13 April 2002

Cabinet split over seeking GM crops view

By Marie Woolf Chief Political Correspondent

The Cabinet is deeply divided over whether to consult the public before it goes ahead with the widespread planting of genetically modified crops.

Downing Street and ministers from the Department of Trade and Industry are eager to block plans for a long consultation on the future of the controversial crops. However, senior government sources said yesterday that "ministers are at loggerheads" over whether to press ahead with a series of government-sponsored videos, regional meetings and focus groups before deciding on commercial licensing.

Downing Street and Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, are understood to be keen to "stick to the science", using the results from farm trials on GM crops which are due to finish next year.

Their arguments are opposed by Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, and Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, as well as Robin Cook, the Leader of the House of Commons, the source said.

The row, which has broken out within the Cabinet Committee on Biotechnology, chaired by Mr Cook, has exposed fresh divisions within the Government about the issue, only a year before it must decide whether to go ahead with full-scale planting.

Some ministers fear there could be civil unrest in some areas if they go ahead without public
approval. They are also predicting protests from organic farmers and boycotts by shops in response to pressure from consumers.

"People who are 'pro' the technology don't want a debate,' said a senior ministerial source. "The environment department and Robin Cook, who is the chair of the cabinet committee, want the public to have a voice."

Green groups, including Friends of the Earth, said it was vital to take public views into account before making a final decision on licensing.

Sue Mayer, the director of the pressure group Genewatch and a member of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, which advises on biotechnology issues, said: "Having a public debate is crucial to the decision on commercialisation. The Government should follow the advice of the Commission it put in place."

The European Union has warned that genes will inevitably escape from GM crops, contaminating organic farms, creating superweeds, and driving wild plants to extinction.