Minister: Britain Will Open Door to Frankenstein Food; GM Crops Bring Benefits, Says Spelman

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Byline: James Chapman Political Editor

GENETICALLY modified crops were last night given enthusiastic backing by the Environment Secretary.

Caroline Spelman shocked colleagues by suggesting that the coalition Government will take a more pro-GM stance than its Labour predecessor.

The Tories have traditionally taken a sceptical approach to so-called 'Frankenstein foods', and at present no GM varieties are cultivated commercially in the UK.

Labour ministers shied away from promoting GM foods in recent years over concerns about a public backlash.

But Mrs Spelman insisted last night they could bring 'benefits to food in the marketplace'.

Her intervention drew fierce criticism from anti-GM campaigners, who accused her of getting her facts wrong and highlighted her background as a lobbyist for biotechnology.

Mrs Spelman set up a food and biotechnology lobbying company, Spelman, Cormack and Associates, with her husband, Mark Spelman, in 1991. Although she resigned as a company director last year, the firm remains in the hands of her husband.

Yesterday Mrs Spelman said she was in favour of GM foods 'in the right circumstances', though she insisted they should not be promoted using public money and expressed concerns about some aspects of the technology. 'GM can bring benefits in food to the marketplace. The sale should not be promoted by the taxpayer,' she said.

'Lord Henley [the new environment minister] has approved a trial of a potato blight-resistant variety. That's the kind of modification that can reduce the amount of agro-chemicals which need to be applied.'

She added: 'There are benefits to developing countries, like drought resistance or resistance to high salt content in water. The principle of GM technology is [ok] if used well. The technology can be beneficial.' However, she criticised Labour's [pounds sterling]500,000 official public consultation into genetically modified food, which is in turmoil following protests that it has been rigged. This week, two academics on a Food Standards Agency committee resigned in protest saying they could not support a spin exercise to promote GM food.

'The Food Standards Agency should not be spending taxpayers' money promoting GM foods,' Mrs Spelman said. Aides insisted last night that the minister had been speaking before any firm policy on GM crops has been established.

A spokesman for Mrs Spelman said: 'The Secretary of State is clear that all future decisions on GM trials and future policy will be based on science, and.will consider the potential benefits, but also the real concern that the public have about GM technology.'

Pete Riley, director of GM Freeze, a coalition of environment groups opposed to GM foods, welcomed her remarks about the GM consultation But he added: 'The Secretary of State needs to check very carefully before making claims about the benefits of GM crops. …