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Public to advise GM food group

THE GOVERNMENT will launch a fresh attempt to calm fears over genetically modified foods this week when it invites members of the public to sit on a new advisory group. Advertisements will be placed in national newspapers on Wednesday asking for applications for the 15 seats on the Agriculture and Environmental Biotechnology Commission.

Laymen and women will be encouraged to apply, along with doctors, consumer group representatives and environmentalists to give opinions on the wider ethical implications of GM crops and food. "We want applications from all regions of the country and from a wide range of people," a Government source said yesterday.

Together with another new body, the Human Genetics Commission, the group will assess the acceptability of genetic modification and identify gaps in current regulations. Their members will consult scientific experts, the biotechnology industry and the wider public regularly as part of a "stakeholder" approach to GM issues.

The Agriculture and Biotechnology Commission will report directly to Jack Cunningham, the chairman of the Cabinet committee overseeing genetic modification. The commission will be backed up by new guidelines to make current scientific advisory committees more transparent and topical in their deliberations.

Ministers are keen to counter claims that they are unresponsive to public opinion, and believe that the lay members of the commission will help de-mystify the regulatory system currently in operation.

Earlier this month, ministers were also forced to reassess their policy on planting distances for GM trials after a report commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food concluded that there was a real risk of contamination of neighbouring fields.