Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, has been accused by one of her colleagues of sweeping the issue of GM crops "under the carpet" after she failed to mention it in an important speech on the Government's environmental priorities yesterday.
Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, said he was surprised GM crops had not featured in the speech. He said: "GM is one of the biggest environmental issues facing our country and it needs to rank high on the Government's environmental agenda. The decision whether to go ahead with GM crops is a top-level environmental priority."
He added: "GM is a very important issue and must not be swept under the carpet."
Ministers are considering whether to give biotechnology companies the right to grow the crops in Britain. They are assessing the results of farm-scale trials which showed that two out of three crops damaged the environment. Farming bodies seized on Mrs Beckett's omission as a sign that the Government was not addressing the issue.
Mrs Beckett, speaking at the Environment Agency's national conference, set out what she described as "the key environmental challenges for government and society".
"Today I want to look forward, and focus on the future. I will outline what I see as the key environmental priorities for the UK Government," she said.
In a 2,000-word speech, Mrs Beckett outlined the challenges of global warming, preserving endangered species, reducing litter and removing inequalities between rich and poor. "I also want to place a strong emphasis, now and in the future, on the quality of the local environment," she said.
But Robin Maynard of Farm, a group which represents farmers and consumers, said it was baffling that she had not addressed the issue of GM crops. "GM transgenic crops are the biggest environmental issue currently facing the public and farmers," he said.
"This is an abnegation of responsibility not to mention it. It's almost like the Government are in some sort of psychological denial about this issue. It's as if they just can't face it."
Mrs Beckett said in her speech that "the environment starts when people step outside their front door".
"People want and deserve a clean and green local environment. Litter, fly-tipping, graffiti and access to green spaces have a huge impact on the quality of life in our communities."
She said it was the poor who suffer most from a poor environment, including "unsafe water, misused chemicals, poor quality land and food".
She also raised fears about damage to healthy ecosystems which she said rely on "myriad factors such as climate regulation, crop pollination and soil stability".
Friends of the Earth said it was "amazing" that in her comments on farming practices, Mrs Beckett had omitted GM, given the issue's importance.
Clare Oxborrow, a GM campaigner for the group, said: "GM is such a huge issue at the moment and one of the key environmental concerns for the public and the farming community. It's amazing she has failed to address this.''
She added: "Given the heightened level of public concern and the imminent decision on whether to go ahead with GM crops it is very surprising that Mrs Beckett hasn't discussed GM crops.''
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies