Sorry, Mr Cunningham, it won't stop our worries

Charles Arthur, Technology Editor, analyses the latest government advice on the new foods
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IS THAT it? After four months spent chairing a Cabinet committee specifically looking at how best to counteract negative media coverage of genetically modified (GM) food and crops, was yesterday's announcement all that Jack Cunningham could muster?

It falls a long way short of making the public believe GM crops are a saviour. Nor will it win him many friends in the biotechnology business, though that is what Dr Cunningham would dearly love. "There is no evidence to suggest that the GM technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful," he told Parliament. It was not his phrase, but that of his scientific advisers. It must have stuck in his craw, when what he wanted to say was "GM food is safe". But after BSE, no minister will use the s-word easily.

Similarly, he announced that we will have a national surveillance unit to monitor "public health aspects" of GM and other types of novel foods. We have a national surveillance unit for Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease too, set up when BSE was raging. Sadly, the CJDSU is all too busy at the moment with the human legacy of BSE infection. It's hardly a PR triumph to announce a similar unit for GM foods just when you are trying to say that they are "not harmful". Let us hope the new unit has a quiet time.

The Independent's revelation this week that even the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert May, thinks there will effectively be a moratorium on commercial growing of GM crops until 2003 puts the lie to Mr Cunningham's claim that there is no Parliamentary time to turn the voluntary code of practice for growing GM crops into a legal one.

There is plenty of time, but he prefers to let Scimac - the industry body of farmers, trade suppliers and plant breeders - write their own code (which the Government has rubber-stamped) and regulate themselves.

Self-regulation rarely works. It is unlikely to work here, though the one promising sign is that Scimac has said that on harvesting, GM crops will be separated from non-GM ones - or if not, then the whole bundle will be declared GM.

Nature will surely have a few more surprises for us. Dr Cunningham would do well to listen to his colleague Michael Meacher. Being cautious is not the same as being stupid.