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Biotech experts to lose GM role

Paul Waugh
Sunday 11 April 1999 23:02 BST

SCIENTISTS WITH current or recent links to the biotechnology industry are to be barred from a key government committee on genetically modified crops.

Increased public concern over the safety of GM foods and crops has persuaded ministers to draw up sweeping plans to reform its main body of advisers on the issue.

The overhaul of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) will see more "pro-green" representatives placed on it to ensure that there is a more even balance of opinion.

Ten of Acre's 13 members, including its chairman, will be replaced this June when their terms come to an end. The Government sees the change as the ideal opportunity for reform.

Only one member of the committee, Julie Hill, of the Green Alliance, has expertise in environmental affairs, while all the others are academics or industry figures.

Acre's retiring chairman, John Beringer, has long maintained that GM crops "are here to stay" and is seen by his critics as a confirmed advocate of their benefits.

Some ministers were also astonished that another committee member, Nigel Poole, works for Zeneca Seeds, part of the multinational biotech company that wants to promote GM crops across the globe.

In a big push to transform the body, Michael Meacher, the Minister for the Environment, has now ordered his officials to look for new members who do not have current or recent past contacts with the biotech industry.

Instead, people with expertise in farmland systems, wildlife biodiversity and ecological practice will be encouraged to apply for membership of the committee.

Mr Meacher told The Independent that he was keen to respond to recent allegations that Acre's membership had in the past been too closely tied to companies or organisations that carried out gene research or crop trials.

"There is a general view that some of the people were rather too close to the industry and rather too pro-GM. As a government, we are not taking sides but we do want a better balance of opinion," he said.

"This is not an ideological clear-out, but the changes in membership of the committee allow us the ideal opportunity to respond to public concerns on the issue."

Mr Meacher added that he would also extend the remit of the committee to include the effects of the indirect as well as the direct impacts of GM crops on the environment, including influences on other GM strains.

"I want a wide trawl of people to ensure that we get the right balance. It is difficult to find experts who have had no links with industry but it is not impossible.

"Ministers are not scientists and we rely on committees like this to provide us with a breadth of scientific opinion and to reflect the wider balance of debate. I'm determined that we do get that balance, while retaining the scientific and analytical benefits."

Green groups and leading members of the Local Government Association, which has banned GM from school menus, have recently asked for an overhaul of Acre along such lines.

Professor Beringer recently told a Commons select committee that it was extremely difficult for scientists not to have links with industry in the 1990s because of cuts in state aid to universities.

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