GM food safety conference kicks off

Experts gather in Edinburgh as Greenpeace tries to stop soya import, German maize ban criticised

Around 400 experts in science and health aspects of genetically modified (GM) foods gathered in Edinburgh today for a three-day conference arranged by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The meeting is expected to lead eventually to the creation of an international panel on GM crop and food safety. Its conclusions will be forwarded to the G8 group of industrialised nations.

A wide range of interest groups are represented at the meeting, including developing as well as developed countries, and environmental and consumer groups. However, Greenpeace warned today of a "potential bias" at the conference "towards pro-GM scientists and organisations".

The meeting's launch has been given a high profile by an apparent policy "U-turn" on GM safety issues yesterday by UK prime minister Tony Blair. In a newspaper article, Mr Blair acknowledged that there was "potential for harm" as well as benefit from GM crops and foods. Domestic environmental groups and much of the nation's press have described this as a "sea change" in Mr Blair's approach after he last year accused pressure groups of being "irrational".

Greenpeace activists also publicised the meeting by boarding a freighter due to deliver 60,000 tonnes of US commodity soybeans, an unknown proportion of which is genetically modified, to Liverpool docks. Five of the NGO's campaigners were arrested early on Saturday morning. The Iolcos Grace's cargo is owned by international agricultural product processor Cargill. The ship will still dock in Liverpool as soon as the tide permits, a spokesperson told ENDS Daily.

Meanwhile, Germany's recent decision to prevent seed approval for a GM maize variety (ENDS Daily 17 February) has been slammed by the biotechnology industry. Swiss-based Novartis, which developed the insect-resistant "Bt 176" strain, said it was considering a legal challenge to the ban. EU biotechnology industry association Europabio described the ban as "politically motivated".

Follow Up:
The OECD conference, "GM Food Safety: Facts, Uncertainties and Assessment and web simulcast. See also newspaper article by Tony Blair. Information on the Iolcos Grace protest from Greenpeace UK, tel: +44 20 78 65 82 55, and Cargill Europe, tel: +44 1932 861 000. On German GM seed ban reactions, see {Novartis Germany}, tel: +49 77 62820 and {Europabio}, tel: +32 2 735 0313.

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