Government in disarray over GM crops

15 March 1999

Government in disarray over GM crops

By FWi staff

GOVERNMENT ministers appeared to be in disarray today after reports that they were on the verge of securing a voluntary three-year ban on genetically modified crops.

Various reports yesterday (Sunday) and this morning said the major biotechnology companies were about to voluntarily delay the commercial planting of GM crops,.

A front-page story in the Independent on Sunday said a “landmark deal being secretly negotiated” by ministers would be announced within weeks.

That report was followed today by The Daily Telegraph which said ministers were confident that commercial GM crops would be banned until 2002.

A three-year delay would be in line with calls from English Nature, the governments wildlife advisers, which wants more field trials completed first.

Lord Sainsbury, the science minister who sits on the Cabinet sub-committee on biotechnology, then appeared to confirm that a delay was likely.

“The prime requirement is safety and the impact on the environment,” he told ITVs Breakfast with Frost programme yesterday morning.

“If this voluntary arrangement gives even more time before commercial planting, so theres more time to assess the environmental impact, that has to be good, I think.”

But that view is in stark contrast to comments by Agriculture Minister Nick Brown who yesterday dismissed any risk from eating GM food.

Mr Brown told Sky television that there was no health risk from eating GM foods – although he added that consumers should have the opportunity to avoid them.

Mr Brown said: “I am strongly in favour of making sure that consumers are properly informed and that they can make their own choices.”

And last month, Cabinet enforcer Jack Cunningham, who chairs the Cabinet committee on biotechnology, said that all GM foods currently on sale were safe.

The products are GM tomato paste, cheeses whose manufacture has involved GM products but does not contain them, and products containing GM soya or GM maize.

Asked whether GM foods are as safe as other foods, Dr Cunningham told BBC Radio 4s PM programme: “Yes. We believe the products currently on sale are safe.”

But other reports are likely to fuel rumours of an imminent joint-announcement by the companies developing GM crops, including Monsanto, Novartis and Zeneca.

A report in todays Financial Times reports Hendrik Verfaillie, Monsantos president, as saying that his business plans do not rely on any planting of GM seeds in Europe for the next three years.

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