Strong public opposition to genetically modified crops in the series of debates that began this week would not stop them being planted commercially in Britain, Margaret Beckett acknowledged yesterday.
Under European law the Government cannot use public opposition as a reason to ban GM crops. But it is holding public meetings designed to allow people to air their views over whether they should be grown.
The Secretary of State for the Environment said the idea of overwhelming public opposition emerging from the debates was "hypothetical". But she agreed that the Government's hands were tied by the EU regulatory regime.
"Yes, we are bound by the procedures and regulatory systems of the EU to which previous governments, and our government, have contributed," she told a London conference held by the Green Alliance.
Asked how she would respond if the consultation process concluded with a public rejection of the crops, Mrs Beckett said: "We shall have to assess how we handle this part of the outcome of the debate, along with all the other information we have, and how that leads us to approach our colleagues in the European Union in their regulatory role."
Under EU directive 2001(18), crops that caused indirect harm to the public could be banned, said Julie Hill of the Scientific Advisory Panel, an independent body that advises the Government. "But it has nothing about public opposition. If there's no definite proof of harm, we would have to say that we were back to square one, where we were five years ago, in terms of opposition."
The admission could neuter any result from the series of independent public debates now being held around Britain in an attempt to discover attitudes to the issue.
The website set up for people to register their interest, at www.gmnation.org.uk, was taking 1,000 completed questionnaires a day, said Professor Malcolm Grant of the Agricultural and Environmental Biotechnology Commission, who is overseeing the process.
Professor Grant said that he would want to continue the debate when results from the British farm-scale trials of GM crops became available. But those are not expected until September. He added: "I suspect that this will be a long, complex process because there will be a lot of argument about the interpretation of the data."
The public discussions are running in parallel with scientific evaluations of the effects of the crops, and "farm-scale evaluations", which have run for the past five years. All will produce final reports that will go to Mrs Beckett, who will decide how Britain should proceed.
Mrs Beckett said that it was "totally untrue" to suggest that she had already made a decision on whether the commercial growing of GM crops should be allowed in Britain. "I have not and I will not until the evidence of those [farm-scale] trial results is available," she said.
For her, "the ideal outcome from the farm-scale trials would be that one of the crops turns out to have a positive impact, another has no proven effect, and another is bad. I think the chances of that happening are slim but it would indicate that there is sensitivity in the measurement technique, as well as denting the assumption of bad faith on our part."
She said she wanted to be sure that the £500,000 being put into the public debates was well spent. Earlier this week the head of the Consumers' Association, Dame Sheila McKechnie, criticised the debates as "badly organised and chaotic".
Mrs Beckett blamed Professor Grant, saying that the budget "should be more than sufficient for a credible and effective public debate" and added that it was being run independently of government - as had been requested.
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