"We do not need GM foods at present," he told MPs. "But the fact is this is a technology which has some potential benefits. It mainly has producer benefits at the present time, though it could have some significant consumer benefits in the long run." But he added: "We should not be stampeded by industrial or commercial interests to take a decision in favour of this type of technology until we know and can produce the evidence for everyone to look at that it is wholly safe."
Organic producers have seen demand rocket since anxieties over GM products - particularly soya imported from the US - became widespread. Now European ministers have agreed a standard for organic farming that would allow produce from different countries to have an organic stamp. Mr Meacher said the Soil Association, which regulates UK organic farming, wanted the "buffer zone" between organic farming and test plantings of GM crops should be extended from 200 metres to six miles.
Organic farmers were "quite rightly concerned" that every effort should be made to prevent cross-contamination of their products. "The Government also wishes to see an increase in organic products here, because consumer demand is considerably in excess of domestic supply, with balance of payments problems," he added. The Labour ex-minister Joan Ruddock, who two weeks ago called for a moratorium on GM crops in Britain, asked whether the Government had commissioned research into the effects of GM plants on butterflies, after an American study that suggested they could be harmed by pollen from GM maize.
Mr Meacher said that variety of GM maize was not being grown in Britain, and added: "We are looking at serious scientific results, which I think may have a major effect."
He told MPs the Government was determined to be open with the public on the subject of GM technology.