Meacher resignation hint over GM foods outburst

Feb 16th
THE environment minister Michael Meacher has launched an astonishing attack on genetically modified (GM) foods and other key aspects of government environmental policy, raising fears among colleagues that he is about to resign.

In an interview with The Ecologist magazine to be published tomorrow, Meacher criticises the prime minister’s campaign to promote the advantages of GM technology by stating bluntly that the crops are “not necessary” and present an unquantifiable risk to human health.

The government’s official position is that no decision will be made on GM farming in Britain until crop trials finish later this year, but Meacher makes his total opposition to the project clear in the interview.

He also takes a sideswipe at his colleague Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, who he implies cannot be relied upon for an objective viewpoint on the issue because of his financial links to various biotechnology firms.

“The real problem is whether 10, 20, 30 years down the track serious and worrying things happen (with GM crops) that none of us ever predicted,” says Meacher in the interview, which was conducted by Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist and son of the late financier Sir James Goldsmith.

“It’s these sorts of totally unpredicted problems that make me very, very cautious. The human race has existed on this planet for about a quarter of a million years. We have been feeding ourselves perfectly adequately since overcoming problems of hunger in our early existence. GM is not necessary.”

Encouraged by Sainsbury, Tony Blair has rallied to the defence of the GM industry, arguing that “biotechnology is science’s new frontier” and can provide effective medicines and improve food production.

However, in his interview Meacher questions whether big business can be trusted to admit to any safety concerns it discovers while testing GM crops.

Pointing out that the government does not have the funds or manpower to conduct its own trials, the minister says: “The question is: can we trust the companies and be sure that they are telling us all they know? When asked if the system (of crop testing) is adequate, it is difficult to give the answer ‘yes’. The system is very trusting and that is very worrying.”

Meacher is asked his views on the position of Sainsbury, who is also a billionaire Labour donor. Sainsbury has long established links to biotechnology firms, although his financial interests are held in a blind trust. He sits on a key cabinet committee on biotechnology but leaves the room when decisions are taken.

When it is suggested to him that this does not prevent Sainsbury influencing proceedings before meetings, Meacher replies: “As far as I know the only way (Sainsbury) seeks to avoid this conflict of interest is by absenting himself when decisions are taken. And as far as I know that is all he does.”

A senior source at the environment department said Meacher was being sidelined by his fellow ministers.

“It’s fairly clear that the only thing left for Meacher to do is resign,” the source said. “He could have far more impact speaking from the back benches than he does now.”