Irish government accused of GMO policy U-turn

Public consultation marked by absence of Fianna Fáil's pre-election call for no GMO releases

Ireland's governing party was today accused of a policy U-turn as it launched a period of public consultation on the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the environment.

The government would review national policy on genetic modification and the environment following a "full and open" public debate, environment minister Noel Dempsey said today. But campaign group Genetic Concern said the consultation paper showed that Fianna Fáil party had abandoned earlier calls for a moratorium on deliberate release of GMOs and now clearly favoured the biotechnology industry.

Before its June 1997 general election victory, Fianna Fáil - through its then environment spokesman and now Irish environment minister Noel Dempsey - said it was "deeply concerned" about release of GMOs to the environment. In a position statement released two months before the election, the party said it was "premature to release GMOs... or to market foods which contain any genetically modified ingredients".

"Current scientific knowledge is inadequate to protect the consumer and the environment from the unpredictable and potentially disastrous effects which may appear immediately or at any time in the future," the party went on.

No mention of the word moratorium appears in today's consultation paper. It does, however, stress Ireland's strong biotechnology industry, and "new possibilities for growth" in agriculture and industry offered by genetic modification. The paper also says that products go through "rigorous research and assessment procedures" before they are approved for release to the environment.

The government gives six reasons why concerns exist over GMOs in the environment, the first being not actual risks but the public's "unfamiliarity with the approval and control procedures". The first purpose of the consultation, it says, is to "explain the environmental controls" currently applied and planned changes under a review of the 1992 EU directive on deliberate release of GMOs.

Though it appears to have comprehensively ditched its pre-election hostility to all deliberate release, the government does identify some specific sources of concern. In particular it flags up the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes and the development of herbicide resistant crops as "key scientific issues" to be addressed.

The government also stresses its backing for stricter European labelling rules for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. Information currently being provided is "inadequate" for consumers, the consultation paper states, and pledges Mr Dempsey to push for "maximum transparency" in negotiations to revise the EU deliberate release directive.

Follow Up:
Irish environment ministry, tel: +353 1 873 0363; Genetic Concern, tel: +353 1 670 5606.

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