Blair adviser attacks Labour GM crops 'fix'
Antony Barnett and Mark Townsend
Sunday April 13, 2003
A key scientific adviser to Tony Blair has launched the most damaging attack yet on the Prime Minister's attempts to persuade the public to accept genetically modified crops.
Sir Tom Blundell, a Labour supporter appointed by Blair to chair the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 1998, has effectively accused ministers of a fix.
In a three-page letter leaked to the Observer, Blundell condemns ministerial efforts to have an independent scientific review of GM technology as 'artificial'. He warns that this will be completed before a public debate has even started.
His comments will encourage critics who claim Blair has already decided to introduce the GM crops into Britain's countryside. As a result of growing public disquiet, Ministers agreed last summer to launch a national public debate as well as an independent scientific and economic review of the technology.
Blair promised that any go-ahead for the commercialisation of GM crops would await the results of these reviews.
In a strongly-worded letter to Professor David King, the government's chief scientific adviser who is heading the scientific review, Blundell, professor of biochemistry at Cambridge University, casts doubt on the whole process.
'The national public debate is only just about to start and will hold its conferences, debates and meetings around the country between May and July and is not due to report until the autumn,' Blundell writes in the letter dated 19 March and copied to Downing Street's Strategy Unit.
'It seems impossible that the values articulated in that process could inform the science review or the Strategy Unit's economic study which are still due to publish their results in May and June respectively'.
The Royal Commission sees 'a real danger that their conclusion will already have been cast, or at least the public would be justified in perceiving that to be the case.'
Blundell concludes: 'Without a clearer mechanism and better prospects for a fully integrated process, this opportunity will be wasted and an artificial result will be all that is achieved.'
Blundell's concern is given extra weight by the fact that completion of the farm trials - designed to discover whether GM crops affect the environment - has been delayed, and potentially controversial findings cannot now be discussed in the debate.
Pete Riley, food campaigner at Friends of Earth, said Blundell's comments 'strike right at the heart of the GM debate'. He said: 'This process was supposed to be about giving the public confidence that a proper review of all the issues would take place, but even Blair's most loyal scientific lieutenants now admits there is a real problem.'
Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: 'The decision has been taken to accept GM following tremendous pressure from the Americans. The Government is just going through the motions.'
The Science Review has been attacked as too pro-GM. At least a third of its 25 experts have strong pro-GM views, including consultants to a biotech firm owned by Science Minister Lord Sainsbury, a major Labour Party donor. But it is the criticism of the Royal Commission chairman that is likely to embarrass Ministers most.
A Department of Trade and Industry official refused to comment on the leak.