8-Misc: Blair moves away from absolute support of GE industry (3): He himself
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TITLE: The key to GM is its potential, both for harm and good
SOURCE: Tony Blair, Prime Minister, UK
DATE: February 27, 2000
-------------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ --------------------
The key to GM is its potential, both for harm and good
Four hundred experts are flying into Britain this weekend for the
first ever global conference on genetically modified food and human
health. It's an important event because it will be the first time
that so many scientists, and with so many different views, meet to
discuss this issue of real public concern.
World leaders recognised both this public concern and the very real
issues behind it at the G8 summit in Cologne last year. They asked
the OECD, the world think-tank, to produce a report on food safety
and human health including GM technology. This conference is a vital
part of that study. I am delighted that Britain is hosting this
conference in Edinburgh and that Professor John Krebs of Oxford
University was chosen to chair it. Sir John was picked by the OECD,
on the basis of his reputation and qualifications, before we
announced that he will head the new Food Standards Agency, the
independent new watchdog. It shows we made the right choice.
The conference underlines this government's determination to have as
informed and balanced a debate as possible on GM food and crops. Any
casual glance at the guest list would kill off fears that this event
is intended to rubber-stamp the safety of GM foods. Scientists with a
wide variety of views on GM foods will be attending and speaking.
They include Dr Arpad Pusztai whose research helped fuel the
controversy over GM foods in this country. But although it is vital
that science remains at the heart of this debate, we also recognise
that consumers and environmental groups have an important role to
play in ensuring we reach the right answers.
So organisations such as the Consumers' Association, Greenpeace,
Friends of the Earth and Oxfam have also been invited. Britain is
also funding representatives from the developing world to attend
because they, too, have a stake in this issue. The conference will
debate the whole area of GM food safety and human health, examining
current scientific understanding and areas of continuing uncertainty,
future prospects for the technology and the potential benefits and
risks. It recognises the jury is still out on the application of this
new technology to food and crops and that there is cause for
legitimate public concern - concern that has been reflected in the
Independent on Sunday. I, and this government, understand such
There is no doubt that there is potential for harm, both in terms of
human safety and in the diversity of our environment, from GM foods
and crops. It's why the protection of the public and the environment
is, and will remain, the Government's over-riding priority.
But there is no doubt, either, that this new technology could bring
benefits for mankind. Some of the benefits from biotechnology are
already being seen in related areas such as the production of life-
saving medicines. GM technology has, for instance, helped diabetics
by the production of insulin. GM crops, too, have the potential for
good - helping feed the hungry by increasing yields, enabling new
strains of crops to be grown in hostile conditions, or which are
resistant to pests and disease.
The key word here is potential, both in terms of harm and benefit.
The potential for good highlights why we are right not to slam the
door on GM food or crops without further research. The potential for
harm shows why we are right to proceed very cautiously indeed. And
that is exactly what we are doing.
You get used in politics to having your views misrepresented. But
nothing has puzzled me more than claims that this government is an
unquestioning supporter of GM food. We are not pro or anti-GM food.
We are pro-safety, pro-environment and pro-consumer choice.
Despite what you might have been led to believe, there are only two
GM food ingredients on sale in this country, both licensed before May
1997. They successfully passed safety testing procedures both here
and abroad which were already far tighter than for any non-GM food.
Testing has been tightened by this government even further. I can
promise that no GM food will be put on the market here without going
through the most rigorous safety assessments in the world.
We also recognise the genuine fears over the impact of GM crops on
our environment and wildlife. That is why no GM crops will be grown
commercially in this country until we are satisfied there will be no
unacceptable impact on the environment. Rigorous tests have already
taken place in laboratories and greenhouses on GM crops but they
cannot possibly give us a clear indication of their impact on the
So we have licensed, with the backing of groups such as the Royal
Society for the Protection of Birds and English Nature, a four-year
programme of farm-scale trials to monitor independently the effect on
wildlife and the environment. Only then will any decision be taken on
the commercial growing of GM crops. Compare that with the position in
the United States, where an area the size of Wales is already under
commercial GM crops.
We have demonstrated we are pro-choice and pro-consumer by leading
the way in Europe over the labelling of GM foods. We know there are
people who do not want their families to eat GM foods ö and that is
their right. But it is not much of a right unless they know what they
are eating, which was not the position when this government came to
power. So we have insisted that products containing GM foods on shop
shelves have to be labelled. And anyone eating in a restaurant has a
legal right now to ask whether the food they serve contains GM
ingredients. And we are leading the fight to have labelling extended
We have also radically overhauled the regulatory and advisory
processes so that consumers have a real say on GM foods. We are
setting up two new commissions, with strong consumer representation,
to provide government with advice on a whole range of biotech issues.
We are increasing confidence in the whole regulatory system by making
their deliberations as open, transparent and inclusive as possible.
We have launched a new website to help answer questions about GM
foods and this government's stance. It's one way this government is
helping an informed and balanced debate, a debate which this
weekend's conference can only help.
It is right that this conference should be held here in Britain and
under a British chairman. Our scientists are among the world leaders
in the whole area of biotechnology. It is exactly the kind of
knowledge-based industry which could help provide more jobs and more
prosperity in the future. But jobs and profit will never be more
important for a responsible government than concern over human health
and our environment. I can promise this government will continue to
act with caution on the basis of the best available science. But
increasingly the industry itself is recognising the importance of
these issues, because without tackling them it can have no long-term
There is no doubt that advances in bio-technology when applied to
food and crops could deliver real benefits for us all. Many bodies
such as the Royal Society, the Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics,
English Nature and the Consumers' Association have recognised this.
And the announcement last month of a breakthrough in the development
of "golden rice" which could combat vitamin A deficiency "a major
cause of malnutrition and blindness in the developing world" shows
what can be achieved.
The challenge for scientists is to demonstrate that they can use
these advances not just for making profits for firms but to improve
the lives of people. The challenge for governments is to provide the
highest level of protection for human health and the environment. I
can promise this government will continue to meet this challenge.
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