UK strengthens biotechnology controls

Government launches new oversight committees, GM crop planting guidelines

The UK government announced a series of new controls on agricultural and human biotechnology on Friday, at the end of another stormy week in UK politics on genetically modified (GM) crops and foods. Environmental groups slammed the initiative as "miserably inadequate" and claimed that the government was allowing "creeping commercialisation" of GM crops.

Flanked by ministers for the environment, health, food safety and industry, cabinet office minister Jack Cunningham launched two new committees to advise the government on biotechnology in healthcare and in the environment and announced new guidelines for managing the cultivation of GM crops. He also published a study on the health implications of GM foods and a survey of public attitudes to biotechnology.

Announcement of a new "human genetics commission" and an "agricultural and environment biotechnology commission" follows a review of the UK's regulatory framework for biotechnology. Both will include experts in consumer issues and ethics as well as scientists, the government said. They will have a duty to consult widely with stakeholders, and will work alongside a new food standards agency being created by the government.

Guidelines on GM crop cultivation were drawn up by the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops (Scimac), which represents agricultural industry organisations. At the core of the Scimac code of practice are measures to provide "identity preservation" of GM crops - essentially to ensure clear labelling from farm to consumer. The code also includes guidance on farm management issues such as crop separation distances, machinery operation, herbicide use and post-harvest monitoring.

In a report on health effects of GM foods, the government's chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser concluded that there was "no evidence to suggest that the GM technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful". The advisors nevertheless recommended establishing a national surveillance unit to monitor population health following the introduction of GM foods. The government noted on Friday that a separate advisory committee was already looking at just such an initiative.

The low regard that the British public now has for GM crops and foods was highlighted in a report by polling organisation Mori published simultaneously by the government. By comparing the proportion of respondents saying that particular developments were beneficial or not beneficial to society, Mori determined "net beneficial" scores of +56 for the development of new medicines and +42 for new cures for illnesses, but -44 for GM foods and -27 for genetic modification of animals and plants.

Follow Up:
UK Cabinet Office, tel: +44 171 270 1131.

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