By John Mason, Food and Rural Affairs Correspondent
The Financial Times, September 10 2003 21:06
Tony Blair's hopes of advancing the cause of GM technology are set to be dealt a significant blow because an independent commission of advisers cannot agree how to grow genetically modified plants alongside conventional varieties.
The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, set up by the government to advise on GM issues, is struggling to reach consensus over two crucial issues: how GM and non-GM crops can co-exist and how disputes over contamination can be resolved.
Ministers were relying on the AEBC to produce proposals on which to base policy for the possible introduction of the crops next year. But fundamental differences inside the commission mean attempts to find a "middle-ground", enabling the planting of GM crops while protecting organic farmers, are likely to fail. A much-delayed AEBC report, to be published next month, is expected to be accompanied by a dissenting minority report.
This would leave Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, and Elliot Morley, the environment minister, exposed to possible criticism as they decide whether to back the biotechnology industry or consumer groups and organic farmers without conclusive expert advice.
The Department of the Environment said: "There are always a wide range of views on GM issues and ministers will have to make their own balanced judgments. If it were to be the case that the AEBC could not reach a consensus report, it will still be helpful for ministers to have clear advice on the different viewpoints that have been expressed."
Ministers are under pressure to agree a UK regulatory regime for GM crops because Europe is poised to lift its five-year moratorium on the crops, leading to their possible cultivation next year.