31 January 2002
Government 'lacking credibility' on GM food, admits minister
By Paul Waugh and Marie Woolf
Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, admitted yesterday that the Government "does not have high credibility" on genetically modified food as he confirmed plans to launch a nationwide public debate on the technology.
Mr Meacher said that concerns expressed by critics of GM crops will be taken into account before any decision is taken on whether to permit commercial cultivation.
In the strongest signal yet that the Government may be shying away from its previous reliance on science alone, Mr Meacher revealed that he had asked for an independent expert body to stage a debate on GM technology.
"Let's be absolutely honest, government does not have high credibility. Ministers and officials, however hard we try, however much honesty and integrity we have, we are not believed," Mr Meacher told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"It should be independent of government. That is the right way to do it... the Government needs to listen".
Mr Meacher also said that the issue of what level of GM content is acceptable in products marked "GM-free" should be aired, together with separation distances between modified and conventional crops. At present, the maximum permitted contamination level is 1 per cent and distances are as low as 500 metres (550 yards), compared to 5km (3 miles) in Europe.
Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats seized on Mr Meacher's remarks, claiming that he had finally accepted the criticism that ministers had failed to reassure the public on GM crops.
Tim Collins, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said: "Finally, a minister has admitted what the rest of the country already knows. The British public has lost respect for a government that shows little respect for them.
"On the railways, on hospitals and on schools, the people have seen Labour for what it really is. Ministers need to recognise that the time for spin is over and the time for delivery is well and truly upon them."
Liberal Democrat MP Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) said: "This is an extraordinary recognition of failure by a government minister.
"To admit that the Government is incapable of organising an objective assessment is no less surprising than it is true."
Adrian Bebb, GM campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "GM crops should not be grown in the UK against the wishes of the public. We are delighted that the Government now appears to accept this principle, and that there will be a public debate on this issue."
Mr Meacher's admission came as the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), which will oversee the debate, warned that current farm trials would not settle the issue of their acceptability to the public.
The AEBC's chairman Professor Malcolm Grant said: "My view is that we need to have a public debate and the debate should be quite independent of government.
"If it is to have any credibility and to produce for government some reliable advice, it has got to be right across all the options. You can't have a fettered public debate."