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8-Misc: Blair moves away from absolute support of GE industry (3): He himself



----------------------------- GENET-news -----------------------------

TITLE:  The key to GM is its potential, both for harm and good
SOURCE: Tony Blair, Prime Minister, UK
        http://www.independent.co.uk/news/UK/Environment/2000-02/
        blair270200.shtml
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 
anxieties.

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 
countryside itself.

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 
in Europe.

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 
future.

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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