Ministers briefed to back off GM crops

MINISTERS have been warned that they should not be too zealous in their support for GM crops because there are no immediate advantages to the country.

This verdict, on the eve of the launch of a national GM debate, is from an interim report by the Cabinet Office strategy unit which has been assessing the strict costs and benefits of GM technology.

The findings of the team headed by Jamie Rentoul, a Civil Service high-flyer, were presented last week to a small group of advisers in Whitehall.

One insider said yesterday: "The review appears to be extremely neutral. The unit has not found immediate benefits for the acceptance of GM crops but it believes there will be benefits in the long run. The message was very much GM is jam for tomorrow."

The unit is understood to have raised specific concerns that organic farming in the UK could be seriously damaged unless there are strict regulations protecting the organic sector and conventional farming from GM contamination.

A final report however is not due until July but anti-GM campaigners are certain to exploit the unit's warning to Tony Blair and other Cabinet ministers to tone down their perceived enthusiasm.

Critics are also concerned that the national GM debate will flop because of the Government's half-hearted commitment to it. Even though Mr Blair personally intervened to secure £500,000 for the process, organisers had requested at least £1 million.

The result is that the formal debates are now only taking place in six venues starting tomorrow at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre. Other debates are to be held in Taunton, Swansea, Glasgow, Belfast and Harrogate. There was insufficient cash to hold events in Manchester, Newcastle and London. A report on the public mood is to be written by Professor Malcolm Grant, chairman of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, and sent to ministers this autumn.

GM critics are convinced that Mr Blair and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, are anxious to appease the US biotechnology industry which wishes to establish the commercial planting of GM crops throughout the EU. The US claims it loses £188 million a year due to the EU ban on the technology.