msnbc.com news services
updated 3/9/2004 11:11:07 AM ET 2004-03-09T16:11:07

Britain gave a tentative thumbs up Tuesday for commercial planting of genetically modified corn, risking a backlash from environmentalists and a skeptical public despite setting strict conditions.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said that after three-year long trials the government approved — in principle — the growing of herbicide-tolerant corn.

“There is no scientific case for a blanket approval of all the uses of GM,” she said. “Safety, human health and the environment must remain at the heart of our regulatory regime. But equally there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of GM.”

Beckett said she did not think the crop would be grown commercially in Britain until the Spring of 2005 at the earliest.

The issue is a sensitive one for Prime Minister Tony Blair's government. A series of opinion polls have found a majority of the public opposed to such crops — labeled “Frankenstein foods” by some tabloid newspapers.

Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, called on the government to change its mind. “Tony Blair must not ignore the threat GM poses to our food, farming and the environment,” he said.

Growing terms
Beckett said licenses to grow the genetically modified corn would expire in October 2006. Those holding a license to grow the corn would have to carry out scientific analysis during cultivation in order to renew planting rights.

Beckett said that the crop must be grown under the same conditions as the trials “or under such conditions as will not result in adverse effects on the environment.” She also stressed that commercial growers must carry out further scientific analysis.

Addressing the House of Commons, Beckett said the government also would assist farmers who wanted to set up GM-free zones.

No commercial genetically modified crops are grown in Britain now, but the government has conducted crop trials, scientific reviews and cost and benefit studies.

More than three years of trials in the United Kingdom of three gene-altered, herbicide-resistant crops have found that pesticides used on two of them -- sugar beet and rapeseed --posed a greater threat to the environment than those used on conventional crops.

Only the corn -- a type of cattle feed developed by German chemical giant Bayer -- fared better. British scientists concluded in October that growing herbicide-tolerant corn under trial conditions had not had an adverse effect surrounding plants and wildlife.

In January, a government-appointed committee broadly agreed with that finding. But earlier this month, a powerful committee of lawmakers said the trial were “unsatisfactory” and urged the government not to make a decision until further testing had taken place.

Spain is the only EU country to plant significant amounts of biotech crops, with 32,000 hectares of biotech corn last year, up a third from 2002.

Doctors weigh in
The announcement came as the British Medical Association said GM foods were highly unlikely to be damaging to health.

But it said more research and surveillance was needed to allay public concerns and provide convincing evidence of the benefits of growing GM crops.

“Our assessment of all the available research is that there is very little potential for GM foods to cause harmful health effects,” said David Carter, chairman of the BMA’s science board.

“However, the BMA recognizes the huge public concern over the impact of GM foods and believes that research is still needed in key areas to allay public concern about the potential risks to human health and the environment.”

The bigger trade picture
Blair is a long-time supporter of the technology in principle, arguing that delay risks Britain’s position at the cutting edge of scientific innovation.

European Union farm ministers are expected to vote next month on partially lifting a five-year ban on genetically modified organisms, to authorize imports of a new biotech sweet-corn variety to be sold in cans on store shelves.

The United States, the world’s largest producer of genetically modified crops, has been lobbying hard for the European Union to end its effective five-year ban on GM imports and is also trying to get the World Trade Organization to declare the moratorium illegal.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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