Time not ripe

Embattled Blair may put GM crops on the backburner

Published: Tuesday 30 September 2003

Tony Blair: GM unplugged at a time when the uk Prime Minister (pm), Tony Blair, is facing considerable embarrassment with regard to the death of weapons expert David Kelly, the subsequent Hutton inquiry and the core issue of the country's involvement in Iraq, he can ill-afford to land himself in the soup over any other matter. Consequently, the pm is likely to delay permission to grow genetically modified (gm) crops till later this year.

The government has held a public debate on the existing science of gm crops. The response to the debate is yet to be disclosed, but it is said to be largely negative.

In fact, the entire gm row is hotting up. Carlo Leifert of the University of Newcastle, a key member of the government science review panel on gm crops, resigned from the committee in July. He feared that if he objected to gm foods, his academic funding would be withdrawn. He objected when an employee of the world's largest gm company, Monsanto, was allowed to draft a key chapter on the safety of transgenic foods for the review. Another panelist, Andrew Stirling of Sussex University, got warned by a member of the scientific establishment that his career would be ruined unless he stopped questioning the safety of gm technology.

In August, an enquiry was commissioned to ascertain whether government-appointed experts were under pressure from pro-gm scientists, the biotech industry and the government itself to support gm crops. The review panel gave transgenic crops the clean chit, though suggesting a cautionary approach. But former environment minister Michael Meacher, who was earlier asked to step down for opposing the government's gm policy, condemned the panel's report: "This is Iraq Mark 2: there is no supporting evidence for action, the public doesn't like it and the government seems determined to overrule all opposition," he said.

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