Meacher says ACRE, Krebs and King biased on GM (23/6/2003)

"Acre [the advisory  committee on releases into the  environment] is a body dominated  by GM scientists. It  should have scientists with a variety of views. It is not  balanced at the moment."

And the very senior cabinet subcommittee known as Sci Bio [includes Sir David King, who's in charge of the Science Review, and Sir John Krebs, head of the Food Standards Agency]... is... "almost  wholly supportive of GM. In my experience there was no  one [on that committee] expressing  a cautious line, except myself. It's very biased".

"The influence of big business on this government is very great"
Critical friend urges caution on new crops
John Vidal, environment editor
The Guardian, Monday June 23, 2003
Michael Meacher may have  just been sacked as environment  minister after six years  of high-profile office, but he  shows no bitterness or rancour  about handing over to Elliot  Morley. And he clearly has no intention of committing politicide by denouncing his leaders in a flurry of recriminations.

However, his new role is already giving the government a headache. He told the  Guardian: "It will be Michael  Meacher released to be himself,  a sympathetic critical  friend of the government. We  all need critical friends." 

The first public step of the  liberated Mr Meacher saw the  backbencher in the Commons  last week asking Tony Blair the  sort of questions about GM  food that the opposition has  failed to ask in four years: "Is  the prime minister aware that  there have been no human  feeding trials in either the US  or the UK to establish the  health or biochemical effects  of consuming GM foods? Does  he agree that until such tests  are carried out, an important  option for the government  when they are reaching a decision  later this year is the exercise  of the precautionary principle?  Does he agree with that,  and will he ensure it is taken  on board very seriously?"

Mr Meacher, regarded as a good middle-ranking minister, but as a pre-Blairite, was early in urging caution on GM crops  four years ago. He remains sceptical about the way the government has handled the issue, and his voice will be  important in the frenzied debate that will follow later this year when the government has to make up its mind.

"Caution is sensible," he said.  "GM is not necessary. The human race has fed itself without GM for 250,000 years.  When there is a respectable  intellectual case for caution  you'd expect the response to be 'ooh, that's worrying. Let's  check it thoroughly'. That's what ought to happen. We should test it to exhaustion,  and we are not doing that."

His scepticism extends to  the make-up of the key committees  that advise the government.  "Acre [the advisory  committee on releases into the  environment] is a body dominated  by GM scientists. It  should have scientists with a  variety of views. It is not  balanced at the moment."
And the very senior cabinet  subcommittee known as Sci Bio which includes Sir David  King, the government's chief  scientist; Margaret Beckett,  his boss at the Department for  Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); Sir John Krebs,  the head of the food standards agency; and Patricia Hewitt of  the Department for Trade and  Industry, is, he says, "almost  wholly supportive of GM. In  my experience there was no  one [on that committee] expressing  a cautious line, except myself. It's very biased".

But he does not think that it  is a foregone conclusion that  the government will commercialise  the crops. "The political  atmosphere suggests yes, but when you start a public debate  it can assume an intensity that  cannot be ignored. Governments  cannot presume these things." Opinion polls show up to 80% opposed to GM.

Mr Meacher is highly critical of the food standards agency  and its director for their attitudes towards organic food.

"I think he [Krebs] is not  willing to recognise the benefits  of organic food. I think  they are pretty transparent  and should be acknowledged... in terms of environmental  gains, welfare of animals, avoiding farm pollution and  the whole question of the confidence  they give. It is the  safest, best food you can get."

Aside from GM, Mr Meacher  says he will speak out on issues the Labour party has left  behind - such as workers' rights and how power between the unions, government and business is exercised - and on the influence of corporations  on government and how to tackle the overwhelming US political power and the greed  of business fat cats.

"The influence of big business on this government is very great," he says. "I want to  get my teeth into the corporate  debate. We must have regulation  on corporate greed".

In the meantime, he is not  going to disappear. "Being a  minister was rather boring.  Mostly it was just answering  letters. I think these are going  to be the best years of all."

Methods on trial

What happens next? The government's independent public debate on GM food will end on July 18. A steering group will report to government by the end of September. 

The first of the three-year long farm-scale field trials are complete and the scientific findings into the environmental effects of some GM crops will be published by the Royal Society in September.

The government's advisory group, the agriculture and environment biotech committee (AEBC) will recommend to government shortly on how conventional and GM crops might be grown side by side.

What issues are still to be resolved?

Legal liability. Industry wants no liability for any genetic pollution or possible health and environmental impacts of the crops.

"Co-existence". The government must decide how wide the buffer zones between conventional and GM crops should be.

Labelling. The European parliament will vote on how strong the labelling of GM foods should be. The foods standards agency and the Department of the Environment (DEFRA) have been accused of lobbying to dilute future legislation.

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