"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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