Speaking on BBC radio on Saturday, environment minister Michael Meacher said that he was considering "extremely carefully" a call by the government's official conservation advisory bodies for a moratorium on commercial plantings while their potential environmental implications were assessed (ENDS Daily 8 July).
He added that he had to respond to "widespread public concern" about modified crops and that he thought there was a "need for more time for research to be completed". For example, he said, studies to examine possible environmental implications of engineered traits such as insect and disease resistance were not due to be completed until 2000.
No final decisions have been made, the environment ministry stresses. Officials have been asked to canvass views and report to Mr Meacher, who plans to consult with fellow ministers before announcing a position. Mr Meacher stressed in his weekend radio interview that "clear and sufficient" evidence would be required before a moratorium could be imposed, noting that there were "strongly polarised" views on the issue.
The government is also considering whether to extend the remit of its advisory committee on modified organism releases, Mr Meacher said. The committee might be asked to consider indirect and cumulative effects on biodiversity as well as immediate environmental impacts, he went on. The creation of a stakeholder forum and an ethical commission are also being considered.
The UK is likely to find itself in troubled legal waters if it refuses to authorise the commercial planting of crops that have been approved at EU level - as the French government has already found out (ENDS Daily 7 October).
Industry groups invited to last week's consultation were clear in their position. "We do not believe a moratorium is justified," said Daniel Pearsall, secretary to the UK Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC). The group speaks for five trade associations representing farmers, plant breeders and agrochemical firms.
"There is a fully comprehensive and rigorous assessment process that these crops must go through before they can be approved for commercial sale and release," Mr Pearsall told ENDS Daily. There was a lack of scientific evidence to support a moratorium, he said, and any such move would also damage the competitiveness of the UK agricultural industry.
UK environment ministry, tel: +44 171 890 3000.
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