Seeds ban could lead to `brain-drain'

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The Independent Online
A BAN ON genetically-modified crops would lead to a "brain-drain", with many of the UK's leading scientists forced to move abroad to continue their studies, says a leading producer of GM food.

Zeneca, the pharmaceutical and agrochemicals giant, claims a moratorium on the planting of GM seeds could destroy Britain's lead in biotechnology research and deprive consumers of choice.

English Nature, the government wildlife agency, and the Conservative Party have called for a three-year freeze on GM crops to assess the effects of the new herbicide-resistant seeds on the countryside.

But Michael Pragnell, the head of Zeneca's agrochemicals operations, has warned that a ban could cause a mass exodus of Britain's best brains.

"It would be extremely bad for the progress of science and it would be extremely bad for the country," he said. "[If you have a ban] you are encouraging leading scientists to move elsewhere."

Sir Richard Sykes, head of the drug giant Glaxo Wellcome and one of the most respected figures in the pharmaceutical industry yesterday said the debate on GM food was ill-informed, and attacked the Conservative Party for supporting the ban.

The Tories, he said, were "jumping on the anti-GM bandwagon" even though they had supported them while in power. Mr Pragnell, who was in charge of the development of Zeneca's hugely-succesful GM tomato paste, said a moratorium would be in "flagrant defiance" of European Union laws which allow limited trials of GM crops.

He warned that the uproar on GM foods could delay the launch of some products. "The debate is welcome but what we don't want is delay in bringing our products to the market caused by misinformation"

Zeneca has applied for permission to produce its GM tomato paste in Europe following the success of its supermarket trials in the UK. The company sold more than 1.6m cans of the puree in market trials in Sainsbury and Safeway stores.

The product is made from tomatoes grown in California which incorporate genes from other tomatoes to reduce their water content and make them more suitable for paste production.

Zeneca expects to receive European Union approval later this year, with the first tins of paste set to appear on supermarket shelves by the second half of next year. Zeneca is set to launch a disease-resistant banana in 2003.

Mr Pragnell said labelling of GM food was "essential" to reassure consumers that they were not being duped by the manufacturers.

He praised the government for its handling of the GM food crisis. He said: "I think the government has done well by proceeding very cautiously."