`Impartial' GM trials chief in favour of modified crops

THE MAN responsible for overseeing the Government's trials of GM crops - chosen by ministers for his impartial scientific advice - believes it is in "society's long-term interest" to grow genetically engineered crops.

Professor Christopher Pollock, who is influential in deciding whether GM crops will be licensed to be grown commercially in the UK, is in favour of genetic engineering because "the benefits outweigh the risks". He believes that "it is in society's long-term interest to accept the benefit of genetic manipulation".

Professor Pollock's comments in an interview with a farming journal are likely to provoke further protest from environmentalists and cast doubt on the objectivity of the assessment of the GM trials.

This week a new series of GM crop trials will be announced by the Government. Fields of oilseed rape will be planted in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. Earlier trials sparked anger and some protest action from environmental and consumer groups who fear the GM pollen could pose a threat to nearby farms, particularly those growing organic crops.

Professor Pollock, who was vetted by government officials before being offered the post, criticised the views of anti-GM campaigners saying: "Consider how much damage has been done by introducing foreign species such as rhododendrons."

The chairman of the Government's steering group also said in the interview with The Farmer that Britain needed to "remain competitive with countries like the US and Canada [which] are already growing genetically modified crops on a big scale".

The professor heads the steering group responsible for overseeing the progress of the controversial GM trials and for interpreting whether the technology could damage Britain's wildlife and environment. The trial results will determine whether the Government allows biotechnology companies such as Monsanto to grow their crops in Britain.

Ministers wanted experts on the influential steering group to be unbiased to reassure the public that the trials are not a "whitewash" for agro- chemical companies. Earlier this year members of another advisory panel were replaced after it was revealed that some members had links with such companies.

"Appointing someone who is clearly committed intellectually to genetic engineering food, to such an influential position severely undermines the credibility of these farm-scale trials and the impartiality of advice the Government will receive," said Pete Riley, of environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth.

Professor Pollock, Research Director at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Re- search in Aberystwyth, said that he favoured "an open dialogue between consumers and food producers" about genetic engineering and that "there should be an independent body of scientists set up to control the development of GM crops in Europe." He added: "Scientists can never really say that anything is 100 per cent safe but I find it difficult to see problems with making use of, for example, a plant gene to improve the quality of grass for consumption by cows or sheep. It is using natural DNA in a natural system," he said.

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