Health

Tony Blair: GM may be a health risk
Geoffrey Lean, Environment correspondent
27 February 2000

Tony Blair today admits that genetically modified foods may damage human health almost exactly a year after he said he was so confident of their safety that he ate them himself.

His dramatic U-turn comes in an exclusive article in the Independent on Sunday which senior government sources and environmental campaigners alike last night hailed as a turning point both on GM policy and in the "greening" of Downing Street,

In the article, Mr Blair who a year ago expressed his "frustration" at the outcry over genetic modification acknowledges that there is cause for "legitimate public concern" over the technology he has long championed.

He endorses the main aims of this paper's campaign on GM foods and crops, whereas last year he complained against "an extraordinary campaign of distortion" by "parts of the media". He then swore to "resist the tyranny of pressure groups"; now he says they "have an important part to play in ensuring we reach the right answers".

This approach described as "a total change for the Prime Minister" by a senior government source marks a triumph for two of his most spun-against ministers, Michael Meacher and Mo Mowlam.

It is also designed to distance the Government from GM firms before they have to announce that they have been unable to persuade enough farmers to grow the crops on a trial basis this year.

"There's no doubt that there is potential for harm, both in terms of human safety and in the diversity of our environment, from GM food and crops," says Mr Blair. He understands the "cause for legitimate public concern", and says that because of possible ill-effects the Government is proceeding "very cautiously indeed".

He shows how the Government has taken measures that meet the two main aims of this paper's campaign a moratorium on commercial planting of GM crops, and labelling of GM foods. And while stressing the possible benefits of the technology, he adds: "Jobs and profit will never be more important ... than concern over human health and our environment."

It is a far cry from last February, when Downing St announced: "The Prime Minister is very strongly of the view that these products are safe. He has no hesitation about saying that and eating the products himself." He was then the main driving force behind the Government's aggressive promotion of GM technology. He privately told MPs that the public outcry was short-lived "flash in the pan".

His new approach strongly echoes the line that Mr Meacher, alone among ministers, has been advocating for over a year. Since Mo Mowlam succeeded the pro-GM Jack Cunningham as Cabinet enforcer she has been urging the Prime Minister to adopt the environment minister's more balanced approach.

Last night, Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: "This is a fantastic leap forward. For the first time Mr Blair seems to be listening to the people on these issues. The article signifies a real change of approach both over GM technology and on environmental issues as a whole."


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