GENTECH archive


BBC menu on Gen. manipulation

BBC Friday, May 21, 1999 Published at 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK

GM food declared 'safe'

GM soya: already used in many processed foods sold in the UK

Genetically-modified (GM) food on sale in the UK is safe to eat, the
government said on Friday, but they have been advised to set up a
nationwide health monitoring programme. 

He said GM technology could lead to many real benefits but the risks had
to be "rigorously assessed", because the government's "overriding duty is
to protect the public". 

Two new commissions to be set up this year will advise ministers on
practical and ethical aspects of biotechnology, working alongside the new
Food Standards Agency. 

He added that: "Unrestricted commercial cultivation of GM crops will not
proceed until we are satisfied that they cause no harm to the


However, the opposition agriculture spokesman, Tim Yeo, attacked the
government, saying it had "destroyed public confidence". He echoed calls
from environmentalists for an "absolute moratorium" on herbicide-tolerant
and insect-resistant crops until field trials had been completed. 

Friends of the Earth (FoE) criticised the voluntary codes agreed with
biotechnology companies as "meaningless". The Consumers' Association said
there was "huge hole" in the government's report because it said nothing
about food labelling. 

Dr Cunningham announced the publication of several reports including one
from the government's top medical and scientific advisors. This
recommended a national surveillance unit to monitor any risk to health
from GM food but added that the genetic technology used to modify food is
not "inherently harmful". 

Dr Jack Cunningham's statement to the House of Commons in fullDr
Cunningham said the current approach of case-by-case assessment is
effective but that new guidelines to make the regulation process easier to
understand would create a "rigorous and open safeguard." 

Defending the biotechnology companies voluntary code of practice, Dr
Cunningham said that legislation cannot be rushed through. He said the
code is backed up by legally-binding contracts and "might well" form the
basis of future legislation. 

But Pete Riley, from FoE, said the government's announcement had done
little to address the concerns of environmentalists. He said ministers
were still engaged in the "commercialisation by stealth" of GM crops. 

He said the two new commissions would only be effective if they relied on
independent scientific advice rather than the data supplied by industry. 

And Mr Riley insisted there was now an urgent need for new laws. 

"Ministers say no crops will be grown until farm-scale trials are
completed - that's going to be four years away - that is ample time for
legislation," he said. 


The purpose of the proposed national surveillance unit was also criticised
as simply monitoring the public as they ate GM food. But Geoff Rooker, the
Food Safety Minister said: "The public will not be used as guinea pigs." 

On the labelling of GM food, Sheila McKechnie from the Consumer's
Association recognised that it was difficult to get agreement for
Europe-wide rules on labelling. 

But she said there was nothing to stop the government introducing its own
voluntary measures: "Consumer organisations want it, the companies want
it, food manufacturers want it. 

"We put in proposals as part of this report and they have been ignored. 
That means the government is not actually listening to consumers'

The government's proposals were welcomed by the UK Food and Drink
Federation: "We shall now have a clear regulatory framework based on the
best scientific advice and against a background of intensive public

"The lethal mixture of sloppy science and overblown reporting has led to a
crazy situation where a useful technology has almost been rejected by many

The government's reports on GM food and biotechnology follow a five-month
consultation with 140 interested parties, a consultation with the public
on biosciences and a report on public health aspects of GM food by the
government's Chief Scientific Advisor and Chief Medical Officer. 


BBC Friday, May 21, 1999

Warning: Scientists risk official modification

Cabinet "enforcer" Jack Cunningham is leaking the GM offensive

An oral statement by the Cabinet "enforcer" to Parliament on Friday was
intended to get the government back on the front foot on
genetically-modified foods.

That was the phrase used in a leaked letter from the Cabinet Secretariat
detailing the new GM strategy. It would "present the government's stance
as a single package", it said. 

The leak further revealed the existence of a Biotechnology Presentation
Committee, composed of senior ministers and meeting regularly in

This group had rewritten the report of Chief Scientist Sir Robert May -
also released on Friday to assure consumers existing GM foods on sale in
Britain are safe to eat - "to make sure it was intelligible to the lay

The letter proved a gift to both those who challenge the government's
position on GM foods and those who in general perceive it to be obsessed
with spin to the detriment of substance.

As the Cabinet Office minister toured the broadcast studios in defence of
his stance, his critics could snipe that he had plotted to plant an
"independent" scientist on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, while
departments were told to line up "third parties" to author supportive
articles for newspapers. 

Conservative health spokesman Alan Duncan said the government's focus on
presentation would deny consumers an informed choice about what they eat. 

"When it comes to GM food we've now got a propaganda unit in Number 10
(the PrimeMinister's official address), which is essentially Tony Blair's
version of what he believes, which is to hell with the voter you eat what
I tell you. 

"Here we've got a classic examples where freedom of choice does matter. 
You've got William Hague standing up in Parliament and Tony Blair trying
to give him the brush off and now the consumer is confused about what
they're going to eat." 

For the Liberal Democrats, Norman Baker suggested the government's
response to all criticism was to "try to spin it all away". 

The leaked letter was made public by the environment campaign group
Friends of the Earth. Its executive director Charles Secrett accused
ministers of not being interested in a genuine debate. 

"It wants to spin GM food down our throats whether we like it or not," he

"To persuade us to love what the biotech companies want us to eat,
'independent' scientists will be lined up who can be relied on to say what
the government wants to hear. 

"Ministers will rewrite advice from their most senior medical and
scientific advisers so that the public gets the message that Jack
Cunningham prefers. 

"The government is wasting the time of officials all over Whitehall, not
to ensure that decisions about GM food are made in the public interest,
but to try to avoid looking stupid in the newspapers. This attempt is
doomed to failure." 

Speaking on the Today programme, Mr Cunningham denied the accusations
against him and his government. 

He said: "This is the important thing for the public to understand: no-one
has produced any evidence there is any risk from the genetically-modified
food currently on sale in Britain. 

"The people who are concerned - and government ministers understand the
concerns very well - are not helped by the alarmist claims put out by
Friends of the Earth."  ______________________________ ______

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