and crops, with a joint report by the Chief Medical Officer Professor Liam Donaldson and the Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Robert May.

He declared:

n 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;

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

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

n 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;

n 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."

Dr Cunningham 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."

The system for testing the safety of genetically modified products needs to take a broader view of the technology, to be more transparent and to take account of a wider range of viewpoints.

Dr Cunningham emphasised that genetically modified foods are not dangerous to eat, and the Government will monitor the growing of GM crops while funding research to advance our understanding of them.

But he said there will be no formal moratorium on commercial growing of GM crops, nor are there any plans yet to create a legally binding code for farmers or plant breeders.

The announcement, whose timing has been changed twice in the past few days, followed a week in which the Government has been attacked over its approach to GM technology, particularly following the revelation by The Independent that there are deep splits in the Government over the question of a moratorium.

But Dr Cunningham said that there will be no moratorium on the growing of GM crops, despite such calls from the advisory body English Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

"There are 60 million hectares of GM crops growing around the world, and there are real risks of losing productivity and competitiveness of farms elsewhere if we leave our farmers behind," he said on BBC Radio. "If we want modern, efficient agriculture, we have to go ahead with this ... Until we go to field- and farm-scale trials, we will never be able to learn whether [GM crops are] going to have a significant impact on biodiversity."

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